Book Talk: Zen Pencils comic transcends Internet into book deal

SINGAPORE Wed Feb 26, 2014 7:11pm EST

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Pirates and imitators on the Internet are the bane of many aspiring artists. For Gavin Aung Than, creator of the popular Zen Pencils comic, the Web was where he started doing what he loves.

After eight "miserable" years as a graphic artist at an Australian newspaper, he finally decided to go online with his creative depictions of poems such as William Ernest Henley's "Invictus" and Bruce Lee's famous quote "Be like water".

Fans call his work inspirational and encouraging. One man with bipolar disorder came to an event in Singapore to thank Than for giving him the courage to live with an interpretation of the Richard Dawkins quote "We are going to die and that makes us the lucky ones". (www.zenpencils.com)

Now, the 31-year-old Australian artist is branching out from the Internet with a book due in November from Andrews McMeel Publishing. With an initial print run of 25,000 copies, it will feature a collection of his best comics.

Than spoke to Reuters about the challenges of being a web-based artist and how to make a living at it.

Q: It must have been a difficult decision to finally go full time at Zen Pencils.

A: What finally made me snap, I guess, was my 30th birthday was approaching and that made me take stock and re-evaluate where my career was going.

Q: What made you hesitate before going full time?

A: The main reason, of course, is money. My old job paid well and gave me a steady income. The fact that I had a mortgage to pay meant I needed to have a regular paycheque.

Besides money, the main thing that held me back was fear. What if I took a risk and it didn't work? I would be crushed.

Eventually I got over the fear. My wife and I actually sold our house so that we didn't have a big mortgage to worry about. The profits from the sale of the house also helped finance the first six months of my new independent career.

Q: What is your business model?

A: I wish I was organised enough to have a business model. But roughly my revenue comes from the sale of prints (40 percent), advertising (30 percent) and merchandise (30 percent).

Q: When you made the change from being an illustrator with a steady job to a full-time web-based artist, did you have to make any lifestyle adjustment?

A: Yes, definitely. Basically, I just had to cut down on careless spending of money. So a decrease in social gatherings, going out with friends or to dinner and not buying anything I didn't really need - just being more financially responsible.

It wasn't too hard once I decided what was really important - and that was to be an independent cartoonist.

Q: How long did it take to make Zen Pencils profitable?

A: It probably took about six months for sales of the prints to start showing some results, 12 months for steady revenue to start coming in and about 18 months for the website to be my sole source of income.

Q: Do you plan to do this for the rest of your life? Are there opportunities or plans for expansion?

A: Well, I plan on cartooning for the rest of my life, although I can't say I will be doing Zen Pencils indefinitely. I'm very happy working on it now and see myself working on Zen Pencils for the foreseeable future.

Sure, there are opportunities for expansion. Currently it's a one-man operation ... I hope to make some more merchandise available this year. I'm also very excited about the Zen Pencils book being released later in the year. Hopefully that will increase exposure and lead to more opportunities.

Q: What do you think is the sustainable business model for artists like you?

A: It's still extremely hard to earn a living through your art today. I don't think there is one standard business model for artists.

I'm very grateful for the success of Zen Pencils. It wasn't my first idea for a web comic. I've had a few failures in the past. You basically have to try lots of different things and see what works.

Q: What do you feel about your fans who just print your work without paying you any fee? What is your stand on intellectual property?

A: I don't like it when my work is ripped from my site and used on another big content site, especially without attributing Zen Pencils. Unfortunately, that happens to many artists today and there's no real way to stop it.

I'm fine with my readers printing off a file from my site for their own personal use or motivation. That's great. Those readers are usually die-hard fans who then go on to tell their friends about my site, so it helps the bottom line in an indirect way by increasing traffic.

Q: Lastly, do you have any message or advice for all aspiring artists in the age of Internet?

A: There's never been a better time for artists to get their work seen - be it through social media, Tumblr or something like that. Plus there are all these new on-demand companies where you can easily get your work made into prints, T-shirts and other merchandise with little or no upfront cost.

While there are shortcuts to get your work out there, there is still no shortcut for you to be a great artist. You still have to put in the hours, days, months and years of practice - even more so now - so that your work stands out from the pack.

(Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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