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Beyond the store: The new face of webcomic “merch”

11 Feb

T-shirts, mugs, mousepads… there is no shortage of random stuff you can slap art on via RedBubble or CafePress and sell online. And as webcomic artists, we’re also often going to conventions. So you might also produce buttons, stickers, and prints for conventions, and then shove the things that didn’t sell onto an online store for everyone who couldn’t make it to the show.

But even if an image is getting a lot of response out of your readers, or a print is very popular at conventions, you might be disappointed when nobody picks it up from your online store. Why is that? And what can you do about it if you’re just starting out?

The challenges of trying to sell art online:

  • If I’m online, there’s probably a million other things I came here to do. Check my email, post pictures of my catcar on Facebook, read my daily webcomics. Any transaction you ask me to do is extracurricular and will completely mess up the flow of what I was doing. So if you’re gonna ask me to crack open my wallet, it’d better be easy, and it’d better be worth it.
  • When I am in shopping mode, the business with the biggest budget’s probably gonna win. They’ll get more ads in front of me, they’ll be able to offer better sales/cheaper shipping, or they’ll have brick-and-mortar stores in my neighborhood where I can see the products firsthand.

    And geek products aren’t exactly a rarity. I might not be able to get your cool picture of the steampunk catcar/DeLorean mashup, but it turns out a mass-produced poster of the Death Star from Target will do the same job of decorating my wall.
  • I don’t get to see you online! I need to see how proud and excited you are about your work so I can feel that about you, too.  I need to know you’re not just another company trying to nickel-and-dime me. Seeing a real person making the stories you love is refreshing and exciting!

What you CAN sell online are stories and experiences

Nobody is going to be able to tell the stories you tell. That’s why they follow your webcomic, that’s why they make fanart of your characters.

We’ve already figured out how to tell our main story: the one we’re already posting online once/twice/three times a week at our URL (most of the time for free).  But you don’t have be a ten-ton-juggernaut or make a subscription wall to be successful. If you can make more stories and find the right way to present them, you can get more support from people who already know and like you.

Trying to find your niche in online sales? It may take some trial and error to find what’s right for you, but here’s some approaches to try:

Characters first

Shobana “Bob” Appavu has a great Patreon reward where Patrons receive written letters from the quirky-yet-loveable Pogo, the main character of her webcomic Demon of the Underground. These kind of extras are also great because they build on the brand of your longer story in a fresh way you might not have the room to do in the story itself.

Try a character-driven approach if: You’ve got a clear fan-favorite character. What does the story look like when it’s told from their point of view?

Short stories make them hungry for more

Isabelle Melançon and Megan Lavey-Heaton published two 10-page stories last year (Silver Button and Knot), bringing their fairy-tale art and story-telling style to standalone stories.  These served double duty: digital/physical versions were quickly purchased by long-time readers of their main project, Namesake.  Then later these stories were made available as small books for conventions and on social media to attract new readers at their store.

Try a short story approach if: Your readers comment on and appreciate your signature art/writing style.  What other kinds of similar-but-distinct stories can you adapt your style to? Think about Gumroad for easy digital distribution.*

Don’t fear the crowdfunding

Ally Rom Colthoff has enjoyed a small but loyal following on her webcomic Chirault, and took herself by surprise when her Kickstarter earned 200% of its goal for people scrambling to finally own a copy.

Crowdfunds are their own meta-Pinocchio story: a humble, kind-hearted craftsman carving their dream and wishing upon a star, a roller-coaster plot that can turn any which way at a moment’s notice, and the team of fairies that finally deem it worthy, descending from heaven and make it real by throwing their magical, magical money at it.

Try a bare-bones Kickstarter or Patreon if:  You have long-time readers, repeat customers for commissions, or other fans and you haven’t tried crowdfunding yet.  They’re probably itching to own your comic and looking for ways to support you and become part of your story!

Videos humanizes your art

Video based updates are worth considering more seriously with Patreon (I love watching Brittany’s vlogs from her Bad Carrot Studios Patreon.)  Even if you’re camera-shy, live streamed art or a director’s commentary series a la Gunnerkrigg Court may be connected to a paid tier on Patreon, but with the launch of my own Patreon, I’ve also decided to do regular public updates this way, as well.

