Fig Taylor considers the pros and cons of having an agent – and what you should look for to get the right match.
There are as many sound reasons for wanting an agent as there are for choosing to rep yourself. There are also a ton of myths about agents, so make sure your reasons are rooted in fact rather than fiction. To get you started, here are some things that agents are not:-
• Easy to come by, particularly if you’ve only just graduated.
• A means to avoid having any dealings with the industry yourself, again particularly if you’ve only just graduated.
• A fast track to instant success.
• A guarantee of a steady flow of work, let alone from the get-go.
• A license to stop working on your portfolio forthwith.
Of course, many illustrators can, and do, benefit immensely from having an agent and most agencies wouldn’t take an illustrator on unless they believed they could put them on the map. But it’s a two-way street; you and your agent are partners working to the mutual benefit of your career.
You will need to be sure in your mind what kind of a career you want as that will be key to finding the right agent for your needs – because something else agents aren’t is interchangeable; they can vary in myriad ways. For this reason many agents recommend rookie illustrators go the freelance route for a while to gain industry experience and establish professional and stylistic direction.
[hidden title="Advantages of having an agent"]
In an ideal world an agent will promote you effectively to a wider client base than you might otherwise have access to yourself. A good agent will have extensive knowledge of their clients’ taste and requirements. They will be familiar with a variety of effective means to generate work for their artists and, unlike most illustrators, will have no qualms about blowing your trumpet or talking money – from the art of wheeling and dealing, to making sure you actually get paid.
Your agent will take briefs on your behalf, read the small print on commission related paperwork and challenge dodgy clauses, protect your copyright, calm ruffled feathers, (be they yours or the client’s), and generally ensure that jobs proceed as smoothly as possible. In short, they will shoulder all the pesky minutiae that can bog an artist down so you can focus on the actual work.
[hidden title="Questions to research"]
Online research will be integral to understanding which agents to approach and how to approach them, so get searching. Fortunately you can determine a good deal about an agency from looking at their website. Here are some points to take into consideration prior to making contact:-
• Does the agency take on less well-established illustrators?
Since no agent is likely to turn down a potential megastar, it’s not unheard of. Some make a point of representing newbies for a trial period prior to signing them up full time.
• How big is the agency?
This applies to how many illustrators the agency represents and how many staff they employ to manage them. While the staff obviously includes the reps, it also includes those who manage the agency’s finances, maintain the website, deal with general admin, and shape the agency’s long term business strategy. Opinions differ as to the ideal staff-to-illustrator ratio, but one can safely assume that one person repping 150 illustrators is going to struggle rather more than a team of five repping 50. Much of the day-to-day running of an agency involves taking care of well-established artists and keeping their commissioners happy. The more illustrators on the books and the less people on hand to look after their interests, the less time there is to actively promote those who are less well established and/or popular.
• What kind of clients do they have?
Do you long to get a foothold in the advertising world? If so, don’t sign up with an agent whose client base is predominantly comprised of educational publishers. Ideally you need to be repped by someone whose clientele is in keeping with the type of commissioner you want to work for, and who has taken you on for your suitability. It’s important that you and your agent are on the same page when it comes to your long term career goals.
• Is there an agency specialism or house style?
Say you’re a fashion illustrator. Will you be the only one on the books? Or will you be one of many, since the agency specialises in fashion illustration? Either scenario could potentially benefit your career. But what if you’re one of several fashion illustrators sharing a very similar style? When an artist becomes highly successful, there comes a point when they start turning less exciting/prestigious/lucrative jobs down and some agents will make a point of hiring stylistic doppelgangers to mop up the excess. You could say, “Who cares? It’s money.” On the other hand, you might care a lot.
• What’s their policy on submissions?
Most agents have a submissions policy on their website. Make sure you abide by it – i.e. no print submissions if they stipulate digital samples. Most agents will only get in contact with illustrators they’re interested in representing and, owing to the heavy volume of submissions, it can sometimes take them a while to do that.
