How NOT to have a successful comic

Spread of inked pages in progress from The Stone Squirrel

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

The basics of setting up Patreon from a clueless comic Creator

Sandpaperdaisy Art on patreon

As of early this morning, I have a Patreon page! It was all unfamiliar to me, so I’ll share what I learned while setting up.

Keep in mind, I just learned about Patreon yesterday. I’d seen it once or twice before but I didn’t understand the mechanics. Well, I stayed up all night until my eyes bled, reading over everything and carefully combing through other creator pages. Here’s what I gleaned:

      A Creator sets up a system where supporters (Patrons) can pay them for the work they release.

Creators can get paid by the creation (in my case, per comic page) or monthly, if they make several creations a month.

By-Creation Pledges:

        Patrons can select a pledge option, like “$1 per comic page.” Then, if a Creator releases a new comic page and marks it as a “paid” work, the patron will be billed their $1 at the first of the month, or $3 if the Creator made 3 pages within that month, and so on. If the Creator made no “paid” work, Patrons are charged nothing for that month.

Monthly Pledges: If a Patron has pledged “$1 per month,” they will be charged $1, once a month, and so on with other amounts.

A Patron can select a monthly cap on pledges, so if a Creator releases 10 comic pages in one month but the Patron has a cap of $5 per month, they are only charged $5.

A Patron can cancel their pledge at any time before the first of the month and they will not be charged for that month. (Patreon states they are only interested in collecting pledges from people who actually want to support the artist, so no one is under any obligation to fulfill their pledge.)

A Creator can release a piece of work as “free” and everyone can see and enjoy it without paying any pledges.

Lastly, a Creator can also be a Patron, and pledge to support other Creators.

[Admittedly, I have not even tried to go into the fine points of payment, account setup, and so on, but I was able to figure everything out from Patreon’s FAQ. They can explain it better than I can!]

So, after I read all that stuff, I decided it seemed pretty reasonable, at least worth a try. I had considered Kickstarter before, but there were some things that I didn’t like about the model. Mainly, I was wary that so much depended on getting people to pledge money and make good on their payments. Artists using a Kickstarter understandably have to be pushing for it constantly or they could be in real financial trouble! They might also find themselves obligated to fulfill rewards that they have no way of realistically meeting.

With this system, people can give you a small amount of money one time, they can set a cap, or they can cancel before paying you at all. I prefer that as someone who has to pinch pennies myself. Better, they’re not paying you for a huge project you may or may not even be able to accomplish. They are only paying you for the work you have really done, and they are only paying you in order to give you some support. You can certainly give them rewards for this, but you aren’t contractually obligated to complete some huge, grand endeavor.

You may notice that I didn’t include my art projects or simple illustrations in the creations I chose to be paid for. I made it solely for comics since I am already being paid for all the exhibition and freelance/commission pieces I make. (I know, when in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would say THAT.)

But anyway, since comics is the only thing I still do without any expectation of payment, I realize that it often has to take a backseat to my other art projects. “Well, that’s kind of a shame” I thought, so I’ve made this page in order to get support as I muddle my way through my currently unpaid comic projects. Anything I do normally get paid for (my personal art projects, freelance work, etc) will not go on Patreon as a “paid” work but you will probably get to see it as my friend looking at my feed!

Do you have a Patreon Creator or Patron page? Please feel free to share it, I’d love to find some new friends. If you’ve had any experiences with Patreon, bad or good, I’d love to hear about those too.

And after you set up your patreon page, head over to The Muse’s Library for this fabulous tutorial on how to run your page, including tips on scheduling and reward fulfillment, and even templates for patreon share buttons and banners!

The specter of spec art

The specter of speculative art

A lot of artists and other freelancers have opinions about “working on spec,” that is, doing work without compensation in hopes of obtaining a job or some other benefit in the future. Some maintain it’s a necessary evil in the industry, some believe it’s a good way to get exposure, and some urge you to avoid it like the plague.

So, which approach is best?

