Helping me with this post is one of my favorite artist agents, Alan Lynch from Alan Lynch Artists. I’ve worked with him on many cover projects for Orbit Books with John Harris, Nekro, Mélanie Delon, and Alejandro Colucci. I consider him one of the good guys, and he always helps my projects with his artists run more smoothly. If you are on his roster, you’re a lucky artist.
I’m going to be honest. I told some people that I was working on an article about agents, and almost universally I was met with groans. Artists either complain that they can’t get into an agency, or that the agency they’re with isn’t doing enough for them. Art directors complain that agents mostly get in the way and muddy up the AD process. Agents complain that artists don’t hold up their end of the bargain but then call them bad agents. But through my own experience, and through talking to many people in the field, I believe this is a situation where some poor communication, unfair expectations, stylistic mismatches, and a few bad apples have soured the topic entirely.
When the Agent-Artist-Art Director flow is working, it’s really a blessing. Artists can focus on making art, ADs get what they need with a minimum of fuss, and agents, the experts on the business side, take care of all the marketing and contracts and finances. A good agent protects both the artist and the art director. A good agent will bring artists work they would have never been able to land through their own connections, and gives an AD options they often would not have thought of on their own.
Not every artist needs an agent, and we’ll get into that in greater detail below, but if you have taken a look at your career and your strengths and feel you’d like to explore finding an agent, then there’s no better advice I can give you than Do Your Research. Much like I have described when researching potential clients to make sure your work is a good fit, also take a close look at an agency – if they work mostly in fashion, and you are an illustrator working in gaming and genre, then don’t even bother applying. They shouldn’t take you on, but if they did, they’d very likely not be very good at finding you work. An agent might take you on with the best of intentions, but still not be a good fit. An agency might also be too large for you (if you’re establishing yourself and get lost in the shuffle) or too small for you (if you’re already established and are trying to widen your market). Also, there’s a lot of unscrupulous people in the world, and talking to other artists, and art directors, will give you a clear picture of who to stay away from. Just remember to get multiple opinions. I have often heard “best agent ever” and “horrible experience” said from two different artists about the very same agent. It’s all about finding the right fit.
I wanted to get an Agent’s POV on these issues, and Alan was kind enough to answer my questions in great depth:
1—When should an artist consider working with an agent?
When an artist is starting out there are a lot of unknowns. How does the business work? Am I good enough to turn professional? How do I position myself? What promotions will I need? Who do I send work to? Does my portfolio need editing? And on and on….It can be quite daunting as well as bruising.
Artists should try and determine as early as possible whether they have an interest in, or an appetite for, dealing with the non-artistic side of their career. If the answer to that question is a resounding NO then developing a relationship with an agent will serve them well. There are also established artists whose careers have begun to take off, but they are finding it difficult to manage the business side. They’re double booking, missing deadlines, forgetting to invoice, etc. This is a good time to consider an agent: better s/he take care of the contracts and paperwork, leaving the artists to do what they do best.
Foreign markets can also be a big consideration. Working in a foreign market can be challenging for many reasons: language barriers and time differences being the most obvious. An agent familiar with the international marketplace would be an advisable option.
An agent is also a great asset if an artist is looking for a change of pace, is facing a dwindling client base, or wants to get out of one market and into another. The thought of starting again from scratch in a new market can be overwhelming for an artist but an agent, with access to hundreds of clients, could make that transition seamless.
2—Does an artist find an agent or does an agent find the artist?
Both. When artists seek out agents it’s usually based on an agent’s track record, word of mouth from other artists, or looking for an agent that specializes in a certain style or market the artist fits into.
I review hundreds of portfolios every year—whether formally at review sessions, or informally when I’m sent work directly from artists to consider. About half of the artists reviewed have some quality that makes me think I can see them doing greeting cards, book jackets, other commercial commissions. Then the hard part is when I have to consider if they are exceptional. Will they contribute and complement my present roster of artists and are they capable of consistently doing work that I feel confident selling?
Now I’m down to about 10% of those original portfolios. I have to figure out if I’m being completely objective and whether or not this is a wise, pragmatic decision. Is there enough work out there for the artist? Am I sure the artist is professional enough to work with? Many times I’ve taken on an artist just because the work is so different. I’m sure I speak for art directors as well on this point: there’s nothing like discovering an exceptional talent and then accepting the challenge of finding the right project or niche market for him or her.
Occasionally I will actively look for a certain type of artist. An agency usually develops a certain look or character based on the talent it represents and the markets they work in. My agency specializes in a combination of adult genre work, along with teen and children’s publishing. If we notice an uptick in a certain market or style then we will look to fill that space with an additional artist.
