Making your own comic book? Read this first
August 31st, 2011
03:00 AM ET

Making your own comic book? Read this first

Editor's note: Christian Sager is the creator of "Think of the Children" and "Border Crossings". He has also written essays about the comics industry, punk subculture and national identity.

In 1984, two guys named Kevin and Peter came up with an idea for a comic book. They didn’t wait for a company to publish it. Instead they took the “do-it-yourself” (DIY) route, self-publishing their own work.

Kevin took money from his tax return and then borrowed more from his uncle. They used the cash to print 3,000 comics. Peter thought they should also market the book, so they printed ads and sent press packets out to major media outlets.

Suddenly Kevin and Peter started getting calls from retailers and distributors who had heard about their comic through local news. Those first 3,000 copies sold like hot cakes. Kevin and Peter burnt through three more printings, totaling 153,000 copies.

By comparison, July 2011’s best-selling comic was estimated to have sold only 135,564 copies. That’s roughly 17,000 less than Kevin and Peter sold alone in 1984.

What was the comic book those two were making bank on? "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." It didn’t take long for the two to become millionaires.

But Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s success story is an almost unbelievable fairy tale. Self-publishing a printed comic book is not so easy in this day and age.

Comic creators who self-publish have their own community, either striving to reinvent the medium or hoping to make their mark and get the attention of publishers. These DIY comics form an entire stratum at the base level of the comics industry. Webcomics and digital distribution have changed the landscape, but publishing comic books is hard work, especially in print.

“DIY comics rarely turn a profit when you add in the cost of printing and table fees if you’re setting up at conventions,” says Eraklis Petmezas, self-publisher of comics like "Mr. Lune" and "Last Cigarette." By “table fees,” Petmezas refers to the cost of setting up a space at a comic book convention to sell his wares. Most creators today barely break even and it’s incredibly difficult to make a living from it.

Cartoonist Erika Moen, co-creator of "Bucko," said, “It really depends on a ton of factors and a little luck. For some people, yes, it's possible to make a living; for others of the same ability, no. It depends on how dedicated (i.e., willing to spend dollars) your audience is, how well you can distribute your books, how much money you need to survive on - there's so many factors!”

There are four major factors that make it more difficult to succeed with a self-published comic today.:

  • The time and commitment needed to create a comic pays nothing or very little
  • Printing may be easier but promotion and distribution are more difficult
  • Promotion can get expensive, usually before you’ve even sold a single issue
  • Getting a comic onto store shelves is difficult because of distribution restrictions: If your audience can’t find it, they can’t buy it and you won’t make your money back.

Creating the content
DIY Comics allow creators to tell their stories without having to obtain the approval of the gatekeepers at a publisher. There’s currently a plethora of independent comics out there with unique, interesting voices. These creators are their own publisher. Additionally they’re the writer or artist. Many times they’re all three.

Rich Barrett is such a creator. He’s the writer, artist and publisher of "Nathan Sorry," a comic about a man who fakes his death after 9/11. He’s also a commercial graphic designer, who is used to earning an hourly rate in his day job, much higher than what he receives for his demanding comic book efforts.

“Making comics requires so much of my time that my hourly rate works out to less than minimum wage,” he says, “And that's for work that people would actually pay me for. Making my own graphic novel and selling it online in installments brings in even less of a revenue stream.”

Let’s get down to brass tacks. How much does it cost to simply create a comic? Jim Campbell, a comic book letterer who has worked on comics like "Hack/Slash" and "Grimm Fairy Tales," recently presented a loose breakdown of what publishers pay beginning creators. His estimate is $250 per finished page, or a total of $6,000 for your average 22-page issue. If you’re not doing all the creative work yourself, you’re going to need to pay for at least some of these costs.

“Artists deserve to get paid for their hard work,”  Dave Wachter, co-creator of "The Guns of Shadow Valley" and "Scar Tissue," said. “If you want quality, you should be ready to pay for it.”

Putting it on paper
But that's only at the halfway point. There are still publication costs to consider. Luckily for comic entrepreneurs, there are publication options now that weren’t available to Eastman and Laird. Barrett says, “For costs that almost anyone can afford you can now get professional looking comics printed via print-on-demand (POD) resources.”

Printing could be cheaper if you go with a different kind of company that doesn’t use the digital printing of POD services, but the ins and outs of pre-press print production (workflow, proofing, formatting etc.) can be a tricky and costly learning curve for first-timers.

Some creators who sell small quantities make “minicomics” instead: photocopied issues bound with a saddle stitch stapler. Not all comic shops will carry minicomics though, making them even more esoteric. Some comic book readers don't care for the format and won’t purchase minicomics, even if they’re readily available.

Getting the word out
Once a comic is made, one might think the next step is distribution. Remember the Eastman and Laird story though - they didn’t get decent distribution until after they had marketed their comic to the press.

This is when creators get to do even more unpaid work! Two proven methods of promoting a DIY comic are a) working the floor at comic book conventions and b) spreading the word via social media.

