Saturday, October 25, 2014

Seven pieces of good advice that stayed with me

as usual, interpret this image however you please
David Palumbo

Last week, while recording an interview for an upcoming episode of Creative Trek, I was asked to share a piece of advice which has stayed with me over the years.  A few jumped to my mind at that moment and then later that day I kept thinking of others, so I thoughts I’d jot a few down here on Muddy Colors. 

1: Be prepared to pay your dues

I grew up in a family of artists, so it is inevitable that much of the good advice I’ve received over the years would come from my parents.  This was one that I heard again and again before I even began learning to paint.  Basically, be grateful for every job you can get because it takes a long time to climb the ladder.  Not every job is going to be fun and/or easy, so be ready to tackle the low rent and uninspired jobs with a professional attitude.  Looking back, I find this to be very much a tightrope.  On the one hand, you don’t want to be taken advantage of and there are plenty of people out there looking to exploit you as far as you will let them.  Opposite that, you need to be humble and know that, at least when starting out, you should be following up as many opportunities as possible.  Finding the balance is hard and I think most of us only get it after several stumbles, but a humble attitude will help a great deal.  I’ve seen several people with tremendous potential wash out because of their egos and an attitude that the world owed them some kind of special treatment.  This is not really a business for prima donnas. 

2: Don’t teach yourself the mistakes of others

Early on, I had some ideas about working as a comic artist and was fortunate to have a portfolio review by Joe Quesada.  After looking at my (in hindsight) very crude pages, he told me that he felt I was looking too much at other comic artists and not enough at real life.  He told me that, while you can learn a great deal by copying the work of those who inspire you, the vast majority of your study should be direct observation.  When you copy another artist, you are copying their mistakes and teaching yourself their bad habits.  Working from life, on the other hand, lets you train without that baggage clouding up the picture.  You are much more likely to develop your work into something unique if you learn from the world unfiltered.

3: Lead with the work

About the time that I graduated from PAFA, I was exploring fine art and had a meeting with Neil Zukerman who runs the CFM Gallery in Manhattan.  He was kind enough to talk with me not only about my work but about making contact with galleries cold.  Basically, when someone walks into a gallery off the street and requests a review of their work, the automatic assumption is that it will be either a poor fit for that gallery or just simply horrible.  To save everyone a lot of time (and to avoid the automatic brush-off), he told me to introduce myself while simultaneously handing the curator a sample (print, postcard, etc.) of my very best work.  Maybe they will be interested and maybe not, but it will get things right to the point and hopefully let you lead with a good first impression.

4: Don’t worry about being fast, just worry about being good

In my first (of several) portfolio reviews with Magic the Gathering art director Jeremy Jarvis, he wondered if I might be rushing my work.  Many aspects were sloppy and would have been much stronger if I’d simply slowed down and taken my time.  Speed comes from the confidence of experience and, if I wanted to be fast, I first had to learn how to slow down and get good.  Nobody is impressed that you turned out a bad piece quickly, but they are impressed when you turn out something really good.

5: Don’t forget to push the design

A year later, I sat down with Jeremy Jarvis again at that same convention for another review.  My new portfolio had all new work which I had taken my time with and paid close attention to strong technique.  What I’d failed to pay attention to was my character, costume, and environmental design.  Jeremy pointed out in piece after piece where I could have pushed things to be more interesting, more lived-in, more unexpected, and just MORE.

6: Don’t be scared to be different

As I was starting to get work more steadily, I began feeling frustrated in my process and technique.  I had always felt that, to be a fantasy artist, I should be working in a tightly rendered highly detailed and polished style.  After all, that is what fantasy art usually looks like, right?  My frustration was that I was growing more and more interested by painterly work along the lines of NC Wyeth and other early 20th century illustrators and this was at odds with the mainstream looks.  I was lamenting this to Greg Manchess, one of the few current fantasy artists I knew who did work outside of that tight render box.  After going on and on about how I wished I could work looser but was worried about this and that and the other thing, he just said something along the lines of “well, yeah, I don’t know, why don’t you just try it?”  I was struck by how simple that made it seem and how ridiculous it was to have not realized this myself.  It was a few years before I really changed my process, but in that time I was working on personal pieces and experiments which ultimately proved to me that I needed to shift direction.  The first and most important step was to stop worrying and just do something.

7: Make your work with purpose

This last one was not advice given specifically to me, but something which I’ve heard Rebecca Guay say to students many many times.  Whatever you make, you need to make it your own in some way.  Find something to love in every piece, find something personal to contribute to every assignment, and always know what you want for the viewer to feel when they look at your work.  If you don’t make your work with purpose, it will have no impact.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The ART and the ARTIST

by Greg Ruth
MYSELF collaboration with Alan Amato

Whether we like it or not we all live in the age of the selfie, and along with this codified narcissism comes a public desire and duty to not just behold the work of a creative, but to place that creative's self alongside in a way unheard of before now. Whether we like it or not, we have and must be smarter about how we present ourselves as creators, alongside our creations or otherwise.

