Image: Matthew Loffhagen
For a certain type of reader, a book that includes a map of its setting is catnip. For these readers, your blurb, your title, and your cover are secondary concerns: the map’s the thing, and you had them as soon as they saw it.
For other readers, a map is a nice addition – especially if you use it to improve the narrative experience or, in the case of non-fiction, help the reader understand the logistics of your key events. At the same time, there are almost no prospective readers who will be turned off by a little cartography, so it’s easy to see why so many authors opt for the win-win arrangement of commissioning and including maps in their books.
If you’re an author who’d like to travel this path, you’re in luck, because in today’s article, I’m going to be talking about what you need to know about including a map in your book.
Before you decide on a map…
I already said that readers like maps, but it’s rare that they need them. Adding an extra feature to your book is always going to come with extra hassles – if your map necessitates color printing, you just made your printing more expensive, for example – so it’s inadvisable to do it out of some nebulous sense that it’s expected of you. Unless you’re a travel writer whose unique selling point is your chosen route, it’s not, so if you came here with the question, ‘Do I have to have a map?’ then the answer is almost certainly, ‘No.’
If you want to add a map, that’s a different matter entirely, but you still shouldn’t rush into commissioning an illustration. First, make sure you’re not depending on your map to do anything your prose should be able to handle. While it’s unlikely your readers will be annoyed by your map, that doesn’t mean they’re willing to use it, and there’s a large contingent of readers who will see your map, smile, and then never turn to it again. This holds true even if the story starts describing journeys that the map would really make clearer; a surprising amount of people just aren’t willing to do the reference work to get that extra context. Or, more crucially, the point at which they’re willing to give up on the book comes before the point at which they’re willing to consult the map.
As with most preferences, this exists on a spectrum, but there are a significant number of readers who experience reading prose as a specific mindset; one they’re not comfortable snapping out of on a whim. For this reason (and because your prose will benefit from being ‘whole’ anyway,) it’s better to use a map as a supplementary feature rather than an essential aspect of your book.
The easiest way to do this is to not decide whether or not to include a map until you’re almost done with the book. That way, you don’t allow yourself the luxury of assuming the map will handle the heavy lifting of your description. If you already know you’re including a map, at least don’t commission it until your book is in its later drafts.
A final thing to consider is whether you’re limiting yourself with your choice of map. Maps are particularly common in fantasy epics, but these stories also tend to run and run. If your map cements the fact of a distance or location, you’re either stuck with that fact in later stories or you’ll have to work around it. Some fans of Game of Thrones were irritated when, in later seasons, the TV show started fudging established distances in order to move characters around in a way that was advantageous to the plot. Unsurprisingly, this started to become an issue when the show deviated from the famously detail-oriented book series from which it’s adapted. The type of reader who loves a map is also the type of reader who notices this kind of discrepancy, so be sure that you’re not hamstrung by any of the details a map sets in stone.
This was a cardinal worry for fantasy author Terry Pratchett, who initially claimed that he would never create a map of his fictional Discworld for exactly this reason. Eventually, Pratchett had a change of heart – partly because the rules of his world make setting a little more malleable than for other authors, but partly because he came to see that the details a map added were just as valuable as the uncertainty they replaced.
I said there would never be a map of the Discworld. This is it… People asked me if this fossilization of the imagination will prevent future stories. Well, London and New York have been mapped for some time, and still seem attractive as locations for novelists.– Terry Pratchett, The Discworld Mapp
What not to do
Okay, so you want to include a map. The first thing to do is to hire someone to create it for you, and we’ll get to that, but first let’s cover the steps to avoid in the meantime.
First, don’t try to create a map yourself. If you’re the type of illustrator or graphic designer who knows they have the requisite skillset, I’m sure you’ll ignore this advice, so I feel comfortable making a blanket statement: don’t try to draw your own map.
A scrawled, unprofessional map is far worse than no map, and since we already made sure that you don’t need a map, the only reason to include one is to enhance your book. This applies even if the map you’re creating is scrawled and unprofessional in the story; these days, it takes a lot of skill to make something look slapdash. An illustrated map needs to scale, it needs to be the right file type, and it needs to avoid tripping any alarms the reader has prepped for authors who are biting off more than they can chew.
Second, don’t try and steal an existing map. If you’re a fantasy author, don’t turn a random atlas upside down and use that for your fantasy continents. If you’re a non-fiction author, don’t use a map of your local area just because that’s where you’re writing about and the map is accurate. Maps have owners, and those owners have extensive legal protections to stop you using their map, whether you adjusted it or not.
As an example of how inadvisable it is to use an existing map, consider the phenomenon of the trap street; a fake entry on a map there to use as proof of copyright violations if the map is used without its owner’s permission. Trap streets might include nonexistent features or deliberately inaccurate details like the shape of roads or the elevation of topography. You can turn the world upside down, stretch it, change its color, but if someone else drew it in the first place, you’re going to find yourself in a world of trouble.
