Today’s podcast features Donna Lewis, writer of the Reply All comic strip and cartoon. Donna is a full-time attorney and shares her story of getting her comic strip, Reply All, syndicated.
Although Donna was a comedy writer and comedian, she had no previous experience as an artist or comic strip producer. Donna shares a lot of good insights, like “cross-training” your creativity, and tells us to stop thinking we have just one shot. Donna also gives some insight into how other artists can make money online.
Listen to the Podcast
Highlights from the interview:
00:45 – The life of a comedy writer and comedian in 2007.
02:30 – It started with a scribble, a punchline, and an email.
03:15 – Cross-training your creativity to stretch your rubber band.
05:30 – On not being able to draw well initially.
09:00 – The story of the Reply All comic strip.
14:00 – The path to syndication (i.e. not just one shot).
21:00 – One fan can make a difference.
24:15 – Syndication and making money with a comic strip in the changing landscape.
29:50 – Other ways to make money like licensing.
Mentioned in the interview:
- Reply All on Facebook
- Baby Blues
- Pearls Before Swine
- The Oatmeal
- Toothpaste for Dinner
Watch the Google Hangout
Thank you so much for listening!
View the full transcript. Click show
Philip Taylor: Welcome to the part-time money podcast. My name is Philip Taylor from ptmoney.com. On the podcast today we have Miss Donna Lewis. Donna is a fulltime attorney but on the side she’s a comedy writer and produces her own comic strips and cartoons as well. She does that on a part-time basis but someday she hopes to make that her fulltime gig. So I’m looking forward to talking to Donna about how she got started and how she’s doing what she’s doing moving towards a more fulltime opportunity here. Donna, welcome to the show.
Donna Lewis: Hi. Happy Tuesday.
Philip Taylor: Yeah, same to you. I’m looking forward to talking with you. The first question I always ask folks is how did you get started doing something like this? Especially since you’re an attorney which seems the complete opposite of someone who would be doing cartoons.
Donna Lewis: Yeah, it does seem like the opposite. The cartoons have nothing at all to do with law at all. I’m a writer who has been trying to get published off and on for years. Any writers out there will know what that feels like. It’s frustrating, it’s a lot of work. You have to really maintain a high level of confidence even when you’re not sure whether you should be confident. A couple of years ago back in 2006 or 2007, I decided to take a break from writing. I thought it would be a good idea to do some cross-training— something that would help my writing or change my writing a little bit and add value to my writing. I felt like I was writing the same all the time and I had a feeling that probably wasn’t good for me. I started doing some stand-up comedy and it was really fun. Really, a lot of fun. The only problem was that the hours are really not fun. The hours are late and the crowd is drunk and you get home very late. Obviously, it’s hard to keep a full-time job when you’re doing stand-up. I don’t know how some of those guys and gals out there do it. I had all this material. I was writing all this material, and I thought a lot of it was really funny and made me laugh. One day I did a scribble and added one of the punch lines to it then scanned it and stuck it in an e-mail. This was before Facebook; before I had Facebook. I sent it off to a bunch of people who I knew enjoyed my writing, and very, very quickly, someone said, “Ooh! Send more!” Obviously, if you tell somebody who’s a creative person to send more, they’re going to send more. I think, probably starting that very day, I just started doing two or three a day, and it just evolved. A comic strip evolved, which was shocking to me, because I really knew nothing about comic strips.
Philip Taylor: And at the same time, you were working as a full-time attorney, right?
Donna Lewis: Yeah. Not a good one, but, you know.
Philip Taylor: (Laughs.) I can relate to that story for sure. I especially like the way you took your creativity and you were open to a new form or a new style for expressing that creativity. That’s interesting.
Donna Lewis: You know, I’ll just mention something. I don’t think it would have occurred to me, how important – I call it cross-training, I’m sure there’s a lot of different ways to refer to the concept of cross-training. My dog is having a little bit of a fit in the background, so if you hear weird noises, it’s not abuse, it’s just a spoiled dog who wants attention.
