Monday, 25 May 2015

Two heads are better than one: The benefits of early author-illustrator collaboration • Jonathan Emmett

I mentioned in a Picture Book Den post earlier this year that, although people often assume that picture book authors and illustrators work closely together, it’s not unusual for the author and illustrator to have no direct contact, with the book’s creation being co-ordinated via the publisher.

One of my Dutch publishers told me that Dutch authors and illustrators regularly get together with the publisher during a picture book’s production to discuss how the project is progressing. However, if my own experience is anything to go by, regular meetings like this are not the norm in the UK. I’d been writing picture books for ten years before a publisher, Puffin, invited me to get together with illustrator Steve Cox to look at some of Steve’s initial concept sketches for our picture book Pigs Might Fly and discuss how it might be illustrated. Before then, I’d only met two illustrators I’d done a book with and spoken to a couple more on the phone, and this was always after the project was completed.

One reason for this lack of direct contact is that many picture book publishers like to moderate all communication between a book's author and illustrator. In the conventional UK set-up, an author gives any comments or ideas they might have regarding the illustrations to an editor, who then (if they agree with them) passes them on to the illustrator (sometimes via the book's designer). This is obviously a rather slow method of communication and misinterpretations can occur as the message is passed along the chain. Another disadvantage of the conventional set-up is that while the author has some influence over how the book is illustrated, the illustrator has relatively little influence over how the book is written, the story having been largely hammered out before they are on board.

The line of communication between author and illustrator is often indirect.
(Image taken from my "How a book is Made" school presentations)

When I first started creating picture books I'd intended to both write and illustrate and was in the habit of developing ideas simultaneously in both text and illustration. Although my illustration has largely fallen by the wayside, I still think of stories visually as much as verbally. I'll often get a story idea from looking at an image or conceive a story outline as a series of illustrations. So I've always thought that the conventional set-up, with its lack of direct interaction between author and illustrator, is less than ideal. Fortunately, I've been able to team up with several sympathetic illustrators who have been happy to exchange ideas at an early stage and several of my more recent picture books have been developed in a far more collaborative way.

After Mark Oliver had illustrated my text for Tom’s Clockwork Dragon, he and I were both keen to do another picture book together. So rather than leave it to chance, I asked Mark if there was anything he’d particularly like to illustrate. Mark sent me a list of ideas, one of which – a mechanical monster manual – became Monsters: An Owner’s Guide. We developed the idea between us and when we had a draft of the text and some concept art that we were both happy with, we offered it as a joint project to publishers. Thankfully, Macmillan accepted it and subsequently took Aliens; An Owner’s Guide as a follow-up.

Some of Mark Oliver's early concept art for Monsters: An Owner's Guide

Since then, I’ve worked on several stories where the illustrator has been involved from the initial concept stage and has often provided the initial inspiration. The Treasure of Captain Claw was written in answer to Steve Cox’s wish to illustrate a submarine story and my latest picture book, The Silver Serpent Cup, was written in response to a set of outlandish vehicle models that Ed Eaves had offered as a possible source of inspiration. 

The Silver Serpent Cup and some of the outlandish vehicle models, made by Ed Eaves, that inspired it.

Not all of the author-illustrator collaborations I’ve worked on have made it into print – I wrote two unpublished stories with the late Vanessa Cabban – but I’ve always enjoyed working with the illustrator to create them. And I suspect that, having helped shape the initial concept, the illustrators I’ve created these books with have felt a little more attached to these projects and may have been prepared to lavish a little extra care and attention on them.

Some of Vanessa Cabban's "Clara and Bertie" character sketches from an unpublished project we developed together.

There’s a synergy when text and illustration work well together in a picture book. This happens naturally when the same person is both writing and illustrating, but if the author and illustrator are two different people, such a synergy can be a lot easier to achieve if they get together early on to exchange ideas. I’d certainly recommend it!



Jonathan Emmett's latest collaborative picture book is Fast and Furry Racers: The Silver Serpent Cup illustrated by Ed Eaves and published by Oxford University Press.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on twitter @scribblestreet.

See all of Jonathan's posts for Picture Book Den.

