So You Wanna Be A Webcartoonist #6

Chapter 6: The Great Purge of ’08

As many fellow cartoonists probably remember, late ’08 was a bad time. A lot of people were lamenting a hard year due to the recession, which had just started in earnest. But, worst of all, what had heretofore been one of the major ad providers for many of us (Adsdaq) started removing many webcomics from its roster seemingly for no reason.

This included me, and single-handedly removed 30-50% of my revenue, literally overnight. It was sort of the dark parallel to the nervous day I described in the last chapter. Imagine one day your boss walks in and tells you you’re gonna get half as much pay from now on. Yeah. That’s how I felt.

Plus, I was not then aware of the cyclical nature of the ad market. For those who don’t know, January is a bad month for ad sales. In general, over the course of the year sales improve and improve until you reach the orgy of revenue that is the Winter holidays. So, smart publishers do two things: 1) Buy up cheap ads in January. 2) Squirrel away money in case the first quarter is a lean one.

Leave aside the first point. It’s just good advice, and not relevant to the story.

Luckily, I had inadvertently saved a good amount of money, since I’m generally a fairly cheap guy. I’m not big on fancy food, I don’t care for clothes, I don’t play video games, and I don’t smoke, do drugs, or drink (okay, I have a cider every 6 months or so…). Unluckily, I didn’t know anything about taxes.

As someone who had only worked normally paid office jobs (albeit it weird ones at times), I had always had the taxes taken out of my paycheck. And, as someone who never made much money, I’d always gotten a small refund. So, I’d never thought too hard about how I ought to pay taxes. Well, I’ll tell you the exact numbers on my income in 2008, since it’s a while back now, and it’ll inform the story.

Mostly from comics, but in part from doing some freelance closed captioning, in 2008 I grossed about $45,000. If I had to guess, about 5,000 of that went to various supplies for business – computer stuff, art supplies, servers, advertising, etc. I also had a decent amount of expenses from college tuition and books. I didn’t realize at the time that there’s a rate of about 15% on income you make freelancing at that level. It’s a completely fair rate, but I wasn’t prepared for it. You see, due to the incredible windfall of November and December, about half of that money had come in the last two months. If I had made a normal amount in those months and combined that with my school and business write-offs, I probably would’ve been fine. But, this was not the case.

Come tax season, I ended up owing (if I recall correctly) $7,000 between state and federal taxes. I couldn’t afford to pay this all at once, so I got on a payment plan of $600 a month plus quarterly taxes.

Oh, and I should mention that in March, Kelly and I had gotten engaged. So, I was also paying for a ring, though this was somewhat offset by the fact that we moved together in June.

Oh, and we started shooting SMBC regularly as of that July, I believe. Fortunately, James covered the first (and by far most expensive shoot) with some money he’d won in a writing competition, and Marty supplied the crew equipment. But, thereafter, I was more or less in charge of production costs.

So you see I was getting really hit financially from a lot of directions at once. In the first 6 months of 2009, revenue was down (due to the seasonality of ad sales), and expenses were way up, for all the above reasons. Within just half a year I had gone from thinking I was financially liberated to carefully watching my budget.

Now, why do I mention all this? Because by the end of the year, I was doing great, and had nearly doubled my revenue. I had done a lot of my best comics yet, completely redesigned the way I sell ads, and put out what are still my most successful t-shirt designs. This wasn’t despite the turmoil, but because of it. I had inadvertently set up a higher bar for myself in 2009, and was forced to jump over it.

When you’re in a bad situation, there is the temptation to just curl up and hide from it. This can rear its head in insidious ways, too. For example, because you’re stressed, you might spend an afternoon playing a mindless video game (yes, I know, not all video games are mindless, but some certainly are) rather than reading a book. Now and then this is fine – de-stressing can be important. But, if you do it too much, you’re putting yourself in a position to get even more stressed later. There’s a cumulative quality to it – the more you learn, the easier things get. The less you learn, the harder things get. Richard Hamming has my favorite quote on this notion. It’s an idea you should take to heart if you want to get ahead in just about anything:

“What Bode [Hamming's Boss at Bell Labs] was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.”

