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December 23, 2010

Steampunk Faerie!

An awesome librarian let me know I got an early Christmas present this year: I got a mention in The School Library Journal's Best Books of 2010 issue as part of their "Steampunk: Full Steam Ahead" list! I'm so excited -- thanks so much for the heads-up, TKM!

Man, it's hard for me to get my brain around the fact that the first Vögelein issue came out almost ten years ago, and was begun nearly fifteen years ago. Who'd have thunk it'd still be relevant? I'm really honored.

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September 3, 2010

No SPX for us.

Contrary to what their web page says, Paul and I will not be at SPX this year. We had a table, but between being broke from our big trip out west, not having any new material to sell, and a bunch of other things all going on at once, we elected to stay home, gather our resources, and make a better, stronger show of it next year. Hope to see you then!

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June 14, 2010

Self-Publishing "Secrets" Revealed, Part Four: Single Issues

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.

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June 9, 2010

The Uniques Tales #4

Paul and I are featured in the newest issue of The Uniques Tales by fellow Michigan self-publishers Adam Withers and Comfort Love. Go check us out! My pinup is of The Ambassador, and is colored by Frank Rapoza, who did a really great job.

Thanks to Adam and Comfort for this wonderful opportunity to play in their sandbox. I had a lot of fun doing research and sketches for The Ambassador, and I think she's a heck of a character -- what if Wonder Woman were a progressive Iranian Muslimah, and spent the majority of her time working for diplomacy rather than punching people in the face? Now that's my kind of superhero!

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May 13, 2010


Jane Irwin just deleted all of her Facebook Wall Posts.

Seriously, the privacy thing was just getting to me. I should never have allowed myself to become so dependent on it in the first place: It's a time-sink, it's yet another false substitute for actual contact with friends, and it's taken me away from supporting this blog.

I'm still keeping the account for several reasons: it does give people a chance to get a hold of me that mightn't otherwise; both sides of my family use it heavily for communication and pictures; I need it for work development; and if I ever do make another comics series, I'll need it for promotional purposes. The reality is that Facebook keeps a copy of every keystroke, every photo or link you post, even a trail of every page you visit. That info is theirs whether you delete your account entirely or not, so from now on I'll just be using it as another broadcast point for stuff I write here.

So hey, if you've noticed that I deleted some stuff you posted to my wall, never fear. I still love you in real life -- I just don't love Facebook.

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March 12, 2010

New Pinup!

Over the last couple of months, I've been doing some pinups for folks. I don't want to share them all quite yet because I want the giftees to have the right of first post. Ironically, the last one gifted is the first one to make it out on the intertubes, so I finally get to post it!

Guy Davis is hard at work on the third graphic novel of his creator-owned series The Marquis, so I made him a pinup to celebrate.

(click to embiggen)

I can hardly wait to see what fresh new horrors crawl out of his wonderfully twisted brain. If you're not familiar with Guy's personal work, you may know him from his long run on Mike Mignola's BPRD from Dark Horse. A whole bunch of other folks are doing really gorgeous Marquis pinups, and Guy's collecting them on a special blog. Go have a look!

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Self-Publishing "Secrets" Revealed, Part Three: Webcomics

These days, web presence is everything, and while I've maintained my own site for over ten years now, webcomics were never my primary focus. New advertising and promotional systems are appearing (and disappearing!) at a bewildering rate, not to mention all the different hosting options. In this week's edition of Comics are Open Source, we ask Iron Circus' Charlie "Spike" Trotman to share her webcomic knowledge and experience.

THE PULSE: You're currently making the transition from web to print -- did you always see Templar finishing as a graphic novel? What benefits do webcomics have that print editions do not? What shortfalls?

I started Templar as a webcomic with the intention of eventually publishing it on on paper, yeah. That's always been the plan. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but in ten years (or whenever), I want to be able to look up at a shelf and see Templar's full run sitting there.

