Indie Comics Ain’t Easy


Back in December, I posted an article titled “Hey Indie Comics! Get Over It!” which was sort of a joke, but also a legitimate comment on the idea that the only thing stopping a comic from being successful is how good it is, and how hard the creators or publishers work at promoting it. Make no mistake, it’s a tough market out there, but that doesn’t mean that with the right amount of perservence and the right book, you can’t be successful. Eager to follow up on the article, I wanted to ask some different indie creators about the kinds of things they did to get their material read after they’d finished actually making the thing. They come from all over the Indie Comics spectrum, but they all put in the effort.


There’s a lot here, but I wanted to make sure these guys had their say, so people can understand what it’s like for a lot of indie creators, and how hard it can be. But it’s also rewarding, otherwise people wouldn’t bother in the first place. The rewards might differ. For some, it’s just getting their story out there. For some, it’s a step in making a career of it. For others, it’s just holding the thing in your hands.

First up, Alex Robinson, creator of Box Office Poison and Too Cool To Be Forgotten, of whom you’ve most likely heard, shared some of his experiences.

I have to do a lot less self-promotion these days than I did before Top Shelf did the Box Office Poison book–thankfully since I’ve managed to carve out a name for myself it’s a lot easier to get people to help me promote the book (reviews, interviews, video profiles on hugely popular websites, etc) –but it’s still a challenge.

Before that, when I was being published by Antarctic it was definitely an uphill climb. Most indie publishers have very little money to do any kind of promotion so you really have to work hard to stand out from the crowd. Conventions are a good way to do it, but of course without a big company footing the bills it all comes out of your pocket–the cost of the table, the hotel room, meals, excessive amounts of alcohol, etc. –so it’s pretty much impossible for the show to pay for itself. You just have to think of it as a way to advertise, rather than a way to actually make money.

I think more than the financial price is the frustration that can set in from not having your work recognized. Being at a convention trying to get people to buy your work is one of the most depressing experiences in the world. It combines the humiliation of working at a shitty retail job with the added bonus of personal rejection and without even the minimum wage pay. When you think about how most comics shops don’t even order anything aside from Marvel, DC, Image and maybe some Dark Horse titles it’s a grim prospect (I think I remember Chris Staros telling me that there are only about a hundred shops in America that order Top Shelf titles in any quantity).

And as I said, I was being published by a medium-sized small press company, so I didn’t even have to deal with stuff like printers, Diamond, etc.

Speaking of Diamond, it’s a big hurdle for small press publishers. Diamond has been very kind to me helping to promote my book as much as they have, but it’s clearly aimed at mainstream comics shops. The bigger publishers are all up front, complete with full page ads (which the companies pay for fair and square) while the indie books clamor for attention in the back, just before the section where you reorder slim-jims and candy. It must be daunting for a retailer who even wants to carry indie books–with so many different publishers and titles, how can anyone keep track of it all?

I’m actually not one to complain to much: perhaps because I chose to go into comics, a marginal industry, I’m not surprised to find I’m in the marginal section of that business. I’ve had some lucky breaks which helped my career at key points, so I can see how a less fortunate creator might not be as forgiving. It’s also interesting because at this point I think a lot of indie cartoonists aren’t as concerned about comics shops; with so little support they’ve set their eye on the real mainstream, bookstores. It seems like “indie” creators like Chris Ware and Alison Bechdel are the ones who are getting the attention of the real mainstream. As an indie creator myself I find that very satisfying and hopeful. Old school comics shops seem to be on the decline, so it’s a relief to know that indie comics have finally found an outlet to reach their audience.

***


Next up, I contacted Ryan Claytor, who does mini comics, self published by Elephant Eater Comics, whose autobiographical series And Then One Day has been going on for a long time.  I met Ryan in San Diego one year, and was literally struck by his friendliness, passion and zeal for his small handmade comics. I bought some of them, and never forgot that it felt like he was doing what you were supposed to at a convention when selling small press books.

