Howard Tayler used to work as a Collaboration Product Line Manager at Novell and draw on the side. But in June of 2000, he took his sideline public when he started publishing Schlock Mercenary, a webcomic that follows the trials and tribulations of Tagon's Toughs—a hard-bitten and rather eccentric mercenary company in the thirty-first century. The strip features the title character Sergeant Schlock, who is a carbosilicate amorph without easily definable limbs or organs, not to mention Captain Kaff Tagon and the rest of a motley mercenary hoard.
Despite its webcomic format, Schlock Mercenary is classic space opera and has been nominated for a number of awards, including the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story. In September of 2004, he quit his job at Novell to work on the webcomic full-time, continuing to put out uninterrupted daily updates of the strip for over nine years so far (and he's not showing any signs of slowing). The strip is available online (with a full archive), and is also collected in a series of Schlock Mercenary books, the latest of which is The Scrapyard of Insufferable Arrogance, which came out in June 2009.
Brent Kellmer: What you write—the Schlock Mercenary webcomic—is indisputably science fiction, but it isn't what is classically thought of as "science fiction literature." Do you sometimes feel like a poor country cousin?
Howard Tayler: Not at all. My friends who are authors don't look down their noses at me, and those who might be looking down their noses at me aren't doing it where I can see it. I don't even know if it's happening. Is it? Is there something you're not telling me?
Great. Now I'm a paranoid poor country cousin.
BK: You used to have a well-paid, secure day job at Novell—why did you strike out on your own?
HT: Correction: I used to have an overpaid, insecure, exhausting day-job at Novell. It had a good benefit package, and I liked the people I worked with, but it was slowly killing me.
I always knew I'd eventually be leaving to pursue something else. Answers to earnest prayers accelerated things a bit. Yes, it was hard. The first fifteen months were a financial scramble, but once we got the first of our print books up on the web store and the print run paid for itself in twelve hours...well, let's just say that was the point at which Sandra and I knew we'd be able to do this full-time without scrambling quite so much.
BK: At what point did it go from being a hobby to being a job?
HT: September 20, 2004. No, wait...that's the point at which it went from being a second job to being an only job. It started being a second job in September of 2000 when I came up with a ten-year plan that I thought would let me work full-time as a cartoonist.
Cartooning only spent a couple of months as a hobby. Once I got into it I knew it was a career, and I started treating it that way.
BK: You haven't followed the standard SF author's pathway of going through a publisher, but instead put out Schlock Mercenary using a very different business model. Can you tell us about it?
HT: We've already established that I'm not a standard SF author, and you've gone and made me paranoid about the nose-looking-downers (see what I did there? That's a call-back to a joke I told in the first question, and it is a hallmark of quality humor). Are you sure you want to bring up the horrible term "self-publishing" as part of the same interview?
I kid. I love self-publishing. I can sell 2,000 copies of a book and pay the bills for six to eight months. And because my audience actually buys that many books in that time period, I can make a living at it.
I call this "The Free Content Business Model," in which content (in my case a daily comic strip) is provided online for no charge, and is used to captivate an audience to whom merchandise may be marketed. Some folks sell T-shirts, I mostly sell book collections. I also sell space to advertisers who also want access to my captive audience.
The key to making it all work is that the captive audience has to love your stuff and be willing to spend money on your merchandise. I've referred to this in the past as being similar to the recipe for Grizzly Bear Soup:
- Kill a Grizzly Bear.
- The rest is just a soup recipe.
I don't have a formula for captivating an audience and creating merchandise tailored to their desires. I can't look at your book, or comic, or music and tell you that yes, you do in fact have a dead grizzly bear there, it is time to buy a pot and some onions.
But I can look at your audience. That's the key. If they're already clamoring for merchandise, that's a good sign. If you've surveyed them and have thousands of responses telling you that you're their favorite and they want to throw money at you, well...the rest is just a soup recipe. That's the point at which anybody can tell you how to set up a web-store and sell books, T-shirts, CDs, buttons, or whatever else fits your content.
BK: What's the biggest lesson you've learned from doing things this way?
No, seriously. Humility. I'm supported by the passion and generosity of a few thousand dedicated readers of the stuff I've created. There's no room for ego there. It's not about me. It's about my readers.
Humility. Oh, and gratitude. (I'd add a third thing, but then we'd be doing the Spanish Inquisition sketch.)
BK: In producing your own webcomic, you've often said that keeping to schedules is of paramount importance in this business—why is that?
HT: One key to a captive audience is compelling daily content. Daily, not weekly, not "whenever I feel like it," and not "as long as real life doesn't get in the way." My art's not good enough to bring people back once a week to see the pretty picture and my writing is very serial so I can't make people wait that long between updates.
So I structure my life around always making sure the comic is going to be up on time. As of this writing I'm only about two weeks ahead, which is about two weeks short of where I want to be. But I'm structuring my life so that I'll knock down three to four weeks of comics in the next two to three weeks, rebuilding my buffer.
I haven't missed a daily installment of Schlock Mercenary since the strip's inception in June of 2000, and I don't plan to let little things like the birth of children, a separated shoulder, back-to-back conventions, or a family reunion change that. And yes, all those things have happened during the last nine years.
BK: And this is the author's promise to the reader?
HT: There are lots of promises made by authors. For instance, if I set up a murder mystery, I'm promising you a story in which there will be false leads, incorrect accusations, and a surprise reveal. If the story ends with a long, exciting car chase in which the accused is pursued and captured, and it's the guy we suspected the whole time then I've broken the promise.
