Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Realities of an Art Licensing Newbie

© Kathy Weller
I've been sharing my art licensing story with you, in fits and starts, for quite awhile now. Staying positive and 'on the bright-side' does come natural to me... But, I'm not going to give you 'all rose and no thorns'. Painting half a picture of my journey for you just isn't how I roll. Art licensing is an exciting business, but, I will be honest, it's no barrel of cupcakes with monkeys and pugs on top. Nor did I think it would be. I studied the industry for too long and too hard before actually jumping into the waters myself to not have a full understanding of this going in.

The art licensing biz can be very... well, dramatic. My experiences this year has been riddled with highs and lows. I expected this. I knew what I was getting into. But, there some things you just can't really prepare yourself for. It's the difference between book-smarts and street-smarts. Reading the story and living it are two completely different things. So, when things happened—or didn't, in some cases—I didn't have a road map. I just had to keep my head on, refocus myself and revise my plan a little. Just keep on plowing through. Keep working, keep submitting, keep trying. No quitting allowed.

The other day, I was talking to a friend about it, and I compared the emotional toll to the ups and downs of buying a first home. "Congratulations! You're a Homeowner! Oh, wait! Sorry! You're NOT a Homeowner!" Maybe it's a Short Sale... Maybe with a moody, indecisive owner... Just for good measure, let's throw in a difficult house inspection: New roof.. Water damage. Get the picture?

Though the year has been dramatic, I can't see the shadows without also seeing the light. And believe me, there is light. When I actually really step back, and take a good, hard look at things, there has been plenty of light! All of my focused creative energy and hard work has produced a LOT of very solid, focused creative work. In fact, I dare say I've had one of my most prolific years on record, if not THE most prolific year I can even remember. Yes, I'm not exaggerating. That is something to celebrate!

I also discovered that I am a GOOD WRITER. For reals! I found "my voice" in writing copy for greeting cards. The illustration part of the card equation was never an issue, of course. But writing the copy? Scary! In truth, it took me years to work up to it. It was an experiment in many things, mostly in my own self-confidence. Turns out I was ready to let the card writer come out to play, and stay. It is a truly amazing to have discovered (or admitted... or maybe just fully embraced?) this other passion of mine. This year, I even had interest in my card line from a great company. This time, that deal did not happen. But this was a bump in the road. I could'nt let myself get too discouraged. I know my work is good, and I know the work will find the life it deserves. And, I have a LOT more cards in me. So there are lots of possibilities. It is my job to turn those possibilities into probabilities.

Another great positive that happened this year is that I started to cultivate relationships with people in the industry. Really nice, really honest, really genuine, really talented, really hard-working people. And, Ta-Da! Some of them are agents! Maybe I'm lucky, choosy, or a combination—but not one of the agents whom I personally interfaced with this year was any less than great. ANY LESS THAN GREAT. (That's my Oprah repeat for you.) Yes, I know that we illustrators all hear the "bad-agent" horror stories. But between you and me, I'm sure some agents (and some manufacturers) also have horror stories about some less-than-professional illustrators! My main point is that we're all adults here. There are bad apples everywhere. And there are good apples, too. And we all need to be on top of our game. It just boils down to listening to your instinct (really listening, not hearing only what you want it to say), using your common sense (using those street-smarts or cultivating some), doing a ton of research on your subject (study as though for a test, whether you are looking into a manufacturer or an agent). Finally you have to know exactly what your art and brands' VERY SPECIFIC creative point of view is—where you fit, and what you bring to the table. You also need to know what the specific point of view is of the subject whom you are trying to pitch. It's that simple, really. (But yes, it IS a LOT of work.)

There is plenty of trial and error, too. Don't ever not try because you are afraid to fail, or you'll never start. In retrospect, I sat on my hands longer than I would have, simply because I heard this one line several times, from several authorities, at an art licensing conference: "In art licensing, you ONLY get ONE chance to make a GOOD impression". Crippling statement for a newbie, yes? No sugar coating there... But, at some point it becomes time to move on, and go with your gut, and let some of the things you've been told from the pros fall away (yes even the pros aren't right all of the time. Especially if they don't know you and your personal situation). So I learned to take what makes sense, but not to not allow myself to become frozen by fear. I can always pick up discarded advice later, if I find it fits. The baby duck has to get it's feathers wet some time. None of us were born experts in anything (but the obvious). I think I understand what the objective was in the statement, but I finally sent it packing...