You know, there are tons of avenues to persue when trying to promote one’s self-publishing venture, and it can be pretty overwhelming when it’s all mentioned at one time. But to all the self-publishing hopefuls out there, just go about it like my dad always tells me, and eat your metaphorical elephant one bite at a time.

When I published my first mini-comic or two, I started cold-calling individual retailers, because Diamond does not accept mini-comics. I’d introduce myself and tell each retailer about my product or two. (Tip: Prepare your speech or write it down before you call so you don’t freeze-up, and establish a website with some preview images you can direct them to.) From that point, the retailer and I would work out terms of sale if they were interested. Which retailers should one call? Well, start looking at independent-friendly retailer lists for starters. There’s one on the SPX website , or even go to other self-publishers websites, look at the stores that carry their stuff (obviously indie-friendly), and STEAL THEIR LIST! Here’s one for starters… MINE! Ha-ha!

Another promotional venture I enjoy is attending conventions to sell my books. Conventioneering tip #1: BE NICE TO EVERYONE! The retailers you set-up next to? You’ll see them again. The attendees who pass by your table? You’ll start to recognize their faces too. Some of them will even turn out to be retailers, fellow artists, or reviewers who can help put your product in front of more faces. How do you think I’m sitting here writing this to you?:) And don’t get offended if someone walks up to your table, reads through your entire book, sets it back down and leaves. At least you’ll have some name recognition with that reader. If you were nice and cordial to them, that person will be a lot more likely to pick up your work down the line than if they remember you being cold or unreceptive when they unfortunately had to decline the purchase of your wonderful book after taking out a loan to pay their grandmother’s hospital bills the night before.

Opportunities to promote one’s work are unending. The great thing about making comics is that the longer you do it, the more opportunities will present themselves. Reviewers will see your work and talk about it, occasionally they’ll offer to interview you, you can teach a workshop (after you’re confident with your process), and if there are not enough conventions for you to attend you can even start setting up book release parties or in-store signings by talking with retailers (in much the same manner that you did for selling your books). An extension of the in-store signing is the book tour, which is basically just a few in-store signings strung together in a close period of time.

***


Eric Williams is working on a project called Hastings with his partner, artist Will Perkins. They don’t have a publisher, and they’re not getting paid, and they might never, but they persist in making the book anyway.

Why do we do this? Will and I have asked each other, and ourselves that very question, almost daily. The comic book market, being as niche as it is, swallows unknown creators like us whole. What chance do we have in this market? Will spends 12 hours a day, pouring himself into projects that offer no page rate, no promise of production. There is nothing, but the story. While being a writer does allow more material to be produced, it also allows for more frustration if those stories and those characters remain unseen. The key for me, is telling a story that I feel is important and worth reading and if I can get that story out of me, then I feel as though I’ve accomplished something. Will and I struggle as most indie creators do in that we’re essentially working in a vacuum. In our projects, we must rely on each other to call bullshit on an idea gone wrong, and to do that, you have to trust each other. The great part about it is you draw out the strength in each other by continually pushing them to do their best work. For me, I write for myself first of course, by my audience is Will. If I can write something we’re both happy with, then it’s locked down. Otherwise, it is edited, and re-edited, and so on. More on the art side of things, Will has to contend with grabbing the attention of the reader, via the cover. It is common knowledge that a good portion of serial comic sales is based on a good cover. This fact has been exploited ever since the first issues hit the stands. A little intrigue and suggestive visuals lead you to expect anything and everything from a comic, only to get home open it up and realize there is nothing reminiscent between the pages. So do you serve yourself as a creator, or your creation through shrewd marketing tactics and transparent lies? Do you make a flashy cover that attracts the eye but does nothing for the final product? Do you write scenes that are controversial instead of serving the story? Where do you draw the line between the commercial product, and the reason you chose to make the product in the first place.

