When syndication doesn’t work out

A year ago, Karen Montague-Reyes’ cartoon Clear Blue Water finished out a four and a half year run in syndication. She’s written up a reflective of her experience. Among all the fame, wealth and glory accounts of print syndication, Karen’s article ought to be required reading.

It got to the point where I dreaded getting my checks in the mail because it would tell you what papers dropped you or added you (the syndicate never told me beforehand). I made my husband open them; I couldn’t even face them. He’d just say, “Holding steady.” Or, “Two drops this month.” People would ask me what papers I was in and I didn’t know anymore because I chose not to know. I faced it by not facing it and choosing not to think about it. The last few years of my strip I mostly held steady. I didn’t add any, but I also didn’t get dropped by any. Still, the stress of what MIGHT be happening behind the scenes was hideous.

Thanks Karen. Good luck with Act II.

53 thoughts on “When syndication doesn’t work out

  1. Wow. I’m totally going through the same thing right now. It’s so nice to see someone put what I’m going through into print.

    The worst part for me is my spouse lost their job due to the economy and if/when the strip gets canceled we’re pretty much going to lose our house. 🙁

    Karen is right though. It’s SUCH a horrible feeling getting the pay check each month witht he adds and drops, and there is just nothing you can do as you watch your childhood dream slowly die right in front of you.

    Well, off to come up with more gags! 😉

  2. “there is just nothing you can do as you watch your childhood dream slowly die right in front of you.

    Well, off to come up with more gags! ;)”

    Wow. That’s like seeing Mary Poppins run over by a garbage truck then going in for a spoonful of sugar or something/

    ” Hidee Ho! You’re mama has cancer! Wanna hear a joke?”
    Grim, man…

  3. There should be some sort of club for those of us who got to be syndicated and entered into a nightmare. A tremendous lot of work for little or no compensation. I sympathize with Karen and welcome her to world of Web Comics.

  4. I can certainly relate. When Jerry and I created our second strip that no one wanted, our boss created a syndicate for it. While we at least still had jobs (low-paying ones), we were toiling in our off hours to do the strip, and working on promotional materials. One down side was being so close to what the “syndicate” was doing, and it was really depressing sometimes. After two years, and around a 45 paper peak, it just wasn’t working out and the strip and syndicate ceased. It was a merciful death.

    Many years later, though, we created Baby Blues.

    So to any of you in that position, don’t think just because something doesn’t work out, that the dream is over.

  5. I think nearly every syndicated cartoonist has a similar story to Rick’s here. Most of us had a “failed” first attempt in syndication. But it’s only a failure if you didn’t learn anything from it.

    My advice to anyone syndicated for the first time is to not just sit back and have the syndicate handle everything for you while you just stay behind the drawing board and draw. Remember, you are not being hired to draw, this is a PARTNERSHIP. As such, you need to learn as much about the business side as you can while you with the syndicate and get involved. This will pay off, if not for your first strip, then for the next one. Take stock in what worked and what didn’t. You need to be objective about this, otherwise, you’ll just keep making the same mistakes over and over.

    The a feature not selling well is NOT always an indication that it was a bad strip. This business is littered with very talented “failures”, strips that should have sold well, but didn’t for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality.

    As the saying goes, you learn more from your failures than from your successes.

  6. Having read the full post, I think one of the lessons is not to leave success or failure in the hands of a god/syndicate.

    To be successful, you can’t rely solely on your syndicate to do the work. It helps if you can promote yourself in parallel with them, especially online. I only became aware of Karen’s strip after it ended, but I’m glad she is happier being a web cartoonist.

  7. This post was very informative. Thanks Wiley and Rick for some insightful advice. I still dream of when I can even go through such heartache — but to be syndicated! Sounds naive and lame and maybe I’m just really tired right now, but it’s still what I want. In the meantime I’m experimenting with web venue as “warm-up.” I guess enough dreaming and just keep keeping at it!

  8. quit complaining before the web if a comic strip failed that was it at least you have more than one outlet for your strip to be read

  9. Gotta smile at Wiley’s comments, because, before we met, I had heard (at the other side of the artist-syndicate-newspaper pipeline) that he was “difficult.” Well, the squeaking wheel gets the grease — though I believe he had to switch wagons to make it happen.

