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Festival of Cartoon Art notes: Dave Kellett

I should preface these notes by saying Dave did a superb job on this presentation – which is remarkable because he reworked his presentation late into the early morning. 

  • Dave Kellett now up with a response to Bill Watterson’s famous 1989 “the cheapening of comics” speech.
  • Dave Kellett what are web comics? print comic + internet + awesome = webcomics.
  • Dave Kellett are non-corporate comics. There is no more middle man. Yes there are a lot crappy comics out there, but several are real gems.
  • Dave Kellett is confident the newspapers will make the leap to digital. The syndication model will not.
  • Dave Kellett comics are a slow building relationship with readers. Paywalls and paid apps make that relationship harder.
  • Dave Kellett unfortunately cartoonists cannot recreate the environment of past print model success in today’s world. There are hundreds of entertainment options.
  • Dave Kellett The bad news: newspapers are dying. The good news: cartooning is not going with it.
  • Dave Kellett how to be a successful cartoonist: be accessible, be entertaining, be kind.
  • Dave Kellett the syndicate rate of 50/50 is unknown in any other entertainment industry. Entertainment agents, lawyers usually only take 5-10%. 50/50 split is only allowed because of monopoly access to papers.
  • Dave Kellett webcomics is not a tide that will lift all boats, but will create opportunities for a few and provide a decent living.

Bill Watterson railed against syndicates, merchandizing, and legacy strips. Dave opines that Bill would have been supportive of webcomics for the freedom to tell stories, but would have disliked the need for merchandising. In fact, if the webcomic model was the only model in existence during Bill’s time, we never would have seen Calvin and Hobbes. He had a great strip, great art, material, but the requirement to interact with fans and sell merchandise would have been something unpalatable for Watterson. Likewise if print syndication was the only format for R. Crumb, we would have never seen Crumb either. Each model has limitations and freedoms and not all model is for every cartoonist.

Community Comments

#1 L Taylor
October/16/2010
@ 7:38 am

Comics won’t die with newspapers, but I’m not so sure good comics won’t. A comic that can only exist off of merchandising will never have the character of the strips that could survive and thrive without it. The web is definitely the future of comics, if there is to be a future, but the model will have to be different than the one Kellet et al. are using for them to be as meaningful. My hope is that currently we are just in a growing phase and that within the next decade or so a model will emerge which bridges the gap. But if a comic like Calvin and Hobbes could not exist in the model, while certain other comics thrive which are mindless at best, then that model has some serious deficiencies in my mind. But then, my mind has its flaws too. I’ll just be honest though … it pains me to see some of the comics out there that are successful, while others struggle simply because they don’t fit the mold of most internet humor sites. It just feels wrong.

Anyway, thanks for tweeting this stuff! Was great to read about the speeches!

#2 Terry LaBan
October/16/2010
@ 11:46 am

@L Taylor A comic that can only exist off of merchandising will never have the character of the strips that could survive and thrive without it.

Merchandising has ALWAYS been a big part of the success of comics, particularly newspaper ones, and pretty much all successful strips have been heavily merchandised. Watterson’s creation was an anomaly and, without question, he left millions of dollars on the table because he didn’t want to lower himself to the level of shameless opportunists like Charles Schulz. Most cartoonists I know couldn’t afford to do that and wouldn’t want to.Quality and success are not mutually exclusive–a lot of good things aren’t successful, but most things that are successful are pretty good.

#3 Kris Straub
October/16/2010
@ 12:39 pm

Plus — and granted it is a similar case for comics in general — the content drives the merchandise. You can’t release “Werewolf Vampire Sex Murderers” as a webcomic and immediately start printing money. People have tried. Audiences are savvy and they don’t like being pandered to. The point is to build a devoted readership that, over time, will want merchandise related to what you’re producing.

#4 Tom Wood
October/16/2010
@ 12:52 pm

But then again –

http://www.werewolfvampiresexmurderers.com

is available!

#5 Corey Pandolph
October/16/2010
@ 1:17 pm

I’d rather stay drunk, make cartoons for fun and watch you all kill each other when the Internet breaks.

Nerds.

JOKES!

_CP

#6 Adam Casalino
October/16/2010
@ 3:26 pm

Does anyone know if the full speech is available somewhere? Perhaps the audio?

#7 L Taylor
October/16/2010
@ 3:38 pm

you’re right that merchandising has been a big part of many successful comics, but that’s not my point. I’m not actually against merchandising.

What I mean is this – a comic that requires merchandising to exist won’t have as much character. That’s not the same as saying merchandising kills character (although heavy merchandising does imo). Look at Foxtrot – it is merchandised, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t require it to exist. I could think of several other newspaper comics that fit that description as well. But currently every webcomic does. If you can’t sell tons of stuff, you can’t make a living solely off of your comic. In fact if you cant at least sell something, you cant make any money. Doesn’t there just seem to be something demeaning about that to both the cartoonist and the comic? Doesn’t the content itself merit profit? Giving into the freeloading spirit of the age just seems like a bad idea to me.

Btw, just to be clear, this isn’t a print v. web debate in my mind. It’s a debate about where comics need to go. As I said I think the web is the future of comics most likely, but I still think there needs to be a different model.

#8 Keith Brown
October/16/2010
@ 4:04 pm

Is it wrond that I’d kill to have folks want to buy my merhcandise? I’m just sayin’….

#9 Mike Peterson
October/16/2010
@ 5:10 pm

Having people buy your stuff is pretty key to capitalism in general. “Selling out” is a factor each content producer has to deal with internally.