Networking in the online DIY community lets you communicate with fans of your work, while also meeting peer creators who can support you down the line. The comics industry is currently so small that a lot of the dollars changing hands come from business-to-business transactions. An important audience for DIY comics is definitely other self-publishers. “Personally, 50 percent of my sales are from fellow creators,” said Petmezas.

As Petmezas indicated, conventions aren’t free. Getting table space to sell your product at a convention can cost anywhere from $100 to $500. That doesn’t include your additional travel and lodging expenses, which can get up to $2000 just to attend. But the strength of sales and marketing opportunities at conventions can make them worth the investment. Robert Wilson co-published his superhero buddy comic "Knuckleheads" with Brian Winkeler last year and sold copies at conventions.

“With no distribution and very little retail support we were able to sell about 500 copies, nearly paying for the print run,” comic artist and illustrator Wilson said, “The majority of those sales were from comic shop appearances and comic conventions.”

Placing comics on shelves
At the last stage of DIY comics publishing, it’s time to get those books distributed to readers. If you want to get physical comics into stores you’re going to have to deal with Diamond Comic Distributors. Since the mid 1990s, Diamond has pretty much owned the distribution market, to the point that they were subject to an anti-trust investigation in 1997.

Keep this in mind before signing any distribution contracts: Diamond’s current policy is tough on self-publishers. It requires that retailers order at least $2,500 worth of your comic books. This basically means that you have to sell that many books right out of the gate, or you’re stuck without distribution for your following efforts. According to Diamond’s Vice-President of Purchasing, Bill Schanes, this isn’t a “cut-and-dried” rule and Diamond will work with you if your sales trend positively or you take significant promotional steps.

“The established distribution channels for getting your book to comic retailers have actually shrunk,” said Wilson, “This has the potential to create a big supply and demand problem. Because it is so easy to reproduce a comic there are now more self published books than ever, with less means of distributing physical copies to the comics reading public.”

In the end
When you step back from the process of self-publishing, one thing becomes clear: businesses like print-on-demand, comics conventions and Diamond thrive on creators who are willing to put their budget in the red by gambling on success. Getting your comic through this process is difficult.

“We certainly hope the publishers who work with Diamond do so profitable,” says Schanes, “No one should be expected to lose money, but in some cases, that does take place through no fault of Diamond’s.”

Despite all this, Moen said that depending on the factors involved; it’s not impossible to make a living from your comics. “Being self-employed and self-publishing requires a ton of hours, commitment and sacrifice,” she says, “It's not easy, but you can make a profit and even make a living - but it will never be easy.”

“Comics are hard work,” says Petmezas, “I think most of us do it for the sheer satisfaction of getting our stories out there. I love making comics, but they'll break your heart if you let them.”

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. superdude

    This guy was named Timmy. He was 16 years old

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  5. Robert

    I really enjoyed your article, as it took me back to my own self publishing effort way back in 1992. At that point, everyone was still trying to mimic what Eastman and Laird had accomplished. I published a black and white adults only horror comic book that wasn't picked up by Diamond Distributors (whose mention in your article, again, had me chuckle with some memories!). A lack of major distribution left me a little dead in the water, although I regained a little momentum by touring comic book conventions in the northeast region. Looking back, I can see how ill prepared I was for everything, from a business standpoint especially, and how my own storytelling skills were lacking. Nonetheless, it was an incredibly rewarding experience personally, and I'm so glad I took a stab at it. I'm more or less out of the loop when it comes to comic books now, but I'm always happy to hear that there are still huge conventions and online communities that enjoy the medium for what it is.

    September 2, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  6. Rob Tracy

    Space restrictions! Yikes. It's the internet. How much space were you restricted to. :D Bet you've got a print guy for an editor. :D

    Also yeah Brian is all kinds of awesome. Did you know his grandfather was a huge badass in real life?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_J._Novosel

    Other than the point of original publication it seems crazy these days to separate print and web. Webcomics are distinct because of the way and often the format within which they are published. But almost every successful (and many not so successful) webcomic has a print strategy as part of their business plan. They'd be crazy not to. It is that diversification that helps keep small comics alive. You have to open up as many revenue streams as you can. And although there are a lot more print people who don't do digital than the other way around it's becoming more common even among the die hards.

    Frankly I'm surprised that on line syndicates haven't popped up to market comics to news sites like CNN.Com the same way print comics are marketed to newspapers. I suppose that will happen in time. But the point about separating the print and web remains (and I totally didn't get that from the article... I guess I just don't think that way LOL). I suppose one could go through the process of printing a comic without the meager additional cost of digital publishing. I guess I just don't see why anyone would.

    Good luck on the next article.

    September 1, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  7. Clifton Cain

    Anyone know what book the panel at the top of the page is from? Looks interesting.

