Sunday, August 26, 2012

Creating in a Vacuum Cleaner

A while back my youngest son overheard my wife and I talking about not being able to create in a vacuum. He asked, "why can't you create in a vacuum cleaner?" We both busted up laughing and then moved to damage control when we could tell he didn't appreciate it.

But the question is valid...why can't you create in a vacuum?...or vacuum cleaner?

Everyone's heard that behind every good man is a great woman (so true in my case). I would submit the same is true that behind every good writer is a great critique group.

My critique group is called Brotique probably due to the fact that we are a guys only group. Formed about three years ago - we meet about once/month at El Gallo Giro - a mostly authentic Mexican restaurant in Provo Utah. (A few of us are hiding out just for the food)

Now you might be tempted to think that we're sexist...stupid perhaps but the reason for keeping it guys only is to create an environment free from feminine based censorship - now hold on...we theorized that since most editors are female there is probably a bias in children's publishing away from certain topics or words, issues, etc. We wondered if this would be a good environment to test ideas and stories that might be deemed "inappropriate for children." Ironically we've come to realize that about the only benefit is being able to talk about ludicrous ideas without the fear of being labeled inappropriate, lewd, ribald, uncalled for, or crass.

Still - we feel that there are probably markets that are under represented or completely overlooked that would appeal to a demographic off the radar of some publishers. We like the ability to dream, write, and ponder these types of subjects. In the end we probably perform about the same amount of self censorship that we would get through editors - we just like the idea that we can be rebels - if we wanted to - but we might choose not to rebel - but we could...just so you know.

One thing for certain - we've found a magical combination of talented author/illustrators who are fun loving, thoughtful (when necessary), honest, smart, ingenious, hard working, and encouraging. The unspoken spirit of the group seems to be: "I'll help you - you help me - we'll both help them and in the end we'll all publish fun ideas that change the world for the better."

Meet the bros:

Guy Francis - can MacGyver anything  -  blog!
Adam Griffin - ghost - author/illustrator
Jed Henry - Young Gun - Larper - Amazing Project!
Neil Huges - can work the bowl - raises goats - writes really cool stuff!
Matt Loveridge - has largest collection of dust bunny critters - blog!
Jake Parker - internet entrepreneur - owns 5 small kids - Amazing Project!
Kirk Richards - unsuspecting - fine artist/ illustrator - Amazing Project!
Will Strong - strong - leaps small buildings with multiple bounds - blog!
Will Terry - immature - has been hit by two cars while riding bikes!
Rick Walton - is playing himself - written over 1000 picturebooks - site!
Jake Wyatt - jackhammer - buzzsaw - voltage overload - funny guy - blog!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Dirty Work Of Illustration

Not that illustration is dirty work - unless you're working in chalk, I mean the dirty side of the business...which is, the BUSINESS SIDE. None of us got into this business for the business right? -and if you did then someone gave you the business! If we had really wanted to become business people we would have majored in business and would probably be failing at some facebook knock off right now wondering how much longer the V.C. capital is going to last. Instead we're trying to find some freakin time to do what we love amidst the dreaded task of satisfying assignments we might not really want to work on and doing the dreaded business tasks.

This isn't going to be one of those sugar coated pep talks where I tell you everything's going to be alright. Not going to be a top 5 list of things you can do to make it easier. The fact is -the business side is often what separates the successful from the dreamers. It's like taking out the garbage - if you don't do it regularly it will pile up, get in your way, and stink up the place worse than shell fish rotting in the sun. On top of that your great ideas stack up and stagnate. You'll be one of those people who says, "I could have done that" or "I had an idea like that" or "That didn't really take that much talent"...yeah? you're right -what it took was getting up and doing the dirty work of making it happen (and failing a lot). The phone calls. The leg work. The ordering. The research. The face time. The follow up. The lunch meeting. The emailing back and forth. The planning. The lack of sleep. The writing. The bounce back after rejection. and all the other stuff that goes into taking your art and combining it with an idea that people want - like this one from my friend Jed:

Some times illustrators get lucky. I've known a few to stumble on a great project that happened to really take off and find enormous commercial success. Most of these illustrators already put in the work and created their luck so to speak but again - they're rare. For the rest of us it takes tenacity of immense proportions to push through project after project hoping that we figure out a way to make more money.