Van Gogh stayed pure and died broke. Toulouse Lautrec sold posters. And Dali seems to have painted whatever he wanted and then done a lot of flamboyant marketing around it.

But I don’t think that Peter Max or Thomas Kinkade made a conscious choice to be commercially successful by creating a particular type of art that they felt was crap — I suspect they both enjoy the stuff they do and, like Dali, developed a talent for marketing it. It may be kitsch, but I think it’s probably very sincere kitsch.

And for every Thomas Kinkade making megabucks, there are a hundred thousand people peddling their art at the local flea market on weekends and doing a 9-to-5 job Monday through Friday because their sincere kitsch didn’t electrify the public.

Bottom line is, you create a cartoon you like, and, if it has that unpredictable “it,” you may be able to turn it into a living — if you also have the marketing savvy. And some luck. But, if the day comes when syndicates stop doing the marketing for you and newspapers stop paying for that kind of content, you’re going to have to find a money source yourself, and it isn’t going to be banner ads. It’s likely to be plush toys, T-shirts and comic collections.

It doesn’t have to be a cynical process and you don’t have to sell out. You just have to grab the lightning bolt and then hold on. Sincerely.

#10 Jason Holm
October/16/2010
@ 6:26 pm

Dave’s comic Sheldon survives on both advertising and merchandise. Except, look at what KIND of merchandise he’s selling: Books of his art (like Watterson did). Prints of his art. Original art. And way, way down at the bottom of his store, a few stickers and shirts.

The newspaper model is all about someone getting a paper to read the comic, accidentally seeing an ad, hopefully buying the product in the ad, so the advertiser buys more ads, and the newspaper buys more comics. Or so it had been in the past.

Basically, rather than Watterson funding his comic through merchandising (which once he owned the strip he could have been in complete control of) he instead was at the mercy of SPONSORSHIPS. IE: He couldn’t get away with something that would offend the advertisers, or by proxy, the readers who might decide to stop getting the paper and stop seeing the ads.

If you want to see comics go in the OPPOSITE direction, look at animated cartoons in the 80s, where advertising not only drove the art, but in some cases, the advertisers actually came in and modified stories to better advertise a product.

The third option is making people pay for the privilege of VIEWING the art itself. The same model the film and music industries are trying to cling to. And we see how successful THAT is going. The only reason there aren’t torrents of newspaper comics people can read online without having to buy the paper is that there aren’t any newspaper comics worth the trouble.

#11 Kris Straub
October/16/2010
@ 6:46 pm

“Doesn?t the content itself merit profit?”

I agree, but it’s been said before: it’s not like newspaper cartoonists get paid because their Work has Merit. Their presence in the paper means more eyes fall on advertising. That’s where the money comes from. It’s the same for webcomics. Once you pare away the differences in infrastructure, all comics work the same.

I am actually a non-typical case where only maybe 20% of my income is from merchandise — and most of my merch is book collections, not t-shirts with unrelated slogans. Most of my income is from advertising. I would prefer it to come from books and my audience though, because I have zero control over ad money.

And this is my sad thought about Watterson: I greatly respect his views on merchandising a work, but unfortunately, had he allowed for a little of it and sated that demand, I think Calvin’s legacy in the public eye would be something other than bootleg bumper stickers of him urinating on a Chevy logo.

#12 Keith Brown
October/16/2010
@ 7:33 pm

Have modern day newspapers ever polled their readers to gauge how much comics are a reason for buying the paper?
I’m sure it would rank right up there.

#13 Rob Tracy
October/16/2010
@ 9:24 pm

I can’t speak to drawing as I’m not an artist. But as a writer I feel compelled to write and tell stories in the same way I feel compelled to eat or drink every once in awhile. I did it before I started trying to make money on it and I’d continue to do it if I, for some reason I was unable to try and make money on it in the future. It’s a part of who I am. And I create what I love and tell the stories I want to tell and if the audience likes them; great. If not I still did what I wanted.

So I’m a little confused when people start talking about how something wouldn’t exist or someone wouldn’t do something if the circumstances weren’t exactly right. I guess not everyone feels like I do; and whether or not they do… what they do, comes down to a business decision.

I actually don’t see the act of making money as all that connected to the artistic side of things. It’s a little like scratching your head with your foot. They are connected, but there are better processes if you think about it a bit. When I’m thinking about how to make money at a con or sell a shirt or whatever I’m in a completely different head-space than when I’m writing.

Fortunately I enjoy both activities. Last week at NYCC was one of the most amazing weekends of my life. And other than constantly pitching my comics there was very little I did that had anything to do with them. It was all about hanging with like-minded people, trying to figure out what they like and then selling them what they wanted at a decent profit. You know; capitalism.

Arguing that the content itself merits profit seems kind of pointless since, in a free market economy (which we kinda have… sorta) you charge what the market will bear and you pay what you think something is worth. And right now, most comics are free for a reason. I say most because 300 or so syndicated strips that you pay for are FAR outstripped by the thousands upon thousands available for free. And they are free because the market will no longer bear paying for that type of content.

You can SAY it merits profit and from a moral perspective most will probably agree with you (including me) but the masses do what they want and if they can find a slightly less entertaining comic on line for free as opposed to paying for the best… well free has a lot of power.

If you have exceptional content I think (and this is just my opinion) that you can still go your own way on the merch thing. I mean, Sinfest is amazingly popular. According to his Project Wonderful numbers (admittedly no numbers are gospel) he’s averaging around 100k unique readers a day with over 250k page views. He’s got some ads on his pages and his Book Collections on sale through Amazon (some published by the author and at least one by Dark Horse) and that’s pretty much it. His store link is dead and I don’t recall ever hearing of Tatsuya Ishida attending a convention to sell merch. I’m not saying it didn’t happen; it just seems he’s made the choice to sell out just a little.