    Look, in about eight weeks, it’ll be (American) Thanksgiving, and there will be some 18-year-olds coming home from college for good, because their goal was to get into college, and they accomplished that. Once there, however, they realized they hadn’t thought about what to do next.

    Then, in December, some NFL teams will realize their goal of making it into the playoffs, and will promptly get blown away by the teams whose goal was to win the Super Bowl.

    If “getting syndicated” is your goal, take a warning.

  10. My first strip, Meatloaf Night (1997-2000) took a similar path to the graveyard of sequential art. United Media was very nice about it, however, and Amy Lago encouraged (almost demanded) me to keep at it and submit more work. I’m not exactly setting the world on fire now, but I’m still at it. My dream still has a pulse.

    If you feel in your gut that you have something to offer this business, never give up. Let the setbacks be your school of what not do.

  11. That’s an interesting comment, Wiley. I hear so many cartoonists say they want to go with a syndicate because they “just want to draw.” Doesn’t sound like it’s as simple a that.

  12. The problem with trying again is that these days, the odds of you launching a successful syndicated newspaper comic strip make your odds of becoming a star in the NBA look good.

  13. It’s a business, Jason, so nothing is ever simple. Being with a syndicate does give you more time to concentrate on the creative end, but it’s not an either-or situation. Some syndicates never want to hear from their cartoonists, which is always to the detriment of the cartoonist. So when you do get involved in what they think is “their end”, you sometimes get labeled as “being difficult”… despite your efforts turning out being to their benefit. Then, of course, they’ll claim credit for the success that they fought so hard against. It’s the same in any corporate culture.

    I should point out here that I am now with a syndicate that welcomes and encourages cartoonists to get involved in all aspects of syndication. This is why Universal has been the most successful syndicate.

  14. Let me give a well-deserved plug to Mark Buford here — “Scary Gary” may not be setting the world on fire (his words), but his efficiency with art and words make this a strip well-armed to survive physical downsizing in print and low resolution reproduction online. Plus — it’s a fast read and funny! Lessons learned and applied, eh, Mark (I mean, “My King”)?

  15. BTW – That was a great read. I had a hard time getting into Clear Blue Water when it was first released, but I liked the recent strips I just read on her website.

  16. Hi gang – kinda new in these here parts, but I’ve been following this post and Wiley’s comments are oh, so true – and solid advice re; the business end of things…On another note, and really why I’m posting, is I have to agree with Frank Mariani and give major props to Mark Buford (who I don’t know and never met) – Scary Gary is truly the funniest strip I’ve seen come along in years…great gags and awesome ‘timing’…

    nice job, MB…I’m a huge fan…

  17. Pat – after getting to know Mark, he told me his years doing stand up comedy was great training and prep for his current work. He pays a lot of attention to how the dialogue sounds, not just how it reads on paper. I think that is an important component to giving your characters a voice. You never really know what part of your life is going to contribute to your work, probably all of it in some regard, which underscores the fact that a strip has to be as unique as you are.

  18. Seems to me a classic case of “you’ll see it when you believe it.”

    Karen was so focused and worried about the syndicate dropping her that that’s exactly what manifested itself.

  19. Oh man, I went through something similar when Image Comics started publishing PvP.

    I was dreading getting the monthly numbers on the book, finding out that stores were ordering less.

    It took a while to get past it and once I was able to stop worrying so much about those numbers and see the bigger picture I was able to think bigger and start opening up more business models for PvP.

    That’s was a sad piece to read. I hope she follows Wiley’s advice and doesn’t give up on Syndication.

  20. To all the syndicated and formerly syndicated cartoonists, I’d love to hear your opinion on something.

    Despite the horror stories, I’m also looking to get syndicated. And to do so, I have a theory that the more papers I’m in before approaching the syndicates, the better my chances. I’m in a few dozen now, but I simply don’t what the best number is.

    What do you guys think? Is this a stupid theory to begin with? Do papers not have any affect? Or is there a “magical number” which basically makes a comic a shoo-in (a magical minimum number, that is – obviously a 1,000 papers is pretty good).

  21. “I have a theory that the more papers Iâ??m in before approaching the syndicates, the better my chances. ”

    If you are doing a strip already, on a daily basis, and have sold it to a dozen papers or so, then your theory is correct, that it would have a better chance. But it still comes down to marketability. The syndicates don’t assess whether a feature is “good” or “bad” (both are subjective) but on whether or not they think they can sell it to editors. So if you are already selling it, that makes more of an impression and takes some of the guess work out of their decision making process.

