Lately I’m getting the distinct impression that agents only want to sign picture book authors who also illustrate. Am I just being paranoid? With current world politics the way they are, and my Twitter and Facebook feeds awash with conspiracies and real-life events so crazy they seem like a bad dream, maybe I’m just feeling a bit persecuted. But I don’t know….
Yes, I’ve heard it said many times you don’t need to illustrate in order to write picture books. I have been holding on hopefully to this fact for years now. When friends say perhaps I should just give it a go, surely my drawings aren’t that bad, I like to reply with, ‘my stories deserve better’. Let me break it down for you – a friend recently saw some drawings on my table and began praising my three year old son’s amazing artwork. When I explained they were mine (drawn for him), there was a momentary silence. “Oh. You suck!” my friend said. And she wasn’t wrong.
The thing about picture book authors is that we are apparently poor cousins to all other authors. I was genuinely surprised to learn this. A really amazing agent told me a while back she was reluctant to take on anymore picture book authors because PB’s are actually quite hard to sell, and even the most experienced authors always need help with their texts. And picture books obviously cost a lot more to print, so the profit margins are less. Then split those profits with an illustrator, suddenly the return from an agent’s point of view isn’t looking all that attractive….
My near miss after the SCBWI Agents party was because the agent in question already had a full list. I see that agent has since signed an author-illustrator. Some agents and publishers even specify they are only interested in author-illustrators. Okay, its business at the end of the day, and I get this. Obviously the profit margins are higher if your client both writes and illustrates. It probably makes things easier as well. And like I’ve said before, most agents don’t actually need new clients so they can afford to be picky.
But I can’t help feeling frustrated. If you can’t draw, you can’t draw. Yes, I could enroll in a class, I could get myself one of those fancy artist’s tablets, I could ‘give it a go’. But I personally think that with illustration, you either have it, or you don’t. I know if I really tried, then I might possibly be able to draw something passible. But could I draw those same characters doing different things, with different facial expressions? No – I can’t do continuity of character. I know virtually nothing about aspect or viewpoint. I doubt I could even come up with the right colour palette! And my drawings are rubbish.
An illustrator has more hope of being able to write, than a writer has of being able to draw. If they are already familiar with illustrating picture books, then they will know how to fit their story into spreads. An illustrator will automatically think visually, and they will likely tell part of their story through their illustrations. We all know there are some absolutely amazing author-illustrators, who produce some wonderful books. But I honestly think, were an author to present some of those stories as texts on their own – without the illustrations – they would be rejected on the grounds that they are too simple.
And yes, there is nothing wrong with a simple story. Picture books, after all, need to work for their intended audience, and so can’t be too complicated. But as someone who has worked with preschoolers for many years, I believe there are three types of picture books – for babies, for toddlers, and for three years and older. Simple stories are great for babies and toddlers with short attention spans, but the three years plus group actually want longer stories! A story with only a few words on each page means shorter reading time, and quicker page turns. This age group WANT to look closer at the illustrations! They WANT that special reading time with their respective adult! So why such a big thing about short, simple texts all the time? I really don’t understand it – most parents I know think stories these days are too short.
This trend for author-illustrators, though I see the logic behind it, I also believe it means automatically by-passing a huge mass of amazing stories simply for simplicity’s sake. Imagine if Julia Donaldson had been passed over because she doesn’t illustrate! We shouldn’t just assume preschoolers want short, simple stories – we still need picture book authors who write more complex, longer texts. And lets not forget that some of the very best picture books have benefitted from having being a collaboration between an author and an illustrator. Both an author and an illustrator can bring something to the table when it comes to creating a wonderful picture book. It shouldn’t be an exclusive club just for those lucky people who can do both.
That’s what I think anyway.