The webcomics blog about webcomics

On Syndication: An Interview With Dave Kellett, Part One

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 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:

Fleen: You’re already a syndicated cartoonist with Sheldon, but still web-only. What do you get from being in a syndicate that you don’t get from going solo? Conversely, what do you give up by involving a syndicate?

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 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‘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:

  1. Direct links that I control.
  2. A forum: due to their COPPA-compliance regulations, United Media has no forums.
  3. A blog: which really, really helps to accentuate and expand upon the “world” of the comic strip.
  4. 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.

This is one reason why I’m so happy to be associated with Dave via Blank Label — he’s brilliant, and he does a great job of looking at the business in ways us unsyndicated types simply can’t.

[…] Dave Kellet, one of the few webcartoonists with syndicate experience, talks about that with Fleen editor Gary Tyrell. You can read Part I of the interview here. Part II hasn’t been posted yet. […]

[…] More of the discussion on syndication coming soon, folks. […]

[…] If you’re coming here for the first time today, be sure to scroll down a bit and check out our new contributor’s first column. And now we continue our discussion with Dave Kellett on the topic of newspaper syndication, going it alone, and how getting a newspaper gig isn’t always the best thing in the world. Fleen: Given that you’re already syndicated, what benefit do you derive from being in a webcomics collective? Is syndication something that you would seek out if you were just starting a cartooning career now? Or would it be web all the way? […]

[…] Coming on the heels of our discussion of aligning one’s webcomic with larger companies or going the DIY route, that appears to be one vote for doing it yourself. Future shifts of webcomics will be noted on this page. […]

[…] If you read our interveiw with Dave Kellett on the nature of syndication (part 1 and part 2), you’ll recall that we solicited followup questions. Mr Kellett has graciously answered, and we’ll start with his replies today. […]

[…] Time for part two of the followup questions to the Dave Kellett Interview Extravaganza. When last we left our intrepid heroes, they were asking Dave Kellett about what the syndicated comic strip could accomplish. Fleen: You’ve spoken very bluntly here about (a) the impending doom of print and (b) considering a move to Blank Label’s servers. How do your syndicate editors respond to statements like these? Are they pissed? Do they chalk it up to cartoonist iconoclasm? Do you even HAVE an editor? […]

[…] Regular readers of this space will know that we at Fleen (okay, “I at Fleen”, happy?) have a bug up our (my) butts (butt) about the state of syndicated comics. The fact that the guy who’s presumably in charge of deciding what gets syndicated by UPS (such as Ann Coulter, Dear Abby’s idiot daughter, and James Dobson) is using such mild language instead of I want to see Little Dee in every paper in the country and any of my competitors that thinks different is a moron is pretty indicative of the state of smarts at the syndicates. But I promised you a questions, so here you go: […]

[…] Regular readers of Fleen will recall our previous conversations with Dave Kellett, and his dealings with United Features Syndicate’s web-only syndication model. […]

[…] We at Fleen will be attempting to get a proper interview with Mr 3 as soon as possible, as we have a bit of interest in the idea of webcomics/syndication ’round these parts. […]

[…] Gary This page has previously conducted interviews with Dave Kellett, one of the smarter guys in [web]comics, on the topic of newspaper syndication and the web. It’s been a while since we heard from Dave, so it’s nice to see that Wizard is continuing its series of talks with webcomics creators. As usual, he’s got some good stuff to say about syndication: United Media has been good, but not great, because their online business model is flawed. […]

[…] Interviews, Gary Editor’s note: As noted on this page previously, Sheldon creator Dave Kellett has renounced the world of syndication and gone out on his own. Kellett’s a smart guy with an extensive background in the history of comics and syndication, and we’ve spoken to him previously on this topic at length, so we thought it would make sense to talk to him again and follow up on his big shift. Fleen: It’s been about a month now since you went indy — what’s your general impression of life away from the glamorous life of sorta-syndication? […]

[…] of the discussion on syndication coming soon, […]

[…] has posted the first an interview with webcomic creator and author Dave Kellett on the importance and relevance of print syndication in today’s comic marketplace compared to going it alone in webcomics. Dave shares his experience as a professional webcomicker […]

[…] has posted the first an interview with webcomic creator and author Dave Kellett on the importance and relevance of print syndication in today’s comic marketplace compared to going it alone in webcomics. Dave shares his experience as a professional webcomicker […]

[…] part 1, part 2, and part […]

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