Licensing Agents For Cartoonists

As an addition to the series of articles I’ve written about my experiences in licensing and publishing, and based on the number of questions I receive about licensing agents and their services, I thought there might be value in writing a bit on that topic.

Before we work our way into specifics, I would offer this recommendation: have a vision for your work. What is the ultimate outcome you’re looking for (other than, perhaps, becoming filthy, stinkin’ rich)? Have you developed strong characters that have broad reach and appeal and can be built into a brand? What sort of applications can you see for these characters? What products would your work be best suited for? What countries and cultures might you be able to connect with – could you see your work in other languages or are there barriers that would have to be overcome? Are there other forms of media such as animation where your characters might be suitable? Who is your target audience? How recognizable are your characters to the public now – where have they appeared thus far?

By answering these questions (and others) for yourself, you’ve got a roadmap to help you get where you want to go, and give a licensing agent a better grasp of your expectations. And remember, while you may have a passion for the characters you’ve created, be open to the feedback you’ll be offered. Licensing may not be a viable route for what you’ve got so far, but by being open to experienced input from industry professionals, you may be able to alter your current roster, or create new work that would be better suited to this specific business avenue. Flexibility, when in good measure, is a strength. Loyalty to unmarketable characters, from a business perspective, is a weakness  – you’ll have to decide what is more important to you, sticking with characters you’ve fallen in love with and feel like family but will never make you a dime, or making the changes necessary to make them appealing to  manufacturers and a buying public. That choice is solely yours.

It might be helpful, before you seek the services of a licensing agent, to answer this question, “How will this agent benefit from representing my work?”, which relates strongly to the series of questions we asked ourselves earlier. It’s important, because that’s what they’ll likely be asking themselves when they see your initial email. Here’s where brutal honesty will be your friend. How professional is my work? When I put the work out there myself to magazines, or wherever else you made it visible to the public, what sort of feedback did you receive? Has anyone been willing to pay you for your cartoons in the past? Have they been competitive markets or smaller local venues (Your Mom and Dad don’t count for our purposes). Have you approached the greeting card market (something I recommend both as a litmus test for your work in a royalty-based enterprize, and as a way to begin building a recognizable brand if you aren’t currently or have no desire to be syndicated – and you’ll open your mailbox and weep with joy at the checks that miraculously arrive every three months – how do you like them apples?) Listen to the feedback and determine what is genuinely objective and useful to you, then step up to the plate and make those changes. If you are pursuing licensing, it means you are a business, and your decisions need to be less emotional and more market-reality-based.

Now, here’s where the rubber hits the road. Which licensing agents or agencies should I be targeting for my cartoons/characters/brand? This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but Joan Beiriger’s Blog is a fantastic resource for this, and other art licensing industry information. Not on this list is the ‘Big Kahuna’ of character-centric licensing agencies, CopCorp. Their industry leadership, global reach, and track record of stunning successes (Hello Kitty, Happy Bunny among many, many others) puts them at the top of the character licensing spectrum. If you have the opportunity to attend licensing shows such as the Licensing Expo held in Las Vegas, you’ll no doubt be impressed by their presence there. If you should decide to approach them for possible representation, you’ll need to be at the top of your game – they represent only the strongest candidates for success. I would  advise against wasting their time with anything less, and make sure you’ve done your homework by answering the questions we’ve presented above.

If you start with an agent or agency that has a more regional focus such as the U.S., North America, Canada, UK, etc. but you believe your work has a broader appeal, I’d again refer you to the links to licensing agencies outside the U.S. Ms. Beiriger makes available on her blog,  and there are some very good and capable ones to be sure. I can tell you from experience that MGL Licensing is an extraordinarily effective agency (why, they carry the magnificent work of the charming, well-mannered, snappy dressing, tall dark and gruesome Bill Abbott! What more do you need to know?)

What can you, in return for providing broadly appealing, professional, timely, well rendered, and marketable material, expect from your relationship with a licensing agent? First, in the ‘getting to know you’ phase of the relationship, after they’ve decided to represent you, open, honest, and frequent communication is critical. Knowing your expectations of the agent, and their expectations of you will be key to creating a long-lasting and successful relationship. And to be clear, it is in every respect a relationship. You are trusting them to actively seek appropriate opportunities for your work and to follow the roadmap that you’ve sketched out in your discussions. In turn, they will expect you to deliver professionally rendered work on time, and be flexible to potential changes necessary to make the work suitable for the licensing categories where there’s a good fit. Your licensing agent will seek to obtain advances on royalties as good faith payments for your work, to be deducted from future royalties. Your licensing agent will handle the administrative functions required in your licensing program; negotiating mutually beneficial contract terms, seeing that the contracts are properly executed, managing incoming royalty payments and seeking remedies should there be issues with those payments. They will frequently travel to the numerous annual licensing shows and display your work for potential licensees to consider for the products. There are a number of other functions and services that they provide, but those are the biggies.

How will the licensing agent be compensated for representing you and taking on the considerable workload mentioned above? There are a number of ways, some I’d recommend, some not so much. In the agents and agencies I’ve worked with, there is a royalty-split arrangement, meaning we divide the advances and royalties at a contractually agreed-upon precentage rate. Those rates can vary greatly, and it’s something you’ll want to very carefully consider. The rates typically run from 25 to 50%. I haven’t heard of any that fall outside that range, but it’s certainly possible. There are many other very specific terms that will be contained within the contract you’ll be expected to sign with your agent, all of which you must be intimately familiar with, either by working with a suitable attorney with experience in licensing contracts, or from doing your own homework. Remember, nothing is written in stone. A contract is just an agreement between two people or entities and there’s virtually nothing that can’t be changed to reach that amicable middle ground. Don’t be shy – speak your mind – you’re legally binding yourself, so be comfortable with whatever you lay your signature down on.

What has been discussed above is a mere surface scratch on the enormous amount of information on the subject of character licensing. Yet to be discussed are such important topics as branding, character development, and so much more. As more questions come in, I’ll try to elaborate to the best of my ability, as well as seek input from other more seasoned professionals.

My intention in creating these articles is to arm my fellow artists with the information necessary to take meaningful and immediate action. The rest is up to you – will you step up to the plate or watch the game from the sidelines?

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