ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Agents – It’s a Funny Business

Working with agents has its ups and downs. Mike Brownlow offers some of his experiences with art reps and literary agents over the years.

My experience of agents stretches back to pre-Internet, pre-Instagram days. I know. Pre-history. I started working professionally as an illustrator almost as soon as I left art college, and felt quite lucky to find an agent soon after. Agents would principally find me editorial, design and advertising work. Their cut of any job ranged from 20% at the very beginning, rising to 25% and then latterly to 30% or even 33%. They justified large fees by saying they had to pay their various reps to get out there and sell your talent, and of course there were all the publicity costs, the rent on those trendy offices in Soho, heating, overheads… it all adds up you know!

I was initially very pleased when I was taken on by my third agent – an agency specialising in humour, calling itself Funny Business. They had some big-name artists and seemed to be going places. However its charismatic boss turned out to be a crook, when they went bust a lot of us lost a lot of money. The illustrators who emerged from the wreckage banded together and set up a co-operative agency to cut out any more middlemen. This worked moderately well for a few years, but was never a proper substitute for a well-run business with energetic reps.

I gave illustration agents one last chance in the late 90s, when I was approached by an ex-illustrator starting up a new business. Like the other agencies, he principally offered me editorial, design and advertising work, but pretty soon started dabbling in the book world, often in the educational or book packaging sector. These were generally poorly paid jobs, especially after he’d taken his cut, and it was mostly work-for-hire stuff. (I still have copies of a series of books I did from that period that sold over 250,000 copies, but of course I made nothing other than the flat fee I’d been paid.)

I really wanted to break into the world of trade books – the books you see on bookshelves and which pay royalties provided they sell enough to earn back the advance. I approached a small publisher around that time with some book ideas, and was successful in getting these published with no agent involvement at all. For a while I felt quite pleased with myself. This contract lark didn't seem all that hard. Or so I thought.

Little Robots

The second book I did with this publisher, Little Robots, was noticed by Lego Media at the Bologna Book Fair. A deal was proposed to develop the property into an animated TV series. Unfortunately, now that the contract was being stress-tested, I found that what I’d signed was less than perfect. An innocuous sounding phrase had inadvertently given control of all merchandising rights to my publisher, effectively granting her the power to act as my agent.

I quickly became concerned about the way my capricious publisher was handling negotiations, which led to a serious split, involving me seeking advice from the Society of Authors and the involvement of a solicitor. (The moral here is never ever involve solicitors unless you absolutely have to. They cost an eye-watering amount of money and permanently sour any further relationships between the two parties involved, without any guarantee of a successful outcome.)

Little Robots merchandise

Happily the deal eventually went through, and 65 episodes of Little Robots were made, but it was all pretty stressful. Watching from the side lines was a sympathetic TV executive who privately advised me to get myself a good literary agent to watch my back in the future. I did some research and found that while illustration agents could sometimes be on the dodgy side, literary agents tend to be a far more respectable lot.

From the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook I chose three to approach, and sent them each a letter of introduction. Caroline Walsh at David Highams Associates wrote back saying “Let’s meet.” We did and she’s been my agent ever since. David Highams, like most other literary agents at the time, took 15% commission. This went up a few years later to 20%, and has remained at that rate ever since. Caroline has scrutinised all my book deals since I joined, I no longer have to agonise over how much to ask for or what’s the correct going rate. That’s her job. She initially wanted me to put all my work through her, but I told her that this wasn’t financially feasible as, frankly, many of the jobs I did were poorly paid and I couldn’t afford to lose a penny. I wasn’t at all sure how she’d react to this, but she seemed reasonably sanguine. I'd do all my conventional, trade book work through her, whilst retaining the ability to take other, non-book related jobs from my illustration agent, or other sources.

The bestselling Ten Little... series, written by Mike and illustrated by Simon Rickerty (OUP)

I continued to do bread and butter work through my illustration agent, but when the quality of work didn’t improve, I decided I could find these kind of jobs myself and split with him amicably. There was never any acrimony from either agent. I think they realised how hard it is to make a living as a freelance artist. I’m very grateful that Caroline Walsh was willing to cut me some slack, and stick with me until my books started making some money.

Much as I love my agent, she’s never been great at finding me work; rather she relies on me generating my own ideas that she can then sell on my behalf. In compensation, she’s red-hot on contracts, has extensive, international, up-to-date contacts, and because she’s so well respected, people will act on her recommendations. There’s no doubt that she’s been able to negotiate much better deals for me than I would have been able to do myself. Plus David Highams' accounts department keep track of all my books, so that’s another headache I don’t have to worry about.

The recently released Meet the Penguins (OUP)

These days there’s another avenue for author/illustrators to explore. Agencies like Arena, Bright or Advocate have morphed from being principally illustration agencies, into both illustration and literary agents, which must suit author/illustrators particularly well. This breed of agent would probably argue that they’re more pro-active in terms of finding their clients work than the more traditional literary outfits. However there’s a danger with some of the less selective illustration/literary agencies that because they hold so many artists on their books, you might get lost in the general hubbub.

It’s often said that finding a good agent is harder than finding a publisher. I got lucky. Although not ultimately essential, there’s no doubt a good literary agent lends you more credibility, as well as keeping you up to date with the latest twists and turns of a complicated and fickle industry. Good luck in your searches, and remember – watch out for any agency with the word ‘funny’ in the title.

 Mike Brownlow is an illustrator and author of many books for children, including CBBC's Little Robots, and the Ten Little.... series with Simon Rickerty. A long standing volunteer with SCBWI's Illustration Committee, Mike lives in Somerset.

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