Sarah Andersen is the artist behind Sarah’s Scribbles, a semi-autobiographical comic that has won over the hearts of millions of readers. The comic grew into multiple published books and a merch line. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Sarah shares her creative process, projects outside of Sarah Scribbles, and what she looks for in partners and collaborators.

For the full transcript of this episode, click here.

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How internet scribbles won the heart of millions

Shuang: Tell us what prompted you to share your work on social media?

Sarah: I started in around 2011 and I was in art school at the time. And that was the era where people were starting to post their illustrations and comics on blogs. So I posted some doodles from my sketchbook onto Tumblr and they wound up taking off and it was a sign to me that I should continue and it just grew from there.

 

 Sarah Andersen along with her cat, who is often included within her comic as well.
The most important thing for Sarah Andersen’s creative process is to not perfect her drawing in the beginning and allow herself to explore and be rough in her ideation stage.  Sarah Andersen

Shuang: Can you talk about the early days of juggling school, work, and other responsibilities at the beginning of this journey?

Sarah: I think what was really helpful to me for starting that balancing act was being on a schedule. So that kind of gave me space to mentally compartmentalize when I was going to be working and when I was going to be posting. So in the beginning, I was only posting every Saturday, but that was kind of enough to really get me into a flow.

Shuang: I think a lot of artists have an inner critic and they feel like what they executed is not exactly what they want and a lot of the time it stops them from publishing. How did you work past that?

Sarah: That is such a great observation because I think perfectionism might be the number one thing that gets in the way of artists posting and even sometimes making work. And for me actually letting go of perfectionism is the most important part of the process. So for example, when I sketch, I sketch on lined paper and I allow myself to be very sloppy and just to kind of let things flow. And I think it’s just about mentally giving myself that space to be free creatively. So for me, it really starts there and I start to bring perfectionism and perfecting into the process later when I’m drawing and finalizing a piece. I would just say to other artists to maybe find a way to give themselves space. Maybe that’s just the privacy of the beginning of the creative process, but find a way to give yourself that space mentally to just allow yourself to be free and creative

Shuang: Has your creative process changed at all during this time?

Sarah: For Sarah’s Scribbles, no. It’s always kind of been that sort of pseudo-sloppy beginnings process that I was just talking about. I think for Sarah’s Scribbles, the only thing I have changed is that I’ve gotten more comfortable with failure. And I know it might sound a little bit crazy to people, but I used to get very hung up on how a comic would do in terms of numbers. And even though every number for every comic can feel very big to people. For me, I would compare to other ones that had gone completely viral and I would let it ruin my day and I would get really down.And it wasn’t, for lack of a better term, it wasn’t serving me in any way. And now, I accept when I post a comic that doesn’t do so well in my perspective and I accept that it’s part of the process. Sometimes you’re not going to show up to the canvas and create something perfect every time and that is totally okay, and those failures are there so that you can come to the canvas and make something better eventually.

Part-artist, part- solopreneur 

Shuang: How did you deal with the isolating aspects of being your own boss and building out this career?

Sarah: I think it was very difficult in some ways because, in terms of monetizing art, things are very new, I feel like there’s been a big turnover. I come from the illustration world because I went to art school and studied illustration and I talked a little bit at the beginning about blogs and stuff. Even back then, that was a huge shift from us sending postcards to editors and I really think it was an era where there was so much that I was just trying to do off the cuff and there wasn’t a lot of guidance. So that was certainly difficult because I feel like none of us, and I’m also talking about some of my peers in cartooning or illustration, none of us had a guidebook or a specific way to do things. So it all became so individual and that was certainly a journey that I did feel kind of, not alone in because everyone else was figuring it out, but I was a bit just lost in that way.

 A collection of Sarah’s Scribbles books.
Being at the forefront of viral cartoonists, Sarah had to forge her own path in navigating publishing and the business side of things. Sarah Andersen

Shuang: What was that process like of having to deal with the business side of things and understanding legality and going into publishing your work?

Sarah: I will say with full honesty that I don’t think I did it that well because I didn’t have an agent and I was just so young that I didn’t really fully understand what I was getting into when I got handed contracts and stuff. So it wasn’t until I got an agent that I think some of those business-side questions were really answered for me. It really was a big leap going from internet cartoonist to published author and there was a lot to deal with that, frankly, I was just a little bit confused in and maybe it will be helpful to some people listening to just admit that I didn’t really fully know what I was getting into and it’s okay to be confused but do do your research.

Shuang: Are there any key lessons you learned when looking for an agent or partner?

Sarah:  I wanted someone who really cared about artists’ rights and I did find that in my agent, Seth Fishman. So some agents will, for lack of a better way of saying it, just really want you to make a lot of money because that makes them a lot of money. But I think for me and my agent, the priority has kind of been to protect Sarah’s Scribbles and who can use Sarah’s Scribbles and when, and that’s sort of how we go into every project first is the idea of protecting rights.

