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John Avon: Artist, Businessman, Mogul

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Magic is more popular than it’s ever been in the history of the game, and one artist has taken that increased player base to expand his share of the market. That artist is John Avon.

John Avon is basically synonymous with our five mana-producing lands of Magic. He’s closing in on making three hundred unique Magic artworks, and his environments have become his hallmark. After starting in Mirage in 1996, he started with a bang and has had a few pieces per block, staying relevant since that time.

I keep in touch with Guy Coulson, John’s agent, who is an original Magic art collector as I am. We were discussing the business side of art the other day and decided an interview was in order about an artist’s business. I was more interested in how artists gained superiority in the market and what they do to stay atop the thousands of other artists. If you’ve noticed Theros, there is a ton of new artists. They aren’t necessarily young, but the huge impact of breaking into Magic does wonders for a career in art. In order, though, to stay a professional artist, you need a business that can support you from day one until retirement.

Guy Coulson is on the right; John Avon is on the left. Photo credit: John Avon Art

Administration and Founding

John and Guy started working together in June 2011. John, in case you didn’t know, battles chronic fatigue syndrome, and according to Guy, John “was increasingly unable to manage his own store and following an initial request from [me] to buy some original artwork, [with that] John Avon Art was born.”

Very few artists have agents overseeing their work, but a few have set stores or galleries they prefer to do business with on an ongoing basis. Fanfare Sports & Entertainment, Inc. is a local business that sells art for Christopher Moeller; R. Michelson Galleries is the art gallery that represents Rebecca Guay. That said, most do the home-office route and then outsource reproductions such as prints to a local source.

Most art offices look like the below picture. A few prints are available, with the ever-present bubble wrap around, and misprinted/miscut things are somewhere nearby. In home offices, this can become huge quickly. I do wonder if young artists such as Zack Stella and peers will congregate in cities to share office and administration space to do art business work.

Photo credit: John Avon Art

Shipping and Logistics

In John and Guy’s case, although all the artwork was there, they had to build the business from scratch and ploughed funds back in to grow wherever possible, leading to the launch of www.johnavonart.com in October. I was lucky to see some early test shots, and I thought they really had a good flow of the website. Since they’re a small business, they aren’t able to buy a ton of prints, have a warehouse, or make an extensive website. Everything needs to be designed cleanly. Printing on demand is ideal for the art team duo, with the exception of original artworks, numbered print runs, and the few Magic-related products such as artist proofs. It might take a few more weeks for a Magic player to receive his print, but quality control will be incredibly high.

The John Avon Art wireframe. Photo credit: John Avon Art

I asked about prints and how they solicited vendors for the printing.

We took our time researching who could produce the highest quality prints, with good turnaround times and responsible printing processes. Once we were ready to place an order, wherever possible, we took the trouble to meet the suppliers in person (very old fashioned!) so we knew whom we were dealing with. We’ve had to tweak various bits and pieces, but believe we have quality and flexible suppliers, who are all either sole traders or small or medium businesses. The giclée prints we make in house, we invested in a high-end professional large format inkjet printer which we hope will pay for itself eventually!

As John can do digital proofing, small-scale prints shouldn’t be a problem at all! (See the image above.)

Some things to note:

  • Always know your large-format printer in person. Face time is so damn valuable in doing business when each printing costs a few dozen dollars.
  • Always try to make small prints in house as soon as you can. Better margins are a huge long-term gain.
  • Always print proofing colors. (Notice the left side of this below print with the color palette for color corrections.)

Photo credit: John Avon Art

Marketing: Placement, Price, Product and Promotion

I had to ask the duo the obligatory question: How do you approach costs to the consumer?

John said, “Initially make sure you have researched and costed up all your elements so you know what to charge, include your time in this but also don't forget postage, packaging, ink costs etc. It is of course cheaper to have digital prints made but there is a quality and quantity issue there so depending on your audience and budget you'll have a decision to make.”

I know many Kickstarters lose thousands of dollars because of added incentives, only to find out that one to two more ounces added dollars to the shipping total, gutting their profits. Streamlining shipping as much as possible is huge when you can’t be at a convention every weekend. Not everyone is RK Post, traversing the country at Magic events.

John also suggested, “allowing one afternoon or day a week to manage all such matters will make you more efficient.” Having time to do art business is tedious so having an agent, a manager, a part-time helper, or even your spouse help with order fulfillment allows for continuity. This also affects the time-used-versus-time-wasted amount you can figure into print pricing. How many hours does it take to make a painting? How many hours does it take in a given week to bring in an additional $100? How about $200? That type of analysis is vital.

If you’ve ever received a signed card after six months, this is paramount to that issue. (Include a tip, and you’ll magically receive them back faster. $.25 to $1 per signature makes it crazy-fast.)

Guy Coulson is on the left; John Avon is on the right. They’re doing some serious business. Photo credit: John Avon Art

That is not to say that all shipments are automated or all fit into this weeknight. While orders are automated with eBay or PayPal payments online with e-mails, notes with check-ins are constantly needed on fulfilling orders. Guy explains, “I have to see John once or twice a week to get things signed and talk shop, fortunately we’re good friends and tend to drink tea and discuss butter during these very serious meetings.”

Of course, British men will have tea.

Business is going well, but even John Avon needs some advertising, so I asked him, “How do you get the word out on a new offering, such as prints? Do you e-mail your fans? Tweets? Email?”

Guy mentioned that they “use a variety of means including Facebook (fan page and adverts), Twitter, emails/newsletters, eBay, Adsense, competitions and affiliates. We hope to get around some shows next year and promote the new materials directly. All the different sized canvases for instance looks truly amazing however we acknowledge we're asking our customers to take a leap of faith ordering them as they can’t see precisely what they are getting. We hope once we start showing more of the new products out there and people see them they will get excited too.”

Photo credit: John Avon Art

Word of mouth is the best advertising, without question, and to do the same, I gave my Forest poster from John Avon to a coworker of mine. We play Magic during lunch, and I know being able to see one piece might mean he picks up a full set for his home. That is, of course, if his Mrs. approves.

Thanks for reading. I’ll get back to looking for his Mirage purple Mountain original artwork.

- Mike

P.S. As John and Guy are such good people, they’re actually offering a discount code—GMNOV15—that will give a 15% discount to anything on the online store in the month of November! That includes their buy-4-get-the-5th-free deal, too. (That equates to a 32% discount overall, which is just absurd! If you’re going to buy the print set for the holidays, now is the time to do so!)


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