The webcomics blog about webcomics

On Syndication: An Interview With Dave Kellett, Part Two

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?

Kellett: Like I said, I’d probably make different choices now, knowing what I know. Unless you’re absolutely hell-bent on syndication, the web-syndicate limbo I’m in is probably not the best way to go. It has its benefits, as I said earlier, but I’m not sure they outweigh the restrictions. But if, like me, you’ve been hell-bent on it most of your life, then it’s very appropriate. You’ll notice I haven’t left for the [Blank Label] servers yet … despite all the invites from the fellas. So I still see value in that path, just in lessening amounts.

As for being in a collective like Blank Label Comics, that’s sort of a no-brainer for me. We are a co-op, sharing strengths and pooling resources for the betterment of all, with little to no restrictions on how we run our individual businesses. And at BLC, we all hold one another in really high esteem, which is nice for any artist.

As for going web “all the way”, as you say … it’s a question I’ve been talking a lot about with Kcristofpher [sic] Straub of Starslip Crisis. We’ve been having talks on and off the podcast as to how a general-audience strip can succeed on the web. And it’s undeniably tricky. With a sci-fi comic strip or a gaming strip, you know immediately what audience to cultivate on the web. But to what existing audience would you pitch a Bloom County or a Calvin & Hobbes, were they launching on the web today? It’s not so easy. They could be the exact same strip that appeared in papers, and still not find the broad audience they had in newspapers.

It’s the punishment for having that “selective” audience you talked about earlier: more often than not, people will “select” new forms of entertainment that already mirror their established likes and fetishes. What’s the answer? I’m not sure. It’s one of the questions that keep me from leaping off Comics.com today: a part of me still thinks I can better tap into a broader audience for Sheldon on Comics.com.

Fleen: It’s been 18 months since Scott Kurtz‘s broadside at the syndicates and about as long since Keenspot‘s attempt to syndicate. Bold moves, but neither of them changed how the syndication model works and they’ve both just sort of faded from view. Yet there’s a pretty common perception among webcomics creators that syndication is, if not dead, in an an accelerating decline. Are they right or wrong? Why?

Kellett: They’re right, although the pace of the decline is known only to the board members of Chicago Tribune, Newsday, or the various other newspapers who have been caught lying about their declining readership numbers. Personally, I don’t think the death-knell for newspapers will come until Baby Boomers begin to loose their eyesight, which will start to happen over the next 5-15 years. They are really the last die-hard, tried-and-true audience that newspapers enjoy. After that, I really foresee a freefall.

And the basic reason is that, under corporate control, and with decreased (if not nonexistent) competition, newspapers have become so bland as to appeal to no one. Look at a strong, competitive newspaper market like London. The London newspapers are strident, they have a voice, they’re distinctive. You pick up The Guardian, you know what you’re going to get. It’s going to be well-reported, well-researched, well-written, and it will have unique arts and entertainment pieces that will appeal to their core audience. Not at all like the US, where the papers have to speak to and for an entire city, and so end up pleasing no one.

Comics are part and parcel of that. To appeal to the broadest possible audience, (and to never, ever scare away one of the precious few remaining readers). comics have become stuck in 1950′s Americana. And it’s a shame, because American newspapers comics are capable of so much more. Even with its basic space limitations, the comic strip is capable of so much more.

Fleen: One of the traditional advantages of webcomics is the archive: it allows new readers to come up to speed and may help boost an audience. But working with Comics.com, your archive is locked without paying a subscription fee. Long term, is this a viable model?

Kellett: No, it sucks. I know it sucks, my readership knows it sucks, and new readers who stumble upon Sheldon and want to read more know instantly that it sucks. But as I said at the NYCC panel on The Future of Comics, the reason it’s done is because these large media conglomerates have no idea of the long view. They need to justify these “web initiatives” to their bosses, to their overhead, and to their launch costs. And the only way they can do that is with a provable, immediate cash return like subscriptions. But it limits growth, and more importantly, it limits fandom.

Comics.com can get away with it better than most because

  1. They’ve mitigated it somewhat by offering 30-day free archives, and
  2. Because they have 80 titles that are included in their subscription price … of which 5-25 could reasonably be considered “must-reads” for a lot of people.

So their subscription model may yet survive. But you have to wonder how viable subscriptions are for a group like King Features. How many subscriptions are they going to sell when the last of the Popeye readers dies off?

Syndicates will survive the death of newspapers, but their basic business model won’t. They’ll transform into smaller organizations with far less head count, managing online portfolios of old (and new) comic strips.

