Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Zachary Pullen: Working with a Picture Book Illustrator

Guest post by author and illustrator Zachary Pullen

“Oh, you are the illustrator?”
“Yep, sure am.”
“What fun that must be.”
“It is a lot of fun, a lot of work, but yes fun as well.”
“Can I get your card or do you have an email?”
“Great. My (fill in your relationship), wrote a children’s book that is to die for, better than 90% of the stuff out there. I’ll give him your card and maybe you could work with him.”

This is a very poor way to start any relationship. Doesn’t it feel a little creepy? Kind of like a speed dating for “Creatives” that ends up being a blind date situation.

Insulting? Maybe.

Chance you’ll ever hear from that relative? Slight.

That percentage is getting higher and that conversation has moved from an awkward relative getting my number to actual authors sharing their number. Publishing is changing, and it’s apparent in the conversations during signings business meetings, and social events.

I love illustrating books and taking a story and telling it in my own way. That way is for me to deconstruct it, find the strip playing in my head and try to capture it. Sometimes these images aren't a literal translation of the text, other times much closer. Give the reader something more in the image that isn't there in the text.

One of my biggest dreams was to illustrate picture books. That dream came true and I have worked with a lot of major publishing houses. Living the dream as the saying suggests.

The most satisfying books that I have been part of were of the self-publish variety. They are also the hardest due to the lack of support and infrastructure to rely on. Since the shift in publishing, it is as important as ever to be flexible:

1. Are you going to send your story out to major publishers? 
If so, don’t have your family member, local illustrator, or anyone for that matter do the illustrations. Hardly ever does it work out for the illustrator, if a major house accepts the script. They’ll find their own illustrator "thank you very much."

2. Have you decided to self-publish? 
Please think this through from editors, proofreaders, contracts, printers, designers, marketers, warehouses, distributors, booksellers, and finally we come to the illustrator.

3. Have you decided to move forward with an illustrator on your project?
Manage the project or have someone do that. Put some contracts in place and be aware of the industry. Illustrators would like to get paid for the work that they do. If you want the work done on spec with a payout of percentages of future sales, I would recommend to every illustrator to run away. If you believe in the project enough, as an author, you should invest into your book. This means doing the right thing and paying for the services.

4. Is this your first book?
If so, I understand. It is like child order. The first one is always nurtured to a fault and watched over like a hawk. Please know, the more relaxed you are with an artist’s work you trust, the better the end result will be.

5. Does the story resonate with the illustrator?
The illustrator is going to be the person other than the author to spend the most time with the story. I personally need to love the story. I have done a few where I didn't and it shows not only in the product but also the attitude I take into the project from the start. Have the conversation in the beginning about the longevity of the story arc.

6. Are you willing to let go?
As parents we all remember the first time we left out child with a sitter. Sometimes it’s not a great experience for anyone but most times it is. Your child gets a different perspective maybe listens to different music, eavesdrops on something not of their norm. This is the same thing you do with a story that you hand over to a professional illustrator. We bring our life experience to it and the words and arc become ours.

By the end something YOU have done, or that I have done becomes something WE have done.


Zachary Pullen's picture-book illustrations have won awards and garnered starred reviews. He has been honored several times with acceptance into the prestigious Society of Illustrators juried shows and the Communication Arts: Illustration Annual, best in current illustration. Pullen's character-oriented picture book illustrations have been well received since first being published in 2004. His titles include: The Toughest Cowboy or How the Wild West was Tamed, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Friday My Radio Flyer Flew, Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Peace Prize, S is for Story: A Writers Alphabet, Finn McCool and the Great Fish, Life and Spectrum: A Revealing look at High Functioning Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and many more. Zak lives in Casper, Wyoming with his wife Renate and son Hudson.


  1. Fascinating, insightful and informative. Thanks for sharing your world with us!

  2. Great info! Thank you! And your artwork is fantastic! I can imagine that enjoying and caring about a story yourself would be important to your work. Visual artists need to be inspired too!

  3. P.S. Your point about being willing to let go (and not micro-manage an artist) is a great one!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Chere. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I enjoyed the post on working with an illustrator. It would be fun some day to do an illustrated book of poems, with several poets contributing poems and an illustrator adding some class to it. Perhaps like a WyoPoets chapbook. No one should be micro-managed. That kills creativity and productivity in any work environment.

    Thanks for the post, Susan and Zachary.

    1. No need to thank me, Art. This one was all Zak!


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