Clear Blue Water has been out of newspapers for an entire year now and I finally feel like writing about what happened at the end. I don’t want to burn any bridges, but I do want to be honest about what happened and how I felt about what happened. So here’s my disclaimer… I really liked everyone I met at Universal Press (especially my editor, Sue), and I would recommend this syndicate to anyone pursuing syndication. They are very good at what they do and they are nice people, to boot. For the most part, I had a really positive experience.
…For the most part. (Cue the dark music. Dun dun dun…)
Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? Clear Blue Water launched into newspapers on May 3, 2004. I had an okay launch. Nothing spectacular, and nowhere near how many papers I was hoping to land, but it was more than the handful I worried about in my worst case scenerios. How many was it, you ask? Well, I honestly don’t remember exactly. I’m pretty sure it was between 25 and 30, with some big fat good-paying papers thrown in with some smaller ones. On a good note, I got the paper from my college town AND the paper from where we used to live. On a bad note, I didn’t get our local paper, or, in fact, any papers in Florida at all, so I was never able to just pick it up and read it and most people in town had no idea I was a cartoonist. UPS inflated my numbers (as ALL syndicates do), but I can no longer remember what the inflated number they threw around was. Maybe 35 or 40? Maybe 50? It’s all fuzzy these days. My point is, I was happy with my launch and looking forward to seeing how many papers I could and would get from that point forward.
Clear Blue Water’s last day in newspapers was on September 28, 2008 and in those 4.5 years I was syndicated, I ADDED a total of 3 papers. Yes, that’s 3, as in 1, 2, THREE. However, I LOST a bunch of my papers in the first two years, so these were not good numbers at all. To this day I am not sure if the salesmen couldn’t sell it or wouldn’t sell it and it matters not. Each one is a depressing scenerio (for completely different reasons) but the result is the same. I will tell you what NOT to do though. Don’t get pissy with the salesman early on and demand to know if they were even taking it out of their briefcase for the editors to see. Not that I ever did that, but if I HAD, boy, would I have regretted it later. Bad idea. BAAAAAAD idea. Bad.
It got to the point where I dreaded getting my checks in the mail because it would tell you what papers dropped you or added you (the syndicate never told me beforehand). I made my husband open them; I couldn’t even face them. He’d just say, “Holding steady.” Or, “Two drops this month.” People would ask me what papers I was in and I didn’t know anymore because I chose not to know. I faced it by not facing it and choosing not to think about it. The last few years of my strip I mostly held steady. I didn’t add any, but I also didn’t get dropped by any. Still, the stress of what MIGHT be happening behind the scenes was hideous.
I expected the syndicate to drop me at any time for about four years. This was REALLY stressful. I thought about quitting, literally, every single day for those same four years. I worried about it. I fretted. I begged my friends and family to be honest with me and tell me if I sucked. I asked everyone I knew to tell me what to do. And I prayed. Endlessly prayed. Not only for success but mostly for God to let me know what His will was in this. (I KNOW that getting syndicated was a gift from God, and I have come to realize that it was a teaching gift and not necessarily a monetary one. It remains, to this day, a much appreciated blessing, though). If God wanted me to quit, I’d quit, but if He didn’t, I would stick it out.
He never answered. But, I did work out a system (much to His amusement I’m sure!) with God. I told Him if I lost this one particular big paper that I’d know it was a sign from Him to quit and I would. Immediately. But if I didn’t lose that paper, I’d stay on and keep muddling through and trying to make a success of it. I never lost that paper, so I kept going year after year. The thing is, I was still making more than I would working at some part time job around here, and I could set my own hours around our family life, and it was creative and fun and I loved it. If I had been the sole breadwinner in our family, I’d have had to give it up years earlier in order to find a better paying job, but I wasn’t, so I was able to keep it going just because I liked doing it. Getting paid to do it was just…gravy. I just wish I’d made more of a success of it. But I can honestly say that I tried. I made my deadlines and put out the best product that I could for my entire run. And if people knew what our family life was like during that time… looking back, I cannot imagine how I did it.
Every time a cartoonist would stop their strip (and it happens a lot if you are paying attention, which I was) I would feel such a kinship with them, and I’d know that my time was coming soon as well. It’s incredibly difficult to finally get your shot and then realize that no, you AREN’T going to be the next big thing and watch it pass you by. No one but other syndicated cartoonists know how hard this is, and no one else CAN know because there is very little transparency about the process and little honesty about the numbers. And THAT is why I am writing this post. I know aspiring cartoonists won’t listen and they SHOULDN’T listen because everyone thinks THEIR strip will be the next blockbuster one, and sometimes they are right. All I can say is that I would not, at this time, choose to pursue syndication again. I hear of all these wonderful cartoonists desperate for syndication and it’s so bittersweet for I used to be one of them. Yes, there is big success to be had but for most it’s a road ultimately filled with exhaustion, unrelenting deadlines, and much too little success or appreciation.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I’d pretty much decided that if I made it to my five year anniversary, I’d quit (which would have been May 3, 2009). It had become more than obvious to me that this endeavor was not going to be blessed, so it was time to move on down the road. And five years was a nice round number, and a more than respectable try, I thought.
Fast forward to the summer of 2008. A bunch of things were coming to a head in my life and I spent the majority of the summer praying hard for guidance in these things. One of the things I was desperate for was an answer. A definite yes, drop your cartoon right now for I have something else up my sleeve for you, or a definitive no, I want you to keep going and I’m finally going to bless your efforts. It was definitely a ‘shit or get off the pot’ time in my life. At this point, I didn’t really care what the answer was, I just wanted to KNOW so I could stop fretting about it. It was taking up an inordinate amount of my time and attention.
On August 4th, I received a letter from the syndicate. As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was. My husband was immediately suspicious of its contents as well. Before I opened it, I told him, “I bet’cha UPS is dropping Clear Blue Water.” And I was right. It was brief and to the point. They were stopping production on September 28th. The thing is, I’d already turned in the Sunday after that. When Lee found out he told me I could continue another week, but I chose not to and just dropped the last Sunday instead. Because I was so far ahead of deadline, this ending date gave me only two weeks notice to wrap up my cartoon. I dropped a storyline in the middle because I didn’t want to waste any of my last two weeks on it, and in mid August, I finished. It was not the ending I’d hoped for, and I wish I’d been given more notice, but them thar’s the breaks, right?
I have to admit two things. When I first read the letter, I was not upset. I was relieved. I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders and I immediately thanked God for the answer. It was an absolute answer to prayer. It was not the answer I’d HOPED to get, but it was so nice to finally get some direction! And, it was a relief to have the decision I’d been just suffering about torn out of my hands completely.
Then I began to feel really bad. I mean, I’d been working with this syndicate for over five years and I didn’t even merit a phone call. I didn’t mind that they dropped me (I had been expecting it, as I said), I just minded the way it was done.
Why and how did I choose to make a go of it as a web cartoonist? Well, that’s a story for another time. More to come eventually…