How Illustrators Can Supplement Their Income
by James Burns
As an illustration agent who has worked in the publishing industry for ten years, I often encounter the same questions from newcomers and seasoned professionals alike: What is the best way to promote myself? What types of pieces should be included in my portfolio? How do I calculate the price for a commission, and how do I maximize my income? In this article, I’ll aim to pass along a few tips, while focusing on how to increase income without flooding oneself in the market.
As an illustrator relying primarily on commissions within the children’s publishing sector, there are a few key rules that you — or your agent if you are working with one — should keep in mind. The first is to ensure that the multiple projects you work on are not in direct competition with one another. As an example, Bright artist Jestenia Southerland has just been signed to work with HarperCollins’ Tamar Mays on a wonderful book entitled Ruby’s Reunion Day Dinner by Angela Dalton. As Jestenia’s agent, my first course of action before negotiating the terms of the deal was to confirm when HarperCollins is planning to publish the title; in this case, it is winter 2022. I then checked to confirm that Jestenia is not currently contracted for any other titles publishing within the same season. This ensures that when the title does publish, the HarperCollins’ Sales and Marketing teams have the space they need to promote and create a successful title. Failing to provide an adequate timeframe between titles is a disservice to all parties involved. For example, if Jesteia has similar titles publishing around the same time, bookstores may only stock one, which not only affects the sales for the publisher but also limits the chances for both the author and artist of earning royalties.
Allowing for space between publications can in turn limit the commissions that an artist is available to take on. I’ve personally had to turn down multiple projects due to conflicting publication dates, and while the publisher is sometimes able to move their date to accommodate the artist, more often than not there is a reason for which a date is chosen such as a world event, anniversary, or a holiday that is linked to the book to aid sales. Luckily, there are many alternate avenues that an artist and their agent can take to maintain—if not increase—income in these situations.
The simplest way to avoid conflicting projects while maintaining income is to work within different age brackets. For example, if you’ve been contracted for a picture book, I would advise to then begin seeking commissions in a younger or older format. Chapter books are a great place to start as they are series-led, which means longer-term projects to support income, and the artwork is usually black and white which rarely conflict with picture books. The type of work you are seeking should be reflected in your marketing both online (website and social media) and offline (postcard and other mailers). I would highly recommend all artists to create a few pieces of black and white or limited palette artwork to showcase in their portfolio.
In addition to dividing your work amongst different age brackets, you can also explore working as a copy artist and licensing your artwork. These options can be a little trickier to get right, but they will help to create additional income streams while avoiding flooding yourself in the market.
Working as a copy artist means that you are commissioned by a publishing house to work on an existing brand; a few examples are My Little Pony, Grumpy Cat, and American Girl. Working as a copy artist for an existing brand comes with pros and cons. On the plus side, they do not compete with any other projects and normally pay fairly well. It can also be beneficial in demonstrating to other houses that you are able to work under tight specs. On the negative side, working as a copy artist nearly always entails a Work for Hire agreement, which means you may not receive credit on the cover or be listed on retail sites such as Amazon. However, in my experience, artists can typically use the artwork for self-promotion. Working within an established brand can also mean the work has an added level of scrutiny, taking in to account that the brand will also have input on your work. which can be both rewarding and painful (especially if the publishing house does not agree with the brand).
As a copy artist, the house can commission you to work within the brand’s own style. This is a bit more difficult for an unrepresented artist to be signed up for due to what you are able to show publicly in your portfolio. In other cases, publishing houses will commission you in your own style that would work for the brand, an example of this being when Bright artist Stephanie Laberis was commissioned to work with Grumpy Cat and Little Golden Books on no less than five titles. In order to be shortlisted for this type of commission, it is important to show consistent, strong facial expressions and fabulous character movement. I would advise having a portfolio section dedicated to a character development and character studies. A portfolio will benefit by including the same character in different action shots and poses either within a scene or limited background, as it demonstrates ownership and confidence of style.
Another way to generate income while not flooding the market is to work as a licensing artist. This means that you agree to a company using your artwork for a particular product, over a set amount of time, in an agreed upon territory.
When curating a portfolio aimed at licensing commissions, it is key to format your artwork accordingly. For example, greeting cards typically focus on a particular occasion, such a birthday, holiday or celebration. It is important to be clear on what occasion your artwork is directed for, and in a sense, you have to act as the illustrator and creative director. Make it bold, clear, and easy for buyers to recognize how your design will fit within their product range. Bryony Clarkson accomplished this by first creating a design format, and then placing numbers and typography onto the illustration.
Another example of a licensing product is puzzles. For this type of commission, it’s all about creating artwork that is detailed enough to be engaging for the target solver.
In Victoria’s work, there is a simple complexity that can really be appreciated when taking the time to look at the work up close, such as the writing on the shop sign and the lights in the store. These details are all subtle but key.
When considering licensing commissions, the ability to tell a story is second to the importance of creating a clear, concise message for the intended project. The focus relies on images that stand on their own rather than characters and scenes that work together to create a longer narrative.
There is no doubt that even more options exist for artists looking to advance their careers and grow their income. From my perspective, which is of course bias, I strongly believe that it is beneficial to have someone in your corner who aids you in navigating these options and supporting your goals. This is why working with an agency like The Bright Agency is so valuable, as a group of specialized agents, we are constantly working with our artists to strategically plan and deliver on long term careers goals across the publishing, advertising and licensing markets globally.
James Burns specializes as an agent in commercial illustration based in the US Bright office. With proven success in his management skills with external and internal stakeholders, James provides fuss-free creative solutions across all genres of children’s literature. He has built a reputation in publishing by understanding the needs of his commercial and fictional audience – not to mention his warm and approachable personality. https://thebrightagency.com/us