Picture this: How two artists created a membership site for aspiring children’s book illustrators

Featured in this Story of Awesome: Let's Make Picture Books

Launched March 2020

Launched
March 2020

170+ Members

170+
Members

Paid <br>Membership

Paid
Membership

Let’s Make Picture Books is a paid membership site that gives aspiring children’s book illustrators the tools to build strong portfolios and get their work in front of agents and publishers.

Steph and Denise’s Mighty Moment: “We wanted to show people there’s no one way of getting into this business, and show them how two different children’s book illustrators built their careers.”

Steph Fizer Coleman and Denise Holmes both knew from personal experience that the children’s book illustrating was hard to break into.

Steph, a West Virginia-based children’s book illustrator and licensing artist, and Denise, an illustrator and picture book-maker based in Chicago, had never met in person, but they had built a personal and professional relationship after connecting through an online class five years before.

As they stayed in touch, they grew closer. And eventually they started thinking about the resources they wished they had had when they got started in the industry:

“We’d both struggled at the start of our careers. We’d both had these questions that we couldn’t get answers to. What should we put in our portfolios? How do we get an agent? How do we get in touch with publishers? When we started out, there just wasn’t a place to get those answers.”

Though there were plenty of classes, webinars and critique groups that catered to illustrators with years of experience under their belt, Steph and Denise noticed there weren’t any dedicated spaces for aspiring illustrators who were interested in the business of children’s books. They didn’t know of any groups where those illustrators could meet each other, share their art, and work towards understanding the industry:

“We wanted to create a space for people at the beginning of their illustration career who were interested in picture books, but didn’t necessarily have any work published.

We started brainstorming together: How could we build something where people could come together in an intimate environment, where they could feel really comfortable asking what they might think was a silly question, where they could work towards getting representation and getting their work out there?”

They also figured there was a lot of value in creating that space together:

“Denise and I do things a lot differently. We wanted to show people there’s no one way of getting into this business, and show them how two different children’s book illustrators built their careers.”

From teaching their own classes, Steph and Denise knew that the online course model could certainly be helpful, but that it would be even stronger with a community component. With the itch to create a dynamic, inclusive digital space, the pair considered their options. How could they share their expertise beyond the one-dimensional nature of standalone online courses?

A platform where members can navigate challenges, together

Steph and Denise had come across a couple of Facebook Groups where aspiring children’s book illustrators were connecting with each other on a surface level. But with Facebook, the pair wouldn’t be able to offer a diverse array of content, and their members wouldn’t be able to navigate challenges together and build their skills:

“We knew we wanted to offer a combination of things: Denise really wanted to do workbooks, and I thought it would be fun to do webinars on different art topics. We decided that if we were going to build a true community, we would have to go beyond Facebook.”

Thankfully, their search for an online space where they could offer community alongside a variety of resources was short lived.

As members of Art Brand Alliance, a Mighty Network aimed at bringing visual artists together, Steph and Denise were already familiar with Mighty Networks.

They too could offer a collaborative community for creatives, but they could structure it to cater to aspiring children’s book illustrators.

With a Mighty Network, Steph and Denise could give their members the resources to really succeed in their industry. They could also offer:

  • A safe space where members could reach out and ask questions that would otherwise go unanswered
  • The ability to build authentic relationships with their fellow aspiring children’s book illustrators
  • Structured monthly themes with feedback to help members build stronger portfolios
  • And because a Mighty Network was available both on the web and on mobile apps, a branded experience that they could take everywhere

Just like that, Let’s Make Picture Books had found a home.

A structure for success

When it came to sketching out the structure of Let’s Make Picture Books, Steph and Denise took their workbook idea and ran with it, using it as a way to center their community and direct members toward creating a new piece for their portfolio each month.

“We decided to build our community around the idea of a monthly workbook. So every month, we have a new workbook, with a new theme, that we release to the group, and that workbook has drawing exercises, assignments, and inspiration. That really centers everything, and the rest of our content is structured around that.”

