Thursday, July 08, 2021

Why you should always pre-order a book you fancy.

When I’ve totally invested in a book via my illustrations, I want that book to do well. Not only for myself, because of course I’ll be earning a modest royalty on each sale and that is a part of how I earn a living, but because I want any author I’ve worked with to be rewarded for what will often be years of hard, dedicated work - and years, quite probably, of building up to starting it, planning, thinking, dreaming (these are the people who didn't just dream about it - they did it!)

Contrary to how it might look on the chirpy and colourful bookcentric feeds of Twitter and the ‘Gram, books do not magically spring from nowhere, fully formed with glittering covers and smiling, selfie-ready authors. By the time you see that part, the writer has spent years chipping away at a manuscript they didn’t necessarily have ANY idea would ever be published, months honing it, weeks editing it, and the illustrator has spent weeks or months working on the illustrations to go with it - and all the sketching and roughs and versions that entails. Most of the time they'll have created a cover for the book too, which often actually comes before the insides are decorated.

A cover reveal happens some time before a book’s release, to introduce the book to the world in visual form and to remind you, if you didn’t know already or had forgotten, that its publication is imminent. And again: by that time, the illustrator’s work on it will have been finished months before that moment.

And when all that's done, when the book's become 'a real object', a definite point on the horizon, authors and illustrators will encourage you to buy a copy of their book BEFORE it comes out, from the moment it’s made available to buy online. I know as a species we’re used to hitting ‘buy’ and getting the new thing thrust in our hands pretty much the day after - or even the same day, if you use a certain grotesquely popular service - and it might be an odd concept, having to wait for the thing you’ve paid for.

But that is exactly what an author and illustrator have done; just for much longer. They’ve made the investment, a substantial one at that, and they’re now waiting patiently, and probably quite nervously, for the pay-off; the sales, the reviews, the readers receiving their book and enjoying it, and the opportunity to engage with the readers for whom they’ve laboured all this time.

Here are the reasons why buying a book before publication is immeasurably important to, and massively appreciated by, authors and illustrators.

Pre-orders  (or ‘pre-sales’) are THE BIGGEST hint to booksellers that there’s interest in a book. Bookshops used to have to use a combination of educated guess, their experience and previous sales by an author, to order in the stock of books they think they can sell. Not any more. Figures from pre-sales give them a vivid picture of what readers are anticipating - and they can order in stock of it, ready to meet demand. Books without pre-orders make it difficult to size up how many to order.

Similarly, publishers need to know how many to print! Obvious, when you think about it. Although an initial print run will have been agreed months before, or even at the time of contracts being signed, no publisher wants to under-print and not be able to meet demand - selling out straight away might be a flattering surprise for an author/illustrator, but they’d rather keep selling!

By the same token, they don’t want thousands of copies too many - buying the book you fancy as a pre-order puts the publisher one book closer to getting the quantities right.

Book sellers will sometimes offer a book at a lower price prior to publication. This is likely if it’s by an author/illustrator whose work has done well, or it’s a follow-up or one in a series. Obviously this is a 'nudge’, as it’s known in retail, but you save a couple of quid/dollars by buying it early!

Pre-orders create anticipation, excitement and momentum for the book.  An author/illustrator will be getting on The Promo Train for his or her book (nope; unless you’re on the boy-wizard level of popularity, book will NOT sell themselves) which means visiting schools and libraries, doing online talks and interviews, maybe some radio or even TV; their confidence will soar as a result of knowing that, by the time they hit the road for all this, the book is actually selling decent quantities already.

Which means an engaged and engaging speaker, who is excited and confident.

When a book is in its pre-order stage, there’s every chance the author/illustrator is working on its follow-up (keeping in mind what I said above about the timescales of book-making). Nothing says ‘keep going’ like good sales on the one you’ve already done, that’s about to come out!

WORD OF MOUTH. If you’ve pre-ordered a book, it means you’re into it and excited about it - and that means you can tell other people about it, and they can pre-order it too. I mean yes, you can do that if you order it after publication, but there’s nothing quite like the gently teenage smugness of ‘psst...I know this is gonna be a good'un…and I get my copy first.'

Finally, we author/illustrators HAVE IDEAS for stuff we want to do around the book - stuff we couldn’t put IN the book itself! A pre-order campaign allows us to make those things and offer them as little creative nuggets of encouragement to the potential readers. "Buy it now, rather than waiting till publication, and we’ll send you a bunch of swag!" In the case of Josh Allen and myself, that swag consisted of enamel badges, cards, a free illustrated story and signed art prints - for the book we’re currently promoting, that’s book plates, glow in the dark badges, signed art prints and more. Since the book launches those things stop, because, of course, we can’t offer them to every single buyer!

