So I read Mike Dawson’s post about how his sales numbers have been steadily dropping book by book and his frustrations about that. Dawson is much more successful than I am, but I could easily sympathize with his situation. Abhay Khosla responded to Dawson’s post. The tone was snarky, as many people pointed out. Yet he approached Dawson’s problem from a business angle. Dawson followed up with his own post. He obviously was offended by Khosla’s tone since he says he refuses to read Khosla’s own follow up. But I have to say Khosla’s second post (which also responds to this) is much more lucid than his first. Still, he equates being a decent human being with sugarcoating things and claims to be a writer and yet says he has no control over the tone of what he writes . Yet while Khosla sounds very immature, his perspective is an important one because it reflects the business reality of trying to get an audience. The problem is, the business reality is just one reality. And my question is, is it the reality we have to adopt in order to sell books?
I create comics to explore the medium and to express ideas, as I think Mike Dawson does. The goal is to make a connection with a reader. That is the artistic reality. We are creating vessels of communication that are hopefully subtle instruments that will find their way into sympathetic hands.
The business reality is about numbers. You have so much product selling for so much to a certain number of people. It is not about subtly or emotion. It’s about moving product. If things don’t move, then you’re not doing it right. It’s a do or die, black-and-white mentality.
For most of us artists, the business reality doesn’t come easily. If it did, we’d be in business, not in art. This isn’t a new observation by any means, but this current internet back an forth just gives new examples of this conflict.
Which brings me back to my question. Are we artists just hiding from reality when we say we don’t like the business reality? Are we the ones being immature? Or are we just not cut out for it, whether due to personality or preference, and what we need to do is find other people to market our work? Or is there some other option?
All this strikes home for me because I spent eight years on Carnivale and I can’t sell it for the life of me. Chris Butcher bought a copy at TCAF. (Thanks, Chris!) That’s about it. I’ve sent it around to publishers. No response. Not even a rejection e-mail. My wife took it around to people at TCAF. A lot of them said it looked like a great book, but nothing came of it after that. To be honest, I haven’t done much follow-up. I just can’t bring myself to do it. I’ve sent copies to various stores. None of the stores will now get back to me. I’ve tried contacting them various times and I have received no response. Instead of keep trying, I just feel like giving up and getting back to the (literal) drawing board. I have also sent Carnivale out to various review sites. None of them have done a review. I don’t think there’s some sinister cabal against me, though in my more depressed moments I’ve gone there. Maybe my book just sucks. It’s an odd book, but I don’t think so. But maybe it just isn’t on par with other books out there. Really, it’s hard for me to judge anymore. But really, I am just no good at pushing my own work. It seems somehow rude to me. Bugging publishers, book stores, and reviewers makes me feel like a creepy narcissist. And obviously, this feeling, this gut level reaction against the act of selling my own creations, keeps me from being able to see things from a clear-eyed business reality perspective.
Comics is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve taught high school and community college. I’ve done Aikido. I’ve been a parent. Comics is the hardest. But for most years, I was just focused on the art side of it. Now, it’s the business side that’s becoming my even more spectacular failure.
In my weaker moments, I blame the state of comics in the U.S. I’ve written about this before, but when I was in high school and college I wrote a lot of poetry. It was my main means of self expression. It was important for me and a good vent for my emotions, but the poetry itself wasn’t that great. And yet, I sent my work out to only two publications, both local to the town I was living in, and I got published by one of them and even asked to do a reading. On my second try I was given an audience. Nothing even remotely like this has happened to me in comics. My business plan for comics was to create a good enough work that I’d be picked up by a publisher. That hasn’t happened. Is it the publishers? The work? Or my lack of sales ability?
When I first starting putting my work out there in 1996 I would get rejection letters. Long ones actually. (These days I get nothing. Absolutely nothing.) The rejection was disappointing sure, but I was just starting out. My attitude was that I needed to focus on my art, get better at drawing, better at pacing, have more fully realized characters, etc. And I realize that this is still my attitude. When a work doesn’t get picked up by a publisher or sell, I think that I just have to get better. I think that this is absolutely the right mentality, but it means that my focus is not on the business reality.
And you know, I just don’t want that focus. I hate keeping track of what stores have my books and how many copies. I hate watching bleary-eyed con goers pass by my table. I hate trying to write solicitations for my work that describe it in glowing terms.
Which means something has to change. In terms of business, I’ve been basically doing things the same way for years. I’ve added more web presence, like a tumblr account, and I’ve tried harder to do consignment, but I don’t like it and it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. So it seems silly to keep doing it.
So then should I just create my comics and forget the business aspect? Should I just try to be happy with making my little stories with no-one to read them. My poetry satisfied me in this way. I was able to get out my emotions on paper and that was enough. But it really isn’t enough for me now. I want to communicate, which means I need people to communicate with. So how to do that?
Maybe I should just learn new skills. Maybe there’s a way to market my work that feels better to me and can actually be successful. The problem is, I don’t know what this would look like. I guess I could read some books. But part of me feels that the more time I devote to this the less time I have to create art. And I have a job, and I’m a husband, a father, a state park volunteer, and a student and occasional teacher of Aikido. I don’t have a lot of extra time. I want to spend that time on the art I have devoted myself to. Still, maybe I just have to bite the bullet if I want to actually be read.
But then I think I just need a change of venue. Carnivale is wordless. Maybe it could be published in France. I’ve always liked and often preferred European graphic novels. Maybe it’s the market for me.
Then there’s the idea of getting an agent. A lot of book publishers will only look at a work if it’s submitted by an agent. Obviously, I’d need to see if an agent would be willing to represent me. Also, I’m not sure Carnivale is the book to start this venture with. I think more straight-forward fiction would be better. Still, it’s a potential idea to explore.
All in all, I want to do things differently. The Dawson post and the discussion surrounding it just helped confirm this for me. I need to face reality, but that doesn’t mean embracing the reality Khosla advocates. But we’ll see how it goes.