The artist must now pass as a figure on the landscape as well as his or her work. Even hiding from it can create a public persona that can affect this. There really is no way of getting around it. We live in a time where it's harmful to not recognize and comsider this as artists. Better to know this going and have a hand in shaping your public persona because if you don't, someone else will, and you may not always like what gets crafted. For what is usually a class of malcontents and privacy protectives, facing forward to the public and taking the initiative is a hard sell. And the better you do, the more successful you are at your work, the more difficult this will be. The stakes get higher and as the circle widens and widens, you'll begin to have less and less control over your public self, no matter what you do. Below is a guide to just a few of the essentials to consider.

Nail Down Your Purpose.

Decide not just that you like to make work, but why and to what end. Now if you're in a rarified position where money isn't an issue, this gets cloudier, but for the rest of us coming to see and understand clearly what our purpose is as artists is the best way to manage how we present ourselves as artists. This is likely the hardest part and the one that's going to come only after you need it. It comes down to having a clear and cogent understanding of your work, and where it's center lies, and I confess I am still trying to sharpen focus on that one after twenty years of professional work. Even so, the sooner you get a solid sense of what the trunk of your tree is, the branches and all that business with leaves and fruit will come later and more easily. You'll be able to spot what is a proper venue to put a public face on your art, and what isn't. You'll develop the keen and enviable sense to detect a bad move or a wrong kind of interview before it gets out of hand. And when speaking publicly, whether it's a simple Q&A, or a long form podcast interview, you'll keep to your task, and get in front of your skis- whether that means not disclosing a pre-publication secret, or getting overly smug or inappropriately jokey in a public forum that can rebound back to you and how your work is seen in a negative light. In all fairness this should be last on this list, but given it's the most important bit... well here it is at top.

It's different for men and women.

Sad but true and not to be forgotten. Men are seen with a far less critical lens and must carry even less baggage when it comes to how they choose to present themselves with their work to a public audience. It's easier for men and it's kinder. It's not fair and it's getting better, but painfully slowly and never fast enough in my opinion. The objectification brambles are real and they are serious and it's a good idea to know this going in- not to dissuade any women artists for going in, (in fact I'd love to see the exact opposite), but to know the landscape and its laws before they hit you in the face. Women know this already for the most part having to live with it their whole lives, but we men need to be better aware of it so we can know how to speak to it intelligently and defend our fellow artists when they need it. Honestly the differences and peculiarities of how a male and a female artist's experiences differ deserves an entire post. And it'd still not be enough. There's a long history of ugliness that can be entirely seen as cause for this kind of interaction to be fraught and tricky. It doesn't have to be, and the backwards facing types that haven't moved passed the gender restrictions of the last century are sometimes best combatted by being dismissed or ignored outright. Never let another tell you who you are and what you should be doing, especially with your art.

Don't blur the lines between the artist and the work.

Unless that's kind of the point. Assuming it's not, as an artist it is a terribly intimate act being put out into the world by showing your work. Remember that for the most part, the work is not you and any negative or positive comments or reviews aren't so much about you but about what you did. It's little comfort I know. These are after all, our babies and seeing them in jeopardy at the hands of negativity gets our fur up. Getting too drunk on positive comments can be even more dangerous, even though it doesn't feel like it is. Thing is, a scathing negative, or even more so, one repeated, can be a fount of help in terms of seeing areas that need improvement. This is one of the main reasons for showing your work to others at all: it's hard to see one's own missteps. Sometimes it's just not nice and there's nothing to glean, but really often enough, you can improve your craft a great deal by learning to stand up to negativity or criticism. It's a talent I would argue that is second only to the talent of making work itself. We as a species learn little from our successes, but learn tremendously from failures. It's an ancient hard wired part of our biology and it can be of great service to our art if tamed and directed properly.

Don't confuse your ego with your art. 

SELFIES cover from the story
Which is really an extension of the previous paragraph. Separating yourself from your art is really about separating your ego from your art more than anything else. Whatever you do, however much you push it away and stovepipe it on the outside, on the inside it is of you and from you and that is unbreakable. Making art as personal therapy doesn't really work- not for me. It's poor therapy and tends to produce myopic, indulgent, and even maudlin work. The discovering of yourself in making art is more electric from the discoveries of your hidden self as opposed to being overly conscious of what your doing. Sometimes it can take many years to then look back and start noticing themes and patterns. Putting yourself and your art out into the world can speed this up a lot. The key is to make sure, even in the process of making the work, you maintain enough distance to identify when you're doing it for the wrong reasons. Ray Bradbury once said "If you find that, when sitting down at your typewriter, you begin to think about how great and successful your story will be or make you, stop. Get up and do something else. Never write until you're ready to focus on the story". It's hard not to get excited about what you're working on and the imagination sometimes loves to pay act scenarios where you take over the world with your work. Art is an act of supreme arrogance by its very nature, so dreams grandiose and ridiculous are bound to spring up. Nevertheless, these are not relevant to the work or to you, and if taken too often or too seriously, can harm both how you present yourself to the worl and what you should expect from it.

