Interview With Colleen Doran on the Business of Being a Comic Artist

Colleen Doran

I’m honored that noted comic artist Colleen Doran agreed to take the time to answer my questions. Her lengthy experience as a freelance illustrator and her outspokenness about problems that can occur in the comic business make her someone I admire. I spoke with her via email about how to manage a career as an independent artist and advice for aspiring creators. She discusses how to stay flexible and how she’s managed the many changes in the industry over the past years, as well as her views on the future of the comic market and her upcoming projects. There’s also some scary truth about the potential of webcomics and digital publication.

Her long-running series A Distant Soil is available in print as well as being serialized online. That first link also leads to Colleen’s blog, for more of her opinions and advice.

I’ve always admired your openness (and sometimes ferocity) when it comes to discussing business issues in public, including the series at your blog tagged “101 Things Your Publisher Doesn’t Want You to Know” and “Very Bad Publishers“. When a young artist recently approached me, wanting to learn about freelancing, your blog was the first resource I thought of. (I’m not the only one — you’re required reading for art students, too.) Heck, your posts on health insurance and home office pitfalls should be read by any freelancer. Why are you one of the very few artists willing to share this advice? And why don’t you write a book on the subject? 

Colleen Doran

Thank you kindly for inviting me to your forum, and thank you for your very kind words.

There are a number of artists who have blogs and who give advice, but I’m not sure how many of them work in comics, or how many of them blog regularly. It is extremely time-consuming, and it’s not for someone who doesn’t have serious drive. Obviously, I have a huge amount of drive. I got into comics during the creator rights boom of the 1980s, which turned out to be a big mess for many creators: they really didn’t have much experience owning their own work, and there were few attorneys or agents in the field to help creators protect and negotiate their rights, but there were scads of sleazy publishers who promised creator rights, then took them legally or illegally. 

After about a decade of wrangling with some of these types, I became radicalized, and determined that I would do whatever I could to help young creators avoid some of the unpleasant experiences I had. Because after all these years, not much has changed, and I hear about crap contracts and clients all the time. People pulling the same scams they pulled 20 years ago.

I wrote a booklet called “101 Things Your Publisher Doesn’t Want You to Know” back in the early 1990s and then began a blog a few years ago. My blog was directionless, at first. I needed time to learn the ropes and figure out how to address my audience. The best way to help people is to keep my blog focused on art and entertainment, and to avoid things that aren’t about my work, or about publishing in general. 

Almost every webcomics cartoonist strongly advised me to avoid interacting with the audience and to avoid blogging. Regardless, since I began the webcomic and new blog last year, my traffic has gone up tenfold. I admit there’s not a lot of money in the blog, so I assume that’s a major reason why more artists don’t do it. When you are blogging you are not drawing and paying your bills. I must be doing it for the love of the industry. Still, some of my articles have gotten tens of thousands of hits. There is a great deal of interest in the writings.

I’ve been approached by several publishers for book rights, and when I have cleared my schedule toward the end of the year, I will submit a draft to my agent.

What other resources should a young freelance artist be aware of to avoid business pitfalls? 

Writer Beware is a great website with all kinds of articles and links to resources every creator should read. Mark Evanier’s blog is essential. Between those two, you will get more chops than a few years of college.

The only problem with all the negative stories about publishing is that aspiring creators get paranoid, thinking there’s a big bad wolf behind every tree. There isn’t. I’ve only had a few serious problems over the course of my career. But a serious problem is the kind of problem that can drag on for years and years. I must have worked for 100 clients, and only three of them are on my “never again” list. The three times I have had to enlist my attorney, those three times I have spent years in litigation or seeking payment.

If you can spot these types before you get involved with them, then your creative life will be richer in every way: less time wasted dealing with jerks. The problem is, young creators simply don’t know a problem when they see it, or even when you tell them. If they work for a company without a major track record, even if they’ve asked around, they don’t know what they’re getting into. All three times I’ve had trouble, it’s been with companies without a long history in publishing in this field.

Of course, all the warnings won’t help someone who isn’t aware. And someone who is hyper-aware will drive away perfectly good clients with their paranoia.