As opposed to others (and myself) who will sell anything and everything whether it’s related to my comics or not if it’s legal and makes a buck.

I guess my argument comes back to your statement about “character” that bothers me a little L Taylor. I really don’t think one is all that affected by the other. I like selling stuff related to my comic. I like meeting the fans and talking about the stories I’m telling. And if another author who has similar content decides he/she doesn’t want go that way as long as he/she is happy then that’s cool. I’ll probably make more money my way but that’s not why I’m doing it. And I certainly don’t agree that my comics’ character would suffer because I’ve made that choice.

Even if I could just write my comics and not go to cons or sell merch I probably would anyway. Maybe I’d do it less. I don’t know. But I like being out there and meeting people who like my work. And I like selling them things they want. Especially when they are related to my creations (I should say “our” creations as I couldn’t do it without Corey but you know what I mean). If you have to hustle and make your money that way instead of having a contract and sharing everything with an agent and a syndicate because the market has shifted I really don’t see what the big deal is. If you don’t want to do it; don’t. Life is full of choices.

And yes there is something to be said for not getting “overexposed” to the point where you start getting pop culture backlash. But don’t tell me my work lacks character because I like selling T-shirts and buttons. And if I never make any money off of the work and I have to work a crap job to support it (I do) then I’m still doing what I love. And I’m all right with that. That’s enough for me.

#14 Rob Tracy
October/16/2010
@ 9:37 pm

I tell you Keith. What I’m waiting for? I’m waiting for the day when CNN.com or HuffPost goes to Ishida or Jeph Jacques or Danielle Corsetto and offers them an on line co-publishing contract so they can do a comics section on their website.

Something like… comics published Mon-Wed-Fri on their regular site and Tue-Thur on CNN or whatever and added to the sites regular archive monthly. From a tech logistics point of view a total nightmare but I believe it would lead to big increases in audience for (both sites involved) whatever comics and other sites that partner up.

Like the comic Brad Guigar does.. “Courting Disaster” I think it’s called. Wouldn’t that be great published on Harmony.Com or something like that? It would all be about marrying up the right property with the right comic.

I honestly think most people who buy newspapers nowadays are doing so out of habit more than anything else. And I think the last thing a newspaper wants to do is to ask it’s readers to think about why they are buying the paper. Because I imagine quite a few readers would say “come to thing of it… why AM I buying this paper?”

#15 L Taylor
October/16/2010
@ 10:25 pm

Firstly, let me say that my original statement came off too strong. I don’t want to insult any cartoonist or their work, and that wasn’t my goal or point. What I mean is this – when an artist is paid for their actual content, they are more likely to make meaningful content. But when their content is forced to derive profit (I.e. Sell tshirts, plush dolls, etc.) they are more likely to make contrived content for that purpose, since that is the only way to make a living. So by the nature of it, it seems to me that getting paid for the content itself is better than getting paid for derivatives of the content. That’s all I meant about saying most successful web comics don’t have as much character to me. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I find it hard to believe that when your living depends upon selling things based upon your content, that doesn’t negatively affect your content. Anyway, I don’t mean to say web cartoonists aren’t as good or whatever. I just think the current model affords less opportunity to be superior.

So Kris, you’re right in one sense – the syndicates aren’t paying cartoonists because their work deserves it, they’re paying them because the comics bring in more revenue. But that doesn’t change the fact that the cartoonist can still make the content without having to worry about what kind of content they’re going to have to sell. I mean they still sell content, but the fact that it was even possible for Watterson to have the choice to only sell books and nothing else, and still make a good living, says to me that something about that model was and is good. It’s not just a difference in infrastructure, but a difference in motivation and opportunity.

I recognize the market in large part drives the model that works, but I still say giving away content for free is insulting to the cartoonist and their work. I don’t have a problem with people selling plush dolls or whatever else. The problem I’m having is when that is a requirement to any extent to make a living. Syndicates still paid the cartoonist for the content, regardless of their reasons. Many readers today pay nothing, and those that do pay, dont pay for the comic but for products. Something about that bugs me. Am I alone in that?

#16 Ted Rall
October/16/2010
@ 11:40 pm

Unless something dramatically unforeseen happens:

Print newspapers will continue to contract.

Online revenues will increase slowly (slowly because the Depression means few advertisers).

Despite the contraction, print revenues will still exceed online by crazy factors (currently over 100 to 1 for news).

#17 L Taylor
October/17/2010
@ 2:14 am

Ted, I’m sure you’ve talked of this before, but where do you personally see the future of comics being? Will syndicates shift their focus from newspaper to online venues or will print always be a contender? Curious of your input on the best future model.

#18 frank white
October/17/2010
@ 4:04 am

How many readers/pageviews do you need to sell just one piece of merchandise….a t shirt/mug/etc. Is there a formula for this kind of thing? Like…I dunno…..If you got 10,000 pageviews today then you’d be confident of selling five pieces of merch that day. I know some people will say it all depends on the quality of your webcomic but surely there is a constant, ie 2000 pageviews = 1 merch sale, and then the more quality your comic has , say 100,000 pageviews a day would equal 50 sales a day, conversely a small comic of 200 pageviews a day would take 10 days to make one sale.

