Q+A: Illustrators: Why you need to stop looking for agents

Hi Amy,

I’m a recent illustration graduate and I’m finding it difficult to get work. I’ve also sent letters to illustration agencies hoping that I’ll be picked up, but so far it’s not been going very well. I’m on the verge of giving up – I have bills to pay and I can’t find full time work – how can I get into an illustration agency?

~ Mark

Hi Mark!

That’s one of the many questions that I’ve been getting lately. Work is hard to find, and illustrators are aplenty. So why not do it in reverse right? Find an agency and perhaps some work will filter down to them in the process instead. Wrong.

There’s a lot of problems in this one little question, and your belief that being a part of an illustration agency isn’t going to make it any better. I get it – the fact that you have someone going out and getting work on your behalf is a marvelous idea. Someone who does the marketing for you, and someone who makes sure you get paid on time. But there’s only so many illustration agencies out there, and there are even more illustrators clamoring to get onto their list.

What people often don’t realize is that illustration agencies would rather take on someone who’s more established. That is to say that they have proof that the illustrators are in it for the long haul – that they’re not going to run away and do something else, because the agency would have invested too much in their growth. But on the flipside, when you’re more established, you might not need an agent anymore to pull in work (I can already get clients on my own, so why should I hire an agency and split the fee?) It’s a catch-22.

We’re not going into more specific details too – like how agencies take anywhere from 25% to 45% of your fee (and no, you cannot bitch about this, because it’s a choice you’ve made and agents need to eat too), whether or not they’ll help you pay for your marketing, postcards, competitions, annuals, etc. What I’m more concerned about is how this unhealthy dependency on getting picked by a small segment is overriding illustrators out there from doing the real work that needs to be done.

Drawing. Illustrating. Communicating. Marketing. But most of all, choosing yourself.

So stop depending on others to give you work – go out there and hustle. And not just any sort of hustling, mind you. You need to go in there with the right mindset and be prepared.

How? I’ll show you in the next few weeks. To not make sure you don’t miss out, click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter!


I’d love to hear your experiences – have you ever tried seeking out an illustration agency to take you on? Whether you were successful or not – what did you learn from it all? Let’s talk about it in the comments below – and if you have more advice for Mark, do share your thoughts too!


22 Replies to “Q+A: Illustrators: Why you need to stop looking for agents”

  1. i’ve been on both sides. you don’t need an agent…..as you mention, a ‘specific detail’ …..you will likely earn less. not so sure that’s a ‘detail’!

    1. amy says:

      Haha! It is a detail, and thanks so much for sharing it Andrea — much appreciated! 🙂

  2. I love illustration. Have for a long time. The industry changes, seasons come, seasons go. Agents come in all shapes and sizes. The top tier agents are very selective, as they should be. I had a fantastic agent for 13 years, she did very well, she retired. She was a mentor and had business savvy, she taught me tons on contracts, strategy, marketing, relationships, all the while exposing me to a broader view of what was possible. When she retired, I gave it a go on my own, again. There is something about the synergy of a strong group collective. Art buyer calls, talent A is booked and agent suggest you as an alternative, that’s nice. Or better yet, art buyer calls for you and agent can go discuss why your work is so worth the fee (without you coming off as an ass.) Much easier for someone to be the cheerleader for your work. I’m not a big fan of just any agent. Most agents are watered down with mediocre work to pad their roster. Here’s the key, you ready, when you are so busy that you have had two weeks go by and you’ve been slamming out work with your head down and have not had time to invoice…. that’s when you are ready to be courting an agent. Focus on your work. marketing, building your portfolio and cranking out work you love. Hold out for a great agent. Meanwhile, save the 30%. Thanks pikaland for the work you do. Great stuff.

  3. genie says:

    i think an agent helps to get jobs but in my experiencie i cannot rely in an agent to eat. All the work has to be done by you, go to fairs, send loads of e-mails, try as hard as you can.
    It’s a matter of time and work production i think more than having someone representing you.
    Good topic!

  4. candacejean says:

    When I was looking into agencies I found that the artist is responsible for anywhere from 40-75% of the Agency’s advertising costs. (Whoa!) So, when the agent decides to place a full-page ad in an illustration annual or directory, you’ll have to shell out a potential $500 in hopes it brings you some work. IF it does, the agent is then going to keep 25-50% of your profit. Sucks.

    BUT– and here is where I’m drawing a blank and feel SO stuck– I want to break into the children’s publishing market. Most well-known publishers won’t even *touch* with a ten-foot pole unsolicited (non-agent-represented) material that happens into their mailbox. They only want to look at work coming thru agents that they know, agents they do business with regularly.

    I feel a bit like Mark; wanting to illustrate full time but have pressing bills and keep meeting road blocks. I don’t want an agent to take half my money and make me pay for half of advertising, but how does one get in with publishers that don’t want anything to do with non-represented illustrators?

    1. Sarah says:

      I don’t know any publishers who don’t work with un-represented illustrators. Where did you get this idea? It’s 100% about your work.

  5. Alice says:

    Really great article theme. I have been illustrating full time for 2 1/2 years now and it’s only in this past year that work has become regular. I have done this without the help of an agent, but I have contacted agents every now and then to see if they are interested. No luck. Most of my work comes from promotion, marketing and social media as well as having a portfolio online that I update regularly with new work. Even with an agent you wold still be expected to put the effort in to get clients. It doesn’t end just because someone is working on your behalf.