Manga Pro Superstar Workshop: How to Create and Sell Comics and Graphic Novels

No matter how much you love your art, this is a business. When you step away from the drawing board, put the artist away, because the artist will make some incredibly boneheaded decisions. Learn basic math, learn basic contract skills. Read the books of Tad Crawford. Join the Graphic Artists Guild or the Illustrators Partnership. You can get health insurance through the Guild.

Ask questions of professionals who have more than just a few credits, or who pad their resume. The sort who tout the two jobs they have had at Marvel in 20 years. I’ve seen people with just a few books under their belt giving all kinds of ridiculous advice, as if they’d know. People who can’t make a basic living at art telling young artists how to be pros. Consider the source. Don’t go to the bottom for advice, go to the top. Find truly successful people and model them. There are many creators who interact online, who will happily answer whatever questions you have at shows.

And if you are going to ask a question, do your research first. So much of what you need to know can be found on the internet. If you tell me you are a serious aspiring pro writer, and then you come up to me at a show with a basic question about copyright, then I know you’re not serious. The US Copyright Office and the US Trademark office have extensive FAQ pages which will answer most of your questions for free. And yet I see hundreds of people asking basic questions on message boards and getting boneheaded answers from people with no expertise whatsoever. 

The quality of the question indicates the quality of your commitment. If you go to a pro with a question, take advantage of that moment and ask them something you can’t find in a book or on the web. If you come up to me and ask me how you can protect your ideas from being stolen, I know you’re not serious. If you come up to me and ask me about cross collateralization, I know you’re serious.

You’ve been a visible force in comics through several major movements, from the rise of self-published independent comics in the 90s through original graphic novels moving into the bookstore market to the current approach of serializing comics online to sell collected editions. How successful is that approach for you? 

Being adaptable is the only approach to life in general, and it works for me as a pro.

Years ago, I apprenticed to artist Frank Kelly Freas, whom I absolutely adored. And he taught me as much from his good example as he did by his bad example. Kelly was a science fiction artist who could not use a computer or a microwave oven. He lived in the world in his head, and his work was fixed in time. I saw how stifling and dangerous that was. He depended so much on other people to do basic tasks for him. Now, Kelly was in his 60s when I worked for him, and I was about 19-21, so there’s a big difference there. But I saw the same behaviors in a lot of creators I met over the years. And I saw the price they paid for it. The world moves on, and they don’t. I determined that would not happen to me.

I may not be on the first mover end all the time, but even if I am not first mover, I have my eye on the first mover. Because second mover advantage means learning from the first mover’s mistakes.

I had the chance to do my first webcomic with Warren Ellis about ten years ago for It was a strip called Super Idol. So, I got to see what a big audience you could get online. However, it was fully financed by an investor, so we were paid up front for our work. Most people don’t have that advantage.

Later, I had a blog with modest traffic. I tried out portions of A Distant Soil online to see what response I would get. And I had a big jump every day I loaded a page.

A Distant Soil: The Gathering

I spent years watching and planning. I’m doing the webcomic thing, but still learning. Especially about financing. And an important lesson is that just because you have a book presence, that may not translate into a web audience. It took a year for my traffic to increase. Many print creators who have gone web get terrible traffic. I watch many sites and compare. Some people have the thing for the web, and some people really, really don’t. And I’m beginning to see that a lot of that is more than just the content of your work. Your appeal as a person may have a great deal to do with it.

A rambling way of answering the question. Which is, I am willing to try whatever works, and I am willing to change when I am wrong.

What makes you so able to be flexible in these ways when other self-publishers get caught up in how they think the market ought to work for them? 

We become wedded to process over results.

You spend all this time and effort learning to do something, and to do it well. And while you are spending all your time and effort trying to do something well, the rest of the world moves beyond you. If you are not observing the world around you, and are not ready for change, you get left behind. The world doesn’t serve our needs based on our wants or skills. Unless we serve the needs of others, we don’t get what we want in exchange. So, if people don’t like your work or the way you present your work, they just go buy something else. 

I don’t think it’s a self publisher thing, it’s a life in general thing. Change is hard for many people. Change is scary. Maybe I’m just not as change-averse as some. I don’t think change for change’s sake is anything to cheer, but if your distribution model and business model doesn’t work, you change.

