I remember the day I got a call from United Media telling me they wanted to offer me a contract to be a syndicated cartoonist. Yay!
But hold the champagne, I thought. The contract was for what they call a “development deal.” That means you work together for six months, and at the end they decide whether or not to sell your comic to newspapers. About four months into my development deal, United Media informed me they planned to launch Dilbert. Yay!
But hold the champagne. There’s no guarantee that enough newspapers will buy the comic to make it successful. As it turned out, only a few dozen smaller papers picked up Dilbert. You need sales in major markets to really get things rolling. One day, after a few years of limping along toward oblivion, the Boston Globe decided to run Dilbert. Yay!
But hold the champagne. That doesn’t mean the readers of the Boston Globe will like the comic. It got off to a rocky start, but eventually it found an audience and stayed. Yay!
But hold the champagne. One major newspaper isn’t enough. I needed lots more. The new newspaper clients trickled in at nearly the same rate as existing clients cancelled. It was five steps forward and four steps back. My editor at United Media suggested that maybe a publisher would be interested in a Dilbert book, and if successful, perhaps that could get newspapers more interested. Andrews McMeel Publishing agreed to publish my business-themed book, “Build a Better Life by Stealing Office Supplies.” Yay!
But hold the champagne. It takes a long time to write a book and get it published. About 18 months later, the book hit the market. It was a modest success, but didn’t set the world on fire. The book helped newspaper sales a little, and the publisher asked for another book. Yay!
The second book didn’t do as well as the first, although it made money. But at least new sales to newspapers were exceeding cancellations by a better margin. Yay!
And so it went, in ant-sized steps forward. Every pat on the back came with a kick in the nuts. I worked for ten years without a day off. During one particularly busy year, I held a full-time job at the phone company, wrote and drew Dilbert, and wrote a book called “The Dilbert Principle.” I didn’t sleep much that year. It was my first hard cover book. Yay!
The Dilbert Principle found the bottom of the best seller list fairly quickly. Each week it climbed until it hit a wall at #2. Dennis Rodman’s tell-all book held the top spot and refused to let go. You would think that having the #2 best selling non-fiction book would be a good reason to crack open the champagne. But I waited. I hoped. And each week I got the call from my publisher, “You’re number two again.” I was happy about my book’s success, of course, but something was missing.
Finally, I got the call. “You’re number one.” I can’t describe what that felt like. If you’re thinking it feels a lot like being number two, only slightly better, you missed it by a light year. I was home alone when I got the news, and I cried for about two hours. Life changed. Newspapers started snapping up Dilbert. Someone released the media hounds. Dilbert was showing up on the major magazine covers. I was booked on the morning shows. It was several years before I could come up for air.
I still haven’t popped the champagne. I just raise the bar for what would be the right moment, and tell myself how tasty it will be if I ever accomplish something special in my work. Apparently the thing inside me that makes me work so hard is the same thing that keeps me unsatisfied. It’s a package deal. The best you can hope for is a family that understands.