I still see print as a milestone, in a way. It's proof of the comic's worth, that I believe in it. I'm willing to organize a big pre-order drive and go through all the trouble printing implies for it, because it's that important to me. SO GIVE IT A CHANCE, YOU.

THE PULSE: Templar has thousands of daily readers -- what methods are you using to drive traffic to your site? In addition to paid advertising, which sites and messageboards are good for increasing reader awareness of a new webcomic?

Oh, man. You asked for it.

The forums over at are worth a look, especially if you can be an active participant and post several times a day. And really, I know some eyes are going to roll, but the Something Awful forums are great. They have a sub-forum called "Batman's Shameful Secret" that's comics-exclusive, and it hosts multiple webcomic threads. The creators of a lot of popular comics (Dr. McNinja, Gunnerkrigg Court, Girly, Achewood) post there, and the environment is savagely, unmercifully honest. If your comic is crap, they'll tell you so. If your comic is awesome, they'll tell you that, too. If it's coming from the BSS guys, you can be sure it's not sugar-coated. That's pretty refreshing, considering the state of most online art communities. They can swarm like sharks on terrible comics, though, so they get a reputation for being cruel. It's... well, not totally unfair. But you'll definitely learn something, whatever they say.

I drop in on a few other boards, too. Hyatt Art is small, friendly, and also pretty honest. And I should post more on The Engine, but y'know, only so many hours in the day.

And while they're not really messageboards, I always get a good bump in traffic after a post on Livejournals various webcomic communities. I'm in cartoonists, comic_creators, comixgrrls, onlinecomic, webcomiccenter, and webcomics. I try to be strategic about how I post there, though. I don't tell people every single time I update, for example; I pick an interesting panel from a recent page (Scipio in the shower, for instance, or Reagan waving around a dildo) and try to draw people in once every few weeks. I also don't cross-post. A lot of people are subscribed to multiple communities, and there's nothing more irritating than seeing a copy-pasted message filling up your friends list.

And ComicSpace is awesome. If you have a webcomic that regularly updates and you don't use ComicSpace, you're ignoring a great opportunity. Get an account, fancy it up a bit with pictures and a biography, and befriend other artists and comic readers you like. It's viral! And it's worth a decent amount of hits, too. Just don't be one-a those people who attempt to friend every single soul on the site and spam them daily. People can probably assume you're not very interested in them as an e-friend when your Friends List hits 5,000, and that makes them genuinely less likely to listen to you. The same goes for MySpace, by the way.

That's the most important thing about self-promo in communities, really. DON'T BE ANNOYING. Don't spam LJ communities. Don't post once on a messageboard just to start a LOOKIT MY COMIC thread and never return. Post regularly like a normal person, and you'll get ten times the traffic a drive-by thread will get. A banner in your sig linking to your comic is more than enough.

Don't be tacky. It's so, so easy to be tacky.

And link exchanges! Do some link exchanges! Y'know that one comic you really like? Email the author and ask to swap links! Even the guys running the biggest webcomics ever are normal human beings, they're not scary. Not really, anyway. The worst that can happen is the person will say "No." And even then, it'll probably be a "Sorry, no." Is that so bad? Seriously?

Any hey, don't ignore meatspace, IRL advertising! Print up a bunch of shiny, eye-catching postcards ( has great prices) And place 'em strategically. Next to computers at the library, the internet cafe, or in the computer lab. Ask if you can leave a handful next the register at a comic shop. Dump a few at the free/schwag table at anime and comic cons, or hand them to other creators as a calling card (Handing a Templar postcard to Tycho at SDCC resulted in a link to Templar from Penny Arcade, which subsequently trashed the WCN servers. I was WANGED. We should all be so lucky).

I have a number of other self-promo plans in the works, too. But I'll stay quiet about those until I'm sure they're worth the trouble.

Wow, this answer is longer than I thought it would be. But I'm trying to be comprehensive. There are just so many ways you can go about it! And these are just MY techniques. I haven't even touched ranking and comic-listing sites, which other people use with great success all the time.

