Doug TenNapel: makes books, which can be as profitable as the cafeteria

May 3, 2012

I had lunch at Dreamworks yesterday and enthusiastically thanked the cafeteria worker for presenting me with a fine plate of food. I thought to myself, “Today, on this particular day, this worker is making more money than me.” It reminded me of how my friend Ethan Nicolle was thought to be rich by all of his fans for the blockbuster smash webcomic Axe Cop. Ethan figured out what he actually made on his comic and he would make more as barista at a local Starbucks coffee shop. My mind goes to the year of 2007 where I made $20,000 in a year… with a wife and four kids… and a house that drained every inch of our savings… we qualified for foodstamps (I didn’t take them).

It was 1987 and my comic strip had captured the attention of L.A. Times Syndicate’s editor David Seidman, so he came down to San Diego for a visit. We talked comics, and I was so impoverished my first question was, “When can I quit being a dish washer and make comics full time?” His answer, “Don’t quit your day job just yet.”

One of the more popular emails I get from up and comers is about when they can finally ditch their menial, good-for-nothing job and do like me… be rich making indie comics. If you’re not very good you shouldn’t quit your day job, but even if you’re great you shouldn’t quit your day job. I find artists ten times better than me all the time and they aren’t making money off of their artwork yet. Go to a California plein air art gallery in Laguna Beach and look at some of the greatest paintings of our times being sold for $400 bucks a pop. Half of that goes to the gallery. Good luck on that get rich thing.

My sister-in-law Debbie is a world class concert violinist but there is no big city symphony where she lives. She ended up joining a group that appeals to the masses by playing orchestrated versions of Doobie Brothers and Journey music. If you think all of those concert musicians studied Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven to play the chord structures of Doobie Brothers I’ve got news for you. Most of the great musicians who can play piano, violin etc. aren’t making a living playing Mozart. They must be in it for some other reason than the money.

In the end the artist, the book author, the musician has to decide why they’re doing what they’re doing. If it’s for the money, then I hope you make a lot of money. But most of us got into our art form for the love of it, and the money came second as a reward for years of hard work and a lucky break or two. By far, most every artist in the world, no matter how good, will not likely make a living off of their work.

My art pointed me to God, saved me, rescued me from boredom, gave me soaring thoughts, impressed my wife, developed my work ethic, brought me joy, stimulated my mind long before it ever made me a dime. My brother is a world class journalist who is a coal miner. I may one day join that cafeteria crew yet, but I still know one thing… I’ll be making books, artwork and having fun in my spare time for the rest of my life. You?

15 Responses to “Doug TenNapel: makes books, which can be as profitable as the cafeteria”

  1. moon-town Says:

    God bless. This is awesome. (And maybe a little depressing, but mostly awesome).

  2. Andrew Hamm Says:

    I would add one caveat, Doug: The second-best reason to be an artist is for love of your art. The best reason is for love of your world; love so deep that you can’t help but perceive it in affectionate detail, and so all-encompassing that you have to show everyone what you and you alone can see.

    I do what I do as a theatre and musical artist because I have to; God built me with the “creative” app and the software never stops running.

  3. David Says:

    Loved this blog post Doug. I’ve been thinking about this exact issue lately and I’ve finally come to a similar conclusion, or rather I’ve had my view reasserted on towards this truth. I’m still a young artist, and I’ve had a lot of worries about whether or not I’d ever “make it”. I don’t come from an artistic family and so I didn’t get the support to go to art school, and I also have little connections or understanding about how the art world works other than what I’ve read online. I was really afraid by whether or not I was just fooling myself, and since “making it full time famous pro” was my standard of success I was very worried that I was going to end up with nothing, working a crappy job I hated in the lower echleons of retail Hell.

    But recently I remembered why I got into art. I did it because I cared about it and enjoyed it. I’ve come to accept whatever will come.

    • tennapel Says:

      David, you’re a man after my own heart. I had no art support growing up and it was a good thing! I had no knowledge of the art industry so I had to learn how to be industrious on my own. It’s great to remember what turns you on about your own art, and do your best work even as you develop an audience.

