We at Popdose talk a lot about those off the ranch but seldom about out longtime farmhands. I’m not sure how I wound up on this path but go with it.
D.X. Ferris has been providing Popdose readers with his comic strip Suburban Metal Dad for several years now, and has recently collected a large part of the run into a book, Suburban Metal Dad: Compendium One: Raging Bullsh*t (Years III and IV) (Volume 1), which you are cheerfully encouraged to check out.
A lot of the hows and whys about the strip are covered in the forward to Ferris’ book, so it was a bit of work to not cause him to duplicate himself. Why buy the cow if you’re getting the milk — okay, enough of that.
Ferris runs an independent book publishing company and had a great deal of success with his book on the band Slayer. We found this aspect intriguing and, since we already knew Suburban Metal Dad was funny and irreverent to nearly everything, the line of questioning drifted toward D.I.Y. creation and entrepreneurial concerns.
Is the book for sale now or is this a pre-campaign with Kickstarter?
I’m selling the book. It is done & ready. No Kickstarter; I’m crowdfunding-averse. I understand & respect it, but it never felt like the right move for me.
The release party (for the book) is June 4, but I’m not gonna make the NY Times bestseller list, so first-week sales aren’t a real concern.
This is coming through your own company. Tell me more about that.
6623 Press publishes creator-owned books mostly by me & co-written by me,. But I’ve worked with others. And we have some other writers in the wings. Basically, we invert the financial arrangements from traditional presses: I set it up & publish it. I take a very small cut, and the author gets most of the money. And they own their work. I don’t have to sell a million copies, because I don’t need to pay for expensive business lunches and Manhattan rent. This is a tangent, but publishing houses seem to be filled with lazy, inept people who don’t work very much or very hard. I do my shit barebones-style. When I’m eyeball deep working on a project, it feels exactly like I’m back at my college newspaper. It’s very DIY. Knock on wood, we’ve had modest success.
And you’re not coming at this as a newbie either. You’ve had some success with self-marketing and publishing.
My Slayer book topped various Amazon charts and stayed at #1 on the Hot New Releases chart for 19 of 22 days, before Christmas Day hit and we got wiped away in the deluge of gift cards and new Kindles. Dan LeRoy & Peter Relic’s Beastie Boys book hit #1 on Music/Popular Culture, and stayed there for a better part of a month.
Reason I mention the relative longevity is that Amazon updates hourly. So lots of indie books are the #1 hot seller for an hour, then they disappear, but the publisher forever claims “#1 Amazon bestseller!” We are not one-hour wonders.
I’d imagine from a positioning standpoint that’s become a difficulty. You can say you reach some sort of benchmark, but now you have to prove that sustainability. Hitting #1 for an Amazon Hour can be a fluke. Mind you, it’s not a fluke I’ve been able to enjoy myself! You’ve clearly learned things about making it work. What are your thoughts on publishing today?
This is the fifth release from 6623 Press. We make creator-owned books about popular culture, success, and other cool stuff. I think if you make something good, people will respond to it, and you’ll make some money. If you handle your business responsibly.
As many have said, the great thing about writing is this: You can create something from nothing. The process may consume some time & resources. But if you know what you’re doing — if you spent some time on your college newspaper — it’s easy and cheap to create a book. And fortunately, at this point, we’re not Amanda Palmer, so we’re not launching anything so elaborate that it requires money up front. It’s me and some elbow grease. I can spend Saturdays watching the Deadpool DVD, or I can work on making something that might take me or some of my friends to another level.
My Slayer biography, which was my second book about the band, did very well for a 100% indie release. So I’ve been making a run at it, publishing books by me and others. My first book was part of the 33 1/3 series, which used to be published by Continuum, which was absorbed into Bloomsbury, which is home to Neil Gaiman in a different wing of the company. I’m forever grateful to those presses, but I make a whole helluva lot more when I sell my indie books than I do my “major label” book from a big press. I generated a whole helluva lot more press and reviews by working my own indie book than I got from the entire corporate infrastructure of a bigger press.
