Today, Fleen begins a general discussion on the nature of comcis syndication. While many webcomics and webcomickers have firmly turned their backs on the newspapers, for some it remains a career goal. The question, in the web-heavy world, is why? And that’s not a sarcastic question … what advantages are there for a webcomic creator in the traditional syndication model that would not be better met by being independent, or by belonging to one of the webcomics collectives? Is It was always my childhood dream to have a strip in the newspapers enough of a reason?
To kick things off, we open today with an interview with Dave Kellett, creator of Sheldon and member of Blank Label Comics. Unlike almost all webcomics creators, Kellett has a syndication deal of sorts: he’s represented by United Media, but only on the web at their Comics.com portal site. Kellett also has an extensive background in the history of comics, what with those masters degrees and all; as such, he’s unique suited to clue us in on how things work in general, for him particularly, and where they’re going. Ladies and gentlemen, Dave Kellett, part one:
Kellett: I’m sort of in the nebulous world between webcomics and the syndicates, sometimes to my benefit, and sometimes to my detriment. I can tell you this outright: I’ve been actively considering moving myself off of Comics.com and onto a Blank Label Comics server for a while now. I would just feel so much — I dunno the best word here — closer to my readership were I to return to independence. I’d be infinitely more capable of cultivating and catering to my audience than I currently can on Comics.com‘s cold, green pages.
But I do derive benefits from being associated, however nebulously, with a syndicate. I’ve had a few gallery showings in LA, a few freelance cartooning jobs, and a few speaking engagements which I know were delivered based on the shine from that association. So it does have benefits. Plus, I get to get drunk with Bil Keane at NCS parties. That can be fun, as Bil can really go blue as the night goes on. (I’m not joking about that.)
But wrapped up in all of this for me is my stupid, unshakable desire for newspaper syndication. It’s hard to escape the childhood dreams you cultivated for years and years, you know? This is true, even when I logically know there are 5-10 guys (who I won’t name) who keep up second jobs just because they make so little money at newspaper syndication. But then, the choice to be a cartoonist is rarely about money, isn’t it? If I just wanted pure, hard cash, I’m smart enough to know the myriad careers where I could make more money in this world. But I don’t necessarily want money: what I want is to create and entertain.
To answer your question as to what I give up by involving a syndicate:
- Direct links that I control.
- A forum: due to their COPPA-compliance regulations, United Media has no forums.
- A blog: which really, really helps to accentuate and expand upon the “world” of the comic strip.
- New and varied ways to monetize the strip: some big, some small
Fleen: Traditionally, the purpose of syndicates is to get comics into newspapers. If Sheldon got packaged and offered by United Media, is there any way to estimate what kind of readership you’d get?
Kellett: This is the funny part, in my mind. Wizard of Id could be in 800 newspapers, and not have had a single reader since 1972, for all we know. Once you’re in, all you have to do to maintain your position in newspapers is fall just below the radar of the editorial chopping block.
But having said all that, if Sheldon were to get into even one large metropolitan newspaper (LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, etc.), it would probably immediately triple its readership. There are still a hell of a lot of newspaper readers out there. And as a new strip on a comics page, you’re given a lot of exposure to a captive audience. A smart webcartoonist could parlay that exposure into a solid, solid base for a career on the web … as newspapers continue to die out, and the web swallows the industry whole.
Fleen: Premise: A common impression of newspaper comics is that they’re a passive sort of medium; a few people (mostly older readers) seem to passionately care about a couple (mostly decades-old) strips, and furiously vote for them every time there’s a reader’s poll of what to keep and what to ditch. Most people read what happens to be on the page, unless it’s truly awful. Somewhere between the national headlines and the idiot daughter of Dear Abby are the comics and you just kinda read them.
Webcomics, on the other hand, require you to actively go to a site to read, so presumably the readers aren’t reading a strip just because it’s there. Do you think those impressions are true? And if so, which audience do you want in the long term?
Kellett: By their very nature, webcomics have a “selective” audience — in the sense that that audience has selected your comic as being worthy of the effort to seek out every day. It is a noticeably different dynamic than the casual newspaper reader, who follows Beetle Bailey because the Features Editor of their paper thinks they should.
But now, look at how that relates to making a living. If a webcomic can reliably monetize 5-10% of it’s audience, a newspaper comic can probably only monetize 1-5%. Where the big difference comes in is scale, I think. Most mid-level comic strips probably still outstrip P-A in daily readership, I would hazard to guess. But guess who’s making a better living off their work?
So, I’ve tried to thread the needle between the two: use the syndicate to find a broader audience, then capitalize on my web presence in a way Ziggy can’t. As I’m increasingly finding, though, it’s probably a failed strategy. If you’re only going to appear on the web, it’s probably better to run your own show.
That’s all we have room for today, kids. Join us next time when we go into the challenges to syndicates, where they fall short, and Unfit. We’ll also be doing a series of followup questions for Dave Kellett after this interview completes; send your suggestions to gary @ this website.