Self Publish or Perish- a “short” essay. (Or: 4,000 words about boxes and boxes of comic books)

Ah, yes. I’ve just made some more coffee, and sat down at my desk. I usually do a little “year in review” post on my blog, but I don’t use my blog much anymore. Tumblr is kind of the new blog, right? Does one even need a blog these days? I mean, really.

So here I am, wrapped in my poncho, wind howling outside. The space heater Cameron Stewart left in the studio when he moved to Berlin (thanks Cameron!) toasting my left side, and I’m popping cough drops like they were… well, cough drops… Trying in vain not to let that ruin the taste of the coffee I’ve just made. Well, I’m sitting here and I got to thinking: I’ve always meant to write a little something about self-publishing since I’ve been doing it for most of my life, but I never manage to finish one of these essays because they always end up being too long.

See what I mean? We’re two paragraphs in and I’ve already wasted my intro! Agh.

I’m going to focus on my experiences from 2011 to now, with my mini comics WOLVES, THE MIRE and DEMETER. I’m not going to be giving advice about how to get into self-publishing. You don’t get into it, it gets into you! Take away what you will from this, but don’t read it as a ‘how to’. After all, I’m still learning!

Let me sum up really quick: I started self-publishing back in 1999, photocopying my mini comics and handing them out to people at cons. It was low quality and on a very small scale, but it’s still valid and a great place to start. (I said I wasn’t going to give advice on how to get into self publishing, I guess I lied! My advice is keep it simple, cheap and small scale!) Since then I’ve done webcomics, digital printing, offset printing, limited and large print runs, hand numbered and signed editions… The short story “5” with Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba even *cough* won an Eisner in 2008 for Best Anthology, and our subsequent PIXU was collected into a nice hardcover from Dark Horse! *sigh* Good memories.

Ok, let’s get serious. If you have a copy of WOLVES, go ahead and open it up. Now take a deep breath- smells good, right? HAH. That’s the smell of desperation and insecurity! A lot of people ask, “Wow Becky, what made you want to self-publish in the first place?” The truth is I was desperate to tell my own stories, but too insecure to be able to follow through and get them published. I love working with writers, but I hadn’t written for myself in years, and WOLVES was basically an exercise in writing a short story. I had to prove it not just to other people, but mostly to myself that I could write something worthwhile, and be happy with it. I’ll leave the process stuff out of it since this is just about self-publishing. Let’s just say the process wasn’t pretty. Moving on…

Printing it wasn’t difficult. I knew what I wanted- a high quality product that transcends the disposability of a floppy comic. “Spared no expense,” as John Hammond always said. (And look where it got him, an island full of dinosaurs. I love it!) I was lucky to meet the guys at P&L Printing in Denver, CO- not only do they provide offset printing, but they do silk screening as well. They did a marvelous job, and I used them on the silk screened editions of all three books. They talk specs for my book DEMETER on their website! Here’s an excerpt: 

The cover is a 4 color screen print on Mohawk Carnival Blue 80# Cover. The guts of the book are offset printed in a one color black ink on 80# Lynx Text. The whole booklet is saddlestitched and trimmed to a finished 5.5×8.5 size with full bleeds on the cover and throughout the book.

I’m going to pause here for a minute because I’ve been assuming that you, Dear Reader, have some basic understanding of printing. I don’t want to lose you by being too esoteric, but I don’t want to spend time explaining things that can be googled: So for reference, here’s a good breakdown of offset printing vs digital printing in layman’s terms, in case you are thinking about printing a book yourself! That is a good place to start. 

Anyway! The idea was to create not just a comic, but a tactile reading experience. An object. Something that would make your friends jealous. I wanted people to pick it up at conventions and be surprised by the weight of it. I especially love when people feel up the covers! This mini comic had to be something larger than what it was- a 28 page black and white werewolf story. I wanted the print quality and production value to reflect the work I put into it, and the love I feel for the characters.

And you know, I think that really paid off! The silk screened covers especially, that was something that people constantly talk to me about. They’re even mentioned in a lot of the reviews! They weren’t cheap, but they sure did make an impression. To me, that was worth it. I don’t self-publish comics to make money, although they’ve become financially viable for me at this point. The money I make helps finance future print runs and pay for convention expenses. Right now it’s got to the point where the money I make from my mini comics also pays for my studio rent! This isn’t like money I can live off, but I can see clear growth in the last 3 years.