Choose how much you want to be out there, and stick to your guns.

DEADLINES from The 52 Weeks Project
 More can be better at times as much as less can be. No presence means someone else is writing your biography, and that's rarely a good thing. In fact at best it tends to be wrong a lot more than is fair, and at worst, is a disaster of misinformation. If you're going to social network, give interviews etc... do them well and only up to the point you will want them to be. Meaning, set your boundaries and defend the hell out of them. The more popular your work gets the more demanding the publicity aspect of your outward persona will be called out to play. Learn to say no when it goes to far and make sure to be smart about where you go. Sometimes it can be too much, you go out to far and can start drowning. We see it a thousand times over, and it is the midwife of the meltdown or flame-out. Thing is as your work gains more traction with its audience you will find both opportunities and a need to present yourself to that audience more. I've done five interviews this last week alone, not including the radio spot thursday, the book tour for Coming Home and the various articles I've been tasked to write over the next month. It's all lovely but really exhausting and everything a mixed bag can be. It's far and away a different animal than the one I came in on, and though important overall no doubt, keeps me from spending as much time in the studio as I prefer. Part of me still considers that work, and this other stuff... I don't know... not work. But it is. It's all of it the voice through which others can be brought into the work, and those already familiar can be given more to digest. So I find I myself am moving these goal posts a lot more often recently. It may or may not last, and as much of a disruption it may all be, it is a rare and essential opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of while it's happening. The dividends of a concentrated public face were proven to me completely in the success of The Lost Boy, and it's a lesson I plan on learning. So even if this stuff starts to overwhelm, it's important to be able to say no when you must and when you can't, know that it's a finite thing. Next season they'll be interested in someone else and you can get back to what you love to do. But when you do, if you do it right, more will be paying attention, and the next time a project comes out, there'll be that many more to digest it.

Beware the pigeon hole and the siren song of success too early. 

Sample art for THE SEA SCARF 
This can happen by the had of the artist but is more often a consequence of the artist as being so popular at a given time they become married to that time. We can all look back on certain periods of time in our culture and point to artistic styles or icons. Peter Maxx would not at all have the same experience if he came out now as he is, than when he did in the 1960's and 1970's. An artist that becomes too much a creature of the period in which they live, are endangering their relevancy down the road. Sometimes this is unavoidable, and sometime sit's so huge it doesn't matter: I call this "The Spock Effect". Nimoy is more than Mr. Spock and in the past has railed against being seen as anything else. However, he has also come to realize the value and benefit of being so married to one ethos, and has learned to hug it. In some ways you're lucky to be blessed with such problems, but it runs counter to the destruction/invention cycle that makes good are, and if you lose yourself to it, then your work will undoubtedly suffer. Like most things that will come to you via your art, you will serve yourself and your work best by keeping a clear head and using that incoming stuff to your advantage. But you have to stay sharp, and occupy a measure of distance so you can make proper choices. That's where the trick is. So being an art star rising like a firework can seem exciting, but it can also exact a terrible price on your future. Don't wish for early super success, and pity the artist that experiences this. Without the firmament of self and of the work that only time and experience can bestow, the raging storm of success can tear you apart. Or at the very least leave you a misguided egotistical jerk, oblivious to how out of touch and lost you really are. It's not always the result but it wants to be, so be careful and mind your speed.

The pitfalls and successes of social networking are real and lasting.

Our current digital and informational age means we as artists can be closer and in touch with our audience in ways impossible to imagine even as recently as when I was just starting out. It can make us feel a bond we would be lacking, can provide a resource for advice and wisdom, and it can be a terrible distraction to the making of the work. Generally the benefits for oneself far outstrip the consequences. Make time for it, get on a schedule and you'll have a much easier time of it overall. The larger your circle gets in the social media world, the busier it will get. You'll not be as available and that will only get worse. If handled properly, social networking can make a paltry showing at a book launch a crowded success. It can bring attention to work otherwise lost int he minute-to-minute recycling of work and art. More people can see and share your work. Even just some silly banter or some quick advice or conversation with a reader or follower can have seriously important practical effects. Learn to be patient, and succinct and you'll do fine. Know and identify what each of the venues provide, and make sure they're a good fit.

