One of the coolest thing about the comics world is that it doesn’t dismiss self-publishers the way the lit world does. Maybe because it’s a less pretentious field, or a newer one, or that drawing talent is more quickly discerned at a glance. Certainly it helps that one of the more prominent awards and grants, the Xeric, is open only to self-publishers.
Comic artist and former No Media Kings intern stef lenk received a Xeric grant for her illustrated booklets TeaTime 1 and 2. Whether you’ve got a project that you’re submitting to the next Xeric deadline at the end of this month, or if you’re just interested in hearing about the nuts and bolts of comics publishing from printing to promotion, you’ll find stef’s opinions and experiences in the article below food for thought. UPDATE: Canadian comic self-publishers will want to check out this Gene Day Award.
A Self-Publishing Comics Primer
by stef lenk
BEFORE YOU START
Someone wrote in another Xeric testimonial that you should not attempt self-publishing and all of this business unless you have no choice. This is really true. It’s a tonne of work, there’s no money in it, and trying to put comic books out there for public consumption is another full-time job on top of doing the actual (creative) work. I have tried to get rid of my bookish compunctions from every possible angle. I went to art school to learn how to make stuff to put into books. I talked emptily about potential book projects for years. I took a course in book publishing so I could make other peoples’ books. I’ve read a million books looking for one that hasn’t been written or illustrated yet. And yet all of this has still brought me here.
These days, I pay my rent through work in book/magazine publishing/design, I draw obsessively, and I still have many many unfinished book projects. But the more of your own work you do the more focused you become, and the easier it gets, at least to be confident enough to start a project, to see it through, and to learn a thing or two about it and yourself in the process.
For those of you up for self-publishing, here are some of the things you’ll need to think about.
Writing/storyboarding/drawing the book takes time. For me, this reigns in at approximately 200-250 hours per book — including storyboarding, reference material, final drawings, and tonnes of mistakes/second/third/fourth tries.
YOUR DAY JOB
Don’t quit it. No one else does and survives (well). Freelancing is an ideal complement to self-publishing ventures, but the stress (and the effect it has on doing your artwork) shouldn’t be underestimated either. Be nice to yourself along the way.
If you can stockpile cash and then take time off, do so. If you can marry rich, that too is a good option. If you are already rich, you must email me immediately so we can discuss this further and in great detail.
Get rid of it.
If you are waiting to start your project until you have a new MacBookPro or a fully equipped studio space in the East Village, don’t. I know a few people who spend alot of time collecting toys and very little time actually using them. This is unfortunate. Use whatever you can get/whoever will let you. Preparation is the easiest form of procrastination.
GRIEF/GUILT RELATED ANXIETY THAT YOU ARE NOT WORKING HARD/QUICK/WELL ENOUGH
Inevitable, but NOT helpful. Try to override these thoughts with great expedience and fervour.
If you know anyone with this skill who will be willing to help you, you have struck gold. Honestly. Having an editor=Creative GOLD. Allow them to criticize, Listen to the criticism, Act on the criticism.
Books are offset-printed (should you be choosing this format) in 16-page increments called signatures. This is due to the folding process necessary to make sure all pages have a reverse-side, and can therefore be efficiently bound/stapled, etc. If you have decided to make a book that is, say, 18 pages, you must be prepared to pay for 24 pages, and have a bunch of blanks. 1/2 sigs are a possibility, which means you can have 20 pages (the magic number is 4 in folding pages) but you will likely still have to pay for 24 pages and they will be trimmed after printing, which wastes both paper and money. Obviously 16/24/32 page booklets are all magic increments.
If you know a bit more about your printers, such as how large their press-beds are and what the max size of paper they take, there are ways to cut down costs even more. My books are just slightly smaller than conventional ash-can size; this is so they get printed on one sheet and reverse on the other side to create two books per sheet. (the process is called print-and-tumble, which means that the whole book is printed on one side then they turn the page over and rerun it with the same plates reversed. This cuts down HUGELY on costs.
Colour is more expensive than b/w. To print in colour, the printers have to make four plates for each page and ink colour — one for cyan, one for magenta, one for yellow, and one for black, which are the four staple inks in colour printing. This might be evident to any of you who have home printers with separate cartridges in your inkjets. The pages of your book then have to be run through the press four times (one for each plate) which ups your man-hours for the job. And there is ever a hassle with proofing and colour correction, which is much trickier, I’ve found, than b/w. Overall, if you are printing in colour, be prepared for at least double if not quadruple the cost quoted for a b/w project.
