Monday, March 30, 2015

Illustrating your kids’ book on a shoestring budget: YES, you can! (here’s how)


Your book is perfect… now, do you know where are the pictures are coming from?

The other day at my SCBWI meeting (have you joined yet?), I mentioned my easy technique for creating a Kindle book from Microsoft Word, and I said, “you just take the words and pictures and pull them together in Microsoft Word.”  To which someone asked, “yeah, but where do the pictures come from???”

Everybody’s ears perked up.  Where DO the pictures come from?

You see, most of us are writers, not illustrators.  Some of us couldn’t even draw stick figures, even if our lives depended on it.

If you write AND draw, you’re lucky.  For most of us, writing is easy… and drawing our own pictures is an impossible dream.

But don’t worry – that doesn’t mean you’re stuck!  Here are three affordable ways (from cheapest to most expensive) that I’ve managed to get great pictures for my own books at prices that didn’t bankrupt me (yet):

1) Super-cheap:  Stock illustrations & photos

I told you a couple of weeks ago about how I get stock photos and illustrations for only $1 apiece… and sometimes, even less.  I really recommend you check it out.

Not every book is the right fit for stock photos, but sometimes, they can add a lot of fun to a story.  I’ve written a series of Jewish holiday children’s books illustrated with stock photos of animals.

 Otter Passover, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod Panda Purim, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod Penguin Rosh Hashanah, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

Kids love animals, and parents seem to love the way these simple animal pictures share important messages about the holidays.  Many of these images were completely FREE, by the way. 

(Here’s more about finding and using free pictures online, including 3 common pitfalls.)

Sample stock photo / illustration images:

Sharing Shmittah, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod from Sharing Shmittah, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod from Sharing Shmittah, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

Otter Passover, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeodfrom Otter Passover, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod from Otter Passover, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

(I used a stock photo of grass as the background for every page of the print book.)

Should you use stock photos / illustrations?

  • PRO:  Very, very cheap; wide range of images available.
  • CON:  Cannot customize images to your specific project.

2) Kind of cheap:  Fiverr illustrators

I have never been attacked the way I was when I suggested that you should go on Fiverr and find an illustrator willing to work for $5. 

The truth is, $5 is just the start.  Most Fiverr illustrators charge $5 for a sketch and more than that for a finished, full-colour illustration.  But even at $10-20 (and up), you’re paying far, far less than you would for a dedicated professional illustrator.

Sample Fiverr images:

Shabbat Monsters, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod image from Shabbat Monsters, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod  Baby! Life before birth, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod image from Baby! Life before birth, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

BEWARE:  You get what you pay for.  At least, that’s what everybody tried to warn me. 

To some extent, it’s true.  But the beauty of Fiverr is that you can spend a quick $5 to “try out” an artist.  If you don’t like their work, all you’ve lost is $5. 

Choose a few artists you like and get one sample sketch from each of them.  You’ll be out maybe $15-20, but you’ll have an artist you know you’ll enjoy working with.

Watch for copyright restrictions.  Some Fiverr artists offer, for $10 or $20 or $40 to sell you the copyright to the illustrations they create.  Without copyright, you cannot print their pictures in your book.  If they don’t specify it in their terms, then by Fiverr’s rules, you automatically own the copyright.

Should you use a Fiverr illustrator?

  • PRO:  Usually pretty cheap; portfolio and reviews help choose an artist.
  • CON:  Quality, images tend to be very basic; one illustration at a time; no focus on the project as a whole; artist possibly unavailable for future projects.

3) Price varies:  Elance / Odesk

With these services (I really prefer Elance, both as a freelancer and a client who has hired illustrators here), you figure out your budget ahead of time.  Be realistic:  if you have $1000 to spend, say so.  If you want to keep it under $500, or under $300, say that too. 

(Worst-case scenario:  if your bottom line is too low, you won’t get many applications, or perhaps any good ones.  In which case, you have the choice of upping your rate and reposting.)

Sample Elance images:

Captain Steve, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeodimage from Captain Steve, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod Elijah and the Priests of Baal, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod image from Elijah and the Priests of Baal, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

It’s easy to get started.  You create an account on the site, set up the job, and invite illustrators to apply.  In your description, explain exactly what you want.  Here’s one I posted recently:

I need 17 illustrations for a children's book.
Technical specifications: Final size 8.625" x 8.75", 300dpi. JPG or PNG format. Central image does need to fill the entire area, and no main part of the image should extend into the 0.13" "bleed" area at the edge of the page.
1. Name credit to be given if desired on book cover and on
2. Short illustrator bio & photo can be included at the back of the book with a link to illustrator's site, on the condition that there is no pornographic or "adult" material included on any site linked.
3. As work for hire, all rights are reserved to client, although artist may display and share images for portfolio purposes.
Job details:
1. Detailed list of desired illustrations to be forwarded to artist by February 22.
2. Job to be completed by March 31.
3. Payment based on two milestones, March 12 and March 31.
4. By Milestone #1, either 100% of sketches must be complete and delivered, or 50% of the finished images (9 out of 17).
5. By Milestone #2, 100% of finished images will be complete and delivered.
6. Bonus payment for on-time completion, ie all artwork received by March 31st.

