Ask Tania: What's the process when someone is commissioned to illustrate a book?

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Dear Tania,
What's the process when someone is commissioned to illustrate a book?
Thank you!


Hi Jolanda,

Like most things in publishing, this is a far-reaching question and has many moving parts, but I'll do my best to give you a general overview!


Traditionally, publishers (both trade and independent) like to appoint illustrators to books. They use either in-house illustrators whose work resonates with their overall book list, and with whom they have an established relationship, or they commission illustrators they've had their eye on, or whose work might complement the book's text, genre and 'feel'.

Commissioned illustrators may be experienced or emerging--and again, this is dependent on many factors. A lot of the time, publishers like to go with someone who understands the book creation process and how to interpret and add visual value to a manuscript, but this doesn't mean emerging creators can't achieve contracts, especially if they spend time reading and studying picture books (or other types of illustrated books) to familiarise themselves with layout, design, construct and the priceless nuance that imagery can add to text.

Many illustrators submit their work to publishers, and most are willing to receive unsolicited portfolios, as looking over artwork takes just a fraction of the time than reviewing a manuscript. Visit publisher websites and check out their illustration-receipt process. There's absolutely no harm in having your work out there. You can also showcase your work at many children's book festivals and conferences. It's well worth doing this.

If you're unsure how to present your work/create a portfolio, there are countless tips online--just google it. You can also google what publishers particularly esteem in regard to illustration. Being able to effect 'movement', emotion and character consistency are all highly regarded, as is an understanding of attractive colour palettes.


As self-publishing continues to gain traction, a greater number of high quality books are being produced without the aid of a trade or independent publisher. If you are asked to illustrate a self-published book, the chances of the book becoming a bestseller are very small, so probably the best route would be to sign a one-off payment contract (see Contracts, below).

ALL books must be formally contracted, even if you're illustrating for your sister or a best friend. Things can easily go pear-shaped, so it's vital that you cover yourself with a signed contract.

Commission Timeline

Here is a generalised guide (remembering that each contract is different!) on what you might expect when commissioned to illustrate a book:
  • initial contact from publisher or author
  • text sent to you for perusal--I highly recommend only taking on works that resonate with you, and suit your style
  • contract agreed upon and signed
  • liaison with author about the text and any nuances/expectations (you might also liaise with a publisher or editor)
  • page roughs delivered to the publisher
  • response to roughs/changes required 
  • original artwork created and shown to author/publisher
  • advised of any changes/updates to work
  • make changes and finalise artwork
  • send originals (or files, if digital) to publisher
  • work is scanned and made digital; work may go to a finishing artist
  • text and imagery are combined digitally by a graphic designer or layout artist, to create pre-press PDF files
  • PDFs may be sent to you to look over; editor and publisher go over with a fine tooth comb
  • proofs (prints) of the book may be sent to you to look over, though this is costly, and may be done electronically instead; if you can view printed proofs, I highly recommend it, as colours and detail can change dramatically depending on the paper they are printed on
  • proofs are sent back to publisher; any changes or updates are made
  • finals are gone over once again (digitally)
  • digital files are sent to print
  • you will receive an advance copy several months prior to publication, and your illustrator copies (between 5 and 10 books, depending on the publisher) will be posted to you
This process will be a little different if dealing with a self-publisher--you may find yourself more involved in the process, or may even do layout and design if you are skilled in such things. Again, any extra work you do should be built into the contract.


Contracts are also dependent on various factors, but in general, there are two types of contract: 
  • a fixed, one-off payment
  • royalties (with our without advance)

A fixed payment can be attractive to new illustrators because the longer you're in the game, the more quantities of book you sell (generally, speaking). When you're first starting out, your book's print run may not be large, and you may not sell a lot of copies, so a contracted, single payment may be a better bet financially.

Of course, you then run the risk of having the book become a bestseller, and you'll potentially miss out on some great royalty payments, but this likelihood is exceedingly rare. Make your decision depending on who you're publishing with... for example, a Top 5 Trade Publisher vs a lone self-publisher... illustrating the text of a famous, established author or an unknown, emerging author.

In your contract, it's also important to cover royalties on any kind of electronic version of the book, as well as TV, film, product, and any other revenue possibility. 

Changes to your artwork should also be built into the contract. Small and reasonable changes are to be expected but should be based on inaccuracy or an inability to convey story, and not just because the author or publisher wants it to look a different way or be done in a different style. If you build expected changes into the contract, you can then charge extra if changes are unreasonable or extensive.

