Spread of inked pages in progress from The Stone Squirrel

How NOT to have a successful comic

One of my biggest assets that I’ve built over the years is my pile of mistakes. That may sound strange, but to me if a mistake teaches me a lesson, that mistake is very valuable. For me, some of my most valuable mistakes have been BUSINESS MISTAKES.

Such has been my approach to comics. About 12 years ago, my husband suggested that I begin uploading my comics to a site like Keenspace or Drunk Duck. (Now Comic Genesis and The Duck Webcomics, as I said this was long ago.) I shook my head. My goal was to get my comics published by a big publisher, like Dark Horse or Image. I might post sketches and storyboards on a livejournal community, but as for my final pages I couldn’t show everything online in case anyone wanted exclusive rights to the paper comic. And so on and so on.

Through the years, I drew and redrew my comics until I had a comic I was proud of. Several years in the middle got sidetracked into a couple of fan-comics. Finally in Summer 2012, The killing of Dreams was done to my satisfaction. I was ready to “abandon” it and find a publisher.

But wait, you say. This comic didn’t go up for sale until Spring 2014, did it…?

Noticed that, did you? That is because, for almost two years, I was talking to paper publishers. I went to the big ones first. I still haven’t heard back from three of these after 2 years, but I did receive a kind and encouraging rejection letter back from Fantagraphics several months after sending them a copy of the completed comic. Two other publishers folded while I was in the process of talking with them.

I then approached the indy publishers. The ubiquitous response was, “We can’t use color submissions.” One of them suggested I form my own comics publishing company (like he did) to publish my comics.

Onto the zines! The comic was too long for zines.

At the end of nearly two years, I had waded through more submissions and rejections than I can remember. Even among editors who professed to like or love the comic, it had no place. Some advice I’d read long ago (from an “Industry” comic artist who has since formed his own imprint too) about wowing potential publishers with a finished product had just been completely turned on its head: my finished comic lacked the flexibility it needed to be tailored to any of the publications I approached.

My next step was to find out about self-publishing. You can see how great that was here. Comixology was somewhat easier to format, but the acceptance process took months and I screwed up the files once.

Now, you may be asking, do I consider all this work I put in, on this comic I am so proud of, that virtually no one will ever see, to be a total loss?

Nope! There are many reasons why, but here are a few:

  • I have a completed comic to show (and occasionally sell!) at events.
  • I have gotten a lot of work based upon my work on this comic.
  • I have gotten valuable experience talking to publishers and editors.
  • I have developed a skin that a rhinoceros would envy.
  • I have learned that I can carry through a large and complicated project to its completion.
  • I have learned that I can learn as many esoteric rules, programs and guidelines as I must if I care about the project.
  • I have learned exactly how much I believe in my work.
  • I actually got the thing onto Comixology.
  • Lastly, I have learned HOW NOT TO RELEASE A COMIC!

“Well that’s somewhat encouraging,” you might say, “But what on Earth does that tell me about how to release a comic the RIGHT WAY??”

What, you want to learn that too? Oh fine.

After experiencing all of this, I went back to my husband’s long-ago advice: release new comics on a free webcomic site. In other words: Instead of focusing on a prospective publisher, build a fanbase along the way. I looked around at successful comic artists once I got on Patreon. Was this advice sound as far as their approaches went? The answer is yes! In cases where an artist wanted to sell paper copies, they merely made exclusive content for those books. In cases where they wanted pledge money, they simply offered exclusive sketches and illustrations as incentives. The comics were in almost every case free to read in their entirety.

Comics that have their own fanbase going in are the ones who are successful in crowdfunding endeavors. They’re the ones that are the most successful in sales. Those are the artists who get the most commissions. In fact, building their own crowd along the way has made these artists far more money than I suspect trying to find a “paper” publisher would. Even though their comics are free online for all to read!

And all of this is in addition to having a completed comic to show a publisher who might not be able to use that comic, but might hire you based upon your skill. In other words if you take this approach, you would have what I had (a finished comic to show publishers) BUT YOU WOULD ALSO HAVE a following that is currently rewarding you for your comic as it is being produced! This is true for whether you are using crowdfunding or not.

So that is my advice, after my long road up to this point. Get your pages online. Build a fanbase along the way. These are the people who will love you, these are the people who will pay you…not some overworked publisher who may never even see your art.

You can take this all with a grain of salt, since I’ve failed to distribute my comics effectively so far! I’ll come back to this post and edit it if I was wrong. But I’ll bet you anything that the new smackjeeves page I just made will bring my comics far more attention than any of the limited things I did with The killing of Dreams in an effort to keep it pristine for prospective publishing houses.

And ultimately…aren’t comics there to be read?

Further Reading: How to be Successful on Patreon

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