Thursday, May 10, 2018

Zen and the Art of Self Publishing Part 3 - 10 Tips on illustrating for kids - a ReadItTorial

Time and again, those lovely folk who (despite our submissions policy) show us their small-print or self-published books, and often a lot of those books have one key thing in common.

For this week's ReadItTorial we're putting up Part 3 of our "Zen and the art of Self Publishing" (Here's part 1 and part 2) to specifically tackle something that, well, there's no real polite way of talking about without being slightly abrupt about it.

The illustrations in your book. If the art stinks (and by "Stinks" we mean "Is not of professional printworthy quality"), your book is going to stink.

No matter how heartfelt the message, no matter how much praise you've had from friends and family - there are no two ways about this, and if you try to short-cut or merely shrug your shoulders, mumbling "That'll do, they're only kids after all" to yourself, you are making your first colossal mistake.

So with that in mind, and of course the caveat that we're not expert artists by any means, but do know a thing or two about what we look for in children's illustrations, let's dive in.

1) If you can't draw, don't draw. If you THINK you can draw, get proper professional critique on your work from someone who really CAN draw.

We've said this in both of our previous articles, and it rings truer now than it ever has before. The children's illustration market is PACKED with talent, absolutely packed with it. There are illustrators out there scraping a living producing not just fantastic children's illustrations for children's books, but glorious works of art in their own right. Every year the big bookfairs attract some serious talent from across the world, and publishers have their pick of these amazing folk. That, right there, is your competition I'm afraid to say - and if your work (or the work of your illustrator collaborator on a book) isn't as good as, or better than some of the stuff you'll see on you are going to fail at the first hurdle if you think you can 'blag it'.

2) Kids do notice bad art, and it immediately affects their evaluation of your book right from the moment they see the cover. 

Cover attraction is a HUGE part of why kids will want to pick up or read your book. Time and again we've looked at various books self-published on Amazon, or pushed through small-print indie publishers, and right from the get-go the covers are absolutely appalling (even more so than the jokey image we're using as a header for this article). Often put together without an eye for design, layout. Often folk who think that kids will be attracted to artwork that looks like a child has drawn it themselves (more on that later). Kids are extremely picky and publishers / designers and illustrators put a HELL of a lot of work into designing the covers of books. So much so that the campaign to ensure that illustrators get credit for work in children's books (sadly not always the case) makes a point of pushing for publishers to mention cover artists ON THE COVER OF THE BOOK ITSELF (sadly something that still isn't the norm!)

3) A huge percentage of 'browsed' book sales will be on the basis of cover appeal. 

So covers aren't just for the kids, but for the actual folk who usually shell out their hard earned cash for your book. Cover power affects adults just as much as kids, and adults are also just as picky when it comes to poor layouts, terrible art and a generic unpolished feel to a book's cover. People again rely on cover and perhaps back-blurb of a book to make a purchasing decision more than testimonials (perhaps even Amazon stars / reviews) so make your cover pop, pop, POP!

4) Read a LOT of children's books. Soak up the 'rules' when it comes to layouts, internal spreads, page counts and the format of text and illustrations. 

This is something that even 'big name' published titles get wrong from time to time. Using a really annoyingly difficult to read font for the text in the book. Scrunging the text in with illustrations, dark text on a dark background, mistakes and errors in the illustrations themselves, poor anatomy - you name it and there are a ton of things that can go wrong with the internal illustrations and page layouts in your books too. Consider that adults reading a children's book at bedtime will probably be knackered themselves and really do not want to have to decode your book's layout and text in order to convey the story smoothly when read aloud.

5) Fonts are important. More so than you think. 

Fancy fonts again can really become annoying if they're too stylised or difficult to read in internal pages. Then there's that whole legal minefield around whether you are licensed to be using that font in your book? thing. Always, ALWAYS ensure that fonts you use in your work are appropriately licensed, or are actually public domain unless you want to end up being sued for copyright infringement).

And if you use Comic Sans in your book, you will go to hell. The special hell reserved for people who are noisy in cinemas or jump queues.

6) Characters are everything in a story. They're also 'everything' in your children's book illustrations.  

The most common mistake we've seen with self-published or small-run titles usually revolves around the key characters in a story. Your main characters should have something about them that makes them stand out from any other peripheral characters in your tale. They don't have to be too whacky, quirky, unrealistic but they need to be easily identifiable, they also need to be consistent from front cover to back, the readers and consumers of your book need to be able to spot them in every spread, in every scene.