Think of it as not only your reward for having faith that what we’ve made will be ace, but your badge to show you’ve been inducted into our little gang of like-minded, book loving people.

And what could be nicer than that?

You can pre-order 'Only If You Dare' by Josh Allen & Sarah J Coleman in the UK and the US here.

And you can still get the some of the swag for Out To Get You, here.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Fire, Pencils & Gold

We're doing a lot of re-organising and rethinking of the space we work in at the moment. It was subject to a massive redesign ten years ago but is starting to feel a bit stale (lockdown helped with that!) and this corner in particular has never been quite right.

We've worked with Spencer Jenkins before on projects around the studio and the house, and when we realised it was shelving that we needed - for all the reference books, novels, catalogues and such, housed for years in repurposed wooden apple crates - we asked him. He loves wood, works in steel and willow, and creates natural forms and shapes which look simple and easy, but he'll pore over a line for for days on end, perfecting it.

We'd been admirers of the work he's done in scorched larch, taking the wood and burning its surface till it reaches a deep, satisfying black. We chose chunky larch sections which were cut and planed to fit the totally asymmetrical and wobbly corners of the room (the studio is L-shaped).

Once this was done - not a fast stage, it should be said, Spence is something of a perfectionist - the larch is burnt using a blowtorch and a steady hand. You can see the really gnarly, delicate-looking surface of the larch, which truly looks as if you've turned up to a house fire hours too late. And it smells like that too, if you get your nose right in there - an oddity exciting smell, proper 'charred'.

After the charring, comes the vanishing - but sensitively done, so as not to obliterate the textures of the burning with a brutal slathering of shiny. Wet here, the varnish soaks in to 'fix' the burnt surface:

Burnt only on the underside and the sides, leaving natural larch exposed on the surface where the books would sit, from here the shelves were brought to the studio where it was over to me. We'd come up with the idea of filling any natural cracks and splits with gold. 

Inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi, mending precious time-served items with gold and honouring their long service rather than throwing them away or trying to hide the breaks, I first photographed the shelves placed in situ and drew lines as organically as I could over the edges, many times over, till I hand line that neither told a story nor suggested any deliberate sequence, taking my cue from Spencer himself and the notion of a totally random break or split: harder than I first thought! 

In fact, it took me two weeks to arrive at a set of 'cracks' I was happy with, and even then, I changed them as I worked. 

I tested the infill of gold with the samples that Spencer had made for us, in the process of assessing how much to burn into the wood, by Dremelling the splits in and applying both gold leaf and two gold acrylics. The idea was to fill with actual gold, via melting and pouring in, or alternatively using a rod that's melted in (NOT the correct technical term) but after research this proved both financially and technically very difficult to achieve without the input of a jeweller and specialist kit, so we decided on 23ct gold leaf - the quality of leaf above which no oxidisation takes place, and suitable for outdoor use as well as indoor.

IN THE MEANTIME...the empty space where the old crate shelves were stacked was looking sad, so it was given a fresh coat of ECOS white paint, and I added a set of coloured pencils to it! I sketched them out on paper with felt tips in what felt like the right colours, squatting and holding them up against the corner, until they were right.

Feeling like a big child it was massively freeing to paint something large-scale on the wall - we haven't done that for AGES - and I added some pencils which were sharp, a snapped one, a blunt one and some sharpened with a knife - like a real pencil collection.

Once this was done it was time to gild. Gilding requires the surface to be smooth, sealed and dry, before a coat of size - a type of glue which doubles as a varnish, and remains sticky for a few hours - is applied, followed by the leaf itself. Every crack was Dremelled in, slowly and with a non-blinking steady hand, brushed clean with a stiff brush, and then sealed with a PVA solution. When dry, a layer of Stuart Semple's 'Goldest Gold' acrylic was applied, chosen for being the truest, richest gold I've ever come across.

The acrylic acts as a sealant, and ensured that should any area not be completely covered by the gold leaf, all you'll see is the convincingly-gold acrylic edge. I highly recommend his very special gold!

And then the gold leaf.

