Mike Dawson is talented cartoonist, a witty raconteur and a fine podcaster— you can hear his work with Alex Robinson here at Ink Panthers. And as of yesterday he was a Tumblr king with a post calledAdvice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience. It’s honest and in some parts brutal.

My first “graphic novel”, my three hundred page debut memoir Freddie & Me, was published by BloomsburyUSA in 2008. The final sales tally (the book is now technically out of print) was 4,805 gross and 2,748 net. I think that means I sold 2,748 copies. Not great by Bloomsbury’s standards, but by my standards, that’s my bestseller.

My second book, Troop 142 was published in 2011 by Brooklyn based boutique publisher Secret Acres. I serialized the story online as I wrote. It was nominated for four Ignatz awards at the 2010 Small Press Expo, and won for Outstanding Online Comic. The book got nice attention from NPR and the American Library Association. It got another Ignatz nomination in 2012 for Outstanding Graphic Novel. To date, the book has sold 1,435 copies.

My third graphic novel, Angie Bongiolatti, was also published by Secret Acres. It debuted at the MoCCA Festival in NYC this past April. Last week I got my first quarterly sales report.

106 copies.

Holy fucking shit! One hundred and six copies??? How has this happened?

I’ll just send you to Dawson’s post for his conclusions from this, including his ambivalence about social media, his recent switch to shorter comics, and a frank confrontation with the “What am I doing here?” feeling that all of us have at some time.

Dawson’s graphic novel career hits a lot of spots that we have come to call typical of the indie cartoonist’s life. Freddie & Me was part of the early aughts rush to graphic novels by major publishers — a premature rush that resulted in mostly disappointing sales. Troop 142 was serialized on Live Journal and got quite a bit of attention during its run, resulting in the award nominations and notice; it could be considered an “establishing” work. Angie Bongiolatti is a more enigmatic work, from the fact that I have to look up how to spell the title every time, to a plot that defies summarization at all — it’s not an art show like many indie graphic novels, but rather a narrative about people who are confused about their own lives and look to someone who seems to be less confused via politics following 9/11. IT’s also an office drama, intermixed with the work of theorist Arthur Koestler. Like I said, there is no elevator pitch for it—it’s a heart felt, thought through work.


All three maintain a high level of cartooning and narrative skill. Although he’s never been a critics darling, Dawson’s carved a respectable place for himself. He should be just entering a strong period of confident work. Instead, he’s wondering why he’s even here.

Dawson says what a lot of cartoonists are thinking these days. You can slave away at the drawing board every night after the day job ends, but is there even a career here for most people? What am I doing? Where am I going? Will there be a cheese plate when I get there? It’s the greatest time ever for comics but it’s still a mode of self expression not a way to make a living for many folks.

The post got recognition of another kind: a take down by Abhay Khosla:

Uh, if I can add insult to injury: who did you even think your audience was? Your graphic novels had a $20 list price, and you hadn’t really made a name for yourself before trying to charge people $20 to find out if you were any good at making comics.   Did you think there were a lot of people who take that kind of risk with their money, and if so, why?  Is that how you buy comics— you just see books and then spend $20 on them, regardless of if you’ve never heard of who made them, week after week?  What kind of comic-buying budget are you dealing with that allows you to do that?

I think some of Khosla’s point are a bit harsh—Daryl Ayo answers them here—but it’s true that finding an audience isn’t as easy as falling off a log or falling on a table at TCAF. I’m a fan of Dawson’s work, but not for reasons that readily translate to a steady audience.

In a private correspondence with Dawson, I suggested that Angie B. might have done better had it also been serialized online, the way Troop 142 was. It’s true that we have a ton of tools at our disposal to promote and disseminate all kinds of work now. It’s also true, as an agent told Dawson, that building an audience on social media is as necessary as knowing how to spell for authors these days. The rugged “self publisher” of the 80s and 90s has become the “self promoter” of the internet era. Dave Sim was right!

