Last year I wrote a post on illustrator’s Postcards that I thought could be helpful for my local SCBWI members. BUT it was very well received by many around the world (color me surprised!) and I was constantly asked “where’s part 1?” I promised that I would be presenting on Part 1 at my local conference last fall, but alas due to circumstances beyond my control, it didn’t work out that way. And I still receive requests from time to time for the info I’ve found on Portfolios, so it’s time to cull all my resources into one spot for those who are interested right here (especially as there is another local conference this fall with a Portfolio Showcase contest that I know several local illustrators want to enter). If I promise something, I always try to deliver (even if it’s in a different format and much later than I anticipated).
*Disclaimer: I’m not an expert, nor has my Portfolio won any awards to date. This is just a collection of knowledge and resources that I’ve gathered on the subject.
I know writers will automatically think this is a post only for illustrators and that’s not true. I also know that some already published and professional illustrators will think this only applies to newbies, but I’ve got something for the PALs here too. This post will have a little something for everyone: writers, illustrators, newbies and those already published. I promise!
First, let me address the Part 2 in the title. I know many of you will be wondering why this is Part 2, when there was no Part 1. I will explain.
You see, as writers (W) and illustrators (I) interested in publication, we all know that there are some things we need to get into the business (or keep in business) of children’s books. You need the following list of things:
A physical manifestation of your work: a manuscript (Writers), a portfolio (Illustrators), a dummy (Author-Illustrators), or a combination of any of those things.
Promos/Mailers/POSTCARDS (W & I)
A website (W & I)
Social media of some sort or variety: Facebook, Twitter, etc. (W & I)
Part 1 would be all about #1. For the sake of today’s blog post “webinar,” I’m going to assume that you already know how to write a manuscript in your genre or put together a Portfolio for a showcase. (IF, however, you don’t know what should go into a Portfolio–I’m giving a presentation on that at our local conference in Alaska this September.) =D
While most of this post then is for newbie illustrators (I can already hear the “ah ha! I knew it”s going on out there, but hang in there!), promotional items like Postcards can also be used as tools by professionals to promote book sales. Let me talk about that for a minute first.
Here is a random sampling of things I’ve gathered from a variety of writers (NOT illustrators) as promotional items over the last few months. Note there are postcards (one of which is actually used as a thank you card), bookmarks, and (one of my favorites because it’s unique and clever) character cards! These can be given out at conferences, schools, book fairs, or even mailed out to promote book sales. Sometimes the publisher is the one that produces these for authors to use, but more often than not, the author is the one that has to pay to make these (via a printing service). What would the incentive be to pay out of pocket for something when you’re already making very little from a book contract?
Boost book sales
Boost book pre-sales
Modestly broadcast awards that have been won
Get another book contract
I’m still talking to professionally published writers here, but these are tactics EVERY writer and illustrator needs to know for post-publication. As for #1, I know MANY authors that swear their book sales DO go up using these promotional gimmicks. I know this will come as a shock, but our primary audience is children and … they don’t usually have a lot of money. Let’s say you’re doing a school presentation and the kids just ADORE you. They want a copy of your book, but … darn! Their pockets are empty. Give them a bookmark or whatever, even sign it, and you’ve got a fan for life who will not only take that thing home, beg to buy your current book, but possibly buy every book thereafter. FAN. FOR. LIFE.
#2 they can be used as teasers to books book pre-sales. You know those preorder options online like Amazon? They help to get you on lists. Best-seller lists. These in turn show demand for your work, which can lead to additional print runs of your book when a publisher may have thought that you were too new, too risky to do a big print run.
#3 your book won awards? Your illustration won awards? You need to put that on EVERYTHING! The back of a postcard is the perfect place. Especially to hand out at a conference to a potential agent if you are still unrepresented. (I saw an illustrator give out a postcard to an agent with info on it like that at the Portfolio Showcase right in front of me at the conference in LA.) It happens.
#4 really happens too. I’ve heard tales of writers at conferences networking with editors or agents and they need something to pass on to an interested party. No books on you? A business card will work in a pinch (especially if you have a website to refer them to), but a postcard of an existing book is even better. It shows them that you HAVE written something, you ARE a serious writer, and LOOK! They are already impressed.
So now you ALL want postcards and promotional tools. Or do you? I think I still hear some newbie illustrators out there who don’t get why you would need a postcard. “WHY do I need a postcard? I’m not already published and I already have a Portfolio to showcase my work?” I’m so glad you asked! 😉
WHY DO YOU NEED A POSTCARD?
1) It’s one of the easiest tools you have to give out samples of your work. Seriously. Here’s how the conversation goes: “I’m an illustrator.” “Oh, what do you do?” “Here is a sample of my work. I’m a painter/collage artist/cartoonist/comic book artist.” When I was at the conference in LA, illustrators shared their postcards with other illustrators, with other authors, as well as with agents and editors. They were on tables on display next to the Portfolios of ALMOST every illustrator in the Showcase. Because sadly there were some that didn’t have one. Some had business cards (which is fine, but they were SO easy to lose as I was walking around!). Some may have run out (make sure you have ENOUGH postcards too!). You NEED a postcard! I cannot say this loud enough or long enough. You NEED a postcard! And they’re SO easy to put together.
