Illustrating Non-Fiction Books

13th October 2020
5 min read
23rd December 2020

The world of non-fiction books provides a wealth of illustration opportunities for the freelance illustrator, but is often overlooked by Illustration graduates in favour of children’s middle-grade fiction and picture books.

Frances Moffatt

It is an exciting, diverse sector of publishing to work in, and can range from commissions for cookery books and instructional guides on exercise and fashion to adult colouring books.

It’s a commonly-held belief that if you want to work in any aspect of the creative industries it is important to have ‘contacts’, but I can honestly say that, in my own experience and that of many other illustrators I know, this has not been the case. If your work is good, and you have a solid online portfolio, and knowledge of where your work sits in the publishing market, then you have every chance of seeing your work in print. Also keep in mind that building a sustainable career as an illustrator is a marathon not a sprint, and not getting an immediate response from potential clients is not a failure. In my case, I had some positive and encouraging feedback from art directors at various publishing houses, but it took nearly two years to receive an actual commission.

Commission, ideas and initial meeting

So … you have been commissioned to illustrate a book, either following an approach by a publisher or your own pitch. After agreeing the contract, the next step is a meeting with your commissioning editor and the team working on the book. For the initial meeting, it’s a good idea to prepare some rough sketches and ideas, any visual inspiration, and some examples of similar successful titles on the market. This doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or polished; for this stage I usually use a PowerPoint for images and a sketchbook for ideas and roughs.

Synopsis, layouts and pencil roughs

Once the synopsis has been pinned down, it’s time to do the roughs for each spread and this can take different forms, depending on the book. 

[Y]ou will find that, when working on illustration for non-fiction books, there is commonality in the different stages of the project but there is not just one set process or way of working. The main thing to remember is that clear and professional communication with the client and team at all times is paramount. It’s also really important to manage expectations; if you feel you are struggling with your deadline, it’s best to speak up straightaway. And remember to enjoy the process! Freelance illustration can be a solitary profession at times, so illustrating a book allows you to be part of a creative team of experts in their field, which is an inspiring and rewarding experience.

Proofs, publication, marketing and beyond

After you’ve submitted your final illustrations, what happens next? First, you will receive proofs to check. Proofs are prints of all the spreads of the book on loose sheets of paper; they will give you a pretty clear idea of what the final book will look like. After that you will receive a sample copy of the book, which for me is always a high point – it’s amazing to see the culmination of many months of hard work brought together in final form, ready to be sold.

If you have the passion and drive to continue to refine your illustrative practice, and have a considered and consistent marketing plan, you can move forward with confidence knowing that you are equipped with the knowledge and skills to make your publishing dreams a career reality. Good luck!

Frances Moffatt is a freelance illustrator and the author/illustrator of Fashion Exercise Book (Batsford 2014) and Pick up a Pen (Portico 2018). She has many years’ experience of teaching Illustration at degree level and is a co-founder of The School of Illustration (, an online learning space for both aspiring and professional illustrators. For more information see

Author photo by Ben Benoliel

Writing stage