Last month, I created a survey for children’s book illustrators in hopes of gathering some excellent information to help new artists gain a better grip on understanding the money part of this career.
And there were nearly 200 responses! Big thanks to everyone who responded!
Now let’s dive into the results and chat about what they mean.
This section gives us a good overview of where respondents are located, their age, and how long they have worked in children’s book illustration.
Where are you located?
How old are you?
How long have you worked as a children’s book illustrator?
As you can see, the majority of respondents have worked in children’s books for over four years. Overall, there’s a nice variation here, which hopefully means more accurate responses to the income questions that are coming up.
In 2020, most of our survey respondents saw their income increase (45.5%) or stay the same (28.5%). Only 26.1% saw a decrease in income. This surprised me because I assumed we’d see a larger decrease due to Covid. However, my own experience is that I saw an increase in income for 2020, but most of those projects were booked either in 2019 or before Covid lockdowns began. I’m guessing that’s the case with many other illustrators as well.
Now here’s a number that isn’t wonderful: in 2020, only 28.7% of surveyed children’s book illustrators made a full time living from children’s book illustration.
Y’all there’s a reason that I’m always preaching about having multiple income streams. It is difficult to make a fulltime living only from illustrating children’s books. It can be done, obviously, but if you’re new to children’s book illustration and just building your career, assume that you won’t be part of that 28.7% and plan accordingly.
Plan on having at least 2 or 3 income streams in your illustration business. Within any income stream, there’s an ebb and flow, so having more than one means you’re able to build financial success while still doing what you love. (If you’re new to illustration and need help building your career foundations, join Illustration Career Jumpstart this fall.)
Now let’s look at total children’s book income for 2020:
As you can see, 52.8% of survey respondents are making less than $10000/year, 18.8% are making $10000 – $20000, and 17% are making $20000 – $35000.
In diving deeper into the responses, these ranges can mean a couple of things.
An illustrator is only doing one or two books a year and getting paid in the $10000 – $30000 range.
Or an illustrator is taking on a bunch of low paying children’s book illustration jobs that keep them busy and keep them earning something which feels better than nothing.
I’ve been on both sides of this and I can tell you that higher paying jobs give you more creative freedom and that not balancing ten projects at once gives you more time to work on your own development and personal projects. Having that time for development helps you grow as an illustrator and feel creatively healthy.
Now, I know that sometimes it’s either take a low paying job to stay afloat or wait around until your lights get shut off. I know that not everyone has the luxury to say ‘no’ to those jobs. But what I want for you is to be in a position where you CAN say no. And that loops right back around to having multiple income streams or keeping a day job until you’re a more established illustrator.
You’d be surprised how many children’s book illustrators still have day jobs. As I write this, I regret not asking that question! Oh well, we’ll get it next year.
Y’all, I just want you to feel healthy, happy, creative, and financially stable.
Let’s look at the other income sources children’s book illustrators are using:
Private commissions (49%)
Selling prints or other products on Etsy shop or another online marketplace (39.9%)
Art licensing (31.5%)
Editorial illustration (25.9%)
Selling prints or other products on their own site (22.4%)
Teaching classes online (16.1%)
Selling digital products (13.3%)
School visits (13.3%)
Teaching classes in person (12.6%)
Gallery shows (9.8%)
Affiliate earnings (2.1%)
And this certainly not an exhaustive list! There are so many unique ways for your to add extra income sources to your illustration business.
For me, the key has been to find income sources that can build on what I’m already doing as an illustrator and income sources that actually bring me joy. I spent years chasing after what seemed to be working for everyone else and most of it was a waste of my time.
Teaching is a big source of my income and that happened organically. I started drawing on livestreams back when Periscope was a big thing for a hot minute. People who watched asked if I would consider teaching classes, so after a bit of panic, I decided to give it a try. I started small, then tried Skillshare, then launched bigger classes on my own site as well.
And teaching has led me, organically, to other income streams as well!
Follow those little flashes of interest and see what happens, folks!
This gets its own section because I. Want. To. Talk. About. It.
First, the numbers:
Only 25.3% of surveyed children’s book illustrators have EVER earned out an advance.
Of those, 90.4% earned less than $10000 in royalties in 2020.
3.6% earned $10000 – $20000
2.4% earned $20000 – $30000
And there were a couple of outliers who earned $100K – $150K or over $200K in royalties in 2020.
And here’s what I want you to take away from these numbers: get the biggest advance you can get!
It feels like there’s this myth that children’s book illustrators are all getting rich off royalties.
Earning royalties would be nice, but most books don’t earn out their advances. That’s just a fact.
And most children’s book illustrators aren’t getting rich off their royalties. You could. You might. There are a ton of factors that go into whether a book will sell well and earn out. Most of those factors are out of your control.
I haven’t earned out a book advance yet. And that kind of sucks. But it is what it is. I’m still making books. I’m still earning six figures in my illustration business.
Maybe one day I’ll be earning those big royalties, but I don’t count on that. I make sure I get the best advance I can get for each project. I have other income streams to build out my income.
Be smart about it. Don’t count on getting rich from royalties.
Where do the majority of publishers you work with reside?
Are you an illustrator or an author/illustrator?
Do you work mostly with traditional publishers or in self-publishing?
Do you have a children’s book agent?
How do you create your children’s book illustrations?
How do you promote your work?
By far the most popular answer for this question is Instagram (96.6%). That’s good and bad. Good, because we know that art directors are scrolling Instagram looking for artists, for sure. Bad, because it can be tough to be noticed. That means you should be looking at other ways to promote yourself as well. Please don’t rely entirely on Instagram and it’s ever-changing algorithm.
Other top responses are:
Facebook – 36.6%
Twitter – 33.1%
Free portfolio sites like Behance – 30.9%
Emailing potential clients – 26.3%
Do any of those responses feel like things that could be added into your promo rotation? Look for ways to promote yourself that let you build on your existing efforts.
If you’re already posting to Instagram, also posting to Twitter doesn’t take much extra time. If you’re already adding new art to your own site on a regular basis, why not do the same thing on a free portfolio site like Behance?
And the other responses to this question are:
My agent handles all my promotion – 28%
Postcards – 20%
Attending conferences – 18.3%
Pinterest – 14.9%
Paid portfolio sites – 10.9%
I feel especially passionate about Pinterest as a way of promoting your illustration work. It’s a visual search engine! It’s literally a perfect place to be sharing your beautiful art.
What We’ve Learned
The big takeaway here is that many of us need to be asking for more money. We need to respect ourselves and our craft enough to know that we deserve good paying projects. We need to build our other income streams so we can say ‘no’ to projects that don’t pay well, that will take up too much time and drain our creative energy.
We need to remember that royalties are nice but not guaranteed.
We need to think about promoting our work somewhere other than only Instagram!
Come on, illustrators! Let’s take care of ourselves and build those healthy, happy, financially stable careers we deserve!