My answer is “a little of all three.” (Okay, a TINY bit of the first two and a LOT of the last one.) How could all three approaches be valid, you ask? Let me explain…

Spec art as part of your job

There are two circumstances that I would condone spec art as part of your job as a freelancer. The first is in the dreaded “concept stage.” During that stage, arguably, you may be doing a lot of work that does not end up being used. Fortunately, you can easily avoid all that work falling into the realm of “spec art” by anticipating the need for it and charging accordingly if you have a flat fee, or recording it faithfully if you have an hourly fee.

The other circumstance would be work you deliberately do to try and win a specific client. Many clients don’t merit this, but there will come a client that you will gladly do a fantastic piece purely to show them. This is speculation, all right, but it’s highly targeted to one person (or company) and you will have hopefully done your research well beforehand. My only caveat is that you should do your absolute best work if you take this route. That way, at worst, you will have a great portfolio piece.

Notice that in neither instance did the client ask you to work for free. In the first one, the client has already hired you and you have proceeded to the concept stage. In the second scenario, the client does not know about you yet and you are wooing them. NEVER DO FREE WORK FOR A CLIENT unless you have your own personal reasons for doing so. Good clients will not ask for this, and bad clients will ask for it and go on asking for it for the duration of your relationship.

An exception to this would be spec art as a charitable donation. But you’re arguably being compensated for this because it has given you the opportunity to do a good deed or aid your community.

Spec art for exposure

This one is even more narrow. There is literally only one reason you should ever do this. ONE. You should only take part in a contest, or answer a call for entries with a huge pool of applicants, or do free work for a zine, or similar, if the contest or project perfectly aligns with something you already planned on doing for yourself.

That’s it! That’s the only reason you should ever do this. There are so many other superior ways to get exposure that there’s no reason to fall for the “do free work for exposure” line. However, if you already wanted to do a specific piece for yourself, and you find out you can enter it in a contest or zine, go for it. IF the contest doesn’t have unreasonable rules about the ownership of your art. Check this thoroughly. In many instances you would get far more exposure from being free to promote your work as you see fit, rather than having to adhere to the rules of some contests.

Besides, if you slog through a theme that doesn’t interest you at all for a contest or zine, the judges will smell your insincerity a mile away. (Trust me on this one *cough*)

Avoiding spec art like the plague

This is the approach you should probably take a good 95% of the time (or more). In the majority of instances, people asking you for spec art are are up to no good. Your time on this earth is limited and priceless, and if you are not spending it working on either 1) personal projects with a personal meaning for you that give you pleasure and fulfillment or 2) work in which you are fairly compensated for your time and opportunity costs, you are wasting your time. Worse, you’re wasting your time on behalf of clueless or unethical people who will not appreciate your sacrifice.

You don’t want this.

To summarize, it’s best to only engage in spec art when the work is something you already planned to do for yourself. And you should NEVER agree to work for free unless you wish to make a charitable donation of your work. That way, you can’t get burned, you won’t be wasting your time, and the resulting pieces in your portfolio (whether they accomplished your goal or not) will be representative of you.

As always, these are my conclusions based upon my personal experiences of what was worthwhile and what wasn’t. You might have had a different experience, so don’t hesitate to tell me your ideas in the Comments!

How having kids saved my art career

Yes, you read that right. Having two attention-demanding, resource-sapping, energy-eroding, time-consuming, WONDERFUL little children actually saved my art career.

So how did this happen?

Well, before I had children I was enjoying life as a young woman, travelling around, working hard at a casino and making good money at the time and spending it all on entertaining myself and my husband and friends. I was also, incidentally, making VERY LITTLE ART! Why? Heck, I was having too much fun indulging myself.

After I had my first child I suddenly had a host of new considerations:

  • Money was suddenly scarcer than ever before.
  • I had to learn to manage my time.
  • I wanted my son to grow up to be proud of me.
  • I had to take care of my health and energy more than ever before.
  • I had to return to a “learning” mindset.
  • I was constantly reminded of my limits.
  • I was forced to do things I didn’t think I was capable of beforehand.
  • I had to become authoritative and at the same time, trustworthy.