And hey before I let you go, quicktip: Sitting on your ass and complaining in your private, friends-locked LJ about how your comic never gets any traffic won't actually result in any. DO SOMETHING about it, WHINER. Nobody owes you a click, get out there and EARN 'EM.

THE PULSE: What do you use to track your visitors, and how do you use that information to fine-tune your advertising? Does tracking data have any other uses besides advertising?

I have Google Analytics. It runs behind the site, records the stats for everyone with Javascript switched on, and doesn't require a big, ugly button on the frontpage. Its primary function is reporting back how effective my promotional campaigns are. (Project Wonderful buttons on Girl Genius are a great deal, by the way. Best bang for your buck I've found so far.) When I'm trying out something new, posting on a new messageboard for example, I keep an eye on my referrers for the next couple of days to see what kind of attention I'm getting. GA saves me time by letting me know what's worth the effort and what isn't.

THE PULSE: You've tried a few different subscription models for your individual webcomics; which ones did you like best and why? Other than offering subscriptions, what are some ways you've earned money directly from the web versions of your comics?

I've had my stuff behind a subscription wall, and I've posted it for free. Far and away, the free comic has been more successful in every aspect. Financially, popularity-wise, notoriety-wise, every way. It makes no sense, but there you have it. Naturally, this means I like the free model of comicking best.

I've earned money from Templar in a few different ways. From least-profitable to most, they go like this: Google Ads, Tip Jar, T-Shirt Sales, and the Pre-Order Project. Least profitable has earned about $740.00 since Templar began two years ago, most profitable a little over $4,000.00 since January of this year. I know I sometimes wish people would tell me all the grisly details of what THEIR comics pull down, so I'll share mine. Enjoy!

The money's not net profits, or course. It's not in a big pile in the living room for me to roll around in. $3100.00 of that Pre-Order Project wad was sunk directly into printing the first Templar collection, yesterday, and a lot of what's left is going for postage when I mail the orders out. I'm going to siphon off most of the t-shirt money into printing t-shirts for con sales, soon, instead of selling through Spreadshirt (Which is a great outfit, by the way! Why are you still using Cafe Press?! Use Spreadshirt!). And a good chunk goes towards Project Wonderful advertising, which doesn't manage to pay for itself. After that, there's art supplies, a never-to-be-touched emergency fund for the day my Wacom finally dies, that sort of thing.

All that money goes back into the comic, ultimately, because I see it as a business. I take it pretty seriously. I'll be registering as an actual business and opening a business account fairly soon, too, because I'm getting into foggy financial territory and I want everything as neat and tidy as possible. Oh God don't audit me.

THE PULSE: About how much can a creator expect to spend on a year's worth of webcomic hosting? What hosting options exist? Are there any other startup costs besides hosting that a new creator should expect?

Haw! I'm the wrong person to ask, my hosting's all free. (Thanks, Joey!) All Modern Tales contributors got free WCN accounts at launch. Joey Manley says Templar was the first comic actually uploaded to the server, too. I was eager.

As for hosting options.. wow. Tons. All over. WCN, of course, is what I'd recommend. Not just out of loyalty, but because I honestly find it the easiest to deal with. The "Popular & New Today" page makes finding what updated that day easy, the peer reviews are fun to read and fun to do, and the genre categories just make navigation simple. The behind-the-scenes interface isn't too intimidating, and actually comes in Standard and Advanced versions. You don't have to iframe your blog onto the page under your comic, but if you WANT to, the option's there.

And hey, WCN's lowest-tier accounts are free! Can't beat that price, and there's always the option to upgrade to an ad-free, paying account for $9.95 a month.

Spike writes and draws Templar, Arizona on
Webcomics Nation. Her past projects have included Lucas and Odessa for and Abraham Todd for Tastes Like Chicken Magazine, both of which are currently being re-run on her ComicSpace, Sparkneedle, also on WCN, and Blikada, on Serializer.

