How to Become a Successful Book Illustrator

by Carolyn Edlund

An experienced book illustrator explains how it’s done.


Knight with moonSelf-taught artist and illustrator Duncan Long has created a successful career in book illustration. His resume and list of clients is impressive, and he usually has a full schedule of projects ranging from magazine illustration to book cover art. He agreed to talk about his work and how other artists can pursue book illustration as well.

AS:  Could you give us an overview of how you create your work?

DL: Everything generally starts with some sort of “picture” in my mind. I work toward that but don’t always end up with the picture I originally had in mind. Sometimes what is envisioned just doesn’t work, and sometimes I’ll realize there’s an even better way to do something. So sometimes the path takes a very different turn. Other times, I’ll end up with the illustration pretty much as I had envisioned it. It’s a little like starting on a trip for China and realizing you’ve taken a detour when the plane lands in Australia.

AS:  You have an outstanding website. How important has this been to marketing your talents?

DL: It has grown in importance with each passing year. At first it was sort of a “show off” place a few visited. Then I started getting lots of traffic from people who were interested in art. Finally, publishers and self-publishing authors started finding it – and at that point the business picked up.

Publishing houses tend to be “slow adopters” of technology. But more and more art directors now seem to be willing to visit sites or download portfolios, where even five years ago that often was not the case.

AS:  You have stated that there “are no deep dark secrets” to your success, just hard work. How did you develop your market and find prospective clients?

DL: I think the first trick was to figure out what sort of illustrations I did well, what type I’d enjoy doing, and then honing my skills in those areas. Once the skill set is there, the next trick is finding clients needing that sort of illustration. So a little research is called for to zero in on potential clients (years ago, that meant haunting the library and book stores….  Today most of that can be done on the net).

Once potential clients are found, I then contact them, generally with an email (which can be found at most company web sites, though you sometimes have to do some serious digging with larger publishers due to their reluctance to receive avalanches of emails from illustrators looking for work).

As my website has climbed toward the top of search engine pages and more art directors and self-publishing authors have come online looking for illustrators, I find that about half my business is coming from people contacting me. Having clients contact me is much less work than beating the bushes for business, and I’m hoping that attracting business my way will soon become the norm.

AS:  Once you have a contract for a project, how does the job proceed?

DL: Well, it seems like each job manages to be different and throw a few curve balls, so I never know quite what will be coming at me across home plate. But generally after some initial conversations with a client to be sure I can do the work and the client will be satisfied with my style and price, I write up a contract (pretty much a standard one – a little searching of the Internet will turn up models for those wanting to find a contract to work with). This spells out what rights the client will be paying for and what ones I retain. Some clients want all the rights – which costs more – others will want just the book cover rights.

I generally ask for half the payment for an illustration up front upon signing the contract with the remaining amount due when the illustration is finalized and delivered to the client.

Once I have the signed contract and first payment, I then make several sketches to establish the basic design, characters in the picture, and so forth. When I’m on the right track with the sketches, we then move toward a rough illustration and when the client okays that basic layout, I then polish it until it is finished. I send periodic pictures of my progress to my client all along the way to be sure we’re both still “on the same page” with what is needed. Before too long, the cover is finished.

The process usually is a little over a week or two from when the work starts, but can be done in as little as a few days or – in one rather tragic case for all involved (that’s another story) – go on for a year or more.

If I could give one bit of wisdom to those starting in this field it would be this: Don’t start work until you have money firmly in hand. There are a lot of slick operators who’ll have you working for free – because the promised payment, shares of stock, or whatever never materializes. If someone balks at paying up front, chances are they’ll never pay at all.

Also, don’t think working for free to “build up your portfolio” or “for the credit I’ll give you” (in my book, website, magazine, etc.) is going to do much for your ability to land paying jobs. Establishing a reputation for working free only gets you more work where they want to pay nothing. I’m not saying you should never donate time or services, just that you should be the one choosing when you work for free and when you do not, with the understanding that other than the experience you gain, you’re seldom going to land jobs because you worked for free in the past.

AS:  What advice would you give to an emerging artist who wants to work with magazine and book publishers on illustrations? What mistakes should they avoid?

DL: Be sure you have the talent. Realistically assess what you’re doing. Keep honing your skills until you’re truly producing professional level work.

When I started, I thought what I was doing was better than it was. I now look at those old pictures and just shudder. I should never have been contacting art directors and wasting their time. Be sure you’re working at (or even above) the level that the publisher needs so you don’t waste their time and get your feelings hurt should they be brutally honest (they likely won’t be brutal – but don’t put them in that position).

Second, be sure that the  illustrations you create are the type the publisher or other potential client normally uses. For example, if you do cartoon style work and they want photographic realism, don’t try to find work with them. Instead, look for presses that use styles similar to what you’re doing and see if they could use some of your work as well.

Third, ask full price. Many beginners will offer to work for free or ask for very little. Most legitimate businesses won’t take advantage of beginners – but some do. And artists who work for next to nothing shouldn’t be shocked when no one wants to pay them what their work is worth next go around.

That first price you ask for will likely be what your client expects to pay from there on out. Yes, you can dicker a little on prices, but not much. So if you need $1,000 for an illustration and they’re asking for $100, politely explain what you need for your work and if they turn you down, so be it. The thing to remember is that just one client paying you $1,000 is worth 10 paying you $100 – with a tenth of the work.

You keep your pride, people understand you’re a pro, and you’re not hurting your fellow illustrators by asking too low a price. (There are lists online that tell what the going rates are for various types of illustration work. Do a Google search and then do some studying so you know what to expect for any given job you might be asked to do. You’ll come off looking like a pro and clients will respect your work.)

AS:  Any future plans for your work that are new or different? What would be your ideal project?

DL: Well…  I keep trying to add a few more tricks to the bag. Over the last few weeks I’ve been working toward creating star fields for background skies. Most of my learning occurs over the weekend when I concentrate more on doing illustrations to suit myself rather than for any specific project. This gives me a chance to keep from getting into a rut while producing work and skills that may be useful down the road.

For me, often the most ideal project is the next one I’m asked to do. I like variety. While of course many jobs don’t break new ground or offer a great challenge, more often than not I’ll be asked to tackle things that will stretch my talent. I relish such jobs because while they can be a little like walking the high wire without a net, they also can be the most rewarding and even more fun than it should be legal to have. So my ideal project might very well be the next one I get.


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  1. Good advice. Stunning artwork.

  2. Great interview!

  3. And stunning work, but that goes without saying!

  4. Great article. Insightful.

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