Monday, June 06, 2016

Behind the scenes of what goes into making 'Breaking Cat News.'

After explaining the difference between the original 'Breaking Cat News' site and the GoComics site, many readers have offered suggestions to look into tech support on the original site, hire staff, or try new hosting services and such. I am thankful for these suggestions, I know that they come from a good place and that people want to help. For me, getting syndicated was the solution to these problems--getting syndicated is a dream for many cartoonists, and I'm no exception. I thought maybe it's time that I share the story of how I came to be syndicated with all of you, because it may be its own explanation.

Let me start with the present. If I hired staff or tech support, I would have to pay them and somehow manage them. In contrast, GoComics pays me a salary to develop the comic and pays me to have the comic on their site. They have access to resources I could not begin to hire (partly because, in honesty, we're a young family of four on one full-time income and my part-time income from what I can earn through the comic... I can't hire an accountant to do my taxes, let alone a personal assistant or tech support).

My dream--and now my goal--is develop the comic for newspapers, because that is my best chance to earn a weekly paycheck as a cartoonist. At that point, if enough newspapers pick up the comic, it will be comparable to a modest full-time paycheck. I'm up against a clock, because if I can't make that happen by the time the kids are in school, then reality is I will have to find a full-time job to bring our family back up to two incomes. I would like to make this my full-time job. I would like to continue to write and draw 'Breaking Cat News' for many years, and hopefully, with luck, have it become a new newspaper classic? I MAY BE DREAMING BIG--but if you're going to dream, you might as well dream big. But, it can be scary to dream big, so, I put a question mark.....

That's my dream though. Honest and open, laid out for everyone reading this to see. I never thought I would be this close to it, but I'm working hard and trying my very best. I think that many times readers here feel like they are cheating me or the original site by going to GoComics, when in reality, GoComics is making the original site possible.

Okay, now let's go back to the past, the summer of 2014.

If I had never been syndicated, I would have had to get a part-time job about two years ago. I had a job interview in Rhode Island actually, to work for a creative company at night... In sales. Not even as a designer, which of course I would have preferred, but in sales, which was available. A friend had set me up with the interview, and I was glad for the opportunity. The plan was that I would drop Toddler, our son Luke (who was still only about one then) off with family in the evening for about an hour until the Man got off his job and could pick him up. I would work until 11 pm an hour away and return home around midnight. At the time, 'Breaking Cat News' was amazingly fun to write, but I wrote it at night. Taking this part-time job would mean setting the comic aside, but in the summer of 2014, just after selling our home and moving back to RI, the difference between standing on our own two feet and struggling was razor thin. We needed just a little bit more to cover our bills, and I couldn't justify keeping my nights free to work on the comic when I could bring in just enough to round out what we needed to get by. ...Family couldn't really justify it either, whatever Ryan or I assured them, and I felt a lot of pressure to get this part-time job whatever it meant to 'Breaking Cat News' ...Or my dreams ...Or me.

I did well on my first phone interview with the company, but my heart was heavy as I hung up. And honestly, the comic was a small part of it in that moment. Luke was all of it. I had been home with him since he was born. He was still small and we'd gone through such a huge change. The only home he'd ever known was gone. He was still getting used to our new apartment and there were a lot of nights Ryan and I were taking turns sitting up rocking him. Here, as I sat down on our couch after my phone interview, my thoughts turned to Ryan. Unhappy in Rhode Island, disliking his job at the time (a job thankfully he only had a few months before getting back into his field) now we would be spending our days AND nights apart. What was that going to do to our family? When were we going to catch our breath?

One night around this time, I checked my email as I was going to bed. A few messages from friends, a bill notice or two to drop my stomach into a flip flop--and an email from a name I didn't recognize. I opened it up, and the woman writing introduced herself warmly. She had read my comic and she loved it. She had cats herself. She worked as an editor for GoComics, had I ever considered being syndicated...?

Here I set my phone down, thoughts swimming. I knew of GoComics. They were the syndicate for most of my favorite comics, past and even present. They were the syndicate for  'Calvin and Hobbes' and 'Pearls Before Swine' and it hadn't been long since the two had collaborated on a few strips together and sent the entire Internet--myself included--flooding onto their site to see new Bill Watterson artwork.

I had wanted to syndicate the comic very much and looked into a few companies; companies nowhere near the success or pull of GoComics. I had written our local paper in Rhode Island for advice and showed them a few BCN strips. The editor wrote me back and had suggested I get 30 examples and submit them to a syndicate. And I never did--I meant to, but I had Luke to care for, Ryan to comfort, our lives to rebuild, the comic to write, and a part-time job to look for. Now this email... This was like if I were playing baseball with my friends for a few years and someone from the Red Sox approached me to play outfield for them.

