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Lately I've been thinking that I don't know of a single novel that has illustrations in it. I've tried finding out the reason why, and came across an article published in The Guardian in 2011, but it didn't arrive to any conclusions or provided an explanation for this.

I come from a visual medium, so complementing the writing with visual aids seems pretty logical to me. I thought of two reasons why this isn't more common, first being that most writers aren't visual artists, which is reasonable, and the second that printing expensive, and pictures would increase the cost significantly. But in a situation where the writer also likes to draw / illustrate and is not bound by cost (an e-book for example), would there be any drawbacks from providing pictures with the novel?

Maps seem to be an exception for this, since they are somewhat common in fantasy works.

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    It's a good question. One of my goals is to successfully publish an illustrated novel, though it all depends on what works for the book (not to mention publisher). – Cyn says make Monica whole Aug 19 '19 at 21:30
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    Fun Fact: The pieces of the eastern "light novel" genre almost always feature illustrations. With each publisher usually having their own associated illustrators. – Ceiling Gecko Aug 20 '19 at 9:16
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    A lot of Kurt Vonnegut novels have his little doodles in. Breakfast of Champions is particularly doodly. – Whelkaholism Aug 20 '19 at 11:46
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    @Whelkaholism He's not the only one, either. I'm frankly surprised by the amount of answers that suggest this is very rare... it's not. I've seen the occasional illustration in many, many novels by many authors. Vonnegut is the first example that jumped to mind, but it's not THAT rare. – user91988 Aug 20 '19 at 16:40
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    Not worth an answer on its own, but Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series has illustrations throughout. Notable in that one of his major characters is an artist, and the drawings are supposed to represent her work, not necessarily something of importance to the reader. – Michael W. Aug 20 '19 at 21:13

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There are exceptions to the "no illustrations" trend. For example, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel is filled with black-and-white illustrations reminiscent of the wood engravings that would have accompanied 19th-century books. This is in line with the novel's general style, a tribute to 19th century literature.

However, in general, you are right - illustrations are rare, particularly in paperbacks. The issue, as you've guessed, is the price. There's paying the artist; there's printing the illustrations - ink costs money, particularly if you want coloured illustrations; there's arranging the pages so the illustrations fit in. In order for a coloured illustration to go in a paperback, it needs to be on a separate page of different paper quality; if the illustration is black and white, it still means more paper. All of those elements add up to make the illustrated book more expensive to produce. If you provide the illustrations, you eliminate one element here, but not all.

If a publisher is going to invest more money in an illustrated print, they need to know the investment will pay off. They need to know enough buyers would be willing to pay the extra cost to cover the publisher's expenses. With a new writer, that's unlikely to happen - a new writer is a risk as is, their books might not sell. Which is why you see illustrated editions of established writers, particularly of their best-known works. Examples are J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea. In both cases, the books in question have become a classic, so there's no risk for the publisher in printing hardbacks with coloured illustrations.

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    Good answer, but I'd change "enough buyers" to "enough additional buyers". In other words, they'd want to know enough extra readers would be specifically attracted by the illustrations to justify the cost. Also, in the case of an illustrated classic, the illustrations serve as a value-add enticement to buy the new edition over (or in addition to) all the existing editions. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Aug 19 '19 at 21:11
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    @Sean: As I understand, the fairly low-quality paper used in most paperbacks (especially in cheap ones) doesn’t hold ink very accurately, and because colour printing is based on overlaying different ink layers (e.g. CMYK), slight misalignment/inaccuracy in the ink placement will affect colour printing much worse than it affects black-and-white. – PLL Aug 20 '19 at 5:46
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    @Sean: I'm no expert, but looking through a few graphic novels I have lying around, the colors are definitely on higher-quality paper than the black-and-whites. So there's definitely a reason of some sort. – Kevin Aug 20 '19 at 6:39
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    @Kevin You do get lower quality paper for some comic books, but that comes with a reduction in print quality and illustrations that will fade or discolour more rapidly. – DoctorPenguin Aug 20 '19 at 9:13
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    If this is the main reason, we could see a rise of illustrated e-books in the near future ? – Falco Aug 20 '19 at 9:50
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Books for young children --including novels --are almost always illustrated, and the younger the audience age, the more elaborate and central the illustrations. Middle grade novels frequently have at-least spot illustrations --and novel/graphic-novel hybrids like the Wimpy Kid series are not uncommon. Even young adult novels often have at least some illustrations, but it is rare in adult fiction. (The City of Dreaming Books series is a notable exception --it was illustrated by the author. However, it's a unique work, that would probably have been characterized as a children's book if it had been initially published in America.) There's also the occasional picture book aimed at adults, but these are very rare --Griffin & Sabine and Masquerade are the only two that come readily to mind for me.

