Gary Reed's Self Publishing Guide
Gary Reed's Self Publishing Guide was originally published in Cerebus #171. It is copyright 1993 by Gary Reed.
A Primer into the World of Self-Publishing Your Comic
The following is a brief guide to self-publishing put together by Gary Reed, Publisher of Caliber Press. Feel free to copy, modify, pass out, distribute, etc. to anyone that might be interested. This primer is meant to be an introduction to self-publishing and is not intended to be a complete concise guide. Author assumes no obligations, liabilities, etc. and any inquiries sent should be mailed and a self-addressed stamped envelope enclosed
In talking with creators about self-publishing, the primary element that seems to present itself, on why they haven't done it, or don't want to do it, is that they are intimidated by the entire process. What this form will show you is that the aspects to know are not really that difficult. The only secret involved is knowing what is required and I hope that this form will answer most of the basic questions. While I have tried to cover everything, I'm sure there are some areas that I have probably missed, possibly even some of the basic, obvious ones. All areas covered will be in generalities and exceptions in those areas will occur all the time. Remember to keep that in mind.
First off, before getting into specifics about the different areas, I'd like to explain the general overview, the big picture. When you decide to publish a comic, you must remember you have to plan ahead, usually at least four months prior to when the actual book comes out. The process of offering your comic to the comic book marketplace is generally called the solicitation process . . . you are soliciting orders on your product. Basically you will inform the distributors of your title, they in turn will put it in their ordering catalog and distribute those catalogs to the comic store retailers around the country. The retailers will place their orders and return the catalog to the distributor who will then add up all of the orders. Once a total is arrived at, the distributor will send you a purchase order which tells exactly how many copies they want of your comic, where to ship them, and confirmation of the price they will pay. This will tell you how many copies you have pre-sold and you can use this information to set your print run. On the surface, it seems like a highly efficient system. You know how many you have sold before printing. The distributors order exactly how many the retailers have ordered therefore they have sold all of their copies. The only one apparently taking a risk is the retailer who is essentially guessing four months ahead on how well the comic will sell. Remember in the direct market, the retailer is bound to accept all the copies he ordered and can not return them. If he doesn't sell them, he is stuck with them. This may give you some ideas of why many retailers don't bother with smaller press titles. The potential sales are minimal in most cases but the risks are always there. Of course, it may benefit him in the long run to offer a wide diversity of titles to his customers but most retailers have to worry about the "here and now" and they'll worry about the future when they get there.
This should give you a general idea of the process itself and now we'll deal in specifics. Some of this may appear blatantly obvious to you but it is being approached as if you have very little knowledge of the entire process and all of its steps.
First off, your comic should be the traditional size of most of the other comics. That size is roughly 6-3/4 X 10. Up to 1/2 inch either way doesn't matter too much but deviations from the comic size will hurt your potential sales quite a bit. Most stores have display space to fit a comic sized book and anything that is odd sized will often not fit into their displays. Many stores will not even carry digest or magazine size, especially small press titles. There is no rule here but it is a strike against you if you don't do it comic size.
The average black and white comic runs 32 pages and has a cover price of $2.50. Some publishers feel that a reduced cover price will encourage sales but in small press comics, this is typically not the case. Retailers are either interested or they're not. Over-pricing however, will turn off many interested retailers. If your comic has more pages, then you can up the cover price. Most publishers also include the Canadian price on their titles and this runs anywhere from 10-20% more. Check some other titles on the stand or find out what the current exchange rate is prior to establishing a Canadian price.
On all your correspondence and advertising, make sure you get everything typeset. Hand written ads flash a warning sign to all retailers that the comic itself is likely to be of low quality. On your comic itself, make sure you have someone proofread it. All comic companies have some mistakes that go through even when they think most are caught. Try to make your comic book look as professional as possible.In some cases however, the handwritten aspect is part of the appeal.
Original art can be any size but it should be proportional to 6-3/4 X 10. Most artists use a size of 10 X 15 or ll X 17. There are some suppliers who solicit their art paper with the catalogs or advertise in the Comic Buyer's Guide. The type of paper is mostly a matter of personal choice by the artist but quality will tell in how well the work reproduces or holds ink.
Having a printer cut in half tones (b&w shots of color work) or screens into your line work can be time consuming and may drive the printing cost up. It is best to do it yourself. If you have a lot of half tones to be cut into your art, get them all shot separately and then cut them into your line work. If using zip-a-tone, be sure you watch how you lay it over other zip. Because of the light refraction, you may get some bizarre and unexpected patterns.