Philip Taylor: (Laughs.) Okay.
Donna Lewis: At the time, I had been a runner and I had fallen in with a crowd that did triathlons. Swimming was not a strength, biking was definitely not a strength, and running was barely a strength. But I did start doing triathlons. And I found that when I did more than one sport with any sort of dedication, my running improved. When it came time for me to take a break from writing, something in my mind just said, “Go do things that are not what you’re doing in terms of your creativity but will enhance your creativity and stretch your rubber band.” Does everybody know what “stretch your rubber band” means?
Philip Taylor: Sure. I think so. Explain it, just in case.
Donna Lewis: You know what a rubber band is— and rubber bands only stretch so far. If you stretch them further, then their default circumference— the concept is that the rubber band will get— it won’t be as large as where you stretch it to but it will be a little larger than where it was when you started.
Philip Taylor: I got you.
Donna Lewis: It just totally worked out.
Philip Taylor: Right. Now, I can understand how the writing would make the leap but the drawing would be more of a challenge. Is that something you were trained in as well?
Donna Lewis: No. I’m laughing because when I got syndicated there was a bit of a backlash from some official cartoonists who are very serious about their cartoon-ing and are artists. My drawing was so bad… I’m not an artist. I’m a very creative person and I can throw paint on a canvas. I can’t charge $5,000 for it but I can make some colors go together. I really can’t draw. Actually, now I can draw better than I could back in 2007. I was drawing stick figures but at the time it didn’t occur to me that I would get syndicated. So it didn’t occur to me that the art would ever matter. I was just drawing these cute little stick figures that were kind of fun to look at. It was only after I got syndicated that I thought, “Man, I better learn how to draw.” I just self-taught myself— I learned how to draw.
Philip Taylor: Okay. Well, I like the style of the comics.
Donna Lewis: Thank you.
Philip Taylor: Where can people see the work?
Donna Lewis: The comic strip is called, “Reply All.” Actually, now there’s a comic strip and a cartoon. Remind yourself to ask me how the cartoon came about. It’s a good lesson for folks out there who are trying to grow.
Philip Taylor: Okay.
Donna Lewis: I have a website, which is www.ReplyAllComic.com. People always say, “Is there an S?” Well, there’s no S. It’s “comic.” I’m also on Facebook. Facebook is the fun place to hang out because that’s where people do comments and you can see what people are sharing. The shares are really interesting because you can figure out what pushed a button. Sometimes I’ll post a comic that’s about something really stupid like when you go to a web browser and you can’t remember what you were going to look up—one of those moments of the day. Then it turns out that a million people have the same exact thing happen to them. It just makes you feel better about yourself.
Philip Taylor: Yeah.
Donna Lewis: On Facebook it’s right under, “Reply All Comic.” It’s “Reply All Comic” on Twitter also but I’m really bad at Twitter.
Philip Taylor: Okay. Well, very good! I would think Facebook would be a better platform for the comic stuff anyway:
Donna Lewis: Because of the graphics.
Philip Taylor: It’s more visual. Yeah.
Donna Lewis: It’s visual. People love a visual, man!
Philip Taylor: That’s right. What are your comic strips about? You asked me to ask you about that so here we go. It’s called “Reply All.” Obviously, there’s office humor going on here maybe?
Donna Lewis: Actually, it wasn’t originally office humor. It was originally girl humor. And obviously to me, girl humor includes guys. Because guys are a big part of girls’ lives. There’s mother humor in there. There’s cousin humor. I would have put in sister humor but I don’t have any sisters. I have cousins who are just as challenging as sisters would be and fun. There’s family humor, there’s dog humor. All the stuff that would be in the life of a girl who’s working and I’m a girl who’s working. I’m a girl who’s always worked. My life has been defined by work. Most of the humor comes from that tension between doing everything you can to be as good as you can at whatever it is that you’ve chosen to do in your life, whether it’s work or something else. The tension between that and constantly feeling like you could be doing more, or you should be doing more, or something like that. That’s pretty much what the strip is about.
