Sunday Mailbag: Artist’s Reps?

March 2nd, 2014 | Posted in Mailbag

Before I answer this week’s Sunday Mailbag, I thought I’d point out the new title format. I’ve gotten a few requests that I start adding some information about the content of my Sunday Mailbag Q&A’s, as doing a search for topics on the blog often yields a lot of “Sunday Mailbag” hits and no alternative but to click each one to find out f the sought after info is in that post. From now on I’ll add something in the title to help with that.

Q: Have you ever had a “rep”, and if not why not? Do you advise an illustrator to have a rep, or to avoid them?

A: 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 15-20% 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.

I’ve never had a real rep (with the exception of a loose arrangement with Cagle Cartoons, now defunct). Why not? I guess just because I’ve never been approached by a good one that I thought would be an asset to my career. I once interviewed with a local rep here in Minneapolis way back in the early ninties, and she decided not to rep me. I’ve gotten calls from reps looking for a “one off” job done but none offered to add me to their permanent stable. I haven’t gone looking for a rep because I stay pretty busy already, and therefore don’t really need one. Would I agree to be repped if the right one came along and offered? Sure, why not? It would have to be a rep that could get me higher profile/better paying jobs than the ones I currently do, because I’d likely have to turn down some of the jobs I take now to make room and as they would take 15% or so it would have to make sense financially.

Certainly I would advise any illustrator who would like more work to consider a rep if a good one wants to work with them.

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. Some reps feel that once you are being represented you should not pursue work independently and should refer all new work through them. I’ve always found that to be questionable also… if through my own marketing a client contacts me directly, I should not have to give my rep a percentage of that job. That does become a little dicey if you have been working with a rep for a while, because it’s hard to determine how that direct call and project came to be. If they found you by seeing a job in print that your rep got you, then that new job should go through your rep. You should definitely 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.

Full disclosure: Parts of this answer are from an earlier, similar mailbag question.

Thanks to Scott Parker 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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