Comic flats that printers use are in paginations of 8 or 16 so your comic should always be in increments of 8 (16, 24, 32, 40, 48, etc.). Some printers who use 16 page plates will charge you for the 16 plate even if you only use 8 of the pages so sometimes it will cost almost the same to print a 40 or 48 page book. The covers (inside and outside) are printed separately and are not part of your page count. Sometimes to save money, a publisher will print no additional cover and use the first page as the cover piece (called a self cover) but reproduction and quality are usually horrendous when doing this. It is best to run a separate cover.
A full color cover will have to be separated. Separation is the process where the colored art is put into negatives of the four colors; black, red, yellow, and blue. Some printers will cut in flat colors onto black and white art but if your art requires a lot of cut in colors, it may cost you the same as a separation. Separations run from $100-$200 depending on where you get them done. Most printers can handle the separation for you and then they will also cut in the logo, prices, and any additional type on the cover for a flat fee of around $125-$200. If you go with a full color cover that needs separations (which is probably 99% of the covers being done), the printers can use almost any type of art you give them. If it is a collage work or 3-D (sometimes called relief) or on a very stiff board, the printer may have to shoot a transparency first. This is an additional charge that can run up to $100.00. If on a stiff board, the printer can sometimes "peel" off the top layer which holds the art so it can be wrapped around a drum for separation. Don't forget that while you may want to do another color piece for the back to make the comic look even better, you're going to have to pop for another separation charge.
Logos and other cover type are usually sent along separate from the cover and just have to be in black and white. Most people typeset it but your printer can also do it for a small charge. You indicate to the printer what color you want them to be. Most printers have no trouble following the general guidelines of giving colors in percentage. For instance, the deep red color that is so popular is 100% red with 100% yellow. Note that 100% red is actually magenta which is vastly different from your typical red. Pick up a color guide book or see if your printer has a chart or other color processes that they use.
The most important thing in dealing with printers is to remember that they cannot read your mind. Also, although a comic may be a great labor of love to you, to the printers it is simply a production job that they want to fit into their schedule and get out whenever they can. It may consume your passion and time but to the printer, it is one job out of 100. Most printers who print small print runs have a great deal of other work and comics to them are low priority. If you expend too much of their energies, they may decide it isn't worth it. Always give them a full mock up copy, not only of the book but the cover as well. Remember that to the printer there is no "typical" comic book and sometimes your logic is not their logic. Spell everything out!
The following is a list of printers. You can call or write them to get prices, but generally for comics that print around 3,000, the price will be 30 cents each. 2,000 = 40-45 cents, and 1,000 copies will run 50-65 cents each. You will also have to pay for the separations, any additional camera work, and if you use the printer to ship your books, figure on another couple hundred dollars for that. So if you have orders for 1,600 copies and you print 2,000, here's a rough idea of what your cost would be at 40 cents each. Adding shipping ($150.00) and separations ($150.00) to the actual printing cost of $800.00 will give you a grand total of $1,100.00. If you sold 1,600 copies (cost to distributors at .875) then you have $1,400.00 in sales less the cost of printing for a profit of $300.00.
When you get your orders from the distributors, they will tell you exactly where to send the comics. If the orders are too low to specific warehouses (under 25 copies or so), it would be cheaper probably for you to ship them yourself to those warehouses. Check with your printer as they may have specific shipping arrangements with certain distributors.
- ASSOCIATED PRINTERS: 402 Hill Ave., Grafton, ND 58237, 701-352-0640: Printer of many independents, higher print minimums and very good quality.
- BRENNER PRINTING: 106 Braniff, San Antonio, TX 78216, 512-349-4024: Printer of majority of independents, good prices.
- PRENEY PRINT & LITHO: 2714 Dougall Ave., Windsor, Ontario, Canada N9E lR9: Printer of Cerebus and most Caliber books.
When you have your material for your comic basically done, then you are ready to solicit the title to the distributors. A list of distributors is included on this form and you send all of them the same information. The basic information should consist of cover price, number of pages, whether it is for mature audiences or not, how many issues are planned, black and white or color, creators involved, the exact title of the comic and issue number, and of course a general description of the title which should be able to fit in one paragraph. You should also have your company name if different, an address where they can contact you as well as a phone number. If you have access to a fax, include that as well.
