I have done a similar re-evaluation a few days ago, when my illustrator raised his fees. It was a perfectly legitimate request. No illustrator of his caliber gets as little money as he does. He initially gave me low fees to help me out, but it’s time that he gets proper remuneration, especially since he has a family to support.
I don’t know if this is of any interest to others, but if you have appreciated the quality of the illustrations in the series of Christian Biographies for Young Readers, published by Reformation Heritage Books (RHB), you may want to know how they come about.
First, I must explain the financial side and my arrangement with RHB. Most people are surprised when they find that I have a publisher but I pay for my own illustrations and photos. The reason is simple. RHB is still a relatively small publisher, and the type and amount of photos and illustrations I have envisioned for these books is beyond most editorial budgets. Of course, there are large publishers who have the means to take on this type of projects, but initially they haven’t shown any interest.
When I proposed my first book (John Calvin) to publishers, one very frequent objection was the cost. The first publisher I approached (a rather large Christian publisher) told me that for any company to consider this idea, it would have to be a small paperback book in black-and-white. That’s why the illustrations in my first book are not in color. Eventually, they rejected the proposal even under those terms.
Other publishers made similar comments. One told me that I could not choose my own illustrator, and that they never pay much for illustrations anyhow. I don’t know what thoughts inspired RHB to publish my books in color with a hard cover and an impeccable layout, but they did, and I am grateful for it. By contract, I am paying all expenses related to artwork and photos. Thankfully, they pay upfront and reimburse themselves from my royalties, otherwise I could never afford it.
There are, as I said, some Christian publishers who have the means to invest in high-cost productions, but they have to believe they will get appropriate returns. It has to make marketing sense. Again, at the time of my first proposal, a publisher told me that single biographies for children would never sell. A few others concurred. No explanation was given. They said it was just something they had experienced in the past. On the other hand, non-Christian biographies are selling fairly well. Why?
I am not a marketing expert and I am not ready to study this rather mysterious field, but one reason why children’s biographies which are not specifically Christian in nature sell well may be that they are backed by teachers and school librarians. On Martin Luther King Jr.’s day, for example, thousands of children throughout our nation are directed to libraries to read about this man. Some biographies are read in schools. Left to themselves, typical school-age children roaming through a library might be more prone to pick up a book about Captain Underpants, but parents and teachers often lead them to different choices.
If this consideration is correct, the question is, do parents and Christian-school teachers believe that biographies are important for children, and do they promote them? I think the homeschooling community is doing very well in this respect. My feeling (and I may be wrong) is that other parents and Christian school staff could do better. I have talked about the benefits of teaching Church history to children in another blog post.
This is where my stubborness gets evaluated. Why am I insisting on quality illustrations? Can I lower the standards? Are they really important? The answer boils down to my initial commitment to produce all-around quality books.
My initial motivation for writing this series, as I have mentioned in other blogs, has been the desire to see Christian biographies for children rise to the same standard I had been noticing in children’s biographies in general, which are constantly improving in quality, accuracy, fairness, and visual appeal.
Accuracy and fairness of course take the cake. Until recently, historical accuracy in children’s books has not been a major concern. In the 19th century, most biographies for children were largely fictionalized and had a strong message which took precedence over the actual retelling of facts. Today we see a much greater interest in accuracy, especially in the homeschooling community where these books are often used to supplement a serious study of human history.
Accuracy in Christian biographies is important not only to teach children what really happened in church history, without embellishments, exaggerations, or cover-ups, but also, in my view, as a way to inform non-Christians. I have already quoted Dr. Diarmaid McCullough, professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, as saying, “It seems to me that the history of Christianity is absolutely essential to talk about because there is so much bad history about it, and arrogance, conceit, dogmatism are all based on bad history.” After all, understanding the history of Christianity is essential for anyone who wants to understand Western history and our present time.
To achieve the appropriate accuracy in my books I spend a year studying the subject and consulting experts, who normally read my manuscript and make comments and corrections. Even the illustrations are done under the advice of experts in the field, who have been amazingly gracious in answering all my questions.
Photos are important to show young children that these characters really lived, and we can still see the buildings they saw, the churches they attended, and even some of the furniture or other objects they used.
Art is important to spur the imagination and to keep the attention alive. Besides, since my books are very factual, illustrations give me a way to show what the feelings may have been or how some situations may have appeared to an observer, without having to interrupt my account of facts with too many “maybe’s” or “probably’s.”
It’s true that I could just use lower-quality artwork, which would reduce the costs, but I think it’s too late for that. We have set the standard too high in every way. The only solution is to increase sales to be able to pay the illustrator. I believe the project is important and the products are well done. To increase sales I need to raise awareness, especially in schools and in the homeschooling community. Or we could go back to ancient times, when patrons sponsored artistic and cultural enterprises…