I thought one of my friends must be playing a joke on me.

I googled GoComics to make sure, was this THE GoComics, spelled the same and everything. I double checked the email, "Hmmm... Yes, yes, 'GoComics,' not 'GoComicz' or 'GoComix'... Seems legit...." I searched everything I could think of to search. The next 20 minutes were pretty much just me in the dark on my phone, jumping down Google rabbit holes.

It seemed real... I wrote her back, as polite and professional as I could guess was the proper way to do this, when really I just wanted to gush back in all caps "ARE YOU REAL BECAUSE I'M IN A WEIRD PLACE IN MY LIFE TO GET MY HOPES UP IF YOU'RE NOT REAL--"

Over the next few days we had a chance to talk over the phone, and it was confirmed that yes, she was real. This was all real. No one was playing a joke on me. The offer was real. I was thrilled to be syndicated. More people would see the comic, I could possibly have a concrete justification to continue 'Breaking Cat News' a little longer, or at least secretly work on it between calls if I took the new part-time job.

A little while later, my editor--this woman is my editor at GoComics, if you had not guessed yet!--asked me if I had ever considered putting the comic in newspapers. "...Are you excited about this?" She asked me on the phone. "You seem really calm, and sometimes people freak out a little--"

Inside I was screaming in joy and terror. "I am so excited," I said, I imagine very stiffly, "This is amazing... Weirdly, I sort of have to keep myself calm and my hopes down to stay focused on the comic, or I think I would have a really hard time writing it.... But I am so happy right now!" NEWSPAPERS? A COMIC IN THE NEWSPAPERS?! 

She sent me more details and in the following weeks there were business negotiations with lawyers to get a contract into place. Long story short, at the very last minute, it turned out that developing the comic for newspapers would not only be a dream come true...

...It would also come with a salary that happened to be pretty much what I would have made at the part time sales job, once gas and child care and everything else was factored in--minus time away from my family at a critical emotional time for us.

I politely wrote the HR of the design company and let them know to please withdraw my application. I thanked my friend and asked them to understand, and they did, because friends are amazing and so is she.

I signed my contract and begin to develop the comic for newspapers. Now instead of dropping Luke off to wait an hour for Ryan to pick him up and scramble home for bedtime, I made dinner, hugged and kissed Ryan hello when he came home, and listened to him sing Luke 'Silver and Gold' each night before bed. (Ryan's nightly lullaby for Luke, explained to me thus, "It was the first song I thought of... And he seemed to like it.") Instead of driving an hour away, I cleaned up dinner and sat down with my pen and pencils to write 'Breaking Cat News.' I still worked late, honestly, but I worked late at home doing what I loved. And in the meantime, a surprise graced us--soon we found out I was pregnant with Gwen.

A few weeks before Christmas a giant box arrived from GoComics. I opened it up and inside were the collections of all my favorite comics. "Far Side," "Peanuts," "Dilbert," "Cul de Sac," "Phoebe and Her Unicorn," "Pearls Before Swine," and at the very bottom, "Calvin and Hobbes" and a card with a warm welcome from the President. I looked through the collections, and sat back with Ryan. It'd been such a year. We'd been through so much. And here I was, next to our Christmas tree, surrounded by comics because I was making comics and working with people who made comics. "What are you thinking?" Ryan asked, seeing me go a little teary. I laughed, sniffed, and said, "Don't tell anyone, but they probably could have just paid me in these."

Now that the original site and the GoComics site are in sync, there has been a lot of discussion on the threads. Many readers seem to have the impression that the GoComics site is competition for me or cuts into my revenue--but it's the opposite. Getting syndicated by GoComics gave me the time and resources to keep pursuing 'Breaking Cat News.' And because I have never monetized the original site, I see no revenue from that site. If you bought prints or the book, I get money from that. If you go to GoComics, I get money from that. If you want to support my work, but might not have the money to buy any of the merchandise--

(Hey. ...That is okay. There have been many times in my life when I adored an artist online, but could not afford to subscribe to their sites or buy their prints. That is a huge reason I have kept all of my new content free, and try to offer some freebies on the site sometimes too).

