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 regularly, along with a daily strip for the college paper.
My first “graphic novel”, my three hundred page debut memoir Freddie & Me, was published by BloomsburyUSA in 2008. The final sales tally (the book is now technically out of print) was 4,805 gross and 2,748 net. I think that means I sold 2,748 copies. Not great by Bloomsbury’s standards, but by my standards, that’s my bestseller.
My second book, Troop 142 was published in 2011 by Brooklyn based boutique publisher Secret Acres. I serialized the story online as I wrote. It was nominated for four Ignatz awards at the 2010 Small Press Expo, and won for Outstanding Online Comic. The book got nice attention from NPR and the American Library Association. It got another Ignatz nomination in 2012 for Outstanding Graphic Novel. To date, the book has sold 1,435 copies.
My third graphic novel, Angie Bongiolatti, was also published by Secret Acres. It debuted at the MoCCA Festival in NYC this past April. Last week I got my first quarterly sales report.
Holy fucking shit! One hundred and six copies??? How has this happened?
Well, it’s not a completely accurate picture. I sold about 20 of my own comp copies at CAKE. And my publisher tells me that there were roughly 40 other copies sold last quarter that hadn’t yet been paid for. Also, the book didn’t get into the PREVIEWS catalogue until this past July, so those order weren’t reflected. They came in this morning: 120 copies.
But still, we’re talking about a book that’s been out since April, that I’ve hyped about, spoken about in interviews, promoted on podcasts, done release parties and readings for, all of those things… By comparison, Troop 142 sold 438 copies in it’s first quarter and 211 in it’s second.
This isn’t great. This isn’t how I anticipated things going. I’ve been at this for a long time now, and my expectations are that my comics career should be improving the longer I keep at it, not declining from book to book.
Selling my work should get easier, shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t it become less of a struggle?
I’ve done pretty good on the making things part of being a writer. But I have completely shit the bed on the part where you get people who read your previous work to stick around and buy your new stuff. Y’know, that mythical thing that I’ve heard men tell tales of, that elusive thing called “an audience”.
Here’s my advice to people like me, mid-career indy cartoonists who are failing to build an audience for their work.
1. Don’t Ask Me, I Don’t Know What I’m Doing
Or, I wouldn’t be writing this embarrassing essay. I don’t know how to make a comic that people want to read. I mean, I’ve had my moments where it felt like maybe there was a teensy bit of buzz about my work - I felt pretty good in 2010 when I got four Ignatz nominations - but I don’t have a clue about how to sit down and consciously write something that has a decent shot of clicking with readers.
If I did, that first sales report would have looked a whole lot less anemic. 106… yeesh. Where do I go from here?
2. Give Up
Oh, Holy Lord, doesn’t that sound like The Best?
Just think, I could enjoy my life, instead of constantly fretting about whether or not I’m putting in the time at the drawing table. I could take up a new hobby. Instead of spending lonely Saturdays in my basement studio staring at the drawing board, I could become a triathlete, or a deep-water swimmer. I could join a Rugby team, and be one of those guys you see in movies out at bars having loud laughter-y drinks after they’ve just played a game of Rugby on their Rugby team. That’s a thing, right? I could do that.
But, sadly, as much as I’ve contemplated it recently, I just don’t feel like I can give up. I’m stuck with cartooning. I’m a lifer.
3. Take Your Time
Alright, I’ve had three books published in the past six years. And after the first two, before they’d even hit the shelves, I was fretting and stressing about not being knee-deep in something new already. I lunged from one long-term project to another.
The same thing started to happen this last time around. I sent off the final files, and then started neurotically floundering around to find my “next book”.
Luckily, I hadn’t quite figured out what that thing would be before it started to dawn on me that this new book might not be off to the strongest start. It wasn’t a complete surprise to me that the sales figures were low. I could already sense the book had no buzz. It had barely gotten any reviews, nobody was talking about it. Nobody had added it to their Goodreads page. The only person showing up in the “Angie Bongiolatti” vanity search column on my Tweetdeck was me.
