When I started writing these columns, I felt that I wasn't the best person to talk about single issues, since I've mostly stopped doing them, myself. Many other self-publishers, including Carla Speed McNeil and Phil Foglio have also abandoned single issues in favor of the webcomic-to-graphic-novel path (one notable exception being Exhibit A Press, which is still publishing single issues in addition to graphic novels and webcomics). The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized it might be a good idea to discuss why so many of us are making this move.
Do I think "floppy" comics are dying? No, not by a long shot. However, I think I would be doing a great disservice to up-and-coming creators if I didn't talk about the financial and material realities that led me to abandon the format. For the sake of brevity, I'll be focusing on traditional offset printing, as opposed to Print-on-Demand single issues.
Let's start with the hardest subject: Money. A single 32-page issue, printed using good paper (not newsprint) costs in the neighborhood of $1500 to print 2000 copies. You may be able to find cheaper deals, especially with cooperative printers that will "gang run" a bunch of comics all together to save money -- but that figure is fairly standard.
Most printing houses have a minimum of 2000 -- but why that figure instead of any other? The answer lies in the size of the printing presses. If you go through a big printing house like Morgan or Brenner or Quebecor, the printing presses are gargantuan machines, usually several stories high. To make it worth the printers' time to prep the press with your book, turn it on and turn it off again, they've pretty much got to print 2000 copies -- otherwise it's not even worth their time to bother setting up your print job. In most cases, it's actually more expensive to print fewer than 2000 copies, but per-unit prices drop substantially as you print more copies.
So. Two thousand copies at $1500 means your per-unit cost for a single issue is 75 cents. If you have a cover price of $3.00, each one you sell out-of-hand at a convention will net you $2.25 profit. In other words, you will need to sell 500 copies at cover price to pay for your print run, and the other 1500 copies will be profit. Bear in mind, that's if you sell them all yourself -- selling them through a distributor means you get an even smaller cut, but that discussion comes later.
Comparing this to graphic novels is a bit tricky, because you're not limited by page count, but a 160-page graphic novel is roughly equivalent to a five-issue story arc, which seems to be as close to an "average" size as we're likely to get, so that's the size and pricing I'll use for the sake of this discussion.
If you get 2,000 copies printed on reasonably good paper, and trimmed to either 8 1/2 x 11 inches (standard comic TPB size) or 5.5 x 8 inches ("manga" or "digest" size) with a 4-color cover, you'll pay somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000 depending on your paper, cover stock and varnish choices. Using the same specifications outlined above, printing five single issues would cost $7500, but the same material printed in graphic novel format would cost, at most, around $4000. If your issues are shorter -- say 20 pages -- you can get 8 issues into one 160 page graphic novel, give or take a few pages, and then the numbers get even better in favor of graphic novel format.
Graphic novels also make a lot more money per unit sold than single issues do: two thousand copies at $4000 means your per-unit cost for a graphic novel is $2.00. That's pretty high for a graphic novel, actually -- even on a small print run you should be shooting for a per-unit cost somewhere between $1.25 and $1.75 per unit, but $2 makes for simpler math. At $2 per book, with a cover price of $12.95 means each one you sell out-of-hand will make you $10.95 profit, and you'll only need to sell around 300 of them at cover price to pay off your printing bill.
Now let's bring distribution into it. Distributors get 60% of your cover sale price. For the single issues mentioned earlier, you'd make $1.20 for each $3 book sold through a distributor. Once you remove the printing costs, you're left with a whopping 45 cents per issue, profit. The same graphic novel, sold for $12.95, will net you $5.18; after printing costs, $3.18. Still not a ton of income, but better than the five single issues, which using the same math would earn you $2.25.
So, when you stack these numbers up against one another, and add in the fact that my single issues were just barely breaking even, you'll understand why I chose to go direct to graphic novel. At the end of my first five-issue series, the single issues essentially became promotional tools; I wasn't making much money on them, so I just handed them out. For the new book, I decided to focus on the promotional aspects of the single issue: I printed 7,000 copies of a 24-page preview comic, which I'll be giving away like crazy. I spent as much on it as I would on one single issue, and it's my all-in-one promotional tool; it takes the place of business cards, flyers, brochures for my library talks, mini-catalogues and postcards.
Now, after all that yammering about money, let's get to the interview portion of the column. It wouldn't make sense for me to interview myself, so I asked my interviewees to submit questions to me.
