Over the years, I’ve met many people who want to make comic books. Most are well-meaning fanboys who love the medium that runs so deep they feel obligated to participate by creating some small part of it. Unfortunately, most of these naïve waifs burn a lot of money and waste a lot of paper and time.
Saddle up because today I’m gonna tell you the Rules of Being a Comic Book Publisher.
Christian Beranek and I did a webcomic comic called Comic Book Mafia. It’s a satire on the comic book industry; you can read it here. Still, the big takeaway for this article is that comic book publishers were divided into two camps: The ones that acted like gangsters and the ones that acted like degenerate gamblers. This satirization was not wholly untrue.
We knew some publishers that acted like gangsters. Insanely dishonest, they would get artists to work on books, publish them and then stiff them on the proceeds. One publisher, in particular, drove a car worth $50K but owed dozens of artists for their work, and he eventually declared bankruptcy to avoid paying anything.
The other extreme is what we call in the comic a degenerate comic book publisher. This publisher kept putting out comics even though he was losing money. Eventually, when the money ran out, his entire company would collapse, leaving some creators paid, others frustrated, fans confused, and legal entanglements that lasted for years.
Obviously, these are two exaggerated extremes. You want to be somewhere in the middle: Enough of a businessman to do what is necessary, but with enough heart to do what is right.
Publish With You Head First and Heart Second
Publishing with your heart will lead you to become a degenerate comic book publisher. Sadly, this is the most common failed comic book publisher I have seen at cons over the years. Enthusiastic initially, desperate after a second issue, and then crushed as the money runs dry.
If you’re going to publish comic books, you need a business plan, even if you have little money or big plans. And yes, the plan has to revolve around making money. This is the metric by which you measure success and how you survive, even if this is just a side hobby or a side hustle. It can be a loss leader providing other benefits, but you cannot know what’s happening without keeping track of the money.
Publishing Within Your Means
Look at your finances and what capital you can pull together to determine what you can sustainably publish. Over the years, many people I’ve met would launch ambitious superhero lines with plans of 37-issue story arcs and dozens of characters, all with crazy powers and names you had never heard of. It’s pretty frustrating when the whole thing falls apart on issue three, and you never finish.
Marvel and DC have been around for decades and have millions of dollars; you probably don’t. (If you do, call me!) It is a comic book publishing suicide to attempt to compete with these entities right out of the gate directly. You would literally need millions of dollars, an office building, a staff, freelancers—
What most of you have are a couple of grand to throw at this thing, maybe slightly more. You’ll need most of that for printing and promotion, so an open-ended commitment to even one ongoing, monthly superhero comic book is foolish. Publishing within your means is publishing one book, probably a graphic novel, with one story complete. If things snowball positively, you can always make more. Even if you’re so tight, you can only publish one issue; make it self-contained.
Social Media is Crucial
If you’re one of the Luddite holdouts that still won’t get on board with promoting via social media, you probably should stop reading the article. You’re screwed, and you’ll fail. Now more than ever, a social media presence is crucial to connect with your fans. It’s time-consuming and tedious, but the upshot is it’s primarily free promotion. In fact, if you stick with it, you can actually make some money. (I just hit 3000 subscribers on my YouTube Channel. Feel free to ask me questions directly. I love making videos.)
Videos: This is the most time-consuming, but if you can build an audience, it can pay off. Guys like Eric July and Raz0rfist turned their massive subscriber bases into paying customers through crowdfunding. YouTube is still the most well-known, but you can also do videos on sites like Rumble, Bitchute, and Odysee. Twitter and Facebook also do live streams, and Twitter may soon compete directly with YouTube. Some software you can download to make videos include OBS, which is free, and you can also use Streamyard in conjunction with other video channels.
If you don’t have much time to do videos, stay away from live streaming and do short, punchy videos about a topic you know and love. And I would not, under any circumstances, use TikTok. It’s owned by a Chinese company and is rumored to be highly intrusive on computers and phones where it is downloaded. (I also think the subscriber numbers are wildly inflated for the users to keep them on the platform, but I have no proof of this.)
Twitter: Under Elon, the site has dramatically improved, but I think that’s a low bar. It’s still annoying of full of randos with axes to grind, but if you keep your head above the fray and don’t get into arguments, it can be a great tool to promote. Twitter-like entities that do the same thing are Gab, Truth, and Parler. There are various communities to join, depending on the subject matter of your comic. Stay out of political discussions (unless you’re into that sort of thing), and it’s okay.
Facebook: I think it used to be great, but these days I perceive the reach as greatly limited unless you pay them. You can cut and paste whatever you post to Twitter; it doesn’t take long. Facebook-like alternatives include Minds and MeWe, which have smaller audiences but usually great engagement.
