When Books Were Illustrious

Jan 15, 2024 | Art, Business, Me, Technology, Writing

Once upon a time, illustrations in books—all books—was standard practice.

And why wouldn’t it be? Words and pictures go together like ramma-lamma-lamma-ka-dingity-da-dinga-dong. People have paired them for centuries. And as publishing modernized after the introduction of the printing press, you would be hard pressed to find a novel, textbook, or even pamphlet that lacked illustrations to give insight into the text. No one would dare to suggest that books would be better off without pictures.

Even now, the empirical reasons for visuals to accompany text are nakedly apparent: images serve as visual aids for what the writing is describing or explaining. Images also serve as a no-brainer marketing tool to give potential buyers an idea of what the text entails, condensed into a form that maximizes the economy of time. It takes only five seconds for the potential reader to interpret an image enough to make a value judgment about it—and therefore, to make a value judgment about the book attached to it.

How strange, then, that most of the twentieth century saw the abolition of illustrations from adult reading material. Suddenly, the concept of words and images sharing a spine was no longer shoo-wop-sha-whada-whadda-yippidy boom-da-boom. More than that, major publishers began to look down their noses at the notion that illustrations had any place in novels. The idea being that readers graduate from the need for pictures once they become grownups.

Of course, that decision was accompanied by a decades-long decline in adult readership. Yet while there has been some reversal of the trend in the last decade or so, the philosophy persists.

And the natural question is “Why?”. If literature from ancient Egypt through Victorian England considered illustrations indispensable, then what could have happened in the twentieth century to pump the brakes on so many millennia of precedent?

Well, it has to do with a certain invention that changed the literary landscape forever.

Enter the Comic Book

The words “comic”, “comedy”, and “common” all share an etymology. They stem from a Latin/Greek concoction that describes the idea of the general population—or perhaps we should say crowds. Comedies were stories for the common folk, the bottommost rung, the masses. This is why Dante entitled his poem The Divine Comedy, because it was written in the vernacular language of Italian rather than the aristocratic language of Latin.

And while the meaning of words changes over centuries, the idea of comedy being the literature of the unwashed commoners while tragedy caters to the elites has never quite released our society from its death grip. The snobs of the world hunt for the important stories that demonstrate how enlightened they are. They applaud the latest Oscar-winner depicting the struggles of blue-collar workers while snidely asserting that real blue-collar workers could never understand such high art.

Now, this may come as a surprise, but big-name publishers in their corner offices at New York publishing houses also think of themselves as elites. If anything, they regard themselves as even more enlightened than the snobs of Hollywood’s upper crust. After all, anyone can watch a movie. You don’t need to go to school for that. But the ability to read can only be acquired through education. And the number of books one reads has historically correlated with one’s education level. And nothing can beat the satisfaction of discussing written works with one’s peers while the maids putter about, unable to interpret the secret language of haute literature you share with their betters.

You can imagine how incensed they’d be if someone flipped that hierarchy on its head. Which is what happened once comic books became popular. The accessibility of comic books dramatically increased adult readership, and there is nothing publishers hate more than widespread adult readership. The idea that the maid might turn to them and say, “I’ve been doing some reading, too!” hits like a spiked kidney punch.

Comic books touched every nerve of this elitism. Provocative stories about murder, mad science, seduction, vigilantism, and that most unsophisticated of heroes: the cowboy. Whenever they weren’t peddling the unrefined pulp of science fiction, fantasy, or true crime, they were marketing Vaudeville antics of anthropomorphized animals pushing the kind of crass humor that one’s chauffeur or gas station attendant would celebrate! And they were so easy to read that people could easily consume dozens of them every month. Where was the comportment? Where was the dignity? Where was the prestige?

And the fact that this form of reading had been adopted so eagerly by—dare I say it?—immigrants!

It’s enough to give one the vapors.

In such dire circumstances, the elites did what they do best: they built walled gardens—the kind that can keep out certain kinds of people. Publishers couldn’t eliminate illustrations entirely. Pictures are perhaps the only way to market books to children. Many textbooks, too, require illustrations to explain high-level concepts that are difficult to define with words alone. But these were kept as simple and diagrammatical as possible. Your biology textbook needs a picture of a tiger? Fine, but it has to be a static profile. The tiger cannot be depicted performing any kind of action, such as running, feeding, or mating. Paper tigers only!

