I throw away 90% of the postcards I receive.
That statement may come across as hypocritical. I routinely list postcards as one of the ways in which I find illustrators. 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, an art director of one of the largest collections of imprints says he throws 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 look at every single mailer. That is the advantage they have over emails. In my Searching for Illustrators post, I write that my spam filter collects about 100 emails a month. Even though I get a daily alert that I have emails in my spam inbox, I don’t always have the time to view them.
Physical mailers, on the other hand, are placed in my physical mailbox. I have to look at them. If I don’t, my very small mailbox will overflow. There’s no ever-expanding server to store them all. Plus, illustrators take great care to send me a physical part of their creative life. The least I can do is look.
I would guess that art directors look at postcards in similar ways. We carve out a few quiet minutes in which we’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 we receive in the (real) mail. If you would like to see what I receive, check out my #mailersandcoffee tweets.
For most mailers, I can determine if it’s a keep or toss fairly quickly. It’s not lost on me how much time and money was 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 doesn’t grab even the smallest part of my attention, I’m not 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, we can quickly assess what works and what doesn’t.
“What do you keep, if anything?!” I keep postcards on which I can instantly see a well-executed piece of art that fits the needs of my imprints and/or meets my own personal standards of what constitutes ‘good’ illustration. Sometimes, I keep a postcard even though there’s nothing in the pipeline for that artist . . . yet. I’ve hired illustrators from postcards I received a year earlier. I’ve hired illustrators the same day as receiving their card. It all depends 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 throw away almost all of the postcards I receive, 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’m all set on the calendar front. There are only two places on which I use magnets: my office door, and my refrigerator. On the office door, I like the magnets I already have. At home, I don’t want to think about your art when I’m putting up my children’s art (sorry). And, all I do with directories is rip out the pages I like and recycle the rest. I’m sure other art directors do it differently. My guess is, most don’t.
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 keep a postcard, I’ll visit the sender’s website. It should go without saying that your website should be edited and organized. If I still like what I see, I’ll bookmark the site. When I’m looking for artists for a project, I’ll click through my bookmarks. There are a handful of other ways in which I look for artists, but the postcard remains 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’ll walk out of a conference in New York or Los Angeles with dozens of cards I intend to keep.
IT'S IN THE MAIL
It’s important to remember that I throw away so many postcards I receive at work because they come from a much larger pool of artists. As a result, the spectrum of competence is far wider. By and large, 75% of them display very poor quality art. 15% display art or photography that aren’t appropriate for my imprints.
That leaves the remaining, attention-grabbing, 10%. I hope there is where I’ll find you.
So, identify your best piece(s). Buy stamps. Send postcards. Your next job could be one postcard away.