Going for the iDollar
Self publishing in the digital market for comic and children's book illustrators. Here's my ongoing article about my experiences breaking into the iPhone, iPad and other digital markets.

Background


About seven years ago I suddenly had a moment of inspiration. I'd been working as a freelance children's book illustrator for about 15 years making a precarious living. Ever since a child I'd always enjoyed model making, fantasy and gaming. We're talking pre-computer gaming, the odd board game and, of course, Dungeons & Dragons. By this time I was a hard-bitten freelancer, which means one cannot help thinking of everything as a potential method of making some money. I also wanting to find a way to sell directly to customers, the years of working on publisher's lame ideas and tedious constraints were starting to take their toll. Anyway, back to the flash of inspiration. By that time I was working digitally and the internet, in the form of the web, was really starting to take hold. My idea was to combine my love of models, fantasy, and desire to make some cash. I suddenly concieved of the idea of designing paper model kits people could buy online and download to their computer, print out on suitable thin card and build. I still mentain that it is the only truely physical thing you can download from the net. Of course I wasn't the first person to think of it, and handful of others had started selling models online in this way, but I was in the vanguard.

The result was Fantasy Cutouts. Designing the model kits turned out to be a nightmare of complexity. Eventually I figured out a way to create them in Newtek's Lightwave in 3D, then break them apart  to make the parts. Initially the few kits I had up sold reasonably well through the excellent RPGnow, if still in pocket money size revenues. Sadly for Fantasy Cutouts family necessities intervened. The income stream was way too small for the money I needed to pay the mortgage and household bills. Years later, in fact the spring of this year (2010), I returned to Fantasy Cutouts with two new kits, but found many others had crowded the market, and for the work involved it wasn't worth me investing my main efforts to make in pay. However, it does pay, continues to dribble in a little cash, just enough to buy me a few beers.

The experience of Fantasy Cutouts really started a glowing kernal of an ambition. That is to truely profit directly from my own efforts. I've worked all my life as a freelancer and have more or less kept my head above water with contract work for publishers illustrating books, magazines, etc. What I really wanted was a wayto get my ideas direct to the punters, the people buying the entertainment. I also figured that the fewer people in the chain the more money would come to me. In children's books there are a lot of people in the chain from creator to final book buyer. Agents, packagers, publishers, printers, distributors, retailers and more. They all want their cut. Early in my career I did two epic books for Dorling Kindersley. Together they took me about 4 years of my life, and to this day I still think they are some of my best, and potentially most commercial work. There is no doubt they would be selling today, but the publishers marked them out of print just a couple of years from their launch. I guess they had warehousing issues or something. The point is that I had nothing to do with their decision even though it was my work and my potential royalties.

From all this Fantasy Cutouts told me a number of  important things. The first was that on paper digial self publishing makes a whole heap of sense. The chain is instantly disolved. Apart from perhaps an online portal or sales system there's no one wanting their cut. This means that on each model sold I make around 1.50, instead of a tiny fractionof that if it went through a publisher. There are no up front costs in printing, distribution or retail. There's no one telling you what to do. You have complete control. What you create stays, "in print", for as long as you wish, even potentially way after you've headed for the grave. It all looks good.

There is a downside, or course. Or rather several downsides. The first is that you have to fund the time taken to make the product entirely yourself. So, for example, a paper cutout model kit may take me 6 weeks to design and illustrate. That's 6 weeks with no money coming in. I've kept going with help from my wife working and a sprinkling of standard flat fee illustration work, but it's a low rent lifestyle. On top of this you are working with no guidence at all, though working for publishers these days you are still on your own as they sacked all their talented editors in the early 90s. You have to finish your work which means having to design and produce to a standard that is good enough for people to pay money for it. This sounds trivial, but I've had to learn dtp, drawing programs, colour systems, web design (all of which I am still far from mastering) and all while attempting the finesse of design, a skill that cannot be underestimated.

The biggest downside however is marketing. I am totally not interested in marketing, it's not in my DNA to project myself one bit. When Fantasy Cutouts started I was new to the field. When I went back to it years later I was one of many who had hundreds of quality products. How do you get your product noticed and then bought? I've yet to crack this one.

To be continued... Please check back soon :)
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