Friday 17 October 2014

Why I hate the word 'author': by Sarah McIntyre

I have a problem with the word 'author'. Well, it's more that I have a problem with how people use it. When I do 'Author's Visits' to schools, teachers will introduce me as an 'author', explain to the children that this means I write books. Then I have to explain to the kids that I write a little bit but, actually, I mostly draw for a living. It's confusing! Yes, I AM an author! And I would still be an author even if I never wrote a word.

Authors are the people who create the book, they're the people who turn an idea into a story. Traditionally the authors are a writer (who writes) and an illustrator(who illustrates). My co-author, Philip Reeve, and I pretty much worked like this on our Oliver and the Seawigs and Cakes in Space books (even though we brainstormed the story ideas together).

But it's not always that straightforward. For example, in making our Jampires picture book, my co-author David O'Connell and I brainstormed the story together and took turns writing drafts to submit to the editor. I created some loose thumbnail roughs, David reworked the compositions and drew the detailed pencil roughs, then I went over his pencil lines and turned them into finished artwork. So it's impossible to say that one person is the illustrator and the other is the writer; we both did both jobs. I think this working method is rather exciting; it let interesting creative things happen that shaped the book. And I think it could inspire kids, by showing them that they can try a bit of everything, they don't have to decide this early whether they want to only write or only draw.

But oh, this can cause PROBLEMS! Because my name is listed first on the book cover, people assume I'm the writer and David illustrated. Which is understandable, being the traditional format. But the thing that makes me SPITTING MAD is that often, because of this, David's name gets left out of listings altogether. I'm deemed the writer so therefore, somehow 'the boss', and his role is seen as less important. A friend told me that a respected journalist explained how he leaves out the illustrators' names because 'the writer is the one in charge'. ...NO WAY! If you want to put it that way, the editor is in charge, or the publisher, or possibly the Sales & Marketing team. The writer often has a lot less 'control' than you'd expect. (Cue loud weeping from writers with terrible book covers.)

If you're buying books and you just see the writer's name on the cover and not the illustrator's, it's misleading. You might assume that the writer also drew the pictures. Or you might assume that the illustrator isn't worth mentioning because his or her role is less important. In some books with minimal illustrations (say, a small picture on the title page), this is probably true; the writing is what conveys the story to you. But in highly illustrated books, this is unfair; you're learning as much about the story from the pictures as you are from the words. ...And the uncredited illustrator feels about this big:

Oddly, in British culture, some people DO actually believe that words are more important and more worthy than pictures. They believe a 'proper book' is one that lets them create all the images in their head, with no picture crutches. They might assume pictures are for children, a means of luring them into the REAL business of reading words.

But think about this: when people read a story set on, say, a distant planet, they still tap into pictures they have been fed from outside sources. If there aren't pictures in the book, readers will conjure up images they've seen in film, on television, in video games, advertising, etc. Their brains might use the text to tweak these images a bit, but people draw their imaginative pictures from images they've already seen. When we give them an illustration, it teaches their mind something new; they have to move beyond what they already know and they gain a new way of imagining something, they can picture a new world. Unusual illustrations can stretch the mind and make the words of a story conjure images that are much more unique to the pictures the readers might have had in their minds with plain text.

So why would people still think a writer is more important? Partly it's a mythology we've created, or even a working uniform, like a boiler suit on a mechanic. We like to think of writers as thoughtful, possibly depressed and alcoholic, but torturing themselves to pull profound truths out of their deep, dark souls.

Illustrators, on the other hand - particularly children's book illustrators - are often thought of almost childlike. People associate drawing with something they enjoyed in childhood, but put aside when they grew up. They like to think of illustrators as children who never grew up, bohemian artists, who dance about a studio splashing paint around and giggling merrily.

Guys... this just isn't true. I know a lot of writers who run around having fun and acting like children, and I know a lot of illustrators who are almost permanently attached to their work desks and computers and suffer back problems and repetitive stress injuries. Everyone's different, and works differently, but everyone's due the respect given to professional adults. And reviewers need to learn how to describe illustrations and how they enhance a story, not rely on stock phrases such as 'bright and colourful'.