As with almost any industry now, publishing is hierarchical. The stars get the attention and the rest get whatever they get, so in a lot of cases those authors are doing the same legwork being with a major as they would on their own.
As someone who makes books, I talk to other people who make books, on various levels. And from what I can tell, it’s not just me: Publishing, as with most industries, has its people spread way too thin. And it’s not populated by people who, as a rule, are given to working very hard. Editors and their minions talk more than they work. They’re slow. They’re not particularly detail-oriented; for example: If they’re stellar copy editors, they’re probably neglecting the fact-checking. And regardless of what they do, they’re not great at rolling up their sleeves and doing some work. I’m sure they stay busy all day, and they feel like they’re working hard. I’m also sure I do a lot more in the course of a day. I don’t know what press publicists do all day, week in, week out. But I know they do not bust their ass to promote books by junior-varsity authors who do not sell a lot of copies.
And that’s the level most authors exist on: Most books don’t sell a lot of copies. If your press has offices in Manhattan and London and LA, that’s a lot of overhead. So you need a Neil Gaiman or Stephen King to sell a million copies to subsidize the rent and your long lunches and the book tours and the accounting department and the junior-varsity authors who don’t sell much. And guess who gets the attention and work from the press? The superstars. As they should.
But if you’re not going to put up Stephen King numbers, you’re nobody to the press. You’re not a priority. I mean, even authors with a recognizable name, who sell six-figure copies of their books, they’re generally unhappy with the money the make, and the way their editor treats them. Not to mention general practices that are shady as hell, like paying out twice a year, with all your standard entertainment-industry deductions and accounting.
Well, this is true of any of the creative arts right now where you have only two avenues – super famous or super anonymous. In music, the days of having a label hang on to you through three loser records to get to the fourth big hit are mythological. I’m guessing the same is true in publishing, only the book companies are looking at your Kindle numbers, and if you pull down marginal figures then maybe, maybe, they’ll give you a toss. That’s why Kindle has so many weirdo “erotic fiction” titles.
So how does a DIY creator get their hands above the horizon line? Even at the most fundamental level, how do you plan to “be seen”?
That’s a good question. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know, and I’ll sign some bigger authors. And sell more books.
With the indie-press approach, bottom line is this: You get to write your product your way, and the money comes to you. When I was writing the second Slayer book, I saw what [leading TV critic] Alan Sepinwall did with his book The Revolution Was Televised, which was to publish it indie-style. He later sold it to a big press. If you’re moving enough copies, someone will pick you up. If not, you get your beer money every month.
Do I think you need to put some elbow grease in if you want that beer money? Absolutely.
You were talking about the downsides of major publishing before. Go into that a little farther…
I know a guy whose press charged him $2,000 to compile and index for his own book. If you’re dedicated to that task, we’re talking 12 hours of labor, maybe 24. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt: If it took 24 work hours, the guy’s own company charged him $83 dollars an hour to do something that should have been included as part of his deal. And make no mistake: $2,000 deducted from an advance on a small book is a big chunk of change.
Now indie presses, we don’t sell a lot of copies. But we don’t run up a lot of expenses. So my authors gets the lion’s share of the money. You make more. I could obviously be a better master of marketing. But I sincerely believe media products are going to sell what they’re going to sell. On an indie press, if your book hits big, you win, and you got to do it your way, and now you get to keep the money. You’re not rolling the dice, giving your book away, letting some uninvested editor change your vision, and pinning your hopes on an unmotivated publicist who has better things to do. If you don’t hit, you win. If you hit, you win big. And because there’s no cushy advance, everyone has a strong incentive to stay motivated and perform, whether you’re writing it promoting it.
We are, ostensibly, discussing a comic strip and I haven’t really asked anything substantive about that yet. What got you into comic strips and influenced you to make your own?