Try making videos if: You have a long-running series and your audience might like a refresher, or if you’re a giant ham about being on camera (like me).

Don’t be fooled by the tchatchkes

It’s easy to fall in love with your art on a shirt or mug, because the story behind it is a thousand times stronger to you than it is to anyone else. It’s also easy for people to say “Sure I’d buy that!” and never follow up on that promise.

Don’t pin your hopes on moving the merch online. Use every opportunity to embrace a larger audience and show them the person behind it. With time, trial and error, you’ll find the story that works for you.

* A lot of things are changing in the wake of VAT regulations for EU sales. This post isn’t going into that because I’m sure as heck not a lawyer or CPA. Here’s hoping for all of us the EU sorts itself out about that.


Art Growth and Goofs in 2013

31 Dec

It’s fun to look at what changes about my art when I try new techniques or approaches. Here’s some of my 2013 art challenges, some stall-outs I encountered, and what I’m learning from them now that we’re at the close of the year:

Manga Studio 4 EX

I decided to learn Manga Studio 4 EX by drawing my webcomic in it instead of Photoshop, and it almost didn’t go very well. There’s a sketch layer (which looks blue) and a black inking layer by default in new documents. I didn’t realize that blue layer would DISAPPEAR when you saved it, so I screen captured the first few pages of the Diem Farella arc because I couldn’t figure out how to keep the blue otherwise. It was awkward in that “what am I doing wrong?!” way, and I was very close to giving up and going back to Photoshop several times.

But I stuck with it, and started to pick up its nuances and unique features, like the concentric circles/parallel lines rulers, rotating the canvas to make drawing easier, and the comic paneling tools. I’m far from expert level, but I’m so glad I took the challenge to learn it.

Red Colored Pencil and Microns

I love drawing gift art for other artist friends, but I did so much digitally, I had nothing to do when I didn’t have access to my computer. So I started an art card exchange on the Spider Forest forum, and it was great to do some small art pieces that wouldn’t take much time and that I could do away from the keyboard. I’ve had some red mechanical pencil lead for about a decade, and a friend gave me some new Micron pens in a care package, so that evolved into a limited pallet style that I used for several pieces.

The Repurposed Sketchbook Project

In 2011, I signed up for The Sketchbook Project. The idea was to buy a sketchbook from the Brooklyn Library, fill it up with art, and send it back to be in a library collection. But all my other sketchbooks had always been for… well, sketches. Non-finished work. Figuring out poses or anatomy and having the results not always be very interesting to look at. I had no idea how to fill 50 sequential pages with library-worthy art and not mess it up, and the binding is not forgiving to torn-out pages. So the deadline came and passed and I still had this small sketchbook.

When I became more confident with the red pencil/microns on the sketch cards, I decided to make it an all-Sombulus sketchbook with original finished art, perhaps as a Kickstarter giveaway or something in the future. It lives in my purse, and I work on it when I go out sometimes. I only have 5 out of 50 pages done, though. We’ll see how many more I can do in 2014!

Tombow Brush Markers

I’ve had a small collection of Tombow Brush Pens for years. I gave up for a while, out of frustration over how blended and smooth everyone else’s marker work compared to mine. But at the suggestion of the amazing Varethane, I got out my brushes and started painting with them watercolor style. Completely blew my mind, and now I’m looking at my marker collection in a whole new way. I was never great with the looseness of watercolor, but I know the basics (let the layers dry between washes, work from light to dark), so I’m really really excited about them now.

Sombulus Q&A Comics

If you’re reading Sombulus but haven’t been catching these Q&A comics (look for the vote link at the bottom of Sombulus updates to see them), I gotta say you’re missing out on a lot of ground-level world-building. They certainly don’t mark a high point in my technical art skills, but it’s almost embarrassing how answering questions like “How does Rana’s hair get so pointy?” is helping me with character and world building behind the scenes. Plus, it’s so much fun!

Manga Studio 5

The differences between Photoshop releases over the last several years have been mostly minor, so I usually expect other programs to be the same. But when I won Manga Studio from the amazing Liz Staley (who is starting up her giant robot webcomic again soon and I’m super-pumped!) and heard how awesome the coloring tools were, I had to try it out.