#19 Terry LaBan
October/17/2010
@ 9:50 am

L Taylor’s distinction between getting paid for content and getting paid for merchandise is a false one–no one will buy merchandise for a strip whose content they don’t like. And the notion that syndicated cartoonists are free to create whatever they want because they don’t have to worry about money coming in is laughable–a glance at your local newspaper’s comics pages should disabuse you of that notion. The fact is, no comic will even BE syndicated today unless it appeals primarily to 60-year olds. And I say that as a syndicated cartoonist.
The fact is, you lose and gain something with every business model. The internet comics model will favor a certain sort of personality, just as the newspaper syndication model does. But making money is always a difficult and dirty business. Anyone who thinks there’s some ideal situation where an artist who wants to make a living off their art can just make love to their muse and never worry about business is kidding themselves.

#20 Terry LaBan
October/17/2010
@ 9:52 am

And by the way, Frank, there is a ratio…I’ve heard that, out of all your readers or people you contact, 2% will actually respond and/or give you money. And that’s considered pretty good.

#21 Rob Tracy
October/17/2010
@ 10:49 am

Frank, Howard Taylor of “Schlock Mercenary” did an open source talk a couple years ago that had something like the numbers you are looking for.

http://www.opensourcetv.tv/video/7.html

It’s a great vid. It’s really inspiring if you are thinking about getting into webcomics. And it’s also something of a garden path.

The numbers are his and correspond to his comic. I think they are a little different for every comic. And he’s been around over ten years. That’s a lot of time to build an audience.

Terry thank you for typing exactly what I was thinking when I read L Taylor’s reply. I would only add that since most comics are started as labors of love (anyone who thinks “I will start webcomic and become rich rich rich” won’t be able to do the thankless work in the beginning long term) the idea that they are being written specifically with an eye towards merchandising is a little silly. Almost all of the big webcomics that are successful have been around for years and most didn’t sell things for years.

“Questionable Content” for example has never sold anything but shirts. The author hasn’t even sold one collection of strips yet despite having been around for 7-8 years of comics already. I don’t think merchandising was on Jeph’s mind when he first put pen to paper.

But L Taylor you don’t have to apologize or anything man. I doubt anyone is offended. It’s all just talking and frankly good conversations to have.

Ted, I’m sure you’re right about that 100 to 1 ratio but from what I understand first, there are a lot fewer print only comics out there making a living than there are on the web (you can feel free to assume I know you will dispute that) and once you start adding in the costs of being in print…. syndicate… now it’s 50-1… lawyer and agent…. now it’s about 40-1…. and those are just the biggies off the top of my head…. I’m sure there are others that will wheedle that number down. No doubt print will still make more. But not the huge difference you imply I think.

#22 Scott Kurtz
October/17/2010
@ 12:01 pm

“Online revenues will increase slowly (slowly because the Depression means few advertisers).”

Ted’s back to talking out of his rear end after bailing on a live debate at the New York Comicon where the numbers clearly prove all his points to be quite incorrect and antiquated.

aaaaaaannnnnddddd SCENE.

#23 Ted Rall
October/17/2010
@ 1:10 pm

Scott: Without getting into the boring details here, your reaction to this scheduling fiasco has been unprofessional and rude. Remember, you’re the one who dropped the ball first, at SDCC. I was willing to “appear” at NYCC via Skype, but Brad turned me down. I remain ready, willing and able to have this debate. I read the Fleen report; you guys don’t understand enough about print to slag it. Which is why we probably ought to have a joint presentation rather than a debate.

L Taylor: I think comics will expand into any platform willing to have then. So yes on digital, yes on print, maybe more animation, plus stuff we don’t know about yet. Economically, it looks like the platform will determine the level of income, or class, of cartoon. Right now, for example, you make much more with a TV show on network than on, sat, Adult Swim. Similarly, newspaper print syndication will continue to be harder to break into, but pay better, than doing a webcomic. The Web is a flea market. Print is a boutique, and will become more so.

If you have massive, Watterson-like talent, you should pursue print syndication. If you don’t, online is more realistic–but you probably won’t earn a living.

The syndicates will exploit everything, but I think the future belongs to a new, smarter kind of syndicate that doesn’t exist yet.

Frank: I don’t think there are metrics that make sense. A lot of factors are necessary for successful merchandising–they don’t apply equally to all features.

Basically, Rob, I agree. The odds are longer with print syndication. The way I look at it, the money online is so piddling that it’s not worth the hard work needed to get it. But, hey, for those who live somewhere where $4000 a year is a living (Myanmar?), why not?

#24 Scott Kurtz
October/17/2010
@ 1:21 pm

Ted,

It’s ironic that you’re calling me rude and unprofessional after informing us days before our debate that you were double booked and would, in fact, not be showing up.

Unlike the proposed San Diego debate, which never made it beyond the “what if” stages, I have the emails to prove that you were aware and agreed to the time, date and moderator of the NYC debate.

You could not appear via Skype because we were told by the convention promoters that wi-fi at the Javitz center was expensive and unreliable.

You can say you’re willing to debate online, but the moment anyone meets you face to face it’s all smiles, platitudes, pretending you don’t understand or just not showing at all.

Bottom line: the print world is falling down around your ears and ONLINE you’re still claiming it’s doing better than digital. It’s pointless and a waste of time to attempt to debate you in person amidst the rubble.

#25 frank white
October/17/2010
@ 1:34 pm

Thanks Rob , Terry and Ted for the info and links.
Also Ted is this true because you might know as you worked at a syndicate…that the 6000 or so submissions they say they get each year does not really reflect 6000 – 1 against for a comic strip cartoonist as the 6000 comprises of editorial cartoonists and columnists as well. If this is true shouldn’t the syndicates have seperate figures of submissons for each of these three categories or is it some kind of method meant to discourage people so much from submitting that only the best will persevere?

