I Got a Monster in the Mail!

And not just any monster, a purple monster.

And not just any purple monster, this monster represents the achievement of a Big Hairy Audacious Goal!

BHAG and Chef George hanging out in my office

BHAG and Chef George hanging out in my office

I received BHAG (or Mr BHAGgy, as I like to call him) from Nicole Fende, the Numbers Whisperer, a friend and client of mine, for finishing the Big Project: What to Feed Your Raiding Party. Nicole received him from Tea Silvestre, The Word Chef, who had him made and sent him out into the world to reward and encourage others to achieve their very own Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

Now that Mr. BHAGgy has spent some time with us, I’ll be on the look-out for the next worthy recipient. Have you done something Big, Hairy AND Audacious lately? Let me know!

Now, then, with Mr. BHAGgy and Chef George looking over my shoulder every night, it’s been a bit tough to go back to the pre-book status quo. And this past weekend I realized just why it felt like pulling teeth, trying to get that week’s comics put together: I’m not in love with the format anymore. I don’t have a problem with a weekly schedule–I blog 5 times a week. No, it’s not the schedule–at least not only the schedule–it’s how much time those strips tie up when things aren’t clicking. And how much time there just isn’t if I were to be faced with a killer opportunity or have a wild hair that needs straightening right that moment (metaphorically speaking, of course).

So, effective immediately, Cocktail Hour as we knew it is done. I’ll still use it for odd one-shots here and there, but a weekly schedule is out the window. For now, Where the Geeks Are is going to stay the same, though I anticipate a change in format somewhere down the line. Right now I’m about halfway through the Sophie’s Tale chapter, and when that comes to a close decide what changes would be best for it. Probably doing away with the twice-weekly 4-panel strip in favor of page layouts and possibly a downloadable chapter at a time instead of regular updates. This is just me thinking out loud, though, so grain of salt and all that.

Because that’s where my heart lies right now–not the salt, that would sting–in book-length projects or one-offs. I want to explore some new subject material (for me), and be free to pursue short term and longer term projects as they present themselves. I also have book projects I want to complete for Sips & Shots, so there’s that, too.

I’m still here, I’m still drawing, but my goals–big, hairy, audacious or otherwise–and just shifting.

I hope you’ll hang around and see what I’ve got up my sleeve!

Finally Finding My Place

Post-Con Report | Ancient City Con, Jacksonville, Florida

This article first appeared in the August, 2012, issue of Self Publisher! Magazine.

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My first 3 years of tabling at comics conventions were grim. High hopes going in, stark reality waiting back at home. Low sales showing me that I just wasn’t reaching the right audience. Scant pageview increases after each show for my webcomics, but not much else. I knew my premise was sound and my skills, though still improving, were there, I just hadn’t found the right way to connect with potential readers.

Luckily I’m persistent (read as: stubborn) and I had more than just the one idea up my sleeve. After taking a year and a half off from conventions I’m happy to report I’ve made my come-back, and finally figured a few things out in relation to coming home with more than questions after a convention.

In its sixth year, this was the first year Ancient City Con filled out into a full 3-day convention. Since it was just a couple hours away, it seemed the perfect place to put What to Feed Your Raiding Party out in front of strangers and see if this dog would hunt. Not only did it hunt, it tracked, treed and brought the prize home!

Keep It Simple, Scribbler

Unlike other conventions, where I stuffed my table with 2 books, 4 minis, merchandise and prints, all I sold at Ancient City Con was my newest work. I noticed, at previous conventions, that people would glance at my table and their eyes would glaze over and move on, quickly, to the next table. I think there was just too much going on that they didn’t know what to look at, so this time I streamlined the table and I think it helped.

But Not Too Simple!

Not that I went ultra-modern with just the book on the table, that’s too far on the other side of the spectrum.

We kept varying heights on the table by placing the Wheel of XP on one end and an 11×17 sign on the other, along with our chef-monkey-mascot. The Wheel was also useful for keeping the cash box out of view and the sign for tucking away my tall glass of hot tea and messy art supplies. We put small stacks of books at the front of the table and some leaning on stands behind.

Have Something Folks Want to Touch

Comparing past cons to present, because of the number of items for sale, I would keep only one of each book standing up and the rest in a rack behind. If there’s only one of something, most people aren’t going to disturb the display to flip through it. Having multiple copies around made them feel more accessible–I’ll bet that’s why bookstores do those big displays, huh?

The Wheel of XP also generated interest. I mean, you’ve got a wooden wheel with values on it, who wouldn’t want to give it a whirl. We had plenty of folks walk up and ask “What’s that” or “Can I spin the wheel?” The fact that the Wheel was a glorified “gift with purchase” made it a great lead-in to start the sales spiel.

