NOTE: This FAQ is still under construction! This page was initially developed in the '90s, so some of the information may seem a bit out of date, particularly the focus on mini-comics and zines. Nevertheless, the basic nuts and bolts for publishing a comic-book for the direct-sales market remains correct.
By e-mail and at comic-book conventions, I regularly receive questions about the steps for publishing a comic-book, so I thought I'd provide answers to some of the most often asked questions at a single convenient place that I could easily refer people to. For what it's worth, a Diamond employee thought this was a good overview.
I am surprised at the number of people who jump into self-publishing before they fully understand the process for producing, soliciting, and promoting a comic-book. It's certainly not rocket science, but as in any professional endeavor, it's important to do some basic research before forging ahead. Hopefully, some of the advice here, based on my own personal experience and observations, will be helpful to aspiring cartoonists and publishers.
The FAQ is organized as follows:
- Getting into print: Beginning with mini-comics and zines (or the web)
- What ARE mini-comics and zines?
- Publishing a full-size comic-book: A quick overview
- A detailed look at publishing a comic-book, including: Visit the Diamond Comics Distribution website | Contact Diamond Comics | Promotion and Advertising | The Solicitation Prrocess
Most people get into self-publishing before they are truly ready. That's partly because the start-up cost for comic-book publishing is relatively low. (As noted later, it's the promotional activities that can quickly ramp up costs.) Accessible and affordable desktop publishing technology, professional-quality photocopying services, and low print-run printers have significantly brought down the cost of producing good quality comics and publications. Nowadays, with just about $1000, anyone can print a limited-run comic-book.
The desire to see one's work in print is understandable. However, the primary goal for any aspring artist initially should be to develop his or her work. Printing a comic-book while you're still learning and growing frankly isn't very practical and, even at $1000, not cheap for your average starving cartoonist. If anything, producing amateurish and sub-professional work in a high quality format can even make comics work look worse.
Compared to when I started doing my own "home made comics" in the early and mid-1970s, which were passed around to my classmates in junior high school, there are so many outlets available today for getting your work seen by a relatively large audience without having to resort to printing a comic-book. The internet and affordable and accessible photocopying services like Kinko's have really opened a whole world of opportunities for aspiring cartoonists and publishers.
With the web, for example, you can simply post your work online and, BAM, you're published! Of course, if you want people to read your online comic strip, and to come back for more if your doing a continuing strip, you need to do some promotion and advertising.
Anyway, when people first began approaching me for advice, I always encouraged them to start by publishing mini-comics and zines. I myself began in this way with a comic zine called Adventure Strip Digest and found it very easy to become a "big fish in a little pond" -- within the "small press community*" (as it used to be called before the line started to blur between small press comics and independent comics). I gained attention for my work very quickly, and earned good reviews and awards. You also will get excellent feedback about your work; people in the small press tend to send letters about your work with a higher frequency than a regular mainstream audience.
(The small press* is a whole subset community within comics fandom that used to operate nearly independent of the mainstream. Back in the day, the small press community had its own news and review zines, and operated almost completely by mail. (They still do, but the advent of the Internet and the relatively low cost of producing small print runs of full-sized comics have transformed the small press, and blurred the line between small press and independent comic-book publishing. See footnote for more details.)
There are even coalitions of small press publishers -- I belonged, for example, to the United Fanzine Organization (UFO) and the Small Press Syndicate (SPS), which provided a systematic approach for sharing your zines and getting feedback. I made many good friends within this network, some of whom transitioned to the mainstream. I should add that the small press should not be simply seen as a stepping stone to the professional comics industry. Mini-comics and comic-book zines are a valid medium of expression of their own, and some great work is published in this format. (Matt Feazell's Cynicalman is one such example.) Remember, it's the expression of the idea that counts, not the medium of expression!
In any case, I also used to send my comic-book zine to publishers, comic-book pros, and the mainstream industry press like the CBG, Wizard, and the numerous review zines. As a result, I began to receive positive attention and reviews in the mainstream for my work, and eventually gave me the encouragement to eventually begin self-publishing.
By the way, the Internet is another new, cost-effective avenue for "publishing" your comics. I don't have as much experience in web-publishing, but no doubt you should take a similar approach to promote your work so that people are aware of it.
One final note: DO NOT EXPECT TO MAKE MONEY. Accept in very rare circumstances, the number of copies you can sell of your zine or mini-comic by mail and at conventions will never approach the amount you would make going through a distributor. But at least you can keep costs down with relatively small, cheap print runs. Any money you make back should be seen as gravy; at this stage, you should see zine publishing as an investment in your future, part of your learning experience, and a part of advance promotion and advertising. If you're serious about getting your work seen, it's very possible you'll be sending out more free copies of your zine or mini-comic than you will be selling!
* Footnote: For the purpose of this FAQ, "the small press" refers to mini-comics and zines, while "the independent press" refers to self-published and other similar independent full-sized comics. As mentioned above, today "the small press" generally is understood to encompass independent and self-published comic-books, as well as mini-comics/zine publishers, because the lines between the small press and independent comic-book publishing have blurred and overlapped so much over the past decade. It used to be impossible to find a printer that would print less than 3000 copies at a reasonable, affordable price; that threshold has dropped significantly over the past decade.
What ARE mini-comics and zines?
(Note: Web comics came into its own shortly after I had already become an active publisher, which is why this tutorial gives publishing and promoting mini-comics and zines a bit more emphasis over publishing on the web. Nevertheless, some of the principles for producing and promoting a mini-comic or zine can no doubt be applied to web comics as well; but if you want more details about web-publishing than I provide, you should do a little more exploring on the web.)
