Monday, March 2, 2020

Querying an Agent, part one million

I started the query process several months ago. It was necessary to take that initial plunge in order for me to realize that I wasn't doing it right. Each agent asked for something different and I felt ill prepared. I found my query was clunky and honestly, I wasn't good at talking about my books.

I put the brakes on querying and I focused on illustrating, and I listened to podcasts while I did it. Lots of podcasts. Podcasts that included interviews with agents, editors, and authors. I did a deep dive on the querying process...and I quickly confirmed that I had been doing it wrong.

Many of the podcasts I listened to also had advertisements for books, and listening to these ads (often the jacket covers) helped me think further about how to talk about my books - what was special about them, why they were unique, and how could I capture those points in a paragraph? I rewrote my queries and then I went back and edited my books using the query highlights as a guide.

It has been quite a process, but I'm glad I did it. I didn't burn through tons of agents. I have stronger queries and stronger books to pitch. Taking the time away from my books and coming back to them with fresh eyes has also made it easier to identify those areas that could be improved.

I know rejections are imminent but I am excited to start again and feel much more prepared.

My favorite podcast can be found here; Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and interviews a broad selection of authors. She covers the querying process, provides great resources, and it was just a really great place to get advice as an aspiring author.

Best of luck on your own journey!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Contracting as a freelance illustrator

Hello! I have been absent because I jumped feet first into the freelance illustration world. I saw a request for an illustrator, the book description matched very well with my own skills and interests, and after a few email exchanges I found myself writing up a contract!

Piggy backing on my last post, these are the basics I had to work out before I started the project:
1) What services I was offering.
2) How I was going to ensure that I was capturing the author's vision.
3) How many revisions our contract was going to allow and how much additional revisions would cost.
4) The price of the project.
5) Getting it all down in a contract to ensure everyone understood expectations, payment schedules, services, ownership and use of the illustrations, and timelines.

In order to even get to the price, you'll see that I had to solidify what I was and was not offering. For example, I did storyboard and provide basic layout, but I am not formatting the book - that would best be accomplished by someone who has already had experience with the publishing platform the author pursues. I also had to see what the author had written and his basic expectations for the illustrations in order to understand what I was agreeing to do before I could decide on what I was charging. This book required several pages that contained two illustrations with accompanying text, for example. That meant more white space on those pages, but also more illustrations.

After identifying the author's vision, the medium, the number of illustrations, and the look he wanted, I had to determine a process for including the author along the way. To me, this means getting feedback on the storyboard to check in about basic content and blocking for each page. Then I did an initial sketch of each page and got feedback before moving to the full illustration. That way, revisions are made early in the process. I work in traditional mediums, and that means I can't easily revise my work.

Speaking of revisions, even though the process I laid out helps avoid having to scrap a whole page and start fresh, that can still happen. In the contract I put together, I specified the number of times I would be willing to revise pages before I charged extra. Our contract also specified the amount I would charge for each revised page after that.

Once the author and I agreed on the price of the project, I customized a contract template with all these details. The contract template I used included the rights/ownership of the work, specified how we were each allowed to use the illustrations, spelled out the process I'd be using to unfold the project and the time frame. The contract also specified payment would be received in three payments (1/4 upfront, 1/4 when half the work was complete and how that was measured, and remainder upon completion). You'll see that there are different contract templates for different types of ownership rights and work arrangements, allowing you to choose the one that works best for your specific project.

Arriving at a price
There is not a set price for a freelance illustrator. When I determined what to charge, I took into consideration my experience level (I was new to illustrating children's books but have considerable experience doing custom work and commissions), how much my work typically sells for, the timeline, the amount of work and time the project would take, and how easy I thought it would be to work with the author. I have a lot of project experience, and I know that a difficult client can really slow down a project.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Becoming or Hiring a Freelance Illustrator

I created an Illustration Portfolio page! I am currently in the process of building up additional pieces, like those discussed below, before I officially try to launch myself into freelance illustration. As an illustrator, there's a lot of factors to consider before soliciting clients. However, authors also need to consider most of these same factors when shopping around for an illustrator.

Illustration portfolios come in a variety of formats. Some are limited to an Instagram page. Others are housed on a dedicated website. I chose to add a page to my existing website, at least for now, with examples of my work, including the range of media and styles I am competent in. This is the bare essentials you should find on illustrators' portfolios.

Then there are the menu of services an illustrator can provide. Of course, illustrations are the primary service, but the book layout, character design, and cover may or may not be included.

