If you want to publish comics, you’re not alone. Something in the raw appeal of comics storytelling makes a large portion of the audience want to try it themselves.
If I had to guess, I’d say this phenomenon is far more common to comics than it is to other storytelling media. Sure, a small percentage of moviegoers want to direct their own movies, but most people are happy just watching an entertaining film. Something about comics, it seems to me, spurs the impulse in a far higher percentage. So much so, in fact, that those of us that really don’t want to make their own comics, and yet have a prominent voice in the comics community, are often wrongly seen as wannabe comics creators. I wish I had stories to tell, in comics or any other form, but I really don’t have a lot of fiction inside me waiting to be set loose. And I certainly don’t want to start my own publishing company. You’d have to be nuts to want to do that!
So, if you’re one of those crazy people that wants to publish comics, here’s some advice based on decades of observing companies try and fail to establish themselves in the marketplace.
First, realize that no new comics company can be expected to make any money whatsoever within the first few years of its existence. If you want to publish comics, you must have a enough capital on hand to withstand the indifference your initial offerings are likely to be met with. Unless you’ve inherited a boatload of cash from rich Uncle Fred or Aunt Betty, chances are you are going to need to find investors. And those investors are going to want to see a solid business plan. Familiarize yourself with business plans by doing research online or at your local library. Warning: If your eyes glaze over at the many technical details of starting a business, you may not be ready to publish comics.
If you do not have the confidence that your books will be of such high quality as to ensure a large readership that builds over the first few years, and that you’ll be able to stick to your business plan and keep your investors happy, then do not start your new comics company until you can meet those marketplace realities. Wishing will not make it so, and if you build it, history has shown that they will not come. Be especially aware that new superhero universes and American-created manga-style comics are extremely unlikely to succeed. You might want to familiarize yourself with the rise and fall of such companies as Speakeasy and CrossGen Comics, to see where their founders went wrong.
Start small, with just one title. Make sure its creator(s) are able to meet the schedule you plan to release the book on, and make sure that the creator(s) focus on putting together a professional product at every step of the process. Make this as easy as possible by communicating your needs and intents clearly and in writing, and by paying them fairly and on time (every time) for their work. Conduct yourself as an ethical publisher who understands your business depends on the efforts of those you hire to fulfill your desire to publish comic books. Be aware that every issue you publish should contain a satisfying story unto itself, even if it is part of a longer, continuing story. Pay a lot of attention to proofreading, a virtually lost art these days, and be aware of professional lettering techniques. Bad, amateur lettering can spoil the reading experience of even the best-written and best-drawn comics. Warning: If you don’t know when to use the letter “I” with serifs and when without (“sans”), you don’t know enough about lettering comic books.
And how do you pick the creators that will write, draw, and letter (and possibly colour) your comics? Just because you like a writer or artist, that does not mean that readers will like their work. The worst thing an editor or publisher can do is be buddies with the talent they publish. If your judgment is thus compromised, you owe it to yourself, your creators and your readers to seek out blunt, critical analysis of the quality of the work and its likelihood of success before publishing it. Be aware, when looking for talent, that writers and artists professional enough to make your dreams come true will be willing to work with you and for you, provided you are professional enough to help them feed their families and help them pay their rent, again, in an ethical manner and with written contracts fair to all parties. Warning: If you can’t afford to hire a lawyer and an accountant, you can’t afford to publish comics.
If you must publish comics and are not already an established company with a well-known line and a reliable slate of books, then start your new company with one bulletproof book that is so well done and wildly entertaining that it can serve as the foundation of a steadily-growing company over the course of the next few years.
History has shown time and again that this is the most reliable way to build a brand and create a publishing company. Starting a line with a number of titles only dilutes your brand in the marketplace. If Dave Sim had released seven or eight other titles the same month he debuted Cerebus the Aardvark, it’s pretty likely you would never even have heard of that title, never mind the seven or eight others.
Be generous with review copies. Send real copies (not PDFs or other web-based previews) to every competent comics critic you can find, from reputable online critics and bloggers like Tom Spurgeon, Johanna Draper Carlson and many others, to online and print magazines like The Comics Journal and Entertainment Weekly. It’s absolutely vital that you get the tastemakers talking about your book, and it would be wise to pay careful attention to their criticism and suggestions, as well. Since they don’t know you, they can offer an unbiased assessment of what you’re doing right, and what you’re doing wrong. Trust your own judgment, but listen to the experts, too. Warning: If you can’t take an honest, critical assessment of your comic books, you are not ready to publish or create comics.
Finally, and most importantly, if you cannot afford a full-time publicity department that is dedicated to getting your books the maximum exposure possible — either yourself working many extra hours a day, or a paid employee, then you cannot afford to be a publisher. Hiring the talent and printing the books is no more than 50 percent of the equation that results in a successful book. You must familiarize yourself with publicity and marketing techniques, and be aware that message board posts and banner ads on comic book sites are only a small part of the equation when it comes to publicizing your comics. A professional publicist will have insights and inroads into getting the word out about your book that you never imagined. It will cost you money, but if you want to be a publisher, you must get used to spending money, and lots of it. It will likely be years before you start making a profit, but if the books are high quality and you start small and grow at a considered pace, and comport yourself as a professional business person with an ethical and moral grounding, there’s a chance you could one day be considered a professional publisher.
— Alan David Doane