Marketing Yourself as a Freelancer

November 13th, 2006 | Posted in Freelancing

Some time back I wrote a long winded answer to the commonly asked question: How do I get started as a freelancer? One of the points I touched on was self promotion, or how to get your work out in front of people who would want to use it.

Freelancing itself is a scary way to make a living. There is no comfortable, bi-weekly paycheck to count on. You often do not know how much income to expect from month to month. That’s a hard way to pay the rent, let alone raise a family. The biggest problem with freelancing is figuring out how to get work. Like any product, no matter how good it might be, you need to get people who need it to know you have it and where to get it.

There is no easy, central place to do such a thing. Getting the work itself is almost a full time job, and can take up a lot of your time leaving less to actually do the work. There are basically three ways that a freelancer can get their work out in front of buyers and solicit them as clients:

  1. Get a rep
  2. Advertise in a sourcebook
  3. Do direct mail and legwork yourself

Get a Rep

The first option is the easiest… get a rep. A rep is an agent who will add you to their ‘stable’ and do all the legwork to find jobs and clients for an illustrator. In return they take 15-20% of the job fee. Most handle billing, invoicing and negotiations as well. Seems simple, but there are a number of caveats.

First, you have to find a rep. The dwindling market for custom illustration has made the profession of repping illustrators a lot harder than it used to be. Consequently, there are fewer good reps out there. Finding one to take you on as a client at all can be a problem. Reps don’t want to have artists in their group who’s work is not easy to sell, meaning it’s either not very good or the style is too hard to find a place for. Getting someone to rep you isn’t an easy thing to do.

Second, You have to find a GOOD rep. Some will try hard to find work for you at first, but if your art doesn’t sell itself enough for their tastes, they may stop pushing you and move on to other artists they rep who’s work is more accessible to clients. Worse, most reps demand you work with them exclusively, so you can’t get work from other reps at the same time. In the past, reps also demanded their % of any job you do, even if it comes to you directly. In other words, if they aren’t keeping you busy enough and you go out to get your own jobs, they want their cut of that. These days I hear reps don’t do that as much. Clients you had before they started representing you and jobs you pick up yourself are not subject to their fees.

Reps go about getting work in different ways. The best of them have working relationships with many different publishers and potential clients and they do actual legwork (or earwork i.e. phone calls) directly to specific buyers on behalf of their clients. These kinds of reps are almost always located on the coasts where the major industry players are, and are very hard to find. Others utilize the internet combined with direct marketing and some personal legwork. Some, however, do little more than buy pages in sourcebooks for their entire group. Actually in most cases the illustrator pays for most of the page, with the rep only paying their % of it. That’s something an illustrator can do on their own.

In the case of reps, the best thing to do is ask a lot of questions. What is their percentage? What do they do to solicit work for their artists? What about work from outside sources that does not go through them? It also helps to call and speak with an artist already repped by the agent. Having a good rep is like an actor having a good agent… they can get you the best parts.

Advertising in a Sourcebook

A second way to solicit your work is via a sourcebook. Sourcebooks are big, colorful books with pages of ads for illustrators, designers, photographers, etc. in them. The “ads” are generally glossy self promotional pieces that are highly designed and meant to at once showcase the style of the artist, demonstrate what they do and tell people how to contact them. The publishers of these sourcebooks then send the book out to as many buyers of illustration as they can find. There are sourcebooks that are national (and international) as well as local ones in larger market cities. The best known sourcebooks for illustrators are the Directory of Illustration, Blackbook and Showcase. The internet is also becoming home to ‘virtual’ sourcebooks like and Theispot. The much more convenient, cost effective and comprehensive nature of a website versus a huge, printed book is obvious. It can be argued that if on-line ‘sourcebooks’ have not replaced the traditional printed books completely yet, they soon will. Books like the Directory of Illustration have jumped on this bandwagon and have their own sites up as well, as suppliments to their printed product.

Once again, there are pros and cons to using sourcebooks as a method of getting work.

For one thing, a source book, whether an actual book or on-line, is full of many hundreds of other artists all trying to get the same jobs you are. Even given that styles are often drastically different between illustrators, in a given sourcebook there will still be several dozen or more illustrators who’s work is in a similar vein as your own. That’s a lot of competition to have to try and overcome. The books themselves are also often huge, with 700 or more illustrators in them. Your page is easily lost and might never be stumbled across. Another issue is the cost. It’s several thousand dollars for a single page, and a two page spread even more. Realistically you would need to get several decent paying jobs directly from the page in order to just break even, and then more to come out ahead.

I’ve been in both Showcase and the Directory of Illustration. My experience has been that they were helpful but not the kind of thing that will get your phone ringing anywhere near as much as you’d like. When you are first starting out, they are not a bad place to begin. It’s tough to dish out that kind of money but there are benefits to it. First, you establish yourself as a professional willing to invest in your business and skills. That is important to art directors… they want to deal with someone who will follow thorough with the job in a professional manner, and if you are willing to plunk down a few grand for a page in a sourcebook, then you will likely do the job well. Second, it is an easy, if not the most efficent, way to get your work out in front of many thousands of buyers that you don’t even know exist. The publishers of the book mail it to tens of thousands of potential clients. You can’t do that via direct mailing.

