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.” (www.zenpencils.com) Fans call his work inspirational and encouraging. One man with bipolar disorder came to an event to thank Than for giving him the courage to live.
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 about the challenges of being a Web-based artist.
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 paycheck.
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 organized 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 adjustments?
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 took about six months for sales of the prints to start showing some results, 12 months for steady revenue to start coming in and 18 months for the website to be my sole source of income.