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February 14, 2010

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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February 3, 2010

Self-Publishing "Secrets" Revealed, Part One: Print-on-Demand

When I first started work on my comic, ten years ago, my journey down the road to Self-Publishing received an enormous push-start from several professionals, including Mark "M'Oak" Oakley, Carla Speed McNeil and Jim Ottaviani. I realized what a huge gift of time and firsthand knowledge these creators were giving me, and I vowed that if I were ever in a position to do so, I would return the favor. In the intervening years, I've set up a Self-Publishing Resource page on my website -- it's neither as comprehensive nor as frequently updated as I'd like, but it's a start.

In the same spirit, I present this six-part series of columns on Self-Publishing, and since my own experience primarily revolves around traditional offset printing, I decided to enlist the help of my fellow Self-Publishers. The first five columns are interviews with individual creators, focusing on five major facets of Self-Publishing: Print-on-Demand (Layla Lawlor), Minicomics (Pam Bliss), Webcomics (Spike), Single Issues (me) and Direct to Graphic-Novel (Jim Ottaviani). The sixth and final column is a roundtable in which all five interviewees will answer the same questions, and hopefully provide a nice wide perspective of answers.

In this, the first column, we'll discuss Print-On-Demand -- a relatively new option for Self-Publishing -- with Icefall Press' Layla Lawlor.

THE PULSE: What are some of the companies that offer Print-On-Demand services? How did you find out about them, and what led you to choose the company you used?

There are quite a number of Print-On-Demand businesses (henceforth abbreviated POD), with more showing up all the time. Since most or all of them operate largely over the Internet, and they change frequently, perhaps the best way to find them is by doing a Google search for "print on demand" or "print on demand comics". And don't forget about printing businesses in your own hometown. Nearly any digital printer with bookbinding equipment will be capable of doing POD for small runs of books. Whether they will actually want to is a different story, but I've generally found that small printing places are happy to give me price quotes when I explain the project to them. Although the online printers that specialize in POD are usually cheaper, the cost of shipping can be substantial, and it is also easier to deal with a printer in your hometown if problems arise.

Whatever you decide, always shop around, getting price quotes from at least five or six different companies before you settle on one. Also look very carefully through their terms of use. A reputable POD publisher will not try to claim any rights in your work. Any rights that you grant to them must be temporary, non-exclusive, and only what they need to print your book. IT's especially useful if they have lists of books that they've printed, as that will allow you to do some behind-the-scenes checking and ask a few people if they were happy with the service they received.

Personally, I prefer POD websites that have a book cost calculator. This will allow you to enter your page count, book size and other information, and return a price quote without having to contact their sales department. This lets you try out different sizes and numbers of books to see how it affects your final cost. Some places, for example, have bulk discounts; others can be very cheap for some sizes of books but not for others.

Lulu is the company that I eventually chose. They are wonderful to deal with; I've generally gotten orders within about a week to a week-and-a-half of ordering, and everything is very professionally packed and printed. You can order books in any number, from one to several hundred. If you want to, you can also sell your books from Lulu's website without needing to deal with storing and shipping. They also have a lot of different options for sizes and kinds of bookbinding, even hardcovers. And they're a large enough business that I'm reasonably confident they won't go belly-up tomorrow, always a danger when dealing with small online companies.

Comixpress is well known, widely used and respected in the small-press comics business. The downside to this is that their turnaround time can be very long because they get booked up quickly.

Ka-Blam is a relatively new comic POD business that I have heard good things about. They are known in particular for doing affordable color printing.

THE PULSE: You've done both "traditional" offset printing and Print-On-Demand graphic novels. What led you to pick Print-On-Demand for your two (three?) most recent projects?

I went with POD for the second Raven's Children book because I didn't expect to sell very many of them. Living in Alaska, I'm not doing conventions right now, and I did not plan to solicit it through Diamond, since my orders for the first book were very low. Basically I was just going to be selling the book off my website and through a few local stores, so there was absolutely no benefit to me to pay for printing up 2000 copies, and then find a place to store them, when I probably wouldn't sell more than a couple hundred at most. This was the mistake I made with the first book: I vastly over-estimated the number of copies I could sell.

