Illustrated children’s books have two integral ingredients: A good story told well and fabulous illustrations.

Compromising on either of these ingredients can jeopardize the book’s success.

But in truth, the first thing a potential buyer will notice—be it a child pulling books off the shelves at Barnes & Noble or a relative buying a gift—is the book’s cover.

And the cover must, of course, feature a wonderful illustration.

An intriguing, fun, colorful illustration on the cover should encourage the reader to open the book and flip through the pages, and the illustrations on the inside should be just as fabulous as the one on the cover. Only then might the reader start reading the actual story.

And this whole decision-making process—read or don’t read—takes about 20 seconds (or less).

So the question we’re most often asked by authors of children’s books is, “Can you recommend a good illustrator?”

We love this question, because it heads off a very common problem faced by book designers: embarrassingly awful illustrations.

How to Find a Good Illustrator

Over the years, we’ve worked on many books where the illustrations were provided by the author. Often, these illustrations are not up to professional standards to put it kindly, because they were created by a family member or by an unqualified provider (i.e., cheap) that the author found on a freelance graphic design site.

Good illustrators don’t work cheap, and that’s as it should be, since they possess a rare talent unavailable to the rest of us. You need to find serious illustrators who offer quality work, which is a necessity if you want your book to compete well against those released by major publishers. A good place to start your search for an illustrator is the Society of Children’s Book Illustrators at http://www.scbwi.org/

Design the Book First, then Hire the Illustrator

Most authors think the illustrations should be completed first and then the book given to a designer, when in fact the reverse is true. Your book should be designed first, and then the appropriate illustrator hired to create drawings that fit the planned design. Doing the illustrations first ties the hands of the designer and can result in a lesser quality book. And anyhow, the designer can help you find an illustrator.

Thus, the best process for an children’s author to take is as follows:

  1. Hire your book designer and ask the designer about options for trim size, page count, and binding style — and how to relay these details to the printers. With this information, printers will be able to provide you with price estimates; you will begin to define your costs and eventual retail price, and determine if the project is economically viable. It’s tough for indie publishers to compete in a retail environment against “the big boys” who print tens of thousands of copies for a very low unit price, particularly for color books.
  2. Avail yourself of your designer’s “art direction” skills to help you choose a qualified illustrator. Liking the illustrator or the illustrator’s style is not enough. Your book designer can help you review illustrator portfolios to make sure they actually know how to draw (believe it or not, some don’t) and help manage the process so the illustrations provided are in the correct proportions for the page and the correct resolution and color mode for printing.
  3. Finalize the text with your editor, and work with your designer to place the words on the as-yet unillustrated book pages.
  4. Show your illustrator these nearly empty pages, and ask for rough sketches to fit “around” the words. This will allow you to request changes to the drawings before the illustrator spends a lot of time and you spend a lot of money. The book designer will help you determine the page design, book trim size, how your book will be printed and by whom—and the number, size, and location of the illustrations required. Your illustrator will need to know this information before starting the project so as to prevent costly surprises and unsightly compromises.
  5. Once this rough layout is approved, the illustrator can proceed to full color, final illustrations, which then go to the designer for assembly into the digital file required by the printer.

By following this procedure, the beautifully illustrated book you envisioned will be the book that comes off the press. Good luck!