This supremacy of the writer over the illustrator most certainly IS a British cultural thing. In France, the illustrator is considered far more interesting, and it's the illustrator who will get mobbed at signings. But the French attitude might not be ideal, either; illustrators find they're expected to draw more and more elaborate pictures on the dedication page at signings, often painted, in full colour. (Gallery-worthy art, really.) It gets so intense that at one festival a few years ago, a lot of French illustrators joined together in refusing to do anything more than sign their name because the expectations were getting so high. This doesn't usually happen in Britain, fans are often surprised to find they get more than a signature. Some children even panic slightly, seeing someone drawing on their book. ('But Mummy, drawing on books isn't allowed!')

But you might correctly point out: a book isn't only made by a writer and an illustrator. There's a much larger team involved. And yes, I'm hoping to see more credits given to people in the production process, starting with the editor and designer. David O'Connell and I made a deliberate point of including the names of our designer (Ness Wood) and editor (Alice Corrie) on the dedication page of our David Fickling Book, Jampires. I suggested it to my Scholastic editors when I was illustrating Superkid and they looked askance at each other and said they didn't think it would be allowed. But I recently suggested it for my upcoming book, and they seemed pleased and said they would include their names.

The only reason I can see authors might not want their editors listed in their books is that, as any aspiring writer or illustrator will know, it's quite hard to find out who the editors are at publishing houses. Even the listings in The Writers & Artists Handbook can often be incorrect because people move around a lot in these jobs. So authors might worry that, if people know the name of their editor, they will mob the editor with their own submissions. This could be a selling point for the reader but not popular with all authors. But... hey! I like to think my editors and I are strong teams, and if I can give them credit, they'll be even more glad about working with me, since people will be able to see their hand in it. The book's created by a team.

The biggest problem with crediting the book to everyone in the whole production team, including the names of the people who printed it in China, is that people can't remember more than two or three names; if you put more names than this on the book cover, they'll all be unmemorable. It's a branding thing. But this isn't a problem in films; you only get the big stars listed at the beginning of a film, but there's a big rolling list of credits at the end. I'd like to see more of this on the page with the ISBN number and all the small print. If someone really wanted to find out about the team, then they could.

So, reviewers, teachers, parents, writers, publishers, all readers: think twice when you say who a book is 'by'. Here's the simplest guide I could come up with for crediting a book:

(You could also say 'words by/pictures by', etc.) I've noticed that a couple of the organisations that used to use the first two styles of crediting books have recently changed their ways and are using the second two styles. I don't think it's something most people do deliberately; it's the sort of thing that when I point it out to them they say, 'Ah yes, well, of course'.

Some writers commit what may be an unintentional crime of putting their illustrator's artwork all over their own website - it's part of their books' branding - but then not crediting the illustrator. This rankles badly. But whenever I mention attitudes toward illustrators on social media, writers fall over themselves to say, 'Oh, but I always credit my illustrator!' or 'But it's not my fault, it's what the marketing team does!' Besides being honourable or chivalrous, crediting an illustrator makes sound business sense. Book publicity is so reliant on events these days, that it's financially silly not to have two people doing the publicity work and traipsing about the countryside to festivals and things. I love working as a team with my co-authors; it's much more fun being on stage with a friend.

I'm lucky that Philip and Dave have worked so closely with me and I love that we're completely in this business together.

Website and blog:
Twitter: @jabberworks


Nayuleska said...

Very interesting post. I already mostly put both author and illustratot names in my review, will continue to do so! And ry to say more on illustrations, which I do mention a bit.

Elen C said...

I'm teaching a course this year on writing for children. I'd half planned a lecture on illustrating - will pull my finger out and make sure it's done!

Pippa Goodhart said...

When I worked in a wonderful children's bookshop a long time ago we put all picture books in alphabetical order by the ILLUSTRATOR'S name. They are PICTURE books, after all.
What I find odd in schools is being introduced as 'a real live author', which immediately conjures up visions of the fake dead authors they must get visiting on other days!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for this great post, Sarah! When I go into schools, as a writer of several early reader titles, I do talk to the children about how the writer AND illustrator MAKING the book together (with the editor as a kind of teacher or boss in the middle)which often leads to the explanation of the "author" word.

I think many writers would enjoy working as closely with their co-authors and editor and design teams as you do, and knowing more about the other author's experience.

Stroppy Author said...

