Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What Flavor Are You?

I've been a freelance illustrator for almost 20 years and for the first 17 it was business as usual. In the last three years I've seen more changes in our industry than ever before. In some ways I must confess that if given the choice to see big changes or keep business as usual I would have ignorantly chosen the latter. Change isn't fun. Change is usually painful. Change is scary because not knowing feels insecure and most of us crave security. But the reality is that change is on the menu to stay - so our choices are to dine or leave the restaurant and starve.

In the past you were odd if you called yourself a freelancer. To most of the "normal" 9-5 crowd a freelancer was synonymous with freeloader or at best someone living on the fringe. Over time freelancers became more mainstream. Most freelancers (myself included)own their job. In other words, they get an assignment from a company and then through their skills, crafts, or abilities satisfy that assignment. If they aren't working they usually aren't earning so while they have more freedom they still have to work to earn.

Now we're seeing a whole new job description - The artist as "The Product". Greg Spalenka a world renowned illustrator calls it "Artist as Brand". In the past and present artist relied on companies to function as the liaison between them and the consumer. For gallery artists it was the gallery. For book illustrators - the publisher. For video game artists - the studio. These entities provide big money to produce and market products using art - the kind of money few artists could generate or commit themselves. The artist's risk is time - the companies risk is money. A symbiotic relationship that was virtually the only way - until now.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that the days of these entities are over by any means but their roles are changing very quickly. The internet has in many ways leveled the playing field. Artist now have a direct line to the consumers of the products they create. Never before in the history of the world have artists had the opportunity to reach their audiences so efficiently. If you're a fine artist you can develop a following through social networking, blogging, emailing, etc. The same is true for children's book illustrators, art book artists, graphic novel and comic artists, art educators and so on. You say you want to produce your own video game? What's stopping you? Many iphone games are now being produced by solo tech savvy artists or artists teamed up with a tech person. A simple upload to itunes and if the game is good they could start raking it in.

The idea is that you can no longer use "nobody will hire me" as an excuse not to produce your own products. Many companies will go out of business in the near future. Many will adapt and thrive. For me I'm looking at each new request for my services in a different light. I'm trying to balance my freelance assignment time with time spent on producing my own projects.

I've realized that even though I've been illustrating children's books for over a decade and sold over 750,000 books (all combined) a very small percentage of my audience associates Will Terry with the books I've illustrated. This is a huge problem! We usually buy name brand products because people associate the brand with quality. I need to be constantly working on the Will Terry brand and for me one of the easiest ways to do that is to also start to write some of the books I illustrate. The reality is that it's an authors world and illustrators really take a back seat in many ways. As I see it an illustrator can complain or become an author.

Last year as I was getting my brain around the changes I was seeing in art related industries I became frightened and depressed. The insecurity was really getting to me. Now that I've started to take control of my own branding I'm finding the future exciting and I'm always thinking of new ways to take advantage of the technology that has fallen in our laps.


  1. This is a great article. I would like to learn more about making my own books into Iphone apps. I have no idea where to start with that...other than writing my own book of course.

    I agree with you. There are so many more ways to get your art straight to the consumer now days. Even putting prints or cards on Etsy is a small way to start. Thanks for the pep talk!!

  2. Fantastic article Will. I graduated from SUU in 2008. While in school we were taught how the industry works: send postcards, find an agent, travel to New York with your portfolio (HAHA!Really?), and so forth.
    Once I got out of school and tried my hand at freelancing, I found it to be a very different system. I started listening to podcasts put out by super plugged-in people who were seeing the changes in the industry and became really inspired to create my own work and self-publish it. "Self-Publish" Theres a phrase that would get you laughed at and shunned REAL quick, especially in the children's book market. It was thought that people self-published their books because they weren't "good enough" for 'Real' publishing.
    The crazy truth is that I'm seeing a WHOLE LOT of self-published books, comic books, and so forth that are a million times better than "big house" publishers.
    The industry is definitely changing. So yes, we can either cry about it, or roll with it. It's not hard to know which decision will put you ahead in your career.

  3. Very well said, Will! I've had a lot of the same feelings and inner conflict. It wasn't until this past year that I decided to find out about this internet thing, it's BIG and overwhelming, but I know I can't let fear decide my future.

  4. Shawna - If you can team up with someone who has programing skills it's worth it! My brother in law (Tom) is now taking jpeg files from illustrators and formatting them for ebook publication. You can reach him at tbgilson@gmail.com

    Mark - thanks! Often schools are behind on current market situations - there really isn't a solution with the current University situation. Students that realize this can have a leg up if they're willing to start doing their own research. You're right about the stigma of self publishing - I believe that each year that stigma will continue to change towards total acceptability. Everyone uses youtube and you just accept the reality that some videos are professional - some are mediocre - and some are awful. I think there will be more sifting sites that help direct consumers to the "good" stuff.

    Rob - you've been an inspiration in so many ways! You've made many adaptations over the years and I'm sure you'll continue to thrive.

  5. Will: you are incredibly talented and there's no reason you can't write as well as illustrate. I, for one, can't wait to see what you come up with! Think about app publishing too--it's easier than ever for talented writer/illustrators to hook up with one of the app publishers, who are always looking for good content. Check out PicPocket Books, Ruckus Media Group, iStorytime and Oceanhouse Media--and go for it!

  6. Hi, picked up this article from Shawna's tweet. True words- "The idea is that you can no longer use "nobody will hire me" as an excuse not to produce your own products." The hard part is figuring it all out, readjusting and then applying new ideas on a new road that's not marked.

  7. Thanks Brooks! I'll check out those sources!

    Shannon you're so right - there's a lot of noise out there and I'm constantly questioning the information I find. It's like going on a trip without packing, stopping the mail and no map, itinerary, or reservations.

  8. Great stuff Will! I really feel like a person needs to be open to any direction their skills may take them. Don't put your eggs in one basket.

  9. Great article. Will!
    I discovered you a few months ago through a Children's Book Illustration course. I just went through your "How to Illustrate Children's Books" video series and it is amazing.

    I was previously in another field and like you say the freelancers were considered fringe bottom dwellers. The "Jedi" side of the internet promises new and greater opportunities.

  10. Great Article!
    Thanks for the kick in the pants inspiration!


Feel free...