Hey,  guess what? I don't think I really qualify as an art licensing newbie any more. But I've still got a long way to go, and though the journey is at times dramatic, it's also exciting, and even rewarding. I don't ever want to turn a blind eye to these valuable experiences that initially are not all sunshine and roses. They're moments to be marked— celebrated even. Gaining wisdom through hard-won experience is priceless, isn't it?

Onward and upward!


Swirly Designs said...

What a truly honest post. Very inspiring. We have been feeling the same way about getting into licensing for years now and after reading this we feel we just need to bite the bullet and start building up collections.
We wish you much success!
Lianne & Paul

Jannie aka Chickengirl said...

Hi Kathy, thank you for your honest post. I think we've all been watching your journey and I truly truly believe its only a matter of time before you take off in the art licensing world. Especially I believe your brand is strong and you have a great passion for the industry.

I think we've all had our highs and lows in any industry and sometimes we just talk about the high on our blogs, etc. And so it is always refreshing when someone comes out with an honest post (and to inspire others.) :-)

Ellen Crimi-Trent said...


We all have to learn where we fit in this cog of Licensing.. those who think they can have it right out of the box are fooling themselves. You know even the veterans are even having a hard time now.. the economy makes it impossible for manufacturers and agents to take on new artists and collections.. everyone is afraid to take a chance, but it will come, as long as you keep your voice, it will come!

Those who copy, and have no originality will fail and those who keep plugging away will profit. Like I always say "those who fail the most succeed the most!". I fail all the time but I never stop.. I know that eventually you will find your place just like we had to find our place.. I have a feeling your pets are going to be huge real soon!!

You keep plugging girl!!


Karyn Servin said...

Great read. I too am a newbie and agree this year has been full of highs and lows. I keep thinking that if the economy starts to take off, all those opportunities we have been working towards will take off too. Hang in there, you are NOT alone!

LBR said...

Your essay is great and inspirational for those of us that have been slooging around in the business for a long time. We all need encouragement. It is also a truthful over view of what is required to get into the business. With so many people out of work now, I am running in to more people that think they will become an illustrator at age 40 something. They have no training, no experience and never have shown an interest before, but because they are out of work they think it is an easy way to make money. For shame, where are this uneducated people coming from? Well, I hope some of them come across your essay then maybe they will think again.

Suzanne Urban said...

Thanks for the post! Very inspiring!

Rebecca Collins said...

Great writing! I dunno, but I'm not sure I want to be creating in a world where you only get one chance to make a good impression:) LOL, you have a great attitude and this is a good read for anyone trying to make it in a creative field. Keep having fun on your journey.

Anonymous said...

Yikes I have written a small novel. I think i have gotten carried away.

This was an excellent post, thank you for sharing what your experience has been. I am not a newbie at all but on most days I certainly feel like one. Just when I think I know what kind of art to create, and who to pitch it to, I find I am way off the mark. I would also like to say whoever said that you only have one chance to make an impression might be choosing to put limitations on their own opportunities in the future. Obviously first impressions are very important and you always want to put your best foot forward but the first time around you just might send the wrong art on the wrong day (timing is much of this) . Showing art for a living is extremely subjective and everyone will see it differently and often we have no idea what the companies needs are and they do not always know either (until they see it).

I have heard countless stories of artists who have been extremely successful with companies they were rejected by in the past. There is definitely no one way to do this. You will not find an exact formula in any kind of an e-book, the only path to making this happen is by experimenting and trying new things, when something doesn't work you try something else and definitely even if you are rejected that does not mean you should never send your new artwork to those same companies.

As for agents they are clearly NOT all the same, just like people it is wrong to judge them as one in the same. It is wise for artists to do plenty of homework nice people are not always fair in business and sometimes it can be hard to get the reality of the situation because once again everyones reality is so different.