Bribery Works

Folks, I was selling a cookbook, it only made sense to give away samples from the book to get people to stop at our table. Instead of selling my book the moment they came into table range, it was like I was hosting a party at home and offering my guests something to eat. As someone who hates the hard sell and never wants to come off like a huckster, being able to offer something people were more likely to take and enjoy calmed my nerves considerably.

Granted, plenty of people declined, but enough came up and accepted my offering, and a good portion of them took a moment (usually while they were chewing) to glance at the table, giving me an opening to say “If you like them, the recipe can be found right here…” By the end of the 3 days I had my pitch down pat (mostly) and some people were handing me their money before I’d even finished.

Breaking Even, and Then Some

While it’s true I consider the long-term effects of getting my name out there just as much as I do sales, it’s the numbers that are the best measure of whether a convention was successful or not. Because I’d made enough in pre-sales and first-month orders to cover the table fees and hotel, my break-even point was around 18 books to cover gas, meals, and the extra costs associated with the samples I made to share at the table. Not only did I meet my break-even point, I also made enough to start planning for conventions for later in the year.

And just to put things into perspective, about ? of the way through Day 2 of the con, my helper monkey informed me that I’d officially outsold my first 3 years of conventions. Combined.

More Than Just Money

But sales aren’t everything. We were lucky to be placed between writers and artists that were friendly, the staff was amazing, and the attendees were some of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Again, it probably didn’t hurt that I was feeding anyone who stopped by, but there’s a reason southern hospitality is so renowned.

Ancient City Con proved that I’d finally created something people were interested in and would happily buy (or trade for, in the case of fellow vendors). With patience, I have hopes that my webcomics will find their places, too. That’s when I’ll have to spring for the 10x10s so I’ve got enough room for everything!

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Jennifer “Scraps” Walker is the artist behind the webcomics Cocktail Hour and Where the Geeks Are. Her newest project, What to Feed Your Raiding Party, is the comic book cookbook that challenges gamers to cook their way out of the fast food dungeon. All of her current projects–blogs, cocktails, and comics–can be found via her online hub, www.jenniferwalkeronline.com.

Epic Adventures Across the Pond

An Interview with Amy Letts, by Jennifer “Scraps” Walker that first appeared in the August, 2012, issue of Self Publisher! Magazine.

With the advent of webcomics, the barriers to entry to self-publish a comic came down to just one question: do you have access to the Internet?

Some see this as watering down the industry, giving more credence to the gatekeepers at the major publishing houses than, perhaps, they deserve. Others, myself included, acknowledge that it takes more than an Internet connection to keep a comic going. Hundreds of comics start strong and fizzle out. Many times the dreaded “real life” crops up, forcing creators to snatch what time they can for this hobby-with-a-hope-of more. Such is the case for UK artist, Amy Letts.

‘Epic Fail’, Letts’ RPG-based comic, first hit the web in 2009 after a previous comic attempt suffered from a common malady: a failure to plan. EF, on the other hand, is loosely based on the author’s long-running RPG game. As a gamer, myself, I can see where having such rich fodder can help keep the story inspired.  What began as a weekly, long-form comic has, over the years, turned into an update-when-possible comic–something that is generally decried by the webcomickerati—the potential negative effects (loss of readership, etc.) Letts combats with a sidebar progress-meter leading up to the next update and blog posts to keep the site moving.

It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Amy Letts.

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SP!: As a comic artist who did not grow up reading many comics, other than what was in the newspaper, I’m always curious: were you a comics fan growing up?

Letts: I remember reading the Beano, the Dandy, Sonic the Comic, My Pony, and, of course, the Star Trek comic books! But my literary choice was fantasy, so I kept my writing and art separate to a large extent. I do remember drawing a very detailed comic about the antics of our family dogs though.
It took rediscovering comics on the Internet for me to realise that fantasy comics were “allowed.” It was webcomics like Dungeon Crawl Inc., 8-Bit Theatre, LINT, and Order of the Stick that made me think “I can do this.”

SP!: How long have you been drawing?

Letts: I probably started “seriously” by drawing Ponies when I was 7 years old, although my memory is a bit fuzzy back then. I took my first commission when I was 14.

SP!: Wow, 14, that’s pretty impressive. Jumping ahead a bit, you went the Fine Arts route and got your degree, started your web-design company at 20 and, now, you’re 28 and doing a webcomic. How much time per week do you spend on your comic?

Letts: It’s hard to work out exactly how much time I’m spending on comic projects at the moment because I have to grab little pieces of time between my other jobs; it probably averages at a couple of days a week.

SP!: Like most of us, then, I guess you have to make ends meet by means other than your comic. How do you manage?