    September 1, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Christian Sager

      Hi Clifton,
      The artwork associated with the article comes from Rich Barrett's NATHAN SORRY, which is available both in print, as a webcomic and as a digital comics for mobile devices. See more here: http://www.richbarrett.com/nathansorry/

      September 1, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  8. Walter

    There is a great success story out there, gucomics. It started out as a guy just posting stuff that was heard in chat in online games. After a few years of posting fairly regularly, he ended up quitting his day job, and now the webcomic is his source of income. There have been times when he has asked the community for donations to help him make ends meet, but for the vast majority of the time, he works just selling of pannels of his work and custom work that people request from him.

    August 31, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  9. Red

    Thanks for the well written article about the indy comics scene. Question for Christian: how has merchandising comics helped indy creators? What I’m talking about is where cartoonists are able to interest enough fans that they can offer the comic online for free due to selling merchandising (toys, book collections, t-shirts) and still make a living at it. I’m guessing that there should be some success stories based on a merchandising-centric model.

    August 31, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Christian Sager

      Writing anecdotally, I see a lot of DIY creators selling merchandise just like you describe both on their web stores and at conventions. Toys and t-shirts seem to do especially well and may often be the only way a DIY creator can break even on their convention costs. I don't have any evidence of creators who successfully make a living doing that, but if they're out there I'd love to hear about it!

      August 31, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
      • Rob Tracy

        Christian... the article is pretty good. There is however a lot more to indy comics be they web or print. One of the things I kind of chuckle about is the breakdown you have here. I can almost see new creators reading your article and saying "oh man I have to do all that? I just want to tell my stories" and honestly that's where this article does miss the mark a bit.

        The indy comics industry right now is all about freedom. Because the answer to that question of whether or not a creator has to do all the things you mention in the article is yes... or no... or so much more... the true answer is... what do you want to accomplish with your comics? Isn't that freeing? If all you want is to do something for the pure joy of it (and I cannot tell you how many people are like this) then there are so many choices. WordPress/Comicpress (or Webcomic). The Rampage Network. SmackJeeves. Comic Genesis. Any of these sites and more will either provide you with a complete hosting solution or for under $20 you can get a domain name and basic hosting for a year with several Comic Management Systems like Comic Reef (and I know you know this because I've seen your WordPress/Comicpress site).

        And if you want to make a business of it. You want to make a living. This list doesn't even cover the basics. Unless you can afford your own business manager in addition to all the creative and production parts listed in the article you'll be setting up an LLC, Sole Proprietorship or if you're lucky a partnership. Collecting and paying taxes. Dealing with state and federal (and in some cases even local) governments so you can legally collect sales tax (many conventions require you have a sales tax permit before they will let you buy a table). Negotiating with wholesalers. Researching and buying the tech you need to produce your products. Negotiating with vendors for specific products. Negotiating with fulfillment services. I could go on and on.

        But that really is the point. If you want to run your comics as a business then it is a business and making it in business is hard and takes a lot more knowledge and work than simply producing something and letting others handle the details.

        One of the things you're far off on is the merch. There are many T-Shirt companies that make a fine, profitable living off of just T-Shirts. So I've never understood why people question whether or not a comic creator with his own IP and audience can't market a shirt (or other merch) to people who already come to them to read their work! Or for that matter have the creativity to create a shirt that the public might actually like unrelated to their IP.

        If you want to talk numbers I'm the wrong guy. I've only been in it for less than two years and haven't taken off. But people like Ryan Sohmer of Blind Ferret or the guys at Topatoco like Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content or Explosm or Randy Milholland of Something Positive or Danielle Corsetto of Girls with Slingshots or Brian Clevinger (8Bit Theater) or Chris Hasting of The Adventures of Doctor McNinja (both of whom have done work for major comics companies recently) or Chris Crosby of Keenspot. Any of these people could probably speak intelligently on what drives their business. And I'd be happy to put you in touch with them if you are interested in doing something a bit more in depth.

        And Diamond isn't the only choice. They are just the best choice. Ka-Blam POD has a brick and mortar distribution arm called Comics Monkey in addition to their IndyPlanet direct POD sales. And I'm sure they aren't the only ones either.

        August 31, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
      • Christian Sager

        Hi Rob,
        Thanks for writing. You bring up a lot of valid points. I can't address all of them here, but I'll add that this article originally contained sections about webcomics/digital comics and funding. Due to space considerations, I decided to cut them out and hopefully use them for another piece in the future. I tried to make this article solely about print for those reasons.

        Both of my comics started as webcomics, using WordPress and ComicsPress.I also use Ka-Blam for my printing and they were also originally in the article and cut for space. I fully support both those avenues for self-publishing.

        You're certainly right about the business aspects and the web/merch people making a living. I know Brian Clevinger and he was a lot of help to me starting out, giving me advice on how to get things done.

        Thanks again! – Christian

        September 1, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  10. Mia Mccaully

    There are so many indy artist doing this, one of the greatest places I have found too see the ones that interest me is inkoutbreak.com I have help fund over 20 kickstarters now! pretty rewarding.

    August 31, 2011 at 10:58 am |