Freelance Illustration Careers in Publishing, Part 3: Children’s Books

From (Mostly) Wordless by Jed Alexander - Pyragraph
From my book, (Mostly) Wordless.

Here I complete my three-part series on the common pitfalls and possible triumphs of pursuing a freelance illustration career. In Part 1, I talked about editorial (books, magazines, print and e-publishing). In Part 2, I talked about how much work you’ll have to churn out to get a steady income from comic books or graphic novels.

To finish things off, let’s look at how things work in the world of children’s books.

Part 3, Children’s Books, Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

Advances aren’t horrible, but advances alone are not going to pay the bills. As in all fields of publishing, you must be prolific to make a living, and building a career in the children’s field is a slow process. Ideally you stagger your projects, getting advances on works in progress while receiving royalties on your work already in print.

Work-for-hire certainly exists in children’s publishing, particularly in licensing, but it’s not as common as in comics and editorial. Educational illustration pays very low and tends to be work-for-hire. Otherwise you own your own work. There’s a huge amount of creative freedom.

Let me make this absolutely clear: if you learn to be a decent writer, you can double your income from book sales.

As in editorial, working with children’s books requires a great deal of self-promotion including book signings and school visits. The upside is that you can subsidize your income with these school visits. The greater your popularity, the greater your fee. Marty Kelly once told me that this is how he pays his mortgage, and Marty Kelly, while reasonably successful, is no Maurice Sendak.

You don’t have to be huge to make an income this way, but you do have to be able to book your own appearances and put on a good performance, and kids can be a very fickle audience. But if you can entertain, the kids will adore you.

Worst-case scenario:

The day job again. You can’t publish enough to make a steady income. Your books are small press, with low advances, or you are stuck doing low-paying education and magazine work for the few kids’ magazines that still exist. School visits are still in the cards, but you might want to supplement these with workshops or teaching.

Best-case scenario:

Your books are reasonably popular and you can garner a premium fee for school visits. You make a white collar income. If you’ve developed your writing skills (no small task) you become an author/illustrator, which means you get twice the advance and twice the royalties.

Let me make this absolutely clear: if you learn to be a decent writer, you can double your income from book sales. And if you’re an author/illustrator, you don’t have to share these royalties with anyone, except your agent if you have one.

Then there’s foreign rights, licensing, and if you’re extraordinarily lucky, getting your work optioned for film or TV, which again, is always a long shot.

Continuing the “best-case scenario”: The kids are unabashed in their enthusiasm, write you flattering letters and give you the occasional hug. Kids are the most ardent and sincere fans you’re going to get. Not to say you won’t encounter occasional awkwardness, embarrassing moments, and (depending on the age of your audience) bouts of weeping and fidgeting, especially if lines are involved or naps delayed. But it can be cool.

You can probably see my bias here.

Most successful illustrators work in some combination of these various disciplines, or have found a home in some reliable niche, like fantasy illustration (if you can do really really exceptional renderings of dragons, barbarians and monsters, there’s a place for you) or textile design.

So those are your options. Weigh them well. But otherwise I’d think about looking into that job in occupational therapy.

Image by Jed Alexander.

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