To agent, or not to agent: that is the question

Star Monster by Jason Heglund

Image credit: Jason Heglund

Following a conversation about illustration agencies with one of our lovely members, we’ve decided to publish and share the advice we offered. This is a subject that gets brought up a lot with illustrators, new and old, and we thought it was about time we did a post on the subject.

I’m curious to talk to someone about getting portfolio advice and what to look for when seeking out an agency to represent my illustrations.

If you’re looking for an agent, first of all you need to look around and make a list of agents who represent illustrators with a similar style to yours, but not too similar. You also need to search online for forum posts and comments where illustrators are talking about their agents and their experiences with them; it’ll be very telling as to whether an agent is worth signing up with or not. There’s such a mixed bag of agents about these days that you really only want to sign up with one who has a good reputation, rather than having an agent for the sake of it. Signing with just “anyone” who’ll take you is a sure way to be taken advantage of. Agents who represent illustrators are as varied as the illustrators themselves in terms of business prowess and that’s not even taking into account potential personality clashes.

Here is a link to get you going… http://www.thelittlechimpsociety.com/agents/

Note to HAI members: Every so often we’ll send a list of illustrators who’re looking for representation to a selection of agents who we trust. So, make sure you’ve marked that you’re looking for an agent in your profile if you want to be included in those lists.

Ideally, representation sounds best for me as I’m not 100% sure of how to bring in projects. A rep will have contacts and be able to find good matches for me. Also, my assumption is that being represented would make the work more steady.

I hate to scupper your plans, but you’ll probably find that until you have steady work coming in, you’re not going to find an agent willing to take you on. It’s a bit of a catch 22 situation. I’m not saying an agent won’t take you on, but they’re more likely to when you’re more established (unless they’re generally unestablished themselves). Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions, but this is normally what I see happen in the industry if you’re looking for a top notch agent. There are some agencies that take on large numbers of illustrators for the sake of quantity rather than focusing on quality. If going with an agent is the path you really want to take, then this may be a compromise you’re willing to make. However, you may find there is a small group within the agency who get all the jobs and the rest will get the odd scrap.

As there are so many illustrators who represent themselves these days, it’s not necessarily a case of an agent opening doors anymore, it’s all down to marketing and time management. Normally an agent takes people on when they’re pretty sure the illustrator is going to bring in lots of work and when the illustrator is happy to hand over their 15-40%, as it means they’ve got someone handling the contracts and billing for them and they can focus on the creative side. Some agents are good at marketing their illustrators, others aren’t. It never does any harm to ask illustrators what they think of their agents before you agree to join the agency.

Things to note: Agents tend not to take people on who produce stock illustrations as it devalues the illustrator’s style. Agents tend to take people on who already have lots of work coming in or if they think someone is going to be the next big thing. The other reason an agent might take an illustrator on is that they already have an illustrator on their books that gets requested more than they can handle and you have a similar style to them. If an agent can recommend another illustrator on their books so they don’t miss out on a job, they will do. If you do sign up with an agent, make sure you’re happy with the contract you sign with them, as some of them can put you in a very tricky situation if things don’t work out as planned. Cover your bases and ask questions before you put pen to paper and sign away your first born. In the same way you can negotiate terms with a client, you can negotiate a contract with an agent.

My long term goal is to primarily illustrate and write my own picture books while still illustrating books for other people. I’d also like to manage and grow my own brand. Do agencies help artists develop with these goals in mind?

Agents will only tend to help you develop the aspects of your brand they can control and take a cut of. Generally, helping you to become independent isn’t in their interest as they want people to see the agency as the one fulfilling the client’s brief, not the illustrator. Some agents are really good and will support the illustrator and their growth as much as they can, but the agency still needs to make money and build their own reputation. As far as they’re concerned, illustrators will come and go and it’s the agency that’s important, not the illustrator’s growth. Agents are supposed to work for their illustrators, but in reality a good number of agents will treat their illustrators as if they are employees. A nice balance is when it becomes a partnership between the two. Just remember that in the same way there’s a huge variety of illustrators, agents are just as varied.

Final thought…

Make sure you’re only contacting agents who you think will take you on based on who they already represent, and only contact agents you actually want to be represented by. There’s no need to waste anyone’s time if you’re not a good fit! If you put no thought into your initial contact, they’ll put no thought into their reply (if they even send one).

The best way to get an agent’s attention is to start by making sure your website and portfolio is up to date. Don’t forget about your social pages, either – if an agent is savvy and serious about taking you on, they’ll check everything. Once your side of things is ready, visit the agent’s site, search for their submission criteria and make contact with them. Normally you’ll need to reach out to them; things won’t magically happen and don’t forget they’re probably receiving anything from ten to several hundred submissions from illustrators per day. Most of these submissions will have been done without any research and the illustrators are just getting in contact with every agent they can find. Be patient for a reply and make sure your email is crafted to the recipient and isn’t just a one-size-fits-all message… The less spammy, the better. Lastly, do try to look objectively at what you’re offering from the agent’s point of view. The opinions of family and friends don’t really count when it comes to business, so unless your mum works in the industry and is willing to tell you if your work isn’t a good fit with an agency or that you’re not established enough yet, ignore them and trust your gut.


If you’re an agent and would like to become a member of HAI like these guys, send us an email to get the ball rolling. Likewise if you’re an illustrator and would like to join our ranks, fill in an application. ❤️✏️ #loveillustration

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