Magic Dreams in Oklahoma -- a book cover illustration by book illustrator Duncan Long - all rights available

From time to time folks ask for advice about getting into the illustration business. I might not be the best person to ask since I sort of came in through the back door, starting as a writer/illustrator who could “package” his own technical books so the publisher didn’t need to hire a photographer or illustrator to finish the manuscript.

That said, right now is a tough time to be entering the illustration business. Of course historically I suppose one might argue there’s never been a good time (it has never paid too well and there’s always a lot of competition). But with the economy currently a bit shaky, the old saw about “keeping your day job” is still good advice, at least until you’ve had time to build a quality client list.

So what are my “secrets” to landing jobs in the magazine and book illustration business? Well, they’re likely the “open secrets” that most folks have already heard. But just in case:

1) Create a quality portfolio of illustrations that reflect the type of work you want to do and which you do well. Have PDF and print versions of your portfolio ready to go when someone asks for them, and be ready to tailor your portfolio toward the needs of potential clients.

2) Create a good web presence that can attract clients; a web version of your portfolio should be on your site. Avoid web sites where you’re basically competing against other illustrators or where advertising pops up along with your illustrations. You should own the site, and ideally it will have your name associated with it so anyone looking for you can quickly find you.

3) From time to time contact potential clients in the magazine and book publishing arena; be persistent — but not a pain in the posterior. When in doubt, it’s better to contract presses a little less often than to have an editor or art director groan when they see your mail or email in the “in box.” Most art directors still prefer “print mail” but more and more are coming around to email contact.

4) Be able to deliver your finalized illustrations in a digital format. If you work with traditional media, that’s fine — just be prepared to alter it and (when it’s completed) to convert it to a digital format for quick delivery to your client. (Generally presses want low-compression JPG, TIF, or — more rarely — a Photoshop file. The RGB palette is becoming more and more popular with the CMYK – never looking very good on monitors – being asked for less and less these days.)

5) “Haunt” sites like LinkedIn where you can read and have professional discussions with other pros about the ins and outs of the business. Don’t make comments at these sites unless you will appear professional in doing so. Don’t play “look at what I just did” more than perhaps once a month, or you’ll wear out your welcome.

6) Don’t waste a lot of money on software or equipment if you want to create digital artwork. I do almost all my work on an old version of Corel PhotoPaint (currently version 8); with a little effort, I could do the same thing with Photoshop, Paint, or perhaps even Paintshop Pro. Upgrading software just wastes time and money – and often leaves you slower at your work as you learn new commands and layout. New versions of today’s software by and large offer few improvements. (And I should note that use PhotoPaint because I find it faster to use and cheaper to buy, not necessarily because it is better than this or that program.) I occasionally use a really old copy of Vue (purchased for very little). You don’t need to shell out big bucks to get into digital work.

7) For digital work, the only real “essentials” in the way of hardware are a quality monitor and a digital tablet; Wacom is currently head and shoulders around its competition when it comes to tablets. Obviously the faster the computer and the more memory, the faster the work. But you don’t need a cutting edge system to do good work.

I think if an illustrator has some real talent, following this advice over several year’s time will get them to where they want their career to be.

Duncan Long has worked as a freelance writer and book illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Solomon Press, Fort Ross, and many other publishers and self-publishing authors. See his cover illustrations at: