The title of the session was Making A Living As A Cartoonist In The 21st Century, presented by Michael Jantze, Dave Kellett, and John Lotshaw. Although I met Jantze for the first time over the weekend, we had served together on the nominating committee for the NCS’s first division award for webcomickry; Kellett has been mentioned many times on this page and (disclaimer!) is a personal friend; Lotshaw I didn’t know or meet until after the talk was done. As I had some idea where the session was going thematically, I spent a lot of time watching the audience rather than the podium.
Jantze was up first, with a detailed, fairly lengthy presentation on the history of cartooning, which initially struck me as incongruous for a session detailing current and future business models. However, watching the audience (largely creators in long-term relationships with syndicates or publishers), it began to make more sense — by tying the current state of cartooning with the changes it has gone through¹, Jantze primed the audience to accept a need for change.
Kellett talked about the value of disintermediation, of maintaining a direct connection to the audience, of the 1000 True Fans premise. Heads nodded sporadically, but the real turn-around moment was when Kellett effectively demonstrated that every syndicated cartoonist is already in the Give It Away For Free game. Citing numbers from Jeff Zugale regarding the total size of one day’s edition of Los Angeles Times in square inches vs cost (US$0.75), the amount paid by a reader for an average comic strip is literally measured in hundredths of a cent. Assuming that the ultimate customer of a comic strip is the reader², that’s about as close to the “Webcomics Model” as you can get.
The audience was still adjusting to that fact when Kellett hit them with some numbers: Here’s how I make my money, in percentages and broke it down by books, merch, advertising, and such. To demonstrate his point that there isn’t A Way To Do Things, he contrasted the very percentages supplied by Jeph Jacques, Danielle Corsetto, Howard Tayler, and other prominent webcomickers. This was when the flurry of note-taking began in earnest, with numbers and names being scribbled on any available blank surface³.
Having been primed to recognize Where They Are and How Things Can Work, Lotshaw hit the audience with Things You Can Do: differences between sites and apps; how to obtain ISBNs of your own; differences between Print on Demand, local print shops, and offset; how many copies of a book makes for economy of scale with each of those sources; good ways and crappy ways to produce PDFs for print; the fact that no middlemen taking a cut4 means you have to do all the things they would do. Scribble, scribble, scribble, Qs followed by As5, very enthusiastic applause.
More importantly, for the remainder of the weekend I watched Kellett get cornered by creators (fairly reconizable names, too), following up with more enquiries. How can I put things online? My archives are locked at [syndicate site]. Would I have to start over with a new project that I own? I don’t really see traffic at my website, much less sales. How long to build up that audience rapport?
I’ll acknowledge some confusion about the reluctance to start new comics that I heard expressed more than once — I’m in daily communication with creators that have two, three, or more things going on all the time. Then I realized that there’s a crucial time-sink in working for somebody other than yourself, one that takes up time that webcomickers don’t have to spend time on: webcomickers only have to put up work they’re happy with. Working for somebody else means lead times, approvals, rewrites, rewrites, rewrites. I wouldn’t be surprised if for many syndicated creators, those efforts take up time equivalent to developing merch, doing shipping, or traveling the con circuit.
I also suspect that a lot of minds shifted from the position of That Webcomics Model is stupid and can’t possibly work and over to Jeeze, I wonder if I have the time to shift to that Webcomics Model before I get to the point I want to retire. Will I bleed newspapers to the point of non-viability before I can make a shift? Can I ride it out? I’ll stress that nobody expressed words to that effect to me … but as far as gut feelings go, it’s a fairly strong one.
If there were stragglers still resistant to the notion of the need for change, they were pretty much obliterated when Jim Davis endorsed everything from the Jantze/Kellett/Lotshaw presentation towards the tail end of his own talk the next day. Garfield gets delivered to 5 000 000 Facebook accounts; small apps and comics are distributed with the hope that they’ll be passed around; he wished he’d known the things that J/K/L talked about three years earlier, as it would have saved him a lot of mistakes; giving away the comic for free and getting rid of the middlemen is the way to go. I get the feeling that if tomorrow, every newspaper on the planet ceased to carry comics6, Jim Davis wouldn’t see a measurable dip in income, and none of the five dozen people that work directly for him would lose their jobs. Again … gut.
So where to next?
¹ And particularly to the fact that the current day has a lot of similarities with the 1890s.
² It’s actually the editor of the newspaper, for whom the cost of a strip is measurable by whole coins or bills.
³ In a number of cases it was the session handouts from Infomercial Guy, who had supplied note-taking space thereon. Each page in that handout was branded with his name and web address so I guess that counts as free publicity. Well played, Infomercial Guy.
4 Or, as Kellett put it, living on large margins instead of large volumes.
5 Big response of the Q&A: when the datum that when Bill Amend released his recent Fox Trot app for iOS devices, he made 25% of his usual two-year book sales in two weeks. Cue audible gasps and Ooooohs. The only ones in the audience that didn’t seem to be surprised at that point were the duo of Mercer & Miller, who were sitting directly in front of me.
6 Fun fact: 60% of Garfield’s audience is international, and a lot of dialogue/situations are designed to make the effort of translation simpler.