Still learning what all the brush and panel options do, but the blending and pen tools are as smooth as butter and the magic wand tool has options for ignoring those tiny gaps in linework that happen when you don’t ink super-carefully. Gah! That rocks my world so hard! It’s been so slick already, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Looking forward to picking up Liz’s book and learning more.

How about you?

What kind of techniques and approaches did you try in 2013? What are you looking forward to for next year? Whether it’s developing better drawing habits or taking on new challenges, may your pencils be sharp and your erasers be handy!

What belongs in your toolbox?

1 Jul
Art Snacks sends you random art supplies at regular intervals.

Art Snacks sends you random art supplies at regular intervals.  Cool!

We live a very spoiled artistic life.  There are amazing tools within our reach that artists a generation ago would have died to have such easy access to.  You can purchase any variety of medium you want online, or buy a monthly subscription for random art supplies to just try random stuff.  We don’t have to mix our own pigments to paint a picture, we don’t have to stretch our own canvases.  Heck, we don’t even have to use paint or canvases to paint at all.

And learning resources are not something we have to go to a fancy expensive art school to acquire: scans of textbooks to anatomy tutorials and classes to online communities where you can solicit critique are abundant and sometimes free. Even the great artists before us have something to teach us all through careful analysis of their work.  With so much stuff around and a finite amount of time and money, the fact is clear:  Your artistic toolbox will never ever ever be full of everything you need in your future as an artist. (Unless you meet a time traveler who can help you out.)

Starry Night Tardis art print, by Etsy artist Julie Smith

Starry Night Tardis art print, by Etsy artist Julie Smith

That said, you only have so much money, you can only get to so many places, you learn better some ways than others, and simply you’re going to have other priorities in life than art, like food or relationships.  That’s normal.

But there are artists who have tools within reach that don’t pursue them.   They’ve convinced themselves that they’re as good as they’re going to get, they don’t know where to start, or they’re not talented enough to learn anything anyway.  Furthermore, if they’re surrounded by tools and don’t build anything, they must be just lazy.

These attitudes are pure poison for an artist, and it can lead into a downspiral of self-confidence.  And the problem isn’t necessarily with your artistic skill, but having the right mindset to navigate and find what tools you can use.  So how do you navigate the tools at your disposal when there are so many?

Get a taste of the “tried and true”, then decide what you need.

There’s a recent spate of back-and-forth about the value of art schools, where awesome successful artists like Noelle Stevenson and Noah Bradley opine on what you need and what you don’t.  They’re both right, because you can get something out of anything if it’s the right tool for you.  If you’ve been taking piecemeal classes and know the structure and every-day community of a school is what motivates you, do that.   If online coursework suits your budget and needs, do that.  Both of them make a point of finances, and I’ll do the same.  Don’t cut off your arms and legs financially to get the most awesome art education ever, because it’s not going to pay back a $200K loan no matter what you do.

Venture outside the Academy of Free.

That said, there’s some basic stuff that people avoid, even in the face of decades of recommendations, because they’re convinced they have a free alternative that works just as well.  Denying yourself access to a tool like a figure drawing class with a live model is like hammering in a nail with a spanner.  Can you do the job with a spanner?  Maybe.  Is it necessary to use a hammer?  No.  But the fact is that a hammer is easier and more effective for some jobs.  If it’s right there for the taking and you’re not allergic to hammers, save up and find a way to add it to your toolbox.  Having both a spanner AND a hammer in your toolbox can only help.

Tumblr and Pinterest anatomy references are nice, but not as good as learning from a live model and good instructor.

Tumblr anatomy references are handy (hahaha), but will take on a whole new meaning after hand studies from a live model and good instructor.

Making “trying new things” part of your life.

Keep a keen ear out on the artists you like, and note how they work  what mediums or techniques to use.  Work a “trying new things” day into your life, your schedule, and your mind.  Join a new online community or see what’s local through and ask for recommendations on stuff to work on.  By keeping an open mind (and not giving up until you have a decent understanding of what you can get out of a tool) you always learn something new.  Plus, communities are just fun ways to meet people.

Focus on your priorities.

