Now that I am about to submit what I hope is the final final final ‘best it’s ever going to get’ version of my illustrated picture book (although, actually, I doubt you can ever say that a book is completely finished), here are ten things that, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d done sooner. If you are just starting out on your own illustrated picture book submission journey, I hope this post gives you some helpful ideas.
1 Stop writing in a vacuum.
It was tempting to stay in my creative ivory tower (as it’s quite comfortable in there), but after a while I felt myself getting too close to my manuscript to see its flaws. Sometimes it helped to leave it for a while, so that I could return to it with ‘fresh eyes’, but getting feedback from others was even better. Getting my manuscript critiqued helped me to a) get to the true core of what my story is about, and b) check that this is conveyed to my reader in the best possible way. You can find a critique group via the SCBWI forums (see point 4 below), and/or you can pay to have your work appraised. I booked a face-to-face editorial meeting with Louise Jordan (£80 for a manuscript up to 1000 words) at the Writer’s Advice Centre (http://www.writersadvice.co.uk/manuscript.html), which was excellent and identified some key issues with my manuscript that needed fixing. Later on, I used Lou Treleaven’s written critique service (https://loutreleaven.com/critique-service/). I cannot recommend her enough for her wide-ranging, thoughtful and incisive comments (and at £30 for up to 1000 words her fee is very reasonable).
2 Realise that it was possible to reduce my word count way beyond what seemed humanly possible.
Then realise that my manuscript actually became a lot better for it. One thing I wish I’d done later is sending my first few submissions off before my book was really ready – each submission you make before your book is the best (and shortest) it can be is a wasted opportunity! Editing and redrafting is a long and tortuous process. You might think of twenty different ways to say the same thing, each one subtly different, and then you have to decide which one is best. You might have to make some really radical changes. You polish and polish and polish your rough diamond of a story until eventually it begins to shine a little bit, and then the real editing starts…
3 Learn photoshop or equivalent image-editing software.
I started out by producing a physical paper dummy of my picture book, which was extremely time-consuming. It’s hard to produce a physical dummy that is neat and professional-looking, and it limits the number of agents you can submit to, as most will not accept postal submissions. After learning photoshop (mostly by watching tutorials on YouTube) I was able to use the rough illustrations and finished artwork samples from my physical dummy to produce a digital storyboard, and then, finally, a digital dummy. The result looks much more professional and can be submitted to agents digitally.
4 Join the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators (https://britishisles.scbwi.org is the regional website for British members).
I have found this to be worth every penny of the yearly membership fee and especially good for author illustrators, as it caters well for both skills. There is so much useful information on the website, in the forums and in the online and print publications, and if you are an illustrator you can upload images from your portfolio into your own online gallery space. They also provide a constant supply of excellent national and regional events, as well as grants, awards and competitions, which brings me to…
5 Enter competitions.
Entering a writing or illustration competition gives you a) a motivational deadline to work to, b) the opportunity to practice working to a precise brief, c) if it turns out well, another piece of work you can showcase in your portfolio, and d) a chance that you might actually win and be able to mention your moment of glory in your submission covering letters – what’s not to like? (well, OK, each competition does tend to take over your whole life for a while…) Illustration competitions I’ve entered so far are the SCBWI monthly ‘Draw This!’ challenge and the Plum Awards, run by the Plum Pudding Illustration Agency (the deadline this year was 25/3/2019 and the subject matter was ‘Alice in Wonderland’). I’m considering entering the Cheltenham Illustration Awards (deadline 1/6/2019) and possibly (if I’m feeling ambitious) the House of Illustration’s Book Illustration Competition 2020, which will have a deadline some time around January next year.
6 Develop an illustration portfolio.
If you are submitting an illustrated picture book rather than just a text, an agent may want to see further examples of your illustrations beyond those included in your dummy. I decided it was therefore a good idea to spend time building up a digital portfolio of my best illustrations. I began by trying out different styles and media and entering a few illustration competitions (see point 5), then uploaded the best ones onto my personal gallery space on the SCBWI website (see point 4), as that was the easiest option to start with. I then decided to make this website as well (see point 10), meaning that I can now include a web address for my portfolio in my submission covering letters. As my next step, I am considering having my portfolio reviewed by an industry expert, once I have added a few more illustrations to it. There is an Annual Portfolio Review Intensive event offered by the SCBWI which will be in June this year. For a face-to-face review like this, I will need to put together a physical portfolio consisting of high quality print-outs of my best work, presented in a portfolio case.
7 Join social media.
Having kept social media at a distance until earlier this year, I have now realised how useful it is for an aspiring author illustrator and have joined Twitter and Instagram. Not only can you get a feel for the sort of books agents prefer, you can share tips, information, observations and illustrations with a whole community of like-minded (and different-minded) people and keep up to date with what’s happening in the publishing world. It’s also the start of building an author illustrator ‘platform’ for yourself, which will come in useful later if (I mean when) you get published!
8 Attend writing and illustration events.
Alongside books and online resources (I’ll list the ones I found useful in a future post), I have found events for writers and illustrators to be a really useful (if sometimes expensive) way to develop my craft and glean knowledge about the children’s publishing industry. Sometimes you get to listen to agents, editors or art directors discussing what they prefer in terms of submissions, which obviously helps when you eventually find yourself writing a personal submission letter to them. At other events you can get first-hand advice from successful writers and illustrators. The Bloomsbury Writers & Artists ‘How to Write for Children and Young Adults’ one-day event (usually in February) is very good (https://writersandartists.co.uk/events), as are the numerous free or reasonably priced regional events run by the SCBWI (see point 4).
The House of Illustration in London runs masterclasses for illustrators (https://www.houseofillustration.org.uk/learn/masterclasses) and the Golden Egg Academy sometimes has ‘open nest’ events that anyone can attend (https://www.goldeneggacademy.co.uk/events-calendar/). I haven’t tried these yet but they look interesting.
I attended the London Book Fair for the first time this year and found it to be an eye-opening experience in my quest for industry knowledge. The talks given as part of the Author HQ programme are very informative, and you can hear agents, publishers and art directors giving their side of things. I’m now considering attending the SCBWI British Isles conference in November and one day, maybe, just maybe (if I can boost my bank balance somehow), the Bologna Children’s Book Fair…
9 Register with The Bookseller (https://www.thebookseller.com/user/register).
This is another way to keep up to date with what’s going on in the publishing industry. You can register as a guest free of charge and have access to a limited number of articles on the website, plus some free email newsletters, or you can pay to become a subscriber and have unlimited access to news, charts, previews, data and analysis.
10 Set up your own website.
As you can see, I decided to use WordPress for my website. Because I am a complete novice, I decided to use the hosting service wordpress.com rather than self-hosted wordpress.org, as the former requires less ongoing maintenance (for example, updates, backups and site optimisation are done automatically). I found setting up the website to be quite a steep learning curve, and I spent a while floundering until I stumbled across the wpbeginners.com website. It was a lifesaver, as it provides clear, step-by-step instructions, with videos and screenshots. I uploaded my portfolio onto my home page and started this blog to share my experiences with other budding author illustrators (in addition, it’s good writing practice, it contributes to the ‘author platform’ mentioned above, and I will now be able to include my website address, along with my contact details and social media handles, on my agent covering letters and manuscript cover page). So, anyway, here we are, finally, with my first blog post. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful! Come back for the next one at the end of May, or click the ‘Follow’ button to subscribe. Meanwhile, any author / illustrators with your own ‘things you wish you’d done sooner’ during the submission process, please comment!