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On Syndication: Gettin’ Out While The Gettin’s Good

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?

Kellett: Pretty darn good, so far.

I’ve been amazed to see the positive response to the new site. The first few weeks have resulted in millions of pageviews, book sales have been great, unexpected opportunities have opened up, and the outpouring of genuine kindness from other cartoonists and from readers has been really energizing. It’s made me incredibly excited about my cartooning, about the future of the strip, and about my next steps in life.

Fleen: Will you still get an invite to the Ruebens and get to hang with a drunken Bil Keane, or are you now persona non grata since you left the corporate master?

Kellett: Well, I decided against going last year, and I’m not sure I’d go this year. I’ve gone to three of them, now, and I realized that the event, in and of itself, just isn’t all that fun. Individually, it’s great talking to the cartoonists there –- they’re all pretty awesome people to chat with. But the thing about the Ruebens is: almost everyone in the room is 50+ years old. There are very few “young/youngish� cartoonists at the event, and it very much feels that way, after you’ve been to a few Ruebens.

Fleen: It took comics.com a week or so to come around on making your new web address known to your fans. Why was that, do you think?

Kellett: In the end, I don’t think it was malice. I think it more to do with the painfully slow turning of corporate wheels. But isn’t that revealing, just in that fact alone?

But I have to give credit to the younger editors at United Media. They’ve been cool throughout all my time there, and they were just as cool in my exit as well. If the company were to give these younger voices more of a say in the choice of new strips, I’d have great hope for the syndication business.

Fleen: You ran up to about 400,000 hits/day in the first few days after your transition, as people started absorbing years of archives. How have those numbers held up? And how badly do you think the locked archives model has been refuted by your experience?

Kellett: The number that really stuck with me was that the average reader was going through 126 pages in those first few days. To me, that speaks of a long-pent-up desire to dive into the strip that was finally given life. That’s why the new site generated something like millions of pageviews in the first 3 weeks. And without a doubt, that will start to cool down to a a more normal level. In fact, it already has. But I’m more convinced than ever of the free-archive model.

Fleen: Any way to tell if the move has resulted in a bump in your readership? (very clever how you timed the shift just before putting a new book on order, Mr Kellett … very clever indeed!)

Kellett: I was just comparing numbers this weekend, and I’m actually down by about 3,000 readers or so from the move. I got a few very telling e-mails from readers on Dec 2nd (the last day Sheldon appeared on comics.com), asking where the strip had gone. You would think that my text notice below the strip, and the direct link that comics.com had placed above the strip, would’ve alerted all readers to the impending move. But I know from my years in packaging and advertising that people just miss stuff that they’re not looking for/expecting, so it really doesn’t surprise me.

But I’m not particularly worried about those lost readers, as I think most of them are only temporarily lost. Thanks to a lot of very kind links from the Blank Label guys, from PvP, Dinosaur Comics, Wondermark, Overcompensating, Questionable Content, and Unshelved, the word really got out to a lot of folks. As folks start to realize that Sheldon won’t be appearing further on comics.com, a quick Google search will probably set them in the right direction.
Editor’s note: at press time, that search listed Kellett’s strip as the third result.

Fleen: As we go to press, you’re doing a whole lotta sketching and book personalizing … how did orders for your new book shape up compared to the previous one?

Kellett: This question goes back to having control over your own site, and having a direct voice to your readers. With the Pure Ducky Goodness book, I had an uphill marketing battle, in that I couldn’t really tell my comics.com readers that the book even existed. Readers were always sort of surprised when they found it in a comics book store or a library or something. I’d get e-mails like “Hey, you should post about this on the site!� Which of course I couldn’t, and which made it all the more frustrating.

But sales for The Good, The Bad & The Pugly are a totally different story. Happily, sales on the new site put the book in the black within two days of putting up pre-orders. And keep in mind, this is while the new site was launching and folks were still finding the strip’s new home. So I’m very happy with how it’s going.

