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Monday, March 23, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, Part 6: Self-Publishing

You've written your comic book. You've found an artist to draw it. The whole thing is finished. You're ready to see your book sitting on the shelves of comic book stores through out the country. All you need now is for me to tell you the secret handshake and you'll have your "in" with a publisher.

Unfortunately, no one ever taught me the secret handshake. Maybe you can meet some pro at a convention who can teach it to you. Or, I can tell you the not-so-secret secret about the comic book industry. Ready? Here it is.

Self-publishing is a reasonable path to success in the comic book industry.

Every now and then, you might read about someone who self-publishes their novel and enjoys actual success. The comic book industry is filled with examples. Take me, for instance. I enjoyed what would charitably be called minor success self-publishing. But that success was sufficient to publish 36 issues of the Southern Knights, a dozen issues of the X-Thieves and earn about $30,000. (No, I never earned enough to be self supporting as a comic book writer, but I earned a lot more money than most professional writers earn in their careers.)

In the interest of fairness, I should also say that my self publishing partner, David Willis, and I officially self-published only the first seven issues of the Southern Knights. After that, we hooked up with David Anthony Kraft (DAK to all his friends), who was self-publishing the magazine Comics Interview. We remained involved in the publicity side of publishing, leaving the tedious parts of publishing to DAK.

Back to actual self publishing now. What follows are things you need to consider. These are broadly stated ideas, not the exact details. If you choose to go this route, you'll still have a lot of work ahead of you. My hope is that this column will narrow your focus.

You've decided you're going to self publish your comic book. What should you do first? I'd suggest you start searching for a printer. There are lots of printers in the U.S. and some of them even specialize in comic books. Any printer will be able to give you a current price list for printing your comic book. Unless things have changed, two prices will be given to you; the price for the first 1000 copies followed by the price for each 1000 copies beyond that. The price for the first 1000 copies includes the cost of setting up the printing press to print your comic. After the first 1000 copies, the only real costs of printing are paper, ink and electricity. Expect the initial 1000 copies to cost about 10 times as much as each subsequent 1000 copies.

Now that you've got an idea how much it's going to cost to print the books, you get to make a wild guess at the price of the comic book. When you sell to the direct comic book market through comic book distributors (well, distributor, now that Diamond Comics Distributor has cornered the market), expect to be paid 40% of your book's cover price. You have to make sure you select a price that's high enough to keep you from going broke but low enough that people will be willing to pay for your comic. I'd recommend doing some research on current comic books sales and making your best guess from there. If you price too low, you don't have to go through with printing the book. Simply explain what happened to the distributor and ask if you could be allowed to solicit the book again with a new price. If they say no, prepare to either stop now or to lose a lot of money printing the book.

Now that you've selected a price for the book, you actually contact Diamond. They've got a web page, so it shouldn't be hard to get in touch with them. I'd also suggest searching for other comic book distributors. Some of them do still exist, mostly specializing in independent comic book publishers (you, in other words). Ask the distributors what they need from you to solicit the book. Ask what you can give to them to help them sell the book. Remember, the distributor wants your book to sell. That's how they make money. They will work with you.

One thing you should definitely be prepared to do is send an electronic copy of your completed comic book to the distributors. Back in the late 1980s, black and white comic books became all the rage. There are reasons for it that I'll discuss another time, but distributors were happily soliciting orders for any black and white book. Comic book stores were happily buying large numbers of these books sight unseen. Comic books that looked as if they had been produced in a middle school study hall sold tens of thousands of copies and then just sat on shelves. That's why you send electronic copies to people, so they can see that you have a product that can actually sell.

While this all going on, be confident things will work out. Start working on your second issue while you wait for orders to come in from the distributors.

Once you've received orders from all the distributors who solicited your comic book, contact that printer and have them print the comic book. Most printers only promise to get within a certain percentage of your order. It was 10% when I was dealing directly with printers. Perhaps technology has changed that but I recommend you ask in advance. In general, the printer will go over your total order, not under it, and will charge you for the overrun. In other words, if you order 5000 copies, expect as many as 5500 and be prepared to pay for all 5500 copies.

At this point, it's time to box the books and ship them to the distributors. Most printers will do this chore for you. They'll charge you for it but it's well worth your while to pay for it. Trust me, sitting around counting out thousands of copies of a comic book, packing them in boxes, hauling them to UPS (or where ever) and having them shipped is well worth avoiding.

Finally, print invoices for the distributors and mail them. A standard payment term for this sort of thing is "2 10, net 30." Translated, that means the distributor can take a 2% discount provided they send payment within 10 days of receiving the invoice. Otherwise the full invoice amount is due within 30 days.

You will have someone attempt to take the 2% discount without meeting the 10 day deadline. Politely inform them that they did not meet the terms of the invoice and include a new invoice for the missing 2%. Once again, someone will try to get you to let them have the discount anyway. It's your choice how much of a hard line you take with them. On the one hand, you need them more than they need you. On the other hand, if you allow the discount once expect to have them continue taking the discount without meeting the terms. If you're tempted to shrug it off as not a big deal -- after all, you're only talking $20 on an invoice of $1000 -- remember that $20 is a much larger percentage of your budget than it is theirs.

By now, your second issue should be complete or well on its way to completion. Start the whole process over again.

As I said, this is just a broad brush over the business aspects of self-publishing a comic book. Please don't hesitate to post questions asking for more details. Also, please let me know other topics associated with self-publishing comic books you'd like me to discuss.
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