The art of creating new characters

Shuang: How do you manage all the different aspects of different projects and how do you kind of select and find new work that you want to work on?

Sarah: In terms of managing, as I’ve gotten older, I have learned when to take breaks. So a lot of times I would try to balance a really big project I would be working on and writing Sarah’s Scribbles and the results would wind up showing in my writing a lot of times. So I’m very lucky to be in a position where I can choose when to stop if I have to, which is why Sarah’s Scribbles is not running right now because I’m working on another series.

 A copy of Sarah Andersen’s book Fangs, a love story between a vampire and a werewolf.  
Sarah Andersen has also ventured out of Sarah’s Scribbles to create Fangs, a comic featuring a love story between a vampire and a werewolf that has been read over 38 million times on Tapas.io.  Sarah Andersen

I think for me, it was about allowing myself to really go into what I loved as opposed to what I felt was right. So when I did Fangs, I just have this part of me that really loves spooky stuff. And I was lucky enough to be in a position where I had enough stability with Sarah’s Scribbles where I could say, “I’m going to take a risk and just do something I really, really love. And if it’s just a tiny niche project, that’s fine.” But it wound up being a success and I think the fact that I really loved the subject matter and the drawing styles so much contributed to that. So not everyone has the means to pick and choose, but for me, my guiding force for Fangs and also for the project I’m working on right now, which is about cryptids, has really been a genuine passion and love.

Shuang: Was it scary to depart from Sarah Scribbles and try out these new projects?

Sarah: It was totally scary. I think people were just so used to seeing me do Sarah’s Scribbles. But it was also a very big and core piece of my heart that was that story and that illustration style because I had been trained as an illustrator and it was a story that really came from the heart. And so I think for me, it was just about letting go of some of that fear that people might not love it or I guess some of it goes back to what I was talking about earlier, which that idea of fear of failure and always comparing work. I think a big part of that process was kind of just letting that go, which is easier said than done for sure.

Shuang: Does it feel difficult to pack so much of a story into a few words and how is the writing process like to kind of find the companions to your images?

Sarah: I’m glad you asked that question because I definitely feel that the writing aspect is always the hardest. I think when you look at comics, you find that the art is very important of course, but I think you could tell an amazing story and have it resonate with many people and still kind of have bad art. I think if you write things well, they will find a way to resonate. So for me, that is probably the most important part of the process and when I’m being all sloppy in my sketchbook and stuff, that that is exactly what I’m working on is the writing aspect. And it takes me a very long time, takes a lot of editing, and I think it’s really the soul of all of my work. I think sometimes I actually consider myself much more of a writer than an artist.

Shuang:  What is that like managing all these ideas and have them be published?

Sarah: That is really exciting. I think there’s just something about putting all the finishing pieces and starting the promotion on a project that is just thrilling. And it’s a part that I love because usually I’ve been working on whichever book for more than a year. And once we get to publishing, it’s kind of, for me, becomes a celebration, which is very exciting.

An artist’s right to merchandise 

Shuang: At what point did you decide that you could create merch in relation to Sarah’s Scribbles?

Sarah: Pretty early on I think we talked a little bit about how hard it is to kind of find your path and make sure you have financial stability in this sort of new internet world. And I think for me early on, merch was part of it and merch that also made sense and wasn’t just kind of being shoved at people. One example of merch I’ve done that I loved was that we had a uterus plushy and that really felt authentic to the Sarah’s Scribbles brand. So that was sort of the process was that I did want merch from the beginning and that I also wanted it to feel very authentic and connected to the actual comic.

 A pair of knee-high socks from Sarah’s Scribbles merch line.
Same with Sarah’s Scribbles comics, her merch carries the same punchy writing and humor into its items. Sarah Andersen

Shuang:  A lot of artists don’t want to sell out but there’s also a need to make a living. What kind of advice do you have for the artists who are going down the merchandising path?

Sarah: I think it’s interesting you touched upon the selling out aspect. And one thing to know is that there’s a history in that in comics. And I think a lot of it comes from Bill Waterson who did Calvin and Hobbs and very famously never wanted any merch. And I think that is an amazing move of artistic integrity but we are not all Bill Waterson and while I respect his decisions and the decisions of other people to not have merchandise if they don’t want to, artists are navigating this very new world and have a right to make income if they want to off of their products. Especially, if those products feel like they make sense for the brand. I think artists have a right to have income and especially when I think about smaller artists and my earlier years when I was a much smaller artist and how difficult it can be, I think it’s a move that they should make if they want to.

 The uterus plushie from Sarah’s Scribbles merch line.
Echoing the topics covered in the comic, Sarah’s Scribbles merch line includes a uterus plushie, which also supports ovarian cancer research. Sarah Andersen

Shuang: How was the process of looking for partners who can help you build up the store?

