Here’s a topic I get asked about a lot. For many it seems that the world of agents is a mystery, a whispered myth that they don’t fully understand, yet hear rumors of representation, connections and commission rates.
Whenever I talk to someone curious about illustration agencies, it usually leads to a mouthful of questions including; “Should I get an agent?” , “What does an agent do?”, “How do I get an agent?!” Or “Will I be able to quit my job and live a life of luxury once I get an agent?!”
To answer the above questions and more, I figured I would make a post to forever point people in search of Agent information. This post is purely my own understanding and experience with agents and in no way speaks for anyone else. I’m not listing any links to agencies or outside sources, as that part it up to you! Put on some tea, crack your knuckles and get researching!
So let’s just get straight into it and knock this post out with some good old fashioned Q&A!
For the reading of this Q&A, I will play the part of The Professor, and the asking party will be playing the role of Edgar S. Cunningham.
Edgar S. Cunningham: “What is an agent?”
The Professor: It’s my understanding that an agency works with you, the artist, in helping promote, land and negotiate projects, taking a percent commision from what you make on the landed projects as their fee. Make sense? So an agent will help promote and get your work out in front of their connections and possibly clients (as much as they can). They will deal with clients in negotiating for better pay, better deadlines and other nitty gritty things in contracts that can be hard and painful to go through. They can also be your muscle when you need a client to get back to you, supply feedback or pay. In return for their service representing you, they take a percentage of what you make on the project. In other words, they don’t get paid unless you get paid.
There are several different types of agents in the art/illustration world. Ones that I know of include illustration/design agencies, children’s illustration agencies and literary agencies. Depending on your focus and what you do, will help determine the type of agency you approach. Some agencies also represent a range of project/client types.
A quick breakdown:
Illustration/Design agency: Deals with more commercial or editorial work.
Children’s Illustration agency: Deals with children focused illustration work, including educational and trade.
Literary agency: Deals with writers and writer/illustrators and not so much just illustrators. (From what I understand)
Edgar S. Cunningham: “How much of my sweet sweet money does an agent take?”
The Professor: This all varies a bit agent to agent, as well as on the type of agency.
From my experience, illustration agencies take anywhere from 20% to 35%. Some may go lower, but I haven’t really seen too many that do. Literary agencies generally take 15%.
Personally I would say 30%+ is pretty high, as you have to remember every project will have that much taken off the payment, though if it’s a great agency that gets you crazy good work, then it could totally be worth it. It’s really on you to feel that out.
Edgar S. Cunningham: “Should I get an Agent?”
The Professor: Well I don’t really know you, so it makes it hard to give you a concrete ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but let’s give a quick breakdown of pros and cons and then you can decide for yourself!
Pros in Agent-town:
The right agent can be a great resource for their knowledge of the industry and how to push yourself in certain aspects to better gain clients.
You can hopefully develop a relationship with your agent where as they know the type of work you accell at and work with you to meet your future goals.
Many have a good eye for what they represent and can offer critiques or advice if you are in search of some fresh eyes.
Many agents are routinely meeting and talking with different publishers, studios and new clients whom they can point towards your work.
Agents generally have connections which can be a great help if you are trying to pitch your own written work. Which can make it much easier getting the right eyes on your hopeful project.
Agents can help deal with any messy clients or clients that need a bit of a kick to get things moving along.
Agents will deal with the brain numbing process of going over contracts and make sure your butt is covered and you have the best deal they can muster! Which can take some weight off the shoulders when you are trying to give estimates and negotiate on your own with a new client.
Many agents do different promotions or exposure send outs to get their artist’s work out in front of potential clients (Such as postcard send outs or seasonal digital topic collections)
Cons in Agent-town:
You have to give up some of your moneys for doing the job
Depending on the agency, you generally forward any new clients to your agent who contact you directly if they fit the same realm of what your agent represents. So you can’t get picky and try to take some projects for yourself because you don’t want to pay the commision. Though this can totally be a varying thing agency to agency and some will lower their commision rate if the client found you directly through no connection of your agency. You can also generally keep any clients (if you choose) that you’ve already developed a relationship with before signing on with the agency.
