By Sarah Albee
Finding images for my nonfiction books has become one of my favorite parts of the publishing process. In recent years more and more fantastic resources for free or inexpensive images have become available to writers. And the better your pictures, the more compelling will be your book. Kids are drawn to books with great visuals, and with all the learning challenges they faced during the pandemic, many kids need a lot more visual support to reinforce their reading comprehension. (My teacher-husband calls this “dual coding.”)
So, if you are new to image research, I’m here to tell you: it can feel daunting at first, but it’s really fun!
First things first: from the moment you start research on a new project, it’s a good idea to start scouting out images, and noting where you found them. Even if the book is a picture book, and will be illustrated, it’s always helpful to collect images for the artist’s reference. More on this later.
Now let’s assume you have an editor who is prepared to make an offer for your book—yay you! We’ll start with what’s known as the deal memo. This is usually a one-page document that stipulates the broad-stroke terms of the final contract. This is the time to negotiate (via your agent if you have one, or directly with your editor if you don’t). Some publishers expect the author to research, secure permissions, and pay for all their own images. Some publishers handle all of these things.
Of the books-with-images (by which I mean non-picture books) that I’ve sold in the past 10–12 years, about half fall into the first category (I pay for the images), and half into the second (the publisher pays). OK, there’s a gray middle area, where publishers may ask the author for image suggestions, but the publisher handles the licensing part.
If the deal memo states that you, the author, are responsible for licensing the images, your first step should be to ask for a photo budget. You may not get one, but it’s important to ask. Agents can be wonderful for this. I have had photo budgets ranging from $1500 to $3500 for my longer books with 50–100 images. Nowadays a budget like this should be adequate for your needs. Fifteen years ago I spent close to $9000 on my first book with images. For my most recent book I think the total was $350.00. That precipitous decline is a combination of me knowing where to look and the fact that so many fantastic images have been released into the public domain in recent years.
The next step, once you’ve (hopefully) secured a photo budget? Finding those images. I won’t attempt to list sources for images here, because every project is different, and every author’s image needs will be specific to their topic, but broadly speaking, your sources for images are:
- Public domain images
- Hiring a photographer
- Asking photographers (or those who hold the copyright) for permission to use their images, sometimes for a fee
- Paying for stock images
For a how-to on where to find public domain images in high-resolution and how to work with stock photo houses, you can check out my post at Melissa Stewart’s blog here.
Also, Stephanie Bearce did a fantastic post on finding PD images on this very forum last year. You can check that out here.
Whether you’re responsible for paying for images, making suggestions to the designer, or simply finding reference for an illustrator, it’s important to be organized from the very beginning of your research. (Trust me on this one, sigh.) As you research, take a screen shot of great images you come across and make a note of the source (all books will have a list of image credits).
Then, start a table. I’ll show you a couple of examples of how I do it.
Here’s an early iteration of one of my tables, as I was just beginning to research images for my (latest) book, TROUBLEMAKERS IN TROUSERS.
The table notes are for both me and my editor, so some of them may not make a lot of sense to you. This is the first page of a 16-page table:
And here’s the first page of a final iteration of a table for my book, POISON.
This table was generated by my editor (but is based on mine—hence the column marked “SARAH #”), and spec’d for the designer. You can see that the images we chose are nearly all in the public domain, or super inexpensive from Shutterstock. The one exception is for the “Teenage Caveman,” which is a movie still that I paid for (I heroically negotiated them down to $150) because I thought it would really add humor and fun to the visuals:
In the final stages of the process you, the author, will be asked to supply both the captions (fun!) and the image credits list (not as fun!) for your book. The more careful you are along the way keeping track of where you found your images, the easier this tedious job will be for you.
Finding and securing permissions for your images can be a steep learning curve, but I promise that ultimately it will be enjoyable and deeply satisfying!
Meet the Author:
Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of nonfiction books for kids. Her most recent title is called TROUBLEMAKERS IN TROUSERS: WOMEN AND WHAT THEY WORE TO GET THINGS DONE. Other popular titles include FAIRY TALE SCIENCE; ACCIDENTAL ARCHAEOLOGISTS: TRUE STORIES OF UNEXPECTED DISCOVERIES; NORTH AMERICA: A FOLDOUT GRAPHIC HISTORY; DOG DAYS OF HISTORY; POISON: DEADLY DEEDS, PERILOUS PROFESSIONS, AND MURDEROUS MEDICINES; BUGGED: HOW INSECTS CHANGED HISTORY; POOP HAPPENED: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD FROM THE BOTTOM UP; and ALEXANDER HAMILTON: A PLAN FOR AMERICA. She lives in Connecticut with her family. Visit her at www.sarahalbeebooks.com