Abigail Hilton Interview, Illustrated Fiction Author of Cowry Catchers & Feeding Malachi

Welcome to my second installment of illustrated author interviews. Abbie Hilton was kind enough to offer a wealth of information that will benefit authors regardless of whether they’re writing an illustrated book or not. Thanks Abbie!

– What made you decide to write/create an illustrated book?

Hi, Heather. Thanks for inviting me to your blog.

My experiences with illustration arose organically. Back in 2007, I was writing a dark, nautical fantasy series called The Guild of the Cowry Catchers. As a gift to myself, I commissioned some illustrations from an online artist that I admired (Sarah Cloutier). They were beautiful watercolors that I could hang on my wall. I did not expect anyone to ever see them except myself and my beta readers. I was still trying to get traditionally published. I had never heard of podcasting. eBooks were anathema to any true book-lover.

At first, I was only going to commission one or two illustrations, but Sarah did something very smart – she created about a dozen pencil sketches and then asked which I’d like to buy as finished watercolors. The sketches were so gorgeous that I couldn’t buy just 1…or 2 or 3… LOL. I was a single nurse with some disposable income, and writing was what I loved most, so I thought, why not? I bought about 10. But I still thought they were just for me and my friends.

Then in 2008, I discovered podcasting – serialized audio books released under a creative commons license. I love audio books, and the idea of making my own was enticing. I started with my YA series, The Prophet of Panamindorah, as a solo-read. I built an audience of several thousand people. I finished in 2009 and immediately started working on the audio for Cowry Catchers. This time, I wanted a fullcast production with voice actors and music. I also realized that I had something exceptional in the illustrations. No other podcast had professional quality illustrations for each episode. You can view some of the illustrations here: http://cowrycatchers.com/?page_id=548

I started buying more artwork to fill in the gaps. A podcast episode is about 30 minutes, and my books tend to be 10-12 episodes in length. Cowry Catchers is a 5-book series. So I got to know some more artists, and I did a lot more work with the very talented Sarah Cloutier. I asked some of my favorite podcasters to do voices for my characters and was shocked when they all said yes. I got very involved with the community. It’s a lot of fun!

I still thought of my writing as a hobby. I spent money on it as you might spend money on skiing or travel. I did not expect it to pay me back. I spent about $2,000 per book on artwork on Cowry Catchers, and I bought mics and some sound equipment, upgrading as I got better.

In 2010, the eBook revolution hit. I had figured out by then that (a) my books are too niche to ever find a traditional publisher and (b) my work has an enthusiastic audience. Those things may seem contradictory, but they’re both true. I had already tried selling a couple of audio short stories off my website. I found that my listeners would pay me over 10 cents per word. That’s pro rate.


So, in Dec of 2010, I started publishing eBooks. I’ve currently got 9 (soon to be 10) books out. Four of them are illustrated. Two of them are redundant. They are:

The Prophet of Panamindorah series (YA):

Fauns and Filinians

Wolflings and Wizards

Fire and Flood

The Compete Series (all 3 books as a single download)

The Guild of the Cowry Catchers Series (Adult, also set in the world of Panamindorah)

Embers, Illustrated

Flames, Illustrated

Ashes, Illustrated

Out of the Ashes, Illustrated (coming end of 2011)

Shores Beyond the World, Illustrated (coming 2012)

The Complete Series, text-only (coming within a month)

Crossroads: Short Stories from Panamindorah

Feeding Malachi, an Illustrated Chapter Book (Target age range 4-8)

Malachi is the most recent edition and probably the reason Heather contacted me for this interview. However, I don’t know how to explain my journey into illustrated eBooks without talking about the rest. Sarah Cloutier did the artwork for Feeding Malachi. We already had a substantial professional history together working on Cowry Catchers.

How did you decide on the age level and genre? Was your book always geared toward this age level/genre or did you change it to fit?

LOL. You’re assuming that I made a conscious decision on age level and genre. I didn’t. I just wrote the stories. Cowry Catchers is definitely for adults. With Malachi, I had to ask friends with children what age-range they thought it fit. I had some children test-drive it, too.

Do you also illustrate your books? If not, how did you find your illustrator/artist? Any suggestions for hiring an illustrator?