Your agent may not turn out to be the greatest or best fit for you. This can totally happen! Not every agency is going to rock your world or be the right one. This isn’t to say it’s a con against getting an agent, I guess it’s just more a heads up that it’s important you find the one that fits with you and don’t just settle in something you aren’t happy with. It’s always an option to leave the agency if it’s not working out.
You do lose some freedom in being signed on with an agency, but honestly in my experience, I haven’t have much of an issue in this.
While an Agent is supposed to make things go smoother, they are an added ingredient to the process soup and like anything, can sometimes cause things to slow down (such as processing payments)
If you’re thinking about going for it, I’d say they are many more pros than cons.
Edgar S. Cunningham: “So an agent does all the dealing with a client and all you have to do is the art?”
The Professor: Well yes and no. Typically in my case, I will receive the initial information on a potential project from my agent. This will have all the needed information to decide whether or not to move forward on the project (and if any other information is needed I will request it and my agent will collect it from them). If I take on the project then my agent will handle all the contract back and forth negotiation, keeping me in the loop if there is anything worth bringing up. Once the project is a go, I then deal with the client myself as far as further art direction, sending of files and dealing with revisions/notes. If the project or client is becoming a hell situation, then I will contact my agent to help with the situation and hopefully work towards finding a solution. When a project is all done I will let my agent know and they will take care of invoicing and requesting payment.
Edgar S. Cunningham: “How do I get an agent?”
The Professor: This question certainly plagues me more than any other. I think the answer is mostly common sense, but will also try to add any advice or extra information that I’ve gathered along the way.
When I was looking into getting signed on with an agency my journey started the same as it does for anything we need these days, I went to google. I just began searching for all the agencies or lists of agencies I could find, and then I went through all of them to jot down the ones that seemed a possible fit for my work. Once having a potential list, I went through their sites again, to see if there was any mention of submission guidelines or specific emails for contacting. You want to make sure you do your homework so as you aren’t just wasting time sending a style or samples which aren’t their bag. I then wrote out a generic blanket email with a link to my specific portfolio and changed names and a sentence or two specific to each agency. I sent A LOT out, and I received A LOT of rejection. Don’t get down if you get nothing but rejection. Don’t get down if you receive nothing at all. This happens to all of us. If you do get a rejection reply, I suggest trying to ask for any possible advice or information from the agent on what you could work on or do in hopes to better your chances down the road on being represented. Asking what they are looking for is never a bad idea. In some cases it may be that your work just doesn’t fit what they are looking for at that time, or that they already have some artists that they feel are too close to your work. It can also always be that they don’t think you are quite up to snuff in skill level. Don’t take their critique as an insult, instead take it as a challenge to get better! And then, years later when you live if your gold house of success you can laugh and scoff at those who thought you weren’t good enough! Or maybe just appreciate the fact they actually made you push yourself to work harder and get better (take that motivation wherever you can get it!). If you receive no response, I would not take that as a ‘no’. I would take no response as an opportunity to do a new piece or two and then send right back to them again. Unless they say “No, please stop, we do not want you to email us anymore”, I would keep on sending emails with my updated portfolio.
So I got a mix of all of the above when sending out. In the end I did finally get interest and excitement from one agency, which turned out to be the one I signed and am still with. BUT even with the agency I am with, they didn’t initially sign me right away as they felt I needed to work on certain aspects of my portfolio. So I worked as hard as I could on new pieces and worked to improve going off their advice/feedback. I happily signed on with them several months, if not nearly a year after first contacting them. It ain’t always going to be a quick dance in the park and it’s different for everyone. The main thing is to just do it!
If you want an agent then get your portfolio curated to what they do and what you want to be doing. (Don’t include any pieces or subjects that you don’t really like, because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that those are the pieces that will get picked out or become what a client likes.)
And then just get emailing! Remember the worst thing that will happen is you just hear ‘no’ or nothing at all, and since you already are hearing nothing at all, why not go for it!
*Side Tip for those interested in children’s illustration.* The SCBWI is a great organization in children’s illustration/literature and when you join they send you an amazing book full of resourceful information, including a big list of all the agencies.
