A New Look At An Old Industry

Originally Posted: Jan. 8, 2010
by Christina A. Tugeau

My New Year’s wish is to write an honest yet ‘upbeat’ article for artists that will start 2010 off with a burst of optimism! I’m having trouble with that. The truth is that the last eighteen months have been some of the worst in recent memory for our industry… and the troubles and changes are far from over.

I can say that I see cautious optimism, at least in the trade book industry, but there is still much uncertainty in the general marketplace. It began seriously just before 2008’s holiday season with layoffs and restructuring in publishing companies across the spectrum: trade, educational, mass market. The wider economic turmoil affected us all. Often it was the brightest and best in the trade book field who lost their jobs! It was truly frightening from every perspective. This situation has stabilized a bit, but everyone is still very skittish.

Then the educational market just stopped, for all intents and purposes… and hasn’t really resurfaced. Traditionally, this market is a big hunk of ongoing available assignments for most artists. In an attempt to cut down on costs, too many already low-paying jobs have been assigned ‘off shore’ (often to India and China). This is a shameful loss for artists that will be hard to reverse.

The economy’s downward spiral has caused state budgets to be cut and cut again. As a result, schools and libraries have much less to spend, which further impacts both the educational and trade markets. The federal government, by dangling stimulus grants, is pushing the school markets to go digital …. totally! Text books as we know them are ‘out.’

This has caused a good deal of the ‘stall’ in the educational publishers’ production. Assignments are delayed as they try to figure out what this new ‘multi-platform environment’ will mean… In spite of all this, I don’t think we need to be all ‘doom and gloom’ about the changes happening in our industry. Life must always change; it just seems a bit more rapid and obvious these days.

The question is… what can we do about it?

First, keep a good ATTITUDE. Do not assume that the industry suddenly ‘hates’ your work/style because you are not getting calls. Almost everyone is feeling the decline. Some of my artists who have always had work have barely had anything this past year. Look at this as a personal challenge to try new things… to survive bad times and be ready for the good times.

INNOVATE: You want to be seen in new, different and memorable ways. Try digitally-created art if you’ve always painted with a brush… educational work will require it within a year, I hear. Produce a graphic novel, maybe. Try to write if you haven’t before and make up a story dummy… if for no other reason then to showcase your art.

Make a BUSINESS PLAN. Then stick to it, evaluate it and change it as needed. Be your own ‘marketing agent’ get your work seen (see my articles for ideas how to do this). Be organized and professional about this. I promise: writing your plan of attack will facilitate its happening. Get together often with other local (SCBWI!) artists to share ideas and encourage each other.

Don’t quit your DAY JOB. No one wants to hear that, but freelancing in the children’s publishing market has always been a challenge financially. Fees and advances paid to illustrators have gone down as other costs have gone up. Everyone needs everything faster for less money. I think feeling secure is important for creativity, but our industry is too changeable and cyclical to provide it.

All things considered, you might actually have to GET a day job. That does not mean giving up your creative aspirations, however! The tide will turn, the pendulum reverse. Maybe not before this new year is ending, but it will happen. Move with it… not against it. If your time isn’t being taken up with assignments, maybe the new ‘venture’ (job) will help you focus, so that the time with art is better used and appreciated. Turn anxiety into positive action.

TRACK RECORDS: Counterintuitively, in a downturn it can be easier for a book publisher to bring in a ‘new talent’ with no track record than to use a ‘tried and true’ artist who has a few books that have not sold well (even if it was the fault of the writing!). This is a sales and marketing ‘bottom line’ issue, and it is easy now for any publisher to check on the selling records of other publishers. New artists are also often more willing to accept lower fees and advances. This is good for new artists, not so good for more established artists.

PROMOTE: Do what you can to promote any books you might have out there. Signings, school and library visits, websites… anything to get the sales numbers up. Put yourself ‘out there’ in whatever other way you can artistically: give a class (on wall murals, with kids, children’s book art, etc.) Join local art groups you might not have had time for before. Go with friends to museums… inspire yourself and each other. Donate some work to a nursing home, or fund raisers, and get in local newspaper… good for all!

DO NOT COMPARE the present to the past: looking back will probably only discourage you. Things have probably changed forever, but publishers, sales reps, agents, writers and artists are not completely sure how yet. The book is being rewritten and re-illustrated as I write… which is one more way of saying that books are very much alive, in one form or another. So a brave new year begins… and perhaps a brave new approach to our careers. That is an opportunity! Styles and trends change like the seasons… you can count on that. Keep in mind that your particular style and talents are one-of-a-kind. Maintain old relationships and build new ones with clients and peers.

So jump right in. Play a bit. Expand and educate yourself. And then take a good picture book to bed with you and rest easy! Happy 2010!

Agent Christina A. Tugeau and the artists she represents can be seen at http://www.catugeau.com. Previous Illustrators’ Corner articles are available at the site as well. Feedback to this piece, as well as the others, is always welcome and encouraged.

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