Sunday Mailbag

October 25th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I was wondering if you could explain the process of getting an art rep/agent. When I develop my portfolio more I would like to seek out work in various publications and book illustration. What steps would someone take to get represented or to get regular work?

A: I’ve never had a rep (with the exception of a loose arrangement with Cagle Cartoons, now defunct), but having both looked into one and knowing enough colleagues that do that I think I can answer your question.

First off, for those who may not know a “rep” (short for “representative”) in the art world is like an agent for an actor. They act as both the the finder and broker for work for an artist and get paid via a percentage of an artist’s given pay on a job. Most reps take between 12-20% as their fee. The services offered by a given rep can differ, but a “full service” rep will pursue and find jobs for their artists, negotiate for the pricing on a job, handle the invoicing and collecting of the payments and pay the artists their fees less their given percentage. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Finding a good rep is not easy. There are a lot of pitfalls you have to avoid, but the primary difficulty is simply finding a good one that is willing to represent you. Your style of work, it’s marketability, the number and makeup of their current group of artists and to a certain extent your established credentials will be major factors in whether or not a rep is willing to add you to their “stable”. The better and more effective the rep, the less likely they are willing to take on new clients and especially those who do not have a strongly established career already. It’s the old catch 22… and artist could use a rep to establish a career and a rep only wants artists who have already got an established career. Reps like Gerald & Cullen Rapp are famous and handle mostly big name artists, while smaller firms or individual reps might take on newer artists if the marketability of their work is strong.

Where do you find reps to contact about being part of their group? The best place is probably sourcebooks like the Directory of Illustration, Workbook and The Black Book. They have ads by reps in them and online lists of the reps in their publications (see links). You need to research these reps and look for ones that are lacking in an artist who’s style is similar to your own. Your best bet is to identify these potential reps and contact them, sending in samples your work and a resume including a fairly complete client list. The worst that could happen is they say “no thanks”. You do not know until you try.

Having a rep isn’t a magic bullet. Far from it. Good reps are hard to find, and by “good reps” I mean those that really work hard to find you good jobs. Bad reps will take on an artist and then just add them to an online portfolio and sit back and wait for jobs to come in. Some will spend 99% of their time pursuing work for the one or two “stars” of their stable and not put any effort into finding work for the other artists they represent, again merely waiting for jobs to come to them… after all it doesn’t cost them anything if you do not get any work, so why not add you to their stable and collect whatever comes their way? You can accomplish that kind of marketing on your own and not part with a percentage of your fees. Some reps will expect you to take on any job no matter how poor the pay is or how bad a fit it is for you, wanting to keep you generating money no matter how little it might be for the work involved.

If/when you find a rep willing to represent you, the details of your contract with them needs to be scrutinized. There are a few things in the fine print to be aware of. For example, you still pay for the lion’s share of any active advertising. The arrangement with most reps is that the costs of any advertising done (i.e. in a sourcebook) is split by the same percentage as the rep fee. So if you pay your rep 15%, you will pay 85% of a page in the Directory of Illustration and the rep covers their 15%. Your page is then part of a section of the sourcebook for their agency. Likewise with online advertising.

The most problematic pittfall with regard to reps is how previous clients are handled. Some reps (although this is becoming increasingly rare) insist that ALL your work must go though their office. That includes clients you already have and do regular work for, not just the ones your rep finds for you. This arrangement is unacceptable in my opinion, as any work I get from a client that my rep had nothing to do with landing should not be subject to their rep percentage. Just doing the paperwork is not enough to justify their fee. For the artist’s part, once you are being represented you should not pursue work independently and should refer new work through them. You should also not accept work directly from a client your rep has found for you. This occasionally happens when a client thinks calling you directly would result in a reduced price on illustration since the “middle man” is cut out. Accepting work like that is unethical.

The best reps are ones that are active in pursuing work, and have a network of established relationships with buyers of illustration that they can work on your behalf, and have the smarts to negotiate the highest fees they can get for you. The worst are ones who sign you to a contract, advertise (at 85% your cost) in some sourcebook and set up a website and then sit back and wait for the jobs to roll in. It’s the former everybody wants and thus is the most difficult to find and get accepted by.

Thanks to Robb Miller for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!

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