A Look into Book Illustration

What does it take to be a book illustrator? We asked Fine Art America artist Eric Fan to share his knowledge and experience with creating book illustrations.

Eric Fan is a Toronto based artist with a passion for the whimsical and unexpected, a love of vintage art, clockwork contraptions, and pop culture collisions. He is currently working on his first children’s book with brother, Terry Fan, which is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2016. His agent is Kirsten Hall, at the Catbird Agency.

Eric Fan’s website http://www.krop.com/opifan64/#/.

1. How did you get into book illustration? How does the whole process work?

It’s all fairly new to me, actually, and I kind of fell into it by chance and happenstance. My agent, Kirsten Hall, was just starting her new agency (Catbird: http://catbirdagency.com/) and was looking for new artists to fill her roster. She happened to see my brother Terry’s work online and signed him as an artist. She then asked him if he had any ideas for children’s books, and he proposed a few ideas that we had come up with together, and also mentioned that we often worked together collaboratively. She presented one of our ideas to Simon & Schuster and they made an offer on it, which blew my mind because it was our first book proposal. Since we planned to do the book together, I was also signed to Catbird in lieu of the publishing contract. The book is due to be published in the Spring of 2016. I’ve attached a picture of the cover art, as well as another cover we worked on recently for Ali Benjamin’s upcoming book, The Thing About Jellyfish.

"The Thing About Jellyfish"

The Thing About Jellyfish

2. What do you like about book illustration? what type (genre) of books do you typically illustrate?

I work almost exclusively in the children’s book field; primarily picture books for young readers. Picture books appeal to me because I like the idea of telling a story visually. When you do a single piece of art it can also tell a story within that single image, but there’s something nice about extending that into a fully realized story with a beginning, middle, and end. I spent my thirties writing screenplays, so some of that love for visual storytelling has always been part of my make-up. Depending on the project, there’s also the challenge factor of bringing either your own story to life, or bringing someone else’s words to life. Every story has its own specific obstacles, and it can be rather terrifying, to be honest, but it’s the kind of terror that spurs creativity and invention, because you’re working against a deadline within a very specific matrix of obstacles you have to overcome. When I was a kid, picture books had a profound affect on me, so the idea of creating something that may inspire other kids growing up is really at the heart of why I love working on children’s books so much.
In addition to picture books, we’ve also worked on a few projects aimed at slightly older readers. The cover art for Ali Benjamin’s book, The Thing About Jellyfish (Little Brown, Fall 2015) was an exciting project because I really loved the story and it’s getting some very positive pre-release buzz. It’s aimed at young readers, but also adults, since the themes are quite mature, so it was something a little different for us. We also did the chapter decorations for a book called, The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens, by Henry Clark. It’s a terrifically fun book about time travel and overcoming prejudice.

3.  What is the newest book project you are working on?

We just finished The Night Gardener, and have been putting together a proposal for a new book. We were also signed as artists for two other authored children’s books. They haven’t been announced publicly yet so I need to keep the details under wraps, but they’re both very exciting projects.
The Night Gardener

The Night Gardener

4. What in your opinion makes a good book cover?

I got my start in art doing t-shirt design, and I think it’s almost the same thing. A t-shirt is a moving piece of art and so it needs to ‘read’ very quickly, and be visually striking with a degree of simplicity, either in the message or the visual. In the case of a book cover, the art is stationary on the shelf, but the customer is moving, and so the same criteria applies. The image needs to be eye-catching and striking, and communicate something about the book very quickly.

5. Does Fine Art America or having your work online help in anyway with book illustration?
Like I said, both my brother and I were discovered by our work being seen online, so there’s a huge upside in licensing your art and selling it on print on demand sites because many agents and editors peruse these sites looking for new talent. It’s really revolutionized the playing field for artists in terms of getting their work seen and making important contacts. My career definitely wouldn’t be what it is today if I hadn’t started selling my work online.