    But keep in mind that getting a syndicate contract is NOT the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it is merely the very beginning of a very long, rough road.

  22. I appreciate the comment, Wiley. Just one thing, I’m not doing a strip on a daily basis. It’s weekly, often appearing on Sunday, but sometimes other days depending on whether the paper has a Sunday paper.

    Do syndicates not take weeklies?

  23. @ Matt Zalen … Keep in mind that for a daily newspaper to introduce a new comic strip, they usually need to “bump” another. If you are only producing a weekly feature, what are they going to publish in your place during the rest of the week?

    In addition … If you are talented and successful enough to get published in a newspaper, why settle for only 1 day when you can have all 7?

    That said, there are a FEW examples of strips that are only published once a week in some newspapers. For example, our local paper only publishes Slylock Fox on Sundays.

    On the flip side, they publish Non Sequitur from Monday through Saturday, but (much to my disappointment) they’ve stopped publishing the Sundays.

    Here’s a question for you …

    Have you tried submitting your idea to the syndicates yet? You’re essentially asking a bunch of cartoonists their opinion right now … What you want to do is get an opinion on your work directly from an editor. If they find enough merit in your feature, they just may convince you to draw it daily.

  24. Well, I’m trying to save him some time, Mike. Syndicates will not take on a weekly simply because there’s no market for it.
    Comic strips aren’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be successful in another field of cartooning. You need to find the venue that suits you best. If you cannot produce a daily comic, then there’s so sense in pursuing it.

  25. “On the flip side, they publish Non Sequitur from Monday through Saturday, but (much to my disappointment) theyâ??ve stopped publishing the Sundays.”

    That is a disappointment! Wiley’s sunday strips are probably the most beautifully executed sunday strips on the page.

    Sorry, I know it’s off topic. Just had to be said.

  26. It’s strange, Wiley. If there’s no market, then why have a few dozen newspapers already picked up my strip? Small ones and big ones, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the New Haven Register.

    And Mike, no, I haven’t approached the syndicates with this strip yet. My thinking was that the more papers I get, the less chance of rejection. And since I hate rejection, I’ve been sort of waiting indefinitely.

    Which goes back to the first question I had. At which point (what number of papers) does acceptance become probable. I’m not talking about guarantees, because obviously there are never absolutes in this industry, but I’m simply wondering how many papers make the possibility of syndication “likely”?

  27. As for not being able to produce a daily, I’m certain I could if I weren’t working full-time. But I am, so I can’t.

    Now should I get syndicated, that might change. But I’m pretty sure, given all these horror stories I’m reading, I would prefer not to quit my job immediately.

    Of course that presents a pretty big dilemma. And I suppose if I were faced with it, I’d give in to the dream, quit my job, and potentially screw myself should things not work out.

  28. “If thereâ??s no market, then why have a few dozen newspapers already picked up my strip?”

    If you’re in “a few dozen” newspapers now, then why would you need a syndicate? There’s a lot of information missing here on just what the situation is with your strip.

    But to answer your question directly, there’s no profit in selling a weekly feature for either the syndicate or the cartoonist even if they were able to sell it. The only weekly features that are in existence today are Sunday-only features, and they only exist as a carry over from a bygone era (Prince Valiant) or turned to it after a long run as a daily and Sunday (Fox Trot). Trying to sell a new Sunday only feature from an unknown cartoonist in today’s tight market (especially in Sunday comics sections) is impossible, so syndicates won’t waste their time and resources in attempting it.

    You have to understand that you have deal with the realities of the marketplace, not expect the marketplace to change just to suit you. If you really want to do a comic strip in syndication, you have to produce a daily feature. That’s just the reality of things.

  29. “As for not being able to produce a daily, Iâ??m certain I could if I werenâ??t working full-time. But I am, so I canâ??t.”

    This is the problem that has faced every cartoonist breaking into the business. You have to produce your feature while working your day job. As I said before, just signing a syndicate contract is NOT a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It is only the beginning. And you won’t be likely to quit your day job for at least a year, and that’s if you’re lucky. Again, this is the reality of the market. I wish it wasn’t.

