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Dilettante 018: Make No Mistake

Steve Lieber

Last month I published a Dilettante column on creative advice that my peers and I wish we could give to our younger selves. It was unusually well received and brought in a ton of positive feedback. I like to think that by now I'm old and wise enough to recognize a good thing even without a visit from time-traveling Steve, so here's a second round of semi crowd-sourced advice for people who want to make comics. This time we're focusing on career and business mistakes we wish we could've avoided.

1. Never tell your editor what they want to hear; tell them what they need to know. Your editor or publisher has to juggle lots of people's schedules. Even if you do all the writing and illustration yourself, there are still graphic designers, production artists, and printers who need to be able to do their job in as smooth and orderly a fashion as possible. Don't make them spend their days putting out fires that you started. If there's going to be a problem with scheduling, let your editor (and collaborators!) know as soon as possible.

2. Don't imagine that you'll eventually just get asked to do the kind of work you aspire to. Pick a target and aim for it. Make sure the people who read and publish the sort of work you want to do are aware of your interest. And generate your own projects so that you're working towards spending more of your day doing what you want to do. One professional I spoke with says that he'd advise his younger self to take advantage of the momentum he enjoyed in his early career and use it to do creator-owned work.

3. Network.Make connections and line up clients, even in times when you've got a full plate. Because "too much work" can easily be followed by "not enough work." And, because of this:

4. Live well below your means and do everything you can to put money away for the future. Get out of debt as quickly as possible. It frees you up to make career moves based on choice instead of need.

5. Writer and publisher Chris Roberson advises: “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Building a career as a creator of any kind is a long game, and there are no shortcuts. Every "overnight success" that you hear about is a morning that comes at the end of MANY days and nights and weeks and months and years of hard work and struggle. There might be a tiny handful of people who went from promising newcomer to superstar overnight, but that number is so small as to be statistically insignificant. Everyone else who THOUGHT they were being handed the Standard Rich and Famous Contract at the beginning of their career was probably being taken advantage of by somebody, and they eventually regretted signing on the metaphorical dotted line.”

6. Speaking of that dotted line, I'd add that in 20 years I don't ever recall anyone telling me that they regret having hired a lawyer to read over a contract. I've spoken with LOTS of comics people who desperately wish they had done so. If you can't afford a lawyer, get in touch with your local branch of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

7. Don't be afraid to negotiate with your client or publisher. They're used to it, and contract drafts aren't set in stone. The worst they can say is no. You're being a professional watching out for your own interests. Here's a whole blog dedicated to practical negotiation advice for creative professionals:

8. If you are being hired to collaborate with someone else, it is perfectly acceptable and professional to ask to read the script or see their art before saying "yes" to a job. Few readers analyze a finished comic they disliked to ask themselves if it was the writer or the artist whose work displeased them. They just remember that you were associated with a lousy comic.

9. One professional advises: “I would tell my younger self not to agree to an art job where the writer is also the sole editor, unless it paid very well and I needed the money.”

10. Toot your own horn. Get out there and publicize your own work. Yes, there are some people who overdo it. in my experience, the more worried you are about doing so, the less likely it is that you're one of those people. The important fact is this: if your work is worth doing, it's worth publicizing. Use every tool available to you.

11. Don't assume that "established professionals" necessarily know what they're doing and have your best interests at heart. As Dylan Meconis says: “People who already have some career under their belts also necessarily have their own histories and agendas, and some of them will be tempted to project onto you.

If something makes you feel uncomfortable, if somebody doesn't seem to hear you when you contradict them, if somebody puts you in a box that doesn't fit, or consistently flakes out or makes excuses (etc.) ... it doesn't matter how talented they are or how many opportunities they say they can offer you.

It's 100% okay to make up a polite excuse and stop working with them. Better to part amicably and make your own way than to be bitter years later about how So-and-So messed up your career early on. It's a small industry and you don't want to waste precious time, energy, and goodwill on grudges or drama.”

Steve Lieber’s Dilettante appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!