On Business: The Library Tour

By | Monday, November 10, 2014 Leave a Comment
I happened to notice that webcomic creator Bill Barnes would be presenting a "Cartooning in the Digital Age" program at nearby public library this past weekend, and made the trek out to hear him. I arrived late, and found I had to stand in the back because there was such a large turnout. The audience was primarily kids in the tween range, plus a dozen or so adults, most of whom seemed to be parents. There was also one couple who were clearly fans of his, as they were both wearing Unshelved t-shirts.

The content was basically a "how to make comics" primer, covering ideation through production with even some notes about the business side of things. Barnes was generally fun and engaging, and had the kids' attention for pretty much the full two hours, which impressed me. (He did include a short break about halfway through.) He also had some jokes and references that only the adults caught, which in itself made me chuckle.

But the piece that really caught my ear was when he was talking about the business of webcomics. He explained that he essentially gives his comic away for free, but then goes on to sell book compilations and t-shirts and such. Pretty standard webcomics business model so far. Well, and he also did this really successful Kickstarter. Also not uncommon. And then he also goes around the country doing talks like this one. I went back to his site, and saw that he'd been to around 100 different libraries! I've known about people presenting at libraries for decades, but it's the first time it occured to me that it might be a part of a comic creator's baliwick.

Now, Barnes has something of a unique "in" in that he's been drawing a webcomic about librarians for over a decade. So he's got a decent amount of cultural cache built up in that community. Even if they don't read his comics regularly, I can almost guarantee that librarians circulate individual strips internally via email and post them on bulletin boards that patrons don't see. So even if they don't know Barnes by name, I don't doubt he's recognized as "that guy who drew that funny comic Barb sent me."

What I think is the interesting/poignaint takeaway here is that Barnes is using his specific skillsets (cartooning and public speaking) AND his cultural cache (stemming from cartoons based in/upon libraries) AND his knowledge-base (how libraries are set up, and who organizes what) to carve out an additional revenue stream that isn't available to most webcartoonists. Not everyone can do that. I'm sure there are other unique niches that Barnes could not fit into. But that is part of how/why some webcomickers are able to make a living off their work, and others are not -- they find creative ways to exploit their talents as cartoonists that not everyone is able to capitalize on. Sure, you can get a t-shirt of almost any mildly popular webcomic, but what it is that the cartoonist her/himself does beyond that is what makes them stand out.
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