For a great primer on mini-comics and zines, visit John MacLeod's great Small Press FAQ.
A mini-comic or zine is generally a self-made comic-book that is "printed" using a photocopier (in the old days, before photocopying was so widespread and accessible, there were other options such as mimeograph machines). Most photocopiers found at commercial photocopying stores, such as Kinko's or Office Depot now offer high quality copies (meaning the solid blacks are truly black -- when I first started out, finding such a good quality copier took a lot of hit and miss!)
A mini-comic is generally a normal 8-1/2" x 11" piece of paper folded and cut into quarter-size, then cut and stapled so that you basically have a "mini-comic" booklet that measures 4-1/4" x 5-1/2".
A zine is generally a normal 8-1/2" x 11" piece of paper folded in half into a booklet, stapled of course down the middle. This size is also often used for "ashcan" comics, which generally is a smaller-sized preview issue of a mainstream comic-book. (At left is the cover to a zine I produced before moving to full-sized comic-books.)
Generally, the art is simply reduced down to the appropriate size, then cut-and-pasted onto master sheets that you can then photocopy and assemble in large quantities. Obviously, depending on how many copies you wish to make, how much work you want to do, and how much you want to spend, you can pay these commercial services to collate and staple your book, you can do full color or cardstock covers, etc. Personally, to save money, I use to simply photocopy, assemble, and staple all the comics myself (some people have pizza parties to have their friends help them if they are doing very large quantities). BTW, if you take this route, be sure to invest in a long-arm stapler!
I will add more details and information about producing mini-comics and zine in a future update to this FAQ, but such information undoubtly can be found from a wide variety of sources, including online.
Again, I am always surprised at how many people start publishing without doing basic research first. Here is a skeletal outline of the process and timeline:
Before I go into the details let me give you a quick, oversimplified overview of the process: the simple act of publishing a comic-book from start to finish is essentially a FOUR MONTH PROCESS. In the following timeline, the goal is to release a comic-book in January:
Solicit title to distributors (in which you make distributors aware of your intent to publish your title in January)
Solicitation for your title appears in distributors' catalogs for retailers to order
Retailers submit orders to the distributor, and distributors send the order totals to publisher
Based on the order numbers, publisher prints comic-books, ships them to distributor to ship to retailers, and sends invoices to distributor.
This, of course, is a gross simplification of the process, but these nevertheless are the basic steps in publishing a comic-book. Not included here, for example, is promotion and advertising. (You would do this well in advance of August in the example above--in fact, because of the time needed to properly promote and advertise the book, Diamond Comics' timeline is a SIX month process. More on this below.)
Now if you wish to publish a book on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, you can imagine how much more complicated the process would be. All of these steps would be staggered and you conceivably could be juggling 3 different issues at different stages of the process in a single month! (Which is why I have always aimed for a quarterly schedule!)
Okay, let's look at the comic-book publishing process in more detail:
Visit Diamond Comics Distribution and click on the link for Vendors on the front page (that's YOU the publisher). Through this link, you'll find nearly all the information you need to publish and distribute a comic-book. In addition to information for potential publishers, such as an outline of the process and timeline for publishing, promoting and distributing a comic book, you can download Diamond's solicitation schedule for the coming year and a Supplier Information Sheet. The solicitation schedule includes the date you need to provide the solicitation, submit different categories of ads if you purchase ad space in Diamond's Previews catalog, the date the catalog will be released, the dates orders will be received, etc., all based on the relase date of your title.
Like it or not, Diamond is pretty much the only remaining nationwide (and international) distributor in the U.S. For a variety of reasons, people are always looking for alternatives to Diamond but right now without them, you won't get wide distribution within the comic-book direct-sales market and, as a result, not sell many books.
When you make initial contact with Diamond, you will want to introduce yourself and, more importantly, your work. Ideally, you should have at least one complete issue to show to Diamond; very often, for a new publisher, Diamond may wish to see more than one issue to ensure that there's enough work ready for the pipeline.
Make as professional a presentation as possible to put yourself and your work in the best possible light, and to ensure Diamond will agree to carry your title.
I mentioned earlier how inexpensive it is, really, to simply print a comic-book. However, to be truly successful requires effective and EXTENSIVE promotion and advertising. If you add this to the mix, you'll easily spend double or triple the cost of simply printing your comic-book.
Measuring the effectiveness of promotion and advertising can be tricky, but it should be predicated on one simple question: Did it pay for itself? In other words, did the amount of money you spent on advertising and promotion generate sales that at least offset the cost of the ad? This can be a gray area because it may be difficult to ascertain how much of your sales were due to the ad. On the other hand, one thing will be obvious: if sales are very low, the ad was not cost effective or "successful."
But it's important to note a few things: a single ad probably won't be very successful; serial, repeated advertising will eventually get through the "din" of the glut of comics and related products that consumers and retailers are constantly being bombarded with.
This is why a prospective publisher should have as much capital up front as possible to be truly successful: it's not simply the cost of printing that will sink you, it's the cost of effectively advertising and promoting the product. Without it, many a title has sunk into obscurity.
In addition, my feeling is that your best "advertisement" is to publish as regularly, frequent, and on time as possible. At the end of the day, all your advertising and promotion will be a waste unless you have a constant presence in the market with new material . It could be MANY ISSUES before things could start to turn around. By then, you literally could be thousands of dollars in the hole. Which is why so many self-publishers disappear so quickly!
Advertising can take a wide variety of forms: ads in the major publications, such as the CBG, Wizard, Previews, a direct-mail campaign, convention appearances, etc., etc.