Thus the publishers built a wall—not of brick or stone or steel, but of enmity. “Sorry, Nina the maid, but that ‘book’ you supposedly read is not actually a book. You know, you only make people angry when you try to sound smart.”

This change did not stop comic books from being published, but it kept them firmly common. And naturally, it became a mark of sophistication to not include illustrations in literature. Adults, after all, should have the brainpower to understand the text with no additions. Only dummies need pictures.

It saddens me that this movie about overcoming prejudices engages in propagating this prejudice. Also, it’s an anachronism, as all books in Belle’s time would have had illustrations.

Slowly Learning Our Lesson

Having forgotten their original reasons for abolishing illustrations, publishers continued excluding them through the end of the twentieth century. Yet as the benefits of including images with words have asserted themselves, illustrations have gradually crept their way back into long-form fiction. This reversal, I must say, is taking its sweet time. Even Harry Potter limited its illustrations to thumbnails in the chapter headings. The idea that chapter books cannot be picture books continues to dissolve, layer by layer, as more publishers warm up to the idea of illustrations.

It doesn’t help that illustrations are expensive. They’re hardly the biggest money-sucker in the publishing process (looking at you, marketing and publicity), but they constitute a non-trivial expense. Most indie authors cannot afford them (and I am grateful to be a shining exception), meaning that the indie boom has not led to a similar boom in book illustration.

Yet that, too, is being disrupted by a certain invention that may change the literary landscape forever.

Enter Artificial Intelligence

At the moment, the price of book illustrations is trending toward zero—provided that the author/publisher is flexible on the subject of artistic quality.

I realize I’m sticking my foot in a fire ants’ nest by bringing up the subject of AI-generated art. So to placate the crowd, I will begin by stating that artificial intelligence will never be able to completely replace human illustrators.

How do I know this?

Because I’m not just an author—I’m also a software engineer. And having studied neural network programming (the computational paradigm that powers current AI), I can tell you where the bottlenecks are.

The great thing about neural networks is that its easy to train them to do a single thing well. The bad thing about neural networks is that they have trouble with doing multiple things well. So as AI gets more advanced, it will get better and better at, for example, single-subject portraits.

Take this recent Midjourney piece depicting the hero of my most recent novel, Advent 9.

Not bad, wouldn’t you agree? And I know some people on the internet will always insist that AI-generated art is bad and ugly. It’s a kneejerk reaction, and it needs to stop. Because AI is quite good at depicting single subjects, or when providing no subject and just letting it invent whatever it wants.

But where it breaks down, and where it will likely always break down, is trying to create a full scene, featuring multiple characters in an action-based situation.

For example, the hero Advent 9 is frequently accompanied by his tiny guardian spirits, which he calls Hummingbirds. But they are essentially little ferret dragons with fishtails and antennae.

When I ask the machine to create an image where Advent 9 interacts with these chimeras, I get the following:

It mixes everything together. Because every time you add a variable to the AI’s equation, the task becomes exponentially harder. This is the nature of neural networks.

In a nutshell, this means that artificial intelligence will be able to replace some illustrators but not others. Vague, thumbnail-style illustrations depicting a single object from a book are easy to generate. But full-page depictions of entire scenes with multiple characters interacting in some kind of event—that will always be out of reach for artificial artists.

Still, if an author/publisher does not care whether the image captures every aspect of the scene in accurate detail, AI illustration is becoming a viable option, and I expect we’ll see more of it.

The result might not be chang-chang, changity-chang-shoo-bop, but so long as it ends with John Travolta and Olivia Newton John flying away to a malt shop in the sky, it will be good enough for many people.

An Illustration Renaissance?

I eagerly await a revival of the art of illustration. For most of human history, it has been considered indispensable for books of all kinds, and I tend to agree.

Sometimes, Midjourney draws what was supposed to be a fire-breathing pig as something more like a plague rat.

And, more and more, the presence of illustrations is becoming a mark of quality. It shows that the publisher has confidence in the success of a book. These days, illustrations for novels are often reserved for A-list authors and celebrity authors. As an indie who can afford traditional illustrators, I find myself in an enviable position.

And as someone with influence, I might be able to do something about it. Who knows? Maybe I can convince traditional publishers to follow my lead?

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