I thought about it more. I was having a tough time determining why that agent meeting bothered me so much. He wasn't outright disrespectful of my work. He even liked a few of the pieces and gave me, frankly, pretty constructive feedback about how to make my work better—by his standards at least. And there... there it was. His standards. I realize that he's only one guy. I realize that he doesn't necessarily represent the entirety of the publishing industry. Howeeeeever—I don't think he's an outlier either. Publishers and agents, like music labels and other similar folks, are business people. Art is a commodity to them. He can throw comments at me like "yeah, I started representing a new artist about a month ago who was putting cat eyes on people. Totally weird; I put an end to that real quick" because this industry views illustration as a vehicle for sales. When you look at art like that, how can you be free? How can you take creative risks? If you tell me my "characterization of human figures is too polarizing," how will I grow?
That meeting bothered me because it opened my eyes to what I already sort of knew and feared: that the publishing world is not all that different from the design world I just left. Instead of someone telling me I can't design a new global nav because they don't feeling like spending the time to build it, it's someone telling me not to give my characters long, skinny necks and big, weird noses because publishers don't want that. The message is the same: "Nah, I don't like that idea. Do this other one that I'm more comfortable with and I'll help you get money." Except in publishing, it's not even all that much money. So it's theeee saaame thing but less lucrative than what I was already doing.
And this was jarring because I had all but convinced myself that getting an agent for publishing work was what I HAD TO DO by March of 2021 in order to start making some sort of reasonable income before August—so I wouldn't have to get another design job.
But no. Fuck all of that. Having to draw something annoying for a children's catalog with my hand in a vice grip while still struggling to pay my bills does not sound like success to me.
There is another category of artists I had discredited early in this process. These are the people who just started making and selling shit and eventually made it big on (largely) their own terms. I'm looking at the Lisa Congdons, Emily McDowells, Jessica Swifts, Adam JKs etc of the world. These people took the opposite approach. Instead of saying "Hi, please tell me what to do and I'll do it as long as you can promise me some money," they said, "Here is what I made. Do you want to buy it?" over and over and over again for as long as it took to make them successful. This method is hard. It's full of imposter syndrome. It requires extravert-ness and balls. It takes a long-ass time. It usually requires the artist to spend several years working jobs that are unrelated to their art. Oftentimes, it doesn't work out. But when it does work, it woooooorks.
If I'm going to answer to other people and spend my life creatively compromising, I want a salary and benefits. If I'm going to give up a salary and benefits, I want true, unadulterated freedom.
Before you yell at me, I'm know that Lisa Congdon probably has to make creative compromises and I also know that some successful people with agents are able to have creative freedom. I understand that these are not black and white situations. I'm just looking at the path to entry:
- Agency path says: Impress specific industry people enough for them to give you a shot. Put in your time doing less than ideal work and maybe you'll break through and become the next Chris Riddell for the next Neil Gaiman.
- Solopreneur path says: Make money through other means for now and create art that you enjoy. When you figure that out, put it out into the world. Trust that your audience is out there.
I don't want to resent art anymore, guys. I don't want to keep avoiding it because it's difficult and I know I'll have to impress someone on the other side in order to pass the gatekeeper. I want to be my own fucking gatekeeper. I want to curse in my blog without having to worry about what might happen if I become a kid lit artist. I want to draw weird shit on the corner of my sketchbook and put it into the world and make people laugh. I don't want to have a 20,000 year plan. I just want to make cool stuff and sell it to people. Someday it would be fun to have my own storefront. Or maybe an artist collaboration space. Or maybe not.
This is getting long.
So what's the plan? My one year of financial runway expires on July 31, 2021. Any income I've made since August 1, 2020 will extend that runway.
Here's the latest idea. This is subject to change without my feeling bad about it:
- Stop accepting new commissions because my backlog is very large.
- Get through as many commissions as possible before January 31.
- In the meantime, explore surface pattern design because I've been curious about it for a long time and I need to follow some curiosities right now.
- Get some stuff on Spoonflower and see how that feels.
- Spend February through April exclusively making stuff I want to make without any other distractions and put it out into the world. Very little focus on outreach or marketing. This is just creative time.
- On May 1, evaluate: Am I having fun? Do I see a future in this? What are my options for getting this work in front of new people (assuming I'm having fun)? How much money am I making? Do I need more? Do I need a part time job or a full time job?
- If the answer to "do I need a job" is yes, begin applying.
This plan does a few things for me:
- Allows me to get through the commissions list I've already generated without adding more to it. Commissions are currently standing in the way of my creative exploration because I've said yes to too many of them and am stressed about it.
- Gives me permission to spend 3 full months working on exactly what I want to work on. Honestly, this time might be spent trying to figure out what that even looks like.
- Gives me permission to stop worrying about money until May 1.
- Ensures that success here will be more fulfilling than success in a world where I'm trying to impress others first.
Fingers crossed. Let's do this.