“No unicorn books… please!”: Illustration in Publishing in review

Written by Doe Charles, Illustrated by George Williams

Too often illustrators and designers are neglected in the publishing world. How often do you hear about the author of a novel, or even the house? It’s pretty often; now compare this to how often you hear about the illustrators – it’s vastly different. In an attempt to quash this difference (albeit on a small scale because we are but one society) PublishED decided to host a panel event on illustration in publishing, an event affectionately now titled: No Unicorn Books… Please. Some pretty amazing speakers came to talk to us, from a range of different backgrounds, and they shed light on various aspects of the industry. What’s that? You couldn’t make it, I hear? Fortunately, we’ve got you covered. Phewph, that was a close call.

Rather than outline the whole evening – which would take a while: the talk was an hour and a half, guys… – instead I’ve grouped things together into general themes/topics, each alongside an illustration of one of our guest speakers by the lovely George Williams. How topical of us. So without further ado, and with far less rambling, here goes:

Catriona Cox

What is the industry like?

As with everything in publishing, the general consensus was that it’s pretty hard to define what the industry is. But, this is a good thing – it means there’s loads of room to find your own area, and there’s more room to work in a way that might suit you better. Arguably, the industry is less focused on the process itself, rather the end product, something that was highlighted by each of the speakers. As Alan Windram said, it’s about ‘getting that reaction from children’: an ethos that can be carried across the different age groups and sectors.

The main takeaway about the industry: collaboration is everything, you will be working with other people all the time. Learn to collaborate.

Vivian French

What are the interactions between illustrator and writer?

Another fickle one to answer, as there isn’t a straightforward response. Augusta and Eilidh noting their own experiences which differed greatly. In short, a lot depends on the publishing house: each has their own process. Lucy also noted that cost is a big factor in this – some houses and writers are able to interact more with the illustrator, others aren’t because it is too expensive. The main takeaway here was that no two experiences you have will be the same.

Lucy Juckes

The journey of a book.

There are a lot of variations to this, and things will shift around, and flow back into each other, but, here is one flowchart of one ‘journey of a book’

Dummy –> Spreads –> Colour Palette –> Final Spreads

Please bear in mind, this is highly subject to change, and a more accurate representation would involve about 80 more arrows… at least.

Alan Windram


If you take only one thing away from this article, and I really hope that you take away more, take away this: credit your illustrators. Without illustrators, you get some pretty boring books, especially for kids, so start crediting them please and thank you. Also, in the process, let’s work on getting the press to stop cutting out information about illustrators – yes, we know they do it…

There is a great hashtag across social media, and it’s well worth checking out. So go and empower yourself, and more illustrators. Pictures really do mean business.

Eilidh Muldoon

What lends itself to illustration?

This is more a question of what doesn’t lend itself to illustration. The general themes were: avoid rhyming like the plague – it’s a faff, and it doesn’t translate well; and, no unicorn books – stop consistently using what is popular, and think outside the box. Another useful tip from Augusta was to use your surroundings for inspiration.

Augusta Kirkwood

Hot top tips:

‘Publishers want texts that knock you sideways’ – Lucy Juckes

For illustrators, writers and publishers:

  • 12 double page spreads of story
  • Limit of 700 words
  • Start at the beginning, head to the end, and then do the middle
  • Send at least 3 texts to show you’re not a one off
  • Send independently as either a writer OR an illustrator

There we have it, a brief summary of the event, and an attempt to outline an incredibly vast industry. We have lots more talks coming up, including one detailing more closely the process of writing a book, from conception through to production. It’s well worth checking out our Facebook page or Twitter for more information.

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