#26 Ted Rall
October/17/2010
@ 2:13 pm

Whatever, Scott.

Frank: don’t obsess over those submission stats. Yes, syndicated get thousands of submissions annually. The vast majority are comic strips. But only perhaps 10 or 20 a year have any basic level of competence. The rest are unbelievably, ridiculously, bad, so bad that no one here would want to see them in print.

The truth is, the odds are pretty damned good. For those 10 or 20, usually all that’s missing is good editing and development to turn a competent strip into a salable one.

#27 Corey Pandolph
October/17/2010
@ 2:32 pm

The more things suck, the more things stay the same.

#28 L Taylor
October/17/2010
@ 4:24 pm

Terry, just for the record, I didn’t say syndicated cartoonists are free to create whatever they want. There are restrictions on all sides to be sure. But I still think the restrictions afforded by syndicates is more freeing than the restrictions currently afforded by the webcomic model. Not all of it has to do with the model though – much is about the audience. Regardless, my point was that syndicates still pay the cartoonist for the content – webcomic readers don’t and often they don’t pay for anything, which is a huge insult to the art and the artist, and I’m amazed that so many people out there don’t seem to care. While I do like the idea of “making love” to the muse (nice imagery btw) I’m not completely naive. But I still say the chances are better currently outside of webcomics. At least that way I’m not giving my hard work to tons of thankless people for free.

Ted, thanks for the thoughts. I hope a smarter syndicate emerges soon.

#29 Ted Rall
October/17/2010
@ 6:49 pm

The main reason there’s a print v. web thing is that cartoonists have different goals.

For example, like L Taylor I find the need to tailor my cartoon’s subject matter to the merchandise constricting. If you can’t draw about anything you want, and earn a living if it’s good, how is the web liberating? In that sense syndication is less stifling.

#30 Rob Tracy
October/17/2010
@ 7:03 pm

L Taylor… Randy Milholland of “Something Positive” rather famously received enough income from one donation drive to quit his job and draw his comic full time for one year. He’s hasn’t had to go back to work yet.

I’ve been doing comics for less than a year (we’re at about 100 strips now… a full year collection for us would be 156 at our update schedule for Remedy) and even I’ve received a couple donations.

I have a friend who has been doing comics about the same amount of time and they received enough in donations to repair the artists computer when the motherboard fried. From one reader.

You keep saying there are restrictions but to my mind a webcomic doesn’t really answer to anyone but the creators and readers. What could be more free than that? And if there is anything that fits the definition more of “paying for the content” than a donation directly to the artist I can’t think of it. Webcomic readers do pay for content. They just do it differently than syndicates.

If you really think of webcomics readers as the people you will be giving your hard work to, “thanklessly” and for free then you are right when you say you don’t belong in webcomics. Because that sort of “hand, out” thinking will never work with an on-line audience.

Ted I really don’t think you know what the money on-line is. And frankly since you refused to take Ryan up on his offer to review Blind Ferret’s financials I’m pretty sure there are some sort of internet rules precluding you from making that argument at all. Flag on the play sir. Just sayin’.

Last week at NYCC I invested a sizable chunk of money to exhibit there. I figured it was money I was dumping down a hole but worth it for the exposure. As a relatively new comic company with very few readers I expected to walk out of there without recovering any of my costs.

Well Scott was two tables away from me. He can probably tell you how busy we were. From five minutes after the door opened Sunday morning (our best day) we were mobbed for five and a half hours. We had to get Corey (my artist) food so he could keep drawing. He couldn’t even leave to go to the bathroom. People were struggling through the crowd just to see what we were doing. We went through almost 300 business cards by Saturday night and made up 250 more for Sunday; we had 18 left at the end of the day. We had repeat customers come back every day of the con.

And when I left there I had nearly recovered all my costs, my artist paid for his whole trip with the exception of his meals and we made a lot of new friends and fans.

I mean I know this sounds really earnest and heart on my sleeve and everything. But I’ve seen it. The money is there Ted. Like all things though, you just have to go out there and get it. I heard the Cyanide and Happiness guys sold over 450 books in three days. If their profit margin is anything like what I’ve heard for book orders of the size they probably placed that’s a hell of a lot more than your $4,000 a year. At just seven dollars in profit per book that’s more than $3,000 in just three days.

This isn’t drilling for oil or gold prospecting. People who enjoy your content want to support it financially. I know because that’s the way I felt before I got into it; back when I was buying shirts from “Questionable Content” and making donations “Something Positive.”

#31 Mike McKeenan
October/17/2010
@ 7:14 pm

I love Sheldon but I don’t know if I buy a lot this reasoning. It seems pretty self-congratulatory and sour-grapes.

My favorite Web comics artist is Nicholas Gurewich and I don’t think he’s very interactive other than some interviews.

Interactiviity may help, but the content will decide what surfaces to the top. I don’t think Kellett’s arguing that, but I do think Calvin & Hobbes and Crumb would have been discovered even in this splintered media world.

What do publishers pay for royalties on books? Is it more than 50% of the price? That would surprise me. Music labels? Do script writers get 50% of the profits from a film? Maybe fine art galleries are a better example? I honestly don’t know.

#32 Scott Kurtz
October/17/2010
@ 9:44 pm

In all the time I’ve known Dave, and in all the times I’ve talked this business with him or heard him talk this business with others, I’ve never heard him imply that the content needs to serve the merchandise.

