Monday, November 05, 2018

Querying art with picture books if you're not quite there on the art

I have been working on a picture book that I'm very proud of--it's a weird, fun story that I've had a blast writing. As part of the writing process, I've also sketched out illustrations of some of the scenes. I really like the way they're turning out so far.

Now, despite years of my best intentions, I am not an artist. I'm much better than the average schmo on the street--I'd say I'm a very happy 80% great (as opposed to my professional artist friends, who are a deeply unsatisfied 97% fantastic). I like my style, warts and all, but I am also very aware that it probably doesn't stack up with the majority of what's on the shelf. 

The submission guidelines of many PB agents (and my favorite agent in particular) require a dummy book and a few full-color illustrations with book submissions. I'd like to submit my art, but I know it's probably not good enough to cut it, and I don't want that to hold back the actual text of the book. 

So here's the quandary: Do I...
A) Submit my illustrations with a note saying that I'm not a professional artist and I honestly won't be offended if the agent takes one look at the art and says "wow NOPE" 
B) Submit the art, in all seriousness, and risk the whole book (including the text) getting tossed because of them? 
C) Submit just the text and then, if an agent likes it, pull a "But wait, there's more!" move?
D) Just submit the text and shelve the art? 

I feel like A is shooting myself in the foot, but it shouldn't be. I know I need to gas myself up in the pitch, but I wish there were a professionally acceptable way to say "hey, I can do A, and I want to do B eventually, but if you don't think I'm there yet, no harm, no foul." 
You're not asking the right question.
The right question is: do these agents sign TextOnly authors, or only author/illustrators.

A text only agent isn't going to ask for a dummy book. You query them with the entire text of the book.
Take a look at the books these agents asking for dummy books have sold. Are the author and illustrator the same person?

Unless your art is professional caliber, it's not going to get you requests.You want to submit your work as text-only.

Picture books are the hardest thing to write well other than poetry. The fewer words, the harder it is to write.  

You don't mention if you're a member of SCBWI. If you're not, join. They are the single most valuable author association I know of.

The answer to your questions
A. No
B. No
C. No
D. Yes, but only if the agent considers text only submissions.


Sarah said...

Hey there! I write MG novels, but my husband has sold multiple picture books. Here are a few resources you might find helpful:

Literary Rambles blog has a feature called Agent Spotlight. It essentially pulls all the info about an agent into one place (interviews, wishlists, etc). You still need to confirm info on the agent's website, but go here: and click on "Agents who rep PB."

Then, get thee to SCBWI! It's a great way to learn about the craft and business of writing for kids. I didn't go for a few years because I thought it couldn't be THAT helpful. Ohmyword, was I wrong! They have wonderful critiques at the bigger conferences and you'll have a chance to get feedback from top agents and editors in the field. Plus, they're some of the kindest, most encouraging folks I know.

Sherry Howard said...

Ditto to SCBWI. I help host a local monthly meeting, and attend regional conferences. And, ditto to PB being hard to write well. Being a poet helps a lot! Funny that JR mentioned them together here, because that’s exactly what I say—study poetry for picture book writing!

You might do well to get involved in a class for illustrators (Mira Reisberg offers wonderful ones that I know of) and get feedback on your art—it’s possible that it’s better than you’re judging it to be, or could be easily improved if it’s good already. My debut picture book was illustrated by a debut illustrator from Mira’s class. We earned a rare starred review from Kirkus, and that had a lot to do with the gorgeous illustrations. My point is that Anika was an artist who hadn’t yet illustrated a picture book, but did the polishing, and had great success with her first time out!

Either way, good luck with your submissions. Don’t be in a hurry—it’s a tough market!

Lennon Faris said...

OK I really wanted to comment here bc art is one of those things that it is really fantastic to see new styles and ideas. If your style is unique and you just aren't trained enough to execute it well, just force some patience. Slow down, get some classes and see if you can 'get there' before querying. No one is going to query your book in the meantime. You might not ever get there, but maybe you will. A professional artist isn't the tooth fairy, it's a human. Might as well make your creation the way you want it. Best of luck! Enjoy your writing and your art!

Elissa M said...

There are many, many illustrators who don't write. There are many, many writers who don't illustrate. No one has to be both a writer and illustrator to succeed.

OP, do what your heart tells you to do. If you feel your illustrations don't "stack up" and aren't "good enough to cut it" then query just the writing. If you really, honestly, truly feel only your own illustrations can do your story justice, submit them.

I am an artist. If I were writing picture books, I would query just the writing. Why? Because there could be another artist out there who's style and technique elevate the whole project from good to amazing. I would never want to miss that possibility. Plus, once I had an agent, and a publisher was on board, I could still show my illustrations to the art director.

Colin Smith said...

All I can say is I've added this one to the "Gems" page in the Treasure Chest. I reckon this a question a lot of people have. And that's what the Treasure Chest is for! :)

Claire Bobrow said...

OP, Janet's advice seems right on the money. If your favorite agent doesn't accept author-only manuscripts, I think I'd focus on other agents who do. If you really want to illustrate, keep working on your skills until they reach a professional level so you have the best shot.

I agree with Sarah about joining SCBWI, and following the Literary Rambles blog. It's excellent.

I also agree with Sherry's recommendation to check out Mira Reisberg's CBA Illustration course. It contains a wealth of information, whether you plan to illustrate or simply want to gain a better understanding of the illustration side of the picture book equation. Other helpful resources are Storyteller Academy with Arree Chung, the 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog, and the '3 Point Perspective' podcast from the Society of Visual Storytelling.

Good luck, and keep us posted!

Panda in Chief said...

Kudos for great answers from everyone, from Janet to all the commenters.

Well, except for the one immediately preceding my comment, which appears to be spam, including a link, which who knows what will happen if you click on it!

I agree whole heartedly about the agent profiles and interviews on Literary Rambles. They don't seem to be doing so many new ones, but the ones in their archives are priceless. SCBWI is worth every penny you'll pay for your membership. In addition, they have many critique groups that form through their blue boards, both in person ones and on line. You may just be able to get your illustrations in shape to submit as an author illustrator. But definitely, follow Janet's advice for the time being.

I do know a number of PB writers only, who still do a dummy to help themselves with the flow and pacing of their books. It's a useful process, even if you aren't an author/illustrator.

Another good blog is Writing and Illustrating, written by Kathy Temean,(I think I spelled that right) an SCBWI member from NJ.

Good luck! There are a number of us kidlit folks here (and on our FB group The Writer's room!)

Panda in Chief said...

I feel I should note that now that Janet removed the spam comment, it looks like I am referring to Claire's as spam. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ha! I would never say that about Claire! (Some people might say that about me: #PandaSpam)

Claire Bobrow said...

Haha - thank you, Anne! Not sure I need "spammer" added to my already-overloaded hamster wheel :-)