Networking vs Not Working

I was at a con a few months ago talking to an artist who I had met a few times before. He had a booth and I was just walking the floor, and we were sharing our impressions of the show in general. We both agreed that the turn-out was not very good.He asked me about who else was on the show floor. I shrugged and said that I was not too impressed. A few nice looking projects, but mostly I was just going around talking to the other creators so that they would know who I am. And then there was that awkward pause... "Like we are both doing right now." And we laughed. We are both relentless self-promoters. We were networking.

Everyone who knows how the comics business works will tell you that it is who you know as much as it is what you know. The exact ratio between them varies from person to person, but you need both.

Someone who does not network is not going to work.

Beware, however, of the allure of putting the cart before the horse.

Working, on your own, in seclusion, and for no pay, must come before networking. This work that you do toward perfecting your craft must come before "getting your name out there".

The reason that this is important to point out, as opposed to being completely obvious, is that seductive allure I mentioned above. It goes like this... I know that networking is essential to a career in comics. To move forward, I must network. Networking effectively takes time and energy. This time and energy I am expending is going toward my career in comics. I am good it, as evidenced by my many contacts and associates in the comics field.

Can you tell how good that feels? I get the energy of meeting new people and finding what they are all about. I get attention and praise. I get contacts! And it feels, because everyone has told me how important it is to network, like I am advancing toward my dream! Advancing without the arduous labor of actually making the stuff. Without the emotional risk of putting myself behind a creative endeavor. Without the loss of hours and hours at the drawing (or writing) board. Without the Without the risk of wasting all of that on a project that goes nowhere.

All of the benefits and none of costs!

Except that if you don't do all of the real, hard, work, when your networking finally pays off and the editor of your dreams shakes your hand, looks you in the eye, and asks "what have you got for me?"...

all you will have is "a bunch of great ideas" or "some pin-ups and commissions"...

or, as it is known in the comics industry: "nothing".

Absolutely get good at networking, but not if it means not working.

-Josh Dahl

Indie Comics in the Changing Economy

Nick Dedual recently posted and interesting piece on his Odd Truth Blog about making comics in "The Great Recession".One of the points that he makes is about the increasingly experiential nature of the comic convention.

Nick points out the cons are shifting to be more about what you DID THERE rather than what you GOT THERE. He is absolutely right about this, and it is only the tip of the ice berg. It is called The Experience Economy, a phenomenon affecting the global economy, accelerated by the faster-than-ever commerce of the web.

I first heard about it a few years ago in this TED Talk.

Basically it is like this... People used to trade at an agrarian level, where consumers actually consumed the products. Then came the industrial economy, where consumers were removed from the producers and were given a range of products to choose from. The consumers chose the best products, or the ones they liked the most. As manufacturing steadily leveled the production playing field, we moved into a service economy. When the product is universally available, the decision to purchase is made based on the service that comes with that product. And now that customer service is theoretically instant and around-the-clock, that decision to purchase has shifted to the total experience that comes with owning a product. I am not an economist. Watch the video if you want a real explanation.

Is all of that true of comics? Is it true of indie comics? To some degree, individual artistic endeavors like making indie comics, will always be on their own micro-trajectory within a larger economic movement. But, also, they're not.

Let's walk through where we are in each stage and how it might affect us going forward.

Agrarian Economy- Lots if the interactions in indie comics fit pretty nicely into an agrarian system. Specifically, I mean the barter economy the fuels much of the actual production. "I will write for you if you draw for me". Individual producers producing for individual producers. The one-on-one sales that we make at conventions and where ever else are also at this level. I have it, you want it. Done. Indie comics will always do fine at this level. Developments at the industrial level and higher may take a chunk out, but they will never close this door on us. Even when we go completely digital, it is still happening at the near-barter level.

Industrial Economy- Industrialization has largely been a boon to the indie comics world. It gave us Print-On-Demand. Largely as side-effects of movements in the larger economy, we have discovered all kinds of ways to make out comics faster, easier, and cheaper. Industrialization has also affected consumer expectation. A consumer can now see Rapid City right along side X-Men and Booster Gold, be it paper or digital. That is a great opportunity, but it also affects the way that the books are seen. They are a stack of items to be purchased. While the irregular production and quality of an indie may have once been part of its charm, even a selling point, they have now become areas where the indies might not measure up to their shelf-mates. There is an expectation that comics will be produced on a regular schedule... a monthly schedule. I am not saying that indies can't be produced at that rate, I am saying that the expectation is an artificial side-effect of industrialized publishing. The counter-industrial nature of indie comics gives us some small advantage as we easily side-step into the realms of service and experience. It is easier for a reader to have a personal interaction and relationship with an indie creator than with a large publishing machine. There is, however, a fine line to walk between the two worlds. Similar to the artificial expectation of a monthly publishing schedule, the indies have generated an artificial expectation of personal relationships with creators. And this is great. And it is usually accurate. But, it can cause a creator who is meeting with success to navigate awkward growing pains. It is reasonable for a fan of Rapid City to expect that I would respond personally to emails or letters that I receive. It is not reasonable for a fan of Hellboy to make the same assumption of Mike Mignola. The minefield of expected interactions between my level of success and his is uncharted and ever-changing.