Dawson is a fine cartoonist with a distinctive style. His books aren’t for casual reading—he has a dense style that takes a while to read, just like a “real” novel. I haven’t seen the discussion of his essay beyond the two links above, but I suspect that a lot of cartoonists rolled it around in their heads as the day progressed.

Bonus reading: Tom Spurgeon interviews Dawson interviewed at The Comics Reporter

Whit Taylor interviews Dawson at Panel Patter

Hillary Brown reviews Angie Bongiolatti at Paste Magazine


  1. I’ll definitely check out his work.

    Abhay Khosla is a douche. $20 is a reasonable price for a graphic novel and the problem I think with consumers in general is that internet and digital transactions have got people used to buying comics for a couple dollars or even free. I also think webcomics sometimes have unintentionally made it harder for people to want to by comics when there is so much free material to indulge in.

    In general, people’s priorities are totally insane these days. They will spend $4 to $5 bucks on coffee, $15 bucks on lunch and way to much at bars. For instance it is like required now to tip bartenders a buck for just pouring a beer on tap, and the beer can already cost $5 to $7. $20 for a graphic novel that probably took years to make, plus the fact that you can keep and read it over and over again to me has a lot more value.

  2. I’m a Mike Dawson fan. Since I got a Gabbagool mini comic at the first MoCCA. I’ve read all of his GNs up to the new one,. Why haven’t I read the new one?

    Because I didn’t know it existed.

    So, even when your audience doesn’t know you have new work, you have to step back and rethink your whole business model.

  3. I wish the book was called “Pre-Occupied.”

    It is so hard core for Mike Dawson to put all this info up. I have a lot of respect for him as an artist and a person. It’s so easy to criticize someone at their most vulnerable. Although that Abhay Khosla piece feels like tough love rather than a take down. If you are really just trying to sell books, you need to focus on all the stuff that’s not art. Pricing, representation, marketing, etc.

    Hopefully he gets some sales from this.

  4. @nicoh – I tend to agree with your comment, but many people find the amazing art being done by all the artists we read about on sites like these as basically disposable, or worthy of a tumblr reblog or a retweet, but not much more than that. It’s sad how devalued cartooning is in our society, but it is what it is. Noah van Sciver had a funny cartoon about a 19th century cartoonist who is living the life and can’t wait to see how valued the career is by 2014.

  5. Hey, trust me on this, starting as a webcomic doesn’t automatically make people care about your book. Shit, it can have the opposite effect. You try selling your collected edition to someone who then just asks, “is this free on the internet?” and you are like, “yeah, you know to build an audience.” and the customer is then like, “So, why would I buy this book?” and you are all like, “cause I worked hard on it.. and.. uh, you like books.” Then you shed a sad lonely tear as that customer walks away… and probably never even bothers to find your webcomic.

  6. My quick/knee-jerk/emotional reaction (not scientific, folks): Even though I’ve had a certain success rate with it, there is a “stink” that comes from putting your original work online for free. Somehow, it devalues the work. Makes it harder to put a price tag on it. I went from blogging my free comix to self-publishing it on websites and, slowly but surely, consumption (readership) leveled off. Does that mean I only have a certain amount of fans/loyal readers? Not really. You’re only as successful as your reach and The Free Factor is a curious one.

    Sure, new eyes stumble upon my work from time-to-time and having your action online is cool and helps generate new (paying) work like a 24/7/365 resume but it doesn’t necessarily translate to sales. Social Networking has become a large part of the way we consume and the more we post teasers and links (GUILTY as charged), the more we question the asking price for said work.

    I intend to eventually rock a Kickstarter but that format has also changed the understanding of a proposed price tag. I believe talent should be able to ask for an advance (living wages) to produce the proposed work and not only just charge for printing & shipping. “Rewards” have become vast & varied, bordering on absurd. I think it’s okay to JUST ask for what you need in order to produce a comic book series/OGN and not have to generate ancillary product (buttons, t-shirts, posters, dinners, private massages ~ ad nauseum). Then again, I haven’t sparked a Kickstarter (yet) and I don’t know what it takes (stretch goals, et al). So, I’m reacting emotionally to a funding system that I think works well but the success rate is wholly unique per individual.