--then visiting the strip on GoComics is a free way to give me a lot of support. The numbers on GoComics, views, subscribers, comments--will all build a strong case to newspapers that they need to buy 'Breaking Cat News' for their funny pages. And it is free to sign up for GoComics and free to subscribe! That will help me turn this into a full-time weekly paycheck gig, instead of a bit of side income for our family. It will ensure that the comic can continue... And on a personal note, that maybe one day I can visit Luke and Gwen's schools on career day as a cartoonist, which would just be amazing.

Every strip on the original site is read for free. I've never added anything to that site to bring in money for our family. There is a lot of traffic on that site, but right now, we don't see anything for it. "So, put ads on it!" some folks will suggest. I don't want to do that. I know that children read the comic, and I have two kids of my own. I don't trust an ad service not to accidentally run something inappropriate. That's a big deal to me. I control everything on the original site right now, I know what people are seeing and I know it is safe and positive. There may be great options out there, but don't forget, with two kids and the comic, I only have so much time. I can write the comic or I spend my nights researching ads that most of us (me included) do not want anyway. And frankly, everything about the computer end of things frustrates me to tears. And not cute tears; scratching at my keyboard hissing "YOU ARE ONLY A MACHINE!!!" tears. Maybe something will change in the future. Right now though, it feels right to keep the original site as it is.

As I see it, my computer problems have been mostly solved by syncing the two sites. Now there is a site with the new strip that also has enough servers, tech support, and a reliable email notification system. GoComics posts the strip automatically, overnight. They pay me, I don't have to pay anyone. I don't have to manage or check in on anyone either, which I can't do with two toddlers. I barely have a chance to answer emails at night... Which some of you know (I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I will try to catch up on emails).

People have asked for a long time where I see revenue, which book ordering sites give me the highest royalty, how they can support the comic, etc. And so this is a huge part of it, explained finally. I probably should have said a lot of this sooner, but I wasn't realizing that visiting GoComics felt like betraying the original site for some folks. Please don't feel that way--I hope now that you have heard what being syndicated has meant for me, you will feel as grateful to what GoComics has meant for 'Breaking Cat News' as I do.

And that was just one story, there are so many.  I didn't even get into the book! THE BOOK MEANT SO MUCH TO ME, YA'LL. TO ALL OF US! You now know all of my dark technology secrets YOU KNOW I COULD NOT HAVE PUT A BOOK TOGETHER, I CAN'T EVEN TAKE PEOPLE OFF AN EMAIL LIST. I WILL BE EMAILING YOU FROM MY GRAVE AND IT'S ALL MY FAULT.

There is room for both sites; I love both sites!  Without the encouragement from readers on the original site and the support from readers on the GoComics site 'Breaking Cat News' never would have gotten this far. Both sites are vital to the comic--both sites are vital to me creating the comic. YOU are all vital to the comic. However you found it, wherever you are reading it--I need you.

I do my best to keep the original site full of facts about the characters and the cats they are based on. Some readers have been there since the first few months, and that means everything to me. Hearing that I have trouble keeping up with the notification numbers, people on the original site offered to give up their spaces in the email notifications so others could sign up, and I think that says a tremendous amount about the kindness and camaraderie around 'Breaking Cat News.' ...I don't know how to do that because I am just so bad with computers, ha--but I don't want it to come to that anyway. I want people to love and enjoy both sites. Of course some will feel more comfortable on one. Many of the GoComics readers read the comic in their collections and never go to a strip's home page. Many of the original site readers feel at home on a smaller site. Both sites have wonderful communities of tremendously supportive, kind people enjoying the comic and pointing out details of the strips to one another.

Very soon I am going to start sharing some of the daily BCN strips I have written with newspapers in mind. 
The people I work with at GoComics are huge fans of 'Breaking Cat News.' The main guidance I have received is, "we love the comic. Keep doing exactly what you are doing, the tiny details, the punchlines that come out of nowhere in the middle of strips--all of it." When I first began working on the daily strips, I immediately fell into trying to imitate the 1-2-3-punchline timing of many newspaper strips I knew, and they gently eased me off. "No, no... Make it like you make it now. Do what you do, you've already got this down." They love BCN as it is. We're all working hard to get the daily strips for newspapers up to the level of the webstrips online. I'll be sharing them on both sites soon after almost two years of hard work. This is very scary and exciting for me. You know more of what is at stake now for me. Some folks will look at it and just see a comic about cats reporting the news, but I think if I do this right I can bring a lot of happiness to people and have a career I can work in a long time.