Service Economy- When a major purchase factor is the mode of delivery, you are in a service economy. The old-school comic convention dealer room is some bizarre hybrid of agrarian, industrial, and hunter/gatherer. And it is the opposite of service economy. It thrives on the scarcity of service. Though there is some thrill in hunting down that certain rare treasure, those sales conditions would not exist in a world where there were other service options. Which is why I am amazed that those show-floors still exist. Ebay exists. Ebay is a kryptonite crucifix to comic con back-issue retailers. As a side thought, maybe they exist as some nostalgic experience economy... but how long can that last?. The positive effect of this trend is that more con attendees are there to look something other than rare back issues. I will talk more about what they are looking for in the service section. With digital delivery and print-on-demand, the indie creator can compete pretty well in a service based market place. It is harder for us. We simply have fewer resources to devote to every aspect of the customer relationship. But, the fact is that the tools are there. And, the more that more of us use them, the easier they get to use. The barrier of delivery, a key factor in a service economy, is rapidly vanishing for the indie creator.

So, what's left? Experience Economy- The wild west. As the industrial and service fields get more and more level, the remaining stand-outs are those that excel in creating a great user/reader/fan experience. In comics, no one knows what this means yet. At best, some folks have a piece of it. And, until the big publishers can really get a handle on their experience model, this is a chance for us indies to seize some ground. The strength and power of the major publishers comes with a bit of immobility. Because their appeal is so broad, it often fails to reach readers directly. Personally, as a fan of big-time superhero comics, I often have to shrug and willfully over-look something by saying "well, that wasn't meant for me". Indies, however, don;t have the luxury of having this problem. Our readers have sought us out because they want what we have. They are a self selected group whose expectation is expectation is for more of what we are already doing. Outside of content, which is where the experience economy lives, the indie creator can offer a much more direct experience to a reader or fan. That is the value of social media. That is why I write this blog. That is why I work in the Rapid City Open Studio. None of those are a product. None of those even help get a product in to, or cash out of, a reader's hands. They are part of what a reader thinks of when they think of Rapid City. That is the reason I try to have a personal conversation with anyone who approaches my table at a con. That is why I will draw silly stuff on the comics if a reader will let me. That is why I let folks with kids know just appropriate my books may or may not be. It isn't just to sell a book right in that moment, it is to create a pleasant experience that can be carried forward to the next interaction. Which brings me to the idea that inspired this post to begin with. From Nick Dedual:

...as comic cons become more pop-cultural events and less about comic books, the audience at the comic con will look more for experiences they can enjoy at the moment...

More and more, the comic con is becoming an event. Attendees are there for the experience. So, what does that mean to those of us in Artists Alley? How can we take advantage of this? The bigger guys host panels and make announcements, but not everyone can do that. What can we offer in the realm of live experience at a convention (or some other venue that we have not yet thought of)? And, how can we monetize that experience? Is it enough to just generate good will and hope that it comes back in the form of a strong fan base? Can we sell "A lunch with Josh Dahl!"? I don't know. Right now, our versatility and connection to our audience seems to be offering us a lead in this new market... How do we take that lead before it slips away?

-Josh Dahl

Rapid City goes digital

Rapid City #1 is now available through Graphicly.com. I just read through it and the reader they have is super-cool. I am excited about trying it on my phone. If you haven't used their service already, this is a great way to start. The comic reading apps are free for your device or your computer, and Rapid City #1 is just 99cents.

I am really happy about this.

Get your digital Rapid City #1 here.

Rapid City Interview Series: George O'Connor

I met fellow Bostonian comic writer George O'Connor at his booth at the Boston Comic Con where he was selling his book Healed. We quickly determined that we had already "met" online at the comicsexperience web site. I was impressed with the quality of his work and asked him to talk a bit more about himself and his work. Who are you?

Such a deep question so soon? My name’s George O’Connor and I’m a writer, producer, musician and copywriter from Boston.

What do you write?

Currently I write the comic book “Healed” which is illustrated by my friend and creative partner Griffin, and distributed by our indy press, Homeless Comics. I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of two anthologies put out by Elevator Pitch Press: Tales from the Comics Experience and Great Zombies in History.

In the past, I’ve spent 10 years writing, directing and producing short films and created the webseries “664-The Neighbor of the Beast”.

By day, I’m a mild-mannered copywriter for a Boston advertising agency.

Why do you write?

The simple answer; because it’s fun! The long answer; because I love the creative process and seeing ideas come to life. Getting into a room and working on a song with musicians, or on a set with actors, or working with an artist and seeing the germs of an idea grow and seeing it grow really gets me excited.

