One of the frustrating things about being a cartoonist is that from my experience you get very few measures of how well your work is doing. What I’ve written here isn’t a guide to ‘doing it better’, it is my observations of my own career thus far. I’ve got a few methods for figuring out how well I’m doing that I’ve found useful including web stats, tweets, positive reviews, sales from my online shop, how much stock I can sell to comic shops and whether or not I’m being asked and paid to do cool stuff like consultancy, workshops, teaching or talking to people. I know that each of those things doesn’t necessarily translate directly to success, but my guide has always been the question ‘is this more than last year?’ The idea of ‘more’ being aligned with ‘better’ might not be the best way to think about it though.
I think to talk about the idea of success means that by necessity you must have a yardstick to measure it against. The vague notion of success doesn’t exist in isolation. I’ve been thinking about this and I think there are a few ways to measure success from the perspective of my own experience - the personal comparison, the retrospective comparison and the aspirational comparison.
I see the personal as ‘can I draw horses, Y/N?’ —> if N —> ‘Learn to draw horses’ if Y —> ‘Can I draw Bicycles’ Am I enjoying this, Y/N? That kind of thing, you get the idea.
The retrospective method is a comparison between two time periods and is relatively straightforward to engage with and quantify - are my web stats higher than before? Do I have more followers on social media? Did someone I admire say something nice (or not) about what I’d done? How many books did I sell? Add up those numbers and compare it against a comparable time period. See? Easy - more equals better, less equals worse. Slap yourself on the back (or not) and keep moving forward.
The aspirational approach I find more difficult as it requires that I state my intentions ahead of time. I will write/draw/publish this book, I will make X sales, I will grow my web presence by X. It gives you another yardstick to measure your success against, but is less passive than the retrospective method as you are actively working through it Right Now! Don’t Stop! Gotta Achieve Those Wild Unachievable Goals That Seemed So Achievable Two Months Ago!
The more I think about it, the more I realise that my key performance indicators have changed as my career has developed. It started with very personal measures - can I draw hands? Is this the right pen? Am I planning properly? What don’t I know about what I’m trying to do? That shifted as I grew in confidence to an retrospective measure. I’d obsessively check my web stats, sales, twitter followers; more being better as we’ve already established. Now I’m at a point where I have to rethink my measures again. I’ve got a lot that I want to achieve, I’ve got a lot of ideas that I’m not certain will work out but I’ll never be able to quantify if I don’t give them the time to find out. I’m aspiring myself out of my comfort zone and the unknown is a scary place.
Which brings me back to the bikes I talked about at the beginning. That someone would steal the lock and leave the bikes made me feel weird about this bike I really loved and worked so hard to put together. I was immensely proud of it, but that pride was diminished by someone having the best opportunity there was to steal it but deciding it wasn’t worth it.
I found this morning that a digital copy of my book Carry Me is available on download and torrent sites. For the whole rest of my time drawing and self-publishing comics, no-one to the best of my knowledge has taken the time to steal my bike my comics. The opportunity was always there, but I guess no-one wanted it that much. I’m ok with that. Although now I’m in this weird position where I get a new measure of success that says ‘Is the work I do worth stealing?’
I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this. On one hand, this could be diminishing the amount of sales that a book I make could potentially enjoy. On the other hand, it exposes my work to a wider audience which in turn may go ahead and buy a physical copy. Maybe this is a ‘try before you buy’ kind of deal and after trying, these comics fans will be buying. Like I said, I’m not sure what to make of this. I don’t think that there is an effective way of countering piracy. I don’t think I would want to be (or could be) Metallica to their Napster, but the worst case scenario for me is that no-one buys my books ever again and I’m left with boxes of unsold stock mouldering in my studio and I’m in a position less able and motivated to make more comics. The best case scenario is that this is a new avenue for building an audience for my work that translates into roaring sales and I retire aged 35, enormously fat, bald and content. The likelihood is that the outcome will be neither, that the quantities being pirated make very little physical difference to the work I do.
However, what I’m left with is bittersweet. I really don’t know if this is a success or a failure for me. My work now has a new measure of success that I’m not entirely happy about but which I’m largely powerless to stop.
What I would say is that if you haven’t read Carry Me, here are some reviews that give you an idea of what it is all about;
You can buy a physical or a digital copy from the Great Beast Comics store, there’s the ComiXology version here, the Sequential version here and my own store here where you can buy any of my other comics too. Seeing as you’ve taken the time to read this, I’ll give you, loyal reader, 10% off everything on my store with the code DAMNTHEIREYES.