    Bottom line: I think it’s 100% fair for a publisher to charge $20 for an OGN* by an unknown artist and/or subject you’ve never heard of. That’s why we have previews and teasers. That’s why we browse. But, if nobody knows about the existence of said OGN, that’s a huge problem.

    *as someone on this thread pointed out: people will pay $5 for a cup of coffee. How is $20 for an OGN insulting?

    Right out the gate, Mike Dawson has been a great comix talent and whose work I admire and should always be considered for purchase.

  7. Abhay may be inelegant, but he’s essentially correct: it is very very very very difficult to get a consumer to drop $20 on an unknown or untested work.

    OGNs from extremely established creators often sell slower than serialized work by same (my go to example continues to be SANDMAN vs SANDMAN ENDLESS NIGHTS), and the problem gets exacerbated when you are published by smaller publishers — TROOP 142 wasn’t available from Diamond for months before I gave up and reordered directly from Secret Acres. How practical is that for the average comic shop? It’s hardly practical for me, and I’m an “indy focused” “book store”.

    One other note is that “copies sold” may or may not mean “copies sold ultimately to consumers” — for example, we ultimately clearance-saled the copies of TROOP that we bought directly from Secret Acres. We also never sold the copies of FREDDIE that we ordered.


  8. To everyone saying online serialization doesn’t work, the book that was serialized sold 10x what Angie B. sold. Granted there are many other factors at play — the secret lives of boy scouts is a much easier sell than “office workers struggle with sex and politics after 9/11”, even though the latter fuels 2/3rds of all sitcoms.

  9. The idea of spending money on an unknown quantity (and calling someone as talented as Mike Dawson unknown is insane) is really just subtext for a larger issue, which is spending money on art itself. Due to streaming, bootlegging, and yes even webcomics there is an expectation that art work should be free. I am not above this (thanks spotify), but I think the reality is that because art, “free art”, is so ubiquitous we have lost an appreciation for it as having value…monetary value. We have become entitled consumers who no longer understand that work takes time, and while collecting may be a hobby for us, this is someone else’s livelihood: as valid as a doctor’s or a lawyer’s. As a creator, I am lucky enough and perhaps not brave enough to make art full-time job because I know the entitlement of consumers has become normative. The bottom line, if one doesn’t spend the money there will be less paid creators and great work. You can dismiss this as a thinning of the heard, but it really is us as consumers of work who are going to be feeling the loss. The only people who will be telling stories are people who financial stability isn’t a concern for. While it’s always been difficult to support oneself as an artist, I don’t think it’s ever been more challenging.

  10. for me it’s about value, I would have no problem paying $20 for a book if I felt like it was comparable in value to something else. For example if the book was 300 pages $20 sounds like a good price, if it was a hard cover, full color, or something like that, then $20 is fine. I personally feel like indie books cost more than mainstream books and that this should be reversed. I buy primarily online and I usually buy in bulk, 10 or 15 books at a time, so I usually buy 1 item that is a ‘risk’. This allows me to keep discovering new authors/works without really feeling like I got ripped off. End of the day, you need to promote yourself, I’ve never heard of this guy so I’m going to go to amazon now and see if his stuff is there.