I highly recommend getting to know digital software if you're serious about entering book publishing. Small changes can quickly and easily be made with digital editing, to save redoing entire scenes.

You can also build into the contract whether or not you want to do roughs. Many publishers expect full roughs for picture books, and this can be very time-consuming. Make it clear upfront how you would do roughs, how detailed they would be (perhaps no colour, just outline).

Royalty-based contracts come, most of the time, with some kind of advance. The amount will depend on the size of the publisher, and their revenue. The smaller the publisher, the smaller the advance. A lot of smaller publishers are unable to pay an advance, so you might consider signing for royalties only. This is up to you, but do remember that it could be a year or more before you earn a cent. 

Check with the publisher when their royalty payments are made. You should, at bare minimum, ask for 5% of RRP, with the author also earning 5% of RRP.


Australian authors receive Educational and Public Lending Rights annually, for works that are borrowed and used in libraries and educational institutions around the country. Once you have a few books under your belt, these payments can really add up and become a fabulous source of income.

These payments are ONLY made on royalty-based contracts. One-off payments don't qualify, so this is another thing to consider before signing contracts.


If you are going for a one-off payment for illustrations, you could agree on a reprint clause. This would mean that if the initial print run sells out, you would receive a percentage (per book) on any reprints. No royalties would be payable to you on these reprinted books, of course, but at least you would earn a little more for the actual reprinting of the work.

If you have a royalty-based contract, you would not be paid upon reprint, but rather, upon eventual sales that emerge from the reprint.


When you sign ANY kind of contract, fixed or royalty-based, you do NOT automatically give away copyright. All copyright for image remains with you, and usage of this imagery is under your guidance. This is why contracts should clearly state what your illustrations can and can't be used for (and it's the same for text). Other than short excerpts or imagery for promotional purposes, your work cannot be used for any other kind of revenue (such as a TV show or auxiliary product) without your permission, and without payment to you. All this should be placed in the contract.

If a publisher or self-publisher wants you to sign away copyright, so that they can use your imagery in any way they see fit, including changing that imagery or using it to create other sources of revenue, they need to pay you for that copyright. The best people to contact is the Australian Society of Authors, for such information. If you have an agent, they could deal with this side of things.

The Creative Process

Many (though this is rapidly changing) publishers take edited text, send it to the illustrator and have them create the imagery. Oftentimes, the author receives little more than a peek, if that. Good illustrators certainly won't 'ruin' a manuscript, but some authors may be hugely disappointed if final imagery doesn't accurately convey the storyline, or is nothing like they imagined.

Thankfully, more and more authors and illustrators are working in tandem to create a more seamless, more detailed and lustrous creation. Two heads are often better than one, and a good collaboration can be priceless. So, if you can work directly with an author on the imagery, I strongly advise it.

An illustrator should pretty much receive free reign to interpret text and add their own ideas and detail to that text--and the style an illustrator works in should only be questioned by the publisher or illustrator if it's way off the mark (unlikely if the illustrator was commissioned, as their work style would already be known) or fails to carry the story correctly in terms of clarity or meaning. 

An author can't cling too tightly to how things 'should' look, because a good illustrator will often come up with something even better than the author dreamed. And just as the illustrator would not insist upon text changes, an author shouldn't insist upon illustration style. Ideally, there's a little give and take between both parties. I have absolutely changed text to suit an illustrator's work, and the book was all the better for it.

Of course, there are some texts that do require author notation or instruction, especially if text is scant or abstract. With my books, I've had to outline several parts of the story for the illustrator, in order to ensure the meaning of the story is carried and that things are clear for the reader, but once I've done that, I've let go and allowed the illustrator to work their magic. I've never been disappointed.

Having said that, if an illustrator is way off point or presents something that just doesn't work for the book, they may be asked to make some changes. Don't be crushed or devastated if this happens--you can't be precious. There has to be give and take. Having said that, if you feel intensely about something, do make a stand for it and state your case, especially if the nuance or gist of the illustration has been missed.

If you find yourself unable to work well with the author (this is extremely rare--I have heard of maybe one or two problematic collaborative relationships EVER), bring in your editor or publisher or an intermediary to help, or act as go-between.

In the end, the book creation process should be a joyful one, and the focus should be on creating the best book possible, all egos and 'wants' aside. If you collaborate in an inclusive way, with open ears and eyes, there's no doubt an illustration commission will be a wonderful experience for you.

Good luck!


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