There are a lot of things I can do as a self-publisher to adapt to the market without compromising my principles. If I can’t make it work, I go do something else. The fear of not being able to make a living at writing or drawing makes people conservative. They resist change that threatens their understanding of how they make money at their art.

I try to keep in mind that making money at art does not keep me from making art. It doesn’t keep me from publishing it. Not making money at art can certainly inhibit my ability to make more art, but I’m not living in the Black Hole of Calcutta. I can access pen and paper. I’m willing to change my publishing process to keep doing what I want for a living. I will resist what I think doesn’t work, but if I think something will work, I’ll jump on it. If I can’t do this for a living, I am not afraid of doing something else and making art on the side, even if I chose to no longer publish. 

The internet means that distribution is no longer a major concern, monetizing distribution is the concern. So I focus on that. I don’t care how I get to the readers. I’m not saying major publishers don’t have reasonable concerns about rights and permissions with regard to their properties. As a small press creator, I can be more nimble than a big publisher. I don’t have their baggage.

How do your sales break down, roughly, among bookstores, direct market, and direct-to-customer sales? 

Boy, that’s a good question. Frankly,  I haven’t looked lately, because A Distant Soil has been on hiatus. I am working on several different GNs for Vertigo and Houghton Mifflin, so I try to keep an eye on all the markets. Some of my books sell almost exclusively outside the direct market, such as my how-to books for Impact. As I recall, A Distant Soil was moving to libraries in good numbers.

What do you envision as the future of the comics market, the next trend for self-publishing comic artists? 

I assume the future is more webcomics and more digital books. Lots more digital books. 

A Distant Soil: Coda

I think the graphic novel as print art object is the future. Very high-end, beautiful books for serious collectors. I’m not optimistic about the future of the comics magazine format, any more than most people in print are optimistic about the future of print magazines in general. The specialty market will continue for some time, but how long that will be viable, I do not know. 

Comics books have not, historically, been the big money maker for publishers. The exploitation of the comic-created product is where the money is: toys, games, movies, high-end product after the fact. Comics have almost always been a kind of low-end investment, and they will be even less cost-intensive for publishers who can provide online content without the risk of costly print production.

Then again, long-form dramas like A Distant Soil don’t usually do well on the web and aren’t marketing bonanzas. There aren’t a lot of plush toy opportunities for A Distant Soil. I’ve been asked about making figures and stuff. I don’t know. I confess I’ve been very bad about marketing product for ADS.

I think the monstrous competition for online attention may make it just as hard as ever for small projects to get noticed. There is such a glut of material that money is no longer the great gatekeeper for most self-publishers: consequently, the random acts of self-publishing are more random than ever, and it’s difficult for projects to get attention and to flourish.

I’m seeing more and more people who have been slogging away at webcomics come to the sad realization that there’s just no money in it. They spend years of effort, gather a few thousand hits, and never make more than their hosting fees in exchange. I think a lot of people are going to have to start facing the reality that throwing your stuff on the internet and expecting the world to come to you and send you money just doesn’t work that well.

There will always be many thousands of hopefuls who will throw their work at the wall to see if it sticks, but fewer top-quality creators are going to want to do that for long if there’s no payoff. It’s a huge drain on the resources, particularly morale. This may seem like a contradiction to my comments about facing change, but the point is that many people got into webcomics thinking it was a way to monetize their work, and that’s just not happening for most. And it’s hard for many to face the fact that they don’t have a ready solution for financing their work.

There is so much hype, and very few success stories to back it up. It reminds me of the self-publishing boom of the early 1990’s. Jeff Smith used to call them Random Acts of Self-Publishing. There’s so much material to dig through, the market is absolutely glutted. Almost everything that does well is gag stuff. Few dramas get any traffic at all. It reminds me of newspaper comics — I wonder if it’s the same dynamic: people want their daily funny. Throw in the occasional long-form serial, but it had better be outstanding. And even if it is, it will get a fraction of the traffic the gag stuff will get. People want their daily distraction of LOL cats when they are web surfing in the office over their morning coffee.