Comic strips have always been there. I’m a Gen-Xer, so I grew up in an environment where there wasn’t a lot of TV, so Charlie Brown was a big deal, when a prime-time cartoon would pop up a few times a year. My dad provided some Peanuts books. He was into Hagar the Horrible, now that I think of it. And The Wizard of Id. So, yeah, that was where they came from. Pops must have been the source of the Mad Magazines I started reading. And it was a short jump into comic books from there. I grew up during a golden age, when Peanuts was still up and running, but you also had Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County. I guess it was a big deal to have something serialized to consume and return to every day, even if it was short. A good newspaper comics section was like having four comic books every day.
When I started making Suburban Metal Dad, I was at a crossroads.I had made a name as a music journalist. But I had transitioned into news reporting as I lost interest in music. I was starting to become more and more interested in TV as this golden age really got going, around 2008. As I wrote about music less, a void developed in my output. I considered starting to write about TV. But writing about music had become a pain in the ass, and it interfered with my enjoyment of music. And I didn’t want watch TV to become a job.
So as I mulled writing about TV, it struck me that most criticism was essentially a sneaky process: Your average critics generally don’t produce anything themselves. And they sit back on the sidelines, taking shots at people who are actually on the field. And I decided I was going to stop commenting on other people’s work and start doing more of my own. I didn’t have a grand plan at the time. But a crudely drawn comic strip seemed like a good way to start. As I say in the foreword to the book, “30 years of listening to punk rock has taught me this: You don’t have to be a prodigy like Eddie Van Halen if you want to play guitar.”
Suburban Metal Dad has the benefit of creating a readership without a lot of financial overhead, thanks to the Internet. In some ways the Internet may turn out to be the savior for comic strips, since newspapers are continuing the long slide toward great-grandfather-conversation-pieces. But getting a regularly released humor strip together is no easy process. Sometimes jokes are just incredibly difficult to come up with, let alone needing to be funny at will. Not everyone can write Prince Valiant daily where you just need seven big panels of some long-haired dude looking pensive and forlorn.
What I suppose I’m getting at is: what is your process for doing the strip? Do you do it when you’re inspired to or do you crack down and make it happen? Without the overseers of the Syndicate or somesuch to keep you in check, what is the guiding motivation?
I just listened to Sebastian Junger — the Oscar-nominated war correspondent who wrote The Perfect Storm, among others — on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Junger said, “I write more when I have a deadline.” When you have a commitment to produce product, it makes all the difference. If I don’t have a deadline, I don’t work on it. If I have a deadline, I hit it.
If you have a constant commitment for material, you have to be open to the Muses whenever they call. You have to respect ideas. I carry a notebook with me at all times, a little pocket-sized one. I call it my Blackberry. I have it when I’m in the car, when I go to the store, when I go on a walk, when I’m upstairs and I head downstairs. When I’m working out, if I get an idea, I drop what I’m doing and make a note of it. If, one time, you get half an idea, and you don’t respect it, and you blow it off, and you think, “Meh, whatever, I’ll get to it later,” that’s like staring down the universe and saying, “Thanks, but whatever. I don’t really appreciate whatever you’ve got flowing through me.”
So that’s one part: You have to be on the prowl for material, and you have to be open to it. And, obviously, you need to make time and do it.
My process, though: I’m generally a week or two ahead. Sometimes — like now; with the Suburban Metal Dad compilation, I was working on four books in various stages — I knew I had a busy month, so I banged out a month and a half of strips, scanned them, and posted them. It was a long couple days. But when you’re doing something a lot, you work faster.
Once a week, or every other week, spend a morning making strips. I sit, put on some music, flip through my notebook, see which ideas are actionable, sketch them up, scan them, and post them.
I still maintain that I’m not a creative person. But here’s a trick to being productive, at least: Most people on our level — the ham-and-eggers who generate steady content but aren’t putting up Stephen King-Chuck Klosterman-Bloggess numbers — here’s where they stumble, fall, collapse, and never get back up.
In this day and age, we’re all armchair critics and pundits and renaissance people. We all had World Lit 101. We all took journalism. We all studied out favorite comics and novels and websites. We all know something about layout and design. We all know certain tropes and plot mechanics. We all know something about grassroots online marketing. We all know about writing promo copy. We all know about BRANDING.