Every tool within your reach could be a valuable one, so how can we find the ones that will work unless we collect them ALL?  This philosophy might get you a lot of bookmarks in your reference folder or a lot of books, but will quickly overwhelm you into inaction if you don’t have a focused system in place.  One thing you can do is find a medium you want to try (markers) and a technique you want to try (tonal variation) and focus on that for a few weeks/months.  Take in only information about those subjects, and only as much as you can process.  Google the rest later.

A recent project using my characters from Sombulus.  I'm focusing on color techniques with Tombow brush markers.

A recent project using my characters from Sombulus. I’m focusing on color techniques with Tombow brush markers.

It doesn’t stop at art.

While this post focuses on artist tools, there are so many things these techniques will teach you.  With proper navigation, you can cut the clutter and find the tools that make you a better artist, speaker, designer, developer or whatever else you want to do.

Now go forth into the Workshop of the World, my friends, and build something awesome!

My first year freelancing, and 6 things I learned from it.

4 Apr

March was an exciting milestone for me. It marked my first anniversary of setting sail from my day job, moving to a new town, and going full-time with my freelance graphic and web design work.   I had been in my position as an in-house designer (that’s where you go work for a single company doing everything, instead of an agency where you do one thing for a bunch of companies)  for six and a half years, which is like 45.5 in dog years.

So as you can imagine, there was a little fear in leaving that environment, locking myself in an office with nobody to talk to, and trying to find enough work to pay the bills.

But man, the last year has been incredible, and I hope I’m fortunate enough to continue doing freelance design for many years to come.  Here are some of the things I learned this year as a freelancer:

  1. Health insurance is expensive, but not as bad as I thought it was going to be.  I was very worried about individual policies, having always been part of a company for that.  We’re paying about $200/month now, which was not nearly as bad as I was anticipating.  We’re young and healthy for now, and that’s working out for us.
  2. I don’t get 8 hours of work done every day like I used to, and that’s okay. You should always try to get something done every day, but there are some days where you’ll work 12 hours straight, and some days where 2 feels impossible.  I spent a few weeks beating myself up about being so unproductive, but it’s perfectly normal.  My advice is to forgive yourself and tackle the rest later.
  3. Taxes are a barrel full of misery.  Get a pro to handle them.  I have been singing praises to and baking cookies for my old Girl Scout troopmate Layah, who passed her CPA exam and is now diligently figuring out my taxes for April.  Because self-employment tax payments are based on your GUESS  about how much you’re going to make your first year freelancing?  You end up doodling things like this.
  4. Podcasts and audiobooks are godsends.  When I first got my own home office, it absolutely killed my love for drawing and made some of my repetitive tasks really arduous.  I felt so cramped and trapped, I turned to Facebook or Twitter for “social contact”, which then turned into procrastination. Now I’ve got my favorites on my RSS feed so I always have something on-hand when I know I need to sit down and draw something, and it helps keep me focused.
  5. Having a flexible schedule is a lot of fun.   All of a sudden, I could make my own hours!  So I changed my “weekends” to Friday and Sunday, and decided I would “leave work” at 2pm (I’m an early bird, so I like getting to work at the crack of 7am).  I went hiking, walking, drew a lot, hit the gym, drew comics, helped my husband play-test board games… all those things I was too tired to do when I got home from work, or would have had to take time off to do.  I figured if all I was going to do was hole up in an office from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, I wasn’t really experiencing the “free” part of the freelancing experience.
  6. Having a flexible workflow is… not always so fun.  All of a sudden, my regular clients could just stop giving me work!  No two week notice or anything.  A few clients went from 10 emails a day to radio silence when 2013 hit, for various financial reasons.  Thankfully, my dance card wasn’t completely empty, so I was okay.   But it quickly woke me up to the reality of how tenuous a freelancer’s position can be in the eyes of a big company.  It made me step up and seek out smaller, numerous jobs to make sure the dry spells wouldn’t last long.

Anyway, all bad stuff aside, it’s been a blast. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of amazing companies my first year and pay the rent at the same time.  I’ll wrap things up with a few things that got added to my portfolio this year.

Need a designer? Check out my graphic design portfolio and ping me through @designninjitsu on Twitter or my LinkedIn profile.

How to be an artist on Tumblr.

20 Mar

So I got a question from an up-and-coming artist about how to market herself on Tumblr about a week ago, and some of you have gotten harried emails from me scrambling for answers and advice.