It's easy making the dummy book. Easy making the promo piece. Easy doodling in the sketchbook. Easy designing the cover. Easy shopping for supplies. Easy doing what we love. But to be successful you have to be willing to face and embrace the uncomfortable. The mundane. The embarrassing. The tedious. The repetitive. The boring and the dreaded. The successful person is often zombie like. Knock em down - they get back up - over and over and over again. In this business you're going to have to get pretty dirty if you want to make a living at it.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Don't Be A Robot!

The following was inspired by William Palacio and Elizabeth Struck who asked what my thoughts are on partnering with authors on indie books/ebooks and accepting illustration assignments.

1. Don't Be A Robot
For some strange reason humans often think they must set their humanity aside when they deal with someone in a business situation. Phone conversations are awkward and one or both parties is so uncomfortable -they can't wait to get off the phone. I must admit this happened to me early on but over time I've learned that my relationships with clients are not only essential for success - they've become an enjoyable social part of my life! I've even gone snowboarding with a client who flew out here from Chicago.

So when you first make contact don't go for the jugular buy blurting out business stuff right away. That tells the other party you don't care about them - the ONLY reason you're on the phone is to get the transaction over with. Treat them like you would if you were meeting someone for the first time at a party. Get to know them with small talk a little before you start discussing project details.

2. Talk About Your Fear
(This is mostly for working with indie authors) Any time you enter into any kind of partnership you have fears - and if you don't you're crazy. You were afraid of group members in school when you had to do a group project, afraid of your college roommates, afraid of band members and the members of your sports team, afraid of your fiancee, etc. We've all been let down, lied to, cheated, hurt, burned, and screwed by people we've partnered with in our lives. So when you get on that phone with a potential client or partner you're carrying all that baggage into the conversation - AND SO ARE THEY.

You're both afraid of each other - so why not talk about it. Get it out there - you're both thinking it. Your potential client/partner is thinking you'll quit half way through the project - that you won't come through with sketches on time - that they won't be what you agreed upon - that you just want to walk away with the money. You're afraid that the client/partner will ask you to do endless revisions, will decide to cancel the project mid way, won't forward royalties, and won't pay the agreed upon price.

I operate under the assumption that most people are basically good and want to do the right thing. Going into the relationship this way I talk to the person on the other end of the phone like this: "I know you're probably worried that I won't do what I say I will do - that's a very valid concern since we're just meeting each other over the phone. I pride myself in how I conduct business with other people and treat them as I would want to be treated. I do what I say I'm going to do. I'll keep my end of the bargain. I expect to be treated the same way so when we set the schedule it's very important for both of us to meet our deadlines because this will help us gain trust for each other. I know you're afraid I won't come through with the art but you need to know that I'm afraid that you won't come through with the money." If you get the conversation started this way both parties should be converted to the mindset of proving to the other party that they can be trusted by fulfilling their agreements.

3. Have A Contract
I often do not work with a contract when I form partnerships - always with clients. Perhaps I've been lucky but in over 2500 illustration assignments and projects I've never been screwed. Closest I came was long ago a magazine was going under and they split up my payment - but I still got paid. Check out the video above where I"ll tell you a hum dinger of a story and why a contract won't always protect you. If I were partnering with a total stranger I would get a contract however.

4. Trading Art For Money
It's the classic transaction - "First give me the money and I'll hand over the ______." "No, give me the _______ and you'll get your money." Is there a clean way to do it? NO! Life is risky. You can't win without risk - but you can minimize it. So...split up the payments into thirds or even more. Many of my book contracts with publishers are set up this way. I get a payment up front - that's the publisher's way of saying, "I know you need money to live on while you work on my project and you can trust me." I also get a payment after I complete the sketches and the final payment after I turn in finished art. This way if the client welches on the money you don't get burned on the entire project.

5. Profit Sharing
The arrangement I have with the programmers I'm working with on apps and people I've partnered with in the past is a pure revenue sharing model. We never exchanged money up front for services rendered but have agreed to split profits with certain percentage deals. This has been somewhat easier since I live close to my partners. Also I've partnered with friends or been introduced by friends so there is already a higher level of trust. None the less you always want to make sure everyone feels safe so what I've agreed to do for each one is provide monthly profit statements from the retailers we are doing business with. Since these retailers like Amazon provide digital spreadsheets it's pretty easy to forward them along. I've also promised to meet up with them and log in to our account whenever they want to so they can get a first hand look at things.

6. Get A Good Start
If I were going to illustrate a manuscript for an indie author I would not begin work until:

I had received a good faith payment - they contacted you - so they should put up or shut up.

