Working with Illustrators and Artists

I’m not 100% sure how many readers of this blog have asked themselves (or someone else) questions about writing with an illustrator, but a number of writing colleagues have been talking to me about it lately so I thought it was worth setting out some info here.

Usual disclaimer: Nothing written here is intended as formal legal advice and folks who need help with particular issues should consult an agent or attorney.

For folks who write books for children, notably picture books and some middle grade, and folks who write stories and articles for magazines (which may then be illustrated prior to publication), questions may arise about your rights, if any, in the artwork or at least in relation to reproducing your writing somewhere else along with the artwork.

In the usual scheme of things, a writer writes, submits the writing to the publisher or editor, and then the publisher or editor arranges the art under separate contract with a separate artist or illustrator. While the author of the words may have some say or approval in the artwork, typically her contract with the publisher is quite separate from the artist’s contract.

This means that if you, as a writer, want to reproduce your words in another venue at another time (e.g. for another publisher, by self-publishing, or maybe even excerpts on your blog or website), you likely don’t have any rights to reproduce the corresponding artwork unless you obtain permission from whoever holds copyright in that artwork: either the artist or the publisher, depending on their contract with each other.

The same is true for the artist. She won’t typically have the right to reproduce any of your words without your specific authorization, but it’s usually more common the other way around (that the writer wants to use the art to illustrate a new presentation of the words).

Of course, your ability to reproduce your own words also depends on your contract with the publisher. For example, if your publisher has an exclusive license over your text or you have assigned copyright to them outright, you technically can’t even reproduce your own words, regardless of the accompanying art, without their permission.

If, however, you’ve only given a non-exclusive right of first publication, say, to a magazine or journal, you may have the right to reproduce your works later in another context. Also, if you’ve given a term-limited license to the publisher for, say, three years or five years, you may want to publish your own version, with or without the art, after that time expires.

Or if you’ve given the publisher a license that’s geographically restricted (for example, North American publication rights only), you might want to publish your work in another country and use the illustrations with it.

The bottom line on illustrations is that you will typically require permission unless you own copyright or a license in those illustrations to begin with, which isn’t the usual case. So if you want to reproduce your children’s book in Turkey with the illustrations commissioned originally by your North American publisher, you’ll need the publisher’s, and likely also the artist’s, permission to do so, and you may have to pay a royalty for the privilege.