You must also let the distributors know what you are selling the book to them at. The general rule is that a publisher will give the distributor a 60- 65% discount off cover price. Therefore if you have a 65% discount, the distributor will pay .875 for each copy they order. They in turn will offer it to their retailers at a discount of 30.55% depending on how much the retailer orders overall. So the retailer makes a profit of 30.55%, the distributor makes a profit of 10-35% and you as publisher make a profit of 35% which has to go to the talent, the production, advertising, and of course, the printing of the comic. Remember though, that as the "front man", the retailer is taking the largest chance because he is the only one that has no idea of how many copies he should sell. The distributor will usually make the lower end as most of the accounts that carry smaller press are larger stores who will get the top discount of 50-55%. A store has to sell at least half of their order just to break even on the titl and if they discount the number can jump up to selling 75% of their order to break even.
It is not only suggested but also required by some distributors to send a full mock up of the entire comic. This should be either comic sized or letter size but don't send original art size if bigger than that. At the very least you should include some art examples especially the cover. Do not send originals or color. A black and white stat or halftone in a size 2 X 3 or proportional to that size is recommended
STARTING THE PROCESS
Okay, you have the printer lined up, the comic is finished, you have all your information for the distributors ready to go. What now?
It is important to note that you have to work far in advance. It takes time for the distributors to get all the information together into their catalogs, send them out to retailers, receive them back from the retailers, and then compile all of the numbers, and then issue a purchase order to you. Here is a rough schedule for a comic that you want released in August. Add accordingly for any other month you want to figure out but most of the larger distributors will send you an itemized list. Again, this is for a comic you want to release in August.
April 25 -- Send all the information, mock up, discount structure, etc. to distributors.
- DISTRIBUTORS: (Fangirl notes: I don't know how up-to-date this list is, if you know, please email me.
- ACTION DIRECT: 114 A. Bldg., Kansas City, KS 66115: (200 flyers)
- ANDROMEDA PUBLICATION: 2113 Dundas St., oronto, Ontario, Canada, M6R lX: (200 flyers)
- CIB: 2040 B Steel Pr., Tucker, GA 30084: (200 flyers)
- COMICS HAWAII: 4420 Lawehana #3, Honolulu HI 96818: (50 flyers)
- COMICS UNLIMITED: 101 Ellis, Staten Island, NY 10307: (500 flyers)
- DIAMOND COMICS: 1720 Belmont-Bay F, Baltimore, MD 21207: (4000 flyers)
- MULTI-BOOKS PERIODICALS: 4380-17 S. Service Dr., Burlington, Ontario, Canada, L7L 5Y6: (150 flyers)
- ROBIN HOOD DISTRIBUTION: 1283 Cottonwood Cres., Oakville, Ontario, Canada, L6M 2W7: (100 flyers)
- STYX INTERNATIONAL: 10-62 Scurfield Blvd., Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, R3Y lM5: (200 flyers)
Do NOT send flyers at time of solicitations. Contact distributor first as many have the flyers sent to a different warehouse.
May 10 -- Solicitation flyers due to distributors (see under advertising for more information).
June 1 -- Retailers receive catalogs from distributors.
June 20 -- Retailers return their catalogs and orders to distributors.
July 15 -- Distributors send out purchase orders to publishers.
As you can see, orders don't come in for a comic until about two weeks before the comic is due to ship . . . and those are the early ones. Some distributors don't get their orders in until the same month that the book is shipping. Since the smaller press printers take 4-8 weeks to print, it is very hard for small publishers to get their books out in the exact month. Distributors do realize that there are bound to be problems and they will reluctantly allow books to ship later. Usually, if it is the following month, it isn't that big of a deal. However, if it gets too late, they will only take the comic on a returnable basis or not at all.
Everyone wants to advertise and it's hard to argue that it will not help your comic. But conversely, it may not help as much as you might think. If you have a comic that is sure to appeal to a lot of people, advertising will let them be aware of it. If you have a comic that only has limited appeal, no amount spent on advertising will help. I know of titles that have dropped thousands of advertising dollars and only pull in orders of 2,000 copies. Other titles get no advertising and still pull in orders of 10,000 or more. Advertising is a helping aid not a guarantee. At the bare minimum, you should send out solicitation flyers to the distributors. Each distributor will then send one to each retailer who receives a catalog from them. Right now, publishers have to provide about 10,000 flyers to the distributors. See the list of distributors for how many each one gets. Flyers should be roughly letter size. With the exception of Diamond Comic Distributors the distributors will pass out your flyers for free as part of the solicitation process. Diamond currently charges $150.00 for each flyer they pass out. So if you have two flyers for two different titles, you'll be charged $300.00.
