Since Juana Martinez-Neal is an illustrator, writers might be tempted to skip her how-I-landed-an-agent story. Don’t! Anyone seeking professional success will find value here. In the following interview, she shares her journey to the 2012 Showcase Portfolio Grand Prize at the SCBWI Los Angeles conference, a coup that led to agent representation and many great opportunities. No matter your craft, Juana’s approach serves as a model of careful study and preparation, which on top of her brilliant art skills, gave her the winning edge. In today’s competitive world of publishing, that’s a lesson we can all put to good use.
Latin@s in Kid Lit: Were you a published illustrator before winning the portfolio award at the SCBWI conference? If so, how did you get jobs?
Juana: Before the Portfolio Grand Prize, I was published by smaller publishers, the educational market, and advertising companies. My jobs would come from paid, online portfolios, such as childrensillustrators.com. I would also email samples to art directors that accepted email submissions. I never got around to sending postcards to a mailing list. That was a mistake! I would also attend SCBWI regional and national conferences. Whenever these conferences offered portfolio shows, I entered mine and paid for critiques. Critiques are a great way to put your work in front of editors and art directors.
Latin@s in Kid Lit: How did you prepare for the SCBWI portfolio show? The competition must have been fierce!
Juana: Illustration, much like writing and every other profession, requires everyday practice. If you rush to get twelve new pieces ready a month or two before a portfolio show, chances are, your pieces will be decent. But decent doesn’t win a show. You must work everyday, year round.
The selection process is simple and repeats every year that I attend the SCBWI LA Conference. A month-and-a-half beforehand, I select fifteen to eighteen favorite pieces from everything I’ve done within the last twelve months. After printing them at 8.5” x 11”, I meet with my illustrator friends, who help me choose eight to twelve of the strongest ones. On my blog, I have a series of posts about portfolios, including how to put together a children’s illustrator portfolio, a comparison of my 2011 and 2012 portfolios, and a how-to on mounting artwork.
Most of the time, we recognize outstanding work before we produce outstanding work. Ira Glass said it beautifully here:
“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into itbecause we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass on Storytelling: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BI23U7U2aUY
When we put this into practice, there comes a time when our work starts matching our expectations. Our hand starts painting what our brain has envisioned. At that point, we may be ready. I didn’t know I was ready to win when I did. I knew my portfolio was decent, and I knew that eventually I would win—but not that year. I thought: I will win in 2014. I gave myself two more years.
In 2012, I was pregnant and putting my portfolio out because the following year I would have a baby to take care of and would have to miss the conference. There is an action of letting go that generates energy. That energy makes things happen and surprises us in the most wonderful ways.
Juana: Agents can approach you all different ways if they are interested. In my case, I met Stefanie Von Borstel, of Full Circle Literary, at the Portfolio Showcase. She had been one of the judges and enjoyed looking at my work. We talked during the conference a few times and stayed in touch. Three months later, we signed a contract.
I think it’s important to meet the agents you are interested in. Listen to yourself during that first call or meeting. You need to feel comfortable and communicate easily with her/him. You will be working with that person for what you hope is the rest of your career. We are all so eager to get representation that sometimes we may let warning signs slide. Please don’t. Listen to them. You don’t want to waste time.
Latin@s in Kid Lit: Your experience shows how helpful conference attendance can be for connecting with agents.
Juana: If there are agents presenting at breakout sessions, go listen to them. You’ll get a great sense of who they are and how they work. You will be able to tell if you could work together. Personality counts. I’ve seen some rather quiet, introverted friends with agents that are their complete opposites. Their relationships work wonderfully. They complement each other.
Latin@s in Kid Lit: What difference has it made to your work to have an agent representing you?
Juana: Having Stefanie as my agent has improved my work. Her comments come from someone who knows this industry so well. She helps me find direction when I’m feeling a bit confused. An agent will help you polish your manuscripts and dummies and get them ready for editors and art directors. I also love the fact that they will take care of the contracts. There is so much I am not aware of when it comes to legal matters.
Latin@s in Kid Lit: What are some other tips for illustrators on getting the attention of art directors and agents?
- Create work consistently, continuously.
- Stay busy. If you have no paid projects, give yourself assignments regularly. Set some deadlines for yourself.
- Keep your portfolio updated. Post new work regularly, but post only your BEST work.
- Mail postcards consistently, every three to four months. Be critical when selecting names. A mailing list of 80 can be very effective. Send postcards to anyone you would love to work with.
- Look into agents’ clients and books. Follow them on Twitter. See if your work is a good match. Keep in mind that if they have someone with a style too similar to yours, chances are, you won’t be picked. Why have two artists that do almost the same work?