To start, Steph and Denise opted for a single membership model–a smart move for new communities. Priced at $27.99 a month, the Let’s Make Picture Books subscription offers member-only access to:

  • The monthly workbook packed with prompts, inspiration, and exercises to spark creativity
  • A monthly webinar that covers a topic relating to the workbook theme, plus a group art critique that members can submit their work for
  • A monthly podcast that covers the business side of illustrating children’s books
  • Two video Q&A sessions every month
  • Weekly live video chats
  • Unlimited access to Topics where members can post and share their work
  • A drawing demo video

In addition to all of the above, Steph and Denise sought ways to keep their members involved throughout the month, and give them ways to contribute. For example, at the beginning of each month, they create a poll where members can vote on what topic the monthly webinar will cover:

“It was really important to us to be able to get input from our members. We wanted to make sure that people would be excited to share, but also comfortable enough to offer feedback, both to us and to each other.”

Getting ready to launch

When it came to launching, Steph and Denise took advantage of the built-in audiences they already had–their respective email lists and Instagram followers:

“We spent February on Instagram, sharing our work and just giving people a preview of what the community would look like. We also used the opportunity to tell people to join our mailing list, because that’s really where we want people to be. When you’re subscribed to our mailing list, you get first dibs on spots, which is just really valuable.”

They also made the surprising decision to limit the number of people who could enroll:

“At the top of our launch, people were surprised that we were planning to limit membership. But after the first hundred members came in, we had to shut it down. We wanted to make sure that we could keep up with everyone. We didn’t want people to feel like they signed up for a thing that we couldn’t deliver.”

Now, a couple of months in, Steph and Denise use quarterly enrollment windows to keep the group manageable. Every four months, potential members get the chance to sign up during the first three days of the month or until spots fill up.

With quarterly enrollment, Steph and Denise are able to provide valuable, individual feedback to each of their members as they progress through their themed monthly workbooks. Because they are a central part of Steph and Denise’s paid membership, each month’s workbook is taken down at the end of the month. That way, new members don’t get access to previous workbooks, but they do get a chance to work with new workbooks, plus topics, webinar replays, podcasts, and more.

Quarterly enrollment also helps the pair ensure that their community isn’t distracted by new members popping up halfway through the month:

“We want to make sure that people have the best experience. So with quarterly enrollment, everybody’s in the same spot in the process, and you don’t have people just randomly popping up and not being part of the group dynamic. It makes it a lot easier to make sure we’re providing a high-value experience to our members.”

Once members join, Steph sends them a message welcoming them to the group, showing them how to get started, and directing them to an intake survey where they can talk about the things they want to focus on, and what areas they need help with. And to make sure they hear from everyone, Steph follows up with a reminder a few days in, using Mighty Networks’ All Member Chat feature. So far, it’s working, with about 80% of new members completing the survey in April.

Because of that, the survey, which Steph and Denise created with Google Forms, has become an indispensable tool, helping the pair get an idea of where their members are coming from, and gauge whether members would be interested in expanding into peer groups, coaching sessions, or peer reviews:

“Using the survey has really helped us to pinpoint what people need help with, and what people are interested in. When you’ve been doing a thing for so long like we have, you forget the things that you were worried about when you first started out. The surveys help bring us back to that.”

Looking towards the future

Today, Let’s Make Picture Books has 170 members across the globe, from the United States and Europe to New Zealand and Australia.

And Steph and Denise are already thinking about expanding:

“We’re already feeling more comfortable with the idea of letting more people in, just to keep the community going. We want to make sure there are always enough people in there interacting with each other, commenting on each other’s work, and tapping into each other’s stories.”

The pair are also thinking about new ways to deliver content, including live interviews with illustrators and agents in the industry, integrating online course content, and offering workbooks as a standalone product.

“We’re constantly asking ourselves, “What would be the best way to do this for our members?” We’re figuring it out as we go.”

For now, though, Let’s Make Picture Books is well on its way to being a valuable investment, both for its members, and for its creators too.

3 key takeaways from Let's Make Picture Books’ Story of Awesome

  1. Start with what’s in front of you.  Steph and Denise used their Instagram followings and email lists to build a following. Even if you’re starting from scratch, it pays to get in touch with your personal and professional contacts, and reach out to people who have common interests.
  2. Ask for ideas and feedback. Making sure your community aligns with your members’ needs, and vice versa, will pay off big in the long run. Resources like surveys and live Q&A sessions can help you stay connected to your members as you master something interesting together.
  3. Know your limits. Steph and Denise knew early on that keeping their group smaller would allow them to offer each of their members a high-value experience, and that’s just fine. After all, iIt’s a lot easier to set yourself up for success with small numbers, then scale up in the future.

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