Illustrators: here’s why gamebook authors don’t want to work with you (AKA: Why I’m working with Lee)

The title of this is “Illustrators: here’s why gamebook authors don’t want to work with you”. That’s not really fair. I’m not talking to all illustrators, and I’m not talking about all gamebook authors. I’m talking about one gamebook author: me. And it isn’t really about not wanting to work with you either, but I’ll get to that.

A more accurate title would be: “Illustrators: here’s how I’d like to work with you”.

In fact, that feels a lot more positive.

Too late now, I’ve pressed publish already.

Illustrations in a gamebook are really nice, and for some people are an absolute Must Have. To date I’ve done all my own illustrations, but I’d really like a good illustrator to improve the quality of my gamebooks.

So why haven’t I worked with an illustrator yet?

I have the great privilege of being connected on social media to some incredibly talented illustrators. And every so often, one of them posts something along the lines of:

Why do authors expect me to work for free? My work is valuable, and I should be paid fairly for it!

A fair comment. One benefit of a capitalist society is the simplicity of the labour transaction: I work for you, you give me money.

But it doesn’t work so well in the world of self publishing. As an author, I invest time and energy into creating a book – coming up with the ideas, drafting the words, editing it, formatting it…it takes quite some time, and the payment for all of that is zero until a sale is made.

The simple reason I’ve not worked with an illustrator yet is that I can’t justify the cost. I worked out in a post recently that I make £1.51 for each copy of The Altimer I sell, which has 15 full-page illustrations and about a dozen smaller ones. A friend recently said that an ambitious gamebook author would do really well to sell 1,000 copies, so let’s assume I’m that successful for a moment.

1,000 copies would provide revenue of £1,510. Let’s say I use half of that to pay an illustrator, who charges twice as much for a full-page illustration than for the smaller ones. (Cue maths music.) £1,510 divided by two is £755, which gives us:

  • £17.97 for a small illustration
  • £35.95 for a full-page illustration

Firstly, those prices look very low. A quick search on Fiverr just now suggested I’d probably need to at least double those to even start a conversation.

Secondly, those prices were generated based on selling the highest number I could expect, so realistically I should revise them down. By quite a lot, let’s say by 85%. I don’t know any illustrator who will put effort into a full-page illustration for a fiver.

But traditional publishers pay full price, don’t they?

This is simple actually. Firstly, they often don’t – by guaranteeing a certain volume of work they can negotiate aggressively, but probably not down to the level I’m talking about.

Also, traditional publishing is purely about the numbers. If the spreadsheet is showing a big black number at the bottom (rather than a small one, or worse, a red one), the cost of illustrations is just another ingredient in the sausage machine. A book with really high quality illustrations is going to have them almost entirely because the publisher predicted it would sell in high numbers, while poor illustrations indicate a lower level of confidence.

The world of self publishing doesn’t have this luxury because it will never have the right numbers to make it work – the revenue we’re talking about isn’t the full sale price and so all the costs of marketing, cover design, proofreading, editing, and everything else eat directly into what the author takes home. It’s just the nature of it.

I know, I could use crowdfunding.

I’ve written before about why I’m not so much on board with this idea – it punishes the biggest fans and takes the risk away from the author, where I believe it should sit (if a book does well I hope to benefit from that, so I should be prepared to have to suck up a bad performance too). For example, have a look at my most recent book, Problematic Protective Poisonous Purple Paint, and tell me if I should have asked people to pay for it to be created in advance.

Some authors want really great illustrators working with them. Their readers want that too and are willing to pay more for it to become a reality. Crowdfunding makes that a possibility (yay)! But then we’re left with this odd position where either the author has to turn themselves into a fundraiser for their own dreams, which I don’t really like the sound of for myself, or they take the hit anyway and the illustrator makes a reasonable wage while the author volunteers their time in project management as well as writing, all so that the finished product can have their name on it.

Well, at least it’s exposure. But as I’ve seen illustrators mention on more than one occasion, exposure doesn’t pay the bills.

But I am now working with an illustrator.

Yes, a gamebook is in the works, targeted squarely at children aged 5-9, and it’ll be illustrated by someone else. Look, here’s a picture from that project right now!

Illustration by the wonderful Lee Hesketh

So how did I convince myself that would be a good idea?

Simple: a royalty share.

This way, we’re both putting in creative effort, and we’ll both benefit from it (or not, if no-one buys it). Rather than Lee, the illustrator, seeing this as a transaction with a payment for producing a product, they’re working on it with a grander vision in mind. (For the record, that vision currently isn’t that it gets made into a Hollywood movie, but if you’re interested Lee and I are open to a conversation).

What do you think?