Submission Frustration? How about Collaboration!

Picture book collaborations between writer and illustrator are often in the headlines recently. Some are more collaborative than others. But how exactly do writer/illustrator teams work?


I don’t know about you, but I often find it hard to develop stories from my drawings. I’ve tried many times, but all too often I see my work as complete images. They don't inspire me to an extra narrative because it’s all there in the one, stand-alone picture. I know I’m not alone with this. Illustrators draw lots of characters, writers often comment - “ooh, lovely drawing, that should make a great story”… and then we fumble. So why not collaborate?

In regards picture books it seems more and more these days publishers want to see submissions of ever more complete ideas and projects, of ideas, concepts and worked-up dummies, and yet many of us feel swamped by the challenge to pursue both writing and illustrating ourselves. Not all writers are skilled artists, not all illustrators are comfortable writing stories around their own drawings, so the idea of partnership between writer and artist sounds like a promising alternative. We are hearing a lot about successful collaborations lately, it seems the perfect way an illustrator’s work complements a writer’s text. 

But hold on, first we need to identify exactly what we mean by ‘collaboration’.

Illustrators are often approached by new (sometimes unpublished) writers to “collaborate” on their story, frequently under the misguided belief that for a manuscript to stand out from the slushpile it has to be spruced up with illustrations. Asking an illustrator to provide drawings to embellish an unpublished manuscript is rarely a good idea as publishers much prefer to receive written submissions without illustrations. There are several reasons for this - the pictures might cloud their interpretation of the story, the editor may like the story more than the drawings (or vice versa), they may not match. It’s the editor’s job to choose the best artist for a text, not the authors. Publishers commission artwork that they feel will enhance the story and (most importantly) produce a great book that sells to a contemporary market.

Collaboration is not about an author engaging an artist to decorate their already completed text, that’s an enlistment, you’re employing an artist, not collaborating with them.

Working from Scratch

Having established that, a true collaboration is when a writer and illustrator work together from the beginning to develop an idea from scratch. Both parties build the idea as a team, both are equal partners, both are ’authors’. This works particularly well with picture books where text and images intertwine, both explain the narrative, neither would stand alone without the other.

You might think of the perfect matching of husband and wife team Alan and Janet Ahlberg, or Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, or, as many SCBWI members will be familiar, Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre.

Reeve has said that after meeting Sarah "
It quickly became obvious that we should write a book together, so I set to work, and Sarah chipped in with new ideas or little drawings whenever I wasn’t sure which way the story should go" (quoted here). 

The first Reeve/McIntyre collaboration

But these things don’t happen by magic. Collaborations can be hugely risky ventures without a publishing contract, there is usually a third party involved - a publisher or agent. Julia Donaldson says ‘I write a story and send it to the publisher. Then the publisher sends it to Axel to illustrate. I do get to make comments on his rough sketches but try not to interfere too much – and anyway, I wouldn’t want to as they’re always so funny and brilliant.’ (quoted here). There's a full interview with Axel Scheffler on this process in the Independent. So no collaboration in this case, the writer and artist are matched and edited by the publisher. Donaldson and Scheffler appear to the public as collaborators because their work matches so well. They've become a highly successful brand as a result.

Another recent example was recently showcased in the Guardian, Polly Faber and Clara Vulliamy's collaborative work Mango & Bambang The Not-a-Pig. What is not made clear in the article though is that again there was a secret third member of the team - their agent!

“We share an agent who presented (the) stories and a single pic at Bologna where Walker Books bought it at auction.” Polly tells me, “(our) ace agent did a very good job”. In fact Clara only produced one drawing of the central Tapir character before Polly began to write story ideas around it. Their agent then sold the project to Walker before further work was completed. “(Publishers require) writers and illustrators to jump though a great many re-working hoops before a glimpse of a contract,” says Clara. This reflects how most illustrators would want a publishing deal to be involved before proceeding deeply into a project. Nevertheless, once the contract was signed, it was full steam ahead. Collaboration, as Polly says, is “a kind of alchemy where you work separately but BETTER thanks to being inspired by work from the other”.

This month's Artists & Illustrators magazine (February 2016 issue) also features an interesting interview with Oliver Jeffers and Eoin Colfer about their forthcoming collaboration, Imaginary Friend.

So what does this tell us about successful collaborations?
1) They work if writer and artist have a mutual third party connection - an agent or publisher who knows and is supportive of both parties, oversees and encourages the project.
2) Writer and Illustrator should be well matched, with complementary skills, and share similar visions for the work.
3) Through the efforts of the agent or publisher, a publishing contract should be fixed at as early a stage as possible so neither party has to do large amounts of work ‘on spec’. This is especially important for the illustrator.

Well, we have a blueprint, but what if the team are unknown and neither writer or illustrator has a benevolent agent or publisher? There’s the rub -  it becomes much more difficult to sell the idea to a publisher, especially if writer and illustrator are untested. Nevertheless that shouldn’t stop us trying. Ultimately, if the project is a strong one with outstanding work from both partners, it has as good a chance as any. 

So what are we waiting for? Team up!


John Shelley is the Illustration Feature Editor of Words & Pictures and Central East Network co-coordinator. 
He's illustrated over 50 books for children, many of them published in Japan where he lived for many years. His latest picture book Crinkle, Crackle, Crack - It's Spring! is published by Holiday House (USA). His next book, Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Shaped the Way You Talk (Charlesbridge, USA) is released on 22nd March and will be widely distributed in the UK.


  1. Good article John, most interesting and very timely too. Nick (Cross) and me are working together on an illustrated Middle Grade book. We're planning to write up a feature about our experiences thus far.

  2. That sounds fascinating Paul, keep us up to date!

  3. It seems the perfect way an illustrator’s work complements a writer’s text. The grad school statement of purpose will definitely help you to get admission.


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