Character art is as tough as nails to get right but once again we would suggest you learn from the masters, dive into that link above and see just how diverse and varied children's characters are now. Break away from the standards, the defaults, the 'boy with red shirt and blue jeans' or 'the girl with the flowery dress'. Learn to draw by observation, learn to make your characters - no matter how stylised - have some sort of grounding in the real world, or a fantasy world that would work in its own right. Learn how to draw 'turnarounds' of your characters. Learn a ton about drawing different facial expressions, learn to draw a huge variety of different poses, actions. Really break all your inbuilt symbol sets that you draw on and go nuts for the technicalities of drawing really satisfying characters that work well.

7) Never, ever plagiarise. If you're found out, you'll be ripped a new one on the internet. 

There's nothing wrong with admiring or perhaps even drawing like a particular artist, but the minute you directly rip off their work - well, yeah we're into Comic Sans "Special Hell" territory again.

Never steal art to use in your work, whether it's clipart downloaded from the internet (which, we should add, always looks TERRIBLE in a children's story, no matter how good your clipart sources are). Again, if you can't draw don't use that as an excuse for stealing from those who can - just HIRE them!

8) Always, ALWAYS credit artists if you've worked with / used them and always be prepared to pay them (well). Give your ego a back seat for the day. 

Artists are usually freelance, work from commission to commission and quite often rely on word of mouth, a decent portfolio and exposure. That last word - exposure is NOT a method of payment. Money is, because exposure won't get your struggling artist's kids a new pair of shoes, or their weekly shop. Be prepared to pay your artists (and pay them well) and hire the best artist you can afford - shop around and find someone who works for you money-wise and style-wise. There are so many talented folk out there that we've met and conversed with through this blog that would love to work on your book but they aren't going to do it for free, and they rely on being able to add your work to their portfolio (with a clearly visible credit on your book) in order to keep their career buoyant. Do the right thing by an artist and they'll do the right thing by you.

9) For non-fiction titles, your layouts, photos and diagrams have to be absolutely brilliant and your book design has to be top notch. 

There's no getting round this one. We've seen so many small-run or self published non-fiction titles that look like someone's stuck captions in a photo album. The information isn't "wowy" enough, the diagrams or photos are stale and uninspired, the book layout is uninspiring. There has been something of a revolution in children's non fiction over the past 5 years and your competition (from large scale publishers) is fierce - so much so in fact that sales of self published or small print run non-fiction titles are dropping severely to the point where they're becoming virtually non-existent.

With non-fiction you have an even tougher assignment than you do with story books. You have to stimulate a child's curiosity, you have to teach them something without it feeling like you're lecturing them in a school-like way. You have to convey your passion for a subject in a way that's infectious and transferrable to a young mind so if your non-fic book (again, no matter how amazing or engaging the subject) doesn't do that, it's just not going to work.

ALL non fiction titles (big published / small published / self published) live and die by photos and illustrations, layouts and 'flow' of the book and when you're competing with the likes of Usborne, Dorling Kindersley, Wide Eyed Editions who have large teams of artists, photographers, designers and copy writers at their disposal, it's a tough assignment indeed.

10) Finally, as harsh as our advice sounds, it's drawn from experience of reading a LOT of children's fiction and non-fiction books across all publishing spectrums. 

Most of the points above cover things that we've seen and that have 'turned us off' particular books in the past. As we mentioned at the top of the review, we do still get requests for exposure / reviews for self published or small run titles almost on a daily basis, and we're sorry to say that nearly all of them fail on at least one or more of the points above. It may sound like we're being over-picky, perhaps even a little snooty but we're just a book blogging dad and daughter - potentially you will be dealing with a huge audience of folk who could all come up with ten more points of their own on why your book won't suit them. On the plus side you may also deal with a huge audience of folk who don't care about the art, wouldn't know Comic Sans if it bit them on the nose, and perhaps who genuinely like your kid-like scribbles or quirky little drawings. Be honest with yourself though, if you are pursuing the self published / small print run route for your book, ask yourself what would happen if you submitted your work to an agent / publisher. Would it pass muster? If you genuinely asked for an honest review from a blogger who does cover self published / small print run titles, would you really want to hear their critique if it was negative in any way?

Children's illustration is a tough gig, perhaps even tougher now than it's ever been and perhaps EVEN tougher than writing for children so hats off to you if you feel that you reached the end of this article, comfortable that your work meets all ten points and passes muster. We look forward to seeing whether you're right.