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At a time when newspaper comics-page slots are few and coveted, Jeff Burney’s decision to stop running his comic strip Attica in the Ottawa Citizen and put it online as a free webcomic seems counterintuitive. Who would trade a regular paycheck to take a chance on the web?
Burney’s calculation included both time and money: As he explains in an interview with ROBOT 6, doing the strip seven days a week took up all his time, so he had no opportunity to market it online. The money problem stemmed from the fact that Attica runs in only one newspaper, and his attempts to sell it to others have hit up against the wall created by the current state of the industry.
He began working on Attica while on parental leave from his high-tech job, and he took early retirement so he could become a full-time cartoonist. I asked Burney to talk about his experiences as a creator and the marketer of his own comic, and he provided a fascinating inside look at the newspaper comics market — and the possibilities of webcomics.
ROBOT 6: What is Attica about and how has it evolved?
Jeff Burney: It’s 2,000 years in the past and nothing has changed. I’m trying to go back in time, but really I want to show that things aren’t very different than they were when we were starting out with the origins of Western civilization. A lot of people look at the Greeks and say here are the high achievers that invented philosophy and democracy and advanced mathematics, and it’s all there in this great record we can look at of their artwork and pottery, essentially pictures of what their life was like all that time ago. I think that’s great that we have this culture that is so vivid and available for people to write stories about.
I wanted a narrative strip, and I liked the idea of people interacting, so I wanted to focus on an adult oriented strip that was less about pratfalls and more about politics. So I said great, these guys are experiencing their democracy for the first time — it’s Democracy 1.0 — what are the things they would be struggling with? How to vote? I try to speak about modern issues and make them as topical as I can but using the voices of characters from this ancient past.
What made you decide to go professional?
It seemed to jell. I went through the process of putting together a package of my 24 favorites, sending it to the main syndicate contacts I got through their websites, and I got the standard rejection slips within four to six weeks.
Then I decided to go after newspapers individually, as a second strategy, and there was an editor at the Ottawa Citizen who happened to click with the material. They had a pretty solid comics page, there were maybe 24 comics, and he thought there was a way to squeeze it on there without taking a strip off. The typical method is they take something away and there’s sort of a showdown, but ultimately they did re-paginate everything and put me at the top of the page. He said “We’ll run it for six weeks.” It was a super-exciting time. This was eight months into my leave. I made the decision to leave the telecom industry entirely, and I took an early retirement package. The launch was November 2009.
How are you making a living from Attica — or are you?
I have savings, and I’m looking at this as a long-term plan. I knew there were going to be lean years, but my wife works and I’m in my early 40s, so I had enough time to pay my bills and get settled. I have a home I’m living in. We are making do with where we are. I knew there was going to be a period of time when the rates the papers can pay wouldn’t be enough to justify it, but I was hoping it would grow.
There was a lot of excitement from the Ottawa launch, and I said if I’m going to do this, I have to put both feet into the pool, I can’t just put one toe in. I’m not making a living, but I am making a start, and the Citizen was really generous, too. They gave me more than the syndicated rate, knowing that I was an independent and didn’t have any other income at the time.
That went on for a year, and there was some media followup, but as I got closer to the editors in the other papers and they started reading my stuff and I started getting e-mails back, the financial situation they were in was a surprise. I knew things were not going well for the newspapers, but when you get on the inside it’s quite bad. The advertising revenues they are dependent on are drying up, and classified ads have moved to the internet. They are laying off staff, and the comics page is going to feel the impact even more because they often see it strictly as a cost and don’t see the readership value it brings. So I was running into walls. There’s a handful of papers who had interest in it who told me flatly they were going to be cutting comics. If the trend continues, you will see papers not running any comics.
In the second year I was on the waiting lists of a couple of newspapers who said “If there’s a spot for any reason we will consider you.” I think a lot of syndicated cartoons spend their time in this space as well. The third year just finished in January, and I decided I had given it enough of a go from the point of view of the waiting game and there were no new options.
There wasn’t any time left in the day to push an internet strategy. I wanted to explore what people were doing with webcomics. I had sent a lot of paper packages, but I was slow with what was going on digitally.