  11. @Chris, something to consider. The reason why indie books are so…expensive, I guess is your argument, is because the bigger companies have a better discount through Diamond, there are no discounts on printing in bulk (so we have to do smaller print runs of 200-500, while they are up in the thousands), they have paid advertisements, and they are paying an advance (page rate or so) and then giving a small royalty to the creators, but mostly keeping and recouping costs and making the “real” money. When we charge $5 for a book that Marvel would charge $3 for, it’s because we have to make up the difference in the competition for shelf space. Look, I would love to just give my stuff away, but that leads people to think that it’s worth nothing. If I charge something that is equally priced, then the consumer has to choose between Superman and Blooperman and no matter how great the quality is in Blooperman, no one is going to crack open the book to see if it’s better; they go with the proven track record. If I charge more, sometimes the perception is, “Oh, it must be good! It costs more!” but nine times out of ten, it’s, “Who does this asshole think he is?” Self publishing comics is a field of no easy answers and compromises just to make a dent. Asking us to compete with Marvel/DC/Dark Horse/whoever is asking the NYU film student to compete with Warner Bros and Disney…that’s just not a fair fight. Sure there are exceptions and there are indie darlings that break through that ceiling, but I’m going on 11 years in this fight with precious little to show for it. I’m tired, I’m beaten and bruised, and I keep doing this because, like Rocky Balboa, I’m too stupid to do anything else. I’m punch drunk at this point, staggering to my corner, unsure that the bell has rung so I keep coming out swinging. I guarantee you there’s not many at DC or Marvel that feels the way I do when I wake up in the morning. So, I’m sorry, but if I need to sell a book for $20 because it took $10 dollars to make, that’s just the sad state of affairs, my friend. I want to compete, but I have to have a way to ensure that I have a home to come home to.

  12. Chris… good luck finding a full-color 300-page graphic novel for $20.
    Especially in hardcover.
    Watchmen 436-448 pages
    TP $19.99 HC $40

    Essential Web of Spiderman v.2
    480 pages $19.99 B&W newsprint

    9-10 cents a page for a hardcover.
    Cheapest trade paperback? Four cents a page.

    I’m inundated with review copies and older books I buy for a curated collection. I’ll be lucky to finish books from last NYCC before October.

    Something new like this book… I’ll note it, but I probably would not buy it unless I saw him at a show or store signing. I bought his Troop 142 minis at SPX, for example. I saw his Freddy Mercury book.

    Slap “Ignatz Award Winner” on the cover, along with a blurb about his other books, and quite a few readers will pay $20 to read this.

    Here’s a question to ask Secret Acres:
    How many review copies did they send out?
    Who did they send those copies to?

    And, as a creator, you have to ask yourself:
    How well can they distribute my book?

    Books In Print shows no distributor for Secret Acres.
    BN.com shows barebones data. (no cover, no descriptive text)

    So, yes, those 106 copies sold are freaking amazing, given how difficult it is for stores to order copies.

    I don’t know how or at what cost, but my advice to Mr. Dawson is:
    Get an agent. You’ve got four books published, and have title recognition among the indie/literary comics market. An agent can get you a better book deal, possibly with a Big Five publisher, which will have better resources to promote and distribute your work.

  13. Heidi: I’d argue that the sales charts show that it’s the prevalent* one? Exceedingly few OGNs succeed, and the field is littered with ones that failed.


    (* = Actually, the prevalent one would appear to be “few stock them at all”, rather than my model which is “stock them, discover that few sell, try again”)

  14. Is this the same Mike Dawson who had a comics diary on the TCJ site wherein he mentioned having both a nanny and a maid? We should all have it so hard.

    The utter hypocrisy and clueless entitlement of cartoonists never fails to amaze me.

  15. Even IF Mike Dawson has a nanny and a maid, there’s nothing “entitled” about his commentary about sales figures. The point he’s making is not about whether he earns enough for his time but about the seemingly counter-intuitive turn his sales have taken.

    Then again, maybe I’m just an entitled, hypocritical cartoonist, too?

  16. Samuel, I asked my maid, my nanny and my sex surrogate, and they all say I’m perfectly well-adjusted. So raspberries to you!

  17. I know that there are some cartoonist that act entitled, but that does not fit this situation.

    Mike Dawson works a “real job.” He doesn’t cartoon to pay the bills. He affords any luxuries that he has through his non-dream job. And while I’m sure he would love to make lots of money from his graphic novels, I got the impression that his disappointment is more about reaching an audience with his work, not getting rich.

