GUEST CREATOR: Simina Popescu
On Publishing (and sitting with the highs and lows)
I’m hunched over my iPad, feet cold despite the electric heater, hand cramped and stiff from drawing many hours.
I’ve been taking breaks only to clean my new tattoo, fresh and still tingly to touch, that reads ‘flowers appear out of thin air’ – a line from a longer text I’ve seen once, that meant, roughly, ‘good things come when you least expect them’. The tattoo artist didn’t know, but it was an unusual choice given how cynical and not particularly positive thinking-oriented I usually am. Right now, in fact, not at all.
I wish I could choke down a sleeping pill and pass out for the day, but it’s a week full of deadlines that calls for working into the night – a habit I don’t normally condone, as I no longer serve the grind or die cult, but what job lets you avoid that entirely?
I’ve got a batch of 15 illustrations to prep for final feedback for one of my current biggest clients. I don’t have other work lined up after this. It’s been a long year, the hustle is getting exhausting, and the news of freelancer friends who are out of, or struggling to find work are becoming more frequent.
Three years ago my first literary agent reached out to me, after a friend from New York recommended me to them. It felt almost accidental, something that fell into my lap in the first summer of the pandemic and saved me from crawling through the trenches of querying agents – then threw me into other, completely unpredictable deep waters.
We worked on a pitch together and give or take six months later, 30 days after going on submission, I got my first book deal from Macmillan – a large American publisher part of ‘the big 5’ largest book publishing houses in the world – for Leap, a queer graphic novel I’d write and illustrate myself. It felt a lot easier than most things. Getting the deal, that is, not the amount of labor that followed, which no one really prepares you for if you haven’t embarked on a long form project before.
My agent turned out to be someone who said ‘that’s just how things are’ more often than they put themselves on the line for me. This, and an editor who was brilliant at their job, but often disappeared for months when they were behind on their workload, made me feel alone and overwhelmed in my first years in the industry. I’m not saying any of this to belittle the capacities of anyone I’ve worked with – like any relationship, there was also a lot of understanding, negotiation and vulnerability, and I’m tremendously grateful for everything we’ve achieved together.
But I don’t think we talk enough about this, and I wanted to emphasize how terribly lonely and frustrating making that book has been for me as well. A lot of this job is self-managed – you get a rough timeline for each stage of the project from the publisher (i.e scripting should take a year, give or take, colors around 4 to 6 months), and contact with the editor happens whenever you turn in a batch of pages – if you’re needy like me and need feedback in batches, rather than in one big chunk at the end of a whole stage.
I hadn’t anticipated how isolated I’d feel during those months of working alone, trying to cobble together enough work so I’d have a reason to reach out to my editor.
The geographical factor probably contributed as well. Alone in my room, or scratching away at my 10 pages/day in the coffeeshop down my road, in Romania, I imagined a full, lavish montage of everybody I knew in publishing hanging out every day in New York City – gossiping with their editors over bottomless brunch downtown, full mouth laughing popping champagne at imaginary publishing afterparties, spinning in office chairs in their sprawling Manhattan-skyline-view offices, sisterly relationships with their agents, who told them frequently and sincerely they’re the best and they’re absolutely killing it, four exclamation points, sparkly heart emoji. You get the picture.
All things I was missing and yearning for desperately, and was torturing myself thinking everybody else but me had them (I’ve corrected this violently distorted lens since, by actually talking to these people in real, physical life). Nevertheless, among the many and seemingly arbitrary, Alice-in-Wonderland-esque rules of traditional publishing,
I blamed myself for my decisions, for my incapacity to advocate for myself sooner, for not knowing any better. The first time I told my then-agent that I felt neglected, it took me almost 6 months to gather the guts to bring it up.
But it was a period of relative financial security. I would receive a quarter of my advance once a year every year, from signing to publishing, each quarter almost covering a year of living in Bucharest. Once inflation boomed, it wouldn’t even cover living in Bucharest, but it remained a good chunk of money in my bank account I could count on for padding as I took on other freelance jobs.
I’m writing this because I’ve noticed a lot of people are under the impression that getting a book deal equals fat money, or others are wondering how we, illustrators, are making a living. Most often we’re not! 🙂
In my case, my family supports me and is there to cushion my fall whenever work is scarce, a privilege I’m extremely aware of.
Almost all of my other illustrator friends who’ve got books coming out with big 5 publishers in the US in the next couple of years either have a full time job besides that, or are working on 2-3 books at the same time. Thanks to the tax treaty between the US and Romania, I’d had less tax to pay than most of them, but 15% of the advance and the royalties went to my agent anyway (and in some cases, varying from agent to agent, up to 30%).
Now it’s clear that my years of living off the Leap advance were just a longer high in the endless cycle of high and low seasons as a freelancer. I’m still far from making peace with the concept of these high and lows, and I know I’m not the only one.
I have freelancer friends who have adjusted to these seasons, to the fact that summers are slow or that most of their money trickles in during certain months of the year. And I have friends that resent this inconsistency and, like myself, wonder if giving up an art-related career, or trading it for a corporation 9-to-5, would provide more financial stability (in exchange, expectably, for freedom, flexibility, and will to live).
These days my brain has been churning non-stop, like one of the industrial ice cream makers I see in random reels during my evening doomscroll, thinking of ways I can pull off more gigs. I feel like a restless, jittery octopus reaching out my tentacles in all possible directions – maybe I’ll catch something. I map out my monetizable skills (not too many – the disadvantages of specializing very early), I make lists of art directors I can send my work to for editorial jobs, I pester my agent to send out newsletters, and I’ve gotten into writing journalistic articles for local publications.
I wouldn’t urge people to do the same, as it really makes the ol’ brain feel like wet sand at the end of the day, but with the lack of regular income that’s almost a given with freelancing you don’t exactly have a choice. Everybody working in creative industries is struggling, people have been telling me to make me feel better, and looking around, I do believe it’s no longer just a matter of who’s good enough to get the gig, but more a matter of luck.
I know exquisite artists, alumni of famous art schools of the world and really damn hard working people that have been out of gigs for the better part of the year. We always know not everybody will make it, but we always want to think that we will be the one who will, right? It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that maybe you’re not making it, at least not all the time, at least not right now.
And as far as managing this uncertainty – I haven’t got that figured out yet. I whine, moan and despair to my friends, and I take whatever comfort I can in knowing this is something everybody, no matter your clients list, no matter how many followers on Instagram you’ve got, goes through.
I put in my best work for every job I’ve got at the moment, I stop to rub antibacterial cream on my ‘good things come when you least expect them’ tattoo – and I wait.
Until next time,
JOCstudio’s note. With the guest creators’ series on our website, we hope to build a safe space for creatives to share their very personal experiences in the professional environment. Let’s talk about mental health, inclusivity, diversity, and equity. How’s your workplace culture doing?