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Does a syndicate matter in today’s world?

Fleen 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 and as one having a syndicate contract to run his feature Sheldon on Comics.com.

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.

UPDATE: As readers have pointed out, this interview is two years old. Not sure why it came up in my google alerts as something recent, but it did. My apologies to all.

Community Comments

#1 Corey Pandolph
May/8/2008
@ 9:56 am

Dave Kellett, The Dr. Phil of comics.

#2 Wiley Miller
May/8/2008
@ 10:05 am

Short answer to the question… yes.

#3 Lucas Turnbloom
May/8/2008
@ 10:16 am

Dang Corey, that’s mean!

#4 lefitte
May/8/2008
@ 10:34 am

isn’t that an old interview? couple years? he hasn;t been on comics.com for a while.

#5 Dawn Douglass
May/8/2008
@ 10:40 am

It matters to anybody who doesn’t want to be a business and marketing person as well as an artist, IOW, syndicates are vital to those who just want to draw.

If you are capable of wearing a lot of different hats and are willing and able to give a whole lot of time, including probably many months if not years of no income while you build an audience and learn what you’re doing right and wrong, then no, you don’t need a syndicate.

#6 Larry Levine
May/8/2008
@ 11:00 am

I draw a webcomic & without question syndication is my objective.

I believe the syndicates will begin moving towards selected ‘web-only’ strips (e.g.: Universal Press’ GoComics.com) aiming towards a younger/hipper audience. With so many legacy strips on the funny pages & a shrinking print market–it’s the logical route to showcase new talent and a cost effective one for the syndicates.

#7 Jim Thomas
May/8/2008
@ 11:11 am

The problem in talking about this issue, which will most likely inevitably boil down to print versus web (although this is not my point) is that people my age (under 30) are increasingly going to the internet for more and more of their content, whether it is news, shopping, social networking etc… So while having a syndicate is crucial in selling your work to newspapers, the future of potential subscribers to newspapers are being lost in large numbers because newspapers refuse to update the type of content and means in which it is presented.

The problem for comic strip artists ( I am not addressing editorial cartoonists) is not really a problem that these artists can control. Newspapers are not doing enough to compete with new media in so much that they are not actively trying to obtain new readers. My generation does not have the habit of waking up in the morning with a cup of coffee and a newspaper, we just don’t. We get up and check our email and read Drudge or CNN online and that is it. The people that do read comics read them online (and the mere fact that they actively go looking for the comics, means they are more than likely more engaged fans). I read about 10-20 on a given day, Pearls Before Swine is the only one I could read in a newspaper. However, I catch it online.

My point is not that the Web is better or that it is the future of everything. My point is that newspapers need to look to the future for their audience. Is it coincidence that there hasn’t been a Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes emerge since the time the internet became widespread? There hasn’t been a strip to captivate the minds of young and old alike since the end of Calvin and Hobbes for several reasons, one is that strips like that are rare, another is that the young are just not reading the newspaper as much. My opinion, however amateur you might think it, is that newspapers have been trying to maintain status quo since a time well before I was born. In an effort to not lose readers, newspapers pander to their captivated, yet aging audience and have not bothered to realize that in twenty years that the audience they have been maintaining will be gone, and the one they ignored doesn’t have a desire, habit or need to look at a newspaper.

Not only that, young cartoonists, the few that are good enough to cut it in a newspaper are realizing that if they want their own generation to read their work, and not just make strips their moms and grandmas will like, have little opportunities on today’s comic page. While space is an issue, it is also a matter of content and format. The jokes and content seem so watered down for “everyone to like” that the ability of an artist to make a “great” strip seems impossible. And with the strips running so small, very few are wowed by the art. But now, the talented artists that used to have only the option of submitting and resubmitting to syndicates now have alternatives. Who can blame them for looking in other venues that allow more creative freedom in both content and form. Also, as an anecdote, I also feel like there is an opinion amongst some that people post their work online because they can’t cut it in newspapers. While this is true for a great number of strips, how many times did Schulz submit his comic before it finally got picked up?

So yes, if someone does want to be in a newspaper, having a syndicate support system is probably important. But the larger issue is not how to get into newspapers, but if you want your work to be read by someone under the age of 40, do you want to be IN newspapers? If the newspaper industry doesn’t shake off the cobwebs soon, it is going to find itself without an audience and without artists wanting to provide content.

â?¢ I should note that the papers I do read are generally the free alt weeklies which have adapted how they present content, and the sort of content they provide. The comics in those tend to be quite good, however it is my understanding that there are not many, if any, syndicates that cater to this category of papers.

�� I would also like to add that I have no stake in either side of this argument, as I do not have a comic online nor ever submitted to a syndicate.

#8 Anne Hambrock
May/8/2008
@ 11:26 am

In Hollywood, a good agent can be the difference between a middling career with soso money and a stellar career with extraordinary money. The best way for a syndicate to remain relevant is to be sure it provides the biggest and best exposure possible for a feature. For those who do not share Bill Watterson’s disdain for merchandising, the syndicate should also be trying to gain as many financial opportunities for a feature as they can. The rise of the internet means that syndicates cannot pin their largest financial hopes on papers and must adapt.