11 comments:

  1. Sounds like fun! I should love to be able to collaborate with an illustrator at the early idea stage but as yet the opportunity hasn't arisen. Hoping to do so one day.

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    1. Hope you find one, Jane. It doesn't hurt to ask. In my experience there are quite a few illustrators out there that would welcome the opportunity. But it has to be a good fit, with both sides having an affinity for the other's work and wanting to pull in a similar direction.

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  2. Such an interesting post Jonathan. I'm on the other side of it, being the children's book illustrator who would love to work with an author. How nice that you've written stories around your illustrators interests - that's definitely a way of ensuring some excellent creativity out of them!

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  3. I'd love to work that way, Jonathan, but anytime I've tried it we haven't been able to get a publisher on board. I'm wary now of asking illustrators to spend time on a project, at my suggestion, that might come to nothing.

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    1. You do have to be aware from the outset that it may all came to nothing, but that's the same for both parties. Nearly all of my picture book stories are written speculatively and most don't get published. Illustrators may not be quite as used to working in this way, but it's not unusual for an illustrator to submit and art sample for a project that ends up being illustrated by someone else. Most of the illustrators I've collaborated with have done some pencil sketches and a single colour sample to send out to publishers along with the text. About half of my collaborative projects have been taken by publishers, but that's a higher hit rate than for my regular texts.

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  4. I SO agree with what you are saying here. As a rookie PB writer, hailing from the world of advertising and design, it frankly seems barmy-bonkers that authors and illustrators don't work together from an early stage. Also, I find conflict between the various 'rules' of PB writing, i.e. leave room in your writing for the pictures to tell the story, show don't tell and don't put illustration notes into your manuscript, (oh, and keep to 500 words!). All of this means that with any manuscript I submit, it's highly possible that I either have to add in words that I know are superfluous because the pictures can do the job or I leave them out and risk misinterpretation/lack of understanding of the story. However, from all that I've read and heard from publishers (most recently Nosy Crow) I have deep reservations about speculative collaborations with illustrators, as publishers just don't seem to want 'team submissions'. Doesn't the answer to this problem lie with the publishers; could they perhaps learn something from how other creative industries work, or have I just drastically reduced my chances of ever getting published?!

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    1. I'm not sure how hard and fast you should regard some of those 'rules' to be. I nearly always include illustration notes in my texts and they often exceed 500 words. (I wrote another PBD post here about the current trend towards low word counts: http://bit.ly/1hW8cxM). And I frequently write in rhyme – something else that new writers are often discouraged from doing. I think strict adherence to rules like these can only make picture books formulaic when we ought to be aiming for more diversity if we want to get more children reading.

      However, I can understand why some publishers discourage new authors from teaming up with an illustrator as a project then needs to tick two boxes – appealing writing AND appealing illustration – to be accepted. All the illustrators I have collaborated with have been established, with several successful picture books already under their belts, so their appeal has been proven. Having said which, publishers accept plenty of books from author-illustrators, and those projects also have to tick both writing and illustration boxes.

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  5. If, as you say, you're a 'bankable' team, then there should be no problem, and what a joy it is to work with someone who is sympathetic creatively. I have tried it once or twice but things didn't go anywhere. However, they might not have gone anywhere in any case so I can't put that down to the collaboration element. I most certainly agree that the very best new work comes from breaking conventions, and there isn't enough of that going on!

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  6. Those Clara and Bertie drawings are lovely. . . ;-(
    Nice post, I think that if the collaboration can produce something that is more than the sum of it's parts, which is the aim, I think, it is a valuable thing whether it is published or not. It can help you grow as a writer and illustrator. I've never got to that point myself with attempted collaborations in writing or illustrating, but when playing with good musicians I have felt something akin to it. Not often though.

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    1. Thanks, Jonathan. And that's a good point about the experience of collaborating helping you grow, regardless of whether or not the end product gets published. Working with someone else can take you in a different direction and makes you explore different paths to the ones you'd have chosen on your own.

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  7. I so agree with you that being allowed to work together with an illustrator is important. And I love those Clara and Bertie pictures!

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