3—What are an agent’s responsibilities to the artist?
An agent has multiple responsibilities in representing an artist but primarily the focus is on securing assignments.
But before that ultimate goal, portfolios need to be designed and edited, promotional materials printed, trade campaigns devised, email marketing planned, and then art directors called and canvassed about the possibilities of working with the artist.
Then there’s the pitch: Say an art director approaches you with a paranormal vampire adventure romance cookbook that they’re not quite sure how to package. One of your artists comes to mind. That might mean reconfiguring the artist’s portfolio or finding a sample piece he did three years ago that has the perfect tone. Showing enough work that makes the art director comfortable and confident in her decision is paramount.
Once the artist gets the assignment, the agent shifts into a different gear. The project might be cover art or an entire graphic novel. Regardless, a schedule has to be arranged that suits both artist and publisher. Devising a comfort zone for the artist and publisher is key, approximating how long the artist will need to execute the work and making that jive with the publisher’s ultimate deadline. Other gigs might have to be moved around. Rights have to be negotiated, contracts read and changed, and fees agreed upon. Each stage requires negotiation and discussion, nothing is standard in the art business.
Once that’s all in place the agent is responsible for coalescing as much information as the artist will need to competently create the art. Some artists don’t have time to read a whole manuscript, so the directions needs to be distilled down and massaged to appeal to their strengths. There can be doubts at any stage and an agent should instill confidence that the project is going to work and the piece will be great.
There are usually bumps along the way and the agent must be an advocate for the artist: but not blindly. The agent has a responsibility to calm ruffled feathers on both sides and create conditions that will result in the best possible work.
When the job is complete (assuming final approval and not the dreaded kill fee) the agent must do the invoicing and include any additional expenses. With a little prodding, and sometimes a little praying, the check will be in the mail.
4—How can an artist tell the difference between a great, ok, and bad agent?
That’s a really interesting question. Having been an agent for 30 years I’m fully aware that our reputation precedes us. Unfairly for the most part, I hastily add. (Lauren: I say well-earned)
There are only a few boxes that need to be checked in order to establish who you should consider as a great agent. And after all they are the only ones you should be focusing on when considering joining an agency:
—Take a look at the talent they represent. While you may not like the style of some of the artists in their group try to set that aside and form an objective view of the quality. Are these artists in the upper echelons of their respective markets or genres? Are they artists who have awards and are featured often in industry publications? If you can establish objectively that this is a group of talented artists then it stands to reason that the quality of representation must also be at that level.
—Ask Artists. Talk to artists who have representation and try and gauge how happy they are with their agent. If they have been with the same agent for a long time then that tells you something. They’ll give you some insight as to how the relationship is working. They might have some gripes. No one is perfect. But listen closely. Separate the minor complaints from the larger concerns.
There are going to be artists who have had bad experiences with agents and they are not going to be shy about vocalizing these bad experiences. And rightly so. While absorbing the negative anecdote about the bad agent try to remember that it would be good to have a second opinion: it’s a relatively small business and not immune to personal attacks. Try to get verification from another independent source. Common sense will prevail. If you hear twice that the plumber left both jobs and the pipes were still leaking then you’re not going to use that plumber.
—Ask Art Directors. They work as closely with agents as artists do so they’ll have an opinion. They are unlikely to say an agent is bad but they will politely nudge you away from agents they don’t like to work with or consider unworthy of your talent.
5—What is the one thing (or more) that you wish artists would do more frequently?
Missed deadlines cause me to lose sleep. In general not getting work in on time creates more stress than almost anything else. There are dates that need to be hit and while there will likely be a small cushion around those dates, at some point the finished art needs to be delivered. This can be as simple as an error in communications, as in, “Oh, you meant this Monday,” while some artists are inveterate procrastinators who live on the precipice. Often it’s not the artist’s fault in that there are contributing factors, both professional and personal, but it is the agent who faces the wrath and it always reflects poorly on the artist.
Additionally artists should consider producing sample pieces in their down time. If they are fortunate not to have down time then this is a moot point, but most artists will have a spell when they have finished a job and are waiting for the next one to materialize. An agent continually needs new work to show. Often times an agent can’t use a recently finished piece, whether it can’t be shown legally or out of courtesy to the client. Any new quality sample is going to be helpful and no one will be the wiser that it wasn’t an official commission.
I also want to give a big thank you to Tim Paul, who volunteered these awesome illustrations custom-created for this post. Which is a good case of working for spec not always being the wrong choice, if it’s for a cause you care about, and Muddy Colors is a great cause! Thanks, Tim!