self-publisher's forum: does it pay enough to survive on?
3 June 2003
Writer and illustrator of the classic Heavy Metal strip, "So Beautiful, So Dangerous," Angus McKie writes:
I'd be interested to know your thoughts on the current state of self-publishing; is it in any way possible to make self publishing pay enough to survive on? It's years since I did anything like that, though I'm finding the idea more attractive the more I get frustrated with 'clients' and being treated as a tiny cog in a big mindless mincing machine. Plus, now my kids are older and don't need me so much, I kind of have my (creative) life back, so to speak.
Well, as for earning enough money to survive on by self-publishing in the current comics industry climate, I'd have to say that it would be very difficult to do so from day one, unless you're a current fan favourite (like Michael Turner for example).
That's not to say you can't earn a living from it - Jeff Smith (Bone) David Lapham (Stray Bullets) and Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise) are three examples of current self-publishers who are (presumably) making it pay.
But these guys have been doing it for many years now and have built up considerable stock of inventory material that they keep in print in trade paperback form, providing them with a steady income. They are also good examples of self-publishers who put out comics on a regular basis - particularly Terry Moore who now publishes new comics on a six-weekly schedule - which keeps bringing in new readers (to buy the ever-growing trade paperback collections) and which keeps them in the public eye.
Do you own the copyright to your older material? If so, there's the Eddie Campbell approach, producing a monthly book, consisting of 8 new pages of material with several reprints making up the bulk of the comic and then reprinting the same material in trade paperback form at a later date. Starting from scratch with no inventory material is very difficult until you've got a trade or two in the can and a momentum behind you.
I'd also have to say that motivation is a very important factor. If you're motivated by the need to earn the upkeep for a family, I think you'll probably fail. If you're motivated by owning the copyright to your own material, the enjoyment of telling your stories without editorial interference and the excitement of self-publishing itself, then that can get you through the hard times and give you a chance.
Self-publishing is a long-term choice. You need to be in it for long enough to build a following (the hard way - by promoting yourself constantly) and long enough to create a back stock big enough to bring in an income.
If what you're publishing finds a big enough following through the direct comic market and you're prepared to do conventions and send out press releases, comp copies and suchlike, perhaps selling original art and the occasional foreign licensing deal - I would say that it IS still possible to make a living at self-publishing for a newcomer although of course, it depends on what your expectation levels are.
Angus McKie writes:
My first thought about self publishing a while back was to consider it as a possible group activity; I had idly dreamt about getting four artists to either split each issue or alternate issues (with separate stories or one continued one). Assuming the artists were reasonably well known, do you think a group thing could possibly work, at least for a while (say 24-36 months)?
This is just a personal opinion, but I think every time you add another creator to a self-published book you multiply your chances of failure exponentially. It's difficult enough to meet deadlines when you're juggling all the other aspects of self-publishing, splitting creative duties, business tasks and financing between several people is simply asking for trouble.
I also think that in order for a new ongoing title to survive, you need a strong identity - a character or concept - for your comic. Anthology-type formats in most cases simply do not seem to capture the reader's imagination and never sell in large quantities.
Angus McKie writes:Angus McKie writes:
I figure I could survive on 250-300 pounds per week for a period of time, [how much would I need to invest in start-up capital]?
You'll need a start-up capital of around £1500 to get a few thousand b/w comics printed up, and it'll be a couple of months before you get paid from the distributors, so if you're going monthly from the outset, you'll need two or three times that just to print your books. That's why I started up quarterly, so the payment from the first issue was reinvested into the print costs of the second issue.
Of course, the beauty of the direct sales system is that you can wait until you get your firm orders in from the distributors before you set your print run... that way you need print only as many as you can afford - you know exactly how much money you're going to make before you commit yourself to actually paying the printer.
There are additional expenses to consider too, specifically shipping, which is a high, sometimes unpredictable cost.
To make £1200 net profit on a monthly book from the outset would be a real challenge. You'd need to be getting pre-order sales in the region of 5000 as a ballpark figure, which is not easy to achieve without a large pre-publication advertising campaign.
"The one thing I fall flat on is self advertising, that would definitely be my Achilles heel. I prefer people to focus on the work not me. I realise of course this is not the way publishing works. (I wonder now, could a Thomas Pynchon approach work, 'International Man of Mystery' sounds a lot more intriguing than my boring life does).
Promoting yourself as a "man of mystery" would probably take as much effort as promoting your book in any case... you haven't got to necessarily promote yourself, but you DO have to promote your work, particularly pre-publication. Preview copies to retailers, websites, news magazines, journalists will at least give your first issue a chance of getting ordered in reasonable quantities. If no one knows anything about your book, no one will buy it.
You have to detach yourself from your own work and try to promote it as you would a client's work... you have to write your own blurbs, talking about yourself in the third person; "Angus McKie's superb new ongoing comic book series..." Weird, but that's what has to be done.
Incidentally, I must say that many of the top self-publishers in the direct market do have help, usually from their spouses. Dave Sim famously set up Aardvark-Vanaheim with his then wife Deni, and later enlisted Gerhard to draw his backgrounds. Jeff Smith has wife Vijaya running the business side of Cartoon Books, Terry Moore has Robyn and Dave Lapham has Maria. It's pretty impossible to do everything yourself and keep to a frequent schedule.
Angus McKie writes:
[Does a comic book ideally need to contain] 24 pages of original stuff?
Between 20 and 24 is the norm. It doesn't have to be new either - as I say Eddie Campbell got away with only 8 pages of original material for a number of years in his Bacchus monthly, thanks to his enormous stock of previously published material.
Angus McKie writes:
[ and should trade paperbacks collect], say, 10 issues together into a 240 page book?
The norm is considerably less than that - many collect just four issue arcs into trade paperbacks - around 96 pages. The Strangehaven trades contain 6 issues, with other material making them up to 176 pages. You've got to consider frequency and price point to really give yourself a chance.
© 2003 Gary Spencer Millidge. All rights reserved.
All text and images (c) copyright Gary Spencer Millidge/Abiogenesis Press All rights reserved.