The way printers refer to colour is related to how many plates are needed to print either side of the page. For instance, ¼ (stated as “1 over 4”) means, b/w (or one colour) on one side, and full colour (4 plates) on the other. 4/4 means full colour on both sides of the page. If you want to get fancy, some printers may allow you to print your one colour other than black. That is called a spot colour, and if you should choose/be allowed this option, it means ALL your text will be this colour (or shades thereof).
Paper stock is an issue. Coated paper is the shiny stuff, where ink sits on top of the page and looks shiny and lovely. Like most magazines. Newsprint is the other end of the spectrum — like newspapers, it’s thin, ink soaks in and dulls, but is cheap cheap cheap.
Your printing costs will break down (or at least mine do) into three: paper, print, and binding. Bind, the third of these, can be stapled (called saddle-stitch) or perfect bound (glued together like most trade paperback books). If there is any way you can handle any of this stuff yourself, you will cut down on billable-man-hours there.
I try to avoid tweaking in Photoshop all together, but do find that I need to do a bit to make all pages consistent in terms of levels/gray-scale tones, etc. This takes time and some Photoshop skills, or at least basic knowledge of the program. Or someone else who can help.
For gods’ sake read up on “bleeds” if you’ve never published before, and intend to have artwork that reaches (past) the edges of your book. Bleeds are your necessary margin for error when the book is trimmed. The amount of reworking and redrawing I’ve had to do because I didn’t have properly trimmable edges around my drawings has been highly frustrating. (This will not really apply to artists working in panels with white edges, by the way; leaving white borders is another simple solution to bleed/trim problems.)
These can vary of course, but my booklets cost approximately $1200 for a print run of 350-500, keeping in mind they are 16 pages each (plus cover) and full-colour. See pre-press for more info on this.
You CAN opt for photocopy/zine-style, but just know that these days desktop publishing is ubiquitous and the standards are getting ever higher, so it’s harder to grab peoples’ attention with the cheap photocopy format, except for a very specific niche market. In the end, the more seriously you invest in your work, the more seriously your potential audience will invest in it.
Screenprinting, letterpress, are other options, and beautiful ones; printmaking is, however, a separate affair.
There are a tonne of them, that vary in cost/efficiency. The bigger festivals are curated. If this is your first book, do as many as humanly possible. At book fairs you get to keep all profits from book sales, but this occasionally at the price of malevolent glares by bargain hunters who can’t fathom why you would charge $8 for what could be construed as a rather elaborate-looking brochure. Many people will not understand. Be prepared for this. The people around you also selling books WILL understand. Love and respect them accordingly.
A couple of years down the road you can start doing a cost/benefit analysis (so to speak) of which fairs to do/which fairs to skip. The experience is fantastic for making a niche for yourself in the comics community, meeting publishers, and having your work evaluated. The people are AWESOME. But again, you never sell quite as many books as you had hoped, and the prep work shouldn’t be underestimated. Tables also cost money. If you can find someone to split the cost with, by all means do so.
Some of the book fairs/comicons I’ve done/know of.
SpeakEasy Comics night (Toronto)
OCAD Book Arts Fair (Toronto)
Word on the Street (Toronto)
Wayzgoose book arts fair (Grimsby, Ontario)
SPX (Washington DC)
MoCCA (New York)
BD Angoulême : the MOTHER of all festivals, and the best Best BEST one out there EVER! A DREAM! Comic exhibits in the town church. No joke. Not to be attempted, though, unless you are planning a vacation in France already, you speak at least basic French, have a lot of extra money (or a very liberal credit card!) and can plan way ahead of time so you can get cheap place to stay.
Book fair math is always helpful if you are feeling discouraged about money. After every book fair my friends/fellow book-makers sit back and evaluate: “This time I made back the cost of the bus ticket to get here!” “This time I made back travel AND the cost of the table!”, “This time I spent every penny on other books, but Christs’ toes, LOOK AT THIS STUFF!”
Consider postage/shipping costs if you are doing book fairs outside of your own country. Bringing them over the border could be questionable at customs, so this is an extra cost/inconvenience.
Consider Etsy, it’s free and awesome, and you can direct anyone you want there. They sell your books, and take a nominal fee for it. There is a tonne of stuff up there though, so drawing attention to your page can be another challenge in and of itself. Your own website is a great help, but building one is a challenge. Blogs also work — Blogger or WordPress are the most popular and the former is the easiest to use/no website skills necessary.
Nothing online will be too too helpful, however, unless you have a way of driving traffic to the site. Facebook/MySpace can be helpful publicity, but to get beyond your immediate circle of friends you will need other tactics.
If you have a knack for design/some basic skills in InDesign and/or Quark, it will be of great help in this venture, as you can make posters, postcards, etc to give out. People always want free stuff, so anything you can give them to take away/remind you of their work is — awesome. Websites (as stated above) will save a tonne of postage costs (in terms of submissions) and give people immediate access to your work. Associated costs should be factored in: printer ink cartridges; labels; book stands/table signage, as well as promo postcards and business cards.