Philip Taylor: Okay. Well, I like it. You’ve got a good, solid niche there. Now, a lot of your writing, was that on similar topics?
Donna Lewis: The writing was on similar topics. The big difference is that the writing was always focused on essays and short stories, and so the writing was always an observation, in detail, of a situation. For instance, a good example is, I wrote an essay once on something that happened to me on the Metro. Do you guys have Metro in Texas? Do you have a subway in Texas?
Philip Taylor: No. We have a light rail system.
Donna Lewis: But I’m sure you’ve seen a Metro or a subway. Here in D.C, we have a Metro and for years I rode the Metro to work. That’s a lot of material right there on a Metro ride. People are crazy. People are different. It’s a good way to remember that your approach to living is not the only one. An essay that I wrote that was really popular was about something that happened to me on the Metro. I think it was something like, I accidentally touched a woman next to me. We touched by accident and apparently she wasn’t comfortable touching people on the Metro even though it happens sometimes. I wrote an essay on how all the different people I knew in my life would have responded to the same exact situation. In a comic strip you’ve got a really quick chance to convey that concept. In a comic strip—I haven’t ever written that comic strip… But it would probably be the character talking about something that happened on the Metro and another character giving a completely different take on what they would have done. “Well, I would have slapped her!” Or whatever the other character would have done. I didn’t slap her.
Philip Taylor: (Laughs.)
Donna Lewis: I made a joke. She didn’t like it.
Philip Taylor: Got it.
Donna Lewis: But that’s D.C. for you.
Philip Taylor: So it just takes a little bit of a different type of format. It’s almost like the punch-line of the essay.
Donna Lewis: Yes! It’s only the punch-line. If you’re a funny guy out there who’s a writer and you’re trying to mix up your writing or maybe break your style or something— stand-up is amazing because you learn how to convey the entire absurdity of a situation in just one or two very brief sentences. You have to hit it right there and you have to understand how much people would already know from their experience. How much you can rely on people already knowing to be able to make the joke.
Philip Taylor: Yeah. I have to think about those things when I write. I’ve got a lot more room to work with, though. That’s interesting that you’ve been able to refine that skill. So, talk about that time between when you started and when you first got syndicated. You said that 2006-2007 was when you got started out?
Donna Lewis: Yeah. In 2006, I was doing stand-up and to me, I viewed it as cross-training. I was really trying to mix things up a little bit. I had a lot more fun than I thought I would have. I also realized how old I was and that I really can’t stay up at night. That’s okay— it’s nothing to be ashamed of, if you can’t stay up at night. Then I drew the little first scribble comic or cartoon in early 2007, sent it out and immediately got fabulous feedback. People wanted to see more so I started doing more. I was doing two or three a day. And the reason I was doing two or three a day was because I couldn’t draw so I was only doing scribbles. I had a lot of material in my head. I had been writing stand-up material for the last six months and I had all these funny jokes in my head. I wanted to put them on paper. I had a ton of material, and I just started churning these things out. Eventually I posted them on a website— not my current website— the pre-syndication website and people started following. Little by little, the art started getting better. It wasn’t good but it started getting better. The art started evolving. You can see it if you go to the website and look at anything from the early days. I’ve gone from stick figures to characters who look like little people. Eventually, people started asking me when I was going to get published. My answer was, “I have no idea. I have no idea how you get something like this published.” I did some research. The research was depressing. Everything you read about syndication says that it’s impossible to get syndicated—which turns out to be mostly true, I think. For me, the timing was just really special, in this case. I spent about a year— this little part of the story is a good lesson about networking. One of the most successful, award-winning, commercially successful cartoonists is Stephen Pastas who does “Pearls Before Swine.” The only thing that I really knew about Stephen Pastas was that he was a lawyer. I didn’t have the confidence to ask any cartoonists questions about cartooning, but I can always pick up the phone or drop an email to a lawyer. I’ve been lawyer-ing long enough that I’m confident in that arena. I know that a lawyer will always talk to a lawyer. I guess it’s similar in most industries. I sent an email to Stephen Pastas, and I said, “Number one: Please talk to me, because I’m a lawyer. Number two, I have this comic strip and I’m not sure how to get it published. People are asking me when I’m going to get it published.” I never showed him the comic strip because I wasn’t confident in the comic strip. Also, I wasn’t asking him for input about the comic strip. I was just asking him for the next steps. And he said, “Just send some stuff to syndicates.” I spent the next year being very nervous about what to send. It had to be perfect, and it had to look perfect. I didn’t know the right font to use on the cover page, and should there be a cover page. I got really obsessive about thinking that I had one shot and one shot only.