I found it ironic that anyone would ask me about Tumblr. I’ve been around from the days of IRC, and nothing has confused me more than Tumblr. As a medium, I don’t even think MySpace has gotten so much flak. John Allison believes it’s for looky-loo commenters that’ll never put money in his pocket. Kris Straub perpetuates the belief that its users nuke attribution with finger-wiggling glee (note this was in 2011, though).

From by Kris Straub

“A Tribute to Attribution” by Kris Straub, 2011

I respect their views and their choice of where they do/don’t want to see their art, but the comments are condescending to a point that blocks out understanding of an audience.  If there’s anything graphic design has taught me, it’s that understanding audiences is always worth it. I’ve been using Tumblr for a while, and I believe:

  • Tumblr is neither good nor evil. It’s just a medium. And it’s big enough that there are just as many good communities as crummy ones who congregate on it.
  • …that said, you may have to redefine “community” a little to get anything out of it. For those of us who are used to forum-thread strings where you can react not only to the person who posted something, but to the other people commenting on it, it is downright frustrating. But once you accept that that’s not what it’s built for, it gets easier.
  • Buckets are the primary form of communication. I call Twitter and Tumblr “streams”. You’ll never step in the same water twice, and most stuff just floats right past you in moments. However, unlike Twitter, Tumblr has a bunch of kids at the end of the stream with buckets scooping out the water they like and redumping it in their tributaries so they can swim in it again with all their friends. This attracts people who are interested in swimming and bringing more buckets of that kind of water to each tributary.
  • For some people, Tumblr is the internet. There are some people for whom Tumblr is the first and best way of meeting strangers on the internet that they’ve ever used, and meeting strangers (let’s call this networking if it makes you feel less creeped out) is the first thing you’ve got to do if you want to have a healthy, balanced internet life. You might call that sad if you’re old like me, but really, we had more than our share of laughable internet tools, so I don’t think we can point fingers.

What makes a Tumblr Artist Successful?

Ava’s Demon, by Michelle Czajkowski

Given this, there is definitely a value to building a Tumblr audience with your art, and many artists have found ways to do so.  Ava’s Demon is tearing up everything in the Comic Mix March Madness competition. My friend Xella also pointed me toward Cloud Factory, a comic with 2,000 followers which hasn’t actually started yet. So something’s definitely happening there.  Tumblr is never going to be where you sell t-shirts or get ad revenue, but it might just be what funds your Kickstarter in 24 hours or less or fills your commission slots.

So how do you become a Tumblr household name? If I had to come up with a gauge of artistic Tumblr success, it would be:

  • Have visual impact that’s distinct beyond your signature at the bottom. If you saw 3 pictures from Michelle Czajkowski or Marlo Meekins on your dashboard over a span of three weeks, you’d be able to tell another one from a mile away. This is your identity on Tumblr as an artist, not your URL on the bottom or your signature in the corner.
  • Don’t be fooled by one-hit wonder posts. The numbers can be exciting when you become “Tumblr famous” and get a lot of reblogs, but think of it in terms of billboards. When you’re in your car passing a billboard, you don’t stop your car and interact with that company.  And after it’s been torn down, no one’s going to pass by your billboard again.  But they work on the principle that there’s 10 of them in a 5 mile radius.  So you’ve got to build another one. And another. And another. Think of The Hawkeye Initiative and Bitchface: The Masterworks. Like a good ad campaign, the message is similar post to post.  You know who it’s from.  And they’ve got the humor value that makes your friends want to rebucket it from the stream.
  • Create a fandom that feeds itself, even when you don’t. This is the golden fleece that everyone’d like to know how to obtain (and even the people who have it aren’t sure where it came from half the time), but if you can be awesome enough that people want to reinterpret your characters in their setting, you will get your audience just on buzz alone.

Bitchface: The Masterworks, which gives nods to the (obviously) sass-talking dames of classical art.

What do you think?

While it’s easy to make Tumblr a villain, the truth about Tumblr is that it’s working out for some artists, and we can only benefit from figuring out why.  I’d love to hear more about your experiences with promoting your own art with Tumblr, or other artists you follow!

(And of course, you can follow me on Tumblr if you like!)