How to Get Good Cheap Illustrations for Children's Books

by Amanda Greenslade

Publishing a full colour children's picture book can be expensive. Most authors and small publishers will have a sharp focus on how to obtain good quality illustrations for the lowest possible price. Outsourcing illustration to an overseas provider is often the first thing they will think of when money is tight.

I have experience using suppliers in India, China, Singapore, Brazil and the Philippines, including via freelancing websites that help you ensure you get what you pay for. I also have a number of fantastic Australian and US illustrators who have worked on my books and those of my customers.

A recent experience is a good example of the differences that can occur from illustrator to illustrator. You can give the same brief to two different people and get a very different result. In this case the price tag was directly related to the quality of the output.

Cheap offshore illustration sample

Fairly priced Australian illustration

Illustration by Glen Holman

These are just drafts, not finalised illustrations, but you can clearly see the difference between these two images. The Australian image is far superior to the offshore one in many ways, including the:

  • Depth and aspect of room and objects in it
  • Style of artwork, which is like a modern and Westernised cartoon, not 80s looking computer-art
  • Believable colours and textures
  • Lighting, which is taken into account in the room and coming through window, including thoughtfulness about the time of day
  • Point of emotion in the story, which is taken into account
  • Cultural relevance of the characters and setting
  • Details requested in brief (eg. rubbish on the floor, dog eating food scraps)
  • Details added by illustrator having read and analysed the text (eg. slumping mum, red eyes, cracks on the walls)

I have had some good experiences with overseas illustrators. For example a lady in South America created this image for my juvenile fiction novel about a bobcat Wild White:

A very important thing to consider when choosing any illustrator, whether from a western country or not, is how well they can communicate with you and understand your book. Illustration is like any aspect of book design, the act of creating the illustrations is only half of the work. The other half is all to do with project management, which in the case of illustration services includes:

  • Finding, communicating with and negotiating on payment and schedule
  • Organising contracts, invoices and royalties
  • Finalising the manuscript/illustration plan
  • Setting up a dummy page layout (more on this below)
  • Communicating with printers and ebook conversion services prior to illustrations being created
  • Writing a brief for the illustrator (or incorporating sufficient detail in the manuscript/illustration plan)
  • Thinking about your book from the point of view of the eventual reader
  • Thinking about your book from the point of view of the illustrator
  • Marketing plan for the book (yes, this is relevant and important before even engaging an illustrator. For example what is your target market, how old are the children who will be reading the book, or having it read to them, do they like to read picture books still, or not?)
  • Communicating about illustration drafts with the illustrator
  • Sharing draft illustrations with others and collating their opinions (some will be helpful, others not so much)
  • Noticing problems with the illustrations (being observant for continuity errors, mistakes in their interpretation of the brief or the text of the book, looking out for no-no's such as overtly sexual or violent imagery, blood etc.)

Critical in the project management of an illustrated juvenile fiction book is knowing the page size and the relation of the images to the text. For example, if you have not yet decided how you're going to handle the printing and ebook design of your project it is too soon to involve an illustrator. There are many reasons for this, including:

  • A hard back book will have a larger spine, therefore a larger image requirement than a softcover.
  • Most print on demand services have limited paper types and sizes whereas offset printers can do just about anything you are willing to pay for.
  • If you want spot UV or embossed text on the cover (offset printing only) the title will need to be a vector, not a raster title (such as a painted title).
  • Fixed layout ebooks made long after a book is in print tend to leave large amounts of wasted space on most tablet readers (eg. square books) and it is better to design for print at a page size closer to that of an actual iPad.
  • Many other factors depending on your book.

For an illustrated juvenile fiction book to work well, the illustrations must be created exactly and perfectly for the intended page layout. This means allowing for things like:

  • Enough space for text, especially if there is to be text over the top of part of the image
  • Good balance between pages with and without illustrations (for chapter books)
  • Extra background illustration outside the page edge (trim) for bleed
  • Extra background illustration inside the trim where no important content of the illustration is contained
  • Aesthetically-pleasing positioning of all elements, especially characters
  • Account for gutter of book (fold down the middle, where part of illustration may disappear)
  • Differences between printed page size and ebook layout

As you can see, there's a fair bit to managing the layout of a children's book with excellence, and your illustrator needs a project manager who knows what they're doing.

If you would like a quote from Australian eBook Publisher to manage this for you, we have all the services in-house. Please let us know your needs. We can use a combination of local and offshore service providers to bring you the best of both worlds when it comes to picture book project management and illustration.

Please check out our title, Myra and the Magic Motorcycle, which achieved the amazing goal of working perfectly for both ebook (tablets) and print!

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