The probable reason is that children demand illustrations in their books, but adults are perfectly content to read pure text. In other words, it's market-driven. There may be adult readers who like illustrations, but those pictures probably aren't selling extra copies like they are for children's books. That, in turn, means illustrations aren't likely to be something the publisher wants --they'd either have to be essential to the text or insisted upon by the author. In both cases, the author would probably already need to have some pull with the publisher --to either be a known seller, or to be considered an especially good bet. It's a similar situation with Author's Notes. Most publishers won't include these except as a favor to a well-known author. This may seem like excessive cheapness on the part of the publisher, but books typically have small profit margins, so shaving a few cents per copy can help.

Interestingly enough, adult non-fiction is more likely to be illustrated than fiction --perhaps the drier subject matter needs more help to be appealing! Also, as @Galastel mentioned, classic books are often re-released in lavishly illustrated editions. This is because there are already competing editions available, and the publisher needs something to distinguish their version from the pack (and potentially get book-lovers to shell out new money for a book that they already own). That's also why classics often get the full treatment in other ways --leatherbound editions, and so forth.

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  • that is because children need some help to imagine what things look like.. if the words say "Faced with a giant of a man in sliver armor riding a white charger" ... well a 5 year old would need a lot of help picturing that... – dolphin_of_france Aug 19 '19 at 21:55
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    For your last paragraph: It might also be because, when talking about a real thing (rather than a fictional one) it is more important not to allow the reader to rely on their imagination. – Chronocidal Aug 20 '19 at 8:33
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    @dolphin_of_france Citation needed. I think that's the first time I've heard small children charged with lack of attention. I think rather it is that small children don't generally have the reading skill to get absorbed into prose, and the pictures provide an enjoyable change of pace. In the case of children being read to, it gives something to look at. – mattdm Aug 21 '19 at 13:37
  • as a child I hated it when I had imagined a book's world in my own phantasy, and then got an illustrated version not matching my mental images. or a film... with rare exceptions. – dlatikay Aug 21 '19 at 20:16
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In general, @Galastel is correct; the problem is the costs. That said, the first Harry Potter Book by J.K. Rowling contains "illustrations", my copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" contains graphical signatures, symbols or handwriting on 9 pages. These are all black and white only; and typically no more than a quarter page tall. In at least one case the text says the ink is green, but the image is rendered as black text. I notice also they appear without anything to the left or right; so no text has to be flowed around the image.

That makes them "low resolution" graphics that do not require special paper, ink, or typesetting. Some care must be taken in formatting the book to ensure there is vertical space to present the image where Rowling intended; that can tend to leave blank space at the end of one page (the widows and orphans typesetting issue). This is probably why the images are kept short (vertically).

I believe I have also seen low resolution full page black and white maps at the front of books, or at the front of chapters. Again, these would be not special paper, and not hard to fit into these positions (no typesetting issues).

When illustrations require special paper this creates a collating problem; the special pages must be inserted into the book in the correct positions before the book is bound. The paper is also less porous, and the cheap glue used to hold regular pages can release the illustration pages.

Automating the collation without endless paper jams demands printing the book in sections that are then stacked together for binding. This is prone to error. That is why in many illustrated non-fiction books for medicine or science, we find all the illustrations together in a block, instead of dispersed throughout the book near the text that references them.

And finally, publishers tend to be very discerning consumers of artwork, their business depends on extremely high quality artwork that sells the book. They will pay $thousands for illustrations. Compare that to the typical advance given to a first time author, in the $3000 range.

Author illustrations tend to be amateurish and poorly executed, publishers don't want to put their name to them, and paying for illustrations would make the book far more expensive than usual.

Things like standalone B&W maps, or signatures, handwriting or handwritten filigree like Rowling produced, publishers can work around that in layout. But for actual illustrations they want an experienced artist they trust.

