“So You Want To Get Into Self-Publishing?”

This is one way editorial columns get born:

Last night I flooded the kitchen when, in my attempt to fix a leaky faucet I accidentally (and does anyone ever do this deliberately?) broke the cold water feed pipe. What started out as a relatively simple task has become a major undertaking – and this has put me in the mind to take a whack at answering the many letters I’ve received lately all asking something that also seems deceptively simple: “I want to start up my own comic book company, how do I do it?”

That question inevitably begs this one in response: “Why do you want to do that?” (Or, depending upon the mood of the moment, “Why in the name of the High Ones do you want to subject yourself to that? Wouldn’t you rather spend your days doing something truly useful, like attempting to bite yourself on the forehead?”)

Of course, the answer is a given. You want to take the leap into self-publishing because you have something you want to see in published form, and for one reason or another that something hasn’t caught the favorable attention of a publisher who is not yourself. You’ve got this great idea for a new comic book, or new fantasy novel, or new role-playing game module, and it’s chewing its way through your brain in an attempt to Get Out And Be Seen. Corollary to wanting to have your brainchild in print is the desire for it to sell a ton of copies and make a mint for your efforts. After all, you have to eat and pay bills. (Beware anyone who says that they are not interested in the monetary side of artistic expression. They are either disingenuous, have comfortable day jobs, or are being kept by wealthy patrons.)

So you wanna be a publisher, and you’ve written in to andreav70.sg-host.com because well hey, they’ve been at this game for a while, they seem to be doing all right, so they must have the secret. Right? Except that there is no secret; the process is all just common sense combined with a bit of homework. I’m going to give you the overview, and then you’re on your own.

Before you start, be honest with yourself about the object of your desire. Is your idea a new one? Or a neat new twist on a classic theme? Look around at existing comics and books and such. After all, Elfquest is “only” a story about elves on a quest but to the best of our knowledge and experience, its particular expression has never been attempted before. High Ones know there’s no requirement in self-publishing that your ideas be new and fresh, but the marketplace is ruthless in its rejection of the same old same old. A role-playing campaign, no matter how intriguing it may seem, does not a story make. Compelling characters are not generated by a roll of the dice. But if you’re committed to your muse, go for it. What’s the worst that can happen? You try, and you fall. No less a figure in the entertainment world than Charlie Chaplin said once that everyone’s entitled to make his own mistakes. Hopefully, you learn from them.

I strongly suspect that a major reason people write to Warp Graphics/Elfquest asking advice on self-publishing is that we’ve been around a long time – nearly twenty-five years, longer than some of you have been drawing breath! We’re almost (heaven help us) an institution. We’ve had time and occasion to make every mistake known to the field, sometimes more than once, and to invent some new ones. What you see is the successes, the high points, the tip of the iceberg. What you don’t see is day-to-day routine, the ups and downs, the administrivia, the waiting on Photoshop to open a huge file as the seconds tick by. (Do you know how many seconds there are in twenty-five years? Seven hundred eighty-eight million, four hundred thousand, give or take a leap day or two. Start counting: “One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi…” Daunting, isn’t it.) My point is simply this: With very few exceptions in this business, nothing happens easy, and nothing happens fast, and you are well-advised to prepare yourself for the long haul.

Onward. You say you have an idea. Good. That’s a start. Now, have you written it down? Drawn it (or, if you have no artistic ability, found someone who does who can translate your words into pictures)? Ideas are the easy part; those who ask “Where do you get your ideas from?” simply haven’t looked around themselves. Ideas are all over the place; ideas come from life and living itself, from asking “what if?” and then following the thread of answers. Theodore Sturgeon, one of the high masters of science fiction, had a mantra: “Ask the next question.” Just keep asking the next question, and you’ll find yourself awash in ideas and possibilities. Ideas are easy, but I’ve lost count of the number of times the following has happened: Someone will come up and say, “I’ve got this great idea for a story,” and I will reply, “That’s great, have you written it down?” and they will say, “No, I have trouble putting it into words.” Immediately cue the sound effect of my mental gears grinding to a halt. I want to ask, and never do, “Then where do you think this conversation can possibly go?”

