Okay, so this might come off as a little harsh. I understand that, and I don’t want to crush anyone’s dreams. It’s really just the opposite. I want you to achieve your dreams, but that can’t happen unless you know the realities.
I go to a lot of comic book conventions, and talk to a lot of aspiring artists and writers. As a small publisher, many of them approach me to find out if I’m interested in publishing a comic book they’ve created. But as soon as I explain how creators, artists and writers are paid, I often get a reaction of stunned disbelief.
This article is meant to walk you through the basic numbers of the comic book business so you know the facts when you’re ready to publish, either on your own or by working with a publisher.
Know how the comic book business works
Approaching people you’d like to work with is the right thing to do, and is, in fact, something you must do in order to be successful. I’m not disparaging that at all. There is one key thing to remember, though. If you approach someone and you don’t understand how the comics business works, that person is not going to want to work with you, no matter how talented you may be.
Let me repeat that. Unless you understand how the comics business works, you have almost zero chance of getting your work published by someone else, and no chance of making money with your self-published comic book.
You do, however, have a very good chance of spending a lot of your own money without ever seeing a profit from your books.
Let’s try to prevent that from happening.
This nemesis might seem unstoppable, but there’s a superpower that can thwart it
I’m about to paint a dark picture, but don’t get discouraged, because for each of these money-eating methods of getting things done, there is a smarter way to go about publishing a comic book that is better for smaller, or even one-person, operations.
At Comic Book Creative Hub, we don’t want to sugar coat anything. That would be a big disservice to our readers. We want to tell you the truth and show you how to actually solve problems, not just tell you what you want to hear.
If that’s what you want too, we’ll be talking more about the smarter way to go about things inside our members’ area. Look for the signup link at the bottom of this article.
Distributing your book
Once you have your book written and drawn you have to establish a way to get your books into reader’s hands. That’s your distribution system.
Here is where the money goes in a standard distribution system.
Let’s use the example of a $3.00 comic book
The distributor pays you around $1.00 for your book.
They sell it to a comic book store for $2.00.
The comic store sells the book to their customers for $3.00.
So everyone makes a buck off the book, right? Well, yes, but don’t forget that out of that buck per book must come all the expenses associated with making and selling the book. These expenses eat into every dollar from every comic sold.
- Publisher. Time (or money, if any of it is outsourced) spent on art, story, and production. Printing costs.
- Stores. Monthly expenses like rent, heat and employee costs.
- Distributor. Promotional and shipping costs.
The bad: Distribution will eat up a lot of money if you let it.
The good: You don’t have to go through the distributor or place your book in comic book stores in order to sell it. There are other ways to distribute your book.
The average cost to print a small run (1,000 copies or fewer) of a 32 page comic is about $3.00-$5.00 per copy. So to run 1,000 copies of your book will cost you at least around $3,000.00. Doing the math, if you sell all 1,000 copies through a distributor who pays you $1.00 per book, you will have immediately lost $2,000.00.
Keep in mind, this is before you pay an artist, writer, colorist, letterer, or yourself if you’re doing some of that work.
To compound your problem, once you get your book into the stores it competes at the same price point as hundreds of popular Marvel, DC, and Image titles available on the same rack.
If your comic doesn’t sell reasonable numbers (around the 2,500 copies per issue range) while competing against Spider-man, Batman or The Walking Dead, the store will not re-order a second issue of your title, the distributor will drop your product and that will be the sad end to all your effort you put into the comic.
The bad: Printing is really expensive and is the biggest cost associated with a comic book.
The good: You can get better deals if you use a lesser known printing process and know who to talk to
Many an indie publisher has figured they’ll beat the distribution dilemma by taking their product directly to their market – at comic conventions. Cons are valuable marketing tools and should be at the top of your list for promoting yourself and your work. But they aren’t the only place you should sell your comic.
A very good convention will normally result in sales of around 75-100 copies of your comic. Yes, masses of people flow through a convention hall, but the same thing that’s attractive about a convention also makes it unlikely that you’ll sell huge quantities (your customers are all in one place but so is your competition). That’s why it’s important to also take prints to sell, or offer on-the-spot comic sketching services.