Jeff Mack and myself at a school event
and signing
As much as a vibrant online society can be, it doesn't hold a candle to actually meeting these folk, or showing up at an event, opening or book signing. The impact you have in person is a million times deeper than the one you may have online, even at its best. Looking your audience int he eye, seeing how they look at your work, all of it... there really is no substitute for it. It's not easy for a lot of us, but we need to learn to swallow hard and dive in. The tale of the hideaway genius makes for good copy, but doesn't really work in the real world. Again, know your boundaries, but don't run from them. Push right up to the edge, and meet your folk. Conventions, book signings, in store appearances, hell even just going out with colleagues for a beer... these all count and they all of them conspire to help work and learn how to stand alongside the work you do as an artist, without getting in its way.

Don't be a jerk. 

The Torment of Saint Anthony
by Michaelangelo
Seriously. Some of us are natural jerks, but that doesn't mean we can't learn to be kind civilized human shaped creatures. You don't have to be everyone's best friend, but everyone deserves your respect. Even the jerks. Especially the jerks, because when you're dressing them down, you'll likely be doing it in front of others and that is not a pretty sight. Here's a thought exercise to prove the point: Think about how you feel when some troll starts tearing into a perfectly nice person and that person continues to be nice despite the trolling. Now think about the troll who gets the person to troll back so you get to see a muddy troll war unfold. Which person do you respect more? This really comes down to being able to keep the emotional heat in check, recognize when it's getting a bit far and choosing the right way to cool that down before you start going nuts. Try not to speak ill of others, or talk down other people's work in interviews because everyone is someone's favorite artist. It's perfectly acceptable to state simply it isn't your thing, but you can always find something to compliment. This is especially true in portfolio reviews and even more so in online correspondence. Basically the core rules of polite behavior you learned in first grade still apply. Actually they apply more than ever. We all still have high regards for Picasso even though the by all accounts, the guy was a jerk. This is not a success for Pablo. He is who he is and maybe that personality is what fed the work... who knows? I have never met a pain in the ass artist whose work was made better by their unpleasant personality. When you speak you represent your work and what you make in some way. Be a friendly positive person and people will actually be more interested in your work as a result. A painting that doesn't change can be loved more by this. The opposite can happen too.

Learn how to speak cogently about what you do.

A buddy of mine just saw a movie at a premier he thought was incredible. He called me to tell me all about how blown away he was while watching it, thinking it was easily the best thing he'd seen in years. Then the actor (drunk) and director came out to do a Q&A and by degrees, he said his appreciation of the film shrunk with every word they uttered. ALl the deep meaning seen in the film was just being imported, or even if not, the speakers were so inane and feckless in how they talked about it, they made their work seem feckless and inane. You can spoil a perfectly great piece of art, book, story, or song by not knowing how to speak about it in a way that adds to its value. It's a lot easier to blow a good thing like this than not, and really this is a skill that can only be learned from doing it over and over. Learn to listen and fold the perspectives of your audience into how you speak to them about the work your making. Don't get caught up in your own self loathing and shoot down compliments and mistake that for being humble. If you feel like you have a hard time with this, default to the Hippocratic Oath: Do No Harm. Meaning say less than more. Better to seem enigmatic than idiotic.

SIX WORD TALES collaboration
with Stiles White
Overall each of us must face our own audience in our own way. I wouldn't want it any other way actually. It's what makes our community so vibrant and rich. But it is a skill and one even those blessed with a talent for it, must learn to hone and use properly. We're past the age where as an artist you can hide away and hope success finds you. There's so much good work out there, so many qualified and accomplished visionaries making their work and sharing it, you'll just get lost in the noise if you don't stand up and participate. Whether you like it or not, whether you think you're capable of it or not, you must and should do this. If you can't represent and celebrate your own work, how can you expect anyone else to? Sure it's scary, sometimes utterly breath-stealing terrifying. But that's a reason to do it if for no other reason. Good art is made by seeking out what scares you and learning how to overcome and ride it to new and surprising places. A lot of this stuff is really just common sense. Some of us just have that and are set, others of us, like me, have to learn it and oftentimes learn it the hard way. Ultimately the most important lessons are learned by doing, so consider this post a kind of basic map, rather than a cure. You may well have to go through some of this yourself no matter how much advice you digest. So... Be bold, be brave, speak your heart and be nice and you'll only aid your cause and make for yourself a better and happier career. You are best served by being your own best advocate. These are your children, so learn to speak up for them, defend them and make them grow into something fantastic.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Forging the Iron Throne - 2015 Calendar Painting for 'A Song of Ice and Fire'

-by Donato

A short and simple post today as I am working on a portrait and need to keep going while the surface is wet.  These photos are fairly self explanatory, and I apologize for not that many color oil progress shots,  but once I get working in the studio, I hate to stop!