Sarah: So the merch store, as it is now, was all basically done with the guidance and help of Nick Seluk, who is the author of The Awkward Yeti. And he had done his own merch for a while and then approached me asking if I would like to collaborate with him and create my own merch. So that’s how it started for me and I really trusted him because he was a fellow cartoonist. And I felt like our brainstorming really made sense because I was working with someone who not only had done this before but was very much in my world. So that’s sort of how that process got started and we did a lot of brainstorming and we kept the products in a place where I feel like they, they resonate and the shop still feels somewhat small and he knows how I am as a cartoonist, he doesn’t make me push the shop all the time if I don’t want to. So I think finding Nick as a partner in that was really the step that totally made sense for me.

Shuang: And in aspects of the items, what was the creation process like? 

Sarah: It was really fun doing all the brainstorming and stuff with another artist, which is why I feel like we’ve got some products that are kind of unique, like the knee-high socks that say. “Don’t shave.” We literally sat down at a table together and would draw it and would work on creating it. And then we would have a process where we would see prototypes and we kind of edit things down and we would also decide about what our big products that were kind of showpieces would be. And that process overall was a lot of fun and, not to repeat myself, but because it was with another cartoonist, it just made sense.

Shuang: How many people on a regular basis do you actually have a partnership with? And how did you find hose partners to help you run your business smoothly? 

Sarah: My world is pretty small and I intentionally kept it that way. I’m just not really one for creating teams around me and stuff. I’m not really sure why not that there’s anything wrong with that. But so basically I have my agent who helps me figure out where my work is going to go, to what publisher, and what online platform. And then I have Nick Seluk and the Awkward Yeti and we work on the store. And then I have my editor at Andrews McMeel. And besides that, there aren’t really that many big players. Andrews McMeel, as a publisher, has a huge team behind it, but for people, I’m working with face to face, I think those are like the big ones and otherwise, I’m pretty much just working on my stuff by myself which is kind of how I like it.

Sarah’s sketch of the future 

Shuang: You just released a new planner for Sarah’s Scribbles and the fourth book is also in the works, what was the process like for these projects? 

Sarah: So the planners and the calendars are always just a lot of fun because, on my end, it’s just a lot of drawing work. I mentioned earlier that writing is the hardest part for me. So the planner is, I’m kind of free to just draw silly drawings of my character in the tub or eating sushi and it’s fun and I think people can see that when they buy them is that every month has different illustrations and there’s really a lot of just excitement that goes into them.

As for the fourth book, it’s exciting to talk about because I don’t think I’ve talked about it on any other platform, but the books are sort of a combination of collecting the best of the previous couple of years of work and then creating new work. And this book was particularly exciting for me because I believe 2018 was the last collection I released. So I really felt like I was in a whole different headspace and a whole different direction. And I feel like Sarah’s Scribbles has moved a little bit away from relatable humor to very weird humor.

 A multi-view of Sarah’s Scribbles mug to showcase the different characters.
Sarah’s goal for her fourth installment of Sarah’s Scribbles book is to be braver in her storytelling and drawings.  Sarah Andersen

Sarah: An example I would give of that is there’s a comic where I’m an old lady and I see a dog and I call it a dog-o and then no one has any idea of what I’m talking about. But it’s sort of gotten a little bit, like I’ve allowed myself to get a little bit more out there in a way from like, “I don’t want to wake up,” to some of these weirder topics and I think in the new comics in the book you can see that. And I introduced all kinds of new characters that I maybe hadn’t had the bravery to take the risk of introducing before like Medusa is in the book at several times, I have biblically accurate angels, I allowed myself to get a bit spooky and weird with the collection. And I’m just, I’m very excited for people to see it because I think to me it feels very fresh.

Shuang: Tell us a little bit more about the new series that you are working on. 

Sarah: So the new project is called Cryptid Club. It’s in a much more similar style to Sarah’s Scribbles than Fangs was. So drawing-wise and composition-wise, I think that sort of simplicity of Sarah’s Scribbles is there and that true cartoonishness is there. It’s going to be in full color and it’s about cryptids and their friendships and their romantic relationships and them just navigating life. So we have, I think almost 12 or 13 cryptids in the series. So there’s Mothman, Loch Ness Monster, aliens, ghosts. I got permission from the guy who created Siren Head to use Siren head. And it’s dark, but it’s also very lighthearted and wholesome and I just could not be more thrilled about it coming out and I’m almost done drawing it but then I’ve got a colorist working on it. So I believe October is around the time it will start uploading and we have not yet decided if it’s going to be on a platform like Tapas or if I’m just going to make an Instagram page for it. So that’s sort of what we’re working on, but it will be available and it will be available for free sometime in October or maybe even before that we’re hoping.

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