What follows is a discussion of the relationship between writers and illustrators in self publishing. Some of it applies to traditional publishing, but there’s often editors and publishers in-between and in the way. This is why most writers hate their book covers.
I’m primarily a writer of comics and illustrated books, even though I set out to be a novelist. Which is odd, because I like to control the product, and working with collaborators gives you less control over the final work – but I love it. There is nothing I’ve encountered as powerful as seeing your creations come to life in another persons vision. It means you communicated. You accomplished what all art sets out to do, exchange thoughts. You have visual confirmation of a concept embedded in another mind.
That said, all writers will have to work with an illustrator at some point, be it cover art or advertising. A few of you are good enough to create your own art, I’m sure, but you are the rare beast. In fact, what makes a good artist and what makes a good writer, seems to be completely separate talents. I’ve met too many artists who think they can write, and too many writers who think they can create covers to know they aren’t the same skill set.
Here’s why I think that is.
An illustration is a capture in time of one moment, the perfect visual moment. The setting, the background, the expressions, these are all part of the moment and the details matter. As a writer, this is often not the moment that matters to us. We care about the emotional impact that created the moment and the consequence following it. We care less about the setting and expressions and background and so on, what we care about is distilling all of that into as few words as possible. These are polar opposites.
What we have in common is the conveyance of emotion, the desire for impact on the consumer, and the hope we become lodged in memory. That’s about it. As a writer I never agonize on which tone of blue I need, and illustrators don’t agonize about the wording of a characters voice in his mind, yet both are encountered daily.
So we’re Mars an Venus here. How do we work together?
Money. Money is the first consideration, or rather it should be. It seldom is. We’re creators. It’s about the art, not commerce. Commerce is a debasement of what we hold dear, but it’s also the most important part of a collaboration. Especially if it goes sour.
As writers, we can create for free. With Kindle and the web, we can sell for free. We don’t want to, but we can. Artists do not have that luxury. They can either sell the originals, and lose their creations, or they have to pay for reproductions. Regardless, the materials to create their art isn’t cheap, and they are expended in the creation. The only thing we writers burn is pixels, and maybe pen nibs.
This puts the illustrator at a loss from day one. Not a good position to be in.
Next, there is the problem of ownership. No matter how detailed your description, what the illustrator creates is more than the sum of the words. Occasionally it’s less, but we’ll assume that things worked out and the art is amazing. So the artist has brought to the table your vision, and theirs. The artist constrained their creativity through your lens. The writer screams when they are required to restrict their vision, the illustrator is assumed to sublimate theirs. Worse, the artist writes about mood and thought. That’s difficult to illustrate. Chances are the illustrator had to translate your words into something else.
Assuming that the creating of an illustration is as easy as writing, the illustrator has already put in more effort. And guess what? Art takes more time.
Howls spring up as the writer protests how many years it took to create the perfect novel. But the artist is only creating one scene, or one summary. How long did it take you to write one scene or write the cover blurb? That’s the fair comparison.
Now who owns the work? In most cases, the writer, and the art is work for hire. If the artist is lucky, they can resell the art. Of those lucky few, rare is the cover art that makes sense without the cover it’s on. I’ve been through many artist alleys, and the art that sells for these poor souls, is rarely cover commisions. Meanwhile, the writer has reused the art for posters, banners, ads, icons on Amazon… a lot more mileage than one cover.
From the beginning, the artist is getting the shaft in the relationship. Sorry, but it’s true. In graphic novels, it can be reversed. The artist can have the idea, and the writer has to make sense out of it. But for the most part, aside from the hey day of the 90’s, the writer is in charge of the ideas.
So pay your artist. Pay them well. Praise them. That may be the only thanks they get for the work they do for you. Make it count. It’s good will, and you get better art that way. You also get a good reputation for the next art piece you need. If you’re a jerk? Guess what. Artists talk.
So what do you pay them?
If a commission is over $250, I write a contract up. The contract stipulates when the art is due, what’s in the art, how its delivered, and where it’s delivered to. It also stipulates what happens if the artist flakes, or the writer dislikes the art. It also stipulates what happens if the art is late.
Sorry illustrators. Your turn to take the lumps. Most artists are late or last minute types. I’m sure you all mean well, and take a commission in good faith, but face it. Most of you could use a bit more work on time management. Comic editors and writers are nodding their heads. But you writers are often the same way. If you’re both this way, imagine how rough it will be to hit a deadline? Make a contract.
The contract also stipulates ownership of the art, reproduction rights, and how much the artist is being paid. This is what people think of when they create contracts, and these are the parts where lawyers dance angels on pinheads.
If you plan to be a multimillion dollar best seller, and have your work made into a movie, and sell the cover on t-shirts – have a lawyer review the contract. Do it. You can damn well bet a publisher does. There are contract examples for free on the net, but most have to be adapted to your needs. If your not a lawyer, your adaption is likely problematic. Get a lawyer or you wasted your time. The good thing is, once you have a basic contract in place, adapting it for the next project is easy, and probably legal.
Ok fine. Contracts are important. But WHAT do you pay them?
Not in exposure. This is the four letter word in the art world. Do not ask them to work for free or for exposure – which is free. You may think your stuff is going to help the artist, but read the last few paragraphs. Are you really balancing the books for them? No.
Money. Pay them money. 25-50% up front. Up front. They have to invest in time and materials. They also have other commissions. The up front amount puts you at the front of the list and shows you are worthy partner worth doing good work for. Howls emerge form the writer again. What if they run off with the money? I’ll take years to recoup that expense which won’t come until after publication! Shut up writers. If a publisher offered you an up front payment, and another didn’t, who would you choose? Don’t you think a publisher should invest in you to create an unfinished work? Yes you do. So do artists. Deal with it.
As for the running away with the money, that’s what contracts are for. And that’s why you only put 25-50% down. Don’t pay for all the art up front. If you do, you have no leverage if the art isn’t what you want, or its late. The halls are littered with writers who’ve been ripped off. Sorry illustrators, some of your kind are scum. A lot of writers are scum too. Hence the contract.
Balance is paid on DELIVERY of the final art. At the 25-50% stage, the illustrator should provide the artist with a sketch or mockup. The writer should haggle with the art then, not after it’s delivered. Changing art after it’s done is difficult or impossible. Work things out early. If you two aren’t communicating, and the final art comes in wrong, who’s fault is it? Both of you.
Lastly. Credit where credit is due.
Credit your artist in the book. Praise them. Rewrite their copy if they allow you to (they aren’t the writers, and they are shy). Bring your artist to signings. Give them free copies. Make them feel like part of the team. They were. And they deserve it.
Writers and illustrators are partners. Your book gets picked off the shelf for its art, not your title. Illustrators are experts in their jobs. Do not assume, writers, than your cover you created is actually good. You are not an impartial judge. You are biased and your wallet is biased and your book will suffer.
Want proof? I don’t have to sell this book. I just have to show it. The cover sells it. Sure my title is clever. Sure I did the layout and lettering. Sure I picked the art. But it’s that bunny that does it. I was also trained in art, at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Trained enough that I could be an illustrator, but also trained enough to know I’m not. I leave the art to the professionals.