A time-consuming process (if it wasn't already!) the leaf is applied with a dry brush over size applied anywhere from an our beforehand. As long as it's still sticky, you can start gilding. A little section of VERY flaky gold leaf is picked up on a dry brush, and pushed into the crack, tamped down carefully with the same dry brush - never with fingers.

Despite a surprisingly modest spend on the 23ct gold, I ALMOST left the acrylic exposed, such was its goodness and glitter. here's the acrylic on the left, and some of the gilding on the right. There's just more...goldness to the gold leaf!

Finally, the completed shelves were fixed in place over the pencils, burnt, gold edges facing into the room, and the books have been making their way onto them this week; stylishly re-organised for the first time in years!

We're grateful to Spence for his painstaking work, carried out in a distanced, awkward masks-and-googles-on way in the middle of a lockdown, and for the opportunity for another collaboration. The next project is already underway, and we already know there'll be more after that!

You can explore more of Spencer's work on his Instagram account.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Speaking of illustration:

This is a long read. Get the kettle on, and maybe some biscuits!

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This week I gave a talk via the Speakers For Schools programme to a large, digitally-assembled audience of schoolchildren from schools around the UK.

Live from my studio I was invited to answer questions posed by host Charlotte, followed by questions sent in by the students as they listened. This is always my favourite bit - the questions an audience asks, particularly one composed mainly of children, are always the most interesting to answer, for they are often surprising, insightful, cheeky, direct, oblique or all of those things at once.

I've missed travelling to events, schools and universities over the last year, environments in which I'd be chatting on a stage to potentially hundreds of listeners, but it's actually been very freeing not to have to organise the logistics of a long drive or a train trip - and I've not missed the amusingly awkward fifteen minutes it usually takes to get my drive, disk or CD talking to a college PC system!

No; instead, I've been able to prepare, present and chat from my own studio, which means longer talks, and more relaxed environments for all.

I made notes for this most recent talk as I usually do, because although I never read notes verbatim, especially in a stage situation, I wanted to stay on track and not waste any time fumbling for answers. Since I typed them all out though, I thought it would be useful to share those answers together with the questions here, as they're things I get asked a lot.

I've added a couple of my favourite 'Q&A' questions from the end of the session.

I hope they're useful! Keep in mind that any one of these questions could be expanded into at least an hour-long talk all by itself, so these are skimming the surface; this part of the talk was only 40 minutes long. All the images are from the slideshow.

If you're interested in organising a talk for your own college, school, event or university, do get in touch.

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Firstly, please can you tell me how 'Inkymole' came about?

When the time came to set up my first ever website, was already taken, and there were far fewer domain options in those days. At school one of my nicknames was Mole, both because of chronic short-sightedness and because it rhymed with Cole (another nickname) and Colehole (yet another), and because I was always dabbling about with ink and paint, the 'inky' part began to stick too.

So the obvious choice for a domain, which was only ever meant to be a temporary solution, was It wasn't long before people started ringing up and calling me Inky, or asking for Inkymole - and so it stayed!

(and STILL isn't available - it's owned by a company who buy up domains purely to sell to the highest bidder - a practice I don't approve of!)

Please could you talk to us about what is it like to work as an illustrator and some of your responsibilities?

- Hard work. It's always hard work!

- You may work by yourself - at home or in a studio - but you’re part of a team whose job it is to get work completed and often to print to a deadline.

- You need to be able to get the job done on time, on your own.

What are some of the skills you need to be a successful illustrator? 

- Flexibility and adaptability - both in terms of your ability to manage time, when you can / want / need to work, and in terms of your style and way of working.

- Perseverance and the ability to stand your ground; this'll be important in negotiating contracts and fees, and in arguing your corner when you feel a direction isn't right, or something won't work a particular way.

- Must be able to take feedback and criticism objectively - it's not personal.

- You need a flair for marketing and self-promotion without sounding fake or inauthentic. If it's just you say YOU! (If there's no actual 'we', never use it. Also: people KNOW when you're being sales-y vs. just talking 'in your own voice'. 

- Ability to manage cashflow!

Please can you tell us about some projects that you have worked on that have been really memorable and why?
There are loads, from very small projects to very large ones, and not all for clients. Here are some; they're all on my website (part from the one marked with a †).

- Try 50th anniversary 'To Kill A Mockingbird' cover.
- Illustrating 'Out To Get You' and 'Only If You Dare'† by Josh Allen.
- Some of my own shows; big logistical and creative personal challenges.
- The Playboy cover!
- Hillary Clinton's book cover.
- The 72ft billboard in Times Square.
- My July 4th Fireworks poster for Macy's.

