Wednesday, 8 October 2014

A Question About Agencies.

Today I received this question on my Tumblr page.  Every so often I'll get a question like this, or an email looking for advice and I'm always happy to help.  As you probably can tell by now, I'm pretty passionate about fighting for better treatment and support for freelancers - so I wanted to share my experience of having an illustration agent, and my time without one, with you all.  I haven't spoken about this much before, I'm never one to purposefully 'name and shame', but I thought here it was important to give an honest and accurate account of my experience.  There are good and bad sides of every agency, and every choice we make as freelancers - but we will all eventually find a path that fits.

This was my response to the question, in full - 

Thanks for your kind words.
I did have an agent when I was starting out - Advocate Art. They approached me at the New Designers exhibition in 2010 (year I graduated), and basically wanted to sign me up straight away. To be honest, I was really excited about it, but I carefully considered the contract and decided to go with them despite the relatively high percentage they take.  
I had a couple of jobs with them over the years, including my first children’s book, but it definitely wouldn't have been enough to sustain me financially unless I had been finding my own clients independently.  After a while, the quality of their treatment declined: weeks late in payment, emailing me with other people’s commissions (they sent me ‘Congratulations! We’ve found a commission for you!’ emails, which they’d later realise were actually intended for another artist - I don't think they knew my name), and eventually they used my artwork for their own branding of the agency without credit (which they explicitly stated in the contract they would not do).  So, I eventually got out of there, battling through a barrage of extremely rude emails from the manager.
Since then I’ve been doing really well.  I’ve been finding a steady stream of work - including four picture books, so don’t listen to anyone who says having an agent is the only way to get a book deal - and I’ve been able to live off solely freelance work for the past few years.  
There are times when it would be really useful to have an agent, to back you up in legal situations or with difficult clients.  I, personally, love the interaction with clients and even dealing with the business/contracts/financial side of things - but some people would rather spend the time on their artwork than the business stuff.
I have thought about finding another agent, and I’ve dropped a few emails here and there.  But it’s really a case of me being incredibly choosy with who I’d go with now - I would never want to be in the situation again with an agent who makes a point of being such a large agency, but don’t know who their artists are.  
If you’re looking for an agent, I’d recommend doing some thinking about what you want out of it, and some serious research into which agencies might be right for you.  There are big agencies out there who are fantastic, or you might be more suited to a smaller boutique group.  One major point to consider is that some agencies will insist that you don’t have your own clients outside of their contacts. For me that rings warning bells, as I like to maintain some control over that aspect of my business and I enjoy the proactive nature of networking.  It’s also worth comparing the percentages that different agencies will take, it’s usually between 15% - 40%.  
It can be a gruelling process trying to contact agencies, a lot of them won’t reply, but try as hard as you can to not take it personally (they’re busy, BUSY people who receive hundreds of emails a day!), and whatever you do don’t let it knock your confidence in your work - you’ll find the right agency for you eventually.
If you decide that maybe having an agent isn’t for you, I’d pour your time into your own promotion.  Social media’s been fantastic for me, and I’ve actually found a lot of my big jobs from connecting (and making friends with!) people and businesses on Twitter.  Blogging’s also great, and can really raise your profile. You’re obviously on Tumblr already, so you’re probably clued up on this anyway!
Just always remember that people (no matter how big a company, publishing house or agency they’re involved with) are just people. We live in the best possible time for being able to make connections and strike up friendships with anyone, and in the end, that’s the best side of business.
So, good luck! If you need any more advice I’m always happy to receive emails.
Your work is gorgeous!