Reading over this list, you may begin to see how parenting may have really had a hand in helping me develop as an artist. After all, before you develop as an anything (artists included) you must generally first develop as a person, and parenting is a very effective way to force that upon even the most stubborn of people (like me for example).

Now, let’s examine some of the points in this list a little more closely.

Money was suddenly scarcer than ever before.

This one’s a no-brainer. We all know that kids cost an inordinate amount of money. Even the most blissfully brand-oblivious, easily entertained child will one day go to the ER and cost you thousands of dollars, often through no fault of their own. It’s life. …but how on Earth can you hope to keep buying your art supplies with another human being or two (or six, I don’t judge) adding exponential food, health, clothing and shelter expenses to your budget?

You learn to pinch pennies, that’s how.

Suddenly, you’re eyeing that sturdy but ugly wooden frame in the flea market and realizing you can buy it for a buck, buy spraypaint, and have a sturdy frame that will go in any swank gallery. You learn to barter for supplies with other artists, or swap something for babysitting, or buy your clothes from nice consignment or charity places. You begin saving money with everything you do…survival depends on it! And suddenly, you have many more art supplies than you’ve ever had, because you’re not going down to that expensive chain store or one-size-fits-all printing place for all your needs, just like the casual shopper next to you. You’re starting to really think like a businessman in your field. Buy low…sell high!

I had to learn to manage my time.

You are busted if you can’t figure out how to do this with a host of kids running around your feet. Those are little thinking people who not only need your financial support, they need your attention. If you can’t figure out how to give them at least some of your time, you risk having unhappy kids and possibly disadvantaged teens and adults later. So isn’t that a huge setback to your art?

Well, in my case I’ll show you some examples. In 2007, before I’d had my first child, my artistic body of work consisted of a lot of indifferent school figure-drawing exercises, a hefty amount of fan-art about my favorite video game and anime characters, and something like FIVE serious recent pieces I could be proud of. I’d had one solo show (in school) and been in about a dozen group shows (in school). I was 26 and this was what I had.

Fast forward to me at 33. My C.V. almost entirely consists of work that occurred after I had either one or both of my sons. Between 2008 and 2010, I worked intensely on developing my style and working on my technique. The result? From 2011 to 2014 I did around 50 shows and I have another dozen or so lined up for now through Summer. All of these shows involved me making new work. This was only possible because my kids taught me to manage my time and prioritize.

I wanted my son to grow up to be proud of me.

Having a child not only forced me to at least try to become a role-model; I also experienced an unpleasant brush with my own mortality a time or two during each pregnancy. You have to sign forms that force you to decide what to do if they have to choose to save you or the baby, and in the case of my second son, I had some real trouble during my second pregnancy. It’s scary! But confronting your own mortality forces you to think: “What am I leaving behind me?” Well, my answer to that (besides my awesome kids) was: “I want to leave a huge, fantastic body of artwork behind me darn it!!”

This was also the realization that finally got me off the “Fan-Art Habit.” Now, I still enjoy making fan-art from time to time, and it’s fun to do little sketches for friends and fans on devinatART or tumblr or what have you. But fan-art, just like fanfiction, has the highly unfortunate tendency of becoming the only kind of art or fiction you produce. Generally fans of a series form a tight-knit community, friends and members frequently praise you and demand more art or fiction (or both!) …and before you know it, all you do is fan-art. Some people even make good money off of this, which I will not attempt to go into in this post…but ultimately, is any of this something you could proudly show your grandkids?

“Look little Billy, I consider this to be my best drawing of Rainbow Dash. It got 5000 pageviews!”

…well in my case, I wanted something “more” to show my kids.

I had to take care of my health and energy more than ever before.

Or in other words, “I had to learn to take care of myself.” Before I had kids, I sucked down sodapop all day everyday in wild abandon. I ignored vegetables. I slept a couple of hours, then went to work (or returned to smashing porings in my video game du jour). I got drunk more frequently.