What are some of the main challenges of being an illustrator? 

- Staying in work - generating enough to make a living, long-term and consistently - and not only 'a living', but the kind of living you want, whether for you that means 'I want a big house' or 'I need to be able to support loads of kids', 'buy a horse', 'have four holidays a year' or 'I'm happy with enough to cover my bills'. 

- Managing jobs and your time (youll often have more than one job to do at once, often for overlapping deadlines).

- Staying on peoples radars; its a very competitive trade.

What advice do you have for aspiring young illustrators? 

- Start looking for clients and work (experience) BEFORE you leave education. When you leave, youll be swimming upstream with thousands of others, all trying to get work. This means making contacts, doing interviews with people in industry, writing to them, maybe working for them (work experience), inviting them to your end-of-course shows, and more.

- Your best work is yet to come, so don’t worry about how your work looks right now - it will change throughout your life, and it should.

- Never put work in your folio that you donactually like or didn't like doing - even if it’s brilliant or been published or you got paid a lot for it. If you hated doing it and donwant to work like that again, dont show it to anyone; that way lies madness.

Are there any misconceptions about illustration and what would you say to address them? 

- Its not just about kids books!

- Yes I do kids' books. 

- That 'its easy' - I have DEFINITELY got the impression people think my job is easy!

- That were willing to knock out a drawing in front of the TV. If were watching TV, were watching TV, not working (and vice versa)

…ergo, just because itart and we use crayons doesnt mean were going to do it for free.

How has technology advanced throughout your career and do you think it has created more opportunities for illustrators?  

- Its made it easier than ever to show work publicly, and deliver it worldwide, cheaper than ever (free in a lot of cases). 

-Technology has sped up the process of actually making [some types of] work and delivering it - I'm thinking of the obvious software, Apple Pencils, and the internet at large - but it hasn't sped up the process of learning to create illustration, think up concepts, answer briefs. And it definitely can't speed up or create shortcuts for gaining experience.

- However, technology means that your competitors are ALSO visible, and suddenly you realise there are thousands of you, any of whom can do the job - whereas when I started, you were mainly hired by clients in the same country, and your work would only be seen if you sent it specifically to the client or theyd seen something youd had published.

- This also means you were mostly only aware of illustrators who'd been published, rather than the situation we have now where anyone can share any of their work 24 hours a day, published or not, professional or amateur alike - and we can all see it (and see how good it is!) 

In other words: technology means that illustrators trying to gain a foothold in the business today are competing in an enormous, omnipresent market - clients are spoilt for choice.

What inspires you to be creative? 

- Every human is creative, we all just express it and use it in different ways. Im no more or less creative than a plumber who solves a particularly difficult piping problem, a café owner whos found a way to carry on retailing through the lockdowns, or a coder who can’t work out a game problem!

- So I wouldnt say I have to become inspired to be creative; I just am - as is everyone, in their own way.
Its just that I 'look' more creative because my work is visual, and can thus be seen’ - being able to draw' has long been seen as a benchmark of being creative, but I dont think this is accurate.

- On a pragmatic note, I'm paid professional-level fees because of my ability to create on-demand - so I can't really 'wait for inspiration to strike' if I have a deadline.

[Having said that - see below!]

What do you do if you are having a bit of a creative block?

- I go back to the book/brief and have another look!

Ask the art director for more info/a chat.

- If the deadline allows: switch to a different job for a bit.

- If the deadline doesn’t allow: send what I have! You never know, the client might like it anyway (the best advice an agent ever gave me).

- Sometimes it helps to get the obvious solutions or clichés out of the way - just do them, work through them, maybe send them; at the very least look at them, because that often leads to a clearer path to something more interesting.

- If none of that works: give up! Go back to it later (again - if deadline allows - if not - you have to plough on - its what youre paid to do!) And do something else.

As stated in the last answer, as a professional you're paid money to create to order so, although creative block does occur (you're not a machine), as a pro, you need to have the strategies to get past it and deliver the work - even if you don't think it's your finest output!

~ My two favourite Student Questions ~

Have you ever had to deal with copying, infringement or plagiarism?

I have. Many times. But I need to break my answer into two parts; first, being copied or imitated.