Edgar S. Cunningham: “What should I write when emailing Agents?! I’m flush with panic and fear!”
The Professor: I am no professional writer of query letters. When I write one I just try to keep it short and to the point. You don’t like wasting your time reading a bunch of junk, so it’s safe to say neither do they. It’s nice for them to see it’s not just a copy/pasted robot email though, try and include something relevant to what they do or who they rep. Mention maybe your ambition or goals in wanting to work with them. Also for the love of turkeys, don’t attach images or a portfolio to the actual email. No one wants to have to download or have your email fill up their inbox! And don’t link to some vague site filled with unrelated art. I’d say to make a page, tumblr, blog, whatever, that just includes artwork simply laid out which fits for what you are submitting for. If it’s for Children’s Illustration that’s all I’d want to see. Throw down a simple link to your work and bob’s your uncle! If you have legitimate experience in the field it might not hurt mentioning it, but no need to say you drew some pictures for your Uncle’s chicken farm or Mom’s logo. That’s my recommendation, but again, I’m no professional query master.
Edgar S. Cunningham: “Anything I should look out for when searching for an agent?”
The Professor: I would say the biggest thing is to really research your potential agencies. Look into who else they represent, how many they represent and whether they seem like a good fit for you. If an agency contacts you, don’t just blindly jump into their arms! Research and make sure it still feels right. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get all your concerns and thoughts out on the table.
I do also have a little trouble with some agencies that represent hundreds of artists. It seems hard and improbable that an agency with that many artists can really develop a relationship with each individual person and work together towards a goal. Rather, I find it can be a bit of a fish net technique, where you acquire a vast amount of artists and cast your giant net over the ocean to take whatever it catches. Then you show attention to the artists that catch you the most fish, and ignore the others. It’s different for everyone, and it’s all about what ends up working for you! Remember it’s a two way street and you should be working together, you are not ‘hired’ by the agency. If things aren’t working out you can always leave and move on.
Edgar S. Cunningham: “Once I sign on with an agency should I steady myself for the avalanche of projects that will be instantly coming my way?”
The Professor: So, again it’s different for everyone. When I first signed on with my agent I was hopeful that a wave of projects would start flowing in. I think I got my first project through my agent about a month or two after signing on. Then it was really a sporadic thing every now and again. Definitely not something I could have been counting on as my full time source of work. It’s really taken until now (which is about 8 years later) for me to say I’m getting steady work, which is through build up of contacts, reputation in my work and experience. It may happen faster for others, and could depend on so many factors (what people are looking for, your skill level, your style, who sees your work, etc etc etc). I think the main thing once getting on with an agency is to really talk to them about what things you could do, and work on, to possibly have better chances landing projects. Remember as well that just because you have an agent it doesn’t mean that you can stop promoting yourself and they will handle it all. You should still be doing all you can to get your work out there as well.
Edgar S. Cunningham: “Am I doomed if I don’t get an agent?”
The Professor: Fear not! There are many successful working artists out in the world unrepresented by an agency. It’s certainly not impossible BUT can require a lot more work, determination and elbow grease to get your foot in certain doors and build up clients. You have to be willing to push yourself and sell yourself out into the world of publishing or whatever area you’re hoping to work. Research places that interest you, find out proper people to try and contact, not be afraid to keep at it even though you are getting zero replies, work just to get some feedback or a possible connection. It’s all possible, and I’ve definitely gotten other client work through this type of process in my career.
Regardless if you are trying to become rep’d by an agency or going the solo route, the biggest thing is that you keep working on growing your artistic skills/portfolio, and don’t get caught up in the fear of sending it out there! Get those rejections out of the way so you can learn from them and grow towards your goal.
Edgar S. Cunningham: “So… wait, should I get one or not?! Tell meeeee!”
The Professor: Dammit Cunningham! Have you not been listening man!? This is a decision you have to make and then put in the time to research and find what works for you.
In my own opinion, if you are looking to do contract illustration work (adult or children's) I would say that it can’t hurt trying to get rep’d by an agency. In this line of work I find the more irons you have in the fire, the better, and having a resource full of contacts and knowledge on your side can’t hurt!
Happy query writing!