There’s been some discussion about this article, and it seems like it could use a little clarification and context.
This post is specifically about the question of comics as a financially viable career, and how heavily to weight the opinion of publishers or other industry pros in your decision to pursue that career. It is not about how (or whether) to live a creative life. No publisher is in a position to tell anyone to stop making art, and thank goodness for that.
In the “Behind the Scenes” series on the First Second blog, we provide practical insight into the workings of our corner of the publishing industry.There often isn’t a lot of transparency in the publishing industry, and one of the goals of this series of articles is to offer more transparency into how First Second does business. These posts are generally prompted by questions we’re frequently asked by authors and artists.
So there’s been a little discussion happening about publishers and other industry professionals and what they might have to say about the quality of your work – and the likelihood of you having a career in comics – and how seriously you ought to take them.
Faith Erin Hicks wrote this lovely and wonderfully inspiring piece about all the times she persevered in the face of active discouragement from people in her field – from authorities in her field – and the success she’s had as a cartoonist despite others’ doubts. (And thank goodness for her indomitability, say I – because I love love love her work, and love love love working with her.)
Then my colleague Gina posted this funny and true blog post about how publishers, like other upright-walking hominids, are in fact only human. We don’t always get it right! Sometimes we tell people to get out of comics and then those people turn out to be, I dunno, Paul Pope and Lynda Barry. (Note: I have never told either Paul Pope or Lynda Barry to get out of comics.)
Believing in your work is absolutely necessary in order to succeed in this business, and no matter how talented and accomplished you are, you are likely to face a lot of rejection from various corners – there are only so many readers, publishers, websites, etc, in the world. It’s a competitive business.
But the unpleasant fact is, not everybody is publishable.
Not everybody is publishable, and not everybody has the necessary combination of talent, work ethic, and will-power to make a career in comics happen. Or: you might have all those qualities, but not in comics. Maybe you’ve got what it takes to be a great teacher, or computer programmer, or writer, but not a good cartoonist.
Here’s the thing: publishers are in a pretty good position to make this call. We’re not perfect, as we’ve established, but we look at a lot of work, and we have a general sense of who has “it” and who doesn’t. Our livelihood depends on us making good calls here, so we invest a lot of time and effort into it.
Of course sometimes publishers are wrong. Even lots of publishers can be wrong – lots of publishers, all saying the same thing, all wrong about the same thing. The place where we’re most likely to err, I’d guess, is when it comes to telling the difference between someone who’s going to be great in five years and someone who’s never going to be any good. That’s a tough call to make, and I’ve probably screwed that one up a bunch of times personally.
I have never told anyone outright not to pursue a career in comics. But I have warned many, many aspiring cartoonists to develop other skills; to have the ability to build a different – or related – career while they’re waiting to see if comics works for them. Like many creative careers (acting, music, the fine arts, etc) you should expect to have to support yourself with other stuff while you’re getting better at your art, and making contacts in the industry.
(In fact, most working cartoonists I know – people who have, definitively made it in comics – still do a lot of other stuff for money. I only know a handful of cartoonists who support themselves with only comics work.)
So you can buy yourself some time to hone your craft while you pay the bills with weasel husbandry or telephone repair or what have you, but at some point, you have to start doing the mental arithmetic.
Because, to put it frankly, it can be hard to tell if you’re bravely persevering in the face of others’ unfair discouragement of your art, or foolishly persevering in the face of others’ accurate assessment of your limited talents. And you may never know, honestly, but you still probably need to make a decision. So:
AT WHAT POINT DO YOU GIVE UP?
Of course this call is different for everyone. It depends on a lot of factors, and on how much you personally care about those different factors. These might include:
- How much money have you invested in this career? Did you pay for an expensive art-school education? Are you in debt? This could influence your decision either way, actually: you might say, “I have so much money sunk in this, I can’t give up now!” (note: this is problematic at best – there’s even a name for it: the “sunk cost fallacy“) or you might say, “I have so much money sunk in this I’ve got to do something I know I can make a living at right now before my financial situation gets any worse.”
- How much money can you make doing other stuff? This is a similar double-edged sword: if you’re making good money at another occupation, that could sway you either way, depending on your attitude and priorities.
- Are you finding the time and the will to put the work in, regardless of how discouraging your reception might be?
- Are you getting better at comics every year?
- Do you have fans? Do people who aren’t your mother or your boyfriend like your work? Do people buy your mini comics / read your web comic / recommend your work to other people?
- Do you suffer from doubts about your own talent? That’s actually a good thing, not a bad one. The people at the top of any field are generally aware of their own limitations and concerned about them. If you have no doubts about the quality of your work, that’s a bad sign.
- How much do you want it?
- How much do you enjoy it? (Note! This is different, often, from “want.” Since you’re unlikely to get rich making comics, no matter what, you’d better love doing it.)
And, of course:
- What kind of reception are you getting from industry professionals?
Note: this last one is only one factor out of many in the morass of variables that will influence your decision to stay in comics or to focus your energies elsewhere. But it’s an important one, if this industry professional does say so herself.
EDIT! Check out Colleen Doran’s terrific post on the same subject, which I just came across. She is one smart lady.