How to apply to illustration agencies

1. Meet face to face
Darrel Rees, in How to be an Illustrator*, states repeatedly that one of the best things you can do is meet face to face: Phone up, make an appointment, bring in your portfolio and talk to the art director for three quarters of an hour. This makes sense: It shows your serious, professional, that you can get on with each other, and gives you a chance to explain how you work. You can get across in a few minutes of meeting someone what would take hundreds of emails to do. However, I live in a backwater in China, so meeting art directors is a little tricky.

2. Submit images by email
So far, all the UK agencies I have seen will have Submissions page on their website. There they will tell you what specifically they want – usually half a dozen low-rez jpgs sent by email. However, I feel personally this doesn’t really show off my work properly – you can’t be certain of the order the images will be seen in, there’s no bio page or published work (books) page, and the industry guides (like the Writers and Artists Yearbook) recommend between 10 to 20 images. So unless they explicitly state they only accept jpgs, I’ve been sending a jpg to give a rough idea of my style, plus a pdf. I figure if they look at the jpg and feel it’s not for them, they aren’t going to open the pdf. So far the agencies have replied and not complained, so sending a pdf seems not to be a problem, and works better for both sides.

3. Email etiquette
If it’s one of those friendly children’s illustration agencies where they all use first names to introduce themselves anyway, first names are fine. Any other time, especially with big publishers, best to be more formal for the first email (“Dear John Smith”), if they reply back signing off with just a first name then it’s fine for you to use that from then on.

Signing off: Remember “Yours faithfully” is for when you don’t know the specific person you’re addressing (“Dear sir/madam”, “To whom it may concern”) but I avoid this like the plague. Either you should find out who you’re writing to, or if it’s one of those anonymous contact forms where they are getting hundreds of submissions I’d rather go with a friendly “Hello” (“To whom it may concern” just gives me a headache).

“Yours sincerely” is (apparently) considered too formal for email, and so off putting.

“Best wishes” and “Kind regards” seems to work in pretty much any formal email, before you’re on first name friendly terms, at that point I use “Best”.

4. Target each agency
One agency on their submissions page said that when illustrators apply they should answer two questions:

  • How does your work fit in with the artists we already represent?
  • And…
  • Why does your work offer something different?

This seems like a great idea, and I’ve started trying to answer these questions in all my applications: It gets you to understand their agency, and from their side they know that you’re not just firing out emails to a thousand companies, that you’ve actually thought about them specifically.

* This (How to be an Illustrator by Darrel Rees) is by far the best book I have read about the business side of illustration. Nothing about drawing and painting, it’s all about how to actually make a living at it, which I think for most of us is the really tough part. It’s got all kinds of practical advice, including stuff like how to write a professional invoice. If you’re serious about this as a career, you have to get this book. Only one caveat, it may be a little UK specific, approaching the US market may be different (I haven’t tried yet, so can’t tell you).

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