  30. I know I’m asking a lot of questions here, but it’s not often that a forum such as this presents itself.

    Wiley, you mentioned earlier that syndication must be viewed as a partnership, and not a division whereby the syndicates handle the business and the cartoonist simply draws.

    What did you mean by that? Aside from learning about the business-end, what can one do to help the syndicates promote his/her feature?

  31. The most common mistake young (and not-so-young) cartoonists make is thinking of syndication like applying for job. The syndicate is not your employer, they are your partner in the enterprise of marketing your feature. In basic terms, you are production and they are sales and distribution. You then split the revenues.

    At this point, you need to only concern yourself with creating a marketable daily feature.

  32. Hm…not much of an answer there, Wiley, but I appreciate the response.

    You see, I’ve been concerned with creating my marketable feature for a few years now. And now I’m concerned with syndication. That said, any inside information you can give me at this point would be extremely valuable.

    And yes, Jason, with shiny contracts and everything.

  33. Not much of an answer? What more did you want? You’ve asked very general questions and have received answers to them. If you want something more detailed and specific, then you need to ask more detailed and specific questions. I’m trying to help you here, but you are quite vague on everything regarding your feature and just what you expect to happen.

  34. And partnership meaning that you were not simply drawing while letting them deal with the business-end, but rather getting actively involved.

  35. I believe if you only want, or are only able, to produce a strip weekly that there are other options available to you rather than syndication.

  36. Apparently you misunderstood what I had said. Syndication IS a partnership, as opposed to an employer/employee relationship. And like any partnership, you make sure you know what your partner is doing and why they are doing it. You do this by simply asking questions.

    But you are putting the cart before the horse is even born yet. You really don’t need to concern yourself with this aspect yet. If you are really interested in doing a syndicated comic strip, you need to work up a package to submit to the syndicates consisting of a minimum of 6 weeks worth of dailies and 4 Sundays. Should you get their attention where they want to take you on, then you deal with the terms of the contract. All contracts are negotiable. You should never just take their boilerplate contract. Once you have signed a contract, you will then begin to work on producing much more material for the launch as well as working with the syndicate on the sales kit. This is when you begin asking questions on just how they work and what you need to do to help them sell the feature.

    So first things first. Don’t waste your time with the details yet. You need to create the big picture first.

  37. Now that’s a good response, and I really appreciate it.

    And you’re right, I’m thinking ahead, but unfortunately that’s what I always do. Which is why I chose to get into papers before approaching syndicates – a strategy which I hope will work, but obviously is far from certain.

    Anyway, thanks for responses up until now.

  38. @ Matt Zalen … Back on comment #35, Wiley mentioned that he’s trying to save you time re: submitting to the syndicates — right now, that is.

    He’s speaking from years of experience in the business, and so every piece of advice he’s offered you above comes from that perspective.

    On the other hand, I can tell you that just over 7-years ago, I was younger (and still in college) and under the mistaken impression that an editor is like a boss. Since then, I’ve gained new experiences, and so, I understand much better now what Wiley is trying to stress regarding syndication being a partnership.

    At the same time, you mentioned that you do not like rejection. The truth is, no cartoonist does. But without having the guts to submit your work and receive a form rejection (i.e., a photocopied “no thank you”), you will not allow yourself to grow as a person/cartoonist. Aside from your own mother telling you that your work is terrible, there is nothing more humbling than being told that you’re not ready yet, and/or someone is not interested in your work.

    What you do after that will define whether or not you’ll continue in the business. Will you just give up and say, “Oh well, that’s all I’ve got.” … Or will you allow yourself to mature (over a few years, if necessary)??

    When I was in university, I had a strip that I was selling (for money) on a regular basis. But when I submitted it to the syndicates, I got a form rejection. I later abandoned this feature for several reasons, but my point is that if you’re in this for the long haul, you’ll work on the bigger picture, as Wiley has advised, AND realize that what you know and are drawing today will not compare to what you’re doing a few years from now …

    So long as you stick with it and learn from your mistakes and rejections.

  39. Thanks, Mike.

    I guess the problem is I’m in this mode where I have running dialogues going with dozens of papers, and every week I think, “well, these guys have ALMOST decided, and if I just get one or two more that’ll up my chances…”

    And so I wait. Indefinitely.

    But you’re right, I need to stop playing for time and submit it.

    …soon 🙂

Comments are closed.