Letts: [Since] I cannot support myself making comics (yet!)… I work several jobs to pay the bills.
1) I’m a self-employed Website Designer, building and maintaining websites for various business clients.
2) I’m a professional Artist, doing everything from Pet Portraits to Album Covers.
3) I’m a Clinical Teaching Associate, teaching Medical students about Women’s Health via Role-Play.
4) I’m a Clinical Volunteer, meaning I’m paid to take experimental vaccines and contract tropical diseases, but I’m potentially helping to save millions of lives!
5) I’m a Life-Model, I take my clothes off for money. I mean ART!
6) Well… I’m kind of applying for another job. Of course I don’t know if I’ll get it. But I’m moving towards Teaching Art in the local community.

SP!: I’ve spoken to many comics creators who were inspired by webcomics to create their own, only to find that they no longer have the time to read the comics that inspired them in the first place! Do you find yourself falling into that habit?

Letts: That’s somewhat true, however I have always been quite selective about what comics I read and have not been in the habit of checking back daily. My preferred reading style is to check on them every now and then and do a bit of a stint, so the comics have to work when read back-to-back.

SP!: What makes a comic (print or web) worth carving out the time to read when you’re already so busy?

Letts: I need a plot that is going somewhere, I’ve dumped comics from my reading list because they seemed to be going nowhere. I follow comics that seem to be building towards a good ending. I need a payoff of some kind. In addition they need to make me giggle a bit.

SP!: So, eventually, you’d like to support yourself by doing comics full-time. Do you have a plan to get from the catch-as-catch-can to the full-time business and what does it look like?

Letts: Well my understanding of webcomics as a business is that people can read your comic for free so you need to sell peripherals to make dosh. This year I’ve been working a bit on ‘product development’ – stuff besides my comic I can sell – and next year’s conventions will serve as the market research!

Aside from that I’ve spoken to some major UK bookstores who’ve given me invaluable advice about what I need to do to if I want to be stocked by them. But drawing more comics is step number one – and making them super awesome so everyone will want them!

SP!: Have you ever put out print editions of your webcomic?

Letts: Yes I have created a printed version of my webcomic ‘Epic Fail.’ It is in comic book format and I intend to release a series of 12 encompassing the whole story. So far only #1 is done, although #2 is pretty far along in the production process.

There’s two ‘versions’ available, one from IndyPlanet, the other a Limited Edition of 100. The Limited Edition one is a bit nicer, slightly larger, better quality and on lush paper. I was quite hands-on with this because I wanted it to be as good as I could make it. Because I handle these personally…you can also get it signed, of course. I’m nearly sold out of these now, but the IndyPlanet version (being print-on-demand) is always in stock!

SP!: Do you ever exhibit at conventions? What’s been your experience with that?

Letts: I occasionally exhibit at conventions but I suffer from social anxiety so they can be a pretty terrifying experience for me! However each convention is different – amazingly different! – so I’m gradually sampling new ones. This year I’m doing Mkomix and Caption. Next year I’d like to try a Role-Play Gaming convention (since those are ma peeps)!

SP1: The indie comics market changes so rapidly, the best thing we can do is learn from each other instead of trying to reinvent the wheel each time. What have been the best strategies, for you so far, of getting the word out about your comics?

Letts: When I’d put out a mere 3 pages of Epic Fail I joined the Webcomic War – a competition where you earned points by promoting your comic and the best promoter won. I came 2nd, defeated by Union of Heroes, and it was a really good crash course in promoting!

Basically you want a lot of relevant sites linking to you, and a good way to do that and build good will is to send Fan Art to your favourite webcomics! Everyone loves Fan Art so they will most likely post it and link to you!

Aside from that, Twitter worked pretty well for me. Just don’t go around spamming ‘Hey check my comic out’ because that is a sure-fire way to annoy everyone!

SP!: Is Epic Fail the project you see yourself concentrating on for the duration or do you have other books/stories/characters waiting for their turn?

Letts: I expect Epic Fail to be my main thing, always, but I do have some short stories I’d like to tell. I’m quite interested in making a comic about Migraines, because I am a sufferer and I guess I’d like to make my invisible illness a bit more visible.

Along more light-hearted lines I’ve created two characters called Fugly and Crunt who I think are the perfect double act! People hate Fugly because he’s ugly (terrible comeliness), and people hate Crunt because he’s rude (awful charisma), but together they find friendship. It’s kinda cute.

SP1: Finally, because most of us would love a do-over at some point, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started publishing your webcomic?

Letts: How to organise myself and stop procrastinating: Make ‘To Do’ lists, itemise tasks and do them one step at a time.

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Best of luck to you, Amy.

Epic Fail can be found at http://epicfail.xepher.net/, while Amy’s art and design services can be found through www.amuletts.com.