Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 22, 2019


I KNOW….I said I was taking a vacation from ASK CAT….and I AM!  But this question came in and it is such a good one, and one I feel like I’ve heard and answered so many times, I just had to give it another shot.  So Happy New Year all!

The question REALLY is about whether or not an artist can make a living in this Kidlit industry!

Of course the answer is ‘MAYBE!’ …. “but don’t quit your day job!”  I’ve repeated that so many times over the last 25 years.  Artists we take on might say “oh good, now I can quite and work from home!”  NOT SO FAST!  We have many artists who work full time out-side their studios, and THEN still do a couple books a year!  This is a FREELANCE business and as such has it’s highs and lows, it’s overly busy times and it’s overly ‘lean’ times.  There is little predicting…ever.  We’ve had artists HOT and having to turn down work for a decade or more and then suddenly there are big gaps! One of my ‘oldest’ dear artists still with us, and now a high earner and constantly busy, went 1 1/2 years before we were able to get her FIRST paying job!! There is no telling.

It is a good idea to have another source of income for SURE. And do ’spread out’ with the types of projects you take on.  Even our highest earning artists aren’t getting ‘rich’ in this biz.  Now you might hit one with ‘all the stars aliening’ and be able to pay for a down payment on a house with it (as one of our artists did recently) but maybe she won’t have work in two years?  YOU DO NOT KNOW.  It helps to have an agent, so you can PAINT/DRAW and they can promote you, but we can not manufacture jobs.  We can not.  You have to work hard helping us too, with new samples!! (soon to be published ones can not be shown probably, so it requires OTHER new work) And YES, my dear ‘question-asker’…that IS why “Dan Santat barely sleeps to crank out so many books!”

Before I forget too…when times are HOT, be sure to save $$$ for taxes (do that anyway!) and future leaner times.  Never expect the good times to keep on rolling.  They might!! GREAT! but do not expect it.  It is true that you should be doing this at least partially for ‘the love of it’, or you might be very disappointed financially.  Hopefully not, but…. be realistic!  They can only ask SO MUCH for a kids book, or educational product.  Most Picture Books actually do NOT earn out their advances….which means publishers are not ‘paid back’ the advance money they paid you before publication.  You don’t have to pay it back, but you get my point.  Prices have not increased really in decades….books have to stay affordable to buyers.

The ‘question-asker’ gave me the example of a $5000 book advance project.  Many are this low, particularly for first timers, but as agents we try to get the fee up as high as the publisher is likely to afford for our wonderful, professional artists.  Some make $25,000 or more in advance for a trade picture book, but not all publishers can ever afford those prices. Small presses and non-fiction typically can’t.  Educational work is lower but fair, but normally less pages and faster deadlines, (and often again back to WORK FOR HIRE unfortunately) These jobs are great ‘practice,’ ‘filler work’ for some during and between books, and faster money as well.  So we encourage it for our artists if they wish it, and can work these jobs in their schedules. Deadlines are EVERYTHING….do not over-book! Most really enjoy educational work!

Now back to that $500O project …let’s use that as an example even if it IS low for the work you’ll have to do for a 32 page picture book!  Figure 6 months of work at least….more if it’s your first.  So you could do a couple of books a year (some do more but do you need sleep?)  Maybe add a couple educational jobs in there.  Sounds like it might be OK $.  BUT if you have an agent, and the rate is 25% (which for a $5000 you might negotiate?)  you get $3500 of the advance.  If it’s a royalty project and it ‘earns out’ then  you might be smiling and smiling for years (you share with agent that $% remember for life of book). Then the saved amount for your tax bracket with EACH job.  You can see how not a great deal is left possibly!  So that’s how you decide if you accept an offer.  IF you can ‘afford’ to do the project for 6 months time for what they are paying, then go for it!  Time IS Money! Maybe you need to ‘break into’ this market or want to break in with this publisher, or you just love the manuscript and know you ’should’ do it!  Might figure they are paying you to develop samples so you can get MORE WORK, hopefully at lighter prices.

So YES, it IS very difficult to actually ‘make a living’ solely in KidLit…but artists, some of ours, DO!  Many teach as well (share what they know!) or do advertising, editorial, design work or sell in galleries while doing their KidLit freelance.  It IS a labor of love (and pride) at times so you have to be smart, professional and dedicated.  IT IS WORK.  But aren’t we all lucky to be doing what we love?

(ps…my ‘questioner’ asked about a statement I made in another ASK CAT: to clarify….it is VERY rare that one can negotiate for a royalty later than in the original contract.  The ONLY time this has happened, I think, is when a chapter book series is doing VERY well commercially and they NEED the same illustrator for consistency over time.  They MIGHT consider it.)

So if you are IN this industry, count your blessings as we move into another bright, story filled year!! Happy 2019!

Thank you Chris for taking the time to answer one more question before your vacation. Have a great time!

Send your questions to kathy(dot) and put ASK CAT in the Subject Area. We don’t want to lose Christina and her industry knowledge.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I’m confused, Cat. I was always under the impression that illustrators got a percentage, just as authors do, when contracted for a book…?


  2. I’m amazed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both equally educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is something which not enough people are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very happy that I came across this during my hunt for something regarding this.


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