Today is part 2, the conclusion of Colleen Doran’s guest blog on remembering the Self-Publishing Movement. Before I start that though, I want to clear up a little confusion about when self-publishing began. I’ve a read a few comments here and on other blogs reminding us that self-publishing existed before us. Of course it did. In my introduction to this series, I mention both the early self-publishers and the small 80s independent companies (Pacific, Eclipse, Fantagraphics and more); all of whom broke ground in style, content and creators rights. To be honest, I don’t know where the name Self-Publishing Movement came from (maybe we’ll find out from a future guest blogger). But it refers to a distinct period of comics that began in 1993 and went roughly until 1996 or so. Still, having Sim, one of the first, along with Marder, and Veitch, two from the days of the first independents – - as well as members of the Creators Rights Summit in the late 80s, I’d say our pedigree was all right. I think at the time we felt like we were part of an ongoing shift in comics that had its distant roots in the American Underground. One last note on today’s entry: After you read it, I recommend you visit Colleen’s own blog where she has some very interesting additions to make.Here’s an example: “While we happy self publishers may have boldly reprinted our books and force fed them to libraries, among other marketing hijinks, we weren’t the first to do a lot of these things. However, the very fact that some “little nobodies” (heard that one a lot), and “fanzine publishers” (heard that one a lot), and people who were praised for keeping “up the fair work” (thanks), were able to do these things effectively, and, in some cases, more effectively than companies with much larger resources…this made larger publishers take notice. So, when I write how Bob Wayne and Paul Levitz praised us with, “You guys were the first. You showed us the way,” I mean that we proved going to the “real” mainstream trade bookstores and libraries with graphic novels could be done effectively, even by little schmucks like us.”
Colleen Doran Part 2:
Cerebus creator Dave Sim (whom I had met after A Distant Soil was first published) and I had several arguments over the possibility of my self publishing, with his view being that I should “Just do it!” and my response “With what money?” falling on deaf ears. We parted ways and didn’t speak for years while I planned to publish my way.
I drew more comics for Marvel and DC, and with the settlement money from one of my publishers over rights to A Distant Soil combined with a small loan, I finally had enough cash to get my A Distant Soil comic printed myself.
I had never worked with a printer before, had meager layout and paste up ability, did not own a computer, and could not balance my checkbook. I was 20-ish and had no business skills, and only one-year’s experience working as an unpaid gopher in a trade publishing house. All of which made me about as qualified to publish as anyone who had ever published my work in the small press. After diligently studying every word trade book self publishing guru Dan Poynter ever printed, I was able to get my comic out.
My local printer knew they were dealing with a rube and padded my bill. They let my books sit unpacked and unshipped for two weeks. I personally packed and shipped all 8,000 orders in a desperate bid to make the Diamond Distributor deadline. Realizing my printer was a yutz, I found another and asked for my negatives back. I got them after I threw a screaming fit in the office in full view of a bunch of their customers. They were in such a rush to shut me up and return the client folder which contained my negatives, that they neglected to remove their internal correspondence file, the one containing the memos detailing how they had padded my bill.
That wasn’t a great beginning.
However, my book quickly sold out its print run of nearly 10,000 copies, and I realized I had made more money on that comic than in personal income in almost every single year I had been working for “real” publishers.
I was told that self publishing would get me blacklisted at Marvel and DC. Didn’t happen. If anything, my cred in the industry improved markedly.
The self publishers published books that should not have sold at all. Our works were too cartoony, too girly, too esoteric, too whatever. They sold good numbers, regardless. We had no competition. Whatever we did, there was nothing else like it coming from Marvel or DC, and there were few small press companies that published anything that wasn’t a rehash of mainstream comic trends.
We reprinted our comics whenever they sold out risking the ire of the retailers who complained we were killing their back issue sales. Now, reprinting comics is business as usual.
Conventions had a lot to say about what creators could do at their shows, but that soon changed. Back in the day, attending artists could sell nothing but original art. If you self published, you could not sell your own books at a show, regardless of the fact that many retailers did not carry them. We raised a stink over this unfair practice, and now it is the norm for creators to sell their own books at conventions.
We produced graphic novels that we kept in stock with multiple reprints, further risking the ire of retailers who were convinced GN’s would hurt back issue values.
We campaigned to get our books into retail stores and libraries. This effort took a decade of work. My first Book Expo trade show was such a bad experience my self-esteem shriveled to a micron. It was four days of junior high school, only instead of getting snubbed by cheerleaders, I got abused by retailers and librarians.
Later, while attending the Book Expo with Image Comics – and after having spent years sending one package of graphic novel samples after another to disinterested distributors – librarians were begging for graphic novels, declaring them the books that tempt the “reluctant reader”. Jim Valentino, who had also self published back in the Dark Ages and helped to found the uber-self publishing group known as Image Comics, worked hard to get Image books into new these new markets.