Other Sites: Instagram, which Facebook owns, is a picture-driven platform that gets slightly more engagement, in my view. You can always throw up an art piece and a link. Reddit used to get me a ton of hits, but I think the site is past its prime. It’s probably suitable for one or two announcement posts if you have the time, but I wouldn’t go out of my way unless your comic is very niche. I post in the South Jersey subreddit for The Pineys and get a decent response.
Your Website: It’s good to have a home base if, for nothing else, to have a spot for fans to visit when they are interested in you and your comic. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but if you want to go bare bones, you can create a LinkTree with all your social media sites.
Overall: Positive engagement is what you’re after on social media. Spread the word and try to stay away from the drama. Yes, drama can get you more attention, but it can also get you negative attention. Avoid the drama unless you’re mentally prepared for the rollercoaster ride of Internet fame. Social media platforms give you the ability to block and mute people. As always on the Internet, don’t feed the trolls.
Dealing With Talent
In my columns about Collaboration and Money, I discussed this, so you must prepare to deal with other people unless you’re a one-person operation. If you can write and draw a comic all by yourself, that’s the ideal staff, and it does work. Ethan Van Sciver is a one-man CyberFrog machine!
The bottom line with dealing with talent, you have to pay them or make compromises to appease them. You might share ownership of the comic, but you must also prepare for the day when you part ways. Figure that stuff out before you start making the comic. Have a contract written in straightforward, plain English that you both understand. If you’re lucky enough to have a lawyer friend or are one yourself, do your best to keep it straightforward and legal. And hey, if you do part ways, no law says you can’t work together again. Just figure out who retains the rights of the project and how you’ll split whatever proceeds and inventory are left. (Unless, of course, you paid them, in which case, that’s it.)
Being professional as a comic book publisher is doing all the boring business stuff most creatives want to avoid. You have to keep track of the following:
1: Your Costs: All the money that you spend that you intend to reimburse yourself and/or your company. This includes art supplies, printing, shipping costs, and promotion. If you’re paying talent, you need to keep track. You also should pay talent as you go. As you get pages, pay promptly but not before. You always want something to hold over talent so they complete the work.
2: Your Gross and Net Profits: Gross profits are just the money you bring in, and the Net profit is the money you make after the project pays for itself. Use something like an Excel spreadsheet.
3: Your Inventory: Once you do a print run, you should have several hundred or several thousand extra books to sell at conventions. Keep track of it so you know when you reprint. You might also be able to write off some of the excess inventory for tax purposes, especially if you end up giving it away to get rid of it. Consult an accountant for the rules as they frequently change. Also, consider discounting the books after a certain amount of time has passed or moving the product in bulk. (For instance, if you had a four-issue run that costs $3 per book, you could discount the run for $10 if the price point still makes you profit.)
4: The Talent: You need their contact info and copies of their signed contracts, and you need to pay them royalties if that’s what you promised them. Organize this stuff so you have it ready when you need it.
5: Storage: You’ll need someplace to hold the inventory and the contracts. Usually, this isn’t a big deal if you have a house or apartment, and it depends on how many you decide to print. You’ll also need to store the signage and table promotion gear you will use at conventions.
Communication and Transparency
As the publisher, you are the captain of the ship. If you have a crew, you must ensure they’re current on what’s happening. I send out Quarterly reports along with royalty payments for The Webcomic Factory. (That’s every three months.) If there’s very little money, you might wait longer; if there’s a lot, you might do it sooner.
No matter how you do it, you must inform the rest of the crew what’s happening. If you’re the publisher, you must contact your talent regularly and tell them what’s happening. You will also want to inform them of any promotional events you expect them to attend. Once you establish a pattern of contact, stick to that. Businesses run on predictability.
Attending Promotion Events
If you’re dealing with talent, taking them to promotional events can be mutually beneficial, but ensure they know what you will and will not pay for. In my publishing days, the best I could do was buy the artists lunch. They appreciated it, and it made a good impression. (Everyone likes food.)
Remember, the first time you deal with talent sets the tone. If you pay for their travel and/or hotel, they will expect it every time. Since most of you don’t have that kind of money, do what I do: “I can’t pay for anything but your lunch, but if you want to come to Awesome Con, let me know by Thursday, and maybe we can carpool.”
If the talent decides to come, plan out what will happen. Artists might expect a prime spot at the table to sell artwork from not only your book but others. They also might want to do commissions or talk to the fans endlessly. Lay out the course of action, “Our primary goal is to sell the comic. If you want to sell some art on top of that, it’s fine, but let’s make sure we pitch the comic to anyone that comes to the table first.”
