Book Illustration Basics for Writers & Illustrators Alike

Man-Dog/Dog-Man © Aliyah Marr (reversible diptych)

You Want to Be a Book Illustrator

I recommend going to school and getting professional training. Take design and illustration courses from working professionals in the field. The design department of a university or art school is a great place to start. I would say that design skills are more essential than illustration skills in this field, since illustration can range from “raw art” (naive) styles to hyper-realistic art.

An illustrator or artist sells rights to their work, not the original, unless the piece was commissioned, in which case the work probably belongs to the agency. This is called “work for hire” and basically means that in accepting the commission, the artist has given up all ownership and even copyright rights to the work. They may not even get their name in the credits, although it is considered a good practice to credit the illustrator and designer. However, getting your work on a book cover is a great way to advertise your art.

There are three ways to work as a book illustrator:

  1. ARTIST’S WAY — make a portfolio of work that you think will appeal to a certain genre of books, for example, romance and sci-fi/fantasy always need good illustrators.
  2. EMPLOYEE’S WAY — work as an illustrator for a publishing company.
  3. FREELANCER’S WAY — establish a portfolio of work (best to specialize in 1-2 genres), and do custom work.

Should a book illustrator worry about “work for hire” or retaining some of their rights? I don’t think so; this is because book illustrations are too visible in the public sphere to be able to be used for any other book covers; no client would agree to letting you sell the book cover twice.

An illustrator should be able to retain the right to use their artwork in a personal project. An example of this might be a choice to use the illustration as an interior illustration in your own book. I have done this with my full-color book, Celestial Navigation.

You Are a Writer/Publisher and Want to Buy or Commission Illustration for Your Book

  1. Expect to pay a minimum of $500 for your book illustration. More rights are more expensive; a traditional rights agreement is North American rights, however, with the international book market, you should negotiate for world-wide rights, and pay the illustrator more. After all, your book cover illustration is one of your key marketing tools.
  2. Please, please do not allow yourself to be too literal in your approach. Educate yourself on good design by looking at award-winning books. The covers of these books are almost never literal interpretations of what is inside the book, and good design often plays a bigger part in the cover than the illustration. Research the idea of how metaphor  can be used in design/illustration to convey a subtle yet powerful idea. Hire a sophisticated illustrator, someone whose work wins awards; preferably someone who went to art school or got a degree in art or design. Your nephew or the cheap illustrator that you find on the internet is probably not going to help you, and the resultant illustration is more likely to make your book look cheap and unprofessional. Nothing screams SELF-PUBLISHED and AMATEUR like a naive or literal book cover illustration.
  3. Do you really need illustration? Look at your genre, especially the book covers that win awards. Are they designed (just typography) or designed and illustrated?
  4. The best books are designed well. Hire a good designer, and let the designer choose the illustration. Clients often get off-track because they try to hire the illustrator directly, without understanding the value of good design, or understanding what makes a good illustration. A good designer–educated in design in art school–has sophisticated tastes that can put your book in the running for awards and best-selling status. Letting an amateur designer design your book is analogous to letting your ten-year old nephew design and sew your business clothes.

From Wikipedia
A work made for hire (sometimes abbreviated as work for hire or WFH) is a work created by an employee as part of his or her job, or a work created on behalf of a client where all parties agree in writing to the WFH designation. It is an exception to the general rule that the person who actually creates a work is the legally recognized author of that work. According to copyright law in the United States and certain other copyright jurisdictions, if a work is “made for hire”, the employer—not the employee—is considered the legal author. In some countries, this is known as corporate authorship. The incorporated entity serving as an employer may be a corporation or other legal entity, an organization, or an individual.[1]

The actual creator may or may not be publicly credited for the work, and this credit does not affect its legal status. States that are party to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works recognize separately copyrights and moral rights, with moral rights including the right of the actual creators to publicly identify themselves as such, and to maintain the integrity of their work.

For example, Microsoft hired many programmers to develop the Windows operating system, which is credited simply to Microsoft Corporation. By contrast, Adobe Systems lists many of the developers of Photoshop in its credits. In both cases, the software is the property of the employing company. In both cases, the actual creators have moral rights. Similarly, newspapers routinely credit news articles written by their staff, and publishers credit the writers and illustrators who produce comic books featuring characters such as Batman or Spider-Man, but the publishers hold copyrights to the work. However, articles published in academic journals, or work produced by freelancers for magazines, are not generally works created as a work for hire, which is why it is common for the publisher to require the copyright owner, the author, to sign a copyright transfer, a short legal document transferring specific author copyrights to the publisher. In this case the authors retain those copyrights in their work not granted to the publisher.



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