As in our example, your book is priced at $3.00. At a convention, you’ll sell a signed copy for $5.00. If your printing costs are $3.00 per book, that’s $2.00 profit. But again, it’s really not, because you have to account for expenses.
Table charges. These vary by location and size, but event organizers normally charge from $50 to $450 for a 6′ table.
- Gas and/or car rental
- Train or air fare
- Meals and lodging for each day you’re there
Here’s an example of expenses based on a 3 day convention.
- Hotel room for 2 nights at $100.00/night, $200.
- Food, $40.00 each day x3, $120
- Gas, roundtrip $50.00
- Table rate, $100.00
That’s a total of $370, and it’s based on a fairly low-end estimate.
So now, in order for that $2.00 per book profit that you will make from selling that $5.00 book at the convention, just to cover your expenses you have to sell 185 copies at the con. 185 copies x $2.00=$370.
Anything after that is a profit. Here’s the problem. You are unlikely to sell 185 copies at a single convention.
Say you’ve done well and you’ve sold 100 copies. 100 copies x $5.00 = $500. Printing costs were $3.00 per book. 100 copies x $3.00 = $300. 500-300=200, so you made $200. However, you spent $370 on the convention.
You are now in the hole for $170.00
The bad: If you only sell your comic books at a convention, you will probably lose money.
- You can take other things with you to sell, such as prints, that will help you get past the break-even point. Those items don’t cost nearly as much to print, but you do have to cost them out too.
- There are lots of other benefits to attending a convention, such as talking to readers and making those people more familiar with your characters and brand, and seeing what really resonates with your customers.
In an effort to reduce costs you may consider publishing exclusively in a digital format. Since printing is the biggest expense in comic book publishing, this will drastically reduce your overhead.
However, keep in mind that there’s still a huge chunk of the comic book market that prefers print comics.
If you only publish digitally, you are basically cutting off an entire segment of potential readers. Not only that, you’re not going to be able to use comic conventions effectively because you won’t have product to sell, and your comic isn’t collectible in digital form.
Plus, you still have costs.
If you use an online publisher, you will pay a portion of your sales to that publisher, and you’ll still have to promote yourself online if you want to sell your book. You might get some sales from just being listed on the publisher’s site, but in order to make any kind of impact you’ll probably have to use social media and do other types of online promotion. Social platforms have recently made it harder to get results without spending money, so unless you already have a huge following, you might have to pay for advertising.
If you don’t use an online publisher, and do everything yourself, you’ll need a way to sell your book online. This will be some combination of
- website costs like domain registration, hosting
- online store
- social media presence
- download mechanism
- production costs, if you don’t know how to prepare your book for download
The bad: Even if you go completely digital, you still have expenses. You won’t have anything to sell at conventions, and you don’t have anything in a physical form for fans to collect.
The good: If you know you will never be able to find a way to print a book, you still have a way to tell your story and a way for readers to access your work.
Real world conversations about the comic book publishing business model
I get approached a lot by comic book creators who want me to publish their books. If their work is good, I do consider it for publication, but all too often creators are incredulous when I explain my publishing model.
In simple terms, once the book sells enough to cover the costs, the creator who supplies the published material then receives 60% of the profits.
At that point, I am usually questioned about why they would have to wait until the book makes enough to pay for itself before they receive their money, and why my company, GlassMonkey, would receive 40% of the profits.
I hope after having read this article it might be a bit easier to understand what goes into a comic book from a business standpoint, and why creators never get all the money generated by selling a comic book, even when they’ve published it themselves.
Don’t spend all your hard earned cash on a comic book whose business model is doomed it to fail. Discover alternative ways to successfully create, publish and distribute your comics. Figure out the best way for your situation, whether that means a complete DIY solution or working with others to get where you want to be.
- First, do the math.
- Then, find ways to lower your costs that won’t hinder the quality of your work.
For a deeper look into topics like this, join our member’s hub. It’s free, and it takes just a moment to get access to valuable content that will make publishing your comic a lot easier and more profitable.