2) Art Directors LOVE postcards! We may be in a digital age where you can send postcard samples via email now, BUT there are a lot of agents out there who do NOT like to get submissions that way. OR open attachments (can you say virus?). Or have to take the time to troll the internet to look at portfolio links to websites, dropbox accounts, etc. However, I’ve NEVER heard of any of them being annoyed by receiving mail. It’s been the industry standard for years. In fact, Giuseppe Castellano (Art Director at Penguin Random House) sits down to go through his stack of postcards with a variety of interns and weeds out the good from the bad (more on that in a moment), and then Tweets what gets kept. Hey! I recognize one of those cards from my stack I grabbed at the conference!
3) A postcard could get you an illustration job. Eliza Wheeler talks about how it can be a foot in the door for an as-yet-undiscovered illustrator. It can be hard for publishers to take a risk on someone who has never illustrated a book before. There’s a LOT of risk involved. (And some of the horror stories I’ve heard about illustrators who just stop communicating for no darn reason and ghost? SHEESH! Is it any wonder they’re afraid to take a risk?) A postcard that says you’re willing to illustrate others’ work may be the key to get in the door! Kristi Valiant got her first book deal illustrating someone else’s work from a postcard mailer! And as Raul Colon said at the LA SCBWI conference this summer, you NEVER say “no” to an illustration job. Not if you’re serious about working in this business.
Okay, maybe NOW everyone is convinced that they need a postcard. It’s time to talk about how to make one.
WHAT SHOULD GO ON A POSTCARD?
Some of what I’m about to say might sound pretty basic, but you’d be surprised how many postcards I saw at the LA SCBWI conference at the Portfolio Showcase that didn’t follow these very simple guidelines.
Good professional quality work with a good design.
ONLY work you’d like to illustrate.
ONE picture (not a bunch) on the front, possibly another on the back. Both should be tied together thematically.
Something that tells a story (appropriate subject).
Something that shows a character (also appropriate subject).
As for #1, all illustrators have different artistic approaches (I’m not talking art style today people), but you KNOW when your work is ready to be professionally shared and when it isn’t. Study your market to know what is accepted. Today’s picture book market, for instance, will accept realistic and cartoon, watercolor and digital media. Almost every style has been published. Beyond that though, not all of us have a good sense of design. You can study design, but for some of us, it might be a better idea to ask someone who is strong in that area to look at your sketch and give some tips for improvement in layout. It can’t hurt.
#2 might seem obvious, but to some it isn’t. If you excel at people, draw people. If you excel at animals, draw animals. If you excel at black and white, send it on a postcard. ONLY send postcards of what you excel at and are interested in working with full time (because a book project will take a LONG time to complete, you want to make sure you’ll enjoy the experience too!). I read somewhere recently that Maurice Sendak felt he couldn’t draw horses. So he explicitly avoided stories that would involve a horse!
Again #3 seems obvious, but I’ve seen postcards without contact info of any sort. Pretty pictures are all good and fine, but if they’re not driving the viewer back to you (your website, your email, your phone #), what is the point? It has to be on the card somewhere! (We’ll talk more on specific formatting in a minute.)
#4 seems obvious too, but I saw quite a few postcards that didn’t pick ONE image for the front. Instead they did a gallery. You guys, it’s already a tiny space. A gallery doesn’t belong on a postcard (that’s for your physical portfolio or your website). You need ONE picture in whatever measurement you pick to print (5X7, etc.) for the front. ONE, not five or ten. ONE. The back is up for grabs. Some people like to keep it blank. Some people like to put a half image on one side (a spot illustration at times). IF you choose to do the half illustration on the back, it MUST tie in thematically with the image on the front. You’re telling a story remember? You want to show that you can do sequential art. Some people even choose to do a full front AND a full back on their postcard. These are meant to be handed out by hand (like at a conference) or in an envelope (if mailed). Jen Betton has some great examples of what those three layout options can look like here. But remember, this is your design so you can play within those layouts.
#5 is SO important. Art for art’s sake doesn’t belong on a postcard intended for an Art Director in the children’s market. Just any old image will NOT do. You MUST know your market! You HAVE to tell a story. How one image tells a story is NOT easy to explain, but you know it when you see it. For example, does the picture make you ask questions? “WHY is that bear in the boat with that girl?” “What’s happening that the little boy is hugging his grandpa?” etc. You want to show that you can tell a story with one image (or two if you illustrate the back of the card), if you want to illustrate an entire book.
