January 22, 2013
Posted by: Calista Brill
Categories: Behind the Scenes

Edited 1/23/2013

There’s been some discussion about this article, and it seems like it could use a little clarification and context.

This post is specifically about the question of comics as a financially viable career, and how heavily to weight the opinion of publishers or other industry pros in your decision to pursue that career. It is not about how (or whether) to live a creative life. No publisher is in a position to tell anyone to stop making art, and thank goodness for that.
In the “Behind the Scenes” series on the First Second blog, we provide practical insight into the workings of our corner of the publishing industry.There often isn’t a lot of transparency in the publishing industry, and one of the goals of this series of articles is to offer more transparency into how First Second does business.  These posts are generally prompted by questions we’re frequently asked by authors and artists.


So there’s been a little discussion happening about publishers and other industry professionals and what they might have to say about the quality of your work – and the likelihood of you having a career in comics – and how seriously you ought to take them.

Faith Erin Hicks wrote this lovely and wonderfully inspiring piece about all the times she persevered in the face of active discouragement from people in her field – from authorities in her field – and the success she’s had as a cartoonist despite others’ doubts.  (And thank goodness for her indomitability, say I – because I love love love her work, and love love love working with her.)

Then my colleague Gina posted this funny and true blog post about how publishers, like other upright-walking hominids, are in fact only human. We don’t always get it right! Sometimes we tell people to get out of comics and then those people turn out to be, I dunno, Paul Pope and Lynda Barry. (Note: I have never told either Paul Pope or Lynda Barry to get out of comics.)

Believing in your work is absolutely necessary in order to succeed in this business, and no matter how talented and accomplished you are, you are likely to face a lot of rejection from various corners – there are only so many readers, publishers, websites, etc, in the world. It’s a competitive business.

But the unpleasant fact is, not everybody is publishable.

Not everybody is publishable, and not everybody has the necessary combination of talent, work ethic, and will-power to make a career in comics happen. Or: you might have all those qualities, but not in comics. Maybe you’ve got what it takes to be a great teacher, or computer programmer, or writer, but not a good cartoonist.

Here’s the thing: publishers are in a pretty good position to make this call. We’re not perfect, as we’ve established, but we look at a lot of work, and we have a general sense of who has “it” and who doesn’t. Our livelihood depends on us making good calls here, so we invest a lot of time and effort into it.

Of course sometimes publishers are wrong. Even lots of publishers can be wrong – lots of publishers, all saying the same thing, all wrong about the same thing. The place where we’re most likely to err, I’d guess, is when it comes to telling the difference between someone who’s going to be great in five years and someone who’s never going to be any good. That’s a tough call to make, and I’ve probably screwed that one up a bunch of times personally.

I have never told anyone outright not to pursue a career in comics. But I have warned many, many aspiring cartoonists to develop other skills; to have the ability to build a different – or related – career while they’re waiting to see if comics works for them. Like many creative careers (acting, music, the fine arts, etc) you should expect to have to support yourself with other stuff while you’re getting better at your art, and making contacts in the industry.

(In fact, most working cartoonists I know – people who have, definitively made it in comics – still do a lot of other stuff for money. I only know a handful of cartoonists who support themselves with only comics work.)

So you can buy yourself some time to hone your craft while you pay the bills with weasel husbandry or telephone repair or what have you, but at some point, you have to start doing the mental arithmetic.

Because, to put it frankly, it can be hard to tell if you’re bravely persevering in the face of others’ unfair discouragement of your art, or foolishly persevering in the face of others’ accurate assessment of your limited talents. And you may never know, honestly, but you still probably need to make a decision. So:


Of course this call is different for everyone. It depends on a lot of factors, and on how much you personally care about those different factors. These might include:

How much money have you invested in this career? Did you pay for an expensive art-school education? Are you in debt? This could influence your decision either way, actually: you might say, “I have so much money sunk in this, I can’t give up now!” (note: this is problematic at best – there’s even a name for it: the “sunk cost fallacy“) or you might say, “I have so much money sunk in this I’ve got to do something I know I can make a living at right now before my financial situation gets any worse.”

How much money can you make doing other stuff? This is a similar double-edged sword: if you’re making good money at another occupation, that could sway you either way, depending on your attitude and priorities.

Are you finding the time and the will to put the work in, regardless of how discouraging your reception might be?

Are you getting better at comics every year?

Do you have fans? Do people who aren’t your mother or your boyfriend like your work? Do people buy your mini comics / read your web comic / recommend your work to other people?