You can do as much or as little as you want, and see results accordingly. Once you’ve self-published a few things you will want to have built a bigger fan-base than your close friends, or the cost/momentum is going to be harder to sustain. Consider a mailing list: letting people sign up for it and sending out announcements when you have new book/events. Also put together press releases and send them to the weeklies/comic blogs/ etc. in advance of your official launch. Double check the timing on this, it varies with each publication.
SELLING BOOKS ON CONSIGNMENT
Personally, I find that accounting makes me feel like a fat man going uphill on a children’s bicycle. DIY distribution, inventory and selling books on consignment, however, makes me feel like a fat man with no legs running a 200-metre dash, rife with hurdles and a full bladder. Once you get the hang of it all, it’s strangely edifying, and a great peephole into the world of business that will inevitably surround you the deeper into publishing your books you get.
Consignment is not a great way to recoup costs, but it is the best way to have your books available/visible on a day-by-day basis. Check out bookstores in your area, specifically ones that sell small-press stuff, and offer books on consignment. Typically for a 40/50% take, these shops will stock your books and you play your own distributor, stopping by occasionally to restock/get paid for any sales.
Be aware of the profit (“profit”) margin: Here’s the math on one of my typical consignment books that a customer pays $8 for:
$8=retail price per book
print run cost=$1200 therefore unit price per book= $3.42
consignment fee=40% of the purchase price (another $3.20),
profit=a resounding $1.38 per book.
When approaching stores try to accept that your books will possibly be tucked into a milk-crate on a back shelf somewhere, where likely they will only be found accidentally by customers hoping for a cheap score in a carefully hidden smut section. This is, alas, how it works. But you get to know book-store owners (who are Awesome), you get to put your books in the company of all the stuff you read yourself (Awesome and Gratifying), and you are broadcasting to the world with increasing dedication that you are not just drawing these things for yourself, but you are searching for an audience (Yes!).
Also, check in frequently. ESPECIALLY if your book has been reviewed, written about, or excerpted. No one is ever going to love your work as much as you are, so you have to take care of it, even once it’s left home. Salespeople/bookshop proprietors have bigger distribution/inventory issues to sort out and rarely-to-never keep up with their consignment. There is also so much consignment material in any given bookshop, this section is usually in great disarray. Make sure your work hasn’t been lost, trampled, or moved to the staff washroom to be used as reading material, or worse.
Eventually the charm of zooming around on a bicycle to stores throughout the city so they can sell 4 or 5 of your books every six months will wear off, and you will have a wall of unsold books cluttering up your home.
Distribution is a good idea. There are many people who can help with this. At this point, I am not one of them: I am still investigating what the possibilities are out there. It seems like having work accepted to comic distributors is no small accomplishment. And there are fees. And unsold books shredded. And such. Be warned.
Writing grants is another job/financing possibility for this whole process. The more applications you write, the clearer your project ideas and focus will be. It’s a great exercise, and also a humbling one. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get one. Collect rejection letters. And keep writing them. It is so valuable to teach yourself to explain what you are doing to complete strangers. I have yet to master it. And there is luck involved.
Submissions, press-releases, and queries (to publishers) are also really helpful in honing your ideas and evaluating which ones are worth seeing through to completion.
SUBMITTING WORK FOR REVIEW
Google comic books/journals, read the specs, submit your work. All attention is helpful. Tell/show anyone who will listen. And be thankful when they do.
SUBMITTING WORK FOR PUBLICATION
Probably at some point you will get tired of being a one-(wo)man band with all this self-publishing. Submit excerpts for consideration to magazines, publishers etc. Best way to figure out who to submit to is to look at your own bookshelf. If you like reading them and the work they publish resonates with yours, chances are you have found a good publisher/venue for your stuff.
I don’t suggest skipping the self-publishing part. There is no better way to gain respect for the people you will be working with in the future. It’s a tonne of work, but there’s something fascinating and holistic about the process, you’re actually involved with your books from the very beginning to the very end (their sale). No part of publishing is easy, whether it be publicity, marketing, editing, or sales, and getting high and mighty about your artwork with the people who are trying to help you put it out there is just lame.
THAT’S ABOUT ALL. GO FORTH, SELF PUBLISH, RINSE AND REPEAT.
stef lenk is a freelance artist/ illustrator presently living and working in Toronto. She spells her name all lower-case. You can read her Xeric award winning books and check out her blog here.You can purchase the first five episodes of her graphic-novel in the making (which include Teatime 1 and 2) at steflenk.etsy.com.
You can read other Xeric winners’ articles here.