I always include a bonus for on-time completion, by the way.  Why not offer this incentive?  It’s a nice way of “tipping” artists who work hard and meet your deadlines.

If your price looks good, artists will send you a “query” along with a few portfolio samples.  If you like the samples, check out their reviews to see if they’ve worked on similar projects in the past.

Once you choose an artist, Elance lets you put money in “escrow.”  I suggest dividing the payment in half as I’ve described above.  You pay half up front but Elance holds onto the money until the artist has finished half the work.  Once you approve the work, Elance “releases” the money and you fund the second half of the project.

I really like the Elance/escrow system because it means that

  1. I don’t have to pay for the whole project up front
  2. The job parameters are clearly defined up front
  3. The artist knows the money is waiting for her, so she can work with confidence
  4. The artist doesn’t get paid until I’m satisified (within reason; elance will mediate disputes)
  5. Previous artists have “rated” me so new artists know I’m an okay person to work for

In fact (shh), I have so far “poached” two artists from Fiverr to work with me on Elance, because I don’t like ordering art one picture at a time if I know up-front that I need 17 illustrations.  You’re not supposed to contact Fiverr artists outside of fiverr, and they don’t make it easy.  (They won’t let you put email addresses in messages, for example.)

For now, Elance is my favourite site to get stuff done.

Should you use Elance or Odesk?

  • PRO:  Usually pretty cheap; project-based approach lets you do all the art as a single “job”; Escrow system
  • CON:  Artists can be slower than promised (that’s why I offer a bonus)

There is one more way that I haven’t mentioned much so far, but I’ll add it on here:

4) FREE:  My husband (or yours; or your nephew, or best friend’s cousin…)

Yes, my husband is an cartoonist and sometime illustrator.  We’ve worked together on a couple of things, and everybody always asks why we don’t do more together.  But every book I write has a different style, and he has a particular style, which isn’t suited to every single book.

Sample husband illustrations:

Buzz! by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod image from Buzz! A Teeny Tiny World, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod Mikvah Monsters, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod from Mikvah Monsters, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

It’s great when it works out, but I don’t count on it for every project.

If you don’t have a husband who draws, perhaps you have someone else in your life who does.  Maybe a sibling (I always promised my sister, growing up, that we’d write a book together)?  An adult child (my 19-year-old daughter hopes to study design and illustration)?  A close friend?

If you know someone who draws very well but also know you couldn’t afford their services, perhaps there’s something else you can do for them – babysit their kids, bring them fresh homemade bread, shovel their snow.  Something you can barter in return for free or inexpensive illustrations.

What if you don’t know any illustrators?

Actually, even if you do, I strongly recommend joining your local SCBWI group and starting to network with other writers and illustrators.  I’ve met many talented illustrators through my SCBWI group here in Israel, and maybe someday, I’ll be lucky enough to work with one of them.

Should you use friends or family members?

  • PRO:  Very cheap, possibly even free.
  • CON:  May be slower than the other options, you must be diplomatic if you don’t like the final product or risk losing a friend or offending a family member.

So where are your book’s illustrations coming from?

Have any of these ideas inspired you?  (I hope so!)

An easy way to start is by browsing through the sites to see what’s out there and how it all works. 

Both Elance and Fiverr let you look through portfolios and on Fiverr, you can “collect” artists that look promising.  Think of a book that needs pictures, and find an artist who might do a decent job.  Or, head over to Dollarphotoclub and see if you can get some fun stock pictures.

It’s true that without illustrations, children’s picture books can’t get very far.

But don’t let that stop you. 

With a little determination, you will find the perfect illustrations for your book… at a price you can afford.

Have any tips to help us find the right illustrator?  Leave them in the comments!


  1. How do you handle a book idea that requires an illustrator to essentially work with you to create the story so it has the same feel as a story that's written and illustrated by one person?

    Also, does your husband use different mediums for his illustrating that might change his style a bit? For example, someone who draws a certain way might have a different style when creating molas or using paint. If he's up for experimenting (and maybe even you too), maybe you'll find other ways you can do more illustrations yourselves. (Like the lady who illustrated her Bible story with quilt-work.)

    P.S. Thanks for the great ideas in this post.

    1. You're welcome! Yes, different media do change his style, but he's also busy with other jobs that pay more than mine do. :-)
      There are definitely limits to what you can do with clip art and stock photos, etc. Sometimes, you will need an illustrator's touch. But for someone like me who writes a number of different kinds of stories, you can come up with a model where some stories are "expensive" to create (ie require personal illustrations) and others are relatively "cheaper." Then, the cheap books can sort of subsidize the expensive ones.
      That's my plan, anyway. Ask me in about a year if it worked. :-)
      Good luck, and keep on writing!!!

  2. Using different mediums to illustrating is a good thing. That makes a book special and differnt form others.


As always, I love to hear from you.