There is the act of creating comics and the act of making a living at comics. The two aren’t mutually exclusive but that doesn’t mean that one has to serve the other at the expensive of it’s own worth.

I know that Dave and I have personally discussed how important it is not to craft your comic to serve merchandising. And how doing so can lead to the cheapening of your work and the disillusionment of your audience. Not to mention a lot of unsold merchandise.

#33 L Taylor
October/18/2010
@ 4:44 am

It’s possible the money is there in webcomics. I don’t know really since I’ve not seen independent studies or anything. But I think we definitely agree that if you want to be successful at that you will have to be very much a business man. You have to build relationships with your readers in some way. You’ve got to get out there at conventions and other things. While this is certainly subjective, that’s one thing I don’t like. I only want to deal with the art of my comics. I don’t want to be constantly watching business accounts, etc. Of course I don’t expect everyone to feel that way. Just my personal feeling.

Still, from a more objective point of few, I don’t see how someone can keep all of that business stuff from influencing their work. It may not be a conscious “I gotta make a good tshirt worthy slogan in this comic” type of thing, but I still thing it will be there.

Now if donations can make people a living, that’s awesome, and I’m happy for those who can or have. But I’m not sure how reliable that is. And here’s the kicker for me – there will still likely be a majority of readers who are reading the comic without being willing to pay a cent. Let’s say a person has 50,000 hits a day. If people donate, how many of those 50,000 will it be? Probably less than 10%. So 90% are not willing to donate. Its still enough to make a living perhaps, but the fact is you’re still giving your comic to a lot of people who really don’t respect you or your work. I don’t want to oversimplify, and I’m just pulling an educated guess with those numbers, but you get my point. Perhaps I’m still just being cynical in all of this. I don’t want to be, but that’s just how it all strikes me.

I’m not trying to tell anyone to not try webcomics. That model seems to work just fine for Dave and others, and that’s great for them. But I still don’t think it is the future of comics. I’m not saying the traditional syndicate form is either. But it’s the former notion I was responding to in the first place.

#34 Mike Peterson
October/18/2010
@ 5:08 am

When I was a freshman in college, I complained one day to someone that the guy who ran the local coffeehouse never asked me to play there. His response was, “Have you asked him to put you on the bill?” I hadn’t. So I asked him and the next weekend, I played my first set there.

It’s all well and good to love your art for its own sake, but, if you aren’t willing to step up and do a little marketing, you won’t get anywhere — and that’s not just with 50,000 people on the web, either. You have to market yourself to get a syndicate contract, and you have to hang in there marketing even after that. In this world, “You don’t ask, you don’t get.”

As far as the question of how many of the 50,000 viewers donate, I don’t understand the point. Would you open a store with the idea that everyone who walked by was going to come in and purchase something? Why does everyone who stops by your comic have to buy something? If 1 percent (10% — Holy cow!) dig out their wallets, it’s better to have 50,000 viewers than 50 viewers.

I think the real web v. print problem — the tiny stone in the shoe that makes people so grumpy — is that you can’t simply take a strip that works in print and transplant it to the web and have a good outcome, any more than a pop star can expect to step onto the stage at the Grand Ole Opry and get the same reception as a dyed-in-the-wool country artist, even a little-known one. It’s not a matter of better or worse. It’s a matter of happening to be the kind of thing that works in that venue.

#35 L Taylor
October/18/2010
@ 5:52 am

The point Mike is that everyone who walks into your store IS taking something. This only problem is, the vast majority are only taking the free samples. Imagine a store where 90% of daily customers only came for the samples. I’d feel rather irritated to watch that happen every day.

#36 Frank White
October/18/2010
@ 6:36 am

Thanks Ted for your info, that’s really helpful and enlightening.

#37 Lucas Turnbloom
October/18/2010
@ 10:18 am

Just out of curiosity, since Dave crafted his talk as a “response to Bill Watterson?s ‘the cheapening of comics,’ speech” does anyone know if Watterson showed up?

#38 Scott Kurtz
October/18/2010
@ 10:49 am

L Taylor,

You have to be a businessman either way. If you’re going to enter a multi-year partnership with a major syndicate and discuss things like revenue share, ownership, licensing and distribution it’s irresponsible of you to just throw your hands up, reaffirm your role as “the artist” and leave all that icky business stuff up to the bean counters.

I would argue that you have to be MORE of a businessman if you go the syndication route.

It’s infuriating to hear over and over how syndication means never having to hustle or deal with the business side of things. The time to create and just be pure and artistic was college. Now it’s the real world and you have to actually nut-up and make a living. And that means either finding a patron or becoming a businessman.

#39 Norm Feuti
October/18/2010
@ 11:06 am

@Lucas

Bill Watterson was not in attendance … unless he was wearing a disguise or something.

#40 Jason Holm
October/18/2010
@ 11:48 am

“Still, from a more objective point of few, I don?t see how someone can keep all of that business stuff from influencing their work.”

Anyone who makes a living at art has to. Just because you have a business partner (ala Khoo) or a syndicate doesn’t mean they’re just going to let you do your thing and never mention business with you in regards to your creation. If they don’t they’re a bad business partner and you’re going to be broke.

Watterson always talked about the syndicates influence on his strip. Read one of the anniversary books where he has commentaries on some of his favorites — he actually makes strips referencing arguments he had with them.

The only way for business NOT to influence your work is to do it as an income-free hobby.

#41 Lee Leslie
October/18/2010
@ 4:01 pm

To say that print cartoonists don’t worry about what their audience wants (and panders to it), is ignoring the massive amount of pet and old person cartoons in papers. There’s always a level of looking at what’s marketable when attempting to bring in readers.