One avenue that is available to all publishers is to advertise in the catalogs of the distributors. This can be very effective as retailers will be looking at your ad as they are getting ready to order your title. Diamond Comics Distributor is the largest so I'll use them as an example. A full page ad (I believe they only take full page ads) costs about $800.00 and has to be camera ready. Now if you have a comic that you're selling wholesale for 87 cents and you deduct a print/shipping cost of 45 cents, the cleared profit on your comic is 42 cents. To cover the cost of that Diamond ad alone is 1905 copies. If you think that by advertising that comic you will generate extra sales of 1905 copies, then go for it. Other distributors do charge less but your return is less as they are not as large as Diamond. Your solicitations flyers will run about 4 cents each if you run only one side, so at 10,000 copies, that's $400.00. Add on the $150.00 for Diamond plus about $20.00 for shipping the flyers and your total cost for the flyers will be about $570.00. That means after deducting the cost of printing/shipping/separations and such, you have to sell 1357 copies just to cover the bare minimum.
Other sources for advertising are available as well. Many magazines take advertising and their rates range from $180.00 (Comics Journal, Arena) to over $1.000.00 for a full page ad. But gear your advertising for the audience who follows the different periodicals. You probably shouldn't send a superhero title ad to the Comics Journal. Make sure you have an idea of when those issues will ship. Some people follow the philosophy that you should advertise right before the title comes out as it will generate interest. This may be true but if it does work, it may mean a good sell through for retailers, but they had ordered your comic a couple of months ago. Now they will have to re-order the title to get additional copies and in the distribution system as it is currently set up, this seems to be one of the weakest service areas. Also, did you print enough to cover re-orders? If not, you may have to go back to print. But if you go back to print, you can not send out second printings in lieu of first printings, you must solicit the title all over again as a new title (second printing).
Most feel the best time to advertise is when the retailers are ordering the comic. You must sell to the retailers first!
SOME HARSH REALITIES
- There are a reportedly 5-7,000 comic stores in the country (including Canada). Of those, only 800-1,500 will probably even consider carrying a small press independent. Of those, 300-400 will probably account for 80- 90% of your orders. If you know who those stores are, target them specifically!
- Each month there are 500-600 titles offered to retailers. Marvel, DC, Valiant, Image, and Dark Horse account for about 200 titles. That means you are competing with another 300-400 comics every month, but retailers only spend 15-20% of their money on the smaller publishers, which include Disney, Topps, non-Image Malibu, Innovation, Caliber, Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink, Millenium, Archie, Harvey, Tundra [not anymore -- Glenn], Eclipse, Comico. Viz, Revolutionary, Personality, and over 100 other publishers. That's a lot of scrambling for that 15-20%!
- Distributors and the fan press will not give you a lot of attention until you prove that you will come out on a consistent basis with a good comic. You may ask how can you do that if they don't support you in the first place? I suggest you take a look at Joseph Heller's "Catch-22". Remember that of those small comics offered each month. sometimes up to 100 of them never, ever come out. No one is going to spend any energy on "maybe's."
- It may seem worthwhile to offer your comics directly to stores. However, many of the distributors will not carry your title if you do that. They usually have no problem with re-orders, but on the initial solicitations, they frown on it greatly.
- Remember that in addition to soliciting your title, you have other office time involved in invoicing your comic, arranging for re-orders, dealing with shortages and damaged shipments, fulfilling mail orders (if you take them), filing the copyright papers, shipping, etc.
- Re-orders for most of the larger publishers in the small press range have very little re-orders so don't count on getting a great deal. Not to say it doesn't happen, but it's rare. Watch your over-printing. That's how most independent publishers go out of business -- by over-estimating the demand for their comic.
The above information is not intended to scare you or intimidate you, but if you know the situations you could possibly get into, it is to your advantage. It's a very tough business and you have to go in with your eyes open and aware of the pitfalls. I hope that this form gives you valuable information so you know how to approach the business without wasting your energies. Your primary purposes in publishing should be to get out your comic; not generating a large amount of money. It may happen but if you go in not expecting it, you won't be disappointed. Many people have launched successful books and are doing well with their books, so it is not impossible . . . difficult maybe, but not unheard of.
Most publishers get hundreds of submissions a month from new people trying to break 'in and new companies are trying to form almost daily. Self publishing will guarantee you total control in presentation, printing, and promotion. But it has to be satisfying in its own end to you if you want to do it. I truly wish you the very best of luck.
Thanks to Gary Reed, Publisher, Caliber Press for this guide.
Inquiries by mail ONLY: Gary Reed, Caliber Press, 621-B South Main St. Plymouth, Michigan 48170
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