I wanted to be an artist but the world tells me I need to be a businessman

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.

  11 comments for “I wanted to be an artist but the world tells me I need to be a businessman

  1. August 8, 2014 at 5:49 am

    Hi Nick, found your essay through the Comics Reporter.

    I wanted to tell you first that I checked out the intro to Carnival and it looks great. I hope to purchase it soon.

    The other thing I wanted to tell you is that there’s nothing wrong with you. Yes, there are people who can be good artists and good business people – just as there are people who are good writers and successful self-publishers.

    But for every one of those people, there are at least dozens who are good artists or authors but not business people. And for that reason, there is nothing wrong with looking for an agent or publicist to partner with.

    I am neither, but I can make a recommendation. Feel free to contact me if you like. Or, if you are in the process of looking yourself, be sure to use the resource of Editors & Predators at pred-ed.com, because sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

    Good luck!

    • August 8, 2014 at 1:33 pm

      Thanks. Yeah, what I was trying to express is that I’ve been half-heartedly trying to do something I have no skills in, promoting myself. I just need to either really give myself over to it and learn, or be honest with myself that it’s not going to happen and try another approach.

  2. August 8, 2014 at 7:04 am

    Don’t give up. Sorta in the same boat as you, but you are working much much harder than I am. Your art is great, and your stories seem modern. I dont think you should give it up, but finding your right audience is the key, and so so so hard to do. I am not much of a reader of graphic novels so I dont really have much to say about it. I have tried to pick them up, I just cant get into them. But it seems you have all the elements there to make a great one.

  3. August 8, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Hey, Nick–thanks for stating clearly and calmly some of the things I wish I’d been able to say in my original response to Abhay (and thanks for linking to my response).

    I’m completely unfamiliar with your work, but I just looked through the intro and first few pages of chapter one in Carnivale, and it’s really great stuff. I’m excited to get my print copy.

    I hope you find a way to do what you want to do with your art. I’m excited to see it, whatever form it might take.

    Thanks!

    • August 8, 2014 at 1:38 pm

      Thanks. Your copy is on its way.

  4. August 8, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Hi Nick, great essay. I know you from APE, back in the old days. I like what I’ve seen of your comics. I’m not exactly in a position to give you advice, since I’m not a cartoonist superstar myself, but I can tell you that I feel like what has made me improve as a cartoonist over the years and build a modest audience is that I have befriended a bunch of super-talented cartoonists, and many of them have been very honest and direct when commenting on my work, and what they like, and what they don’t like. Also, I’ve been influenced by what they’re doing, and their aesthetic has rubbed off on me, to some extent, which made me a better artist, I believe.

    • August 8, 2014 at 1:37 pm

      I used to be part of a group like that, with Lark Pien, Gene Yang, Derek Kirk Kim, and Jesse Hamm, but we’ve all moved away and I’ve kind of lost touch. But maybe it’s time to reach out again.

  5. August 8, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    Shoot me an email.

  6. August 14, 2014 at 1:30 am

    Hey Nick, good thoughts. I totally relate to what you’re saying. Comics are so often a message in a bottle.

    I recall discussing this with Indy Kelleigh back in ’97. I asked him how many readers he’d need to have to justify making comics for free. I think he said “none”; that though he’d enjoy countless readers, the act of making comics was reward enough. I was more mercenary: my magic number was 2,000 regular readers. I think that’s still what I’d require. And I’ve never even come close to that number (apart from jobs I’ve done for Marvel & DC, which I didn’t write and which don’t feel “mine” in a way that satisfies me). I don’t publish anymore, nor table at conventions, because it was too great a hassle for too little reward. I do earn my living from commercial illustration, but that doesn’t leave me with enough time and energy to do comics. So, 20 years on, I’m no closer to my dream of drawing (my) comics for a living — in fact, I’m farther, because 20 years ago I at least had enough free time to do the occasional mini.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I’ve had book offers from publishers, but with too little money attached to give the work the time it would require. Then there’s the Emily Dickinson route of growing roses for their own sake in a private garden, to someday find their audience… yet I lack the time to do even that.

    I will say that you do good work and always have, and that the obstacle to your success isn’t your skill but rather the tastes of the marketplace. Too many tons of work clearly inferior to yours have been published successfully to think otherwise.

    I had a discussion with a writer a few years ago who said,”You know what? Screw it. I should just pander and make a fortune, earn enough to do what I want on the side. What’s hot right now? Vampire cave women? I should get on a bandwagon and cash in.” He was half kidding, but now he’s earning a fortune doing mainstream stuff, and he has projects on the side. One wonders of that’s the answer. Some pseudonymous cash-grab, followed by earnest vanity projects….

    Can you draw cute vampires?

  7. August 14, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    Thanks, Jesse.

    Yeah, I’ve been doing the con thing for too long now. I just did SPX last year and the TCAF this year, and while a change of venue was fun, they weren’t any more effective at getting readers than the APE. So it’s a lot of time, energy, and money for something that’s not that rewarding.

    And I can’t draw cute for the life of me. But my daughter is ten-years-old and I’m toying with ideas for a young adult story. Still, there’s no guarantee it’d go anywhere.

    I was wondering if you were at work on a comic, and I guess not. I’d still love to see more comics work from you. Even if it’s when we’re 70 years old.

  8. September 13, 2014 at 6:16 am

    If there’s a YA or middle school graphic novel that you can create with sincerity, rather than with cynicism, DO IT. Because YA/MS graphic novels is a vibrant field right now, and that makes a big difference.

    I spent many years doing political cartoons (still do them, actually), and I think I got pretty good at them. But I got rejection letter after rejection letter – “we love your stuff, but we don’t think we can market it” was the gist of more than one rejection. It seemed hopeless that I’d ever even earn a living.

    Then, for the fun of it, I started doing an adventure webcomic with an 11-year-old protagonist. I didn’t even know I was making a kid’s book, since my imagined audience is always myself. But when I got far enough along with it, the difference was night and day. It was the difference between working in a dynamic, growing field where publishers actively want new projects, versus working in a dying field (in my case, newspaper cartooning) where the number of available slots shrinks every year. Doors opened, things happened. I didn’t get rich or have a best-seller, but I did get published. I was no longer battering my head against a steel wall. (Also, I began to read YA and MS graphic novels more, and I found out that there’s actually some great cartooning going on there.)

    It’s no good deliberately trying to sell out, since the vampire novel of a sell-out won’t be as good as the vampire novel of someone who sincerely loves vampires. But if there’s a YA or MS book you want to do, I would recommend prioritizing that project over other projects. You might not get published – the odds are always daunting, in cartooning like in other art forms – but it definitely won’t be hopeless.

    I’m no expert, but if you have any questions that I might be able to help with, feel free to email me. I’m really enjoying “Carnivale,” btw. Great work.

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