THE PULSE: Do you still look forward to buying or reading floppy comics? If so, what are the characteristics that make this format work fo you...or if not, what's missing such that if those elements were present, you'd buy 'em? (From Jim Ottaviani)
The primary reasons I prefer graphic novels over single issues are physical: portability, durability, complete story arc in one place, lack of advertisements in the middle of the plot. All these are superceded by a good story -- if I just can't wait for the graphic novel, I still buy the single issues, then buy the GNs later. In many cases, if the story's that good, I'll want to share it with other people, so the single issues become my "Loaner copies". I'll also buy single issues to help out friends whose series might be in danger of cancellation.
There are, however, quite a few things I like about single issues, not the least of which are the covers. Encapsulating an entire issue into a single, iconic image is an art unto itself, and covers are one thing I really miss in most graphic novels. Another thing I love is the general mood of floppies, as opposed to GNs or TPBs. They feel less formal and rigid, and they allow for a lot more expirimentation: letter columns, sketches, essays and rants, most of which gets left out in collections. I'm a big fan of anything that allows me insight into a creator's mind, whether it's DVD extras or footnotes.
THE PULSE: Floppy comic have always been expensive risks for independent creators. But in your opinion, what was the final nail in the coffin? Is there anything you'll miss about floppies as the primary format for Vögelein? (From Spike)
Well, the thing that made me give up floppy comics was definitely the financial loss. Through a combination of shows and PREVIEWS orders, each issue sold around half its run -- the first issue was marginally profitable, but all the subsequent issues struggled to break even -- and the rest got given away for promotions. If there were a way to make them earn their keep, I'd do them again, no question.
It was really difficult to drop so completely out of the industry for the four years it took to get Vögelein: Old Ghosts completed, and floppies would have given me some much-needed exposure during that time. Counterintuitively, I think that they might also have hastened the completion of the book, because about halfway there I completely lost all momentum. A series of smaller deadlines, rather than one big one, might have kept me a lot more honest, and would also have helped me gauge progress. When you've got a project as long-term as one of my books, it's easy to get intimidated and overwhelmed into a miserable slump of self-doubt, but if you can point to the single issues, and say: "Look! I'm three out of five issues done! I'm over halfway there!" -- that can be a real project-saver.
THE PULSE: Any advice on getting your comic listed in the Diamond catalog, and keeping it there? Is it worth the effort? (From Pam Bliss)
Well, honestly, all I did was follow the directions, and if I could give any advice at all, it would be to do just that! Basically, I went to Diamond's Vendor Website, read their instructions, and followed them to the letter. I had a five-issue series, and I sent in a bound, photocopied version of the first four issues' interior art (no covers or extras), along with the necessary paperwork. That much was enough to get me approved, and I was able to keep my orders up just high enough to get all five bi-monthly issues solicited. That was five years ago, though, so I might not be the best person to ask about current policy; it couldn't hurt to call up Diamond directly and politely ask what you'd need to do to become a vendor. My interaction with Diamond has been overwhelmingly positive, especially with my current rep, William West, who's been just as helpful and nice as can be.
It's absolutely worth the effort. Best of all, once you collect your single issues into a graphic novel, you can use Diamond as your distributor for all markets. Diamond has two distinct branches, one for comic retailers (Diamond Comic Distributors) and one for libraries, bookstores and wholesalers (Diamond Book Distributors), and you can sell through both systems simultaneously. While I still love (and promote!) indie-friendly comics stores, the vast majority of my graphic novel sales come from libraries and bookstores, so it's really useful to have both avenues open.
The only other advice I'd offer is not to submit before you're ready. Get a copy of PREVIEWS and compare your best work to what's in there. Be brutal with yourself, and ask fellow fans and creators for their honest opinions. If what you've got to offer isn't at least as good as what's being offered, go back to the drawing board and try again. If your work looks professional, and seems marketable enough to sell at least five hundred copies, chances are that you'll at least get a shot. After that, it's up to you; kick your promotion engine into high gear and give readers and retailers alike a reason to order your book.
THE PULSE: What do you do with all the leftovers? Does it break your heart to give them away?(From Pam Bliss)
I give them away, and gleefully! After the first six months or so, I was really ready to get rid of the thousands of leftover single issues in my house; honestly, it was either give them away or build forts out of them. They weren't selling, they weren't very profitable, and printing other promotional material would have cost more money that I didn't have, so I just cut my losses and started handing them out like water. I will say this: of all the promotions that I've done, single issues work the best. Not stickers, not postcards, not flyers, not posters. If you want someone to read your comic... give them a comic! I'd pass out a couple hundred at a convention, and get a couple dozen return sales during the same show. I may not have sold those issues, but a dozen sales on the graphic novel will land me almost as much profit as if I had.