My Nana couldn't read the comic until the book was published, but she reads the newspaper every day. Her fridge is covered with comic strips carefully cut out from the paper. She complains to me all the time that there are no new comics in the papers, "I've been reading these for YEARS, I wish there were some new ones!" she says. And her own granddaughter is writing a new comic a lot of people love, and she had no access to it. (One more reason why the book meant so much to me!) Webcomics are awesome, but they miss a lot of people. To picture Elvis puffing, "There are a ton of folks out there right now with no access to cat news!" They might not be good with computers, they might not have a computer. They might not want a computer, or they may want one very much and have no way to get one. I want the comic to reach as many people as possible. 

If it does get into papers eventually, it will be the same on both sites and in newspapers. I will have a chance to expand on all the characters and spend some time in the past too and show things we missed (spoilers: some of the first strips include Lupin's job interview at the station). I think it is going to be a lot of fun. That is still a little ways off, but I wanted to mention it.

The sites synced and I let people know shorter strips are on the horizon, and people had a lot of feelings. I know many readers are worried that daily strips may be less enjoyable than the large current weekly strips. I've read complaints that the strip will change forever and it's like reading everything I worry about late at night written out in black text and read back to me confirmed. And I shake it off. I have to.

When I wrote to our local paper and they gave me their advice, there was a sentence added to the end of the email along the lines of, "I think your comic is an interesting idea, and people like cats. But I worry that you could come up with enough ideas to keep it going beyond a few strips." I read their reply, I took the good, and I shook that last, well meaning (and understandable) criticism off. Not immediately. I was about 10 strips in at this point, and reading this line gripped me with worry. I read it. I took it in. I took a deep breath. And then I shook it off. I thought to myself, "There are two things I know... Myself and cats. ...I can do this."

Can I? I hope. I think I've done well so far, and I'm proud of that, it hasn't always been easy. I do know that as of today, there are 201 webstrips, 290 daily strips--491 in total. I'm 9 away from 500, I've got notebooks full of ideas/plots/holiday specials, and I'm ready to roll. I know I'm doing my best and will keep doing my best, which is all I can do.

I actually didn't mean to talk about the daily strips so much in this post, I had meant to just share how I came to be syndicated and what it meant to me, but... Well, if you've read this far I thank you. It's on my mind, in excitement and anxiousness, because I'm so excited to start sharing them and I'm a little anxious to see how people will feel about them. If we can get the comic into newspapers though, it will be huge. Not only because I want to get the comic out to more people, but also for the real world reason that Ryan and I aren't independently wealthy. Far from it... Many of you reading this blog know we have ping-ponged across the country the past few years following work opportunities for Ryan. He has worked hard to get back into his field after an unexpected lay off, I'm tremendously proud of all he has done to support our family and also to give me the time and support to write 'Breaking Cat News.' It's pretty remarkable. I know people whose partner won't even follow their sports team, and here's my husband insisting I take the leap into the unknown for as long as it takes because he believes in me.

I want his support and your support and GoComic's support to all pay off and for this to turn into a career. I don't say it often--or ever--but it pushes me, for the better. It keeps me trying to do my best and make the comic as funny and cat-newsworthy as possible. This weekend Ryan was reading comments on the original site, and he said, "You've been so worried about the daily strips, I thought maybe someone had said something mean... All I see is people telling you how much they love the comic, and how much they love you, and that they're a little unsure, but they bet it will be great."

I was standing in our kitchen, Elvis guarding me on the counter, as he always does, and I looked at Ryan and said, "Yes, but... That's why I worry. If people were saying mean things and coming from a mean place, I could shrug that off. But when people are saying things because they truly worry about me burning out only because they care about me... Or I can sense they're anxious the comic will change because it means a lot to them...."

Elvis pushed a head butt into my shoulder. I petted him gratefully on the head. "Thank you, Elvis." I said. "Do you know I write a comic about you wearing a suit?" (I make this joke and similar ones to the cats a lot). I looked back to Ryan. "I just want to get this right."

I want all of the support I have received to pay off. For us; for the kids, for the comic, for me, and for you. When I read people saying I need an assistant or tech support, (or could somehow afford those costs) I realize that it may seem like I'm already there. Getting the book published as been a huge step, I still can't believe I am a published author and it is a life long dream come true! Getting the comic into newspapers though would go a long way to keep this dream going. It's all I want to do, and I hope I can somehow get there and get to do it a long time.

Well.... That's what syndication has meant for me and the opportunities it has given 'Breaking Cat News. The two sites, the daily strips I've been preparing for newspapers; some behind the scenes peeks into what has gone into the comic and my thoughts and fears and hopes that I haven't really shared before. It kind of just poured out, so please forgive any typos.

And hey, one more blog post for 2016!