The manuscript is totally finished and the author agrees not to make any text changes.

You really like the manuscript or the compensation you've agreed upon.

They agree that they are in charge of the words and I'm in charge of the art. non-negotiable.

You have a signed contract that explains exactly what both of you own.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Should Anyone Be Published?

So I got to thinking today while my dog was walking me - Should anyone be published? Can anyone be published? At what point can one call them self an author or artist? What is an artist? If everyone is an artist how can any of us make a living as an artist, author, musician or whatever? With internet tools like: Etsy, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Amazon, iTunes, Pubit, Tumbler, Wordpress, Diviantart, Youtube, Kickstarter, Google, and yes Blogger - anyone can make their art available for consumption and can generate an audience for FREE. Is this good for art? Is this good for artists? and is it good for our consumers? What is the cost of more artists getting more attention than ever before in the history of the world?

Some say the down side is that more mediocre art will be seen than ever before. That the quality of art is being diluted. That if people without "proper" training call themselves artists or authors - the lay person will not know the difference. That the masses will unwittingly consume bad art. That everyone loses because the revolutionaries are storming the Bastille and the established master artists will lose the power of their voice in the coming wave of amateurs.

What do you think?

Here's what I think: Baloney!

I don't think things are that much different now as they were 20 years ago -as far as artists having to work super hard to get attention. Rewind the tape and lets go back to 1992 - before all those internet sites were created. I was told that I was crazy to try to become a professional illustrator in '92. The same was true if you wanted to become an actor, musician, photographer, comedian, or gallery painter. Why was it crazy? -because there was so much stinkin competition! The big difference was that there were more gatekeepers than there are today. Reps, agents, companies, publishers, labels, agencies, galleries, etc were the entities that vetted artists for their perception of quality. Sometimes they got it right - sometimes they blew it - like the publishers that told JK Rowling to take a hike.

So now that many of these gatekeepers have lost some of their power - we're seeing artists self publishing all forms of art:  books, music, visual art, performing art, etc. I think it's great! I believe that everyone is an artist (sometimes). I believe that most artists feed off of their audience and the feedback can be both encouraging and discouraging - but both are necessary for growth.

I don't think that more artists vying for attention is bad at all - in fact I believe it's a good thing. If originality is taking a known idea and combining it with another idea than I believe that more artist's means more ideas. More ideas breed even more combinations of ideas which means that the quality of art should go up. I see this already happening -  I've seen more creative ideas in the last year on Facebook than I've ever seen in my entire life.

To become an accomplished artist takes many years and long hours of practice. In the past the practice was done without much of an audience. I believe that artists can now improve much faster with the exposure they can receive through their network of friends online.

Some worry that their products won't be found in a sea of other products. They better worry. We should all worry enough to make sure our products are DIFFERENT - ORIGINAL - CREATIVE - EXCEPTIONAL - even EXTRAORDINARY or we will never get the attention we seek. But this isn't new either...

Consider all the books that have ever been published in the history of publishing. Google estimates this number at 130 million. How did anyone ever get noticed? ONE HUNDRED THIRTY MEEEELION BOOKS???!!! - YIKES!  Most of the good ones got noticed because there are systems in place to help you find what you're looking for. Take Barnes and Noble for instance. By my rough calculations (keep in mind I flunked math) Barnes and Noble Stores carry a few hundred thousand books  - much less than 1% of all the books ever published. So B&N acts as a filter for it's consumers - they only carry what they think you will want. In addition those few hundred thousand books aren't overwhelming because they are organized into sections. When you or I walk into a B&N we already know what section(s) we're going to check out that might have a few hundred books to browse...piece of cake - you just found Linchpin by Seth Godin.

The same thing is happening online. Review sites, List sites, retailers, awards, bloggers, etc are tripping over themselves to find the good stuff to bring relevancy to their sites. They want to be able to sell their products and attract advertisers so they have to suggest good products to us in order drive traffic and stay viable.

In the end I think there will be just as many superstars creating works that reach some level of mainstream success and then there will be the rest of us - hoping, dreaming, working our butts off, and having a great time doing what we love.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Beware the Cowken!!!

Beware the cowken: Makes strange sounds early in the morning and will give your shins a wicked stabbing!

Gives the best eggnog on the planet!


Hey, I don't have any words of wisdom this week - just weirdness - too much Olympics, Mars, and heat! - if any of you have suggestions for me to blog about I'm all ears!