Overall I think that if you want to go the sourcebook route, you have to be prepared to be in the book at least three consecutive years. It sometimes takes up to a year from the publication of the book before the art directors using it get familiar with it and find the people they are looking for. By the time the next one is out, if you are in only one year, they will forget you once they get onto the next book. If you are in year after year, they will remember you and recognize your work. The switch from each year’s book is a gradual one. I would often get calls from last year’s book well after the new one is out and being used. That gives your page a little longer shelf life.

I never lost money on a page in one of the directories but it was a near thing my first year or two. The phone didn’t start ringing right after it came out, either. What it did for me was get me one or two clients each year that became regulars, and that was valuable in itself. It just took some time.

Marketing Yourself

The final method is promoting yourself. This is time consuming and takes a lot of work on your part, but is often the most effective way to get work. Internet color printers abound these days, and printing a 4 color postcard or promo piece is cheap and easy. Every magazine or publication on the newsstand has a masthead with the name of the art director and their address on it. In this manner you can send your work out to magazines that are likely to want your style of art. Your page of sports related art in a sourcebook in the hands of an art director for a sewing magazine doesn’t do you much good. That’s another of the drawbacks of sourcebooks. While they claim to send their books to 90,000 “buyers of illustration”, how many of those recipients are realistically going to want to use your style of art? The recipients of direct mailings also aren’t paging past hundreds of other illustrators when they open your mailing either. No question, direct mail marketing is much more specifically targeted and efficient in getting your work to people who will actually want (hopefully) to use it.

The tough parts about direct marketing are obvious, also. It takes a lot of time to identify and build an address list of potential clients. It costs a lot in mailing and printing. You and about a million other illustrators will send work to the same people. That’s all a problem, but the most difficult thing about this method is just finding enough buyers to send your work to. Most illustrators earn the bulk of their living doing work for small, niche magazines that never see a newsstand. How can you find these magazines and publications if they aren’t out there to see?

One method around this is buying a contact list of illustration buyers from a list firm like Steve Langerman. They provide you with addresses and contacts based on your criteria. You guessed it, that costs money. I’ve never gone that route, but I suspect by the time you have bought the list, printed the promo pice and paid the postage you will be nearing the costs of a sourcebook page. Another is a resource like the Artist’s Market books. These provide a list of buyers of illustration, their A.D.’s, and often their typical rates, what they like to use and in what format they prefer samples sent to them. A great resource.

Another aspect of direct marketing as an illustrator happens all by itself. That is the elusive “word of mouth” effect. Basically that means if you do good work for one publication, another’s A.D. will see it and call to get your contact info from the other, resulting in another job or two. There is no way to start this process other than getting some jobs and doing good work. The point is that not every job you get is a result of relentless pursuit.

I’ve used most of the methods above, and find that a combination is best. I haven’t been in a sourcebook in a few years, as I have been lucky enough to have plenty of work without it. However this year I am trying a local Minneapolis option that combines a printed quarterly magazine format with a web-based portfolio called I though it would be interesting to see if I can drum up more local work in the Twin Cities. It was reasonably priced so even if it’s a bust I won’t be out too much money.

Freelancing is not for the faint of heart, but with a little research and work it can be a great way to make a living. At least my boss doesn’t tell me I can’t work in my underwear.


  1. Trevour says:

    Great tips, Tom. I’m still a novice to the world of freelancing, so this was rather informative – thanks!

  2. giangia says:

    Jaja, right now I’m working in underwear.
    Really great post, it’s very useful getting to know other options on how to get work. I live in Argentina and things are a lot harder here. If I work for local clients, the prices are ridiculous.
    What I do most is freelancing as a collaborator for another argentinian artists, right now I’m doing the pencils sketch for a cover of MAD’s german version.

  3. Kannard says:

    Picturebook is a good sourcebook to advertise in if you are into the children’s book market. Another good place to market yourself though not a sourcebook is the best of said year in art books like Spectrum and I think some of the graphic design magazines, Specifically Communication Arts and HOW, also sponsor their best of said year. The entry fee is WAY cheaper than the big name sourcebooks.

    Also go to Conventions is a good way for the younger artist to make some connections. The comoradery of your peers can also lead to doors opening. It is also a great way to make new friends. Also it helps establish a fan base if you go as a vendor. A lot of the conventions have portfolio reviews by art directors.

    The cheapest way of self promotion I have had is having a well designed website. Then for hte direct mail I just make out a postcard referring the potential Art Director or Client to the website. It’s far cheaper and takes up far less time than putting together a dummy portfolio.
    In short you have to pimp yourself:)

    Another good resource for potential freelancers is the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. This contains a wealth of information about the various markets, information on copyright, etc. It even includes dummy contracts, and other goodies

    Great information Tom! Thanks for posting it.

  4. Tom says:

    Good points, Kannard. I should have mentioned a website as part of the self promotion, but like a portfolio a website is only as good as who you get to find and visit it. Your postcard mailing is the way to get the URL out to potential clients, and that should be incorporated into any promo piece.

    On-line portfolios have replaced traditional ones. No question.


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