The other reason is that in this day and age, it’s so easy to get your ideas out there for people to find. From your basement, you can put your music or podcast up on iTunes, webseries on YouTube or your comic on Graphic.ly or Indy Planet and you can reach fans. I truly believe there is no better time for creators to get their ideas and art out into the world.

How do you write?

I’m a stew-er. I roll ideas around in my head all day, writing and working out scenes, lines and beats. Eventually, a little light goes on that says “It’s time to write.” Then I’ll head down to the basement, throw on some metal (Metallica’s “… And Justice For All” or Testament’s “The Ritual” are two go-to albums. I try to write the first draft as fast as possible, not dwelling on it too much, embracing the idea that the goal for the first draft is to be completed and that’s it. Once it’s written, I like to walk away from it, for a few hours or a day. In that downtime, I usually think of new lines or beats to work into the second round. After the 2nd version, I usually flip it to my wife to make sure the ideas I wanted to get on the page actually got there and make sense outside of my head. She’s also fantastic on grammar and punctuation. At that point, I feel comfortable with throwing it out to the world.

Healed is a great comic. It seems like a counterpoint to our culture’s current fascination with zombies. It could be sub-titled “Night of the Living Living”. Do zombie stories and Healed deal with similar social, cultutral, and psychological issues? Are they opposites or compliments?

Yeah, in a way it’s kind of like the anti-zombie book where instead of everyone dying, everyone lives but there’s still chaos all over the place. They’re both similar in that there’s a big event and everyone has to figure out how to survive in this new situation. One major difference is there’s no obvious enemy in HEALED’s world, so when it turns bad, it’s human against human. But they still both boil down to the same thing: survival.

Is this a personal story for you? Has your life been affected by terminal illnesses?

I count myself pretty lucky in that I haven’t been affected that much. But I’ve been surprised at how these stories have connected with people who have had to deal with these illnesses. If anything, it might be a testament that good stories don’t need to be complicated, they need to be honest.

If so, is this story in some way wish-fulfillment?

Without digging real deep into my head, I don’t think so. It was an idea that seemed really interesting and as Griffin and I talked about, it seemed like it had tons of possibilities. That being said, if I could live forever with reasonably good health, yeah I think I’d sign up for that.

You feature several stories showing many aspects of this new disease-free world. Surely these few issues

worth of stories do not represent every single story that occurred to you for this setting. How did you choose which stories to include? What do the ones that made the cut have in common? As the series has gone on, we put more thought into the combination of stories. That helped put some structure to the books and the stories that we picked. Griffin and I sat down one evening to plot out the issues and that turned into a great “what if” conversation and that also helped us decide which stories we were really eager to tell and see come to life.

In your writing, what mistakes do you find yourself making again and again?

Great question. Technically, I’m terrible at spelling and grammar which is why I’m so thankful to have my wife editing the book because she has a great eye for that. I also worry that I’m way too verbose. It’s actually one of the reasons I enjoy lettering the book. It gives me one more chance to edit and sometimes it forces me to say knock a two bubble panel down to one without losing the purpose of the dialogue. Ya know, when I decided to get into comics, I took Comic Experience’s writing class online and it was absolutely worth it and would highly recommend those courses for anyone thinking about getting into comics.

What are you particularly good at?

One of the compliments I’ve received that I’m proud of is that my dialogue sounds like actual dialogue. Other than that, I think I’m good at driving projects across the finish line.

Making music and writing comics seem to be polar opposites. Writing a script is a solitary, heavily structured, activity which usually only goes through a collaborative stage when it passes through the vision of the artist. Music, on the other hand, is instant and very public. Regardless of much effort and attention to detail goes into the creation of the song, it still goes from the creator to the audience at the speed of sound. How are the creative processes similar and how do the influence each other?

At least the way my projects have worked, they feel similar. There are some songs and stories that come out fully baked and there are others that need someone else’s talent and input to reach its full potential. And I count myself very lucky that over the years to have talented friends willing to get involved in these goofy lil adventures of mine. And as I’ve grown older (read: more mature) I’ve embraced a way of working that leaves plenty of room for my collaborators to leave their mark. I don’t care who comes up with the good idea, so long as there’s a good idea. I also think, thanks to the technology, comics and music can get out to the world pretty quick.

What are you working on next, and where will you be appearing?

Griffin and I will be taking HEALED and our other work to Baltimore Comic Con, ComicCONN in Stamford, CT in August and then the Small Press Expo and Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo in September. Over the winter, we’ll get HEALED #5 ready for a spring debut. I’m also hoping we can find a publisher who’d be interested in putting out a HEALED trade. After that, I’d like to get a couple pitches together and throw ‘em against the wall and see if anything sticks.

Thanks a lot, George. I'll see you at M.I.C.E.