The wonderful world of illustrations: reaching out to illustrators beyond our borders

Illustration of a small child holding a red flower in a field full of capital letters, byJoana Jesus from Mauro Spagnol at Books Everywhere.png

Mauro Spagnol is an Italian living in London who has been working been in publishing, selling rights and co-editions, for almost 20 years. He has worked for various British publishers and in March 2020 launched his literary agency Books Everywhere.

Illustration by Anna Pirolli at Books Everywhere agency, from The Prophet. The image shows a small child wearing a tall red hat, waist-deep in a pool. Huge flowers grow behind the pool, filling the image. The scene is at night and the main colours are blue, black and bright red.
Illustration for The Prophet by Anna Pirolli (Italy) at Books Everywhere

You may not realise it, but illustration styles vary all over the world. Different territories have different cultural expectations and publishers in those territories know what works in their markets. But there is a lot to be gained from working with illustrators from outside your own country. One of the reasons why I set up Books Everywhere was to bring the best European illustration to a wider public.

When I started the Books Everywhere agency one of my aims was to create a voice for independent European publishers. I have had a long-standing interest in the varied and unique ways that independent European publishers create and illustrate their books and I wanted to celebrate this diversity and bring it to a wider audience.

Illustrators and illustrations very much reflect the culture and unique histories of their own countries. I know from experience that French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Eastern European publishers each have their particular views about how similar titles should be illustrated. It is fascinating that the same topic can be portrayed in so many different ways and I have been amazed at just how many different styles of illustration exist across Europe.

Illustrations reflect both the sensibilities of the artist and the traditions of the people of that country. I have so often heard from publishers, ‘This illustration style does not suit our market.’ It is not that the publisher is not interested in the book, it is that they are worried that the illustration does not fit the local culture.

I am currently representing an Italian picture book publisher, a Romanian fiction publisher, Portuguese and Dutch novelty publishers and a Spanish/Catalan publisher, all for kids. Their illustration styles could not be more different. Part of my job is to introduce these illustrators and their various styles to a wider audience. For some titles this is easier than for others, and in most cases I need to find the right publisher, one who is able to see the potential and willing to move out of their usual comfort zone.

Illustration for The Wizard of Oz by Michael Bardeggia (Italy) at Books Everywhere

Almost all kids’ book shows now have a section on illustrations and illustrators. The Bologna Book Fair has a special award and competition for the illustration of kids’ books and thrives on young illustrators showing their work. Sarmede, a tiny little village in North East Italy and not far from my parents’ house, has a famous international illustration festival in November-December each year. The facades of houses are used as canvases for illustrations from artists from all over the world.

Here are my tips for working with illustrators from other countries:

  • Keep abreast of the varying styles of illustrations from different countries, for example the works of many illustrators are displayed at the Bologna and other Book Fairs.
  • Keep in touch with a range of illustrators through on-line or other events, encouraging them to send you their ideas.
  • Make sure the style you are looking for aligns with your house style, for example, classic or quirky.
  • Be careful of using jargon that the other party won’t relate to when making requests or describing styles.
  • Be clear about what you are looking for and check that you have been understood before agreeing to go ahead with the project.
  • Check that everyone understands the rights and payments involved.
Illustration of a small child holding a red flower in a field full of capital letters, by Joana Jesus from Mauro Spagnol at Books Everywhere
Illustration by Joana Jesus (Portugal) at Books Everywhere

In a world which seems to be racing towards global homogeneity, I would like to think that we are re-discovering the importance of inclusion, diversity and multiculturalism in the world of book illustration. I believe that it is important that young people experience illustrations which incorporate a wide range of styles and cultures. We can best achieve this by having an internationalist mindset and valuing the work of illustrators from other countries. At Books Everywhere our aim is to help independent European illustrators and publishers to flourish and access wider audiences. I am grateful to BookMachine for giving me the opportunity to talk about the richness of European book illustration and I would love to hear about the experience of others who share our passion.