Was it fun? Sure!! But it made me into a tired, pudgy thirty-year-old who had to figure out how in heck to sleep enough and eat the kind of foods that made me want to do anything at all past lying on the couch and waiting for death. I needed energy to change and teach and feed those kids! Well, I forced myself to develop better habits and aside from having two happier, more-loved kids and a husband with a renewed twinkle in his eye, it also resulted in HEAPS OF FINISHED ART. For once!!

I had to return to a “learning” mindset.

Since I had to go back to being more interested in math, science, history, politics and the world around me in order to help my sons gain an understanding of these things, I was much better prepared when I had to learn how to set up a comic book in Amazon…or learn how to use SAI and MangaStudio, or learn how to frame my work.

When I was younger, I was cocky. I sometimes reached a “cap” where I lost patience with learning new things for a project, and I assumed that if I had to learn “that much new stuff” to reach my goal, the goal was absurd! Now I realize that the old saw “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” is absolutely true. If a project or dream requires me to learn new skills, it’s not the project’s fault. It’s time for me to step up…and once I do, I’ll be infinitely more desirable and valuable to clients. How can I lose?

I was constantly reminded of my limits.

This may seem like an odd principle to follow after my above affirmation that it’s great to learn new skills for a project. However, learning my limits as a mom taught me to delegate and allow myself time to recover from big challenges. If you need to learn a new skill, you need time to learn that new skill and you need to be patient with yourself as you try and fail. If you recognize this, you’ll be a lot more realistic in projecting the amount of time for your next project.

I was forced to do things I didn’t think I was capable of beforehand.

After you’ve taken care of a newborn, or survived the nightmarish process of potty-training or enrolling your child in school for the first time, you will feel like YOU CAN DO ANYTHING. Obviously we all have limits, but they’re apparently a lot farther out than we thought they were! Often we fail to try a thing simply because we are convinced beforehand, without researching it or trying it out, that we can’t do it. With kids, you don’t always get the option of being afraid to do something…you have to do it anyway because if you don’t, no one will.

Art is the same way. If you don’t grow your art career and constantly strive to appear out in the world and sell and develop your work, no one else will either.

I had to become authoritative and at the same time, trustworthy.

Welcome to parenthood…and freelancing!! Suddenly, you have to be an “authority.” With your kids, this is because you are an adult with more life experience than them. With clients, this is because you are the artist and they are not. Sometimes your client is an artist themselves, but they chose you to do the job. Then you still have to be an authority on how much you’re willing to do, for what compensation, in what timeframe.

In all cases as a freelancer, you have to be confident and professional.

A lot of artists do NOT start out as confident people, and their work can suffer for it. They can end up not demanding enough compensation and become disillusioned or forced to give up on art altogether when it fails to pay adequately. Alternately, they can be repeatedly bulldozed by clients with unsuitable ideas until they find they have created a body of work that looks nothing like who they really are, and may even violate their own moral considerations.

Neither of these scenarios makes for a happy artist or your best work, and worse yet if you become known for a certain type of work, that is what other clients will hire you for regardless if it is actually what you want to do. How is the client to know you don’t actually want to spend your life painting exactly like Norman Rockwell or making sparkly GIFs of teddybears and poodles if that’s all they ever see in your portfolio? (I personally like teddybears, but you get the idea.)

Bottom line, you have to be an authority on yourself and what you do, and you have to be professional enough that your client will trust you to help them make the very best decision for the project. Same with galleries, publications and so on…you need to know and project exactly what you can do, while being trustworthy enough that they have no problem allying your art to their livelihood by featuring it in their place of business.

Are any of you Artist-Parents? Did the kids help or hurt your personal journey?

For me, the kids literally saved my art life from ending and becoming a life spent in personal indulgences and occasional hobbyist art, art that I would not even own the copyright to if I chose to do mainly fan material. Others with different styles of working might have a much different story to tell than mine, so I’d love to hear your experiences in the Comments. All in all though, I hope this post may encourage some people who believe children must automatically mean the death of all other dreams.

Art tips: Bartering for supplies, services and payment

People enjoying the art and making deals at the Abbey Road Coffee and Bean Emporium, 2012

I have just been invited to a very active and exciting local Barter Group on Facebook, so I’d like to discuss bartering with you today as a good means of getting art supplies, services and payment from clients and friends.