Is Image Licensing for you?

Pixels.com recently launched an image licensing option to the site for artists, photographers, graphic designers, etc.   Image licensing is much different than selling prints, greeting cards, and iPhone cases.   Instead of selling a physical product, you’re selling your actual image along with a legal contract (i.e. the license) that specifies what the buyer can and can not do with the image.   If you’re not comfortable giving a buyer access to your images, then stop right here – image licensing isn’t for you.


Image licensing involves a great deal of trust.   Once you sell your image to a buyer, there is absolutely no way to guarantee that the buyer only uses the image for the purposes that are specified in the license.   For example, if you sell a license that allows a buyer to use one of your images on the cover of 50,000 books, you have to trust that the buyer won’t use the image to produce 10 million books… or use it in a TV commercial… or use it in a full-page print ad in a magazine.

You would have no idea that the buyer was doing any of those things unless you happened to catch him red-handed (e.g. by seeing your image in a TV commercial).

If you don’t trust your buyers to do the right thing, then image licensing probably isn’t for you.   However, before you write off the whole licensing industry, consider the following:

1.   There are lots of honest buyers who do the right thing because they WANT to be honest.

2.   There are lots of honest buyers who do the right thing because they NEED to be honest.

The “NEED TOs” are the most interesting to discuss.   Lots of buyers NEED to purchase image licenses and use the images exactly as specified by the licenses because there are huge legal implications if they don’t.   For example, let’s say that you’re a buyer who’s putting together a 30-second TV commercial and that you want to use a few sunset images in the commercial.   You could go to Google Images and grab lots of beautiful sunset images for free, so why bother paying to license images from Pixels.com, Getty Images, Shutterstock, or any other image licensing company?   The answer is simple.   If you steal images from Google Images and put them in a TV commercial… and the owners of the images see your commercial… then you’re in big trouble.   The image owners will sue you… and win… and then you’ll probably lose your job at the ad agency that you work for.

What about the buyers who WANT TO do the right thing?

You can go to YouTube right now… listen to “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones… and download an MP3 of that song to your computer… for free:

Here’s a website that will convert the video into a free MP3 for your iPod: http://www.youtube-mp3.org/

If anyone can download the MP3 for free, then how does iTunes sell million and millions of MP3s for $0.99 each day?

The answer is simple.   Lots of buyers WANT to do the right thing.   Even though MP3s can be downloaded for free all over the internet, millions of people still choose to pay for them each day because that’s the right thing to do.

Now… if you’re going to use “Start Me Up” in a TV commercial… it’s not a matter of wanting to do the right thing… you NEED to do the right thing.   There is absolutely no way that you’re going to try to sneak that song into a TV commercial without proper authorization.   You need to contact the Rolling Stones and get them to sell you a license for the song.

Microsoft did just that when they launched Windows 95 back in 1995:

How much did Microsoft pay the Rolling Stones for a six-month license to use “Start Me Up” in that TV commercial?   Millions.

There are lots and lots of buyers who WANT to and NEED to license images for a variety of purposes.

A puzzle manufacturer that wants to produce 500,000 puzzles and sell them at Walmart NEEDS to do the right thing and purchase an image license from you because Walmart requires it… and because you’ll sue him for royalties and damages if he doesn’t.

An advertising agency that wants to use your image in a full-page print ad NEEDS to do the right thing and license the image from you.   A book publisher that wants to use your image on the cover of a book NEEDS to do the right thing and license the image from you.   A production company that wants to use your image in a TV commercial NEEDS to do the right thing and license the image from you.   An interior designer who wants to use your image to produce 500 framed prints for a Las Vegas hotel NEEDS to do the right thing and license the image from you.

If you’re interested in generating additional income by working with these types of buyers, then image licensing might be for you.   If not, that’s perfectly OK.   This is just an additional sales tool for those artists and photographers who are interested in giving it a shot.