Do you suffer from doubts about your own talent? That’s actually a good thing, not a bad one. The people at the top of any field are generally aware of their own limitations and concerned about them. If you have no doubts about the quality of your work, that’s a bad sign.

How much do you want it?

How much do you enjoy it? (Note! This is different, often, from “want.” Since you’re unlikely to get rich making comics, no matter what, you’d better love doing it.)

And, of course:

What kind of reception are you getting from industry professionals?

Note: this last one is only one factor out of many in the morass of variables that will influence your decision to stay in comics or to focus your energies elsewhere. But it’s an important one, if this industry professional does say so herself.


EDIT! Check out Colleen Doran’s terrific post on the same subject, which I just came across. She is one smart lady.

20 Comments on “ When to Give Up ”

  • The Code Crimson | January 22nd, 2013 3:23 pm

    This is accurate on so many levels across so many creative professions! Especially acknowledging the fact that almost all of us in the field survive on a mix of passion and purgatory. We always have to take multiple projects, not necessarily projects we’d want, just to pay the bills, and then there are those times whn we’re stuck waiting for the next project to arrive. That’s why we need the fun projects we are passionate about, that inspire us, give us ways to dream even bigger.

  • Penguin | January 22nd, 2013 3:39 pm

    These are the worst types of articles. Telling an artist to quit doesn’t benefit anybody. If someone is going to fail in the comics industry, they should do so on their own accord. And although they may not become published, the pursuit itself could mean much more to a person in terms of artistic growth and expression, self-satisfaction, time well spent, or any other given reason. Rejecting submissions is one thing but I have no idea why anyone would feel the need to interject in someone’s personal aspirations. It is presumptuous and unnecessary.

  • George Kambadais | January 22nd, 2013 3:40 pm

    Thank you for that!
    I’d like to share my story if this is ok with you, I live in Greece. I have no art education, nothing, see, my parents didn’t want me to become an artist. I studied computer programming instead. Something that i don’t like at all! But in the meantime i was doing comics and self published them here in Greece.
    At the beggining I’ve heard from many people that i’m not a good artist and they told me to stop doing what i love to do(well, i really was bad then…). I didn’t give up. I picked up my pieces and tried to become better as an artist. I read books, i was drawing everywhere and anytime in my sketchbooks, and after many of years of practicing and trying, i published my first proffessional work as an artist with Arcana Comics, “Champions of The Wild Weird West”(with some pretty good reviews), and i’m working on several other projects right now, while i’m still living in Greece. Nothing too big, but i’m trying my best to break into the industry because that’s what i really want to do. I hear every day from my friends and family that i’ll never be a successfull comic artist and that i won’t be able to make a living from this. This is the hard part, to not have someone who helps you do what you want,who supports you, but now, i just ignore them.
    Every time i hear something bad about my art, i’m trying to fix it, to improve my skills.
    My point is to never give up if you really want to do this. You have to do sacrifices, but if this is what you really want to do, don’t give up when a publisher or an editor tell you that you are not good enough to be published, but try harder and become better and you’ll find a small(or a big that depends on your skills and a lot of luck)place in the comic industry.
    Thanks for your time.

  • Liz | January 22nd, 2013 3:53 pm

    But but but…what about all those picture books telling you never to give up on your dreams?! (Or do those happen at a different imprint?)

  • DannyDont | January 22nd, 2013 3:56 pm

    @Penguin –

    I agree with your sentiment. No one should ever give up having or making art in their lives. But the purpose of this post was to discuss when to quit trying to make that art your profession. There is a world of difference there.

    Unfortunately, editors meets lots of people who have been given awful advice (usually based on the fact that it is very pleasant and easy to tell someone to “keep at it!”). Sadly, those people find themselves working for decades toward a goal that might never materialize.

    It takes wisdom to know when to say this to an artist, because you’re right, it’s very hard to know if that person will ever make it. It’s just a probability guess.

    But when the advice applies, it is the most loving thing you could do for someone.

  • Dustin Harbin | January 22nd, 2013 4:17 pm

    A good sign that you should give up on an artform you’re passionate about is if a publisher suggested you do so and you listened.

  • Steve | January 22nd, 2013 6:16 pm

    If a professional tells you that you probably won’t cut it & you take the advice then the professional obviously is correct. If you ignore it & you keep at & ultimately don’t make it as a freelancer, then at least you’ve been warned. Ultimately anyone who pursues a creative field has to ask him or herself whether or not to continue. All the warnings in the world won’t stop a person whose truly determined.