  6. halle cisco says:

    great topic! i find myself asking this question. i can see both sides and how one can seem more positive than the other. i think creatives tend to have difficulties marketing ourselves, which makes an agent look appealing. i am trying to be better about me and my brand. with the internet, we have access to information on how to contact people we would like to work with… and agree that it is time to hustle!

    1. amy says:

      Go Halle!
      Also, having access to people is just the beginning – the internet has removed so many barriers, but it has put up new ones in its place; for example if you can find a name of an AD, etc, other people might find them too. The internet is a double-edged sword!

  7. Lucy Farfort says:

    Ace post Amy. I’m loving these Q&As really helpful and nice to get an insight into how others are getting by in the industry.
    I had an agent for a while and basically they were crap & found more work myself than with them. However saying that i am now on the hunt for a better agent, but would never rely on them solely for work. Think you’ve got to find as many ways as getting out there was possible. Good luck Mark!

    1. amy says:

      Thanks for sharing Lucy! And I love that you’re keeping an open mind about the next agent – good luck to you too!

  8. Bethany Hissong says:

    I think the more you can get your work in front of art directors and creative directors on a regular basis, the more they will think of you when a project comes up that fits your style. You have to have a professional web presence, but there’s more to be said for going to agencies and small publishers in your area and professionally introducing yourself, and then giving them a postcard of your work, or something to remember you by. Then contact them every month! When I worked in advertising, it was the illustrators that marketed the most, that were remembered when jobs came up. Once doesn’t cut it either. If you have friends in the business, even better! Everyone wants to start with the big publishing companies (the holy grail of children’s book publishing) but the smaller companies that produce workbooks, magazines, brochures, book covers, etc. for schools or churches are a great way to get in the door and get published. I’ve worked in a well-known ad agency and also at a small book publishing company and pretty much got paid minimally while doing in-house illustration, as well as design. But this allowed me to build a portfolio and even make contacts that I used when I went out freelancing on my own. Art Directors are just normal people who want to do good work, and if you can make their life easier by a quick turn-around with above average illustrations that make them look good, you’ll get more work guaranteed!

    1. amy says:

      Great advice Bethany – I especially like that part about how ADs are people too (many people forget this!). Instead of just treating them as a source of jobs (or income), it would do much good to actually be nice to them and show interest in their work too.

  9. cotey bucket says:

    Great post!
    Iv’e been focused on this topic so much lately I’m Iv’e actually started interviewing artist who have “chose themselves” for a pod cast that focuses on artists who’ve done it. In the mean time I recommend everyone go check out Mars Dorian as an example of someone who figured out how to stands apart in a saturated field. And while were on the subject, for a boost of inspiration, go read “Choose Yourself” by James Altucher” it may be just the shot in the arm you need.

    1. amy says:

      I LOVE James’ writing (have been following his blog for a long time) and I have his book(s) too – it’s brilliant. And good for you to interview artists who chose themselves! Let me know when you have a podcast up, I think my readers would love to get in on that!

  10. Monika says:

    hey Amy

    you pick perfect moment to write about it as many illustrators (including your truly:) taking part of Lilla Rogers Talent Search!
    pros and cons of having agent are quite obvious but what I wanna add is looking for agent do not takes that long! There’s like you said just a few good agency so let’s be realistic – to track them and write to them once or twice a year (as you need some time to make your illos remarkable(!) better after first rejection) didn’t really drives you away from anything:) Specially if you compare this to time you’re spending doing stupid assignment just to pay the bills….

  11. Paying for an agent is basically freeing up your time so handing over the administrative aspect of your business so you can be essentially the creative.
    The agent has to go out and procure that project for you that is what you are paying them to do.
    Unfortunately that leaves it pretty much to the skill and personality of your agent. You need to shop around if an agent is not doing much for you find another one.
    I agree with above but until you dont have enough hours in the day to do both the findiing of work and completing projects you probably dont need an agent well at least not fulltime and you certainly shouldnt be relying on them to provide you with all your work.
    Better to invest potential agency fees in small business and marketing courses so you can go it alone first.
    Then you just need to invest the time and effort into developing that reputation with a strong portfolio of work. Its the only way.
    I think some graduates feel the success is somehow worked into the course they are doing and that graduating means they have arrived all ready.
    Setting the bar so high in terms of your expectations based on others apparent success will only ever lead to disillusionment.
    As the old saying goes “Do what you can do NOW”….stop procrastinating (creating unnecessary bumps in the road) there will be plenty of those without you adding to them.
    Get a bread/butter job to pay the bills and work up the illustration business in the rest of the time its the only way.
    Best of Luck!

  12. aliona says:

    Great post Amy!! 🙂

  13. Sarah says:

    It’s good to remember that giving an agent 33% of every job means in three years, you work 2 years for money and 1 whole year just to pay your agent. If you get a £90,000 commission (not uncommon in advertising), do you really want them to take £30,000 just because you couldn’t be bothered to learn about contracts/marketing/invoicing yourself?

  14. Claire says:

    Great article! Have contacted numerous agencies for 15 years but had no success so far. But keeping on with illustration!

  15. Quality posts is the secret to interest the visitors to pay a visit the site, that’s what
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  16. Mike says:

    Hi Amy,

    I love your site and this is a great article. Thank you!

    I am working on a new site – http://www.illustratordirectory.com which is dedicated to illustrators and aspiring artists.

    My question is should I allow agents to join the site?

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