I am sure as you continue on your path you will find more of the right partners and learn more about what's going to work for you. And keep in mind just as soon as you think you've got it all figured out you will face new is just the nature of this industry. Your artwork is very special with lots of personality and I think you will have plenty of success!! You keep on rocking!

Kathy Weller said...

I just want to tell you all how touched I am that you would post such thoughtful and personal responses. Thanks. Reminds me that conversations like this are why I blog! This community rocks.

Lianne and Paul,you're in MA? Me too! Your stuff is so cute!! I can totally see AL all over your work. Hello? You need to get in the game! You could develop product around your work, you already have product so it would be an extension. Back to business-I'm glad you are following along here and thank you so much for the comment! (Tweet me if you want to chat more AL.)

Jannie, thanks so much for your comment. I also appreciate the nice compliment. It feels good to be finally blogging again and be sharing my experiences about this stuff. I'm glad you are following my journey- the good the bad and the ugly LOL!

Kathy Weller said...

Ellen, The "cog" of licensing-great description. It sometimes feels like such an oxymoron because the industry is so built on trends, what's HOT HOT HOT, but then, manufacturers like to get in on the trends (and then all you see is pink and brown bird silhouette designs for two years, for example)... But the truth is just what you said - being ORIGINAL, and staying true to our own unique voices as artists, is of utmost importance!!

Rebecca, Thanks!! I'm not giving up no way no how! :) I'm just learning how to take a little 'time out' to reflect and refocus. I can only speak for myself but it's something I need to do sometimes, or I'll go nutty!

Sue, what you said really hits home for me on several counts. That even YOU feel like a newbie sometimes (you are a licensor I truly admire) that makes me feel not so alone. Half the time, when I'm getting started to work, I think, "WHAT am I doing? Oh YES. THIS is what I'm doing today..". All of A.L. work is so self-motivated in a way that even freelance illustration and design can't touch. It can be confusing. There is no user guide when it comes to work flow and truly interfacing with clients as a licensor. The AL biz is so unique from other types of art biz in terms of 'rules' & expectations. It's kind of like you're on a raft in terms or that compared to other commercial art businesses. Thanks for chiming in with your experience. It means a lot. I'll read it again and again..

LBR-Thanks for your honesty!! I appreciate it. People who think it would be easy to turn a quick buk are not only sadly mistaken but they are woefully delusional. I'm glad I really have not run into any of them (well, maybe I did once or twice, way back when I first started going to AL trade shows) but people who feel that way - think it's all easy cake- they will fold like a house of cards the second waters get a little choppy. You know? I mean, good luck. It takes time, effort, guts and passion, tenacity and who-knows-what-else to stick it out as an artist in general not to MENTION in art licensing. It is a great challenge (with great reward)!

Karyn, Thanks for chiming in! Keep up the work on your AL career and please don't be discouraged by the economy, of ALL things! ;) I honestly don't even think about the economy in terms of how it relates to my work personally in AL. If I had already had made major inroads in AL, and my royalty checks were drying up, it would be a much different situation. But I don't make a living from AL right now. In other ways, the economy is not going to really affect what themes I choose to develop for collections, and it's not going to keep me from as many trade shows as I can attend per year. Since I know it takes a good 1 - 2 years to turn a profit in this industry anyway, I am in sort of a suspended reality when it comes to the income I will see.
I really think of this economy as a "new" reality— not a "down market" that we are waiting to spring-back from—and I just work from that perspective. Sort of how a realtor will say, "don't look at the value of the house from 5 years ago or ten years ago. This is what the value is TODAY, and today is what matters." :)

Suzanne, thanks for reading and I appreciate the kind words!

carol eldridge said...

Kathy, as I have told you many times, if this were easy, everyone would do it. Don't get mired down by the few bumps in the road...stick to your goals and focus on that and only matter what. Don't get discouraged or think too much about it. While your post is nice, I would suggest that you spend the time working on new artwork instead of the time to write about this, so when the moment comes for you, and it will, you are ready to move ahead with all the work you have done. Reading and writing about it is fine, but doing it is better. Keep your eye on the prize! Actions speak louder than words!! You know that!