Last year I hosted a survey about income in children’s book illustration. Two hundred children’s book illustrators responded, and the results were fascinating!
I’m prepping for this year’s survey and it’s got me thinking about a big myth that seems to hover over the children’s publishing industry:
Everyone is getting rich off children’s book royalties!
But as usual, I’m here to share the truth about being an illustrator, even when the truth stings. It’s better to know and build a solid business foundation on that hard truth than to assume something that may not be true and watch your art business sink into the mire.
Let’s talk about children’s books and royalties.
I’m writing specifically about writing in traditional publishing. This isn’t about working with self-publishing authors, which is a different experience. (Read this article if you’re curious about working on self-publishing projects in children’s books)
What’s in the Contract?
Not all children’s book contracts include royalties. Some offer only a flat fee for illustrating the book. If your contract includes royalties, you’ll likely be getting an advance as well.
An advance is your guaranteed payment amount. You’re getting that no matter how many copies a book sells.
Advances can be broken up in a few ways:
Two payments: one when sketches are completed and one when the final art is completed. Or one payment when the contract is signed and one payment when the final art is completed.
Three payments: one payment when the contract is signed, one when the sketches are finished, and one when the final art is completed.
Four payments: one payment when the contract is signed, one when the sketches are finished, one when the final art is completed, and one when the book is published.
I’ve signed contracts with all three of those scenarios. It varies publisher to publisher.
In addition to your advance, your children’s book contract will include your royalty rate. According to the Graphic Artists’ Guild Handbook, average royalty rates for children’s book illustrators are 3.5 to 6%.
If you are both the author and the illustrator, average royalty rates are 7% to 12%.
Here’s what’s important to know about an advance:
It’s an advance against royalties.
That means your book must earn enough in royalties to pay back that advance before you get royalty payments for that book.
As you can imagine, that can take a while.
The Truth About Royalties in Children’s Book Publishing
Most books do not sell enough to earn out their advances. That means that most children’s book illustrators (and authors) do not earn royalties on their books.
According to last year’s Children’s Book Illustrator Income Survey, 25.3% of survey respondents earned royalties on their children’s books. Of those who earned royalties, just over 90% earned less than $10,000 a year from royalties.
About three quarters of children’s book illustrators aren’t earning royalties from the children’s books they have illustrated. Now, my survey of two hundred children’s book illustrator is a small sample, but from my conversations with other children’s book illustrators over the years, the idea that only about 25% of illustrators are getting book royalties rings true.
What to Do with This Information
I realized this information can be disheartening and I’m not sharing it to discourage you. I’m sharing it to empower you.
Now you know that you can’t count on royalties from children’s books as a solid income source.
That doesn’t mean you can’t earn a full-time income from children’s books. It does mean that you should negotiate for the highest possible advance, because royalties are not a guarantee.
It also means that your art business should income diverse income sources. Build a solid art business foundation for yourself. Give yourself the freedom to choose children’s book projects that are exciting to you and that pay well too.
Most successful illustrators have built at least two or three income sources into their businesses. I’m not sitting around assuming that the next book I illustrate will be a bestseller so I’ll be rolling in royalty checks. I’m building a business that supports my creative vision and gives me financial freedom too.
The truth is powerful, friend.
You could end up being part of the 25% who are getting royalty payments on children’s books they’ve illustrated. I hope you are. But don’t plan on it. Be smart and build your children’s book illustrator business around the idea that royalties are a nice bonus but not a guarantee.