Philip Taylor: Right.
Donna Lewis: I think, if I ever write a book, the one lesson in the book will be, “You don’t just get one shot.” You get as many shots as you have energy to take. It’s all up to you. And if you’re going to get tired, and if you’re going to get discouraged, but it’s not just one shot. Even if you send your writing or your product or your creation… Even if you send it to somebody who could possibly do something with it and they don’t like it, that doesn’t mean you can never send it to them again. You can send it when it’s better. You can send it when it’s evolved. You can send it twice a year, on the anniversary of the first time you sent it. You can keep trying because your audience keeps changing and your circumstances keep changing. You should keep trying. Nothing stands still. That was the most important lesson I learned and I’m very, very lucky that I learned it the easy way. By “the easy way,” I mean that somebody who was reading the strip—at this point it was going out by email to people and people were sending it to people and stuff like that. At one point an acquaintance of mine sent me an email. This was somebody I wasn’t used to emailing with. She said, “I don’t know if you know this, but I work at a newspaper. Do you want to talk to the comics editor?” I said, “I’ll do anything. I’ll wash the comic editor’s car for five minutes of insider wisdom or discussion.” I was looking for any gems that I could find. Sure enough, I very quickly got an email from the comics editor who turned out to be the editor for a syndicate. The person who had connected us— I don’t think she realized that the connection she was making was between— I think she thought it was between a cartoonist and a newspaper. I don’t think she realized it was between a cartoonist and a syndicate.
Philip Taylor: Wow.
Donna Lewis: When that editor got in touch with me, I couldn’t even believe who it was. It turned out to be one of the most well-known editors in cartoons, ever. It was really cool.
Philip Taylor: So, it helped to have the endorsement of this person who was already on your email distribution list.
Donna Lewis: It helped, to be out of the slush pile. I think that’s what helped. And for anybody out there who’s a writer— even if you’re just sending a resume in for a job, I think every industry has that “slush pile.” Maybe they call it something different in different industries but the concept is that if 3,000 people send in a resume and yours is one of the 3,000, you’re in the pile. You might be the best one in the pile but it’s really hard for the owner of that pile to find you in the pile.
Philip Taylor: Right.
Donna Lewis: I think the key was that I was never in a pile. I was just always this standalone entity, and who knows? I should go back and ask my editor. She was probably doing a favor for the person who thought they were doing me a favor, and they were. They were definitely doing me a favor. She was probably just being nice.
Philip Taylor: She liked it. She wanted you to have success because she liked it too, right?
Donna Lewis: She definitely liked the strip. Although, when we met, she didn’t look at the strip. She didn’t look at the strip seriously until after we met. We had a couple of months of me sending her stuff and her asking for stuff. We definitely knew we wanted to work together. I loved her, she loved the strip, she liked me enough— and then in October of 2009, Kathy Guiseway all of a sudden announced that she wasn’t doing “Kathy” anymore. I think I called my editor as she was picking up the phone to call me. It was such an obvious moment. There are not a lot of comic strips run by women. There are not a lot of comic strips about women. Even though mine’s not really similar to “Kathy,” it’s obviously in the same genre. It’s more like “Kathy” meets “Sex in the City.” It’s a little edgier than “Kathy,” and more evolved. The character is in a different time than “Kathy” was.