I will also note that if your book relies on illustrations for any kind of clarity, your audiobook and visually impaired audience just left the building. That is also something for professional marketers to consider, the reduced sales potential of a book.

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  • I've definitely seen cases where an adult novel shows a symbol of some sort as an image, roughly inline with the text. I believe one of the Robert Langdon novels (Da Vinci Code, etc.) does this. Neal Stephenson has also done it. – Stephen R Aug 22 '19 at 19:04
  • @StephenR Sure. I wonder how they dealt with that in audio-book format. Maybe they added a verbal description of it. Personally, although I draw a rough map of my world to keep things straight, I never include them. For one I draw like a dog with a pencil in its mouth, but I also think anything important about the geography should come across in the text. I only keep a map so I don't write that a trip took two days in Chapter 2, and then write that it took a week in Chapter 18. It's just to prevent dumb errors on my part. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 22 '19 at 20:50
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Illustrations tend to be pretty popular in fantasy and (to a lesser degree) sci-fi books - authors often include maps to give people an idea about the geography of the worlds they've created.

However, I'm generally not a fan of such things. There's a few reasons for this:

1) The illustration quality is often poor - paperback books especially are rarely printed on high-quality paper, and the monochrome printing process tends to destroy any finer detail, especially when it comes to older books from the 70s and 80s

2) They can be physically difficult to view. Again, with paperback books in particular, pages are generally viewed "curved" thanks to the way they're all glued together. The only way to make a page flat is to break the spine of the book!

3) The illustrations rarely add anything "extra" to the story

4) Having to refer back to the illustrations breaks you out of the story

5) They can actively conflict with my "internal" visualisations

(The final point also applies to book covers - as I understand it, these are often produced by artists who may only have a brief description or a few sample pages from the book, and hence can be wildly inaccurate. A recent discussion over on Ars Technica, about the Wheel of Time series threw up the fact that one cover features a character who was later completely written out of the story!)

It's not just illustrations - I've read the Lord of the Rings books many times since I was a child, but I've never once made a serious effort to sing or recite the various songs and poems. In fact, I usually just skip them altogether!

In general, I view illustrations and other "non-story" elements to be like DVD extras. It's nice that they've been included, but it's rare that I'm interested enough to spend time looking at them.

If anything, I tend to think that they've been included more for the author's benefit than the reader!

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  • Good answer. Welcome to the site! – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 20 '19 at 13:39
  • I've read a handful of novels that have illustrations. Umm, "The Magic Goes Away" by Larry Niven, one of the dragon rider books by Anne McCaffery, probably others I'm not thinking of. I agree that they don't really seem to add much. – Jay Aug 20 '19 at 21:08
  • I think there was a trend for more illustrations in the 1960's thru early 80's. I think I remember some Gordon Dickson novels with illos, Jack Finney's Time and Again, and probably many others. (Also typographical stuff, like in Bester's The Demolished Man, but that was 1953) – The Photon Aug 21 '19 at 21:19
  • Reasons 3-4-5 are key. A well written novel will let the reader form the visual world in their imagination. An illustration substitutes someone else's vision for the reader's, diminishing the writing. – rebusB Aug 22 '19 at 15:04
  • Time And Again is an exception. He was specifically working actual historic photos into the narrative – Stephen R Aug 22 '19 at 20:52
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Many good points here. I won't repeat what others have said. Let me just add ...

Color illustrations are particularly a problem. Printing a color page is more expensive than printing a black & white page. So if there are color pictures in the book, do we print the whole book in "color", when in fact for 90% of the pages the only colors are black and white? That would greatly multiply printing costs. Or do we print just the pages that actually have color in a color process? But then we have to insert those pages into the right places in the black & white pages. Complicated and error prone.

I once wrote a software package for the Air Force that read PDF files of their technical manuals and separated out color pages and fold-out pages from the plain black & white, routed them to separate printers, and then produced what they called a "reproduction assembly sheet" that gave the printing people instructions on how to put it all back together. It was a gigantic pain for everyone.