So when us ham-and-eggers decide maybe we want to be creative, we get ahead of ourselves. All the time, I talk to people who are thinking about writing a book. And they hem and haw until their enthusiasm, energy, and limited precious time run out. They worry about how they’re going to promote it. And they worry about what the finished version will be like. And they worry about what it’s going to SAY. And they talk for three hours about whether they should form a limited-liability corporation. And who they might be able to get to design the paperback cover. And what the cover should be like. And what the title should be. And should it be part of a non-fiction anthology, or maybe a Kindle single? And whether they should hire a publicist, or if their friend Bill could do it for cheap, maybe, because he was a publicist, and his cousin knows somebody who writes for Pitchfork. And this all takes place before they’re working on the actual book or webcomic or podcast. And most of it is a waste of time.
So they’re plotting their long game before they actually have any product?
It’s all theoretical. I mean, you do need to work out some things. But until you sit down and create something, none of that stuff matters. You’re so worried about your thing being perfect and fitting some standards that you kinda read about somewhere, you never actually MAKE anything. Most people would rather have a perfect nothing than a flawed something.
With Suburban Metal Dad, I’m not worried about it looking great — obviously. I’m not worried about whether it’s funny to anybody else — obviously. I’m not worried about whether I’m violating some paradigm of narrative storytelling if I drop in a random Far Side-style gag between two story arcs. I have an idea. I execute it to the best of my ability. I have a deadline. I meet it. Hopefully they come out better than the ones I did last year.
I don’t think anything good is going to come from you focus-grouping yourself to death, especially when you don’t have product to sell. Seven years of college, a lifetime of fandom, and seventeen years of professionally studying art has taught me this: With art — or any kind of media product, call it what you will — you’re not going to make anybody happy if you create while you’re imagining what other people might respond to.
The best you can do is: Do the best you can do. Develop your vision. Realize it. Give people something to react to. Something distinct. Something only you can do. Because every other liberal-arts grad can synthesize something bland that obeys all the supposed rules.
If you can create something that looks professional, but it’s dull, people won’t respond to it. At very least, when you look at my bullshit, you get the idea that I’m doing a thing. And maybe I’m not doing it particularly well. But if I do more of it, I should improve. At very least, I’m not doing nothing.
Point being: You can’t be afraid to suck. I’m not. Perfect nothing or flawed something? Gimme the something.
Common thread to those last two questions, I guess, being this: I believe in the old-school approach to development. You make your thing. You get better at over time. Maybe people react to it. Maybe not. If it’s good enough, people will react to it. Maybe it will be a handful of loyal Twitter friends or Popdose readers who habitually drop in on the strip. Maybe the same 300 people will watch your comedy clips for two years, but then someone will get what you’re doing an offer you a pilot. Maybe you’ll be the next xkcd. But Randall Munroe didn’t build xkcd by trying to make the next Peanuts, you know?
So the book is done, you’re in the position now to actually talk about it and sell it, and not to daydream about that long game, like you were talking about before. Where now?
At this stage in my junior-varsity career, my approach is basically: 1. keep new product coming, and 2. cross-promote and cross-platform. I know you need to push and market your books on a continuous basis. But like I said, I believe — barring a strike of lightning or a sudden artistic breakthrough — your indie product will land in a certain ballpark and stay there. You can market and tweet the same shit day in, day out. And that will increase you from 100% to 102%. And if you keep scaling up, that 2% does incrementally add up.
But in my experience, you get more eyeballs with fresh and diverse product. New comic strips twice a week. Podcast appearances. Your name on fresh content on new websites. Etc. You keep putting your name out there. And hopefully new people hear your thoughts on something related — or unrelated — and think, “That cat sounds interesting.” As someone with product to push, you’re not just constantly pounding your chest and saying, “Book, yo! Book, yo! Got that book!” Or, far worse, tweeting “Feed your kindle! Here’s the same Amazon link I tweeted two hours ago” 12 times a day.
It helps if you have some kind of home base that draws in fresh traffic, like Popdose, of course.
I mean, this webcomic compilation book, technically, does not need to exist. But it does exist. And we’re having this conversation.