#6 kind of breaks the rule of #5. Almost. Show a character. If the character is also telling a story, bonus points! However, I’ve seen an art director at a conference going through postcards and picking up one of a couple of characters that she just liked for no reason she could explain. There wasn’t a story that went with them. Just a penguin and a dog wearing winter knit hats looking out at the viewer. She kept that card and pinned it to her wall because they were cute. Sometimes that happens too. BUT again, your character should be appropriate to your market. Cute is acceptable in a picture book. Funky space monkey robots that look scary? Maybe not. It depends on the execution. BUT picture books aren’t the only graphic market. If you want to do book covers like John Rocco, know what a good book cover looks like. If you want to do graphic novels a la “Baby Mouse,” know what a character in that market would look like. You have to know your market.
Time for some pictures. I grabbed as MANY postcards from the Portfolio Showcase at the LA SCBWI conference this summer that I could. I laid them out on my living room floor and tried to take a picture. There were too many! SO I give you some closeups too. Ask yourself this as you look at the pictures. What stands out? What works and what doesn’t work?
Still not sure WHAT to put on your own postcard? Well, I can’t tell you what to draw or create. BUT I do have some great resources. Lauren Soloy talks about the process she went through to make a postcard (and you can see how she winnows down her choices to her final product). You can also see a TON of Illustrators talk about how they made their postcards over here at the Sub It Club archive.
Okay, not let’s get down to the really nitty gritty. First, we have to talk about what NOT to do. WHAT will get your postcard instantly rejected? Well, I’ve got a resource for that too.
WHAT WILL GET A POSTCARD REJECTED?
First, let’s just say that it has NOTHING to do with an art style. Every style has been used in children’s literature in one way or another. Victoria Jamieson worked in a design department and had to sort through postcards (just like Giuseppe Castellano and any other art department that receives postcards). This is what made her reject postcards right away:
too mass market
not telling a narrative story
She gives examples of what she discarded here. Out of the batch of postcards from the LA SCBWI conference Portfolio Showcase that I just showed you, I pulled 4 cards that I think would’ve been rejected right away. I’ve blurred or blocked out names in the closeups. This is NOT meant to embarrass anyone and it is NOT meant to pinpoint any “bad art.” These were chosen based on Victoria Jamieson’s standards and the assumption that an Art Director would reject them for the same reasons.
This is WAY too scary for kid’s lit. UNLESS it’s a book cover. But even then, I’m wondering when a lobster with a knife and such scary teeth would be okay on a book cover. Or in a Middle Grade novel. I could be wrong, but … no.
This one didn’t choose ONE picture for the front. And it’s not subject appropriate for children’s lit of any genre. The back of the card has cursing. Only Judy Blume can get away with that.
There’s NOTHING wrong with the art. But where’s the story? Or the character?
More than one picture on the front and a photo of the artist drawing her characters (I think). There shouldn’t be selfies on your postcards. Unless you’re somehow part of the story? I did see a photographer/illustrator once who designed pictures with children’s fantasies. That actually worked.
HOW DO YOU FORMAT YOUR POSTCARD?
There are lots of different technical things I could summarize for you, but this has already gone on far too long. Instead, let me give you some resources.
Jeff Szuc talks about figuring out the size you want to end up with. This is perhaps the best place to start. As you design a picture, you must know the final size before you start to draw. Ultimately, there are tricks you can do digitally, but you have to be careful. Shrinking can work, but increasing the picture can pixelate it. And you HAVE to be careful of your printing borders.
Finally, the Carolinas SCBWI has downloadable templates to work with here. Almost all specifics of formatting will be effected by the specific printer.
WHERE DO YOU PRINT YOUR POSTCARDS?
There are plenty of places online that are incredibly easy to use to print your postcards. I list a few here.
Sylvia Liu has a VERY helpful review of a variety of card printing companies and samples she printed from them here.
AFTER YOUR POSTCARD IS DESIGNED AND PRINTED, WHAT DO YOU DO WITH IT?
If you’re just going to have them at a conference, fine. Put them out next to your Portfolio or pass them out by hand to people you network with. That’s one use.
BUT what if you’re not going to a conference? You need to MAIL them! Where do you mail them? Ahh, that’s the trick. Now comes the work. You need to research.
Don’t panic. I’m not giving you a ton more work! I’m going to give you 2 amazing resources. Art directors, agents and editors switch jobs and publishing houses all the time and quite frequently. You need up-to-date information that can be found in 2 places (both of which have online resources to keep that information frequently updated).
Of course you need to come up with a way of tracking who you submit to as well, because ultimately you should be sending out postcards 4 times a year! FOUR! Once per quarter. This will keep you (and your work) fresh in the mind of the Art Directors, editors and agents.
Finally, after you send your postcards off out in the world, let them go. Be patient while they are off doing their work. Sometimes it can take months or years for them to do their job. But if you design your postcards correctly and they’re memorable, those Art Directors, editors and agents will remember you. They will watch you and your websites from a distance to see if you have something that will match a project they want to pair you up with. Do other things. Keep refining your craft and practice your art. Find joy in the work you’re doing and create great things.