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The Pros and Cons of Illustration Reps

Illustration reps can be great allies for illustrators. However, while they may seem like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for many inexperienced graphic artists, there are some positive aspects and some negative aspects about having a rep that should be considered before teaming up with one. In this post, we’ll discuss those different facets.

Pros

Reps get you work

The job of an illustration rep is to get you work. They don’t get paid (and shouldn’t) unless you get paid, so they’re constantly hustling to book you gigs and expose your art to their client base. A good rep will feature you on their website, tout your portfolio all over town, create and send out promos on your behalf, and recommend you for gigs that come up. This is their job and they’re dedicated to doing it the best they can.

Reps get you exposure to more and bigger clients

One of the first places many art directors go to when looking for an illustrator is a rep’s website. From an art director’s perspective, since there are so many illustrators out there, being with a rep helps weed out the professionals from the amateurs. Having a rep also says that someone with an eye for talent has already vouched for you, which can help overcome some career hurdles. Additionally, reps have a larger database of clients than you’ll have on your own so they’ll know more people to send your work to. Finally, a lot of the bigger jobs like advertising work tend to go through reps so having one may be crucial if that’s the kind of work you’re looking to get.

Reps negotiate larger fees

Since illustration reps deal with so many clients, they have a much broader grasp of what the going rates for jobs are and what each individual client can afford than you will have on your own. That knowledge gives them a better negotiating advantage when a job comes in. For instance, if Client X wants a job for $4,000, but your rep previously booked a similar job for them with another illustrator at $6,000, your rep will know that they can probably squeeze an additional $2,000 out of the client without too much of a fuss. Additionally, since negotiating is one of the main aspects of their jobs, they may be much better at it than you might be.

Reps can get you publishing deals

An illustration rep can act as an agent on your behalf to help secure publishing deals. If publishing your own children’s books or other illustrated books is part of your intended career path, a rep is someone you’ll definitely want in your corner.

Reps will get you better deals on promotional costs

You will get a much better rate on source books, promo mailers, and web portals when going through a rep vs. on your own. That’s because they’ll have discount rates given to them because they purchase larger volumes than you would as a sole illustrator. It’s not the main reason to get a rep, obviously, but is certainly another benefit.

You have someone in your corner when things go bad

Once in a blue moon, a job will go bad. Either you and the client will have disagreements in your working relationship or there may be payment issues. Whatever the scenario, it’s good to have someone else in your corner to back you up. A rep can step in and smooth things over. Also, as an illustrator, you never have to be the bad guy. Your rep can handle all the unpleasantness so you can focus on the thing you really want to do: make your best art.

Reps can help you plan your career

A good rep will not only help you get work, but will mentor you and help plan your career. They’ll analyze what works and what doesn’t work in your portfolio, be a sounding board for your concepts, and give you realistic advice on your aspirations and any problems that come up. A rep is a great person to vet your ideas through. For instance, if you’ve got a dozen book concepts you’re thinking of pitching, your rep might review them all and say: “That’s great, but I can’t sell it.” “I’ve seen this one a million times before.” “This one’s not so interesting.” “I like this one, but I don’t love it.” “This has possibilities, but the market’s really small for it.” Finally, they might find the one gem in the pile and say, “This is great—fresh concept, marketable, and you could do an amazing job of it! I can sell it!” That kind of objective insider advice can save you a lot of time and heartache when developing and pitching material.

Reps take care of all the business things so you don’t have to

As illustrators, the last thing you want to do is deal with promotion, contracts, negotiating, invoicing, chasing debtors, and all the other business things that come up in an otherwise amazing career. An illustration rep will take care of all of that on their end, freeing you up to spend more time on your art and less on the drudgery of business stuff.

Cons

Reps cost money

This is probably the biggest disadvantage illustrators would cite in regards to having a rep. While you should, hopefully, take in more money from your rep due to more work coming in and their ability to negotiate better rates, reps are not cheap. A typical rep will take a 25% cut of your illustration work and a 10% cut of your literary work. Reps will also want you to follow their recommended advertising plan, which may include purchasing ads in sourcebooks, websites, and sending out promo cards. There shouldn’t be any upfront fees (beware of reps who want money from you right off the bat), but those costs will end up deducted from your future jobs. Depending on how much work a rep gets you, you could actually make less money than you made on your own.

Some reps may take a cut of every job—regardless of whether they got it for you or not

Some reps may want a piece of every job you do while working with them (and even a short period of time afterward), regardless of how the job came to you. So that means, if you booked the gig yourself and the rep had nothing to do with it, they’d still be entitled to their commission. Typically, though, the rep should let you keep what are known as “house accounts” which are clients you already have a relationship with prior to teaming up with the rep. Each rep is different and each contract with a rep is unique, so many illustrators are finding success eliminating this clause in contracts and keeping 100% of the work they get themselves that doesn’t flow through the agency. It’s hit or miss, but definitely something to inquire about and consider when negotiating a contract with a rep.

Reps are not focussed on you specifically

Unless your rep only has a few clients, chances are you’re just one of a large number of illustrators he or she is representing. What this means is that the rep isn’t always trying to sell you; they’re trying to sell anyone that they represent. As long as someone is commissioned—whether it be you or another illustrator in their roster—the rep comes out on top. Additionally, the rep may have a vested interest in keeping a client happy that overpowers their interest in standing up for your work should a problem arise. Of course, the best reps will always take your side and fight for you. But there are certainly less than stellar reps out there who might not. Regardless, the point to remember is that, even though a rep will help, you are still the only person who will be 100% dedicated to your career.

You have to check up on everything your rep does

Reps require their own amount of work. Just like an employee who works for you, you need to check up on everything they do. That means making sure all your invoices have been settled, your portfolio looks good on their site, the promo cards they design for you meet your approval, the contracts they negotiate for you haven’t neglected anything or used erroneous information, and the payments they process match up to what the jobs were initially billed for. Reps are human just like anyone else and mistakes happen. While they’ll do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to your business, it’s a huge error to think that, by having one, you won’t have to worry about any of that stuff again. You will. More than you think.

You can’t depend on a rep to make your career happen

Finally, if you’re hoping that by gaining a rep, some magic button will be pressed and your career will suddenly ignite, you’re dead wrong. A rep will help with the business aspects of your job and be a trusted partner, but it’s still up to you to drive the cart and push your career forward. You’re the one who needs to take charge, develop your art, come up with marketable ideas, and keep the engine humming. The rep doesn’t lead you, you have to lead them. You’re the only one who can truly be responsible for your career and having a rep won’t change that.

Final thoughts

As you can see, there are clearly some positive and negative aspects for having an illustration rep. While they can be beneficial for a lot of illustrators, others may not find them as useful. The important thing to note is that a rep is not a one-stop cure-all for whatever’s ailing in your career. A rep is partner who works with you to help manage your work and get you to the next level where you need to be. No matter what their role, though, the onus will always be on you to take charge.

[Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I do have to say that I have a rep who I’m very happy with. They’ve been a great asset to me and I truly can say that my career has benefited from working with them. While the above post is as objective as I can make it, from a personal standpoint, I do come out in favor of having a rep—at least as far as mine’s concerned.]

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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