Furthermore, as someone else briefly mentioned, even for an eBook or a print-on-demand book, you have to figure out where the illustrations go in the book. I've written several POD books that had charts and diagrams -- not pictures but they presented the same problem: You had to figure out what page to put them on and where on the page and how to flow text around them. This is a gigantic pain in layout. Then you edit the text, add one word or fix a spelling mistake, and the placement of all these illustrations could be ruined and you have to do it all over again. Microsoft Word says it automatically flows illustrations with the text. If this really works, I haven't figured out the trick.

So putting illustrations in a book is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. That doesn't mean you never do it, but it means you should think carefully about it.

I wrote a book on database design where I included a number of diagrams and some cartoons to lighten the mood, and I thought it was worth the effort. But it was a lot of effort.

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Aside from children books, there's an entire novel industry whose one of the main appeals is the inclusion of illustrations: the light novel industry in Japan.

In the good old days, pulp magazines were a cheap way to consume literature. These magazines usually included many short stories within a single issue, with popular characters (such as Doc Savage and The Spider) having their own magazines.

Spicy Mystery Stories Vol. 2 #4

Unlike novels, the cover art of pulps actually played a major role in the marketing side. And at some point in time, they also began including illustrations within the magazine depicting elements of the stories.

"I Confess" Vol. 9 #1

While the west pulp industry declined by the 50s, Japanese pulps still sold. Eventually, the magazine format was mostly replaced by the novel format, but the major role of illustrations remained the same. As publishers wanted to drag the attention of anime and manga fans, the art of light novels inherited the characteristic anime/manga aesthetics (big eyes, impossible hair/eye colors, etc.).

Sword Art Online Vol. 7

Soon, the light novel industry found its place along other media industries. Anime, manga and live-action adaptations of popular light novels would attract new readers, more readers would demand the creation of more light novels, more light novels would spawn more adaptations, and so on. The light novel industry slowly grew in the following years until the anime adaptation of the Haruhi Suzumiya series skyrocketed the popularity of the medium in an unprecedented way. Many of the most popular franchises of the last years started as light novels.

Nowadays it's hard to imagine a light novel series without a strong emphasis in illustrations, as it has been one of its selling points since its inception.

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If you're one of the lucky few with talents both in text and image, enjoy it and be sure to take advantage of it. But you should recognize some things:

First, in the online world we frequently rely on photographs and stock images to illustrate our point. That might work in the ebook world, but you have spend extra time and money to obtain/clear the rights.

Image production might take away time and effort from storytelling. Illustrations often don't enhance the story but merely serve as window dressing. It doesn't make a mediocre story prettier. If you're using stock images, I personally think it looks tacky inside an ebook.

Formatting images on ebooks can be hard and require testing on different display sizes. Think of this: How can my visual idea work on both a phone display and a tablet display?

It's not the same thing, but I do an online story project which involves selecting public domain art as evocative illustrations for my stories. I think it works, but I make it a point not to make the image subject relate directly to the story themselves. (The images are metaphorical and abstract). I am now involved in making an ebook version of these stories, and I think the images will definitely enhance the ebook -- though the task of testing images in ebooks on different display sizes can be daunting. (Over the last few years I have developed some formatting tricks about images in ebooks. I describe my best one in this blogpost).

I don't think ebooks have taken advantage of text/image blending yet (mainly for technical reasons). There's a lot of potential here. I've noticed that a lot of teen/middle school fiction use hybrid forms in their printed books that look like doodling. I think that using art that looks like doodling in a story can add value to it -- especially if it's consistent with the protagonist's point of view. At the same time, while this is easy to format in a printed book, on an ebook it would be more challenging.

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It's an entirely Western thing to not have illustrations in novels. The general consensus I found in other boards is that, "Illustrations lack maturity, thus they are only in children's to YA books." The other drawback is the cost of hiring an artist and having them draw stuff.

The artistic reason is that a "good" author should be able to paint the picture in your head, while a "bad" author needs to rely on visuals to get their point across. Graphic novels, where the art is used to convey the story (as opposed to illustrations showing a few scenes) falls into a middle ground, however there is still the cost of hiring an artist (unless, as OP is, you are so inclined).

If you want examples of novels with illustrations, you need to look East a little ways. Japanese light novels, the cheaper alternative to their manga, are exactly what you describe. Even there, however, the images are added later (since many modern light novels are adapted from web novels, which are even cheaper to produce) and are used as a marketing tool rather than artistic choice.