Fleen: You’re making another, even more drastic shift come January — quittin’ the day job and doing nothing but cartooning. How has your experience of the last month affected your confidence in that plan? About like you thought it would turn out? More confident because it’s going better than you figured? Kicking yourself for not having done so sooner?

Kellett: I’m not kicking myself for having done it sooner, certainly. Mattel has been the best job of my life, quite frankly, and it allowed me to buy a house at 29 … so there are no complaints on my end. But success follows attention, and in recent years I’ve only been able to give 10-20% of my waking hours to my cartooning. Which is not enough attention to match my passion for it.

And yes –- this last month has reinforced for me how much more time I need to plan and execute different aspects of my cartooning –- both on the creative side and the business side. I’m very excited for 2007.

Fleen: What will you be doing different with Sheldon once you won’t have to fit the strip in after working hours? New content on the site? New products? More Zod?

Kellett: I’d like to try a few new things out, yes. New content for Sheldon, certainly; possibly other strip(s); and a few other projects I’d rather not talk about.

(Not because I want to be a jerk, but because I’m coming to live by a simple rule: the project you talk about is the project that never gets started. If you pour your energies into talking about it, you find your creative energies for it waning in the process.)

Fleen: Has Google gotten their shit together yet about suspending your ads (story here, and in the 28 Nov entry of Kellet’s blog)? Regardless of how that turns out, will you be looking at other revenue sources now that you’re free to do so?

Kellett: I had a few e-mails from nice, non-Adsense engineers at Google in the days following that, offering some tidbits of advice. But I haven’t heard back from the Adsense folks themselves. So we’ll see how it works out. I’m almost 100% sure it resulted from a huge burst of traffic (from PVP, QC, Real Life, etc) that generated few Adsense clickthroughs. Which is logical, as I’m sure those readers were pouring through archives, not looking at ads. But who knows.

And yes, I’m looking into different supplemental ad income to replace Adsense. The Comics Curmudgeon invited me into BlogAds, which was kind of him, a Yahoo programmer tried to sell me on their system and the folks from Ask.com “asked� (ha!) me to look into some thingy of theirs … but honestly, I’m gonna put all that on hold until I get through Christmas book sales.

Fleen: How’s the Great Grammarian Plan coming along?

Kellett: Good! But I’m definitely the logjam in the process at the moment – which goes back to my answer about needing dedicated time. Once I put together a guiding document for my Sheldon Grammarians (the strip transcription editors), we should be up and running in transcribing the 1500 Sheldon strips.

Fleen: Anything special planned for, say, next weekend? What kind of fun will you be having at SparkyTowne™?

Kellett: Ha! Yeah, I’ll be up in San Francisco, giving talks at the Charles Schulz Museum (Saturday) and the Cartoon Art Museum (Sunday). I’m pretty honored to do both, to be honest. It’s kinda neat to be welcomed into honored halls like that.

I’m also hoping to get a few cartoonists together for breakfast, like Greg Dean, Michael Jantze, and the rest of the SF crew. I rarely get up that way, so I’m looking forward to the weekend. Getting cartoonists together over pancakes is usually pretty fun.

Fleen thanks Kellett for his time; we’ll be looking at the other side of the syndication coin in 2007, seeing how things work for the newly (and fully) syndicated Rich Stevens. Until next time, if you’ve got questions about this or any of our other topics, feel free to use the contact link up there on the right.

[...] Over at Fleen, Gary Tyrrell discusses online syndication and its discontents with Sheldon creator Dave Kellett. [...]

I got this link through Mr. Kellet’s Sheldon-by-mail service, and I must say: I love that man! In a very, very heterosexual way. His strip sky rocketed into my top 3, after only knowing about it for 2 days. (I think I was one of those guys that read the entire archive within 3 days.. sorry!). Good luck with everything.

On a quick follow-up note: Google has re-instated my ad account, with (apparently) all monies back in place. It seems that it was, in fact, a huge surge of readers who dove through archives, and didn’t click ads, that triggered the fraud algorithm.

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