What about syndicated services like Comics Sherpa?
I looked closely at that. You pay $5 or $10 a month, so it’s a revenue stream for them. That slowed down my interest. If it was free I probably would be on Sherpa, but the idea of paying out to another place doesn’t sit well. But I haven’t stopped. There’s a big audience out there. That’s the kind of thing I’m looking into now.
When I made the decision [to leave the newspaper] and got my week back, I got on Facebook. People are reading Attica there and are e-mailing me, and I can follow what other cartoonists are doing. There’s a bunch of cartoonists who got together for a conference in Montreal, and I was able to go to that because I took a publishing break for two weeks. That opened my mind as well. Personal networking has to be a huge part of your approach, and I hadn’t been doing that. All I was doing was working and working. It has to be a mix.
So now you have gone from seven strips a week for the paper to three on the web?
Yes, and one of those seven was color, so I had a lot of work to do on that one, and six black-and-white. I struggled with that for a good chunk of the first year, just getting the material out — I had been working as an engineer, I hadn’t been working as an artist, so I had wrist cramps, and I didn’t have computer skills. Now I have some speed and some natural resources that I didn’t have three years ago. I start thinking now that I have gone to an art school for the past three years. In school you don’t make any money either; in this case, my tuition fees were low but I got a lot of experience quickly.
What surprised you about newspaper work?
I had been reading comics steadily during what I consider some of the glory years. The ’80s had The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, then I started working and I went back to comics here and there but I was surprised how much of a shift the comics page had taken. Comics are moving in a different direction. There is more of a focus on the strip that is going to make you laugh that day; it doesn’t necessarily have the recurring storyline. You just want to get in and get that gag. This leads to a world where you share things with social media. I found myself looking at my strip thinking it was unusual on the comics page because I had some dense storylines that went on for six weeks. For people who read the newspaper casually, that’s difficult. I was expecting that wasn’t going to be a big deal, but now I think it is. My storylines are going to be tighter, and I want new readers to get their bearings within a strip or two.
The other huge surprise was the newspaper economy. I knew they were not growing, you are sort of aware of that, but I read the newspaper every day, and [I didn’t] realize that young people are not subscribing, in addition to the advertisers going away. I didn’t realize the printed word was in such jeopardy.
What plans do you have for monetizing Attica now that it’s online only?
What I’m hoping is I can polish it, I can market it, and I can sustain the readers I have built over the course of the newspaper run for six months to a year, just to convince myself it got its proper place in the sun. I’m looking to give it a marketing push and use the internet tools that seem to be successful for other artists and see where this leads. I can take a breather, and I can sustain the content well in a three-per-week format. The people who read it and write me are still reading it and writing me. I experimented with Reddit, I opened a Twitter account, and I’m making myself more visible in the social media space, and I have more traffic now.
Was Attica on the web before?
Yes, but I don’t think people realized it. With the newspaper audience, you are dealing with a demographic 40 and up, and they aren’t heavy internet users, from the emails I get. I haven’t been able to tap anyone in that younger demographic, 20 to 40.
Have you thought about monetizing strategies?
Definitely. What’s first on my mind is another crack at the mainstream syndication market. I hit them all in the first year with a package of comics that had been developed before Attica was in print and went through the polish that you get when it’s in print. I never go to the point where I was comfortable sending a new batch of 24 strips, so that’s my first step. I have got plans under way to put together my 24 best strips from the last three years, which is now a set of 1,200 strips, and create a more polished package to go back to the syndicates. I haven’t abandoned that space, but as an independent I just couldn’t tap it. So I want to go into the newspapers eventually. They are going to survive in some form, and I don’t want to ignore that because I’m still a reader.
On the digital side, my first goal is to get the awareness up, get the web traffic up. It’s getting me professional contacts in the industry that I have never had before, so I’m expanding my own repertoire. I have been doing editorial cartoons in the past few weeks. This is an experimental phase; the revenue has to be a longer term plan for me. I want to see where I am at the end of 2013 in terms of web traffic to see if there is an opportunity for an advertiser to come in; there is a certain threshold for that to work. I haven’t looked at merchandising specifically, but that seems to be a part of every successful webcomic.