Agree 100%. Actually, I think the illustrator is more important than the writer in picture books and when we talk about picture books at home, we usually refer to them by the illustrator's name. One thing that really maddens me is that JL have a set of childrn's bedding etc which is branded 'Road Dahl' but of course it is all Quentin Blake's work as there are no *words* on the sheets, etc. (I feel I'm allowed to consdier the pictures more important as I'm a writer - it's the bit I can't do, so looks harder.)

I also hate the word author, too, but for different reasons, and always call myself a writer, not an author. Incidentally - it's common in children's non-fiction to list the editor, designer and often picture researcher on the acknowledgments page - don't see why it shouldn't be possible in picture books, too.

Sue Purkiss said...

It is very odd how some well-known picture books are usually known for the author, and the illustrator is hardly mentioned - even though it's his/her images that are all over the place.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

This is absolutely brilliant. Thank you for writing this - will bookmark and definitely share it with people on numerous occasions. Despite the illustrator's name being on the cover of many of my(/our!) books, I keep getting asked if I drew the pictures.

Of course there are huge structural problems as you mention. One thing that bothers me is the extent to which, so often, for MG, the illustrator doesn't get paid royalties. How can we then ask him or her to act as an author and promote the book? S/he has no reason to and must quite rightly feel that it's not quite her/his book.

Another issue: for MG at least, often there is very little time for author & illustrator to collaborate in the wonderful way you describe above.

Emma Barnes said...

Lovely post - I'm actually always envious of illustrators, firstly because I'd love to be able to do it, and secondly because children are sometimes disappointed when they found out I "only did the words". They always want to know who illustrated my books, and I often spend quite a well chatting to them about my illustrators and the other books they have done.

I also think for children drawing is a very natural way for them to develop their ideas and create stories - often it comes much more naturally than writing, which is still fraught with notions of neatness, spelling and all those other things which unfortunately sometimes get in the way. So although I'm not an illustrator, I use drawing (and drama) a lot in my workshops as a way in to writing and stories.

Victoria Eveleigh said...

This is really interesting and thought-provoking. (Judging by this blog, you're a pretty good writer, too!)

John Shelley said...

Excellent post Sarah! Japan is another country where the illustrator gets equal or greater billing than writers, graphic art is held in extremely high regard. Having being lauded in the Far East for 20 years I was utterly baffled when I came back to this country and saw how different it is here. You've nailed my feelings on the topic exactly.

Sara O'Leary said...

I have a book coming out next year with the brilliant artist Julie Morstad. It's our fourth book together and one of my favourite things about this one is the way our names appear on the cover. Side by side rather than with one about the other and no BY and ILLUSTRATED BY. It really nicely honours the way this book is a co-creation. And I'd love to take credit but I think it must have been an initiative of either our brilliant editor or designer. Both of whom should have their names prominently featured as well.
Great article, Sarah. Thanks so much for giving me so much to think about.

Sarah McIntyre said...

Thanks so much for your comments, everyone! Gosh, yes, calling that 'Roald Dahl' bedding is just ridiculous!

And yes, it's worrying that middle grade illustrators often aren't paid royalties. This seems unfair. :(

My other bugbear is when a famous illustrator is asked to draw the front cover and then another (not obviously credited) illustrator draws the insides in the famous illustrator's style. It's especially galling when I know the illustrator of the interior pages has a good style of his/her own, but that the publisher doesn't have the confidence to use it, and instead tries to jump on a bandwagon.

Jackie Clark Mancuso said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jackie Clark Mancuso said...

I ADORE your illustrations of Serious Writer vs. Crazy Illustrator, and the Cultural Differences U.K. France. Boy, can I relate. I'm an illustrator first and more recently a writer/illustrator. I hear that all the time, how my job is so much fun. Yes, it's fun. But it's also work! Thanks for sharing the message. I'm going to subscribe to your blog.

Anne Booth said...

I am glad to be reminded of what I had already intended to do - to mention Rosalind Beardshaw every time I mention 'The Fairiest Fairy' - because the illustrations for a picture book are not 'add ons' they are essential, certainly equal and maybe more important - like a chair needs a seat and legs. I agree with Pippa's comment - it is a PICTURE book. I know 'Lucy's Secret Reindeer', my book for 5-8 years olds will attract customers because of the lovely illustrations by Sophy Williams on the cover and inside - OUP chose her because she is so well known and it will be her pictures, not the text of a new writer - which will initially attract customers to pick it off the shelf (although I obviously hope my text will keep them and make them want more!) Lastly, even 'Girl with a White Dog' my book for 9-12 yr olds, which has no illustrations at all, has been massively helped by the design of the cover by (Pip) Philippa Johnson and Serena Rocca - people DO judge a book by its cover. Thanks for reminding me of the etiquette and simple justice of giving due recognition. I hope I did that already but I am going to be even more aware now.

