Advice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience
I’ve been publishing comics for coming on twenty years now. It’s hard to pinpoint a start-date, as like many cartoonists I’ve just been drawing my whole life, but sometime around ‘95 would be when I began putting out ‘zines…
I can’t sleep, and my mind keeps coming back to this. It seems like such a misreading of Mike’s original piece, which (to me) read not as, “Please buy my books since I’ve been doing everything right,” so much as, “My methods haven’t been getting the results I want, so I’m going to try something different.”
Yet this person (twiststreet above, who is Abhay Khosla) went on to list what they thought Mike was doing wrong, but did it in a weirdly spiteful way. I’ll try to respond line by line.
Uh, if I can add insult to injury: who did you even think your audience was?
I have a whole philosophical issue with the above line that I’ll get to at the end.
Your graphic novels had a $20 list price, and you hadn’t really made a name for yourself before trying to charge people $20 to find out if you were any good at making comics.
Did you think there were a lot of people who take that kind of risk with their money, and if so, why? Is that how you buy comics— you just see books and then spend $20 on them, regardless of if you’ve never heard of who made them, week after week? What kind of comic-buying budget are you dealing with that allows you to do that?
If not, why are you selling comics differently from how you’re buying them? Or did you believe that the comic audience pays a significant attention to good reviews or awards? If so: why??? I seriously don’t know what data could have lead you to believe any of that. The Ignatz awards and NPR??
In order to get some data, here are the last few books I’ve purchased along with their prices:
Men of Tomorrow: $26
Modem Times 2.0: $12
Beautiful Darkness: $22.95
Through the Woods: $21.99
How to Be Happy: $24.99
Popgun War: $13.95
Wonder Woman Archives 6: $59.99
Detrimental Information: $19.95
Superior Foes of Spider-Man: $16.99
It’s a little hard to make a straight one-to-one comparison; some are prose books, others are hardcover comics, some are in color, some are longer or shorter, and so on. However, they all range from $12 to $26, which is maybe one meal out with some drinks or a small trip to the grocery story. I think this is really typical for book prices.
The books closest to Angie Bongiolatti as far as formatting goes are Rudy and Detrimental Information—like Angie, they’re both softcover, black and white, between 100 and 200 pages, and from a small press. They’re both right around $20. I don’t think their authors have had as much press as Mike, but they’ve been working in the medium for a while.
Why are some books similar priced or cheaper, even if they’re in color? I’m not an expert, but there are a lots of reasons I can think of. Some of them, like the superhero books, had single issues as “loss leaders,” or other books come from bigger publishers that can float money from big successes to less successful books in order to keep the price down.
I’ve worked in bookstores and comic book stores for 8 or 9 years now, and I see people lay down this much money for books by someone they haven’t read. Maybe they hear about it from friends, from reviewers, or from booksellers, or often on public radio, which makes sense, since NPR’s audience usually has some disposable income.
The other thing about price is that no one really has to pay MSRP. Most stores have reward programs. Most online retailers offer discounts. I got that Wonder Woman book for 25 bucks because it had been sitting around forever.
Plus: your second comic seriously looks like a children’s comic but its description is “a story as much about adults as it is adolescents, the blurred line between childhood and manhood, and the consequences of authoritative posturing. Dispensing with idyllic notions, Dawson describes the hilarious and brutal truths about boys and men, the hypocrisy of institutional morality and the resilience of Spam and the human spirit." First of all, that is basically gibberish. Secondly: not kids…? "All ages"-? I can’t even tell from all that— all I know is that it’s not going to have "idyllic notions" (which is such a relief). Your Booklist review for Troop 142 begins with "Be warned: this is not a book to give to prospective Boy Scouts”. Even good reviews are starting with warnings to prospective audience members to not accidentally buy your comic!? Booklist suggests it for a young adult audience (Grade 10-12?)— is that indicated anywhere else? Not on the front cover and not on your publisher page for the book, but maybe on the back…?