#42 Dave Kellett
October/18/2010
@ 4:30 pm

Thanks for the kind words about the talk, Alan. The nice responses that day made me feel like it was worth it, stayin’ up ’til 4AM to rework the speech.

#43 L Taylor
October/18/2010
@ 4:45 pm

I don’t want to keep dragging on too much about this, but I have enjoyed the discussion! I’m guessing there will just be some disagreement here, and that’s actually good – most things that are successful thrive off of disagreement and conflict in some form.

Just a couple of final thoughts. Scott and Jason, obviously there will be a degree of business anytime you make money, and undoubtedly that will affect the cartoonist and their work. But I find it difficult to believe that a syndicated cartoonist will have to be as much of a business minded person as a webcomic cartoonist. Now, for many of the successful webcomics, perhaps they actually enjoy that and even find it freeing to do their own business, which is great for them. But enjoy it or not, I still can’t help but feel they have to be more business minded. That’s not to say a syndicated cartoonist can’t be business minded, just that they don’t have to be as much as the webcomic cartoonist. And as long as that is the case (assuming of course that I’m correct), webcomics will be more stifled by business.

One quick question – if webcomics can be so successful currently, to the extent that syndicated comics have been, why havent syndicates jumped into online comics? That is, why haven’t they begun an online division that focuses solely on making successful webcomics?

I’ll reiterate that this is not a print v. web debate in my mind (though of course it always turns into that). It’s just about the future of comics. I still think the current webcomic model will not be what does the job ultimately, though it may be very important for bridging the divide that currently exists. I can only hope that happens sooner rather than later.

#44 Mike Peterson
October/18/2010
@ 5:00 pm

“The point Mike is that everyone who walks into your store IS taking something.”

Reminds me of a Nasreddin Hodja story, which is appropriate since the cartoonist group named for him just had their annual convention in Turkey.

The Hodja was walking through a marketplace when he heard an argument at one of the food booths. There, he found the proprietor beating a beggar. As he approached, the crowd pulled the two apart and they appealed to him for justice.

“He was standing, smelling the steam from my rich stew, but he bought nothing!” the stall owner said. “I want to be paid for my cooking!”

“I have nothing,” the beggar said. “How can I pay him?”

“Then let him be beaten, like any thief,” the stall owner said.

“Stop,” the Hodja said. “I will pay you.” And he out a small purse of coins, which made the stall owner’s eyes glitter.

The Hodja held up the purse and shook it three times. “There,” he said. “The sound of coins, to pay for the smell of food!”

#45 Paul Fell
October/18/2010
@ 5:52 pm

Following these interminable web/print discussions has made me curious (and also hungry).

Now that I’m back from my snack, here’s the question… how many of you on this thread are web cartoonists and how many are print cartoonists? Secondly, how many can say their primary source of income is from cartooning, either web or print?

I’ll go first. I am a full-time print cartoonist, and that is the sole source of my income.

I know what Ted does and what Scott does. Next?

#46 Ted Rall
October/18/2010
@ 5:53 pm

L Taylor asks:

One quick question ? if webcomics can be so successful currently, to the extent that syndicated comics have been, why havent syndicates jumped into online comics? That is, why haven?t they begun an online division that focuses solely on making successful webcomics?

Partly because the syndicated have been kinda dumb about the web. Partly because there isn’t real money to be earned.

#47 Rob Tracy
October/18/2010
@ 7:52 pm

I write three webcomics, publish four. I’m working on a print comic as well although still looking for a publisher for that. If I had to live off the income from my comics I’d be dead right now. But we’re less than a year old. I’m fairly confident significant updates will be needed to those statements over the next few years.

L Taylor… My artist, when he works on my comics we work together, as a team. When he works on his comic he does whatever the heck he wants to do.

I handle all the business for the company.

#48 Tony Piro
October/18/2010
@ 11:45 pm

@L Taylor

You ask why syndicates don’t jump into webcomics.

First, I think a lot of the power the syndicates have in the newspaper world doesn’t translate online. You can have the largest ad budget in the world, but it’s no match for quality content and word of mouth support.

Second, even if some are making money online, for most creators it’s not enough to split that money with a syndicate. Especially when it’s not clear what advantage the syndicates offer (see the point above).

It will be interesting to see if these change as the online comic readership grows.

#49 Scott Kurtz
October/19/2010
@ 12:10 am

@L Taylor,

“One quick question ? if webcomics can be so successful currently, to the extent that syndicated comics have been, why havent syndicates jumped into online comics?”

The syndicates have tried their hands at online comics. They put their syndicated features online and try to support it with advertising and selling of merchandise. I’m not sure what their revenue streams are like from online endeavors but I would assume nothing comparable to what they earn through existing channels.

There are probably a couple factors at work here:

1) The syndicates are still learning their way around the web. Most syndicate websites are horribly designed with terrible user interface. The strips are hard to read, the archives difficult to navigate. Each feature has the same templated page. Nothing is unique or branded. Most of them are overloaded with run of network ads.

2) I imagine the syndicates have to make simultaneous online pushes with all of their features, without playing favorites. So even the most savvy ad team can’t start forging targeted partnerships with a handful of strips.

For example, maybe an ad guy can set up a great online campaign between Tender Vittles and Get Fuzzy. A big ad buy, plus extra pay for custom artwork by the creator. I big win for the creator of Get Fuzzy and the syndicate. But what about the other cartoonists who didn’t benefit? How unhappy are they going to be?

