Q&A With Bill Amend, Creator Of FoxTrot (And Certified Geek)

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As we noted yesterday, cartoonist Bill Amend has released three sets of his popular Foxtrot comic strips as $1.99 downloads. This move, prompted by the creation of Apple’s iBooks Author software and, more important, the rise of the self-publisher, is probably one of the first times I’ve seen a “traditional” comic strip enter the e-book realm in this way.

I wanted to find out what Bill Amend was thinking. Luckily, he played along.

TC: What made you try this? How did this compare to the “traditional” book release system?

Amend: The first time I played around with an iPad on launch day all I could think about was how awesome it would be to somehow get my comics on this thing.

Unfortunately, the comic strip eBooks I’d seen all tended to be a little clunky for my tastes, so I assumed I’d need to build a custom reader app, which proved too big a task for me. And then iBooks Author came out and changed everything. You have no idea how much fun it was to make these things. I love working with the people at Andrews McMeel on my print books, but the finished product always feels like their creation more than mine. These iBooks are all my doing and it’s a great feeling.

TC: What would you say to folks with kids who are still looking for paper books? Is that medium going away?

A: My paper books will continue, at least as far as I know. I’m deliberately making these Pad Packs a different sort of book. The paperbacks are the complete chronological record of the strip. These iBooks, on the other hand, are short and curated primarily for an entertaining read on the go.

TC: Folks like MAD magazine and most comics companies are going digital. What does that mean in terms of “experience?” Is something lost?

A: At some point I’m sure downloadable books will replace print books sort of the way downloadable music has largely replaced CDs. It’s just so much more efficient. But I do think there’s something to be said for the permanence of print and I doubt it’ll die, just become more scarce. Maybe print-on-demand will grow. To be honest I have no idea. I’m just a cartoonist. But I do worry for my friends in publishing as we enter a world where anyone with a computer can upload an eBook to sell on iTunes or Amazon. The standard 75% cut of eBook revenues they take becomes hard to justify in that world.

TC: Are you a big geek? You seem to write about them well.

A: Am I a geek? Well, I was a physics major in college. And I dressed up as George Lucas for Halloween back in 1983. And I have my 1st edition boxed set of D&D manuals from high school on my office bookshelf. Do I qualify?

TC: What kind of gadgetry do you have?

A: I don’t have a ton of gadgetry, actually. I still have yet to ever own a laptop computer, believe it or not. Hoping the next MacBooks will be tempting enough to change that.

TC: What does it take to get a comic published these days? Is it harder to gain traction? To get popular?

A: Well, the beauty of the Web is it doesn’t take much of anything for a cartoonist to self-publish. Of course, attracting an audience and earning a decent income off of it is a whole other matter. But there are more and more success stories out there, so it’s definitely doable. As for getting published in newspapers, it’s always been a one-in-a-zillion shot to get syndicated, but the difference now is it’s probably harder than ever for newly syndicated strips to get into papers. As for getting popular, that’s just one of those hard-to-predict things. I’ve always mainly just tried to do strips that I like, and hope that enough people share my sense of what’s funny.

TC: What are some pointers for folks who might want to go into comics? Where should they intern? What should they do?

A: As I just said, try to write and draw things that you find funny or interesting, so even if no one else likes your work, you at least made yourself happy for doing it. The web is probably the best way to go these days. It’s cheap to launch a site and with luck you’ll attract some readers who can give you feedback. Also show your work to family and friends to gauge if your jokes are working as intended. And develop thick skin. A career in comics will include lots of rejection and criticism.

If you’re still in school and there’s a newspaper or other outlet for cartoons, by all means get some practice there. My college cartooning was invaluable experience, especially in the area of drawing stuff under deadline at 4 am. Also, as my parents told me over and over back when I started, make sure you have a Plan B. There’s a lot of luck involved in being able to do what I do for a living.