  • Layout includes how the book is chunked into pages. Whether a single sentence or a whole paragraph is on a page, where the characters are, the action on the page, if it is single or two-page spread, and where text is going to be. Layout must be carefully considered to ensure the book is dynamic and interesting. 
  • Character design is more involved than many authors seem to realize, and some illustrators create a separate contract for this service, though most include it in the project. The end result should reflect the look of the book/illustrations, which also influences the scale and proportions of the character and scene (a more cartoon look will usually exaggerate proportion, for instance). Character design also includes things like color as well as line work. Line work can change everything about the look of a character. These two examples I put together use the same scale, painting technique, and color, with only the line work differing between the characters. 

  • The cover of a book is all about capturing attention, and while it should reflect what a reader will find inside, just copying an illustration and slapping it on the front of the book is not a good option. The cover involves text, often varying text color and scale, as well as text positioning. The cover is more about marketing and you can have your illustrator draw for the cover but have someone else complete the cover using that illustration.

Then there are revisions: some illustrators see multiple revisions as part and parcel of the work, others charge separately for revisions. Most illustrators include a set number of revisions for a project, and additional revisions will cost more. This information is usually discussed during the contract phase and will not be found on the illustration portfolio. If you are an illustrator, you should think ahead about what you think is reasonable! As an author hiring an illustrator, be honest with yourself; are you going to be very picky and want illustrations to be refined until they are just right? If so, make sure you are clear about that with illustrators before you sign a contract! Once an author has approved an illustration, it is final. Any requested revisions to a final illustration will cost more and may not be done in the agreed upon time frame because it will be based on the illustrator's availability.

Then there is the book formatting piece, which can be very involved depending on where and how authors are planning to publish their book. Most authors that seek out illustrators are self-publishing, and the formatting depends on which media and outlet they plan to publish (ebooks like Kindle Direct Publishing [KDP], for example, or paper and ink publishing). If an illustrator does not have experience with the platform an author is working in, there are going to be struggles and frustrations along the way. Being clear about expectations (and experience) up front can mediate the issues, but it is very unlikely that it will be smooth sailing. Hiring someone who has formatting experience in that platform can eliminate those issues.

I feel very comfortable with the layout, character design, illustration, and cover pieces. Once I have secured an agent, I hope to share the process I went through with my own children's picture book. But as an illustrator, I will not offer formatting services because I know that it would be more cost effective for an author to hire someone who is experienced.

Now, you've probably noticed that I have mentioned contracts a number of times. You absolutely need a contract! A contract protects the author and the illustrator. It should discuss payment, rights to the work, timeline, deliverables like the number of complete illustrations or pages, and of course cost breakdown. It should be specific regarding things like revisions, as well as what course of action will be taken if the author wants more revisions.

I will be writing a follow up post on the cost/pricing of freelance illustrators. Until then, I hope you have found this information helpful! Follow me so you don't miss anything.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Learning from your (my) mistakes when querying agents

I need to admit something. I made a mistake. After all the prep work that went into my short list of agents, I thought I was ready to start querying. I was excited to get going. I was also feeling a lot of (self-inflicted and completely imaginary) time pressure to get going.

I selected an agent from my short list. I re-re-re-read the customized query letter and compared it against her agent page. Yes! I am ready!, I thought. Spoiler: I was not ready.

When I went into the query management system for this agent, I found that a synopsis was also required. That is when I made my mistake.

What I should have done was back out. Re-re-re-read my synopsis and tweak it, and sit on it, and come back to it later. I should have returned to the query management system after I felt confident all my materials were as good as I could get them.

Obviously, that wasn't what I did. I revised, read it over, and submitted the synopsis along with the other required materials.

And that, my friend, is how I got my first rejection.

Of course, I don't know that's what led to the rejection. But I am pretty sure it is. As I said in my previous posts, I spent a lot of time researching agents. I was fairly confident this agent would like my work. I still think she would, if she read it. But I don't think she read the first 10 pages of the novel I submitted. I think she read an amateurish synopsis and noped it right out of the query management system.

So...lesson learned. I have retooled my synopsis A LOT. I have had it read by someone who read my novel. I have polished and fussed over each word. And I have told myself to take my time and not make the same mistake again.

We can't go backwards, but we can make better decisions as we move forward. I hope my experience will help you, as well.

For those of you still working on your synopsis, these are the sources I found most helpful:

Both posts include examples as well as links to additional helpful sources

Friday, August 23, 2019


Hello! I have exciting news.

As I mentioned before, I have expanded my artistic endeavors. A part of that was registering one of my paintings for a annual juried art show. The show is part of a large and widely attended event in our city. I am happy to say that it was accepted for entry.

It also received an award!

Friday, June 21, 2019

Working Toward Querying an Agent

I am in the process of writing my query letters, being careful to customize each one for each agent. It is...nerve wracking. Trying to insert a hint of myself into the letters, without accidentally tipping the cauldron and having my personality slosh out and puddle into a sticky mess, has been difficult.

