Illustrated Book Proposals

Where do the pictures go?

Hi friends,

A while back I promised I would do a post about illustrated book proposals, and since this week is likely to be very stressful and distracting, let’s look at something calm and predictable and low pressure, while we white-knuckle it to the weekend. Sound good?

So, if you want to write a book that has pictures in it, you need to present those pictures to agents and publishers, in 99% of cases. We’ll talk about all the ways you DO have to do it before the ways you DON’T. Different kinds of books need different approaches to images in proposals.

Illustrated Non-Fiction (aka a coffee table book)

Let’s say you want to create a coffee table book, or a book that is predominately pictures by a single artist or surrounding a single subject. Humans of New York is a coffee table book, though that phrase is a bit outmoded these days. We usually just say illustrated non-fiction, or sometimes art of photography book. So what do you do? First, you write a non-fiction book proposal, just like everyone else. In your sample chapters, though, that’s where you put the pictures. If you have created the images yourself, it’s likely you also have design skills to make the proposal look pretty, but if you don’t, you’ll need to find someone to help you. You can’t just plop 25 photos in a Word doc and send it off. But you also don’t have to make your proposal look like book, laid out with facing pages. Consider how agents and editors will be reading your work, likely on a screen, scrolling, so design with that in mind. And you don’t have to put in exactly 25 images or illustrations. That was a random number. Put in enough that the reader gets the gist of your work, but not so many that the file size becomes astronomical. Also, make sure you lower the resolution of the images for the purposes of the proposal only, so that it’s not so big that you can’t email the file. Yes, you can use a service like Dropbox and (probably) most agents will click the link, but it’s easier to just lower the resolution. No one will print those images so don’t worry. They’ll look fine enough on the screen. Use your best judgement.

Your “coffee table book” might also be a collection of your illustrations, comics, or visual jokes, from Instagram or otherwise. Like Michelle Rial’s amazing AM I OVER THINKING THIS? (client alert). If so, the same rules apply as above. Write a non-fiction book proposal, and include your images as the sample chapters.

Consider how you will organize the book and show that in your proposal, too, in place of the chapter outline. You can still have an organizing principle to your book even if you don’t have formal chapters. If you’re not sure, browse similar books online, at a store, or library, if it’s safe to do so, and pay attention to what choices other artists have made and what works best for your material.

A How-To Book with Illustrated Instructions

I have sold over 40 craft books in my career, so I know what goes into making an illustrated how-to book. It’s a LOT. And if that’s your publishing goal, be prepared to do the step-by-step photography yourself. In a proposal, your sample chapters will be a full project with sample illustrations or photography, shown at your skill level. If it’s not great, a publisher may still pick up your book, but a portion of your advance will go toward professional illustration/photography, whether the publisher pays them directly or you have to. (This photography is separate from what we call the beauty photography.) There could be hundreds of images/photos in a craft book, so factor that into your desire/skill/ability to do a book like this. I know it sounds like I’m talking you out of doing this kind of book, but I’m not! It’s just very, very hard and many don’t know what they’re getting into.

A Mostly-Text Book with Some Pictures Here and There

If you want to write a book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Captain Underpants—you can include illustrations in your submission materials (since this is fiction, you can submit a regular manuscript, and then another small file of a few sample illustration). If you are NOT an illustrator, you can include art notes in your manuscript or query letter that says something like “I envision this with simple illustrations integrated into the text, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” Editors and agents will get it. We know what you mean.

A Picture Book for Children

So you want to write a picture book. By picture book, we are talking about The Cat in The Hat, Knuffle Bunny, Harold and the Purple Crayon. There are many styles of picture book (and we’re not talking about board books—the 4-8 page, extra thick books about ABCs etc) but what they have in common is that they are for young children (under 6 years old most of the time) and they’re illustrated. In this case YOU DO NOT HAVE TO ILLUSTRATE YOUR BOOK, unless you are a professional illustrator or artist. In fact, most publishers DO NOT WANT you to illustrate your own picture book, because they are their own beast and it’s more complicated than just drawing a picture of a bear on each page, or whatever. We’ll go in to that another time, but just focus on your text and you’ll get to the images later down the line.

If you’re an illustrator or artist, you CAN illustrate your own book. That’s a whole ‘nother post, and there are other great resources for that online like Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s whole blog about it.

Other Things to Consider

  • So, you may have a great idea for a coffee table book, but no skills to execute it. Sorry—you might be out of luck, unless you partner with someone with those skills (and the agent/editor can’t likely find that person for you). I do from time to time get queries that are like I think a book of pictures of birds with hats would be great, but I can’t get the hats on birds and I’m not a photographer. Can you help? No, I cannot help in that case.

  • If you do not create the images, you cannot use them and you do not own them. Pictures you find on the internet are not “public domain,” even if they are “old.” Surprise! You can’t just do what you want with the Mona Lisa! And citing where you found them is not enough. If you have not created an image and it belongs to someone else, you have to secure and pay for the use of that image. That’s all on you—the agent or publisher may offer advice but they’re not going to do the work for you. And you may owe the money before your advance comes in. Books of other people’s images do get made, but someone out there got permission for every single image and it’s a lot of work.

  • If a publisher pays for the creation of the images, say in a picture book, you do not own those images. The publisher or the illustrator does. You can’t do whatever you want with them after the fact, though you can usually do things like tweet pictures of your book, so it’s not that locked down. You can’t make tshirts and sell them, though. Know what you’re getting into if you’re not creating your own images.

  • Four-color printing is very expensive. Four-color books are very expensive to produce and sell. If you want to put all your landscape photography into a book published by a large, trade publisher, then you will need a large platform of fans who will buy your $65 book. It’s a tough business to break into. Consider if your images need to be four or even two-color. Would black & white work just as well?

I hope I have not thoroughly dissuaded you from doing an illustrated book. It is very hard to do it successfully, though, so if you want to go down this path, consider it from every angle. Do your research, and understand where your skillset begins and ends. When I’m open for queries again (maybe in a few months) you’re welcome to send me queries for illustrated books. I love comics, graphic novels (which I’ll cover in another post soon I promise), and other illustrated books. I find picture books a tough market to crack, and may not be accepting them much longer (except from current clients) so keep an eye on that. Photography or other art books really must come with a big platform. Very best of luck!

As of this writing, we have 1 day and 1 hour until the Trump Presidency is over. HALLELUJAH! The pandemic, however, will not end tomorrow. Please keep wearing your masks.



Happy paperback pub day to E.J. KOH and her AWARD WINNING memoir THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS! Register for her paperback launch TONIGHT, TUESDAY JANUARY 19TH 6:30 PT, in conversation with Alexander Chee, at Skylight Books.