If you’ve hired a writer (first of all, bless you), make sure he knows his role at the table. He might have other comics, too, that he wants to sell. If you’re okay with that, go ahead, but if you’re not— Outline the plan before anyone agrees to go with you. You want to avoid traveling to the comic-con and arguing over what will happen at the table. Instead, make it clear that you’re the publisher and will make those decisions. If anyone balks while you’re discussing this ahead of time, don’t bring them. (Perhaps suggest they call the comic-con and arrange their own table next to yours.)
Being the Face
As the publisher, you are the face of your comic book company. As Stan Lee spoke for Marvel, you talk for your company, whatever it is. Whether you publish just one book that you drew and wrote or if you publish many that you financed— You speak for the company. You set the tone that anyone that works with you should also emulate. Here are some basics:
1: Dress Well: Artists can look a little crazy. That’s expected. Publishers should, at minimum, dress business casual. Look successful, and you will be successful, as they say.
2: Speak Well: You have to articulate your publishing company’s vision and all its products and talent. You NEVER say anything negative about your product or the talent. Ever. Even if your artist is a complete jerk that just punched you in the face five minutes before your interview, never air out dirty laundry in public. Even if your talent makes the mistake of speaking ill of you, take them to the side and tell them privately not to slam you in the media.
3: Stay on Topic: You’re there to promote the comic. However, podcasters and reporters have their own ideas. It’s fine to answer questions about your favorite comics and whatnot, but always remember why you’re doing an interview: to promote your comic. Stay away from politics and controversy (again, unless you like that stuff and can handle the backlash), and keep pitching your comic to the audience. Don’t give away the entire story, of course, but keep teasing it. If you find you don’t have much to say, feel free to end the interview early. Once you get good interviews, you’ll know to promote at the beginning and end of an interview. If your talent is with you, you can always let them talk about their creative process. They, too, should be well briefed in whatever you’re doing. Speaking of which…
4: Prepare Your Talent/Staff: Talent and Staff that work for your publishing company should be aware of how you do things and how you present. At the very least, give them the basics: What the comic is about, your vision, and the publishing company. If you bring on spouses and friends to help you, make it clear that this isn’t a joke. You don’t want one of your knucklehead friends telling an inappropriate story about you for laughs on a podcast.
Additionally, clarify that everything about the company and the comics you publish goes through you. Talent and staff are not authorized to make deals with other publishers or promoters. It doesn’t mean they can’t bring you an opportunity, but you ultimately have a say on whether or not it goes forward.
5: Lead: You’re the captain; act like it. You make the decisions and tell people what to do. “Hey, Frank, why don’t you go get lunch and Marcy will watch the table for a while.” or “Carlos, take a break and walk around the comic-con; I’ll watch the table.”
Have a plan to do all those things I told you about in previous columns. Remember, you go to events to sell comics and possibly parlay that into better publishing deals. You do not represent your talent as an agent, but you will likely get inquiries on their behalf. While it’s nice to pass on these opportunities to your talent, understand that you might be setting in motion what causes them to leave you for more money and/or prestige. Happens all the time in comics, so you might as well get credit for being nice about it. (This is why you need a plan to part ways on friendly terms.)
Additionally, if you want to avoid doing interviews, arrange for your talent to be interviewed. It might be a better choice if you’re not great in front of the camera and your talent loves the spotlight.
Transitioning into Full Time Work
If you’re lucky enough that the comic brings in enough money to pay everyone’s bills, the transition should be relatively painless because you’re keeping track of everything. The main worry is that you need to pay your taxes, but you might also be subject to state-level taxes, payroll taxes, and other rules depending on the number of employees and/or freelancers you employ. At the end of the day, it’s all about money. You don’t need to worry about it unless you bring in thousands of dollars. You need to pay the taxes on the money you make.
If you reach this level of success, congrats! You want to sit down with an accountant and/or business professional and outline the best course of action for your small business. It’ll be a headache and boring, but it’s a good problem to have if you’re paying your bills just by selling your comics.
What Publishers Pay For
Typically, publishers will pay for the printing and promotion. If they can, they will also pay the talent. One of the things you need to do is pay for a really nice logo if you can’t make on yourself. Basically, anything connected to the comic is going to be your expense.
What Publishers Don’t Pay For
You’re not obligated to pay for anything talent-related you didn’t promise. I always told my artist I would reimburse them for some art supplies depending on the circumstance. Most of them considered it an expense they would absorb since they used their supplies on a variety of projects, and they could write it off on their own taxes anyway. Also, don’t pay for reviews; it’s tacky, and reviewers that take money rarely, if ever, have any decent audience to spread the word about your comics.
Crowdfunding is an excellent avenue for today’s creators, but it has its pitfalls. In the old days, an artist would draw a cover, solicit in Previews and then only draw the comic if there were enough orders. These days, publishers post comics and rewards on crowdfunding sites to raise money and then go to print if they achieve their goals. Using sites that allow you to publish if you fall short of the goal is preferable since it gives you the option to finish the project regardless of the amount of funding you’ve received.