[hidden title="Your first meeting with an agent"]
Firstly, congratulations for clearing the first hurdle. It looks as though your research paid off. If you’ve got a meeting lined up, here are some things you should be discussing with your future agent before contracts are signed or gentleman’s agreements reached:-
• How might the agency promote me?
Some agencies, regardless of size or how many years they’ve been established, may rely more on print or virtual mail-outs, a website and paid forms of advertising than face-to- face client presentations. Some maintain it’s less cost-effective to do the latter while others swear by the long term dividends gained by taking time out to develop and nurture strong client relationships. It might not matter to you in theory what methods your agency uses to promote your work, however, if an established agency that relies predominantly on advertising takes on an artist who differs substantially from what their clients have come to expect from them, it could take a while for that artist to get work. A portfolio can be uploaded to a website at any time but directories come out once a year, so much could depend on when the agency signs you up and what, if anything, they intend to do about promoting you in the mean time. If in doubt, ask.
• Where might they promote me?
It’s been a good couple of decades since commissioners balked at the prospect of working with illustrators in other countries. Many UK-based agents seek to increase revenue and job opportunities by establishing offices or employing freelance reps abroad. Some, alternatively, prevail upon the services of agencies already established in certain countries to represent them there. Some UK agencies will give their artists a choice as to whether they wish to be represented in more than one country. If you already have representation elsewhere you will need to inform the agent.
• Will they insist that all my jobs go through the agency once they take me on?
Some agencies require artists to refer all their previous clients to them. Subsequent commissions are then dealt with by the agency with commission charged accordingly. Some oblige happily since it cuts down on admin they’d rather not be doing. If, however, you’re unwilling to relinquish the client list it’s taken time and effort to build up, you’re best advised to pass or see if the agent is open to negotiation. The Society of Artist Agents (SAA) has formulated an agent to illustrator agreement which many of their members use. This contains an exclusivity clause.
• How much commission fee do they charge?
Some have fixed rates; others operate a sliding scale reflective of client budgets, (e.g. charging a lower percentage on editorial than advertising commissions). Most charge anything between 25% and 35% per job. You will not be required to pay them any additional fees, nor any commission upfront. This doesn’t mean, however, that you won’t have to pay some promotional costs up front.
• What about promotional costs?
Although the internet provides a variety of platforms to promote yourself for free, at some point you’ll probably have to start paying for it if you want to up your game. Whether it’s inclusion in a directory with industry clout, a website upgrade, or even competition entry fees, this will apply whether you have an agent or not. In fact it can be cheaper if you do have one as most agencies subsidise their artists’ promotional costs by whatever percentage they charge in commission. Some ask for money up front, whereas others deduct promo costs from your earnings by an agreed amount over a specified period of time. Avoid any unpleasant surprises by asking them what their policy is.
• When will I be paid?
Again this varies. Many clients have a policy of paying within 90 days so cash flow can be a contentious topic. Some agents will pay you as soon as, (or at some time during the month), the client has paid them; other agencies will pay within a specified timeframe, regardless of whether they’ve been paid or not.
• Does the agency have a written contract?
You should always have a written contract. Many AOI agent members, and SAA agent members have a similar contract which has AOI contract notes which help explain it. Ensure you query anything you don’t like the sound of. It’s important to understand what may be set in place in the termination clause should either you or the agent decide to part company. You may find they’re willing to negotiate over a questionable clause.
• Do I even like these people?
In many ways this is one of the most important questions of all. While you don’t have to fall madly in love with your agent-to-be, you need to believe they’re honest, approachable and supportive. With the best will in the world jobs can go awry; clients can go bust or make unreasonable demands. Likewise illustrators have been known to have the odd creative crisis. In other words, from time to time, you’ll need to talk. If someone fails to inspire the necessary confidence and trust for you to feel you can do that with ease, keep looking.