Playing by the book said...

A great post Sarah. Thankyou. I'd add in "translator" to the list of people who should get clearly attributed but often aren't.

Lucy Coats said...

Late to the party, but YESSS! This is such a good post, and so brilliantly explained. The way I feel is this: I write a picture book story, black-and-white words on paper (or screen). I sell that story to a publisher, who then finds someone to illustrate it. UNTIL that happens, my story is not complete. It is the illustrations which bring it to full life, telling bits of the story I can't, in a way I am not capable of (I can't draw!). For me, this is a magical alchemy, and the other equal if not more than equal part of the book's being. Not to recognise that as a partnership of 'authors' is totally mad and wrong. Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party wouldn't exist without the brilliant Chris Mould, who showed me things about my own story I never even knew were there.

vale said...

Very interesting post, it made me think about the way I present our books to foreign publishers (I work in Rights). You definitely have a point Sarah!

Gabby Dawnay said...

Really interesting post! I'm a writer but I work with my illustrator Alex Barrow in a similar-sounding way to the way you work with your co-authors. It's very collaborative and organic and surely the best children's books are the ones where the illustrations and words enhance one another, neither being greater than the sum of their parts? We see our skills not as mutually exclusive but working together like a piece of music.

Even so, similarly to one of the other authors who commented on your post, I too often feel secondary to Alex's brilliant illustrations! Perhaps because I am also an artist, I appreciate how skillful the work of the illustrator is and how inspiring pictures are to children. When we go into schools, he's the one that enchants the kids with his 'live drawing' as I read through the story!

Our book, A Possum's Tail, has just been nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal, so I'm in the exact opposite position of you. Alex and I have also worked as an equal team on both our books, each bringing our individual skills & ideas to the table to create the very best whole we can. So I'm just going to enjoy the nomination for OUR book and feel extremely proud that Alex's wonderful illustrations have been acknoledged.

Steven James Petruccio said...

Perfectly put Sarah. I just experienced the "author" introduction yesterday as I, the "ILLUSTRATOR", visited a school. Yes, I too do some writing but mostly I illustrate. Students are always amazed to see pictures appear and so are teachers and staff because while most think they can write they definitely know if they can or cannot draw. Equal billing should be a requirement for picture books since words and pictures are dependent upon each other for a successful book. Many good points have been made here. A book is a production, just like a movie or TV show...why not list the credits?

John Nez said...

I've always bemoaned the lack of a noun to describe the author-illustrator.

Bookmaker seems to be about the best one.

Maybe someday the writer and illustrator could both just be titled 'bookmakers'.


Pat Ann said...

Hello Sarah,

Would you mind if I re-posted this true to the gut blog article on my blog? This has been a bee in my bonnet for quite awhile and now I want to blog about it myself.
Thanks for making note about this word 'Author.' I think if more writers and illustrators blog about their profession and the myths the public believe in, the more educated the public will become about our wonderful vocations!

linda sarah said...

Thoughtfully and beautifully written (and illustrated :-). I just have to say though, as someone who does both, when I did a workshop at the Edinburgh Literary Festival, I would get funny and odd, sometimes even a little hostile, looks from festival-goers (the big ones, not the young ones) - I've got strange-coloured hair, tattoo and slight-to-moderate social ineptness, no taste in clothing etc.), then their eyes would drop to my 'author' badge thing and suddenly, they'd smile, or look far more warm and approachable :-). Sadly I kept wearing it far longer than you're meant to as I felt so chuffed and excited to *actually* be an author! This is entirely off topic, but just another tiny thought about being an 'author.' Also, me and Benji's book, On Sudden Hill, the french edition says inside: words and pictures by Benji Davies - which made me feel a bit crap for a while, then I kind of decided, who cares. But it's an interesting subject - and to me, the words and pictures, together, are a magical dance (but I secretly think the illustrator should get way more kudos as they put in so much thought, research, work, time, love, effort and really do illuminate the words (the original meaning of illustration).