Philip Taylor: Right.
Donna Lewis: Everything fell into place and it only took four years for everything to fall into place. People think these things happen overnight. It was four years of producing two to three comics a day. Then, all of a sudden Kathy Guiseway left a big hole in the newspaper industry for female comics and I had a comic ready to go.
Philip Taylor: Awesome. For those people ignorant of the industry, what is syndication? What does that mean for you, from a monetary perspective? I’m assuming that this is the first time you started to get paid for your work. Are there other ways you can make money with your cartoons, except syndication?
Donna Lewis: I think syndication right now, to be honest, is the worst approach to getting a cartoon published. I made it into the industry as the door was closing. Honestly, anybody who knows the newspaper industry knows that it’s a changing model. The model hasn’t quite been figured out, especially from the monetary aspect. How do you monetize writing? How do you monetize the content? All of that hasn’t been figured out yet. People generally know that it’s got something to do with software and apps and internet and online. But actually, monetizing content is not easy. It’s not easy for the content provider and it’s certainly not easy for the owner of the content, whether that’s the writer or the artist or whoever. The easiest way to think about syndication is to think about features that you like personally, in your local newspaper. So, let’s say that you love Sudoku or you love the crossword puzzle or you love Dear Abby, or whoever writes Dear Abby these days. Maybe you like the editorial columnists. Maybe you like the guy who always writes about your town’s baseball team and has been writing about baseball forever. Those features are syndicated, meaning that they’re not just in your local newspaper. Unless it’s a very local feature. Every newspaper has a very local feature. But most of the newspaper is content that is also in other newspapers— maybe other magazines, maybe other locations on the Internet, maybe in apps. Getting syndicated means that a company, the syndicate— which is fun to think of it like the Mafia, but it’s really not like that.
Philip Taylor: It’s a cool word, the “syndicate.”
Donna Lewis: It’s a cool word. Unfortunately, the people connect it with the syndicate. You really couldn’t be scared of them in an alley. They’re really not very scary. They’re very nice and funny, though. The feature, in my case, happens to be one comic strip which is four panels, delivered daily and one cartoon which is a single panel, delivered daily. Both of those are syndicated. Both are sold to newspapers, magazines and companies that have apps. I get a paycheck every month which is quite a surprise. I never, ever thought I would see money coming from my doodles and humor. I figured that I would eventually get something published, but I didn’t think it would be a cartoon or a comic strip.
Philip Taylor: I got you. Do you mind sharing what that is, or give us an idea of what that is?
Donna Lewis: Of what is?
Philip Taylor: The amount that you get paid and how often.
Donna Lewis: I probably don’t want to say that. Syndication is a really competitive business because so few people in any one genre are syndicated so you don’t like to make it easy for people to find out where you stand today or yesterday or tomorrow.
Philip Taylor: Sure.
Donna Lewis: I’ll tell you this. My strip is in its third year. If you look at the most popular strips, if you look at “Baby Blues,” or “Zits,” or “Pearls Before Swine,” or— I’m skipping “Doonesbury,” for a reason. Those are strips that have been out for over 10 years and they entered the markets when newspapers hadn’t yet started to die out. Those guys can live off of the money that they’re making from syndication. At the three-year mark it’s pretty hard to live off of the money you’re making from syndication. It depends on how poor you want to live.
Philip Taylor: Right. So, this is a legitimate part-time income for you now, and—
Donna Lewis: Oh, absolutely.
Philip Taylor: It heavily subsidizes what you’re doing with your attorney practice or with your corporate attorney work.
Donna Lewis: It’s a significant amount of money. If I didn’t live in Washington D.C. it would be a more significant amount of money. D.C., unfortunately, is a money-suck and you don’t get to keep any of what you make when you live in D.C. It’s just too expensive.