A few years ago I was getting messages from chums and even family saying they liked the work I'd done for a particular high street store (there's a little crew of people who go Sarah-Spotting). It had been a VERY busy few months so I looked up the work they were talking about as I couldn't remember doing it; this didn't mean I hadn't, it's just that sometimes the lead time between doing a job and the job going live is quite long - as much as a year and a half sometimes. And as I HAD been a really busy time.

However, this one I had NOT done - but for second I thought I was losing my mind as it just WAS my work. I looked EXACTLY like I'd done it. The rest of the story is here, but I realised that yes, my style, energy, the movement in my work, the way things flowed across a space, and the other intangible, slightly hard to articulate things that make my work 'mine' had very definitely been mimicked - almost studied. The artist in question maybe knew, or maybe didn't know, just how similar their work was - either way, they carried on working in that way for a good long time, and I had to really keep an eye on things for a while there.

Mimicking a style is harder to prove, should a court situation ever arise, and indeed a recent case of one lettering artist vs another lettering artist which almost came to blows in a very public way was a good example

The second thing I've had to deal with is infringement. (This is distinct from plagiarism - which is a specific piece of work being copied and passed off as an original:
'Plagiarism and copyright infringement overlap to a considerable extent, but they are not equivalent concepts' - Wikipedia.) I'll often share examples on my Instagram account partly to let current or potential infringers see that what they're doing is easily discovered.

My work has been stolen constantly by users of Etsy and Redbubble for making their own (mostly terribly-put-together) products. I have to report each case and get the listing - or in extreme cases, the account - taken down. I bet that if I went to Redbubble or Etsy right this minute, I'd find a new one! 

[Note: I did.] 
[Secondary note: I found 7.]

A full blog on this subject is due for publication soon.


What do you see as the future for art and illustration in relation to technology and AI? 

This was a big question that I didn't see coming. But my reply was an honest one. Since this wasn't written down, this is a rough transcript of how I answered! (expanded on a bit).

Although AI and technology in general has made breathtaking leaps in my lifetime - from the very hyperlink itself to synthesising art and the creation process, piercing together visual information fed to neural networks to make 'new' things, AI-generated music like that of Holly Herndon's 'Spawn', and robots which are getting closer to mimicking the natural movements of humans, such as everything Boston Dynamics has been working on, I feel sure that the kernel of that which makes art and ideas - the human mind - cannot be replicated in its full form. Not only that, it's the human mind (rather than merely 'the brain') working in conjunction with with the intricacies of human decision making, moral, aesthetic and emotional judgements, feeling and intuition, nuance and storytelling, and solving problems presented by human existence, which complete the recipe for creating things.

We will probably one day soon see a walking, talking robot that mimics us and can hold a pencil or paint on canvas or write soliloquies in seconds, but it will still be a machine. (I recommend reading Ian McEwan's 'Machines Like Me' which explores this in detail.)

And that makes me think that if that happens, the market may divide into a situation similar to that seen in wartime, when you had, for example, ‘real’ coffee and ‘ersatz’ coffee; the crap stuff, but it was passable when the real deal was unobtainable or unaffordable. At ground level, as opposed to within the research labs or billionaire’s basements, there’ll be Machine-Made Art (MMA) which is cheap and plentiful and just about adequate, and there’ll be Human-Made Art (HMA), which is the real thing, and comes at the appropriate price. Like the difference between a mass-produced made-in-China thing or one hand-made by a craftsman in a workshop. (There may be a lifelong love of the film Bladerunnerwith its replicants coming through there). And 

We’re seeing the beginnings of something which feels a bit like that now with the likes of Fiverr, where you can get a logo banged out for literally a fiver, which will ‘do the job’; but if you want something properly considered, unique, designed and refined, you go to a trained, experienced professional. There’s an argument there that the Fiverr model is the democratisation of design — that you don’t need a degree or training, merely the right software and an ambivalence about the outcome — and that these £5 logos are just as good (indeed some of the people on Fiverr claim to have many years of experience). But that’s for another blog entirely!

Ironically art made with machines (digital) is now being sold by machines as NFTs for ‘I really need to sit down’ sums of machine-generated money — forcing all of us to think about what ownership means — both taking ownership of something’s creation in the first place, and ownership of a finished piece — and whether, when provenance of digital work is as traceable and provable (maybe more so) than physical pieces, there remains any value in the concept of one-offs and originals.

So my outlook is optimistic, while remaining realistic. Those machines are not getting any less clever.

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Thank you to Charlotte Stringfellow and Lily Clifford at Speakers4Schools for organising, hosting and editing the talk.


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