I’m a writer, not an illustrator. I love visual art, though, and I follow a lot of artists on DA (DeviantArt). When one of them announces that they’re taking commissions, I politely approach them and ask for a commission for my story. Sometimes, this blossoms into a more long-term working relationship. I usually just give them the story and ask them to illustrate a scene that they find appealing. I get better art this way, and the artists usually like it after they get over the weirdness of it. The downside is that they have to actually read the story. Some just won’t. However, once they realize that you’re not going to tell them what to draw, they get a lot more enthusiastic about it.

If you’ve never worked with artists before, I suggest starting with one who has a system for taking commissions. This person will guide you through the process, and you have some assurance that they can finish things. Don’t start with an artist who’s never taken commissions before and is still figuring out how to do it.

It’s not wrong to have a contract, although I’ve never done it that way. Email agreements do have some legal clout, although a signed contract is more binding. Basically, you just need to agree on payment, timeframe for delivery, medium of the artwork, and number of revisions that the artist will do before she starts charging you extra. Most artists will send you a sketch, which you may critique before the final product. Occasionally, they will also send the work in progress to make sure you’re still okay with how it’s going. Major revisions at the sketch stage and small revisions at the WIP stage are usually well-tolerated.

You should also make sure that the artist understands how you will use the art and she’s OK with that. Understand that you are not buying all rights to the image. The artist is free to re-sell digital images of the artwork. This is very unlikely to happen or to harm you if it does happen. You shouldn’t worry about it. If you insist on buying the complete rights to the image, it will cost much more.

Additionally, if the image is real-media, I suggest asking for a high resolution scan from the artist in addition to the physical artwork. Most artists make such scans and keep them. They own the image, after all, and can resell it. Scanning artwork well is an art in itself. You probably will not achieve a scan as attractive as the artist will achieve. You want the hi res file – the TIFF or PNG – not a compressed file like a JPEG. You’ll need that if you ever produce a paper version of your book. It will probably be too big to send via email. I suggest DropBox or a similar service.

Finally, if you plan to use the image for anything other than the book, such as promotional materials (banner ads, free bookmarks to give away at cons, posters), you need to let the artist know that. In my opinion, if the artist isn’t OK with that or wants to change you a lot more money, you should walk away. This is a basic necessity for marketing an illustrated book. However, it is a different kind of right, and, just to avoid unpleasant surprises, you should make sure the artist knows that you plan to use the artwork this way.

If you plan to use the artwork on merchandise that you will sell – t-shirts, calendars, prints – you definitely need to clear that with the artist first. In my opinion, she is justified in charging you a little more if you want these things, and she may even say no. Some artists sell their own prints, and they will not be OK with you doing so. You can direct your readers to their store to buy their prints. On the other hand, some artists have no interest in being burdened with this activity, because there’s usually very little money in it. They’ll be happy to let you do it yourself.

Did you have an idea of what you wanted your characters to look/dress like?

Since Rah was my first illustrator for Cowry Catchers, she set the bar for character appearance. She followed my descriptions pretty closely, but she created things, too, including the styles of their clothes. Near the beginning, I remember that she sent me a frustrated email saying that she didn’t know the length of anyone’s hair. Kinda funny. It wasn’t important to plot or characterization, so I just hadn’t thought to include that detail. You have to nail down stuff like that for an illustrator.

How did you decide how many illustrations to include in your book?

For Cowry Catchers, I wanted an illustration for each podcast episode. For Malachi, I wanted one for the beginning of each chapter. I ended up getting a few more than that in both cases, but those were the goals.

I’ve seen some posts on various boards concerning illustrated books detracting from the reader’s enjoyment of creating the characters in their own mind. Do you agree with this? Do you feel your illustrations enhance your book? How?

I think that’s kind of silly. I’ve never heard an actual reader express that idea. On the other hand, there’s a strong prejudice against pictures in books for grown-ups. There’s this idea that art for adults needs to be ugly or abstract or hard to understand. Adults aren’t supposed to just enjoy beautiful, attractive artwork, such as storybook illustrations. So I don’t think anyone will buy an adult book for the sake of the illustrations, at least not the first one. They are usually pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoy the illustrations. At least, so they tell me.

I think most adults are sophisticated enough to understand that any illustration is the artists’ interpretation of the character. My voice actors give their interpretation of how the characters sound. My music selection for the audio gives my interpretation of the kind of emotion present in a scene. Readers and listeners are sophisticated enough to disagree or to reimagine their own versions. I know, because they tell me when they think I got it wrong.

What has been the response from your readers? Did you notice your fan base increase dramatically?