This goes hand in hand with a final prioritizing of my agent list. I've run into some interesting issues. For example, an agent I'm really excited about left the agency. I found two agents from one agency are equally appealing, but for very different reasons. I believe my personality would mesh much better with one agent, which is an important factor to consider when trying to build a long-term partnership. But the other agent seems more likely to be receptive about, maybe even excited about, my writing. Another agent I had on my short list is still exciting, but a deeper dive into the agency made me think that might not be the best place for me.

Looking closer at some of the agencies' websites has also been interesting. Some websites are clearly better than others. Some agencies provide more support in legal areas, others are more focused on alternate media, others on foreign marketing. So there is a second layer to my agent list that I overlooked.

Okay, back to looking through literary agency websites and agent descriptions.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Avoiding the Pitfall of a Bad Agent

I just had an interesting experience and I wanted to share.

A friend tagged me on a Facebook post. A literary agent was going to be at a local coffee shop that evening! They were looking to meet local writers and illustrators - all genres represented! How could I not?

Now, I have devoted a lot of time to developing a list of potential agents. I was not prepared to throw that work, and my long-term goals, away on a what-if, so I only took some of my artwork. I decided I might further my freelance illustration plan, and hear what the agent had to say.

Well...this, it turns out, is more of a cautionary tale then a holy grail moment. This meet up was a good reminder that as an author, especially a new, unpublished author, you need to do your research.

This person was not an agent. This person was a recent transplant to the area who had purchased a small used book store and who had friends with connections to publishing companies. The publishing companies (which she did not know the name of!) were small, boutique companies looking for authors. All genres were being accepted not because there was good outlets for all genres, but because the people behind the scenes were new and did not yet have any expertise in any genre.

The "agent" was a hopeful author herself, who was looking to pitch a non-fiction book to a publishing company. Of note, the company she was planning to pitch to was not one that she was there "representing."

I haven't devoted any space in my posts to the differences between publishing fiction vs non-fiction. But in my day job, I have co-authored non-fiction book chapters. The process is very, very different from writing an interesting story and then finding a way to get that out for others to read. What a publisher gets for a non-fiction book is a sample chapter, an outline, and the expertise of the author which is provided in great detail. Basically, with non-fiction, publishers are trying to determine what expertise the author has around the topic.

The "agent" did not know even know expectations are different for authors of fiction vs non-fiction. In fact, she asked one poor sci-fi author for an outline of her next book. She asked another how many chapters her work-in-progress was going to be. *Insert panic and heart-palpitations on behalf of those poor authors*

Rather than go into further detail about the ineptitude of this person, let me highlight the warning signs:

  • This "agent" did not have any experience with publishing companies. Reputable agents are closely tied into the literary world, often having worked in publishing firms, professional editing, or literary agencies.
  • She offered editing skills (for a fee), but her only editing experience was technical report writing, which was a part of her previous job. Non-fiction includes more nuanced things like tense and prose, which are a very different beast. She could not provide references or contacts who could verify her expertise. She also did not know the difference between copyediting, content editing, and line editing.
  • She completely lacked knowledge about the literary world: the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction, how and what you would submit to publishing companies, royalties, advances, or contracts. This is the expertise you pay for when you sign with an agent! What good is an agent who cannot work to leverage a better publishing deal for their author? If your agent can't help you navigate a submission, why are you giving them 15% of your profits? 
  • She had no previous clients and no track record of successfully representing authors. Even new agents should have interned or worked closely with another agent and be able to tell you who they worked with.
  • She asked if illustrators would be willing to work only for royalties for a self-publishing project. Self-publishing contracts between illustrators and authors are almost always fee-based, because self-publishing is a real gamble that takes a LOT of commitment to sell books. An illustrator who is only receiving royalties on this type of book might be doing all those illustrations for free because the book might not sell at all. 
  • She gave me this other author's story to read! Sharing unpublished works of another author is not professional.
  • She was unclear about what services she would provide a client beyond editing! 
I think it would be unfair to characterize this person as trying to prey off of authors and illustrators. My intent is not to villainize her. I believe this person was hoping to just "fall into" being an agent. 

As an author, you need to make sure you are informed enough that you would see through this type of "help." Hitching yourself to an ineffective agent could be worse than having no agent at all. Remember, an agent is a source of information about the literary world. They are an informed guide who can provide information, introductions, expertise, and leverage. An agent is your credentials, especially as a new author. Getting a good agent is a vote of confidence in your writing and your what does an unknown agent, one who is completely unknowledgable about how things are done, say about you to publishers? 

Querying an Agent, part one million

I started the query process several months ago. It was necessary to take that initial plunge in order for me to realize that I wasn't do...