Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Penny-Pinching Picture Research

Before I began writing for children, I worked as a picture researcher for an educational interactive multimedia company. When I began writing nonfiction children’s books, my old job experience proved financially and literarily (?!) valuable. In my next life I want to be an author-illustrator, but in this one, having no talent in drawing or painting, I settle for doing my own picture research. Through my choice of pictures and captions I can strengthen my narrative. Picture research begins during content research, when I photocopy all images I might use, along with source information.

Paean to the Internet
Twenty years ago I began by making a long wish list of illustrations for a project. I faxed this to the Library of Congress (and other venues,) waited a few weeks for photocopies to arrive in the mail, then sorted through them.
Today I enter and instantly access tens of thousands of images, and not just American history. Just now, searching “ostrich” I found 70 entries including art prints, political cartoons, landscapes, and much more from around the world. I especially enjoyed “Mud mosque in Mali with three minarets topped by ostrich eggs.” Be careful. It’s easy to while away countless hours browsing this amazing site.

Bargain hunting
Picture researchers for glossy magazines and high-profile books will turn to stock houses first. As a children’s author, that’s the last place I look. Some publishers will give authors a photo budget; some will require you to pay for photos; some will pay upfront, then take the costs from royalties. (By photos I mean all illustrative material.) Three types of fees may apply: research fees to find the photos; print (or scan) fees for the image itself; and permission fees to the copyright holder.
Tasks to avoid: the enormous job of acquiring prints and scans, sending letters and invoices, paying invoices, and getting permission releases for every single image. Get your publisher to do that, if you possibly can.
Whatever your agreement, you’ll want to get the most for your money. Here is how to do that:
• Library of Congress – Much, though not all, of their collection is in the public domain. This means you will pay print fees, but not permission fees. LC doesn’t do research for you. If you don’t find what you want online and can’t travel to Washington, you’ll have to hire a private researcher to go through the files of prints. (If you do visit the Library, you can spend blissful days browsing…..)
• Government agencies – NASA, NOAA, USGS, and many other public agencies have old and new photos, as well as charts, graphs, maps and the like – all in the public domain. National tourism agencies, here and abroad, also offer free or cheap photos.
• Private companies – They are often happy to give you illustrations for free.
• Historical societies – These are great sources for local subjects and landscapes, and for material like maps, documents, letters, etc. You may have to pay the staff for extensive research, but they often reduce or even waive permission fees if you say the magic words: “children’s book.”
• University and large public libraries – Libraries offer many of the advantages of historical societies. In addition they may have the “papers of” your subject or subjects relating to your subject. “Papers of” are often microfilmed and if you can’t visit the source library, they will send the microfilm to your local public library through interlibrary loan. Ask about “ephemera” which may be found outside the prints and photos collection. For my book on Jeannette Rankin I located the menu for a 1913 Montana suffragist luncheon: “roast young Montana turkey with chestnut dressing.” I also found suffragist lyrics to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
• Museums – Art, history, and natural history museums are great sources for illustrations, but prices are higher. The magic words “children’s book” probably won’t lower your permission fees, though you might negotiate if you buy several images.
• Stock houses – These act as agents for freelance photographers, news photos, and some historical collections. Permissions fees are high – in the hundreds of dollars (or more) – and are usually non-negotiable.

Visit libraries and archives whenever possible and browse. I found several wonderful windmill-related images for The Wind at Work in an old postcard collection at a museum. These weren’t cataloged and I doubt a librarian-researcher would have thumbed through the boxes.

When I’ve gathered more than enough possible illustrations, I send copies to my editor and we cull them together. At this point we discuss how many high-priced images we really need. Be sensible, but not miserly. That gorgeous image that costs $500 may be like the designer shoes or crystal vase that brings you joy for years to come. And unlike the shoes, your perfect illustration is tax-deductible.

Please add your tips on penny-pinching picture resesarch to the comment file below.


Linda Salzman said...

I was told that photos from State Historic Sites can be used for free, simply giving credit to the source. At the Grover Cleveland Birthplace, I was able to look at unpublished family photos taken by Mrs. Cleveland which were all available for free.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Another way to obtain cheap pix, of course, is to take them yourself! See Linda's wonderful picture of Churchill's chamber pot, shown in her recent post.