When I used the phrase "Longshoreman of The Apocalypse" in the summer of 2008, I was making a promise to the reader. Not only would said robo-longshoreman get built, but he/she/it would then have to preside over some sort of an apocalypse.
As authors we must identify the promises we're making to our readers, and then fulfill them appropriately.
BK: Because you aren't writing a novel, how do you manage your stories? You produce it in individual strips, but that clearly isn't the overarching structure that you use.
HT: I manage stories the way any good storyteller does. Beginning, middle, end, plot, character, setting, Act I, Act II, Act III, that kind of stuff. I outline loosely, and then I discovery-write my way into trouble. Then I outline more tightly and carefully script my way back out of trouble. Then I wrap a cover around it and call it a book.
BK: Effectively, then, you're producing Schlock Mercenary as an ongoing serial, in much the same way that Charles Dickens did. Does the fact that you're releasing portions of the story before you finish writing it affect the story you're trying to tell? Or the way you're telling it?
HT: I don't have the luxury of rewriting or revising, so when I get into trouble I can't go back and un-make promises to readers, or retroactively foreshadow that key clue I need for the third act. Publishing my stories four panels at a time is a tightrope act with no net.
There are times when I wish I had jinked to the left instead of hooking to the right, when the story has gone someplace I didn't want to have to get it back out of, but writing my way out of those messes has been very satisfying for me and for my readers. It has encouraged me to think like a chess player, several moves ahead, only my opponent is also me, and is also thinking several moves ahead. Oh, and we're on the same team.
That metaphor doesn't work at all. In the spirit of object lessons, I shall let it stand without rewriting it. Artifacts like that end up in my strip all the time.
BK: But since you don't have long written narratives that you can use to get your audience to empathize with your characters (and your aliens), how do you manage that? That's certainly vital in good SF these days.
HT: I give my characters motivations that seem real to me rather than motivations based on my desire to have them move to Plot Point A. I think of them as people, whether they're meat-spacers, robots, or carbosilicate amorphs. It does mean that my aliens are a lot less alien than those found in cutting-edge stuff, but that's okay. Readers need to be able to identify with the aliens in Schlock Mercenary. This is why my one-eyed aliens are drawn with two eyebrows. The toughest storyline I ever illustrated was the one where all the aliens had upside-down faces. I knew that if I couldn't identify with the aliens, my readers certainly wouldn't be able to.
BK: So, can you tell us about your process? How does a strip of Schlock Mercenary come about?
HT: An individual strip is like a hurdle in that one race with a bunch of hurdles in a row. I don't tackle them individually. I'm running that race, and looking at a set of obstacles that I have to clear.
The race is a week's worth of strips, sometimes more. I begin by framing it with the action that needs to take place, with the advancement of the story. Then I start writing dialogue for the first strip, and I hope that something funny happens. If it doesn't, I rewrite it. If it still doesn't I change the point-of view, and start again. Eventually I've got a funny strip, and usually I've also got momentum (read: another joke) that I can use for the next strip.
So I script a week of comics, and then print that set of scripts on 8.5"x14" paper (legal-sized) with the panel borders in place and the text already laid out like dialogue. In so doing I have to be able to imagine what the pictures I'm going to draw will look like.
Then I draw the pictures right on that sheet. I use pencil and then ink over the "good" lines, erase the "bad" lines, and scan the whole thing into Photoshop for coloring.
BK: You're obviously busy enough already...but a while back you helped start the Writing Excuses podcast. Why'd you take the time for that?
HT: Because Brandon [Sanderson] talked me into it. Now I do it because it's fun. I love it.
BK: Both your co-podcasters are experienced novelists (Brandon Sanderson with Elantris, Mistborn, and the continuation of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time; and Dan Wells with I Am Not a Serial Killer). Has working with them on the Writing Excuses podcast affected the way you work?
HT: Oh yes. For starters it taught me all the terms for the things I was doing, which helped me understand why those things were working, and how I could make them work better. I learned that I'm writing satire while flirting with farce. My outlines got better, my dialog got tighter, and my favorite storyline of all time, "The Longshoreman of The Apocalypse," was born out of the improved process.
BK: Right now you've got another project going with Tracy Hickman, something other than Schlock Mercenary—can you tell us a bit about it?
HT: Sure. XDM: X-Treme Dungeon Mastery was written by Tracy Hickman (of Ravenloft and Dragonlance fame) and his son Curtis, who is a performing magician. It's a role-playing supplement for tabletop game masters (colloquially "dungeon masters") who want to take their game to the next level. Tracy was having trouble getting a publisher to bite, and since he has a loyal following I suggested that he self-publish. I showed him what was possible, handing him some Schlock books, and we had something of a disconnect. I was saying, "This is what you can do with self-publishing, I can show you how," and what he heard was, "This is what I can do for you, and yes, I'd love to illustrate it."
Tracy and Curtis liked my illustration style, and engaged The Tayler Corporation as publisher, with me illustrating and Sandra handling layout and design. Four weeks, 160 layout pages, and 135 illustrations later the project was complete, and was launched at GenCon Indy in August.
BK: Can you tell us who are the greatest influences on you?
HT: Tolkien, Niven, Breathed, Watterson, Larson, Davis, Bujold, Brin, and Abrams.
BK: Okay, for the question we've all been really wondering—is Sgt. Schlock an alien...or a monster?
HT: Can't he be both? Please?
BK: Thanks for your time talking to us, and we wish you continued good luck with Schlock Mercenary.