  18. Looks like Samuel Allessandro’s nasty comment about Mike Dawson was removed. I guess that makes MY response seem odd.

  19. Sorry I was asleep for a few hours and let a troll slip by! The best way to deal with a troll is a note to me to remove the post not a response in kind.

    I don’t want to speak for Steve Morris since he runs his own site now but if it’s a real emergency he might be able to remove it.


  20. Please define “troll” as I guess I don’t understand what it means. I thought a troll was a robot that infested comments sections with gibberish.

    Is Samuel Allessandro not a real person with opinions? Sure, his opinions were caustic and ugly and he clearly misunderstood the topic but I thought he was truly trying to make some kind of point that had folks (like me) chiming in. Because, IN FACT, there ARE people who have issues with Mike Dawson’s essay and, for better or for worse, we as a community can help manifest understanding.

  21. Cheers to banning abusive comments. You can delete my angry reaction (because NOW it’s out of context) if you feel it’s necessary.

  22. The Starbucks comparison is a logical fallacy because value is a subjective thing. People pay that much for Starbucks because it is perceived as being higher end than cheap Folgers or whatever you’d get at a fast food joint or gas station. Actual quality is irrelevant to what people are willing to pay.

    Comics have historically been cheap, disposable entertainment and thus perceived as such. It’s kind of like how no one wanted to pay $7 to drive to Blockbuster and rent a single film for a few days when they could pay $7 to Netflix to stream hundreds of films right there in their home as much as they want. Netflix changed the perceived value of the rental in just a few years and Blockbuster went out of business.

    Trying to justify the high price of comics just isn’t going to work when competing forms of entertainment are trending cheaper and with wider availability. Books cost 99 cents on Kindle, movies can be seen ala carte via Netflix for $7 a month, and the most profitable video games are quickly becoming the free-to-play ones like League of Legends (currently one of the most played video games on Earth).

  23. Sam was abusive in his posting, heaping personal insults along with his disagreement. I do not allow base personal insults in Beat comments! NO name calling! Witty takedowns are allowed. What is the difference? that is MY call and if you don’t like it tough!

  24. I like Torsten Adair’s comment – where was Secret Acres? Aren’t they as publishers supposed to look into things like marketing, distribution, etc? I get that artists increasingly have to do this themselves, but the publisher should at least have a clue about the market.

    Also (unless SA is a vanity publisher) they are taking a bigger financial hit than Dawson is, as they’ve shelled out real money for the publishing costs.

  25. I wrote a long comment that disappeared before I could post it. Oh well.

    I write a weekly column about new comics so I keep track of new releases more than the average person. Also, I’m a Mike Dawson fan and follow his work and podcasts. Yet, I still somehow missed the actual release of this book. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s actually been distributed through Diamond yet.

    As far as I’m aware, this book did not have a concrete release date with a concerted PR effort behind it. I know Mike has been doing the rounds himself but I have to agree with comments above. Secret Acres – as much as I like them as a publisher – hasn’t done much to get this book out there that I can see. I know every publisher works differently in this respect though.

    I bought the book and just finished it recently (will have a writeup next week or so). I thought it was great but it has a lot going against it from a marketing perspective so I think it’s sales performance might be a bit of an outlier and not something Mike should base major decisions about his career on.

    He’s one of the few cartoonists left out there making graphic novels with the emphasis on “novels.” I know this is a nearly unsustainable way to work these days but I hope he keeps doing it.

  26. I’m a fan of Mike Dawson’s work, but I’ve only ever bought his single issue and mini comics. I did read Freddie and Me (loved it) and Troop 142 (great book), but through my local library. Does that make me part of the problem?

  27. Paul: No. The Library likely paid for that copy. You reading the book (along with others) makes it more likely the Library will purchase Mike’s next book.
    According to the ALA there are 120,096 libraries out there which is obviously a large market (there are only about 2,600 comic shops for comparison). If a creator is popular enough a Library will also pay a creator to come and talk to their users, which is helpful to a creator.