  • Anna | January 22nd, 2013 6:57 pm

    Hard truths. If making comics is what you love, you’ll keep at it even if you really should “move on.” for everyone (like me) who likes making comics a lot but would be ok doing other fun things, its good to know when to cut your losses and switch to something else. Thanks for this article.

  • Matt Seneca | January 22nd, 2013 10:43 pm

    Oh wow

    Never give up.

  • Elizabeth Purvis | January 22nd, 2013 11:09 pm

    Oprah was told many, many times by her superiors that she would never have a career in television.

    The Beatles were also told to pack it in early on.

    There is a BIG difference between saying that “not everyone is publishable” and “not all work is publishable.”

    Also, who is to say when it’s time to quit except the person making the effort, no matter how much time, money, energy and attention they’ve invested? Maybe there’s value in the journey for them. Maybe they have reasons that go far beyond the “surface” reasons that editors understand. Maybe they have reasons that even THEY don’t understand.

    I appreciate (and I’m being sincere here, not sarcastic) that you’ve never told anyone not to pursue a career in comics. Because frankly, that’s not your call to make. People can make their own decisions.

    Finally, the definitions of “career” and “success” are open to interpretation.

    I have never seen true failure from anyone who has truly made the decision to succeed.

  • Roger Benson | January 23rd, 2013 9:52 am

    If you give up, it means that cancer won. Never give up. Never let cancer win.

  • BC Rice | January 23rd, 2013 11:35 am

    I think what this article, like so many like it miss is that you can be great at something and that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll ever be successful. But nowhere in the article does she talk about how to make yourself better at the *business* of making art. She’s acting like talent alone means nearly anything at all. Most adequate writers and artists fail because they have zero business acumen, not because they’re inferior artists. I can point to a crap ton of just really horrible visual artists and writers who have worked for the largest publishers with consistency — it’s not because they were better than their competitors, it’s because they had the business wherewithal to achieve their professional goals.

    Instead of telling people, “know when to quit, Rudy,” maybe she might want to put the focus on teaching artists to be better self-made business people. People who certainly, in this day an age, don’t need any sort of approval from a 3rd party publisher as to whether or not their work is worth doing.

  • Penguin | January 23rd, 2013 1:15 pm

    In reply to your edit:

    Sorry, but there is little difference between telling someone to stop making art because they suck, and to stop pursuing a career in art because they suck. Comic artists will decide on their own, why they want to pursue to their careers and for how long (believe it or not, money and the opinions of a few specific people might not even factor into it). I really had no idea it was the job of publishers to tell people they should give up because he/she is “foolishly persevering in the face of others’ accurate assessment of your limited talents.” Good grief.

  • Sidney J | January 23rd, 2013 1:56 pm

    Is this really about economics?

    Your update: “This post is specifically about the question of comics as a financially viable career”

    The post itself: “I only know a handful of cartoonists who support themselves with only comics work.”

    That doesn’t leave many creators who shouldn’t hang it up.

  • Wanda B | January 23rd, 2013 2:03 pm

    Obviously the long curve from skilled master to delusional incompetent has thousands of points, not three or four. And obviously people have the capacity to advance themselves along the curve.

    But this “rah rah, you go girl, the dream never dies, you’re a success on whatever terms you decide” response is the only reward some aspiring artists are ever going to get, and that’s a fact. Acknowledging it isn’t a hate crime.

  • BigBandit | January 28th, 2013 12:59 am

    Speaking to some of the responders, there’s way too much focus on the ‘when to give up’ part of this article, and hardly any attention paid to all the surrounding information.
    A few years ago, I stumbled upon an online video of Jenny Breeden (author of The Devil’s Panties) offering tips to other cartoonists out there. Basically, her message was ‘get a day-job’. Okay. No problem. I got it. It made complete sense. A no-brainer. Really! But it did rub me the wrong way a bit, because I’m pretty gung-ho about publishing my work, and am not too pie-in-the-sky about it… but man, I want to make a living off of my comics in a bad way!

    Well, I’ve since swallowed that, and other pills pretty hard ’cause here’s the deal (or at least my view on it).

    We’re at a great and lousy time in comics right now. Lousy, because it’s a little too hard to make a solid living from it. No matter how much I love it, in terms of providing me with that solid living, it ain’t lovin’ me back… not the way I need, and I don’t need a whole lot. So, I have to be painfully realistic and get a job that provides steady income. Bills keep coming, time keeps going and I’m not getting any younger (neither are any of you)… so my best bet is to keep working on my comics as best I can, and eventually put something out there that people can see. If they don’t like it, or if I don’t sell gangbusters, I’m actually fine with that because I have other stuff going on.

