Nicola O’Byrne: Working after school

I graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2010.  It was a crazy, busy time! I exhibited at D&AD, moved to London to start my MA (Printmaking) course, and was trying to get my illustration career up and running. I had been lucky enough to be highly commended in the Macmillan Prize the same year; and D&AD had set up several meetings with publishers such as Walker and Random House. Bright was the last meeting I had on my schedule, and we went through my portfolio, talked about my interests, strengths and weaknesses in my work, and what I could expect from the company.


What struck me about Bright was the vast scope of their vision. They are an agency that truly does everything. I had only decided half way through my final year at Edinburgh that I wanted to pursue children’s book illustration, and my portfolio reflected this. Bright saw my future-self working in all the areas I was interested in, plus a few more that hadn’t even occurred to me. I left that meeting on top of the world… then came the hard part. Although I did not realise it at the time, my portfolio was horribly inadequate. I was inconsistent – some days I was producing good work and some days I was emailing illustrations that should have been put through a shredder. I am a terrible judge of my own work, and I couldn’t tell the difference. I still can’t! Vicki worked with me directly, sending encouraging emails, chatting with me on the phone, always nudging, nudging in the right direction until October of that year I got the phone call. She had got me an insanely juicy two-book deal with Nosy Crow! My first book, Open Very Carefully, is out with them now, and has been translated into 10 languages! I have just now begun doing the roughs for my second book with them – and I’m so excited to work with the team at Nosy Crow again.


Bright is an international agency and is always looking to expand into new territories. Through Bright’s American agent Kirsten Hall, I have been flown to New York City twice by Blue Apple Books, once in February 2011 to work on two activity books, and again this year to work on my own author/illustrator picture book. I have also worked with publishers in Korea and Australia since joining Bright.


For the past year I have been working with Bright’s amazing licensing agent, Hannah Curtis, and under her spot of art direction (always given alongside a description of something delicious she cooked that weekend), I have produced greeting cards that have been sold (among others), to Almanac, MGM and Quire. I have recently started working with James Burns, the agent of Bright Represents, on an advertising portfolio. I have just completed a cookery book job that he got me!

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Yesterday I got a shiny new contract with Bloomsbury for another author/illustrator picture book. I worked with Lauren Holowaty, one of Bright’s literary agents, and Vicki, over a period of a month developing cover art, an interior spread, character designs and a manuscript. Then Lauren kindly wrote a blurb, which made me laugh so hard I sprayed coffee on my laptop. Amazingly, the book had an offer within 30 days! I have another book, Two Little Bears, written by Suzi Moore, coming out with Bloomsbury next month (October 2013), and a third book with them in the pipeline.


I don’t want to give recent graduates unrealistic expectations. There are periods, sometimes long ones, where I have no good ideas, where everything I produce is terrible and where I can’t write a sentence. It took a year and a half before I produced a greeting card that could be sold, and at one stage I didn’t have an idea for a picture book for eight solid months. I am still relatively new to this industry, but Bright has helped ease me into the publishing world. Bright understands how I work, and the agents do their best to block out periods of creative work with smaller jobs, specifically so that I don’t mentally cannibalise myself. The agents have put a huge amount of time into developing all aspects of my illustration and writing, and I’m truly grateful. Many agents do not take on recent graduates because frankly, we are risky and high maintenance. An agent is going to see the very best and the very worst of you, so pick one that’s going to be there for the long haul – that’s what Bright is for me.

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 5.23.52 PM  By Nicola (Nicky) O’Byrne