Well, there are certainly people who like the illustrations, and there are people who are indifferent. There’s no way for me to know what the response would have been like without the illustrations. I don’t have 2 versions.

I will be releasing the complete 5-book series of Cowry Catchers in a text-only version a year or more before the last of the illustrated books. I want people to be able to get the whole story, and illustration is a slow process. It will be interesting to see how many of those people come back to buy the illustrated versions once they’re released.

For the first 3 books of Cowry Catchers, most of the illustrations were free online. However, for the last 2, they’ll be eBook-only. So, both the podcasting audience and the text audience will have to buy the eBooks if they want to see the pictures. How many will do it? I have no idea.

How did you promote your book?

Well… I do a lot of stuff. 😉 And I keep meticulous records about what works and what doesn’t.

While I’ve never been professionally published in book form, I write a fair number of short stories, which do get published in both text and audio venues (mostly audio, because that’s what I love). Some of these stories are set in the world of Panamindorah and include characters from the books. I’ve found this is a great way to gain new readers and listeners. Even when I publish stories not set in Panamindorah, the editor always includes a little bio, which mentions my books. If a reader or listener enjoyed the story, they’ll go looking for my longer fiction.

For the podcast, I occasionally run promos in other people’s podcasts, and I do voice work for other podcasts. I also have my audio books on Podiobooks.com, and that site gets a huge amount of traffic.

The audio and text audiences are separate, although there is some cross-over. Mostly, I get bleed-through from my podcast audience into my eBooks. I have my own website www.abigailhilton.net as well as devoted websites for Cowry Catchers www.cowrycatchers.com and Prophet www.panamindorah.com . I have reasonably active forums – http://panamindorah.freeforums.org/

A lot of fans also contact me on Twitter and FB. I post to twitter and it cross-posts to FB.

Very occasionally, I do highly targeted ad campaigns through Project Wonderful with $10-$20 worth of slot-time. I have found this effective for getting people hooked on the podcast. I have found it completely ineffective for getting them to buy the eBooks. Take-away lesson: get them hooked on free content first, then ask them to spend money later.

The only expensive advertising I’ve done is through Kindle Nation. I did find that this boosted eBook sales. I’m not sure that it paid for itself in initial sales, but many of those people will go on to buy the rest of the books in the series, at which point it will definitely pay for itself.

The best promotional I’ve ever gotten was when Amazon decided to make Book 1 of Prophet free. I had no control over that, but it caused a huge jump in sales. I wish they’d make the first book of Cowry Catchers free.

Can you explain your formatting process and any problems you encountered with uploading/viewing your book? Do you offer a print version or digital only? Any tips you can offer?

I have a whole article on formatting illustrated eBooks using Smashwords. It’s on my blog. http://abigailhilton.squarespace.com/abbies-blog/2011/5/21/how-to-format-an-illustrated-or-unillustrated-ebook-using-sm.html

A physical book is completely different from an eBook. In many ways, they’re opposites. What looks good in a physical book looks terrible in an eBook and vise-versa. Real books have a fixed page-layout (like a PDF), while eBooks need re-flowable text which cannot be fixed to a certain layout. PDFs look crappy in most eReaders, and that’s because they’re laid out like a paper book with a defined page.

Images – you’d need the hi res version, 300 dpi. I have limited experience with physical books, and I would never attempt to lay them out myself. I’ve only had the first CC book professionally laid out and published through Createspace, Amazon’s POD. Other POD’s are Lightning Source and Lulu. While I was happy with the result, it was an expensive and time-consuming process.

In addition, I feel there’s no money in paper books. Yes, people want to buy them from me at cons. They want something signed. However, they buy very few of them online. So, it’s a kind of loss-leader, and I spend so much money on artwork, I just don’t care to pay to have all my books laid out in paper. It’s not worth it right now.

I’m sure a children’s book would sell more in paper than an adult book. But how many more? Enough to justify the layout expense? Prob not. At least not for me right now.

What are your sales numbers? Are your illustrated book(s) selling better than your other titles?

I post my eBook sales numbers fairly often on my blog. These are combined sales from Amazon, BN, and Smashwords. Through Aug:

  • Dec: 36

  • Jan: 31

  • Feb: 88

  • March: 271

  • April: 180

  • May: 352

  • June: 359

  • July: 363

  • Aug sales: 296

With this month, I’m over 2,000 books sold. In addition, Amazon has given away about 8,000 copies of the first Prophet book. BN has also given away lots of copies of both Prophet 1 and CC1. However, they don’t give me numbers for the freebies.

