This is a working draft subject to changes.
You might dream of having books published by a major imprint, but be it your dream of just a way to get started, it’s best to begin with self publishing.
When I started out in the late 80s that ment zines, or B&W printing for standard comic books. But now we live in a time when there are an embarrassment of tools to use.
To begin if you have a computer scanner and an internet connection, the easiest option is to publish your work as a webcomic or digital comic. What’s the difference? Web comics are typically embedded on a site, often are published on a weekly or even daily schedule, tend to conform to an aspect ratio that does not require the reader to scroll but instead just click to read the next bit. And they tend to be free to read. There are dedicated web comics publishing sites, but you can use something like tumblr or medium too, or use a webcomic theme for wordpress to publish them.
Digital comics by contrast tend to maintain the conventions of a book in terms of length, and publishing schedules, and they tend to be delivered either by app, or as files you download and read from your hard drive/device. On the upside this means you don’t have to be online to read them, just to download them. The also are often free but you also have the option to charge for them, and the biggest distributor is ComiXology, an amazon subsidiary, who’s site and app you can purchase comics from and read on the go. Amazon also sells comics for Kindle readers as well.
Both these options require minimal investment aside from the cost of your computer, you can pay for a site but tumblr and several webcomics hosting options are free to use, and ComiXology does not charge you to publish with them. So these are some great options for an emerging artist to get their work out there and find a readership.
Next on our list of options is Print On Demand. POD services let you print physical books in small numbers or one at a time. This differs from past printing options because before the innovation of digital printing that could match the standards, your main option for printing comic books and graphic novels was offset and web printing. And the machines for both those are expensive to set up and run very fast, so few printers were willing to do runs under a 1000 units at best. Web printing used for many american monthly comics, would typically do runs no lower than 5000 copies affordably.
These days I source most of my physical via CreateSpace & Ingram Spark. Lulu is a similar option, and for comics specifically there’s also Ka-Blam . I liked Magcloud’s printed editions of my work, the classic glossy magazine look, but they are a bit on the pricey side. Blurb is another that offers some nice formats, and Book Baby is another option for small runs. And there are smaller local POD printers for short runs like Sure Print & Design. Check online to see who’s operating in your province or state.
You can also find printers locally that use newer technology to print but offer services a lot like traditional small print shops, I used a Montreal digital printer, Caïus for my kickstarter copies of Dream Life. There are many options that might have been cheaper, but I was looking for something more local for philosophical and environmental reasons. And I also really wanted to be able to just go into the printers, to proof the books in person!
If you’re looking to print more copies, over 1000+, then it’s smart to consider offset printing rather than digital.
The quality tends to still be better, and for larger print runs can be quite a bit cheaper too. It used to be you couldn’t get offset runs under 1000 units but I recently learned on a panel this is no longer true! Due to slow business, offset printers are taking on contracts for runs as small as 500 units in some cases!
The Direct Market!
That’s what we call the system comics shops order their books through. It’s Direct, because they buy their stock often without returns. Some books are actually returnable now though via the Direct Market. One of the many risks if you opt for it in publishing. Many comics remain non-returnable due to the risk factor.
The Direct market is dominated by Diamond, in my own self publishing so far I limit my ventures to print runs I can pay for with cash, so usually 600 units, and you need to be able to finance larger runs of over 1000 copies if you are at all successful at Dimond.
There are smaller distributors to consider too if you do smaller runs, the main alternative for comics being Last Gasp Books.
Last Gasp has FAQ pages you can read how to submit your books, Diamond has a PDF submission guide here. I’m submitting my books to Last Gasp myself, and there are other small distributors in various markets, here in Canada and abroad. I’ll compile a list of those in time. Until then hit google doodlers!
Self distribution can look like a few things. To start, for your first small press zines, look around your own city for shops friendly to hosting them. Many Comics and Alternative book shops take zines, if they do at all, on consignment. In which case you only collect funds if they sell any copies of them. And you as the publisher are expected to follow-up yourself and check on them every couple of months. If your zines or books don’t sell eventually the retailer will want to give them back to you, or if they can’t reach you, eventually throw them out! So It’s important to follow-up!
For these reasons, i tend to not often go with consignment. It depends on the shop, and how into your work they are a bit. But I think that retailers not especially motivated to sell your work are less likely to do so, than those who’ve shown the confidence in my books by paying for them, then thus also doubly enthused about selling them to their customers.
So, for a while I’ve refused consignment deals outside of my own community, and even their favour upfront small wholesale orders. For wholesale, you need to be able to offer your books to the store, for at least 40% off the cover price, if possible 50% off to sweeten the deal. That means if you have a $10 book, you are selling it to the shop for $6, maybe $5.
So think about that when pricing your book. In your own town that means printing has to be under $5 each, if you’re going to make a profit of any kind. And if you have to ship them elsewhere, then packing and postage has to be covered by that $5 as well! It’s best to work out what the printing will cost approximately based on different print run sizes, and the shipping, and THEN set your cover price based on that. As you approach professional runs, a full business plan with all costs factored into your unite price is advisable. Here’s a great post by Jim Zub detailing how the price point of a direct market book he worked on broke down for a whole team publishing a book through Image [independent and direct market publishing].
For my self published books, I don’t use large distributors, so I have a Web Store set up. Two actually. I keep my books in that one, and I sell my original art here. If you don’t feel comfortable setting up your own site to sell things, sites like Big Cartel or Etsy can be great platforms I hear for selling a variety of things online, I’ve not used them but many artists do! It’s a great option for small-scale operations, but keep in mind preparing and shipping things has to be done properly! And it takes time.
In my own city, I approach local comic shop’s about selling my book too. Face to face distribution! I simply show them it in the case of Dream Life, it tends to sell itself. That’s ideal. You will need a polished pitch sheet and dummy copies of the work to sell it if you haven’t got the books already. But stores will only buy something when you have books ready.
For out-of-town retailers, I contact them by phone and email. Some are happy to talk to self publishers, but many don’t reply at all! Expect that. Those that do, will often order three to five copies of a book, based on seeing a PDF of Dream Life I send them to preview it. Some want to order just one or two, but i can only offer them wholesale rates for three or more. Less and I stop making anything on the exchange.
Along with approaching Last Gasp, one of the other channels self publishers should consider are publications like Broken Pencil, Montreal Review of Books, Quill And Quire, and related sites to get some attention to your publications. This will help inspire dedicated readers and retail buyers to seek out your work. That’s critical. Also think about radio and media, web sites covering culture, and novel opportunities to get your work in the spotlight. And of course, the Comics news! A fair amount of attention and care should go into your Public Relations and Marketing efforts. It’s a whole job unto itself, and not necessarily one you have to do yourself. If you can find a way to, get an expert to help. At the very least though, start by learning to write a Press release!
Last under this I will mention that for some, touring the convention and festival circuit, is key to building up a strong following of readers outside of their own city AND to sell your work directly to them. That said the costs associated with touring-travel, hotels, food, and table fees on top of the cost of making your merchandise-make it challenging for many creators to actually make money this way. It’s in my experience a cyclical market, so at some time in your career you’ll probably find it’s wise to get out to as many places as you can to promote your work, yourself!