So, by “curl up and hide,” I don’t just mean avoiding work. I also mean avoiding the things that are necessary to do good work in the future.

If it’s what you want, as I’ve said in many previous chapters, you have to be willing to suffer for it. And so, as the year went on, I designed more merchandise, wrote better comics improved my drawing, read harder, and took on new projects. It wasn’t always easy, but the boat held together – I never had to ask anyone for help, I never had to get a day job, and I kept up a reasonably good pace on my self-teaching.

In the next chapter, I’ll talk about Comic-Con 2009 and about SMBC Theater in the latter half of 2009.

Next Chapter: Bigger and Better

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10 Responses to So You Wanna Be A Webcartoonist #6

  1. Desirio says:

    That Hamming quote is one of the most inspiring I’ve ever read: I think that facing the idea that a bit more work a day leads to a way better version of yourself is a great stimulus. You can also see it the other way around: if you don’t do it, you’ll be a worse version of yourself in the future, you should think it over.

    Your life is inspiring, too. It’s nice to see that it’s really possible to achieve through both talent and hard work.
    Keep’em coming!

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  3. anise says:

    It’s very inspiring to hear how artists get themselves through lean times, especially when the beginning of the webcomic endeavour feels like one long lean period. Over the past 6 months I’ve been looking long and hard at the webcartoonist model next to the print one, and have been pleasantly surprised that while webcartoonists, at first glance, seem to operate on some sort of crazy luck model, it’s really hard work, ingenuity and perseverance.

    I would like to hear more about your ads and how you deal with them. That’s another thing that I think most artists think is boring to talk about, but is really quite insightful.

  4. Tony says:

    Another great post Zach, I’m really enjoying this.

    Anise, I’ve written a tutorial on setting up ads on your website and strategies to maximize profit. Here’s a link (Zach, feel free to delete this if you feel it’s spam)

  5. Daniel says:

    “I didn’t realize at the time that there’s a rate of about 15% on income you make freelancing at that level. It’s a completely fair rate, but I wasn’t prepared for it.”

    How can that be a “completely fair rate”, it’s more than 0?

  6. Necandum says:

    I think it’s interesting how in all these sorts of accounts that I’ve read, no one has ever achieved anything without hard-work. I mean, you’d think blind luck would intervene for at least one person every now and then.

    And because I can’t resist (sorry if you were being tongue-in-cheeck):


    ‘Coz the governmint needs money to pay the clerks to write the paychecks for the construction workers to build the roads so that people to get to work to earn money to pay for their computer and internet and then go and read Zach’s comic. And preferably buy a shirt.

  7. Steven says:

    It wasn’t just ad networks that were hit late 2008 that year. My business changes a monthly fee via credit card. All of a sudden credit cards started failing left, right, and centre from lack of funds. Bad times. I’m impressed by anyone who managed to keep things going through it.

  8. TJ says:

    As a longtime ardent-but-silent fan of SMBC (and now this blog), I just wanted to let you know how *incredibly* much I appreciated this post (as well as Ch5 in this series).

    The concepts you express here (particularly in the last few paragraphs, after “When you’re in a bad situation…”) are insightful and critically important, and incredibly timely to my current situation. As a grad student going through a ton of crap in my marriage (found out last month about an ongoing affair my spouse has been having) and feeling like I want to quit graduate school (and life in general), this post single-handedly reminded me of why I’m doing what I’m doing — that I’m in school for a reason, and that I have goals that this program will allow me to accomplish. As previous posters said, it was inspiring.

    It’s not exaggerating in the slightest to say that this post got me off my butt (after hours of mindless time-wasting) and back to work today.

    Just wanted to send sincere thanks for all you do… SMBC brightens my day, the Weinerworks feeds my mind, and this post got me through the day. You rock… please keep the dick jokes coming.

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