"Hold up, you said back there that you didn’t get into this to make money. Why do it then?!" That is an excellent question that I’m not sure I have the answer to. I’ve always enjoyed doing things myself, even if it means driving myself and everyone around me crazy. To be honest, the whole thing has grown a little out of control. It’s like my own personal Hydra, only I don’t want to kill it. And it’s huge and scaly and has seven heads!! Awesome. Yeah this shit is a monster, but it’s mine. And that’s why I do it.

I can’t say there is a specific advantage to doing it yourself vs. taking your book to a publisher like Image. My mini comics are hard to get ahold of, and more expensive than regular comics. It takes months to do and I don’t get an advance or a page rate. I have to figure out how to finance the printing, and learn how to put all this shit together, and then do a zillion conventions to sell them. It’s hard. It’s stressful. It’s confusing. It’s depressing and solitary. You’ll never have enough time, you’ll start obsessing over it. And to top it off, you’re almost guaranteed to lose money on the first print run. 

On the other hand, there is nothing like opening a box of your own comics for the first time, breathing in that first sweet breath of toner and paper, and whispering softly into the cardboard, “All of these books… ARE MINE!!" If you are a control freak than I guarantee* you will LOVE self-publishing. (*I actually don’t guarantee anything)

This whole thing has put me more in touch with readers, retailers, journalists and other creators. I’ve learned how to set books up for print, and learned about filthy things like “marketing” and “brand building.” I also know way more about setting books up, about design, pagination, page counts, etc. All this is good to know. Plus a lot of people have told me that they think my mini comics are inspiring, and that’s incredibly heartwarming to hear. Most of the time it feels like I’m still ferociously treading water in the dark, so it’s nice to see my efforts resonate with people. 

Where were we? Oh yeah. I printed WOLVES. Now how do I get it to people outside of comic conventions? A few friends recommended bigcartel.com for setting up an online store to take orders. I remember that really clearly, it was August 2011 and in the first 24 hours I had sold over 200 copies, and I freaked out. This was kind of way more than I expected to sell!

So I turned my living room into a processing plant; I printed out labels, packed everything up, and brought them to the post office myself. Sometimes I’d get friends involved to help out when shit got crazy. I learned all about prices, ordered fancy stamps… Oh man, the employees of my post office probably groaned every time I walked in. (By the way, Bigcartel is also awesome, and highly recommended if you want to start your own small online store! Really intuitive and easy.)

The following year (2012) I did THE MIRE. I decided to do another short story because I still wasn’t confident in my writing, and now I had some idea of what I was doing with the printing. This time though, instead of fronting the entire bill myself I decided to run pre-orders a few months in advance, and offered a sketch edition for I think 20 extra bucks. I ended up making the money for the entire print run in the first 2 days. That was incredible! Although now I had 500 sketches to do. Ha ha, OOPS.

I went back to the guys at P&L, who are awesome and do a great job, but had some technical difficulties (I love the fact that they are a small business, but being only a few guys means that technical difficulties can turn into a big problem) so the books were coming in late, and the shipments were staggered. This made a bunch of my orders late (Almost two years later and I still feel guilty about it!) so I had a lot of explaining to do. In the end I’m pretty sure most books got to where they were going, although I still have a couple of returned books to people I could never get ahold of…

Having two books got a little crazy. In a bad way. I was living in NYC at the time, and my studio space was too small to keep my books there- I had printed thousands and thousands of books. Each print run I did was at least 2,000.

Let’s pause to talk print runs for a minute:
I decided on this number because it was enough that the price per book wasn’t too expensive, and not so much that I couldn’t physically store them! My first print run of WOLVES was only 1,000, and I ran out in a month. If I printed a few thousand more I could have enough for conventions over the summer and fall and sell online without getting more books made for several months, but I was limited less by funds and more by the physical space I had available. Now that I have more space, when I printed DEMETER I made 5,000 copies, plus reprinting my other books means I printed about 10,000 books. See what a difference storage space makes? 