Initial lay in of figures and composition in graphite.  Note the reference for the previous painting of RiverRun still on my drafting table.

Final drawing - very simple and rough due to the limited time constraints on this image.  Less than two weeks remained to finish this image and color check the other paintings before the deadline.

Sealing the drawing with Acrylic Mat Medium.

Acrylic washes to establish tone and movement, as well as the patterns created from the twisting swords.

Up on the drafting table, ready for oils.

First pass on the background/swords in oils.  Flying fast with the paint here!
Development of the figures in oil paint and mediums.  Note subtle modifications/changes of the figures from the references into the final oil painting.  They are more suggestions, than concrete sources of information.
Final Art: 'Forging the Iron Throne',  30" x 30", Oil and Oil Mediums on Panel, 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

IMC Registration, NOW OPEN

Registration for the 2015 Illustration Master Class is now officially open.

There are limited seats, and they ALWAYS sell out, so if you're interested in attending one of the most educational and inspirational weeks I've ever experienced, don't hesitate and
sign up now.

This year's list of instructors is pretty amazing, and consists of:

Greg Manchess
Donato Giancola
Boris Vallejo
Julie Bell
Rebecca Leville-Guay
Mike Mignola
Dan dos Santos
James Gurney
Scott Fischer
Greg Ruth
Irene Gallo
Matthew Kalamidas
Iain McCaig

and this year's special guests are...

Mark Chiarello (VP and AD for DC Comics)
Jonathan LeVine (Owner and Curator of Jonathan LeVine Gallery)
Brad Kunkle (Fine Artist)!

Painting by Brad Kunkle

The class, which is admittedly expensive, is still one of the best deals you can get in Art Education, in my opinion. The student teacher ratio is about 7 to 1, and the instructor roster is a who's who of the industry's best. The limited class size, the great instructors, and the intensive schedule make for what many students have told me, is a 'life changing experience'.

More information abou the class, registering, and about payment plans can be found here:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


-By Tim Bruckner

I first met May Pang in 1974. I had just finished the cover art for the Ringo album and was working on a live action/animated pilot film for Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson called, Harry and Ringo’s Night Out. May was John Lennon’s girlfriend during his eighteen month “Lost Weekend” as well as production coordinator for the Pussycats album John was producing for Harry. May is one of the sweetest, kindest and most compassionate people I’ve ever met. We’ve kept in touch over the years. Talking with her recently I learned she was having several upcoming exhibitions of her photography in Germany. And I said to her, what I say to virtually anyone I meet.

“You know what you need? You need some sculpture,” I said.

“Yes. I think that’s a good idea,” she said.

After the shock wore off, the wheels started turning. I contacted James Shoop, Tony Cipriano, Michael Defoe and Alfred Paredes to see if they’d be interested in joining me in creating half life size portraits of John Lennon. They all said yes. The only restriction was size in an effort to keep them all within range of each other. The results are amazing! The pieces will be seen publicly for the first time at the Chiller show in October and at the Krab Jab Gallery in Seattle, Washington next Spring , with the addition of five new sculptures and several pieces of 2D art, all Lennon themed.

This is an account of how my piece, IMAGINE, came together. I came of age in the sixties and the whole psychedelic experience really shaped the way I saw the world and my place in pop culture. So, I knew I wanted to do something that reflected that sensibility. And I wanted the piece to do something. The design bounced around for a few days until it stuck. It wasn’t until I got about half way through, that I realized I might have bitten off more than I could chew. I started with a clay rough. Chavant NSP medium.

The plan for my piece was to have Lennon song titles floating in his head. You’d look in through the lenses of his glasses and see a collection of his songs and just reading them would conjure up melody and the piece would become more personal because of it.

The original plan was to have a kind of skylight in the top of his head to bring light into the piece. The more I played with that idea the more I realized it wasn’t going to work. I’d have to light it up from the inside and because the full interior space would be used for song titles, I’d have to light the piece up with an LED in the base.

With the piece done, I gave it several coats of primer to check unity and then a few coats of mold release to prevent the primer from sticking to the mold. The design on the base was inspired by the cloud art on the Magical Mystery Tour album.

I miscalculated the molding. Initially I thought I’d shim the piece into two sections and mold each section separately but with the base constructed of PVC pipe, I didn’t think it would work. So, I marked the piece for cut lines and halved in that way. Not the best of choices.

Casting the piece presented the biggest problem. I’d thought about slush casting but I needed a fairly consistent wall thickness so that was out. I used three different resin combinations, two of which worked. Kind of. Using urethane 80331, I brushed on several skin coats to give me a consistent surface. Xtendospheres are micro beads used to thicken casting resin. You can adjust the density by the ratio of beads to resin. When I got a mixture thick enough to brush on, I laid it up and then added a smoothing brush-down coat of acetone.