Bartering, as we all probably know, is agreeing with another person to trade something you have in order to receive something they have. Ideally, you are trading them something you don’t need that they want or need very much, and you will be receiving something very useful or desirable to you in return. (That’s the way I do it anyhow.)

So the question is, “What do I have that I can barter?”

The answer is generally ART! But how does an artist go about making such a barter?

Table and Booth Spaces

In my case, I have one arrangement where I do art for a certain event. This event is run on a tight budget, so they are not in an ideal position to pay me what I am worth. However, this event has one thing I very much want: table spaces where artists can sell to the large crowds who come to it. I approached them, and once both of us examined what we really needed out of the relationship, it was quite simple to draw up a contract where I do the art for this event each year, and each year I get a free table. This table doesn’t cost the organizers too much to give me, but it earns me hundreds of dollars (much more than they could comfortably pay me).

The advantages of a barter such as this are evident: Not only does the artist receive a payment of higher value, but the client is gratified that they were able to save substantial money that can now be budgeted elsewhere. This is the magic of bartering. In the case of an event like this, the artist also receives exposure and the opportunity for making numerous contacts and future deals, as well as a fun time! These things drive the value of the deal well above the actual money made from sales, and also add more value to the event, pleasing the client more.

In another deal, I did a comic book for a client and was provided with a free booth at a comic book convention as part of my payment. Those booths aren’t cheap! But it benefited my client to have help running the booth to promote our comic, and I ended up making a good friend and steady business partner in the process of selling side-by-side with him. That may be the most priceless deal I have ever made!

Gift Cards

Another deal I made was designing a piece of glassware for a local restaurant. In return, I received a gift card for a substantial amount of free food and alcohol. This gift card had a value significantly above what the restaurant might have budgeted for monthly glassware artwork. But since it was a gift card, the restaurant saved money and I got paid a greater value than I would have gotten in cash money.

There’s no reason this “gift card” barter wouldn’t work with any other kind of local business. The business saves money and you get paid more. You might find this suggestion useful when trying to boost your payment from a project, if the business is somewhere you would want to spend your money anyway. And businesses are generally lovely places to try and get your art shown or sold, because a very wide variety of people come there or work there.

Lastly, bartering your work for an occasional gift card here and there to a nice place can improve your spirits and quality of life. At long last, you can go to that nice restaurant or taste steak or sushi again!! If you’ve been going through a dry period, there is just no over-emphasizing how much this will boost your mood and make you feel like a “normal” person again. It can be frustrating living a frugal existence while all your friends with “day jobs” are posting their latest food-selfie.

Other items

The bartering principle works for anything, as you may have guessed. And since you are a person as well as an artist, don’t hesitate to get together with your local environmentally conscious and artist friends (or meet some!) and begin swapping your art, unneeded supplies, or even your unneeded household items for anything you might need in the way of personal or business supplies. An artist needs to save money anyway they can, and with local groups being willing to barter invaluable services such as babysitting time, you can’t afford not to learn about local bartering systems in your community.

Other Artists are your friends

Another very handy tendency of artists is to go to art school and have supplies left over, or try a new art form and not like it, or hoard up useful items for art and then find they might not be able to use them. Pounce on this! You can relieve your friends and acquaintances of un-used supplies and save yourself untold costs in overhead. They might very much have a need for some item or piece of art you did that you could readily part with, or you can swap them your supplies that you decided you don’t have a use for. Everyone wins!

Now go forth and BARTER!!

I hope I have given you a few ideas about how bartering can be insanely useful to the active artist. Let me know in the Comments if you have any experiences with bartering or ideas for getting the most out of it that I haven’t covered!

About this Post:

You may remember when I was interviewed for Penny Hoarder awhile back. The subject of that article was saving money as an artist. The wonderful and talented author of that article, Lauren Tharp of LittleZotz Writing, suggested that sometime I needed to expand on my suggestions for the article. So, I’ll be doing so over the next several days. Incidentally, you may have noticed the “30 Day Blogging Challenge” tag. You can learn more about that here.