You have to write it down. I might be able to point you toward some resources on how to get things printed and such, but I can’t help you squeeze your ideas from your brain out through your fingers and onto paper or a keyboard. You have to do that. You have to decide to do it, and then do it. Of course it’s difficult if you’re not used to it. So is everything else that involves effort and commitment. You have to do it. Just do it. Write it down. Don’t attempt perfection, or style, or fancy linguistic flourishes. All you want to do is get the idea out of your skull where it does no one else any good. Write it down and just let the words come, however jumbled or random they may seem at the moment. You can always play with them later.

The reason I harp on this point, the manifestation of your idea in physical form, is that without that “package” you have no business yet pursuing the practical aspects of self-publishing (other than as a purely intellectual exercise, and that is just too odd for words). Why go to a printer if you have nothing to print? Why approach a distributor if you have nothing to show?

Let’s assume now that you’ve done the first part of your homework, which is really the most difficult part. You’ve birthed an idea. You’ve taken a look around at what’s already on the stands and bookshelves at your local comics shop and/or bookstore, and have decided that your offering would make a decent addition to the lineup. You’ve written, you’ve drawn, you’ve laid out pages. You’re at the point where they say, “Everything’s done but the doing.”

Way back in the Before Time, around 1978 or so, the World Wide Web didn’t exist, certainly not in the easy-to-use form we’re all used to. When it was time for Elfquest to be born, the only recourse I had was to schlep a copy of an already-existing independent comic book (“The First Kingdom” by Jack Katz, in case you’re wondering, published by Bud Plant – ah, memories) around to every printer I could find in the local phone directory, and to ask each and every one of them, “Can you print something like this, and how much will it cost?” These days, there are quite a few printers who offer – and some who even specialize in – comic book printing.

And finding them is a quantum step easier than it used to be. Literally as I am typing these words I have called up my web browser, gone into Google.com (my search engine of choice) and typed in the keywords “comic book printers” – I put the quotes around the phrase so that Google doesn’t find me every site having to do with “comic books” or “comics” or “printers.” Within about two seconds I got a bunch of site referrals; I’ll sample some here (Note: these listings are informational only; we make no endorsement of any of the services offered):

(These appear to be direct links to printers who do comic book printing.)

(These have a bunch of links to all sorts of resource sites, such as how to secure copyright, how to get ISBN numbers, how to prepare digital files for printing, etc.)

(These are print brokerage sites; you describe what you want done, and they hunt for companies that will do your job.)

Then I tried “comic book distributors” and came up with:

(These look like real good collections of links about comic book distribution, marketing, and so on.)

I’ve only listed a few sites; there were many more that turned up in the search and I hope you’ll embark on your own quests. The point is not that you’re going to find a complete how-to here in this editorial, but rather to demonstrate that with just a little bit of work, you can uncover a literal treasure trove of information and help.

Finally, a word about the arena in which you’re going to try to compete: In 1978 when Elfquest premiered, two things were true of the comics market. First, there were far fewer comics companies offering far fewer comics each month; and second, there were a lot more people reading comic books.Elfquest was born into a world where video and internet amusements and distractions barely existed; it found and very nicely filled a previously-neglected niche. We were lucky; we got our foot in the door early. Doing so wasn’t easy, but it was easier than it has become. Nowadays, there are hundreds of comic book publishers large and small, releasing thousands of titles into the stream every month, and the number of readers (and retail outlets specializing in comic books) has decreased.

On the flip side, never before has there been more diversity in what self-publishers (like you’re going to be, right?) are offering. True, Sturgeon’s Law (that 90% of everything is crap) holds true in independent comic book publishing as everywhere else, but that remaining 10% is some of the most innovative and lovely material ever to come out of a comic book creator’s head, heart and hand. You may not – at first, anyway – attract an audience as large as the one that saw “Titanic,” but if you are faithful to your creation and nurture it through whatever it takes to put it in front of readers’ eyes, your work will find an audience, and you will become part of this motley community.

Shade and Sweet Search Results!

Richard Pini