The first lighting test worked okay using the mock up of my original song-title concept.

Getting the LED’s at the right height was a little tricky.

The more I thought about the song title art the more it seemed wanting. A bunch of mini print-outs with song titles didn’t seem to warrant the effort, so I decided to design logos for the songs I selected and mount then on a master, cutting out a few and mounting them on spacers to add a sense of depth.

The second lighting test turned out to be a bust. With the interior of the piece painted black, the reflected light I had counted on from the first test, with the white resin interior, disappeared. I tried small sections of chrome surfaced mylar, squares of aluminum foil and a polished metal plate. Nothing worked as well as a reflective card or Krome Kote spray mounted onto a piece of foam core. Light came up from the bottom of the base, bounced off the card and lit up the top most section of the art.

With the piece assembled and primed, it was time to consider the paint scheme. The base paint application would be based on the art from the Magical Mystery Tour cover. He was so stylized, a more natural color pallet seemed wrong. I can’t tell you how I came up with the pallet I used other than pure dumb luck and maybe a little ethereal guidance from Dr. Winston O’Boogie himself.

I was absolutely gobsmacked by the work the other artists produced. It is an honor to be part of this amazing group, all of whom were generous, gracious and supportive. I’m proud to introduce their pieces to you. If you’ll be attending the Chiller show, stop by and say hi to May. She’s a great dame, and I mean that with much love and admiration.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Some Basics About Publishing Part 3

by Arnie Fenner

A literary agent: do you need one to sell your art (or illustrated) book to a publisher?


But you might wish you did.

Remember my much-repeated caveat: publishing is personal. It requires not only a nuts-and-bolts understanding of the industry, but also relies upon feelings, intuition, gut instincts, and relationships. A good agent (as I mentioned in my previous post) takes their client in hand, helps them craft and refine their project—whether it's a simple proposal or outline or the entire thing—and figures out who might provide the best home for that book. The agent uses their experience, their knowledge, and their relationships to determine which publishers to approach: they knock on the doors (and know which doors to knock on), they make the pitches, they deal with—and learn from—the rejections, and move on to the next likely candidate. They repeat the process until they make the sale. The agent is the author's (that's you) advisor, their pep squad, their bodyguard, and their sales force.

Agents work on commission (plus variable expenses directly incurred on their client's behalf, like postage, Xeroxes®, etc.): they get paid when they sell a book and the client gets paid. General advice is to run away from any agent who wants to charge a fee to represent you. How much do they get? It can vary, but the industry standard is 15% of the total income for the book before taxes: that includes 15% of the advance, 15% of any future royalties if the book earns out, and 15% of any options by or sales to a third party of film, TV, or other entertainment rights. Agents routinely receive a 20% commission for foreign rights sales.

It might seem like a big bite of the sandwich, but they earn it, particularly when it comes down to negotiations and contracts. Remember that it is in their best interest to get you the best deal—and the most money—for your work. The happier you are, the happier everyone is. The more you make, the more they make.

Book contracts are much more complicated than a standard purchase order or rights agreement for an art assignment. Much more. And while a lawyer can help decipher a book contract and point out some of the clauses to think about, it takes someone who thoroughly understands the process and the reasoning behind the document to advise as to the best course. I've seen lawyers (including those who practice in the realms of copyright and intellectual properties) unfamiliar with the nuances of publishing standard practices screw up a deal—and subsequently screw their clients—because they didn't understand how things worked. They didn't understand the financial realities, they didn't understand subsidiary rights, they didn't understand the risks. They didn't understand the personal aspect of publishing. (And, to be perfectly fair, I know agents who have botched otherwise great deals by making egregious demands, much to the sorrow of their clients.)

Above: There are a number of things that Alan Moore has expressed his unhappiness about regarding his past relationship with DC Comics and Watchmen, but it's his inability to get the publishing rights back that has caused some of his harshest comments. Apparently one of the clauses of his contract allows DC to continue to be the graphic novel's publisher for as long as they keep it in print and abide by the terms of the agreement. Since Watchmen continues to sell like gangbusters, the only recourse Moore really has is to let everyone know he's pissed while cashing the large royalty checks.

Similarly there are stories of creators who signed contracts without the advice of either an agent or a lawyer and wind up unhappy as a result. Not because of anything unscrupulous or underhanded in the construct, but simply because they didn't fully understand the totality of what they were agreeing to. Alan Moore's expressions of displeasure about his Watchmen graphic novel being turned into a film and his inability to make DC Comics relinquish the publishing rights regularly gets the internet buzzing, but…you can't negotiate the terms of a contract after you've already signed it. As long as the publisher continues to hold up their end of the agreement, for however long the contract is in effect, complaints are pretty empty.

