Artists or Agents? Tips by Susan January

Susan January
is the Vice President of Product Management at Leanin' Tree, a greeting card publisher that represents over 750 artists.

I asked her if I could share her views from the "manufacturer's view point" whether she prefers to work with agents, or with artists directly.

Here is what she said:

We select art artwork primarily because it's good, fills a creative need we have, and because we believe it's going to make for a great product that will sell-in, and sell-through, at retail. Every art submission that is sent to us is reviewed and considered for publication.

There are wonderful artists who are licensing very successfully on their own. And there are some fantastic agents who are earning every penny. The great thing is -- there's room for both, and manufacturers know that, and will continue to use both as valuable resources!

While the digital shift is changing the way, and the amount of artwork that can be reviewed, all manufacturers have limited staff and resources for reviewing artwork. It's difficult to find and review websites, and the artwork by licensing artists. On our Product Development staff, we don't have anyone whose time can be fully committed to reviewing websites everyday.

From that perspective, it can be easy and convenient to reach out to a licensing agency, give them my "shopping list," and let them respond with lots of possible images from a number of artists.

On the other hand, there is an artist that has great work, is easy and fun to work with, and handles their "art business" professionally and efficiently, I am happy to work directly with them on any project.


Remember, it's all about the Art.
I'm mostly interested in the artwork, and less about whether or not I'm working with an agent or artist.

Timing is important.
I've had meetings with artists at shows, or received submissions from artists or agents, for 3 or more years in a row, before just the right project opened up for us and a particular artist's work!

Manufacturers like Trade shows.
I can't say enough about how valuable shows like Surtex, the Licensing Show, the Atlanta Gift Show, and CHA have become and continue to be for me. I attend every one, and often make it a personal goal to stop at every booth. As long as artists are attending the shows, I'll be there shopping for artwork.

Consider Exhibiting.
Even in this digital age, I truly hope that artists will continue attending and exhibiting at the shows. And I say exhibiting for a reason: my goal at a show is to see as much artwork as possible, and to meet as many artists as possible. I believe I can do that most effectively and efficiently within the exhibit hall, and not trying to run from one end of a convention center to the other to meet with artists who are in the building but not exhibiting.

I've made it a new practice that I am only meeting with artists at a show who are in a booth! It's what the show is for, and I want to support it.

To submit art Leanin' Tree, See guidelines. To learn more about art agents, see a list of U.S. Agents and Agents outside the United States on Joan Beiriger's Blog.

Susan January is the Vice President of Product Management for Leanin’ Tree, Inc., a 60-year old greeting card and gift manufacturer located in Boulder, Colorado. In her current role, Susan provides direction for the company’s long-term product strategy, which includes product planning, allocation and assignment of design and editorial product-related duties, and management of the company’s internal creative staff. In addition, she secures, develops and manages all existing and future external creative resources, which currently numbers more than 750 artists and licensing agents, across all greeting card and gift product categories. Prior to joining Leanin’ Tree in 1998, Susan spent 10 years in product development and art licensing at Barton-Cotton, Inc., in Baltimore, MD, developing greeting card and social expressions products for fundraising programs for national non-profit organizations.


Joan Beiriger said...

Thanks so much Kate for interviewing Susan and THANK YOU Susan for your willingness to share. Knowing information on how Leanin' Tree selects art is HUGE.

I've heard that other manufacturers have decided to do what you are now doing Susan - don't review artists work during shows if they are not exhibiting. Thank you for supporting the artists that exhibit at the shows!

Tara Reed said...

Kate & Susan - Thanks for a great post! It is so helpful to get many points of view about the business of licensing. The more everyone understands how to work together and how the business works, the better it will be for everyone!

And as Joan said, I too, appreciate Susan and other manufacturers support of those who do spend the time, energy and money to exhibit at the shows.

Tara Reed

khristian a. howell said...


Thank you for being so open about your process. This was really wonderful information.

Mary Lou said...

Sharing information about licensing is extremely helpful to artists. Oodles of positive information. Thank you Tara for writing this.

nat34.blogspot.com said...

Dear Kate,
Congratulations on doing such a great job with your article selections and the artist's and business people that you choose.
Regards Nat Solomon.

Unknown said...

Thanks Kate and Susan! Yet another concise piece filled with useful information! It's nice to hear that illustrators do not necessarily need an agent, although I'd like one ;) I never thought about how time consuming it is for manufacturers to go through countless submissions and images from artists. Very interesting to learn that exhibiting pays off, too. Would love to do Surtex, but the cost tends to dissuade me each year. I walked it last year and it seemed less bustling. I wondered if as many manufacturers were attending trade shows the way they did in the past. Good to hear Susan's perspective! Thanks again :)

BJ Lantz said...

I can confirm the "timing is important" point ~ Susan and I met at 2-3 trade show every year for 5 years before I landed my first license with Leanin' Tree! :-)

Katie Atkinson said...

Thanks Susan and Kate,
It is so helpful and informative to hear about the company's perspective on selecting artwork, and working with both artists and agents. Wow, 750 creative sources to keep track of, I didn't realize the numbers you are dealing with! Looking forward to seeing your beautiful & inspirational cards at the Stationery show!

Kate Harper said...

I think all too often, as artists, we tend forget what it's like for the manufacturer. We need to always ask: "what makes life easy for them?" Something as simple as knowing they deal with 750 artists puts a lot of things in perspective. Most of us would have a hard time organizing 750 pieces or our OWN art work, not to mention, someone else's.

Susan January said...

Hi everyone! Thanks so much for your positive comments. I've been doing this for 20 years (the last 12 at Leanin' Tree), and sometimes I forget that some of this is really important and helpful information for artists. As a company, Leanin' Tree is committed to seeing artists succeed in the retail marketplace, and I think soemtimes the best thing I can do in my role here is be as honest and direct as possible so that artists will truly end up with the best possible licensing partners. As BJ reminded me, it's almost always about timing. In my 12 years here, we have had to turn down some fantastic artwork -- not because it wasn't great -- but because it wasn't the right fit for us. Pairing the right art and right manufacturer is ultimately what brings success to both parties! Other questions? I'm happy to weigh in...


These post are so helpful.
I will be at the show in Las Vegas for the first time, booth 5176.
I am very nervous, but am doing this with 3 other people, that I meant through Tara's facebook.
And going on faith and all the info I have learned from ALL of you.
Thanks so much for helping us all out.

Patsi Hughes