Avoiding Ankle Sprain and Letting Go

Using a photograph on the front cover of a middle-grade children’s book is a bit like jogging in stilettos – it can be done, but isn’t generally recommended. Certainly, you wouldn’t expect to win the London Marathon. And much like challenging Priscah Jeptoo whilst sporting Manolo Blahnik, I wouldn’t want to be the first to try … so I’ve found myself an illustrator.

There are, I’m sure, gazillions of ways to find an illustrator: through SCBWI – both British Isles and International; through friends; agencies; by checking out illustrators on already-published books; through illustrator or other sites like deviantART and Elance. I was completely overawed by the amazing talent out there … and ended up having a surreal moment of experiencing what it might feel like to be an agent. Really.

It happened after I posted a job on Elance and found myself going through proposals from 66 illustrators in places as diverse as Kazakhstan and Costa Rica. And after the first 20 there I was, scanning and declining submissions in a matter of seconds – like the best of ‘em! Turns out that what I’ve always heard is true: the high level of competition meant I considered only the illustrators whose style reflected EXACTLY what I was looking for … and once I already had a few strong contenders, I was looking for reasons NOT to like something. To top it off, when really inspired, I found myself writing the occasional email along the lines of “I really loved your work but it’s not what I’m looking for right now” … er … anyone heard THAT before??? It felt freaky to be on the other side of that message and has definitely got me looking at my (many) rejection letters in a new and more positive light. Every cloud, eh?

The main benefit of checking out lots and lots of illustrators’ work is that it gave me clues about what I did and didn’t want. A few times I sloped off to Waterstones or headed online to look at the different styles that are out there, trying to work out what I wanted to achieve, and whether what appealed to me would appeal to middle-grade readers. You could say that, for the first time, I really properly looked at book covers … and some way into this process it dawned on me that a book cover needs different skill-sets, and I had, wait for it …

OBVIOUS (to anyone else) REALISATION NO. 2:

A kids’ book cover needs an illustrator AND a designer.

Of course. Because the illustrator does the … yes, the illustration … but you need a designer to decide on fonts, where the blurb goes, how the title and author name will be laid out, etc., etc. In fact, a very kind SCBWI BI member informed me that in publishing houses, the designer will first make all the decisions on layout and fonts, then get the illustrator to provide artwork to fit around the design.

I’ve been lucky enough to find an illustrator who can also do book design. For a novice this seemed like a good choice, because it means I have one less person to factor into my incoherent ramblings about what I’m looking for … which brings me to the other thing: communication. As the person commissioning and instructing the illustrator, the challenge is to convey a strong, clear sense of the book and characters, because this informs the illustrator’s work. So unless you speak fluent Kazakh, that illustrator in Astana whose work you liked, well … he might not work out.

SO, for anyone who has wondered what could possibly be the upside of going-it-alone to publication, setting the ball rolling towards getting a cover for my book will likely be one of the highs (and yes, it may be the one and only upside).

Usually authors don’t have much input into how their book ends up looking, which is in some ways very sensible, because we’re writers, not visual artists (apart from you lucky and brilliant lot who do both). And bearing in mind we all absolutely do judge a book by its cover, this is second in importance to The Manuscript on a list of ‘bits you really need (to at least try) to get right’.

Speaking of which: as well as signing up an illustrator, I’ve also commissioned an editor to advise on the state of my ms. This means I’m now facing a new challenge – letting go … letting go while trying not to imagine what is happening to my ‘baby’. To take my mind of it, I may take up jogging … in trainers.

Thanks for reading. Next week I’ll be looking at the different platforms for Print On Demand. Hope to see you then.

Larisa x

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3 thoughts on “Avoiding Ankle Sprain and Letting Go

  1. I totally agree with you about covers for traditionally published books – some writers are lucky enough to be consulted every step of the way and others have a solution imposed upon them. It sounds like you’re really thinking hard about your cover, which is great (do make sure the typography is up to scratch, because that’s where 90% of self-published books fall down).

  2. I’m finding this blog very interesting – I hope I can learn much from your experiences. How did you find the editor you’ve commissioned?

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