Agent or No Agent?

Today's Creative Business Diary entry is related to a question I've been asked frequently over the years, which is whether or not to work with an agent, either licensing (for artwork) or literary (for books.) I will share right off the bat that I can only speak from my own experiences and I am not trying to make a case firmly for or against working with agents. I'm not here to try to convince you that one way is the better way, I'm just here to share what I've experienced firsthand.

Here's a story:  At the end of 2000, five years into my business, I was approached by Recycled Paper Greetings (RPG) to license my greeting card designs. By this time I was managing 20+ reps, an 1100 square foot office, heaps of inventory, and a shipping schedule of 20-30 orders per week. I had secured a few license contracts already and was well on my way towards what my ultimate goal had been since the day I started, which was to be a licensed artist with a comprehensive gift line.

A few months into 2001, another artist friend of mine - who already had her own successful line of licensed artwork - introduced me to an agent she knew, and this agent was one of the top licensing agents in the country, an agent who represented two of the most successful licensed artists ever. My first meetings with this agent went well, and the conversation progressed. In the meantime, my marriage was falling apart and life was on the verge of going monumentally haywire. By that fall, I had finalized my contract with RPG, moved out of my house, filed for divorce, and basically shut down my card business (or at least passed it along to RPG.)

Then I flew up north for a meeting with the head honcho of this licensing agency, which was a meeting to decide whether or not we were going to officially seal the deal. In this meeting, Mr. Head Honcho said this to me:

"We really need to make sure your work is positive and life affirming."

Hmm.

My brand was called Swirly. The tag line was "Plant your dreams and the miracles will grow." The mission of my business was to inspire others to follow their dreams, and this was plastered all over my work and website.

So this statement made no sense to me. In fact, it kind of pissed me off. Mr. Head Honcho hadn't even bothered to look at my work, and I had been in talks with one of his agents for months.

This is the part of the story when I should be telling you my intuition told me it wasn't right, when I thanked Mr. Head Honcho for his time, walked out of his office, flew home, and ended our discussions after that. Instead, I have to tell you that I signed a contract, even though I had a bad feeling about it.

The short version of this story is that all the contracts I had secured on my own* were hugely successful (I'm still getting royalties from some of them), and all of the contracts this agent secured pretty much tanked.

After this relationship ended, another agent approached me, eager to represent my work. By that time my heart wasn't really in it anymore, so I signed a contract with her mainly because I felt like I had nothing to lose. I handed her my ten pound portfolio with no expectations, and dissolved the contract a while later after no new license contracts materialized.

These are my stories, so needless to say I'm not especially keen on finding an agent these days, either for licensing or literary. I'm familiar with contracts, know how to negotiate them myself, and don't mind handling these more left-brain aspects of getting my work into the world. Having said that, I know plenty of other artists and writers who can't imagine not having their agent, and I'm happy for them! I know that sounds snarky, but I mean that sincerely. It is a meaningful, lucrative relationship for many people, and that is a great thing. It just hasn't been my experience.

I must also acknowledge that right now I'm not having to wade through a stack of contracts. Offers aren't flooding my inbox and I'm not some kind of big player in the licensing world. I've negotiated just a handful contracts in recent years, and that is entirely manageable. So again, it is the specific circumstances of my career that has formed my answer to the question of agent or no agent.

Bottom line - and  you'll get this from me again and again - my best advice on this matter is to go with your intuition and stay in tune with your priorities, strengths, and weaknesses. If you feel entirely out of your comfort zone with regard to contracts, working with an agent might be the best thing for you. Ditto if the thought of having to market yourself to potential licensees or publishers makes you cringe. All I would encourage you to do is consider the possibility of trying something first before you decide with conviction you aren't capable of a task such as negotiating a contract.

Questions? Comments? Please share! Send them to me at diary@swirlygirl.com.

* I was working with a marketing agent at the time, who played a key role in the growth of my business and helped with some of these contracts, but wasn't an agent per se. Official titles aside, she believed in me and in Swirly, and this was far more important than the roster of other artists she represented. She has since launched her own amazing venture - Sundaes Best Fudge Sauce.

Christine Mason Miller

Santa Barbara, CA

Writer * Artist * Storyteller * Guide