My frantic floundering and splashing about to find a new project slowed, and became an easy tread. Eventually I hoisted myself out of the water. What’s the point? Why rush straight into a new long-term project, something that’s going to take me 2-3 years to complete, if nobody’s looking at the last thing I attempted? What’s the rush?
I’m stuck making comics, but maybe there are some other things I can rethink.
4. Social Media
Ugh, fucking Social Media.
To date, my attempts to leverage social media to build my “brand” have been absolutely horrendous. An abysmal track record.
I’m on Facebook, but I don’t really add any friends who I don’t know IRL, since all I ever post are pictures of my kids doing the darndest things.
I was on twitter. I was pretty active for a few years, but only managed about 1,200 followers at my peak. And I enjoyed the parts where it felt like a chat-room where I could banter back and forth with folks I knew through cartooning. But the other parts of it, where it felt like I was working in the marketing department of the brand known as me, constantly banging the drum of self-promotion… The never-ending hype machine. It made me unhappy.
I wisely deleted my twitter account in May 2013, thinking it’d be better for me to spend less time online and more time working on my book. That decision felt less wise when I signed back up for the service a few months ago and wondered where all my followers had gone.
I recently spoke to a prominent literary agent, who asked me what my social media audience was like. According to her, this has now become a major factor “big book publishers” take into account when considering a project. They like the idea of signing writers who can bring with them a sizable built-in audience. I felt like a fool explaining that well, yes, I had been on twitter, but it had felt bad for my mental health, so I deleted my account, and I am on Facebook, but that’s really for friends only, and well, I did recently start an Instagram…
5. Figure Out A Way To Be Happy on Social Media
Being on Social Media with my self-promotional drum-set, like a one man band, constantly banging it, with very little to actually call attention to, it all just brings me down.
Being on Social Media, making things specifically for Social Media, and then sharing that stuff, has turned out to be the best.
I got on Tumblr about nine months ago. For a little while I was just posting old comic pages and drawings from my archives.
Over Christmas, there was a thing that happened in my household where my wife and I decided to start letting our daughter celebrate Christmas. It was a wonderful little thing, and I drew a short comic about it in my sketchbook while we were on vacation. I took photos of the comic, and posted the sequence to Tumblr.
A few weeks later I drew another sketchbook comic about something else that had happened on vacation and posted that. Then I wrote another and another. These comics started to get some notes. One of them got republished at Slate magazine. I drew a Cartoonist’s Diary for The Comics Journal. A more recent comic essay got me into arguments with guns-rights people, and I was named The Idiot Extraordinaire of the week on some libertarian podcast.
Oh my god this was a satisfying way new way for me to make comics.
6. Figure Out A Way to Make Comics and Be Happy
This is the way I write: I have an idea I want to explore, so I make a comic about it. Cartooning is a way of thinking for me like no other. I am able to articulate myself most clearly in comics form. My ideas come together in a way that satisfies me that I’m not capable of in any other medium (except maybe podcasting).
Writing books has been a way for me to fixate on an idea for a long period of time, and examine it from many angles. The act of writing long-form work has been a way for me to learn about myself and grow as a person.
Writing short comic essays is a different beast. I have an idea, and instead of stretching it into something big, I attempt to articulate the thought efficiently. And then I move on. And I get to think about other ideas. It’s nice.
Neither one is better than the other. But, this new approach is certainly refreshing. It’s something I’d never allowed myself to do in the past. I have been making comics one way for so long, it’s exhilarating to be doing something different.
I have a lot of questions for myself about what I want to get out of cartooning. I know the answer isn’t money. But, I do want something more than just personal growth. I long ago came to terms with having a limited audience (around the time I only sold 2,748 copies of Freddie & Me), but I don’t feel prepared to have no audience whatsoever.
Lately, writing a book feels like I’m taking my ideas, spending years building something elaborate with them, putting them in a nice box, and then burying them in the yard. Then I’m asking everyone I know to find a shovel and hunt around and see if they can dig them up. (a.k.a. ask your Local Comics Shop to order this book from PREVIEWS).
At least with Tumblr, the comics get in front of people.
I’d like to write another book, but I’m going to take my time figuring out what that next big project will be. Why rush it? For the audience? Haha. They’re not going anywhere.