Philip Taylor: Well, it’s great that I talked to someone on the podcast who pours a lot of time and effort into something to have it not pay off for a long, long time, but to then finally do so well in this regard. Congratulations to you for staying with it and finally seeing some monetary return.
Donna Lewis: Thank you. It’s hard to stop doing something that you really love that’s bringing you a lot of joy that you’re getting good feedback about.
Philip Taylor: So, maybe talk about some ways that you see other cartoonists or artists or writers who are doing a similar thing also profiting from some of their efforts?
Donna Lewis: One thing I should mention is that now that the comic strip has proven to be popular, and I mean that in terms of numbers. I’ve got good numbers of people who follow the cartoon and the comic strip every day.
Philip Taylor: How do you know that?
Donna Lewis: I have different measures. I don’t use Twitter because Twitter is more for the written word.
Philip Taylor: This isn’t something that the syndicate is telling you. You’ve been able to collect these numbers?
Donna Lewis: The syndicate follows numbers however a syndicate follows numbers. However, to be really honest— don’t tell anybody this and mute this so your followers and your listeners so they don’t hear it— I don’t trust the syndicate. It’s not because of my particular syndicate, it’s just that the syndicate is used to doing business in a print industry.
Philip Taylor: Sure.
Donna Lewis: And my strip came out as strips were starting to get popular on the internet. So, for your listeners, if anybody follows the Oatmeal on the internet or XKCD— I’m not sure whether I got those letters correct. XKCD or some variation of that, is a very popular comic strip—
Philip Taylor: Red Meat? Is that another one?
Donna Lewis: Red Meat? Red Meat, I don’t know. Toothpaste For Dinner is a really popular one. The Oatmeal, if anybody out there is looking to figure out how to monetize creative content, go look up the Oatmeal. That’s a guy who started off drawing stick figures. He still, to this day, draws stick figures. He’s got a website where he does funny things. He’ll do, “10 Great Uses for a Dead Cat,” or… I don’t know if that’s actually one of his things but it sounds like it would be one of his things. Or, “The Top 10 Most Annoying Grammatical Errors Related to Apostrophes.” The kind of stuff that people hang on their office wall because they relate to it. He’s making a lot of money from being published. I don’t know whether he’s self-published or whether he’s got a contract with a publisher. Anybody could look that up. That’s pretty easy stuff.
Philip Taylor: Okay.
Donna Lewis: He is the model for monetizing humorous content. He’s one of the models.
Philip Taylor: I’ll be sure to link to him.
Donna Lewis: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think it’s Matthew Enman or something like that.
Philip Taylor: A couple of other questions before we have to run here. First is, you mentioned something about licensing. Is that different from syndication?
Donna Lewis: Yeah. So, now I have hundreds of cute little characters saying funny things and they can go on products. They can go on mugs, they can go on stationary. They can go on journals, on greeting cards and all that. That’s probably where the money these days would come from. For anybody out there who’s an artist, or if you write clever things— if you’re the person who can write a Tweet and everybody loves your Tweet and they think you’re a genius because you used 140 characters in a really smart way, you can get that stuff licensed. You can get it put on products and sold in stores. The example that I always think of for licensing is the line of products called, “Life is Good.” Have you seen those? Anybody who’s in your audience who is an athlete would probably know the “Life is Good” stuff. They sell it! T-shirts, sweatshirts, lots of stuff. Really good quality stuff with little drawings of happy people doing happy things like climbing rocks. They make huge money from licensing of those images on products. That’s where I’m at now. I’m trying to get licensing for my images.
Philip Taylor: Okay. Good deal. Well, that’s actually all we have time for today. Where can people find out more about the strip, and about you?
Donna Lewis: Anybody who has a question should send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website at www.ReplyAllComic.com. Or definitely come visit us on Facebook. We’re Reply All Comic on Facebook. If somebody out there has an idea and they’re trying to figure out how to make it into something more than an idea, I’m always happy to think of stuff more like that. Creative people have to stick together.
Philip Taylor: Yes. Alright, Donna, thanks so much for being on. I appreciate it.