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Self-Publishing "Secrets" Revealed, Part Two: Minicomics

In this installment of Comics are Open Source, I should take a moment to explain the title of these columns. I'm a part-time comics creator -- at my dayjob, I make websites. The term "Open Source" is frequently used in software circles, and was coined by a bunch of programmers to describe a specific ideology where everyone gets access to the production and design process. In other words, there are no secrets; no knowledge is proprietary. This process of sharing information allows users to create their own versions of the product, and in theory, these new products have the potential to be at least as good as anything made by the so-called professionals.

This is how I believe comics should be. If the creators who came before me had jealously hoarded their knowledge, I'd have been stuck at square one. Instead, just about every self-publisher I met was happy to share information, helped out wherever they could with encouragement and advice, and was genuinely excited -- as opposed to feeling jealous -- when someone else managed to pull themselves up the ladder.

This week's column features a discussion of the ins and outs of Minicomics with one of these helpful creators, Paradise Valley Comics' Pam Bliss.

THE PULSE: You're one of the few people I know who has done minicomics, traditional "floppy" comics, and a graphic novel.  Having experimented with the full range of print-publishing, why do you prefer minicomics as your medium of choice?

Actually, I've never made a graphic novel.The book in question is a trade paperback short story collection, a very different breed of cat.

I think of myself as a maker of cartoon short stories, rather than the epic-length tales most comic creators seem to favor. I'm sure that's why I prefer minicomics over every other comics medium.Each story, or sometimes two or three closely related stories, can be its own freestanding comic, with its own format,title, cover design, page composition, fonts, paper selection, even printing technique. There's no need to stifle myself with a series, and cram every story I want to tell into some fixed mold.

That, of course, is the other advantage of minicomics: the wide range of creative and editorial choice. If I get a wild idea to print my new comic on cut up brown paper bags, I'm perfectly free to figure out a way to do it. Big comics, tiny comics, fat ones and skinny ones, comics in every color of the rainbow or pure black and white. If you can print on it, fold it and staple it, you can make a minicomic out of it.It's incredibly liberating.

THE PULSE: What's the biggest limitation you've found with minicomics?

Getting "mainstream" readers to take them seriously. Oddly enough, color covers seem to really help with this. Distribution.

Since most distributors won't carry minis, how do you get your work to your readers?  In what ways do you build new readership?

Print a trade. My bound volume has gained an awful lot of readers for my minis.Otherwise, I encounter readers at cons, through reviews, and by word of mouth. I still do a lot of mail order, and I'm planning an all new website to debut at the same time as the new trade.

THE PULSE: You've literally created hundreds of minicomics in the last twenty years.  How do you decide which ones to keep in print?  When do you decide to retire a best-seller?

This is an interesting question, since I never consider anything of mine truly out of print.I always keep a few copies around, plus I have the printing masters on file. So if for some reason there is a spurt of nterest in some obscure old work of mine, I can always print up a few extra to satisfy a sudden demand.

Normally, I quit making minicomics versions of stories that have been reprinted in a trade, and if a mini doesn't sell well, and I lose interest in it myself,then I let it go out of print.

That said, now that I seem to have settled on a specific cast of characters I want to work with for the foreseeable future, I have developed a strong interest in having all their important stories always available to new readers.I'm not sure where this interest is going to lead, but I'm sure I will end up compiling more stories in book form, and committing to keeping key minis in print until they are available in a collection.

THE PULSE: About how much can you expect to spend on an average minicomic print run?  Where do you choose to save money, and where do you splurge?

As far as I know there is no "average" minicomic print run.I usually start with 100-150 copies if I have the comic commercially printed at the copy shop--most copy shops charge a cent or two less per side if you order more copies, so there are some economies of scale involved.

If I'm printing my comics at home, I print however many copies I need, since the costs are the same whether I print one copy or 100. When I'm printing at home, I usually start with 75 copies, which includes the file copies I keep in the studio, a few review copies, and the copies for my subscribers, plus some to take to a small show. If I'm going to a large convention, I try to make sure I have 50 copies of all the newer minis in stock, and 10 to 20 of every comic I plan to display.

It's hard to define the unit cost of "a minicomic" since there is really no such thing.An eight page quarter page mini, made from one double sided photocopy, can cost as little as 10 ¢ a unit (5¢ a side in bulk on cheap white paper from a copy shop with low prices) to about 78¢ a unit for a full color mini assembled from full priced color photocopies, which currently run about 39¢ a side at most chain copy shops. A large half page digest, say 28 pages with a color photocopy cover, can cost as much as $1.50 a unit.The costs of home printing vary widely, depending on your printer and its ink or toner costs, but I find if I "pay" myself 7¢ a side for black and white, there is always money in the kitty for my toner and a wide range of cool paper.

Oh, and never pay the copy shop to cut, fold, or staple your minicomics.Invest in a good paper cutter and stapler and do your production in house. It's quite easy, and fun in a Zen like way. The few cents a sheet that copy shops charge for these simple tasks really add up, and can make a major difference in how many comics you can afford to make.

Pam Bliss has always been interested in combining words and pictures to tell stories, and she's been making minicomics since 1989. Most of her stories have been set in Kekionga, Indiana, the perfect Midwestern small town where anything can happen, and combine elements of mystery, romance, superheroics, historical drama, comedy, philosophical reflections on the nature of the universe, and anything else that crosses her mental sightlines. Plus naked werewolf jokes.


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