  28. Just so we’re all clear:
    All authors need to promote their books.

    Yes, the publisher does the big stuff:
    sending out review copies, setting up author events, arranging interviews.

    But… the author must do promotion as well.
    Blog. Talk with your friends who blog. Do a podcast. Visit a school. Chat up your local news sources.

  29. correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m looking at all the listings for the last few months here: http://www.previewsworld.com/Archive/1/1/71/994

    and I don’t see Mike’s book anywhere. what that means is the book isn’t at any comic book shops. that means it’s not out yet. it doesn’t matter if the publisher said it debuted at some con. it doesn’t matter if they were there selling it on their table. it doesn’t matter what review you read. none of that counts. it doesn’t matter what the publisher or artist is saying. usually the artist doesn’t know what they are talking about, and the publisher isn’t telling the truth. that book isn’t available for purchase until it ships! what my years of comic book shop retail experience has taught me is this: every year indy/alternative comics publishers will debut exciting new books at conventions months before the books actually ship to shops. this creates a few months of misty enthusuasm that allways dries up by the time the book actually arrives. promoting a book is pointless if all that means is that in July customers come into the shop looking for a book that we can’t sell them. when the book they wanted finally shows up, it’s usually October. that enthusiastic potential reader will usually have totally lost interest. this happened every time with every single book Picture box ever released. these smaller publishers need to get it together. honestly what’s the point of having a publisher if they can’t get the book in previews and get the book to the comic book shops? right now if your following Koyama press on social media you’ll be hearing allot about Jesse Jacob’s new book Safari Honeymoon. that book is NOT out yet, when will it actually ship? who knows? maybe in time for x-mas? will the promotion you do today still be relevant and useful then? probably not.

  30. Trouble is, if you are marketing your new comic creation as a starter creator, people see you as a douchebag trying to hard sell your stuff. So what is the right amount of marketing a new product? 10x a day? 1x a day? And where are the avenues? In the comments section of every comic blog? Surely, admins will get pissed and delete your marketing ploy as a comment.
    Please enlighten me with the techniques that can be used without being a pushover attention whore.

  31. Hello!

    Ed Kanerva from Koyama Press here. I am writing with regards to dddoofus’ comment about Diamond, Previews and Safari Honeymoon.

    dddoofus makes a good point. Books that aren’t in Previews can be invisible to some comics shops. But here’s the rub: Diamond is one distributor of many that comics shops can order books from. They most certainly dominate the comics speciality shop market, but they are not the only game in town. Moreover, Diamond does not take every book presented to it despite the best efforts of artists, publishers, distributors, and sales people. We have had a few books in Diamond over the years, and they are taking more of our titles each season, but they do not take everything (we present and try to sell everything we publish, because we believe in everything we publish). Unfortunately, they decided to pass on the aforementioned Safari Honeymoon by Jesse Jacobs.

    But again just because a book isn’t in Previews doesn’t mean comics shops can’t order it. They are already at your favourite independent bookshop, big box shop or online retailer (and in the case of Safari Honeymoon they have been there since May). This is because our books are primarily distributed by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution (CBSD), a leader in independent book distribution since 1985, and a member of the Perseus Distribution group: one of the largest book trade distributors. The graphic novels/comics section of every type of bookshop is growing. Hey kids! Comics aren’t just for Previews anymore.

    Diamond and Previews are just one facet of comic book distribution; one that has its own agenda when it comes to what titles it carries, what gates it likes to keep, etc. A comic shop that would like to carry a diverse range of comics would do well to order from a diverse range of distributors.

    For those Beat readers interested in getting Koyama Press comics or getting their comic shop to order them, head on over here to learn more: http://koyamapress.com/contact-2/

    Ed Kanerva
    Marketing and Production Coordinator

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