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I see that the question is this:

But in a situation where the writer also likes to draw / illustrate and is not bound by cost (an e-book for example), would there be any drawbacks from providing pictures with the novel?

It’s generated a lively conversation about the merits of illustrations in novels and the considerations on the publisher’s end.

I would think the only drawbacks in adding illustrations to an ebook would be creative, and practical as far as the execution of the images.

If illustrations aren’t required, or if they wouldn’t add to the experience of reading the book then they’d be extraneous. Less is often more. It would also be an issue if they were used as a crutch to “illustrate” the story instead of the prose illustrating the story, if you get my drift.

In some cases illustrations (diagrams, maps, etc.) could be necessary in conveying the story to the reader. However this brings up the issue of future reprints, and whether the illustrations would come with the prose in a future print.

If illustrations aren’t necessary, they’re icing on the cake. So here the consideration is first that it wouldn’t detract from the text by cluttering it. But, if the text could use some images to decorate it, it’s a serious issue that the illustrations be of 1) professional technical quality and 2) be talented interpretations of the text. In other words, the images have to be executed by a someone who is technically competent in drawing. Then, importantly, the illustrator has to have a subtle talent of interpretation.

For an ebook the author isn’t very likely to have the budget to hire a professional illustrator.

If there’s a way to keep it simple, okay, but then use discretion to be sure the images do add to the artistic value of the book.

Kate Bunting brings up the interesting point that in the Victorian days novels were often illustrated. It added to the readers’ enjoyment and it became Cost effective for publishers based on new printing technologies. It looks like it ended as a trend with the coming of movies.

Historians of Western illustrated fiction mostly agree that film replaced the illustrated book. A review of the 1915 film adaptation of Vanity Fair said that "the reels make a set of illustrations superior to the conventional pen-pictures of a deluxe edition."

wikipedia entry

Also novels were becoming more abstract and “modernist” i.e. internalized and disjointed, so illustration was less appropriate. Before this, some serious writers like Henry James thought they were redundant to the inherent visuals in his prose, other writers were concerned the illustrations could misinterpret the writing.

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Illustrations do not add much to a novel. If anything, it often detracts from it. Part of the joy of reading (for many) is to imagine what the people and the places look like.

Having illustrations takes that from the readers.

On top of that, the illustrator and the author are rarely the same person. And since no 2 people share the same vision (on anything), it is just an added layer of work and conflict.

So illustrations aren't so much as frowned upon, as they are unnecessary.

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    I don't think this answer deserves to be downvoted like this. It reminds me of this answer on another question. That example of the torture machine in 1984 seems like a good reason to sometimes prefer leaving stuff to the imagination. – JoL Aug 20 '19 at 18:34
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    "it often detracts from it" - I agree, and this would have been the answer I would have written. Although this no doubt depends on the type of illustration, but where an illustration attempts to depict a scene / character from the story, this invariably differs from my imagination and somewhat destroys the immersive experience for me. "Cost" is not really an issue, if it's "unnecessary" in the first place. – MrWhite Aug 20 '19 at 23:40
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    Agree whole-heartedly. Authors of novels are free to lean upon illustrations if they wish, but then tennis doesn't actually require a net, right? -- The writing should convey the idea, and illustrations will detract as much as they add, through possible distraction and assured disagreement about the appearance of the thing. Some world-class artists and free-thinkers have done well with illustrations in novels. Good for them. -- I have a suspicion that any time something "must" be illustrated is just the author focusing too much on details that do not matter or should be better described. – user19004 Aug 21 '19 at 9:15
  • Wait what? This is getting downvoted with no comments to explain why? (Step it up craven downvoters.) Seems like the most concise and accurate answer to the question IMHO. +1 – rebusB Aug 22 '19 at 15:08
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Adult novels were often illustrated in the 19th century, perhaps because they had often been serialised in a magazine first. Thackeray famously drew his own illustrations for 'Vanity Fair', showing the female characters in the costume of his own time (crinolines) because he thought Regency ladies' fashions were so ugly!

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    Welcome to Writing.SE, Kate! Take a look at our tour and help center pages, they're all kinds of useful. :) That's an interesting piece of information you provide. Do you know when the situation changed, and why? Note the OP's intent with the question would be with a view of publishing illustrated works now, so in itself the information that it used to be common isn't quite sufficient. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 21 '19 at 13:30

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