Fleen: Unfit is in the papers. If you had gotten the artist’s gig, how would that change how you work? Would there be more editorial control, or a greater pressure to keep everything appropriate for young kids? Is there room on the comics page for features that appeal to different age groups?

Kellett: For me, the prospect of drawing Unfit was not one I relished with glee. I saw it more as a secondary or tertiary job to supplement my income. But as more than one cartoonist has pointed out, I probably dodged a bullet by not getting that gig. Had I gotten it, it would have very much been a tradesman-for-hire sort of deal, I imagine. I’d get a script, draw it, and send it in. Nothing particularly tricky, or particularly enjoyable, about that creative process.

And yes: there should be room on the comics page for feature that appeal to different age groups, but I think at this point in the newspaper’s life-cycle, it will never happen. They’ll continue to fade away slowly in their blandness, I think.

Fleen: Mike Belkin: Scot Adams or not?

Kellett: I think not, but it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if it was. The level of personal backing that Scott has given the strip, and the not-very-well-hidden similarities in the font, give me the distinct impression they are one and the same.

Fleen: Any bump in readership from the Alyson Hannigan product placement? Can you get me her autograph? It’s, uh, for my wife.

Kellett: It’s funny how something like that can have an impact. The online book sales bumped up considerably after that story spread on the ‘net. We’ll see if the effect is long term. And yes, I can get you her autograph. But if I mis-spelled her name when signing it, please forgive me.

We would like to thank Dave Kellett once again for taking the time to share his views with us; remember, you have the opportunity to contribute to the followup questions by emailing Gary in care of Fleen.

Very interesting. I still think the subscription method is flawed.

I wonder if there’s any merit in the iTunes method of selling one song for 99 cents.

Maybe you could sell access to another several months of archive for a low price that you could just pay really quickly?

Hm.

great interview! Very informative. I enjoyed reading it.

Though I enjoyed the read, I feel like this article glosses over the non-syndicate non-web approach of going to magazines. Many cartoonists (perhaps MOST cartoonists) make their livings as freelancers who sell use of cartoons to magazines and newspapers either on their own or through management groups.

Superb interview. Kellett’s got brass for being so honest about his own experiences. You guys are framing the debate beautifully for a lot of aspirant cartoonists. Thank you for posting this.

[...] Secondly, if you did miss Ms Crimson, it’s likely because you got caught up in the conclusion of Dave Kellett’s interview on syndication. He was brutally honest about how he sees the various models working for comics artists in general, and for himself in particular. Don’t forget to send in your followup questions for Mr Kellett. [...]

Zach: I believe it got missed because one-offs for magazines don’t show up on the radar for people trying to make royalty income. Sure, it’s nice to be able to sell a comic to a magazine, but it’s BETTER to be able to sell a comic STRIP to a newspaper (and better still to own the strip yourself, and to sell merchandising rights and film options at your leisure to people who want to tap into your huge audience… that’s the brass ring for webtoonists).

–Howard

Thanks, everyone, for all the kind e-mails regarding the interview. I’m really gratified to see that it helped so many people make decisions about their own work. It’s an interesting transitional time we’re in, so if my being honest about successes and failures can help folks out, that’s great.

If you have any questions that you’d prefer to ask me quietly, feel free to do so: dave@davekellett.com

[...] First off, there has been much talk in Webcomics (capital W, proper noun as Tycho reminds us) since small times of special interest strips versus general interest strips. Some decry special interest strips (and the decrying seems to be especially loud if the interest is video games); others wonder if it’s even possible to launch a general interest strip at all. Enter Unshelved, with items of note from both SxSW and the PLA conference; the latter is the more interesting one. From the Unshelved blog, a story about what happens when you create a strip about librarians and surround yourself with them: We were mobbed. I thought I understand being mobbed before, but several times I looked up today and saw crowds of twenty or thirty fans deep, all wanting shirts, jackets, bags, hats, books, and of course limited-edition badge ribbons. Our exhibit hall neighbors were impressed and maybe a little scared. [...]

[...] 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. [...]

[...] 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 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. [...]

[...] Speaking of the discussion of syndication, your questions for Dave Kellett have been received and will be forwarded anon; the guy’s busy at SxSW teaching bloggers how to make money. If you got anything good, Dave, we’re all ears. Also, there were several requests for a larger version of the graphic included in part 2 of the interview. Here y’go. [...]

[...] Interviews, Gary 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? [...]

[...] 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. [...]

[…] part 1, part 2, and part […]

RSS feed for comments on this post.