That stage complete, we have a submission ready, because really, it’s foolish to do more than 10 pages of a project on a purely speculative basis. That’s too much work for me to ask Will to do. I know that’s time I’m taking from him where he could be earning a living drawing for someone able to pay him a rate. Again, once the submission is ready, I go through my list of publishers, emailing a short note stating that I have a book to submit, if they would be willing to allow a digital submission. Most agree, and the submission goes out. Then, the toughest part, waiting.

Going with the assumption that the book will see print, the odds become tall again against a book like Hastings to succeed. We know this, and while it’s tough, it’s a battle worth taking, as I believe in the book as Will does. Our next challenge however is to find an audience for the book. We both know that publishers can’t do everything so to whom do we turn? You. We turn to the people of iFanboy, Around Comics, 11 O’clock Comics. We turn to everyone to spread the word. With printing numbers as low as they may be, any new reader is a blessing. With podcasts and forums such as these the one thing we ask, is for a chance. That’s all any indie creator can realistically ask for. A chance to allow us to tell you our story. A chance for us to impress and keep you wanting more. Overall, I love being an indie creator although being able to make a living off this would be nice as well.

***


Finally, I was contacted by Ken Marcus, who is working on a book for Ape Entertainment, called Superhuman Resources, which is available for pre-order now (pre-order is really important to indie comics).

Hey folks. I’m a first-time comic creator. In my brief time swimming in the indie publishing pool, I’ve learned a few things about the comic business. But the #1 thing I’ve learned?

The business owes me nothing.

It doesn’t owe me just because I’m a creator or I have an indie or because I really, really believe in the art form. Who gives a fuck? The comic business is just that, a business. Your idea either sells or it doesn’t. It either sucks or it doesn’t. This isn’t a charity.

Diamond, retailers and publishers are well within their right to deem your comic as tough to sell. Whether they’re wrong or right, it’s irrelevant. That’s their call. That’s the position they’ve earned. Are there other distribution routes? The web? Sure. Good luck with all that. But if you want your comic to be in comics stores across the country like I did? Well, you have only one option. Diamond.

And if you are lucky enough to get in Diamond, here’s the thing: the rest is up to you. Not your publisher. Not the press. Not retailers. You. That’s it. No one gives two shits about your book except you. And making other people give two shits rests solely on your shoulders. That’s another way to say “marketing.”

The reality is, your publisher will make very little money on your title. Even a low top 300 selling title (which you’re very lucky to make) will only sell 2300-ish. Sad, but true. Your publisher will make a few hundred bucks on your book all said. I’m generalizing, but I’m not far off. They have little incentive to spend gobs of time promoting your book. They won’t admit to it, but it’s reality.

Here’s a publisher’s job. Get you into Diamond and get you printed at a cheap rate. That’s it. Maybe they’ll help with an ad or two; or introduce you to some members of the press. Set up signings at con. Whatever. My point is you shouldn’t count on a lot of help from anybody. I’ve seen creators just put out good books, scratch their heads and wonder, “what the fuck happened?” when they get their order numbers.

Too many people think if you build it they will come. They won’t. Trust me. There are too many baseball diamonds in too many cornfields in that Previews catalogue. And most of them look better than yours.

I found this realization very freeing. It motivated and focused my efforts. I spent a lot more time and money promoting and marketing, than I did actually creating. You have one shot at this. It starts a few weeks before your #1 book is in Previews and continues through that month. Think of it as a movie opening. If you’re movie tanks that first weekend, you’re cooked. You’re finished. Sure, some titles build buzz over time. Become cult favorites, even if the initial orders are low. That’s all fine and dandy. But it’s not a marketing plan.

There are a lot of resources out there regarding marketing to retailers. I started to insert links but you know what? If you haven’t found them on your own yet, you’re in the wrong business anyway.