If there’s a map you really want to use, it’s worth contacting the owner to see if they’ll give you permission, and you can try your luck with public domain maps that you’re allowed to use for free. Otherwise, the best idea is to pay someone to do it for you. A map is a relatively flashy addition to a book that can easily look unprofessional if you get it wrong, so this is one of those situations where if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
How to find an artist
Finding an artist and/or cartographer to create your map is likely to be pretty easy, since the internet is teeming with illustrators happy to take commissions from authors. Cheap sites like Upwork, Freelancer, and Fiverr will connect you with freelancers, but such sites justify charging a minimal fee by having strict rules for customers and freelancers. Since you’re likely looking for a relationship with more give and take than a single mandated set of revisions, it can be useful to Google around a little more creatively for illustrators or use these sites to establish a relationship which you then take elsewhere.
Another approach is to check out sites like Deviant Art or Reddit, where artists share their work in forums. Since these sites aren’t stores, it may take a little more work to make contact, but most freelance illustrators are trying their best to find work, so a little dedicated searching will give you some options.
We’ll move onto how to work with an artist in a moment, but before the specifics, there are three things to get straight. The first is that you like their work. Ask to see samples and, if possible, any testimonials from satisfied clients. It’s essential that the artist you choose is capable of delivering what you want, and that’s a judgement call you need to make early on. Never assume that an artist is going to meet standards you haven’t already seen them meet – art is subjective, and if you enter into a commission with inaccurate expectations, you’re setting yourself up for a situation where both parties feel wronged.
The second thing to get straight is who’ll have the rights to the finished map. Ideally, you want to own the rights to the map and be the only one who can use it. This is the arrangement most illustrators expect, but be sure to confirm this before any money changes hands. The artist may want to give you exclusive rights to the map but be able to use some version of it in their marketing or portfolio, and however you feel about that, you need to be on the same page before the map is created. As a matter of courtesy, you should credit the artist who creates your map anywhere it appears, and again, this is something most artists will expect but which should be set in stone before any contract is entered into.
The third thing to get straight is exactly what service you’re paying for. Pretty much no artist you hire online is going to be able to offer you endless revisions, and they likely have a set number of times you can make changes without incurring an extra charge. Have them lay out, in the plainest of terms, exactly what you get for your money. Don’t forget to consider timeframe – your artist may not know exactly how quickly they can get your map to you until you describe it, but they can give you an estimate, and that’s going to help you avoid a bunch of potential problems down the line. Finally, consider the difference between a map and an illustration – most illustrators can draw your setting, but cartography is its own profession, and they may not know how to add the features of an actual map. Be clear about what you want and make sure you’re talking to someone who can provide it.
How to work with an artist
Your artist and/or cartographer is going to be working to your specifications, so an essential part of commissioning a map is knowing what you’re asking for. Do you want a completely top-down view or a slight angle? What scale do you want to use, do you care about elevation markings, and are there any in-universe rules that the illustrator needs to know about?
It’s worth pausing here to say that ‘needs’ really does mean ‘needs.’ Your illustrator is getting paid to create a map, and they need to know certain things to create that map, but it’s unreasonable to expect them to learn the fine details of your fictional world. An illustrator needs to know distances and sizes, but history only matters in terms of practical outcomes. For instance, it’s fine to ask your illustrator not to use any purple, but it’s over the line to send them an essay on the fictional trade war that would have made that type of dye unobtainable during the fictional period in which the map was first drawn.
Have reference materials ready to provide, including a few examples of the type of map you want and both a list of key elements and a sketched version of your own. Use short sentences and bullet-point lists to ensure clarity – illustration tends to take place over multiple sessions, so your reference materials are there to check, not to memorize.
Budgeting for your map
Hiring an illustrator is just like hiring any other type of professional, and you’ll need to set an agreed price for their work and budget accordingly. Most working illustrators will require some kind of down payment, but be sure that any deal also works for you, especially if you’re working with a fledgling illustrator who doesn’t yet have a history of good business. If your illustration is going to be formatted, you’re likely to need multiple file types, and most illustrators will be willing to either charge a down payment and accept the rest after files have been delivered or – if they’ve been burned by dine-and-dash clients before – at least to deliver some files before you’re expected to fork over the entire fee.
If you’re the one funding your map, be sure to get your money’s worth. Consider the map’s potential use in your marketing, your online presence, and perhaps your cover design. You could even consider how a map could be cut up to give it multiple uses. A world map is a great resource, but if your entire book charts the course of one battle, it’s feasible to use just that section of the map that concerns your immediate story and save the rest for later in the series. That way, you paid for one map and your reader got two.
Map to success
Maps are a great way to make the world of your story feel real to the reader, and while freelance culture has a lot to answer for, it does mean that illustrated maps are an option even for self-publishing authors. Set a budget, be clear about what you want, treat your illustrator as a fellow creative professional and you’ll find that including a map in your work is far easier than you might have expected.
Have you worked with an illustrator to create a map for your book? Share your experience in the comments and, for more insight into this topic, check out What You Need To Know About Setting Your Fiction In Another Country, What Authors Need To Know About Ships And Spaceships, and Should Authors Use Familiar Places As Story Settings?