For this reason I think the syndicates are stuck with run-of-network ads across the entire suite of their features. Run-of-network ads don’t pay much.

3) Don’t forget that a lot of syndicated creators are still convinced that scarcity can continue to be a factor in their revenue and blame the net for devaluing the value of what they can get paid by newspapers for their feature. So each syndicate probably has a handful of creators who hate the idea entirely.

I think that a lot of syndicated cartoonists are free to develop their own online efforts. And I wish more of them would take those first steps into developing their own websites and online audiences. I think that a couple of top-tier features could band together and hire an ad guy to really pursue good targeted ads for them.

Of course, they might owe the syndicate a cut of those revenue streams, but maybe not. Depends on their contracts.

#50 Mike Peterson
October/19/2010
@ 4:50 am

1. Syndicates are distributors. They know how to sell to editors. But they’re not marketers on a consumer level. They don’t often get into branding until a strip has already caught fire. They aren’t experts on individual sales to consumers. It’s a different business.

2. There have been attempts at centralized marketing of web strips — many of them. Big Panda springs to mind, mostly because its demise was kind of spectacular while the others just softly faded away. Keenspot survives, but, overall, the results have not been enough to draw outsiders into the fray.

3. They have. The result is Comic Sherpa. See (2) above.

4. As Scott notes, there isn’t much incentive for artists to split profits with a syndicate. Look, if you’re one of the giants, you already know how to do the marketing part as well and maybe better than they do. And if you’re one of the comics that is barely making money but not a giant, you can’t afford any untargeted overhead. There are ways of moving up that ladder, but you’re better off spending your money going to conventions and buying banner ads on compatible sites to pitch your own title than giving it to some other guy who will do the same things but, to cite Scott again, not solely on your behalf.

#51 Paul Fell
October/19/2010
@ 8:13 am

Just as I suspected. Lots of fanboys, few professional cartoonists.

#52 Mike Peterson
October/19/2010
@ 8:32 am

“Just as I suspected. Lots of fanboys, few professional cartoonists.”

Yeah, well, if you’re still hungry, I’ve got something right here.

#53 Paul Fell
October/19/2010
@ 9:07 am

Oops. I hit a nerve. Better run and hide.

#54 August J. Pollak
October/19/2010
@ 10:47 am

I tell you Keith. What I?m waiting for? I?m waiting for the day when CNN.com or HuffPost goes to Ishida or Jeph Jacques or Danielle Corsetto and offers them an on line co-publishing contract so they can do a comics section on their website.

I don’t ever see this happening*. An independendent webcomic can’t also be dependent.

I’m not trying to spout fortune cookie lines here; I just mean that webcomics thrive largely through being a medium that doesn’t have a lot of editorial restrictions; being run on a major mainstream media site doesn’t seem very different than being run in a newspaper: the editors are still going to tell you F-words and sex talk won’t play in Peoria. A “CNN co-publishing contract” means CNN will want a say in what their reputation is being staked on here. If you think one of the largest media brands in the world is just going to hand anyone, be they web artist, writer, Nobel Laurate or evangelist, the keys and say “have fun” then you’re putting your justifiable admiration for Corsetto’s talent over an unjustifiable naivete.

And as far as the Huffington Post goes, well, seriously, dude, Google the Huffington Post. Their business model is that their contributors are paid nothing. Not a metaphor there: they pay you zilch. Zero. Hope your landlord takes “exposure” as payment. HuffPo is EVERYTHING that is wrong with the future of online content being profitable for creators… unless your name is Arianna Huffington.

* Okay, “never” is a word I’d ultimately have to eat. A better way to say this is, I don’t see it being viable, at least right now. The closest example I can think to your ideal here might be SuperDeluxe, which was an online content portal owned by Turner Broadcasting but with its own name and separation from their other properties so that things like Warner Bros. and Cartoon Network didn’t get any stigma of the incredibly adults-only and mostly-independent-for-the-creators content on the SuperDeluxe branded site. Unfortunately, SuperDeluxe hemorrhaged money and died in less than two years.

#55 August J. Pollak
October/19/2010
@ 10:55 am

Actually, I feel very stupid now having written all that and completely forgetting Salon. Until about a year ago, Salon.com had a steady roster of 4-5 alternative cartoonists with exclusive online contracts. They were print cartoonists and Salon effectively had if not exclusive rights, first-print rights for online. They’ve had to reduce that to just one now (Tom Tomorrow) but I think it fits the model you were saying. Of course we’re talking Salon.com, not CNN.com.

#56 Rob Tracy
October/19/2010
@ 10:57 am

Oh no. Someone on the internet doesn’t think I’m a professional. Whatever shall I do?

Can we get over the sarcasm now? Maybe get back to the actual discussion?

#57 Rob Tracy
October/19/2010
@ 11:36 am

August, amongst the examples you cited I can also tell you that my company was hired (for a pittance I’ll admit but at this stage in the game I have no problem with that) to do a comic for a blog on ZDNet and we’ve been asked to do more.

While the comic was fashioned for the article content and the standards of the site itself (and honestly that was way more restrictive than I’m used to and pretty much an every day occurrence if you are working for newspapers I imagine) it made me think about how sites could use comics to increase traffic the same way newspapers use them to increase readership.

If I knew exactly how it was going to shake out I’d be a visionary and not just some dude. But I do think that as viewership shifts from movie theaters, TV, radio and newspapers to the internet we will see more and more of this type of packaging of different media types at one place.

I could be wrong. It’s speculation about the future really so it’s worth what you pay for it but that is the way I see things going.

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