I sent mailers to retailers, posted on gobs of boards, contacted countless reviewers, podcasters and reporters. I won’t bore you with the details, but it never ends. It never ends. There’s always more you can be doing to get the word out.

And let’s say you do everything right. I think we did. We had SHR on every site you can possibly get on. Even then, you probably won’t sell more than 2000 copies of your first book as a first-timer. And you will probably lose money. God knows I will.

The bottom line? The comic business sucks for a first-timer. It sucks bad. And that’s the way it is. No huffing and puffing about how things should be will change that. Guess what? The music and the film businesses suck for first-timers too. That’s the nature of highly-competitive creative fields.

But knowing all of this and you still want to publish a comic anyway?

Well then, I highly recommend it.

Ken sums it up pretty well, and I feel exactly the same way.  Thanks everyone for your time and wisdom, and make sure you click on their sites, and check out their work!

Comments

  1. Dan Dan says:

    Great idea for a piece. Bravo.

    This kind of has to make you wonder what it was like for guys like Sim and Eastman/Laird trying to sell their books 30 years ago. Could you imagine those pitches? 

  2. ohcaroline ohcaroline says:

    Excellent piece.  I really appreciate your thoughts, and the creators’.

  3. sigridellis1 sigridellis1 says:

    This is really great, thank you!

  4. rayclark rayclark says:

    awesome piece. some of these look really intresting

  5. I’m so happy you included Ryan’s work.  Beyond how cool his stuff is, he’s an all around great guy

  6. pdxcomicgeek pdxcomicgeek says:

    Fantastic piece. As an aspiring publisher, I appreciate the frank discussion. In this realm, I’ve begun a four-part interview series with retailers, asking (among other things) for their advice on how independents can get their attention. You can find it here: http://pdxcomicgeek.com/?page_id=320. Cheers!

  7. daccampo daccampo says:

    Excellent article, Josh. It’s a nice dose of the reality of the "business" of comics, while still showing that it *can* work. It’s just hard work, like any worthwhile endeavor.

  8. Neb Neb says:

    I think Ken posted a preview of his work on the revision3 boards (or maybe I’m just crazy…).  If I recall, it was really good.  I’ll have to scope out these other guys.  Thanks Josh!

  9. coltrane68 coltrane68 says:

    Wow, Josh – You’ve been really prolific today. These creators seem quite human, which is great, since we comic fans seem to make comic creators into heroes without understanding their tribulations. And Ken Marcus sounds like a very cool guy.

  10. Animalvader1 Animalvader1 says:

    You guys need to look into Radical Publishing. They’ve put out some damn fine stuff so far! No open ended titles yet, everything they’ve put out have been 5 issue minis. Caliber was good; Hercules was very good, City of Dust has been awesome so far (writen by Steve Niles); and Shrapnel is off on a strong not as well.

  11. chlop chlop says:

    The idea of cover versus content is a nice one – indy comics suffer from the lack of funds and from my experience I had one comic of several pages in black and white and it was square and small and had a rough cover with a drawing that was pasted on – those kind of surprises might thwart people, especially since many indy comics are sold only via the mail.

    Also there is another comic book that has a nice cover but is really thin and the pages are cheap newspaper like pages and the drawing is black and white. The cover is so thin you can see the other side through it.

    Also some of the indy titles have a tough cover – like carton. The difference in size and type of cover and paper indy titles use is interesting. 

  12. ShockerToys says:

    Indie Comic have some of the best non-mainstream approaches and really bring flavor to the market. We love having a toyline based soley on Indie Comics. Check it oue below!

    http://www.shockertoys.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=2959&start=15

  13. Mangaman Mangaman says:

    @Animalvader: I agree with everything he just said. More importantly my LCS has decided to add all Radical titles into the Free List (unlimited as well) so ironically I left with their entire works. So far Shrapnel #1 made me go "AWH FUCK. I’M HOOKED" so now my wallet cries… but my eyes have smiles.