This article originally appeared in Strangehaven issue issue #11, April 1999.
Just before last issue went to press, I received the following letter and the second issue of a small press comic called Floid by Adam Jakes. I briefly referred to this in last issue’s letter pages, but as promised here’s Adam’s original letter:
Sandy, Bedfordshire, UK.
I picked up a copy of Strangehaven #9 in my local store, flicked through it (as I had never seen it before) and was totally hooked by your art style. So I bought it, read it, loved it. But I also noticed that it seemed to be completely run by yourself and not a major American company. Which suggested (dare I say it) small press roots.
I’m completely impressed with the fact that an independent English title can so obviously flourish in the face of so much American corporate competition. And I was hoping, due to your experience, you could offer some advice on how to get going with a creator-owned comic book.
Upon receiving this package, you will have noticed enclosed my own small press title, Floid. I know you said “no submissions” and I do apologise (think of it as a gift!) but I’m in desperate need of some advice. After the initial hassle of actually getting Floid printed, I was faced with another huge hurdle, that of distribution. The only way I’ve been able to sell copies is to visit comic shops in person and ask nicely until they put them on the shelves.
But how do I reach a larger audience? I’ve become aware of such distributors as Diamond and Red Route, but I don’t know how to approach them. What level of print quality do I need for them to take me seriously? Are colour covers required? What sort of percentage do they take?
I know this is a complete liberty, asking you to take time out to help another artist, but I’m completely stuck and I really need some guidance.
Adam, many thanks for sending me a copy of Floid – and please don’t apologise for sending me your comic – (as I mentioned last issue) – the “no submissions” disclaimer in the indicia applies to comic novices who send me stuff in the hope of my publishing their work. I am not a publisher, but I certainly enjoy receiving self-published comics of any description.
You’re right in thinking that I’m a one-man show and also that I have “small press roots”; really, Strangehaven isn’t all that different. It takes considerably more time, effort and investment, but essentially I’m doing the same thing I was back in my college days with a SF strip-zine called Amon*Spek.
You’ve already taken the first steps towards self-publishing in that you’ve already started writing, drawing and packaging your own material, which in itself shows a degree of awareness and understanding. Believe me, a lot of hopefuls don’t even make it as far as you already have.
As for “obviously flourishing,” I’d have to say it’s more like grim determination. Despite appearances, Strangehaven does not make me a great deal of money. As Paul Grist of Kane fame told me when I was preparing to self-publish Strangehaven, it’s not a get rich quick scheme. After three years or more, I’d say it’s turned out to be more of a vocation. The fact that Strangehaven is still being published after such a period implies some degree of success, but I honestly would have made more money doing just about anything else you could care to mention, including filling shelves at Tesco.
As regards to hassle, running any kind of business involves a number of tasks which can be difficult, unpleasant and frustrating – but not necessarily more so than dealing with a hierarchical editorial system like they have in place at some of the larger companies. At least you get to make the final decision and any mistakes are your own. And it’s ultimately so much more rewarding.
The number of comic distributors has severely contracted (along with the rest of the industry) over the past few years. When I solicited my first issue of Strangehaven, I was carried by Capital City and Heroes World in the US and Styx and Big Picture in Canada, all of which have since folded or merged. The only major survivor in the advance order market from those days is Diamond Distributors who now enjoy a virtually monopolistic position. Since then, FM International has come into existence, but their orders on Strangehaven have been rather modest (if very welcome) in comparison to Diamond’s. Another relatively new distributor, SyCo have recently stopped distributing comic books.
The beauty of the advance order system – for publishers – is that you are able to solicit orders via the distributor’s catalogues (such as Diamond’s Previews) and receive firm orders for your title even before you print it. This enables you to adjust your print runs accordingly and maximise your profits (bearing in mind you will need to overprint by a certain number for back issue sales and reorders).
Nothing is cast in stone however, and there has been a great deal of talk about comics being – to some extent anyway – returnable. How this will affect small independent publishers remains to be seen, although if returnability became standard industry practise, it could have unfortunate consequences for some small companies with cash-flow problems.
Recently, back-issue and trade paperback specialist stockists like Cold Cut in the US and Red Route in the UK have been good allies for independent publishers like myself by making available your stock as a specialised alternative to Diamond’s Reorder System.
You should contact each of the advance order distributors for their solicitation guidelines before sending any materials. Try to find out the name of the representative to which you need to send your solicitations – usually the head of the Purchasing Department at each company.
These guidelines will probably tell you to send a full mock-up or “dummy” of the first issue, and it’s been suggested that you should have at least three issues drawn and ready to go before you go ahead and actually solicit your first issue (although in practise I doubt this happens very often).
Distributors will require anything up to 60% discount off the cover price, which sounds like a lot, but then they have to resell to retailers at discounts up to 55%, so they are working on comparatively small margins themselves.
I’d also suggest your US retail price is no more than $2.95 – there appears to be a psychological barrier beyond the $3 point; Paul Grist set the cover price of Kane at $3.50 and in retrospect he told me he thinks that this may have adversely affected his sales potential.
You will have to pay for shipping too, although if you print in the UK, you will only have to ship your Diamond order to Diamond’s London base. They will take a small percentage of the cover price to ship your goods to the US. Shipping to other distributors from the UK will be expensive, whatever method you choose – that’s one thing I considered before I decided to print in North America.
If the distributors consider your comic to be of sufficient quality, then they will probably list your first three issues regardless of initial orders to give your title a chance to gain readers. Beyond that, it will have to attain orders above a certain threshold based on retail price (I believe that Diamond’s current threshold is around 700 copies of a $2.95 comic) for them to continue to solicit your comic.
It’s important to ensure that your comic is of sufficient quality yourself before you submit it to a distributor; in the event that your comic is dropped, it may be more difficult for a subsequent title of yours to be listed. As my friend Chris Staros is fond of saying, it’s not enough that your comic is better than the worst books you can find, it needs to hold it’s own among the best.
Is a glossy, colour cover required? Possibly not, but I would highly recommend it. Colour printing is expensive – by far the most costly part of your comic – but it’s essential for your publication to be noticed and to look as professional as possible. The price drops considerably with larger print runs.
I note that Floid is approximately US comic-sized, which is a good idea as many comic book stores prefer that shape for racking and boxing.
As for printing your comic, you can (in theory) use any printer from the Yellow Pages, but one with experience of printing American-sized comic books is highly recommended. In North America, it usually boils down to Brenner, Morgan, Preney, Quebecor and a few others. In the UK, most use YBE Business Forms (printers of Kane and the Abaculus books). A few years ago printing in the US would have meant a minimum print run of 5,000, but most now offer runs as low as 1,000 – although the unit cost is very much higher on small runs.
As you may have gathered, self-publishing is not a simple task and there will be many difficult days should you choose to proceed. There are many other matters I have only touched upon briefly or not at all (for example promoting your comic), but despite all the problems, it remains an exciting and enjoyable occupation.
I would be happy to answer any specific questions any other potential self-publishers have (or indeed to hear from any actual self-publishers that want to add to or disagree with my comments) and I’ll do my very best to respond. But as I’ve said before, there are as many solutions to self-publishing as there are self-publishers. Gather as much information and opinion together as you can before you begin and then make your own decisions.
Highly recommended (and bargain-priced) reading: Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing by Dave Sim is absolutely essential reading for any prospective creator, self-publisher or not. The Staros Report 1997 by Chris Staros (StarHouse) is chock full of industry addresses and info as well as lots of other great stuff.