Which may not matter because your third book? Sure doesn’t sound like a young adult book— “In Angie Bongiolatti we get to follow a group of young New Yorkers as they navigate the slippery slopes between work, play, friendship, sex and politics in a post 9/11 world.” Are you trying to sell “New Yorkers navigating sex” to extremely mature Boy Scouts? Why did you think the young adult book about camp would build an audience for … whatever (?) this third book was about? (God only knows with that description— that description could equally apply to the work of Bret Easton Ellis or Jennifer Aniston)(it may be worth noting there’s literally zero about that description where I couldn’t find a million other things to satisfy that niche first, before I turn to something your publishers sets at a $20 list price). Also your publisher description for your third book starts with “Set in the same universe as Troop 142"…? I didn’t read Troop 142 so does that mean I have to read that first? Is it the continuing adventures of those characters? Comic fans all have some level of OCD so if you say "same universe" (whatever that means), no one is going to start at episode 2— that’s not how our people are built. And why would you make a sequel to something no one bought to begin with?
I’m trying not to break these paragraphs up too much, but there are a couple points in here that I want to get to. First off, the confusion over what age Troop 142 is for. I haven’t read that book, but I guess I don’t understand why it matters how the book is marked. Most books are not marked with their suggested age group—that’s usually left up to bookstores/libraries, and there’s tons of gray area. A lot of YA books include violence, sexy times, and mature themes. A lot of adult books don’t have any of those.
But in the end, I don’t see it mattering one bit. I was raised in a house full of books, and I got to read whatever I wanted, which is a huge privilege, and it was awesome. And sometimes my mom read and enjoyed the “kids” books that I got.
And my librarian background makes me really against labeling books in general. Grouping them by age can be useful in helping people find what they want, but there are so many younger people that want to read “real” books and so many adults that want to read YA that this matters less and less. It’s up to the readers and, if they’re minors, their parents.
As to the OCD/what-book-is-first thing, this is another “Who cares?” for me. I used to buy all sorts of single issues of comics. I come from a rural background where my library sometimes didn’t have every book in a series. These days, if I’m really concerned about that sort of thing, I can check the internet, and even if I can’t find out, it doesn’t really matter.
If someone cares about this, though, I understand, and I encourage them to use the resources available (bookstore employees, the internet, paging through the books) to find a solution.
I can’t guess what relationship your publisher has with libraries, who I’d imagine would be a key potential buyer for you(?). None of the rest of their catalog seems very library-oriented, though.
Getting into libraries is the first piece of advice here that I really like and appreciate. As mentioned above, I frequent libraries, and I even wanted to be a librarian (but I dropped out of library school). Libraries can be great for getting authors exposure without the reader shelling out that $20. The good libraries also do author events and signings, which is super cool too.
As for that part about Mike’s books not being library-oriented, that is totally false. Libraries and librarians have this maxim: “Every reader, his or her book. Every book its reader.” Libraries are full of all kinds of books, from entertaining fiction to practical guides and everything in between, unless it’s a really small library, in which case it probably skews toward only those goals (popular and practical). That’s a rare case, though, and getting rarer. Any decent county library has a growing graphic novel section.
(Also it seems like you’re trying to do ensemble storytelling in comics, or at least none of your ad copy except your first book mentions a central character with an interesting dilemma, which … Other than Love & Rockets, who has made that work? There’s a certain challenge there even if everything else goes great)
Avengers, X-Men, Wicked & the Divine, the aforementioned Wrenchies and Beautiful Darkness and more are ensemble casts. The “interesting dilemma” issue is harder to quantify, but I thought Angie Bongiolatti offered a number of interesting dilemmas.
What was your business model?
"Make a book, get it published by a publisher" seems to be his business model, which has worked for hundreds of years and is still a goal of many people. It takes a lot of work! A lot, lot of work. It’s obvious that it’s not the ironclad plan that it used to be, which Mike addresses. Still, his accomplishments are huge, and I think they deserve respect.
Which is really the heart of my disagreement with this whole thing: the lack of respect. Why did it begin with an admission of adding insult to injury? I think that is a bad thing. When I’m injured, I want to lay down and heal, and I think that someone that admits to taking time to add insult to that injury is at least a little bad. Abhay’s whole article could have easily been phrased neutrally by taking out the first line and getting rid of the double and triple question marks. It could have even been phrased positively: “Here are some things I’ve noticed and how I might address them.”
Because that’s all his article is (and all my article is): things we’ve noticed. We obviously come from dissimilar places, and I’m sure Abhay knows people who’ve had their experience, and I know people who’ve had mine, and that’s okay, and there’s room for all of that in this big, confusing world, so we might as well be nice about it.
Check out Mike’s comics!