How do illustrators compare when submitting dummies? Illustration Features Editor John Shelley queried eight seasoned professionals.

Recently, I was struck by a surprising claim from a well-established author/illustrator that only one in ten of their submitted dummies finds a publisher. One in ten? I thought, - wow, they must be really churning out the stories! But for that rate of project turnover, how finished would their dummies be?

To compare the experience of others, I put together a short questionnaire and queried professional full time illustrators on both sides of the Atlantic. Eight illustrators kindly provided feedback, a selection of  colleagues with a track record of children's books illustrated for trade publishers, who are writing and submitting their own stories. Here's a summary of the responses.

Question 1. For unsolicited proposals, in the last ten years or so, how many picture book dummies and manuscripts have you submitted to publishers?

The answers widely ranged from one, to a lot! At the top, a prolific US author-illustrator told me over 30 manuscripts made the rounds over the last ten years (for various types of book). This was very much the peak though, the next ranking in number of submissions was 16, third highest was 13. The average for the rest of those queried dropped to five to seven submissions over ten years, some have dummies they've not submitted, which interestingly goes to show how making dummies can be a key part of the story-making process, regardless of whether the results are submitted or not. Another very experienced US illustrator told me they’ve pitched up to ten highly finished dummies of their own stories, but have stopped after disappointing rejections, and a change of publisher policy of only accepting agented work.

A couple of illustrators mentioned they work closely with their agents to develop projects, and don't send unsolicited material to publishers - one author/illustrator admitted only one sketched out presentation dummy in ten years, as they now send text only, through their agent, with back-up samples of previous art when required.


Dummy cover sketch for Collin's Collection, and a storyboard for The Rockabilly Goats Gruff, two proposals by Jeff Crosby.

Question 2. Of those submissions, how many have found a publishing home?   


Adding up all the feedback, the average success rate for the whole group is 35%, so just over a third of dummies submitted from the whole highly varied group developed into book contracts. But the success rate was very different for each illustrator - some only work on projects through their agent and submit 'when ready', some chiefly work with established clients, both of which factors lead to a higher percentage of successes. One book deal might smoothe the way to another, this is often how things roll in publishing! Without mentioning names, a few specific examples (submitted/accepted): 

  • 16/5   (31% success rate).
  • 13/4   (30% success rate).
  • 7/2   (28% success rate).
  • 6/2   (33% success rate).

Question 3. For your successful dummies, how many rejections did you have before finding a home?

This too saw much variety, with ideas submitted through agents and to established clients generally having fewer rejections before being accepted. From 0 (i.e. snapped up by the first editor who saw it) to five times for most of the group, one mentioned a dummy that went to six submissions before finding a publisher. But the highest of all was 12 - that's perseverance for you! 

Jane Porter - various dummies for King Otter, plus the finished book.

Question 4. Were they picked up by editors you’ve worked with before, or new editors/publishers?

A couple work largely with one publisher, but for most of the group it's more of a mixture - some established clients, but also pitching wide and far from previous commissioners. Editors have a habit of moving around, sometimes to houses that may have different tastes for their publishing list. Staff also drop out of the business, while new names emerge, so sweet relationships don't last forever! 

Question 5. For the unsuccessful dummies, how many times have you submitted them (including revisions) before shelving?

"Not enough!" said one illustrator, which resounds with my own experience. "Twenty", said the prolific US illustrator mentioned above - "I unearth old manuscripts when timing seems better" - a good policy!  Those with agents mentioned how their reps would bandy their dummies around bookfairs, showing to multiple editors. One illustrator's first agent submitted his debut ideas "basically to everyone", leading to 20 or so rejections, but subsequent, more refined, projects were much more targeted. Between two and eight times before calling it a day for the UK-based illustrators was more common.  

Dummy books from Layn Marlow. "Nowadays I'm more likely to email the spreads as thumbnails in a pdf attachment, along with a couple of sample colour images. That said, my old agent was quite keen on seeing the physical page turn, so used to encourage me to make them into booklets when she showed them at Bologna. I never actually secured a book deal that way though. Only the dummy at the front of this photo was ever published (You Make Me Smile, OUP, 2013) and I posted that direct to the editor myself."

Question 6. For your successful dummies, at the point a publisher or agent expressed interest, would you describe them as: (a) fully rendered (polished sketches/art, formatted text, finished samples etc.), (b) loose (pencil sketches only, maybe one colour sample), or (c) basic simple diagrams (stick-men, loose shapes etc.)

This gave some of the most surprising responses. Many of the group indicated a mix of (b) and (c). But a few, mostly North American, mentioned fully rendered presentation dummies, with detailed sketches, formatted spreads, laid out fonts - "as polished as possible". I wonder then, if US publishers prefer more finished dummies, at a further stage of development than in the UK?

Dummies are one way illustrators submit their own stories, but feedback showed this isn’t always the case - "I do not make fancy dummies. Sometimes I may just send the manuscript," said one unagented, multi-published author/illustrator. And as mentioned, a UK author/illustrator admitted they only submit texts now, through their agent.

My picture book dummies do start out as simple ideas, then are worked up into manuscripts, revised a couple of times, shared with critique groups, then set aside or revised depending on the feedback, made into storyboards, revised further, shared again with crit groups and revised further, made into a dummy book of rough sketches or just enlarged storyboard frames, shared again with my crit groups, revised, then maybe shared with my agent. With him, there will be many more revisions and eventually a refined dummy book made (Jeff Crosby).

I have been told by more than one publisher that there is a shortage of good stories but not of good illustrators, so in my view getting the story as strong as possible is much more important than polishing the artwork. (Jane Porter).


Well, it's not a cramming competition, I found it reassuring to hear that other illustrators are not all story factories, churning out dummy after dummy, though some are very skilled writers as well as artists! Also it's good to hear that the odds of success can be better than one in ten  (if the work is good).

Perhaps keeping dummies simple might help ease the production - and the heartbreak of rejection! Often I've heard editors in the UK say they prefer light dummies so they have freedom to change things.

Some of my recent dummies shown at Bologna.

The important thing is to get the idea out there, ultimately it's the story that will sell, more than the visuals. But if you don't have an agent, and the publisher doesn't know you, make sure whoever you're submitting to has a good knowledge of your finished art.

Many thanks to all the illustrators who contributed:

Mike Brownlow

Maryann Cocca-Leffler

Jeff Crosby

Layn Marlow

John Nez

Dave Opie

Jane Porter

Julia Woolf

Header image © John Shelley


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently The Boy in the Jam Jar for Bloomsbury. He's a four times nominee for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Instagram: @StudioNib  Twitter: @StudioNib


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