The webcomics blog about webcomics

What We Learned 2: Electric Boogaloo

Stormbreakers.

Editor’s note: When last we left our intrepid heroes, Howard Tayler was recounting the things he learned at the Success in Comics seminar the weekend before. Tayler had just spoken about opportunity cost and his experiment in alternate revenue streams for 2009: XDM, an RPG manual and the first non-Schlock material to be published by Tayler. We now rejoin our adventurers as Tayler wonders if he will be asked how the book is doing, when suddenly …

Fleen: How’s the book [XDM] doing?

Tayler: Quite well, especially when you consider the track record of independently released RPG materials. We’re at the very top of the small-publisher curve. The authors are extremely pleased, and have been well paid. It is not earning me money as quickly as Schlock books do, though, so I need to bust my tuckus and get Resident Mad Scientist ready for print. The kids need new shoes.

I’m still thrilled to be part of the XDM franchise, and if I sound even the tiniest bit disappointed it’s only because I’m accustomed to selling 2000 books in a month of pre-orders as opposed to six months of steady sales.

Fleen: From the descriptions I read online before the seminar, and from some of the summaries at The Daily Cartoonist, I saw “self syndication” as a recurring theme. Does traditional syndication have a future? Must it be much smaller than it was before, on the scale of the individual or small company instead of massive media corporations?

Tayler: My opinion on this grows out of the latest concept that blew my mind. Seth Godin said It’s easier to find content for your audience than audience for your content. Webtoonists struggle to find audiences, but once they’ve got ‘em, look what they do! Penny Arcade launched a convention to rival Dragon*Con! Historically, we have looked at syndicates as gatekeepers to a large audience. The fact of the matter is that they are not.

Who “owns” the audience for a syndicated comic strip like Cathy or Beetle Bailey? It’s not the syndicate, and it’s certainly not the cartoonist. It’s the newspaper editor. These are the guys who have been doing the easy work of finding content for their audience. The problem they have now is that their audience is aging, and up-and-coming audiences are not subscribing to papers.

Those up-and-coming audiences … we all want a piece of them. If newspapers, syndicates, or cartoonists have a future in the coming world it is as owners of audience.

Fleen: So the takeaway there is to find the niche that is a) underserved, and b) something you understand? To look towards your tribe but not be a carpetbagger?

Tayler: Well put. Yes, that’s a good approach. But you can kill yourself looking for an underserved niche. Look for a niche where you’re an expert, and do what you love. That way you’re more likely to do it better than anybody else does.

Fleen: Is the cartoonist (of any stripe) essentially an individual for the purposes of business? Obviously, keeping relationships with other creators is important artistically, but can cartoonists have shared business relationships or does it have to be a solo game?

Tayler: Shared business relationships are critical. Partnering is the only way to get everything done. Sure, you may think you can do it all to begin with, and perhaps when you’re beginning you actually can do everything you think you need to. But there comes a point when, in order to scale effectively, you have to partner with somebody else. Maybe that means contracting with TopatoCo or ThinkGeek. Maybe it means sharing table expenses among cartoonists with a common LLC.

Fleen: I think I want to explore this a little more. On the one hand, you’ve got services companies like TopatoCo , and on the other hand, you’ve got collections of creators working towards a common goal. I’m still not sure anybody other than Blank Label Comics [of which Tayler is a member] has gone the LLC route as a cooperative venture. Other collectives seem to operate more on a more informal basis ranging from handshake to Okay, let’s just write it down and all initial a copy, but short of formal lawyered-up contracts and governance structures. Is the more formal construct that much more helpful?

Tayler: For tax purposes it’s very helpful. You can collect money in one place and distribute it without one person taking the tax hit. The alternative is to only ever collect money as individuals, and when you’re negotiating with an ad broker or a convention that can be tricky. But it’s definitely not for everybody.

And yes, as you’ve pointed out, relationships with other creators is critical. You don’t need to join a collective for this, but you do need to go to where the other cartoonists are. This might mean hanging out online at Webcomics.com. It might mean attending conventions outside that comfy 50-mile radius of your home. And yeah, it might mean spending money on professional development at a seminar just because there are people going whom you’d really like to meet.

Fleen: Amy Lago and Lynn Reznick both missed your presentation; which questions of theirs did you most want to answer, and what questions did you most want to ask them?

Tayler: I would have liked to ask Amy Lago what she thought of my strip. She did some portfolio reviews, but I decided not to get in line because I wasn’t paying to be at the event and the folks in line were. Also, I’m a big chicken.

I would have liked to explain to Lynn Reznick that I’m not giving anything away for free, not any more than Mark Anderson or Daryl Cagle are. I’m letting my online archive sell books, and I’m selling access to my audience to select advertisers.

I really would have liked to talk quietly with Amy about what she thinks the future of syndication is in light of the importance of audience ownership. I could be wrong! She might have very solid, demonstrable ownership of an audience in a way I don’t understand. But we didn’t get the chance to talk about that.

Tayler then crashed out a third-story window, dropped through three awnings, and into the back seat of a convertible driven by an accomplice and drove into the sunset, leaving only dust and memories. Fleen thanks Tayler for his time.

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