Tuesday, May 01, 2012
On 'getting an agent'.
I've just written this response to a query I'd received from an ex-student. As I clicked 'Send', I realised that the benefit of my accrued wisdom (it being of course, based purely on my own experiences) could be shared, since it's not the first time I've been asked this question and I'm willing to bet the entire contents of my chocolate stash that it'll not be the last.
The question was 'Can I ask your advice on which agencies to apply for?'
Here was my frank and hopefully helpful reply. Studes, gestating crayon-wielders and those pondering representation: feel free to share. I shall say this only once...
I'll be honest - the fact that you're asking about which agencies to 'apply for' tells me you probably don't know too much about the way agencies work! I will try therefore to offer the sum of my knowledge on the matter.
The thing with agencies is they tend to ask you, not the other way round. With the larger and more successful agencies, recruitment is sometimes a case of 'one in one out'; maybe an artist whose style was in demand has left and they need a replacement, or perhaps there is a very specific area that their current artists don't cater for and they need to fill a creative area where there is a growing demand.
I would not advise 'applying' to any agencies just yet. There's a reason why the majority of artists on the good agencies' books are fairly long in the tooth - agencies like experience and confidence, so that they can entrust you to get on with a job, talk confidently to a client and handle the deadlines and demands without being babysat all the way through. They do occasionally need to intervene in a job, but it's more usual that once the brief has been given, and the conference call completed, it's your job to get on with it.
Three very important things to know about an agent:
1) they are not a substitute for your own promotional efforts; they are your partners in finding work for you and developing your existing work. I have talked to a lot of well-meant people who genuinely believe once they have an agent they can somehow 'sit back'.
2) they will not do the actual work for you!
3) they need you to be confident and knowledgeable about which areas your work suits - are you an editorial person, or are you experienced more with book covers, or are you a genuine all-rounder who's looking to expand into a new creative or geographical area? A (reputable) agent will expect you to know the answers to these questions, and if you aren't sure, will be more than able to help you find the answers to them. The more you put into the relationship, like any relationship, the more you'll get out of it - both of you.
When I joined my UK agency I described them gleefully to someone on the phone as 'Industrial-Strength Repping'. And I'd describe my US agency as 'Weapons-Grade Repping'. Expect nothing less. An agent will take a healthy chunk of any fee they negotiate for you (usually between 30-40%), but will negotiate a fee that makes that worthwhile. And there is no hiding from deadlines and client expectations once an agent is looking over your shoulder. What I'm saying is you need to be very sure a contract with an agency is what you want at this stage. I waited 13 years before seeking an agent in the States, because I was too busy to make serious headway into that geographical territory without an expert's help - as it is, they now handle all of my US work. This was followed two years later by a UK rep to take some of the pressure off my workload and help me expand my UK range of clients and experiences. Because I had a long proven track record I was not considered a risk and could slot right in, but I work hard every single day to maintain my end of the arrangement for both agencies! And I still do a lot of promo and a fairly healthy chunk of my work is found by me, the rest by the two agencies.
By all means if you want to phone an agency for their advice and input, please do - but phone them. I had an agency once, a small but grittily determined one, and the moment we went live we were inundated with email. We just couldn't look through it all properly. So don't email first off. And never ever send emailed images without asking! Get the name of the person you want to speak to. Know what it is you're asking them for. Make sure you get outside input on your folio (ie: someone who's going to be really objective - not a mate who might be worried about offending you and is thus 'too nice'!) If everyone you know is too nice, I recommend Fig Taylor. What she doesn't know about hardcore folio-building would fit on a gnat's bum hair.
Finally, a reputable agent will never:
- ask you for cash up front
- make you do loads of work for free for 'the exposure' (though carefully-selected free pitches can be profitable for all sorts of reasons)
- forbid you to promote your work anywhere else
- keep you waiting for payment longer than around 90 days
- be greedy, secretive or controlling - and never bullying. I've known illustrators who have been, shall we say, 'much less fortunate' than myself in forming a relationship with a new agent. So I know those bullies can and do exist.
A good agent will:
- demand that you keep your folios updated and fresh
- organise events and shows and expect you to take part in them
- encourage you to enter competitions
- negotiate the best fee they can for you, and the best time frame for the job
- send you a transparent and realistic contract to sign
- pay you in good time and generally ooze professionalism
- keep you informed about every step of a job
- keep a sense of humour about most things!
...which all sounds good, don't you think?
Good luck and don't be deterred if you get no response at this stage. You have your entire life to work through and if it's not time now, it might be in a few years' time! Agents are your friends, and when you join forces with the right one, you should feel like you have become a pen-wielding Iron Man with the amazing Pepper Potts Of Ink on the ground - tough, brave, stronger than before, and ready to work hard and have adventures! And that is the end of Mole's wisdom for today.