Knowledge and experience are invaluable and both are precisely what a good agent brings to the table.

And the difference between an art rep and a literary agent? Besides that an art rep's commission tends to be anywhere from 25% to 50% of the artist's paycheck? Well, the art rep's expertise (speaking with illustration in mind and not those of a gallery rep or business manager) is in securing work for the artist to complete for a client; it's a very straightforward transaction that begins with the job and pretty much ends with the approval of the art and the payment of a purchase order. The art rep tries to satisfy the artist and the client; in disputes the client (the customer) is often "right"—because the art rep wants to continue to get work for their artists from that client. Though there are always exceptions, art reps aren't usually experienced (or concerned) with creator copyright, intellectual properties, contracts, licensing, and subsidiary rights.

With a literary agent, you are the client and the "product" and the breadwinner and the reason; you are who they're looking out for and they're your first line of defense in any disputes.

As I mentioned, you don't have to have an agent to sell your book to a publisher. But if you don't, be prepared to do everything an agent does while creating your work.

SFWA (the Science Fiction Writers of America) has a thorough and incredibly helpful article discussing the pros and cons for authors (and, yes, that's what your title will be if you sell a book) working with agents as well as a multitude of links to resources to help you find your way through the publishing forest. Hit the the link and dive in.

Above: Not an art book, but an example of how things work in publishing. Doubleday paid Stephen King an advance of $2500 for his first novel, Carrie. As part of the contract, Doubleday shared in any income from the sale of subsidiary rights to a third party. When NAL bought paperback rights for $400,000 King (who was living in a trailer at the time) got $200,000 and Doubleday got the same. Similarly when it was optioned for a film King and Doubleday split the movie money, too. It's misunderstood when King mentions selling the film rights to Doubleday for $2500; while technically true (assigning rights was part of the original deal), he definitely received 50% of everything the publisher received when the film was made, which was significantly more than $2500.

Contracts, Advances, & Royalties

This is really the barest of bare bones simply because book contracts and moola are, as I mentioned above, complicated. Also not much is set in stone: like any agreement, most (not all) parts of a contract are negotiable, and that includes the money. What both sides agree and put their John Hancocks to is what becomes enforceable: up until everybody signs on the dotted line, it's all just talk.

A publishing contract is not merely an agreement for you to sell your book and someone to publish it; there are numerous clauses covering rights, assertions, limitations, and conditions. There are protections for you and you'd better believe their are protections for the publisher. Compensation is always spelled out as are the rights being purchased. Publishers routinely share in film/television sales (if they happen) and it's not unusual for them to share in other licensing rights, depending on the terms negotiated. There are assertions of ownership (you are the creator of the work and/or are the copyright owner of same), deadlines for delivery, what exactly you'll be delivering, where and how any disputes will be adjudicated, and clauses of liability and indemnity (which puts you on the hook if the publisher gets sued for publishing your book). And that's just part of what a contract includes—and it's all written by lawyers, which means the language can sometimes be indecipherable. (I've dealt with a lot of contracts through the years and I usually have to read them three times, then ask for help.) Regardless of whether you have an agent or are flying solo, read everything and don't sign anything you don't understand. Questions are expected and asking questions, as many as need asking, is not a sin.

As part of the acquisition process publishers do what's known as a profit-and-loss projection. Basically it is what-if accounting: we want to do this book, what's it going to cost us to secure the rights, what are all the costs associated with with producing it (cover art, printing, distribution, and some sort of breakdown that includes the salaries of the editor, art director, and everyone else involved), what will it cost to promote it, what will it cost to distribute it, how many do we think we can sell in the first 12 months, what's our break-even point, how much will publishing this book (if it sells) put in the bank account, etc., etc., etc. Risks vs. rewards. The advance offered is based on projected earnings as mapped out in this P&L analysis. The size of the advance depends on how well the publisher thinks the book will sell, how much they want to publish it, and how much the author is willing to accept in order to enter the agreement.

How do you get paid for your book? In essence you are licensing your work to the publisher and in return for that license you will be paid a royalty for each copy they sell. The amount of the royalty can be negotiated and can be tiered (increased) to correspond with success: the more books that sell, the bigger the percentage of profits the author shares in. A normal royalty is 8%, but 10% to 15% aren't uncommon, with the higher percentage usually reserved for better known creators. Different formats (like paperbacks or e-books) can come with a different (usually lower) rate. What that royalty is actually generated from is also part of the contract negotiations, but standard practice is for the royalty to be based on the publisher's net receipts, not the gross. Meaning that the royalty is based on what the book actually sold for to wholesalers and retailers, not the full listed retail price; the publisher's negative costs (their overhead) are also factored into the accounting when determining royalty payments.

