In my years as art director, I threw away 90% of the postcards I received.
That statement may come across as odd. Professors, agents, editors, and other art directors & illustrators say it’s imperative to send postcards. You may have taken that advice. You may have spent good money on hundreds of cards. And now, a former art director of one of the largest collections of imprints says he threw almost all of them away.
I’m not going to pretend to know the history of the artist mailer. I will say, however, that illustrators have been sending them since at least the middle 1800’s. Beatrix Potter would send dummies and small watercolors to publishers—most of whom rejected her early on (I write about rejections in the post on Agents). It’s entirely plausible that upon rejecting Beatrix Potter, some of her mailers were thrown away; at least those that weren’t sent back to her with a note saying, “People do not want frogs now” (True story).
Over the years, I’ve received postcards, calendars, annuals, directories, pop-ups, magnets, tiny business cards, bookmarks, buttons, stickers, press-on tattoos, real dolls, Christmas cards & wrapping paper, physical art; and once, I received a real rock with a little painting on it.
If you take away only one thing from this article, let it be this: I looked at every single mailer. That is the advantage they have over emails. Spam filters could block your email from ever getting seen by a potential client.
Physical mailers, on the other hand, are placed in physical mailboxes. It is a guarantee that someone who hires illustrators will look at your postcard. It is their job to.
I would guess that art directors look at postcards in similar ways. They carve out a few quiet minutes in which they’re not meeting, managing, art directing, designing, emailing, reviewing, approving, preparing, instructing, interviewing, hiring, problem-solving, fire-extinguishing, or color correcting to sit down and look through what they receive in the (real) mail. If you would like to see what I received, check out my #mailersandcoffee tweets.
For most mailers, I determined if they were a keep or a toss fairly quickly. It’s not lost on me how much time and money were invested in the piece. But, it’s all about the art. No amount of fancy packaging will mask poorly conceived or executed art.
"But, why don’t you visit the illustrator’s website? Maybe their work is better on the site?” If a postcard didn’t grab even the smallest part of my attention, I wasn’t going to spend time I don’t have to find out if work on that person’s site is better.
"But, there’s no way that you can tell how good an artist is by looking at a postcard for a handful of seconds.” A great deal of art directors are talented, creative, respectful, and hard-working advocates for illustration. An art director with fifteen or so years of experience will have spent tens of thousands of hours thinking about, reviewing, critiquing, studying, and creating illustration. As a result, they can quickly assess what works and what doesn’t.
“What do you keep, if anything?!” In my years as art director, I kept postcards on which I could instantly see a well-executed piece of art that fit the needs of my imprints and/or met my own personal standards of what constitutes ‘good’ illustration. I would keep postcards even if there wasn’t anything for that artist at the time. I hired illustrators from postcards I received a year earlier. I hired illustrators the same day as receiving their card. It all depended on my needs at any given moment.
That’s why postcards should be sent several times a year. Your budget will determine the frequency, of course. I think 2-4 times a year is good. Maybe a postcard of yours gets tossed in January—even though the quality of the art was good. Maybe the art director wasn’t looking closely enough. Maybe it never made its way to the art director. But, a few months later, that same postcard is back on the art director’s desk at the same time as a new project. Art, meet Need.
A SOUND INVESTMENT
Even though I told you that I threw away almost all of the postcards I received, I will always preach their effectiveness. Other than Twitter or Instagram, and emails that sneak through spam filters, I don’t know of a more cost-effective way to get your art directly in front of art directors (or editors, or agents, or designers). Emails get lost or easily deleted. Tweets get quickly buried. You can hope that an art director wanders over to your Instagram page. But a postcard is direct; and it guarantees engagement by an art director.
When I made my own postcards, I found a printer offering to print 250, 5 in. x 7 in., double-sided cards for under $70. It took five minutes to find them. For .28¢ per card (plus a stamp), I could get my art in front of two hundred fifty art directors in a few weeks. You don’t need a degree in marketing to appreciate that incredible deal.
WASTE OF MONEY
If you can afford it, by all means do whatever you want with your mailer. My personal feeling is that expensive calendars, magnets, and bound books are a waste of money. Between my phone, my computer, and my semi-decent memory, I was set on the calendar front. There were only two places on which I used magnets: my office door, and my refrigerator. And, all I did with directories was rip out the pages I liked and recycled the rest. I’m sure other art directors do it differently.
THE UNANSWERED POSTCARD
On the topic of rejection, author/illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka was asked this on Twitter: “How many “No’s” before your first big “YES?” Note what he says about postcards:
I asked two illustrators who’ve been in the industry since the early 80’s this question: Over the decades, what percentage of postcards would you say have netted a return call or email from an art director?
Without skipping a beat, they both said “Three, maybe four percent.”
Do you remember my 250 postcards? If I get a three percent return on them, I could potentially get 7 or 8 art directors contacting me. That assumes a lot, I know. And some mailings are less fruitful than others. Think of sending postcards like fishing. To be successful, you need patience, persistence, and the right bait.
THEY WORK, FOLKS
When I kept a postcard, I’d visit the sender’s website. It should go without saying that your website should be edited and organized. If I still liked what I saw, I’d bookmark the site. When I was looking for artists for a project, I would click through my bookmarks. There are a handful of other ways in which I found artists, but the postcard was always an integral part of that search.
At conferences, the postcard performs a different function. They act as a reminder of all the great art exhibited there. Since the talent pool is much more concentrated, I’d walk out of a conference in New York or Los Angeles with dozens of cards I intended to keep.
IT'S IN THE MAIL
It’s important to remember that I threw away so many postcards I received at work because they came from a much larger pool of artists. As a result, the spectrum of competence was far wider. By and large, 75% of them displayed very poor quality art. 15% displayed art or photography that weren’t appropriate for my imprints.
That left the remaining, attention-grabbing, 10%.
So, identify your best piece(s). Buy stamps. Send postcards. Your next job could be one postcard away.