Back to 2012. You can imagine my old apartment in Brooklyn: comics in the closet, comics under the bed, comics in the kitchen, comics in the pantry, comics in the hallway— you couldn’t even use the hallway, it was full of boxes of comics! It was insane. I would dream about my floor collapsing. No joke, I had this dream several times.

Guys, this is not a way to live. It sounds funny, but it was out of control. Even my UPS guy would make fun of me. If I could do it all over again, I’d just suck it up and move to a bigger apartment, try to be more organized about all this shit. 

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The time it started taking out of my schedule was almost too much as well. One full day a week was spent filling orders, putting envelopes together, and mailing them out. I’d enlist my friends’ help carrying boxes to the post office. It got to be a bit much, and honestly I remember almost giving up a few times. Plus 500 sketch editions to draw in, ack! It got to the point where it was too big for me to handle alone, but not big enough to be able to hire someone to help.

However, this is when my books started making money. Not like, money I could see; everything immediately went back into envelopes, or postage, or another print run, or conventions… I sent out about 200 copies to friends, reviewers, other professionals just to get it into peoples hands. The time and money I was putting in was finally beginning to pay off, literally and figuratively. THE MIRE had a really positive response, and that was really encouraging.

I was also able to get it on iBookstore, Kindle and Nook through Graphicly. (Aside: I really liked what they were doing, I’m kind of bummed it fell to the wayside.) So that was my first experience going digital- more on that later.

This is the chapter when I left Brooklyn for sunny ice planet Montreal! I joined Studio Lounak- a great environment with a lot of other artists constantly in and out, and a huge amount of space. To name a few: Karl Kerschl (of Abominable Charles Christopher fame) sits right across from me, and Andy Belanger to my left- the whole studio itself is huge, and at any given point there is 9 or 10 people working there. This means there was enough space for all my boxes of COMICS AND COMICS AND COMICS. 

Not only that— Karl self publishes as well! And Andy had just printed his short story Black Church too, so we pooled our resources and hired Ryan Cadrette, our stalwart assistant. He came into the studio once a week to help us fill orders. We combined our shipping methods so that Karl and I both used Endicia to ship through the USPS- basically it’s a program that you can pre-pay and print your own postage. (Montreal is close to the US border so we drove down a few times a month to drop packages off at the post office. Mailings still took a while but at least we had help. And we talked often of combining our stores and streamlining the process even more. 

This leads us pretty swiftly into 2013. The year of DEMETER! :D My third and final installment of the trilogy. I figured a trilogy needed a third book (and now it’s looking like I might have a five book trilogy on my hands, so who knows?). Actually, DEMETER was the hardest to write of the three. I rewrote the script four times before I landed on one I liked. Anyway.

Remember when I said I’d get to digital comics? Well here we go:
John Roberts from ComiXology had been talking to me for a while about getting my mini comics up there, and I had always meant to, but you know how things go… Well it just never happened. So one day he calls me up like, “Becky we have this SUBMIT thing going on,” Submit, huh? At first I thought it was some light s/m thing, but he explained it clearly and it was just too serendipitous that I had DEMETER coming in a few months. The launch was in the middle of March, which was perfect timing for me. I got the book done (This one was a struggle too. The biggest struggle of them all!), and submitted it to… Submit… which segues me right into…

DIGITAL COMICS! Yay, I have no idea what I’m doing! Submit was perfect for me, I got to choose the prices of my books, and they held my hand through the whole process. Now I know how to buy ISBNs like a boss, and format digital books. They did some great promotion for DEMETER too, and really pushed the book as part of the Submit launch! I have nothing but praise for ComiXology.

Here are a few numbers: My print comics cost $5, but I price the digital comics at .99 cents. I’ve had a few discussions with people who think I’m underselling my books- especially because with ComiXology I’m only guaranteed 33 cents on every dollar if it’s bought through the Apple store. But 99 cents makes sense (see that?) because it makes the book more accessible. It’s an incentive for someone who is unfamiliar with my work to take a chance and hopefully be pleasantly surprised. There is no overhead for me, so it just seemed like, why not?  My Q2 sales from ComiXology submit were over 6,000, way more than I had expected from a few self published comics. I don’t know that I’d ever go all digital, I enjoy turning pages too much. (Sorry Dr. Spangler, print is not dead!) I also don’t think the perfect digital reader has been made yet- and aside from people who make comics specifically for the digital medium, print comics being formatted for digital consumption in particular have a long way to go yet.