And frankly, you can’t make a living on the web with thousands of readers, you need huge numbers. Far more readers than you need in print. There are still some diehards who keep plugging away at it, and a couple of very outspoken creators who make a lot of noise about it. But when I look at their site stats, some of the noisiest get almost no traffic. There is no way they can actually be making a living at this.

I guess the wish is just so strong with some people that no matter how much reality plugs them one in the kisser, they just keep coming back for another sockaroo.

So, like the self publishing boom, we’ve got a tiny upper class getting wads of dough — almost all of them enjoying years advance on their first mover advantage — a very small middle class, and a huge underclass making absolutely nothing. There will always be a large number of people who want their work seen, and who want to pursue their dreams. The question is, how long can they keep at it before they lose heart? 

The webcomics thing is about heart. The up-front financing is minimal, so almost anyone can get their dream work out there. Money killed the print self-publishers, but heart failure kills webcomickers. Um…that sounds kinda downer. Don’t mean it too. But, you know, lots of garage bands, few filling arenas. Like that.

The dream is always there.

You’ve been a proponent of fiscal responsibility, always keeping the business in mind so you can be sensible with your income vs. costs (a refreshing attitude in some areas of comics). That’s why A Distant Soil is only published when you can afford to do so, right? How has that been working this year, given the economic downturn? 

Colleen Doran donations and sales bring in considerably more than I make in royalties. But I haven’t been online long enough to really know what effect the online comic has on print sales. A Distant Soil books sell steady. That’s saying a lot, considering I haven’t had a new one in a while. I was just talking with Jim Valentino about this the other day: ADS moves. But whether these sales are due to the website or what, we really can’t say. 

I’m optimistic, but realistic. I know that I have thousands more readers than I had in print, and my sincere hope is that translates into sales of product. I’m really happy with all the new readers, but I must get out something new for them to buy. Not everyone wants to buy books these days, do they? So I need some nifty new items with my pictures on them. Phil Foglio advised me to make some pins and jewelry. I’d love that!

Since I’ve only recently developed computer skills, I haven’t had the chops to do fancy t-shirts designs and whatnot myself, but I am working on it.

How much more of the Distant Soil story is yet to be done? Do you have an ending in mind? 

I have about 200 pages left, and I have had the ending in mind for decades. The only person in the world who knows what it is is Jeff Smith. Naturally, I had to tell a couple of my past publishers, but knowing them, they forgot it.

What else are you working on right now? How do you decide which jobs to take? Do you pitch or are you approached more often these days? 

I am working on a graphic novel for Houghton Mifflin with writer Barry Lyga, and it is absolutely delightful. I truly enjoy this project. I’ll be finished in a few weeks, so forgive me for taking so long to get back to you. I am running a bit behind schedule. That doesn’t affect the schedule, but the book won’t be out for a year. Don’t you love book publishing?

I’m strictly forbidden from discussing the content or showing any previews, so I am sorry I can’t get into it. 

[Note from Johanna: I bumped into Barry at the Baltimore Comic-Con, and although I didn’t get past the cone of silence, just seeing his enthuasiasm for it and working with Colleen, and knowing the sheer talent involved, I’m sure it will be great! Definitely a book to watch for next year.]

I am also working on a graphic novel for Vertigo with Derek McCulloch called Gone to Amerikay. I count this as the most important project I have ever done. The script is beautiful. I’ve learned so much about drawing working on this book. We spent months just researching it. It truly deserves the graphic novel descriptive.

I have about 20 pages left of Stealth Tribes for Warren Ellis, which has been lost in limbo for some years. But I have a window to get it done. I hope we can bring it home soon.

This is an obscene amount of work when  you look at it all written out like that, isn’t it?

What should people buy from you now and soon?

I sincerely hope they will check out A Distant Soil. If you’re in a gift-giving mood, I think Tori Amos: Comic Book Tattoo is a great project, and it’s something I worked on with Derek, author of Gone to Amerikay.

Same goes for Orbiter, which I did years ago with Warren Ellis, though looking back my art style has changed big time. But it’s a good preview for Stealth Tribes.

I won’t have any books out until next year, though. All these original graphic novels: publishers want them in house eight months to a year before release. How things have changed! So many comics sneak in 30 days before sale date! Well, no more of that.


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