Fig Taylor talks about why magazines can be a great place to start your career and how to research and approach relevant editorial commissioners.
[hidden title="Starting Out"]
If you are new to the industry it’s worth bearing in mind that most illustrators tend to score their first commissions from editorial clients. There’s a financial pecking order among mainstream commissioners, with magazines paying the most modest fees, book publishers paying a little more, design consultancies paying a lot more and ad agencies paying a hell of a lot more. Although there are always circumstances that alter cases – an advertising campaign for a charity, for instance, is unlikely to pay a fortune although it could put you on the map career-wise. In general, however, commissioners with the least to lose can be happier to take a gamble on a rookie illustrator than those with vast fees at stake.
Similarly, the more substantial the fee, the more parties likely to be involved in the commissioning process. In the case of publishing there will be input from sales departments and retailers, while the design and/or advertising buck stops with whoever hired the agency once the job gets the thumbs up internally. To give further confidence to a client it can help if you can show that you have published relevant work. So – if your client’s client is Waitrose and the job is food packaging, they would be reassured to see you’ve worked for BBC Good Food or Jamie’s. And, since magazines cover every subject you can possibly think of as well as several you couldn’t make up, (Gastrointestinal Nursing or Composites World, anyone?), and use every type of illustration imaginable, the sky’s the limit when it comes to where you make your mark.
[hidden title="The road less travelled"]
Don’t just target the most obvious clients. Trade and professional titles are often available in the reference section of public and university libraries. Not only do they commission illustration, you’ll have less competition for their favours.
Unlike an advertising or design job, which can involve countless meetings and layers of corporate hierarchy, working for an editorial commissioner is a refreshingly direct process. You liaise with the art editor who, while ultimately being responsible to the editor, is paid to make the magazine look good with a budget supplied directly by the publisher. Turnover is typically fast, ensuring you establish yourself sooner rather than later, and editorial jobs tend to be less prescriptive too.
Because illustration is conspicuous and easily accessible, every published piece has the potential to generate further commissions, while the greater the variety of subject matter you’re prepared to tackle the more plentiful those commissions are likely to be. Editorial, however, is a genre that utilises a multiplicity of styles and I’ve yet to meet an illustrator whose work rendered them uncommissionable.
[hidden title="Research your way in"]
The key to carving out a successful editorial career is plenty of research. Most of the soon-to-be-graduates I meet on my travels as a peripatetic lecturer have a profoundly limited understanding of the editorial market and almost all of them are targeting the same scant handful of commissioners. While it’s irrefutable that working with the likes of The Guardian or the Times Educational Supplement would be a feather in your cap, the amount of competition you would have to beat off in order to get the job will narrow down your chances significantly.
In order to get the ball rolling it’s advisable to widen your scope, taking in not only the well-known consumer titles but also trade and professional titles. While the former can be researched easily enough in a newsagent, the latter can be more elusive, which is where libraries come into their own. Check out reference sections in public libraries- but also college libraries, adult institutes or teaching hospitals. Sure, they have the kind of titles that make you lose the will to live, but don’t be so quick to judge – they enjoy more creative freedom than the popular consumer titles your rivals are targeting because they have a captive core readership who won’t bail on the basis of some edgy illustration.
Similarly consider customer publications. These are the freebie magazines we get when subscribing to some kind of service, be it air travel, car insurance, smart phone or on-demand TV. These are largely produced on a short-term basis by specialist ‘contract’ publishers, but they’re visually indistinguishable from consumer titles and use just as much illustration. The AOI’s Editorial Directory, updated yearly, lists magazines in all of these categories and, unlike the majority of mailing lists, we speak directly to the commissioners and pass on what they tell us about the kind of work they are looking for. I would also recommend a gander at the Mag forum, which has a wealth of useful background information on the publishing world and plenty of links to publishers’ websites.
You can also try visiting the websites of illustrators whose work you relate to and check out their client lists. The results may surprise and inspire you.
[hidden title="Approaching commissioners"]
Don’t expect to see tons of illustrated covers, double page spreads or even single page illustrations during your research. While these Holy Grail-like commissions do exist, more often than not you will be looking at way smaller images, and it’s tempting to think these don’t count. But even the tiniest spot illustration has to be paid for and if you see several sprinkled throughout the publication, that means they like illustration and have the wherewithal to commission it.
Once you have a list of people to approach, you may wish to take on board these key points;
· Most commissioners are primarily concerned with their own needs. The art editor on a foodie publication will want to see cookery illustration while the art editor of a current affairs magazine would prefer to see political satire. Before you contact a potential client make sure you have some relevant samples to show them.
· If you don’t have a directory to hand, you’ll generally find the art editor’s name listed inside the magazine on the masthead page. Always take the time to find out their name; a generic “Dear Sir or Madam” makes you look lazy, unfocused and unprofessional.
· I always recommend approaching potential commissioners by letter and/or phone call rather than email. Most receive countless speculative emails from aspiring illustrators with varying degrees of talent, the bulk of whom have done no research whatsoever. Your unsolicited communication could be binned without so much as a cursory once-over, or even fetch up in a spam filter. Good old-fashioned snail-mail will ensure your (hand-picked, relevant) samples get seen, while a well worded letter in which you acknowledge the client’s needs and your ability to serve them conveys focus and professionalism.
· Don’t send more than two or three samples of work. The intent is to whet the client’s appetite rather than swamp them with hard sell. If you send them too much up front they’ll assume there’s nothing else to see.
· Always follow your letter up with a phone call after a few days. I know it’s hard to begin with, but tenacity is key. If a client is unable to meet with you face-to-face, (still the most desirable option as it can result in personal recommendations to additional clients), ask them if you can send them a PDF or some web links to view more of your work.
· Once a client is aware of you and has made it apparent that they like your work, you can communicate via email. Some illustrators do a regular newsletter detailing recent commissions they have worked on, competitions or exhibitions they’re involved in, and so on.