Back to the printing! DEMETER saw a few changes in the way I’d been doing things. 1) The cost of the paper went up, and an extra color on the cover meant my price per book went up- so I raised the cost of the book to $10. And 2) I still wanted to keep a $5 price point available, so I decided to do a second entirely offset edition, printed locally in Montreal. This would keep my cost down low enough so I could still sell the book at $5, but also have the limited silk screen cover available on what has now become a collectable book. I love both editions equally, but there is something about the silk screened cover that is just so lush. Don’t make me choose.

I did the pre-orders again, and this time I had the foresight to limit the sketched editions to 50. (This still took a while, but it wasn’t so bad.) :D This allowed me to print the silk screened editions of DEMETER, and offset copies of all three books! But now I’ve got 10,000 books being made- what am I gonna do with them all?

Getting back to Karl Kerschl and Andy Belanger for a minute, we talked with some of the guys at our studio about setting up a distribution company, basically a store that would sell all of our books. Karl had just printed Charles Christopher v2, and it seemed like the right time to launch something.

We decided to launch two different websites: The Werehouse to sell directly to readers, and Lounak Distribution to sell to retailers at wholesale prices. This works out really well- and everything goes out through our studio so it’s all still happening here, and with Lounak taking a cut we are able to spend more time at our desks, and it works out for everyone. I know there are still some bugs to work out, and the distribution isn’t big enough to be anybody’s number one priority, but again it’s become viable, and a bunch of other creators have hopped on board. 

That’s where the lower priced offset editions came into play- because they cost me less to make, it was easier to wholesale them to stores. Keeping the print cost low has helped me keep a decent profit margin even when selling the books at wholesale prices. WIth a heavy heart I decided to phase out the silk-screened editions, and gradually replace them with the offset editions. It saves time and money, and also has now made the silk screened editions a little more rare.

Then THE MIRE won an Eisner award for Best Single Issue. That was huge, I was overwhelmed. I still am overwhelmed. Every time I look up and see that little spinning globe, it reminds me that I don’t need to practice anymore- that ok, take a deep breath: I can do this. 

To make a long story short… (Too late!)
Looking forward to 2014 is dizzying. There is so much I want to accomplish- First is a graphic novel that I’m slowly plugging away on for First Second (A book that I’m adapting and drawing! More on that in the months to come.). I’m also self-publishing a limited edition collection of Wolves, The Mire and Demeter. It’ll come with a sketch section and a bunch of extra illustrations. I’ll be printing only a limited quantity, and it will be available only through pre-order. I’ll put more information up about this in February.

My goal with this collection is to reach out more to retailers. I want to streamline the distribution websites we set up to run smoother, and hopefully get even more creators involved who, like myself, find the distribution side of self-publishing a little too much to handle. 

I’m taking the first half the year off from conventions. Every year I would launch my mini comics at TCAF in Toronto (my favorite convention!), so I’d like to continue the tradition with the collection. The Killjoys collection will be out around then as well, so I might try to hit a few stores to do some signings :) We’ll see!

Next year I’d also like to do some digital foreign language editions of my mini comics, and maybe even print a copy of the collection in French. I don’t know if I’ll do much more with digital comics beyond ComiXology, but I think they are a great platform for translated editions.

And a lot of people have asked, will I be doing more? The answer is decidedly YES. I have two more stories planned, both follow-ups to WOLVES, and a few other ideas that may or may not make it to paper. I’m unsure if I’ll print more mini comics, or if I’ll just unleash them upon the world in a huge omnibus in 2016. WHO KNOWS WHAT THE FUTURE MAY HOLD. (I do actually, I have even more plans. I’m just being mysterious.)

The big thing here is I’ve fallen in love with the short story format, and with my characters, and with self-publishing, and I want to continue to keep doing them, on one level or another, for as long as I have the energy, resources and inspiration to do so. In the last few years we’ve carved a little place out a little place for ourselves doing things we love, and the path to continue doing that is clearly laid out in front of me.

Ok guys, hope that wasn’t too horrible. Thank god the holidays are pretty much over, and we can get back to work. Oh, and happy New Year! 

Hugs and kisses, I love you forever.

_φ( ̄ー ̄ )

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