With my picture book manuscript in hand, the next thing I needed was, well, the pictures! While I can sketch a mean storyboard, I knew that my artistic abilities did not begin to match up with the illustrations I imagined accompanying my work. Words are my medium; I knew I needed to bring someone on board who thought and designed in pictures.
So off I went to find an illustrator.
Choose Your Platform
Looking at illustrators' personal websites, I quickly realized that I didn't have the budget for hiring an agented illustrator, so I looked for places where independent illustrators might post their work. I came across the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Illustrator Gallery, the Women Who Draw collective, and the International Directory of Children's Illustrators, and greatly enjoyed browsing portfolios. I even contacted several illustrators, but eventually, I decided I felt more comfortable posting my project on a freelancing site that already had guidelines and payment procedures in place. All along the way in this self-publishing journey, I gravitated toward systems that provided structure, as that saved me research time.
I posted my project on two sites:
Upwork, because I was already familiar with how to post and apply for jobs there
Reedsy, because it is a site for vetted publishing professionals
The process on these two sites is slightly different. On Upwork, while the client can reach out and directly invite freelancers to apply to their project posting, freelancers can also bid on a project directly. On Reedsy, the client posts their project, and then is given a limited number of invitations with which to reach out to specific illustrators. So, while I waited for bids on Upwork, I dipped into Reedsy's illustrator listings.
Choose a Style
Looking at illustrators' portfolios got me thinking about what style of illustration I liked, and what might best fit this particular story. This was the fun part! I scrolled through images and noted those that spoke to me.
The Reedsy project description page asks a client to link to several books as models of an illustration style you would really like for your project. So, before I dug into portfolios, I had already set the scene in my mind and was looking for someone who had evidence of:
Outdoor city scenes, specifically apartment buildings
Characters in the 5- to 8-year-old range
Fluency in depicting children of diverse racial backgrounds
After I had picked out a number of potentials, I looked through their portfolios again, this time holding their images and my story in my head at the same time. I tried to describe in one or two adjectives just what it was that attracted my attention to a certain portfolio and then prioritized my adjectives. This helped me whittle my list down.
Keep Marketability in Mind
Part of my goal with this self-publishing project was to get this book and my name out into the market. So alongside the artist's style, I also looked into what titles they already had available on Amazon. The deeper an illustrator's list, the greater the possibility that fans might pick up the next book with their name on it, and get introduced to me in the process! Some illustrators had listings for previous work with bigger publishers, so knowing that my book would then show up in their list along with traditionally published titles was a bonus.
Set Your Parameters
I very quickly moved out of the meet-and-greet stage with potential illustrators and into the nuts-and-bolts discussion of how they typically collaborated with clients. My main concerns were immediate availability and a fast turn-around, the opportunity to make edits/revisions, layout experience, and an interest in my story.
Dana Regan checked all these boxes, and answered my queries in detail. She had a deep list on Amazon, and experience in layout as well as illustration. She offered some insightful suggestions for the project without even seeing the manuscript in full. The pencil sketch she submitted for a single page worth of text completely delighted me. I knew I wanted to work with her.
Finalize the Contract
I settled on Reedsy as my workspace in the end because of their focus on the publishing environment. They had a clear place for contracts, terms, and communication, and that framework gave a beginner like me much-needed support in putting everything in place to start collaborating with Dana. Essentially, the paperwork was more or less set up in templates, and I could work in my details without having to worry if I was forgetting anything.
Once we agreed on a payment schedule, Dana and I were ready to go!