    Plus, I find the works of cartoonists who have been through a variety of fields, or jobs (comics-related or not) a lot more interesting since those experiences trickle into their stories somehow.
    No, I haven’t given up, nor is my take on this a fatalistic one… just had to get real and come up with my own work-around. Ms. Brill’s words are exactly what I need to help see a clearer picture.

  • Poodles McGee | January 28th, 2013 3:22 pm

    When I was blowing thousands of dollars, 6 years of my life, and all my self-esteem on trying to complete a BS in Music Performance (with the intention of becoming a concert violinist), this is an article I could have used.

    Your series of questions at the end in particular sound like the basis of a serious self-assessment that anyone should undergo regardless of the field they’re pursuing. I didn’t know how tell if it was just something I needed to work harder at, or if deep down, it wasn’t what I really wanted.

    Those of you who are “the keepers of the keys” to the realms of professional comics or professional music or professional weasel husbandry (nice) have to walk a fine line of encouraging people to pursue a dream, while being honest with people about their prospects. After all, that honesty is what we really need, whether we like it or not.

    What would have really helped me when I was struggling with the decision (ultimately futile) to try a 3rd time to qualify as a junior was an honest discussion with an industry professional. Specifically someone who auditions and hires musicians. Someone who would say, “Look, here’s what the average professional violinist does to avoid starvation. This is how many of them are out there, trying to eat and pay rent. This is how many many of them are waiting tables in between gigs. Is that something you think you can do? Be honest with yourself, and know that there’s no shame in choosing a different dream, or in taking longer than average to achieve this dream. What else are you good at? Can you do that and pursue music at the same time?”

    If anyone had suggested to me at the time that my good math scores meant I could pursue robotics, I would have had a much easier time imagining a different future for myself.

  • Ian Boothby | January 28th, 2013 9:01 pm

    Dustin Harbin’s quote is fantastic. Not everyone’s work will be accepted by pro publishers but if you’re passionate about what you’re doing in this digital age where you can connect with the world there are people out there who’ll want to read your work and will get what you’re doing.
    Some people work all their life trying to get teacher’s approval when you should be playing to the rest of the class.

  • Jesse Post | January 30th, 2013 4:54 pm

    C — I think this is not only a great piece but an essentially useful one for new, unpublished cartoonists and authors. Maybe it’s just because I’m on your side of the tennis court, but I think it’s a shame how publishers allow this misperception about the financial realities of our profession to stand. This isn’t just for cartoonists, either; I know a lot of struggling novelists who think the big break is right around the corner. When I tell them that that big break (when/if it comes) will be a $5000 advance they can use to pay the rent for 5 months, they just say, “Nah, that can’t be.”
    I’m also a writer in my other life who has been told many a time by many an agent and editor that one project or another couldn’t work or wouldn’t be picked up. Did I give up? Of course not. I’m working on affordable self-publishing options and will give it another go, but I earn a living using my other skills while it comes together, and I’ll have to until I start getting $60,000 advances. Being an author/cartoonist is a slow-build career even if you ARE ready for primetime.

    Unless I’m misreading, I think the question your post raises is not when to give up on art, but when to give up on art as your only/primary income in the near-term future. I’ve actually met people who have sold their homes to finance creative endeavors that they aren’t ready for and I panic FOR them.

  • matt | June 12th, 2013 5:53 am

    This article is neither wrong nor right. It just isn’t relevant. If you are even thinking about giving up an artistic pursuit based on someone else’s advice, then you have a confidence issue, which you probably need to address in order to start progressing anywhere. All the points made in this article are quite logical… but simply don’t apply to the creative arts. This is someone on the ‘outside’ of the arts looking in, and trying to rationalise artistic behaviour along business lines. This doesn’t make sense. Why would you be doing arts if you were interested in money? You are almost guaranteed to make more cash by joining a business on the ground floor and putting in a similar amount of work. “But I need money to pursue my art…” No you don’t. At least not much of it. This article, written by a publisher, is based on the assumption that art is a kind of Noah’s Ark, with publishers in charge of the passenger list. I disagree with this idea. I disagree with using the word ‘publishable’ as if it is an objective quality of art. What does ‘publishable’ even mean, except that someone working in a publisher’s firm thinks they can market it?
    “There are two kinds of people: artists and accountants”. By all means listen to criticism, to improve your work, but don’t make a life decision based on an accountant’s assessment of an artistic career

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