Interestingly, I decided to bite the bullet and read the Shulz Bio and just got to the part (pg 206) where the syndicate is struggling to deal with the rise of television and the huge effect this was having on newspaper sales and comics. The parallels are quite striking and, while it is widely acknowledged that Shulz’ work was revolutionary, his comic was arriving at a time of tremendous revolution in the business of comics as well.

#9 Danny Burleson
May/8/2008
@ 12:29 pm

This topic can tend to get so multi-faceted that any response can be construed differently than the intent. I’ll try to choose my words carefully.

Anyway, do syndicates matter? Simply put, yes! Absolutely yes! I say that as a comics reader and as a cartoonist with a so-called “webcomic”.

They add a level of legitimacy to any cartoonist, and for those not gifted with very many left brain abilities, it takes a massive amount of work off a cartoonist’s shoulders. They have the infrastructure to potentially get the strip out to millions of readers and the marketing ties to make products and other spin-off media (not to mention professional legal assistance to ensure things are on the up and up).

The fatal flaw, is that newspapers are indeed dying. Here’s where I need to tread lightly, I don’t mean this to be gloom and doom, so bear with me. Radio and then TV (which itself was said to kill radio) came along touted as THE replacements for newspapers, but they all coexist now. Some people claim newspapers will have the same survival ability against the Internet.

Here’s where the comparison dies for me: TV and radio provide certain entertainment and certain information at certain times. Newspapers also provide certain information and entertainment one or more times per day. The Internet on the other hand, provides whatever information and entertainment an individual desires (that exists at the time), generally at little to no cost, virtually from the moment they want it.

That’s a HUGE difference in media delivery that TV, radio and the newspaper CANNOT offer. Young people have grown up with this, middle-aged people watched it develop and adopted it, and older people are often pressured into using it, and sometimes LIKE it!

People will always get their info by whatever their preferred method is. For some, that is still newspapers. For my generation, and the generation to come, for the most part it is the Internet; that’s simply a fact. So, if the newspaper readership (quite literally) dies out, where does that leave newspapers? Likely in the same place as their information providing predecessor, the town crier (who was probably rendered obsolete by newspapers).

A lot of newspapers are moving their publication to the web, and that’s great! However, jumbled up in all this are those little “necessary evils”, comic strips. From what I’ve heard, most papers that even post their comics online, get to do it as part of the same fee they’re paying for the print version anyway. If syndicates were to push that posting online costs extra, I assume newspapers would “no longer care” to post them online (especially since most syndicates post their comics free already).

That’s the crux of all this, even IF newspapers actually bounce back in popularity (in dead tree and/or web version), is that a guarantee comics will automatically get to come along for the ride? Who knows.

Meanwhile, the number of high quality strips that have come along in the last 10-15 years is staggering. There are some really excellent comic series out there, begging for room in the paper. Several are on the same level, or past, that of Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts. But the general public barely knows about them! If at all! I myself didn’t even know about them until I got Daily Ink, GoComics, etc., and I’M a comics freak!

My personal opinion is that syndicates need to find an alternative source of print publication and/or structure a better online model that generates the best revenue for their cartoonists.

Maybe I’m completely wrong about this. But, considering that up until about five years ago, if I’d read someone else writing what I wrote above, I’d think they were crazy. 5 years later I have a different viewpoint and hear more people all the time saying the exact same thing. So either we’re all wrong, or we’re simply onto something. Time will tell.

#10 Jim Thomas
May/8/2008
@ 12:54 pm

Danny, while I agree with almost everything you say, there is one point you make that strikes me. You said,

“My personal opinion is that syndicates need to find an alternative source of print publication and/or structure a better online model that generates the best revenue for their cartoonists.”

While I agree with the first part, if a strip is to be syndicated in print, a syndicate is crucial, but the fact that there hasn’t been a new model or alternative model for distribution other than newspapers in the past 100 years, makes me doubt their ability to come up with one now. The issue I really have is where you mention that syndicates need to come up with a better online model. For me, that negates having a syndicate if the future is online publication. If a strip is only going to exist online, that is to say, it is not actually being syndicated, why do you need to split your profits for this? Setting up a website to host your site, if its existence is purely online should not be worth 50% of your profit.

But the real issue is not whether an artist needs a syndicate or not, the problem really is where will syndication occur for new artists if the shrinking newspaper industry is the only market for an already full comics page?

#11 Dave Kellett
May/8/2008
@ 1:16 pm

Alan, that’s an interview (part 1 of 3) that’s over two years old, I think.

I mention that only because I’m far, far less ambivalent now about whether a syndicate matters to an *online* cartoonist. The Dave Kellett of 2008 (vs. the above Dave Kellett of 2006) would answer unequivocably that an online cartoonist not only doesn’t need a syndicate to make a living online…they actually make less of a living.

To savvy cartoonists who have the chops to thrive online, I always go out of my way to warn them off any syndication involvement in their online career. Introducing the syndication business model to the online world is like bringing in a third base coach into basketball. Their traditional income streams and business goals are anathema to how online comics work.

#12 Alan Gardner
May/8/2008
@ 1:19 pm

As readers have pointed out, this interview is two years old. Not sure why it came up in my google alerts as something recent, but it did. My apologies to all.

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