Just a few months back, Bob Wayne and Paul Levitz of DC Comics floored me when they declared, “You guys were the first. You showed us the way.” We traded horror stories of the sad bad days when no one wanted graphic novels. Bob Wayne and I compared psychic scars that would have needed a decade of therapy had we not gotten the last laugh instead.
The self publishers weren’t the first to make graphic novels, or the first to reprint our comics. When I was a little girl, my first comic GN was a Prince Valiant volume that I had bought from a Scholastic catalogue that had been provided by my school (it was originally published by Nostalgia Press, but distributed by Scholastic.) This was a novel length, continuing story in book form being made available to school children through a major book publishing house catalogue. And later, Samuel R. Delaney/Howard Chaykin’s Empire was a full color, original science fiction graphic novel that I found at my local library. The first graphic novel I saw for sale in a major bookstore was the adaptation of the movie Alien.
Every single thing self publishers set out to do had already been done, but almost everyone had forgotten about it.
Years later, no major comics publisher was able to or willing to try many of these things, treat their comics as books, keep their backlist in print, and get their books into retail stores and libraries, and to produce graphic novels with major trade book publishers.
Nimble little self publishers were willing to try anything, and could change their marketing plans in a moment.
It would take years for Scholastic – the company that had brought me Prince Valiant as a little girl – to latch on to Bone. Jeff Smith’s Bone is the ultimate example of industry-friendly, kid-friendly, library-friendly, bookstore-friendly, everything-a-distributor-ever-wanted book that sells like mad, and if he hadn’t self published it, it’s likely no one else would have.
Self publishing put the work first. Books sold because of what was between the covers, not because of a connection to product (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Many a cartoonist got the shock of their life when they self published, only to realize they didn’t have very many fans. Their readers were Catwoman fans, or Spiderman fans. Without the sales guarantee provided by the product with which they associated themselves, their work was largely ignored. Many were anxious to join the self publishing circus, and got nothing out of it but printer bills and a storage shed full of unsold comics. Humility rarely followed. Some decided that the sales snub was a sign that the indy comics crowd was dissing them for being “mainstream”.
Eventually, dogma crept into the self publishing movement. If you didn’t self publish, you were a sell out. Self publishing became more important than the work, which was not an idea some of us were trying to promote. When creators like me decided to run off with a publisher, the more inflexible enthusiasts were virulent in their disapproval, insulting us with colorful language, declaring that our antecedents were wanton canines.
For my part, self publishing has never been about getting “in print”. Anyone can get “in print” the minute they write on a blog or go to Kinkos copies and run off 50 copies of a zine. Being in print is not important. Being published well is.
I remember telling fans I could make more money self publishing A Distant Soil than I could drawing The Silver Surfer for Marvel. They thought I was bragging. People assumed that if you worked for a big publisher, you must be making big bucks. And if you made more money self publishing, you must be rich. But my income working for publishers was near minimum wage – sometimes lower. Self publishing ensured that I made decent money for my efforts. It would be nearly a decade before my income from “real” publishers exceeded what I could earn self publishing my comic at its sales peak.
Of course, that all came to an end with the crash of ‘95. Even though I lost my cash wad over the dark days of the late 1990’s, I learned more when publishing myself than I had in ten years of working on nearly 100 projects for “real” publishers. I learned more about my responsibilities as a creator – why timeliness isn’t just about editors being mean to hapless creators. I learned to be more sympathetic to my clients because I understand about cash flow from personal experience! And I understand when clients are BS-ing me about the costs of a project, and when they can really afford to give me a better rate, or move a deadline.
I learned about zoning, studio insurance, and business licenses, the technical matters that follow when you are running your own business. Few aspiring self publishers wanted to deal with these core issues. Who cares about technical matters when you just want to make a comic? Self publishing is a key person business, the riskiest kind of business. Few wannabes understood that this meant no vacation, no sick days, no benefits, and no time off you don’t pay for out of your own pocket.
Self publishers today – with blogs, web comics, and print on demand – don’t have to worry about the high cost of self publishing like we did, printing lots of back stock, storing inventory, shipping and promotion. You can put your merchandise up at Café Press, you can print only one book at a time, you can get extra dough from advertising with Google, you can get people to put a tip jar on your blog, you can advertise yourself by chatting on message boards.
For many, the choice to self publish isn’t a question of getting to do the stories you want to do. You don’t need to be published to write or draw anything. Self publishing means writing or drawing anything you want and getting it seen, which has absolutely nothing to do with your innate desire to create. Wondering what other people will think of your work – and sincerely hoping they will pay for it – is another matter entirely.
Now, with web publishing, the financial investment required to self publish has made it possible for almost anyone with even a modest amount of cash to afford to get their work seen. You can publish only a page a week and still keep your readers satisfied. You don’t have to sink $50,000 per annum into your dream project to self publish.
Conversely, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll ever make any money. But then, there never was.
Print self publishing is the one thing every artist should try, and every artist should avoid. It’s fun and horrible, it’s a money pit, it’s the road to riches, it’s the best learning experience you will ever have discovering that you are behind the bell curve six days after you get started.