My best-seller is, ironically, the complete Prophet trilogy. It’s not illustrated, nor was it professionally copyedited. I paid about $500/book to have CC copyedited, but it turns out, readers just don’t care. As long as the book isn’t riddled with errors (mine aren’t), readers don’t seem concerned.

However, comparing Prophet to Cowry Catchers is really apples to oranges. Prophet is YA (which has very broad appeal), it’s finished (people like finished stuff), and Amazon has the first book in the series listed for free. Those are all big points in its favor.

This is funny to me because Prophet was drafted when I was 16. It was re-written in 2008, and although it’s solid work, it doesn’t hold a candle to Cowry Catchers as far as the strength of the writing. However, as I said, they’re apples and oranges.

I don’t think the illustrations have anything to do with it. Illustrations in an adult book will not draw an audience. They may *keep* an audience or make people feel comfortable paying more for a book, but illustrations will not induce adults to try the books initially.

Illustrations make me happy. They are not a business decision.

For Malachi (a children’s book), I felt they were important. Stories for children in that age range are expected to have artwork.

However, I could be wrong. So far, I’ve heard exclusively from parents reading this book to their kids. Would it have sold just as well without illustrations? I don’t know. Maybe. The illustrations put it about $500 in the hole right out of the gate, with the cover another $100. Is it good business sense to put the book in that kind of debt (to me, it’s publisher) over something that may not boost sales? I have no idea. I just know I like artwork.

How did you determine pricing? Have you played with pricing (lowered/increased)? How has it affected your sales?

I try to make the first book in a series as low as possible, preferably free. This definitely boosts sales of the later books, which is where I make my money. For the illustrated books, I make a little less than it looks like because of transfer fees. For instance, CC3 is $4.99. Amazon takes 0.26 cents right off the top for file transfer costs, and then gives me 70% of what’s left. So I make $3.31 per book. To their credit, Amazon does share the transfer cost with me by doing it that way. These transfer fees are negligible on non-illustrated books, but illustrations make the files large.

For the rest…I’m probably not the best person to ask this question, because I don’t play a lot with pricing. I haven’t been publishing eBooks for long enough to have sufficient data on the prices I started with. Maybe in a year, I’ll know enough to “play.” In the meantime, I read a lot of indie blogs, try to learn from their experiences, and price accordingly.

The illustrated Cowry Catchers books are all $4.99 after the first one. None of my non-illustrated books are more than $2.99. That will change when I release the complete text-only version of Cowry Catchers, which will be $9.99. It’s 5 books, 300K words.

No one has ever complained to me about the price of my eBooks.

Do you have more planned?

Well, there are books 4 and 5 of Cowry Catchers – those will definitely be illustrated. Beyond that, I don’t know.

Hunters Unlucky is an old story that I’m digging out and rebooting. Also, there’s another (flawed but written) Panamindorah story that people keep asking about – Walk Upon High. It needs a comprehensive re-write before it can go out in public. In addition, there’s a Cowry Catchers-related novel and a novella that I’d like to write in the near-future. I doubt any of these will be illustrated right out of the gate, since my primary illustrator is busy with CC4 and 5. But, who knows? I would love to do Hunters as a web comic, but that’s a different set of hurdles.

What advice would you give other authors who have or would like to publish illustrated books?

If you’re going to do this, do it for the love of it. If it doesn’t give you great pleasure to see your story come alive in art, don’t do it. It won’t be worth it to you. I am not personally convinced that illustrations sell books. They do make fantastic promotional materials, and attract people in ways that are not quantifiable.

However, if you’re looking at this from a strictly business perspective, I’m not sure the artwork will pay for itself. The book will definitely be making money faster (pay off its “debt” to you) if you don’t set it back by hundreds or thousands of dollars with illustrations.

On the other hand, if you derive personal enjoyment and satisfaction from seeing your work come alive in visual art, then it’s worth it. Eventually, the artwork may capture its own following and attract people for the art’s sake. In the meantime, you will have terrific promotional materials. However, from a business perspective, it would be foolish to see this as anything but a gamble. Buy art because you love it or don’t buy art.

Abigail Hilton is an itinerant nurse anesthetist. She has spent time in veterinary school, lived in Taiwan, and skinned rattlesnakes. Not in that order.

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