      …and there is no shame in retail. Anyone who performs at a job, keeps it, makes a living and pulls their own weight can sleep well at night. Your life dreams my not be to be the best in the world at retail, but about 95% of my life is spent doing things that were not in my dreams.

      The desire for fame, or constant recognition can serve the artist well as a tool, but it usually ends up damaging them if it’s done for egocentric purposes, especially when the fame/recognition doesn’t work out.

      • David Says:

        I certainly agree about the retail thing. I’ve just had some bad experiences I’d prefer not to repeat. My father works in retail in fact.

        That allure of fame of course is very seductive. There’s a nice rush to it, a feeling of invincibility. Our culture too glorifies this. Though, I think probably more and more that will die down due to the way the internet is further creating more and more niche markets. There are of course celebrities still, but more and more they will have less influence over everyone in a culture and more just over the small sub culture that care about them. I hope this brings more attention to the work and away from the fame, but we will just have to see how that develops.

  4. praveensawh Says:

    what timing… I needed something like this. It reminds me of how lucky I am to be in the position I’m in where I don’t have to do art/music for money. I can do them because I enjoy them. But still, sometimes I imagine what it would be like to get to do those things full time and then my mind starts playing “what if” tricks on me.

  5. Sergio Says:

    Doug, have you ever considered ? If you ever have a cool project on tap that would not be published or funded otherwise, give it a try someday.

    Lots of game series that publishers and financiers would never have given the time of day have recently made a breakthrough by kicstarter. If you ever want to work on games again and try it, I know I would eagerly throw money at my computer screen. I’m sure many people would.

    • tennapel Says:

      I’m definitely going to do a Kickstarter campaign!


      • Sergio Says:

        Whoa, that is good to hear! I will be watching out for it and also prepare to throw money at my computer screen at your bequest.

        Hope it is gaming related, but I would certainly also pledge for a cool graphic novel or cartoon. I follow your work and I know how some of your best stuff was done without much support from the money-changers and financiers.

  6. Micah Says:

    I am a big fan of The Neverhood, Earthworm Jim, and Five Iron Frenzy.

    Today I stumbled upon for the first time. While it doesn’t appear that you are planning on designing any games in the near future, I have enjoyed perusing your blogs. I truly appreciate the line of thinking that undergirds your writing. There appears to be a philosophical consistency to what you are saying that is apparent in all your posts wherein you are concerned with the “greater” meanings of life, and that is ground that few artists or writers dare to tread these days.

    It has truly been a breath of fresh air! Thank you for sharing your heart!

  7. distraktmc Says:

    That was fantastic!!! One of the reason why I admirer what you do. I can only relate to those with passion in what they do. Thank you for this post.

  8. G.F. Founder Says:

    Doug, i love the underlying tone you’re trying to communicate without being captain obvious .. CHASE YOUR PASSION .. reward will follow, just don’t expect “reward” to always be little green papers. thanks for your words, i hope my little soon-to-be BFA daughter gets this revelation .. it’s a good one!

  9. Bob Graham Says:

    Wow Doug,
    God sure has a nice sense of knowing how to bring us joy. I\\\’m sending my nineteen \\\”troubled\\\” son to the CTN Expo. He likes gaming, drawing and animation. But the real reason I\\\’m sending him is to inspire him to live an inspired life. I signed him up to attend your talk at CTN. Then I googled you and found your blog, you\\\’re refrences to your faith and those who inspire you like Tolken, Chesterton, Lewis etc… are mine too, I nearly cried. I always pray that someday my son will run into sombody whom God intends to use and inspire him. Maybe you are not the guy, maybe you are, but it\\\’s nice to know where you get your inspiration. If my son makes it to your talk please make it a point to say hi, I\\\’d say he\\\’s struggling mightly against faith and society. A creative soul in need of a savior. One step at a time and many prayers are prayed for Baxter, my son. God Bless you for your strong witness.

  10. […] I mentioned above, or his webcomics like Ratfist or Nnewts, or his blog (of which April 2, 2012; May 3, 2012; and March 16 2014 are three of my faves). I have been aware of Doug TenNapel for almost 15 years, […]

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