Editor’s note: So a week ago, Howard Tayler — webtooner, husband, father, onetime software industry small-m mogul, and generally godly fellow — made his way to that modern-day debauchorama known as Las Vegas. What could make an upstanding gentleman brave such a den of iniquity? The opportunity to learn ways to better his craft and business at a weekend seminar that brought together people from the worlds of syndication, gag cartooning, strip cartooning editorial cartooning, and webcomics.
Sanity intact, no quickie annulments on file with Clark County registrars, hopefully zero warrants, and an unknown number of trips to New Rock later (word to the wise: don’t count on your bad deeds “staying in Vegas”), Tayler was kind enough to sit down in our virtual studios for a chat about the experience. That is to say, we’ve been bouncing emails back and forth, and today Fleen is happy to present the first portion of that interview.
Fleen: Okay, let’s start with the easy one: what was the topic of your presentation? You mentioned it was along the lines of what you learned, but you must have had some structure in mind before you went live.
Tayler: I knew what I did not want to present. Most of those at the event had seen my Free Content Business Model presentation on YouTube, and repeating that would have been bad form, especially since some of the data was two years old in 2007, and is demonstrably erroneous.
I didn’t have a firm presentation in mind when I got on the plane. I’m comfortable shooting from the hip, I knew I was going last, so I figured I’d let thoughts coalesce during the event.
What I ended up presenting was Concepts That Have Blown My Mind. It was a tour of some important things I’ve learned, things that have altered the landscape of my mind. They included mundane things like the principle of Opportunity Cost, and complex, disputable concepts like Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan and Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovations. Each was presented anecdotally in the context of where I was in life at that time, and how learning these things shaped my decisions.
and say Stop whining about declining buggy-whip sales, the automobile is the future! So I presented Disruptive Innovations in the context of my days at Novell, where I first studied Christensen’s work, and then I went on to explain how I tried to apply it to what my company was doing. I got it exactly, 180-degrees-out-of-phase wrong. (I also talked about learning from failure, and this was a good data-point.)
My goal was to have the audience not tune out that principle before learning it. I think it worked.
Fleen: What’s the most important thing that independent [web]cartoonists should be doing that they generally aren’t?
Tayler: I think some of us need to be interacting with our niche audiences as subject matter experts rather than as cartoonists. [Daryl] Cagle doesn’t lecture on cartooning. He teaches people about politics, and history, and he uses political cartoons to do it. Keith Knight is similar in that he lectures on race and culture rather than how he parlayed an understanding of those into a comics career.
If we talk about cartooning, we limit our audience to people who are interested in the art, the process, and the business of cartooning. If we talk about our subject matter, however, we get to use our cartooning to reach much larger audiences … audiences that are likely to pay to hear us. The lecture circuit pays pretty well. That said, I don’t want to do the lecture circuit. Not much, anyway. Okay, maybe a little.
Fleen: Okay, what topics could you (or want to) lecture on?
Tayler: Have a look at writingexcuses.com and xtremedungeonmastery.com. World-building, character-driven writing, and table-top RPGs are things I love to do, and am happy to talk about. In those settings I do. I’m not paid to lecture, but Keith and Daryl convinced me that I could be. (But I still want to be a cartoonist, not a public figure.)
Fleen: And let’s turn the original question around — what approaches does the traditional syndication model need to adopt from indy creators now (or more likely, five years ago)?
Tayler: Own the audience. “Syndicate” your work using RSS, go viral, and get as many people reading as possible. Hook ’em young, and drive revenue by selling direct. Most webtoonists already do this, and see it as stating the obvious. The syndicates could do this but don’t. I don’t know why not.
Fleen: Keith Knight’s pretty well known for certain concepts: Try everything; have feet in all possible worlds; own everything. Who else brought similar key concepts, and what were they?
Tayler: I talked about lecturing already. Mark Anderson talked about how he sells comics to corporate presenters for use in their presentations, and how that’s currently outperforming his magazine revenue by nine to one. I wouldn’t have thought that market was that good, but that’s because I’m not part of that customer demographic so I’m blind to it. That’s an important lesson, right there.
Amy Lago spoke about what makes a successful syndicated comic strip, and while that’s not what I want to create the information was certainly helpful.
Fleen: I’m curious as to her criteria — both what makes for a successful strip, and what “success” means these days.
Tayler: The best bits of what she said were probably said in person during portfolio reviews. I stood aside and let the paying attendees take advantage of that opportunity.
Fleen: What will you be doing differently based on what you learned?
Tayler: Feeling less guilty about looking for more pies to stick my finger in, mostly. I may consider charging a nominal fee for reprint rights when somebody wants to stick my stuff in a slide deck. Oh, and I’m definitely going to do an iPhone app. The smartphone platform has all the hallmarks of “disruptive innovation” about it, and I don’t think I saw that until this weekend.
Fleen: Are you using iPhone app to mean exactly that device, or as shorthand? Is this going to be an app to be sold (and thus drive revenue) or an app to be given away (and thus drive audience via another connection to your work)?
Tayler: For now, it means iPhone app. It won’t be a free application. My goal is to make reading the comic on the iPhone better than reading it on the web. We’ll see about other devices next year. Right now I’m focusing on the market segment where money is being spent.
I do have to be careful, though. I’m surviving off of two key revenue streams from a single intellectual property. The opportunity cost of pursuing additional markets with new properties is quite high, so I need to budget my time and do some research before picking new projects. XDM was this year’s experiment for me. There’ll be another stretch next year, but there won’t be two next year.
Fleen thanks Tayler for his time, and invites readers to partake of the discussion.