There are video tutorials on the crowdfunding sites, so watch them. As the publisher, this is all you. You have to learn it because you’ll either coordinate with the talent to make the necessary promotional materials or make them yourself.
You must, however, budget well. That means you have to know what this project is going to cost to make, print, and ship. That’s all your costs, including the extra rewards and what it costs to ship them. Shipping is usually the pitfall here, and it can get very messy if you ship everything worldwide (as I did). I nearly got creamed on postage costs to Russia for one fan. Remember to factor in shipping out of the country or don’t offer shipping outside a specific area.
The Pros: Crowdfunding forces you to do all the critical budgeting and money stuff upfront, so you’ll be ready to go if your funding goals are reached. Additionally, everything is paid for, and since you’re going to budget some extra inventory so you can sell it at conventions, this means you’re going to make 100% profit on all those additional books.
The Cons: If you don’t meet your goals, the project never happens, or you’ll be forced to kick in the shortfall. If you budget too much, this can cause fans to balk at your project. If you budget too little, you might have to put up money you didn’t expect to spend to finish. This is why it’s essential to get reasonable estimates from reliable printers.
Picking a Printer
I’ve used local printers and ones in foreign countries; ultimately, it’s all about the cost of the print job and the shipping costs to you. You’ll have to make some phone calls and send some emails, but here are a few hot tips.
- Find a printer that’s printed a comic book before. Printers inexperienced in the comic book medium sometimes don’t understand that fans expect the best look for the least amount of money. You might get a great deal with the guy who prints shopping circulars, but if your colors and lines come out all muddled and poorly cut— Your fans will be howling for your blood.
- Try to find a local printer: If you’re lucky enough to find a printer you can drive to, you’ll save a bundle on shipping.
- Foreign Printers and Port Cities: If you or a friend lives in a major port city your printer will ship to, you can save money by picking up your comics at customs or having your friend pick them up and send them to you. You may have to pay some customs fees for this.
- Check Out Their Samples: Experienced comic book printers will have a sample pack of previous comics they’ll use to show you their work. Check them out.
- Get Estimates: Printers are happy to give you a price estimate on your job because they want your business. Make sure you get a price for the job and the shipping.
- Ask Fellow Creators: Surely you know SOME people in this business. It never hurts to ask them who they use and/or recommend.
- Compare: Once you have the prices, compare that and the quality and make the call.
Printers to Avoid: Besides the ones that have never printed a comic, you want to avoid printers with shady reps. They exist, and they sometimes demand money upfront because they still need to publish the last customer’s comics. They’ll use your money to print that, then turn around and say that you’ll need to find them another customer so they can publish your comic.
I nearly got jammed up with a printer like this, but fortunately, I used a credit card to pay for the work. Credit cards often have insurance, so if you don’t get what you paid for, you can sic the credit card company on the printer. I can’t go into the complicated details, but I was fortunate that I got right with my printer, partly due to the pressure of my credit card company.
This doesn’t mean you won’t have to pay the printer upfront; you usually have to do that. But if you use a credit card, there has to be an acknowledgment of receipt of the goods. Call the printer first to see what happens if you don’t get your comics. Eventually, if you determine they’re not coming, call your credit card company and tell them you have yet to receive the service you were promised.
Check the Print Run: You actually have to see the print run to know that it’s good. Printers will send you a proof for approval (sometimes it’s electronic proof to save money; otherwise, there may be an additional fee). Either way, when you get the comics, don’t just check the top one on the first box; check a lot of them in different boxes. Sometimes something goes wrong mid-way through the print run, and you might find a few dozen or a few hundred misprinted comics.
If this happens, take them out and go through the entire print run. Fill your orders with the good comics and call your printer about the misprinted ones. Hopefully, you have enough to fulfill your existing orders; if you don’t, that’s a problem, and you have to get the printer to address the issue. You may get a partial refund, or the print may be able to fire up the press again to do a short run. Depends on the situation, but be prepared to deal with it. If your printer won’t make you whole on the print run you paid for, call your credit card company and demand that they get you at least a partial refund.
Being the Boss
As the publisher, you’re the boss, and being the boss sucks. That’s why the boss gets paid all or most of the money. He does a lot of work and coordination, and often everyone from the fans to the talent to the printers— They’ll complain about you. It’s a thankless job but a necessary one if you want to publish your own comic book.
If you want to be everyone’s friend, being a boss or a comic book publisher is not the way to do it. If you want to make good comic books and contribute to a great medium, just like any hero— You must go on a journey. This journey will be filled with trials, tribulations, and sacrifice, but if you come out at the end with a great comic book, it’ll all be worth it.
Until next time, fanboys. See you at the con.
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