Figure it this way: a book retails for $10. The standard direct discount to a small bookseller is 40%; larger retailers can negotiate deeper discounts and receive discounts of anywhere from 50% to 65%. The distributor has to get a percentage of that sale in order to get the books in the marketplace, let's say 10%. So for a large sale to a major account—a Barnes & Noble say or an Amazon—the publisher get's $2.50 per copy sold. (And, of course, the book business allows returns which permits sellers to receive credit for unsold titles.) From that $2.50 the publisher has to pay all of their negative expenses: printing, advertising, salaries, rent, electricity, and everything else associated with running a business, plus the author's royalties. Each book has its own budget and each has to carry its own weight. The margins are pretty narrow: publishing is an aggregate business, which is why publishers produce a lot of titles.

There are stories of novice publishers without much money who paid royalties based on the straight retail price of their book (or game) and sadly learned why experienced publishers…don't. Some artists have waxed nostalgic about "the good ol' days" when they were receiving five-figure royalties on a game card image (and will unhappily talk about current rates and policies) without realizing that the practice didn't last because it drove the naive publishers to the brink of—if not into—bankruptcy and led to the sale of those companies to bigger, more savvy corporations.

Publishing is personal and everything affects everything else.

Unless there's an advance (I'll get to that in a second), royalties are paid with a frequency determined in the contract, but it's usually bi-annually or annually. The publisher will issue a royalty statement breaking down sales to whom and for how much, detail expenses, and issue a check for the amount due (with a small percentage often held in reserve to cover copies returned by retailers: if the books don't come back after a reasonable time, the publisher issues a check for the balance). Royalty statements are pretty black & white, but can be a bit challenging to wade through.

What's an advance? An advance is an up-front payment of projected royalties. The amount can vary and is always negotiable, but advances for art books tend to be modest. The advance is often a way to bind the deal, but it isn't necessary to take one in order to enter into a contract: no advance means there's nothing to "earn out" and the creator is owed a royalty on every copy sold from day one. Stephen King once took a $1 advance for a book. "Earn out?" That means, for example (and forgive me if my math is faulty), if the creator is paid an advance of $5000 against a 10% royalty the publisher would have to earn back $50,000 in net sales before the creator's advance against royalties was satisfied or "earned." Once the amount the publisher has pre-paid the creator is accounted for, royalties begin to accumulate and be paid on a pre-determined schedule for copies sold after that point. If you have an agent, the payments are funneled through them (at which point they take their percentage and send you the balance); without an agent the payments go directly to the author.

An advance against royalties is often seen as a way to provide financial support for the creator while they complete their book. But advances can be misunderstood. An advance is not "extra money" in addition to royalties: they are, as mentioned, pre-paid royalties. Ellie Frazetta (a good friend whom I deeply miss) never understood the nuances of contracts, advances, or royalties (or how royalties were calculated) and it ultimately led to ill-advised and ultimately unfortunate disputes with every single publisher she ever worked with, from the Ballantines in 1975 until the day she died in 2009. (Frank, of course, never thought about any of it: he let Ellie manage the business and allowed the chips to fall where they may.)

The unusual legal wrinkle about advances for publishers is that they're something of a "limbo" expense until a book is actually delivered for production. Though as with everything there are exceptions, particularly when accounting comes into play, the IRS tends to not allow advances as a business expense until a "tangible product" is in hand and until that occurs the publisher is out of pocket and can't use the payment as a deduction. It's not ghost dough for the author, of course, who has to pay taxes on an advance in the year he/she receives it whether they're done with their book or not. So it's understandable that some publishers can get a little antsy for a contracted book once an advance has been paid to a creator. (And, yes, there are stories about some authors who pocketed decent amounts and never delivered their books. Ever.) Publishing contracts almost invariable include a clause calling for the return of unearned advances (in the event of a flop) but they're rarely invoked; remember, publishing is personal and most publishers are reticent to add insult to injury, so to speak, when a property everyone believed in fails to find an audience. 

What happens if your book is published and it doesn't sell? No royalties, of course. Included in the contract will be language covering "remainders." Basically, remainders are books sold to independent distributors far below the publisher's cost; it's common for books that never reached their potential or those at the end of their "shelf life" to be sold to those specialized distributors, not by quantity but by the pound. It's a way for publishers to liquidate unsold inventory; they recover a fraction of their costs and write the rest off as a loss. No royalties are paid on remaindered books. The author is often offered the opportunity to purchase unsold copies at that deep discount to sell via their websites or at conventions. There have been occasions in which they've actually done better selling their own books than their publisher did. Strange things happen.

Hmmm. A lot to digest, eh? What next? Well, maybe a bit about Fair Use or maybe something about distribution and the way books are sold or how to look for publishers. Or maybe something else. We'll see. And, naturally, if you have any questions, ask away.