THE PULSE: How did the print quality and turnaround time differ between the two finished products? Did readers respond differently to the Print-On-Demand version than they did to the offset version?

The POD version actually looked a lot better! This is mostly because it was printed on heavier, whiter paper, with a glossy finish on the cover. For the first book, I went with the cheapest options, and it really did show; after seeing how nice the POD book looked, I will definitely be willing to pay a little extra for better paper if I do another offset press run. And I've gotten compliments on how nice the book looks.

The turnaround time from was incredibly quick. This was, in fact, one of the reasons why I chose them; when I ordered from them, they were actually even faster than the 3-5 business days that their website gives as their approximate processing time. When I had my first book done, it took about a month from the time I sent the files until I received the final shipment of books. Did you find any limitations to Print-On-Demand that you didn't have when offset printing?

Honestly, I much preferred the POD process from a customer standpoint. Of course, I also know quite a bit about setting up files for reproduction, since I do newspaper prepress for a living. Everything was automated; I set up the files at home, preparing them according to the detailed specifications on the website, uploaded them and was ready to go! The only thing that most POD places don't offer, compared to traditional printers, is a proof copy of your book to check for mistakes -- a particular concern is files that are corrupted in the upload process, which takes awhile even over broadband as you're dealing with huge files. I worked around this by ordering a single copy of the book just to look at it and make sure everything was okay before making a larger order.

Since I'm ordering the books in small batches, if I need to change anything before I order the next batch, I can do it! Small text corrections, for example. It was pointed out to me that the bar code on the back is not in the newer 13-digit format, so I'll be fixing that the next time I order a batch of books.

THE PULSE: About how much does it cost to set up a black-and-white Print-On-Demand book, and how much can you expect to pay per volume? How does that pricing structure affect your ability to sell your books through bookstores and distributors?

The price depends on page count, as well as on other factors such as shipping, whether your POD printer charges a setup fee, and other factors like what kind of binding you want to use. My second Raven's Children book was 200 pages, and including shipping (which, since I'm in Alaska, is killer expensive), I ended up paying about $8.80 per book. The first Raven's Children book, printed in bulk quantities with an offset printer, cost me only about $1.70 per book! You can clearly see that I'm not going to be making a comfortable living off POD even if I sell a ton of books. However, I only had 100 copies of the second book printed, so it still cost me much less (total) than the 3000 copies of the first book. You can do the math here: for less than $1,000 I got all the copies of the second book that I've so far been able to sell, whereas I spent about $5,000 to print far, far more copies of the first book than I could sell.

It's hard to turn a profit on POD books, however, when you sell them through stores. The usual rule of thumb is that distributors pay about 40% of the cover price of the book, which means that I would have to set my cover price for Raven's Children #2 at $22.00 just to break even! Clearly I'm not going to be able to ask that much for a 200-page standard-sized paperback graphic novel. So the book is really only economical for me to sell off my website. I sell a handful of books through a few local stores and a small in-state distributor, but due to the steep wholesale discount, I'm actually losing money on those books -- the books are basically advertising for me, because I'm certainly not making a profit on them. Usually, you can only make money on POD when you sell the books yourself, so that you can keep the entire amount of the cover price and make a profit without pricinig yourself right out of the market. But this means that your market will be limited strictly to the people you can reach from your website or from conventions.

Layla Lawlor was born and raised in Alaska, and she presently lives north of Fairbanks, AK in a log cabin -- with Internet access, of course! She has published two volumes of the Arctic fantasy Raven's Children and produces Freebird, a weekly humor strip on Alaska life for Fairbanks' local entertainment guide. Her first foray into science fiction is Kismet: Hunter's Moon, a completed webcomic that will be available as a graphic novel in summer 2007. She posts updates on all her projects at

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Comics Are Open Source Interviews

A few years ago, I did a series of interviews for The Pulse with my fellow self-publishers about how they each made their own comics, on the web, with photocopies, with single issues, and with full-blown, offset-printed graphic novels. The originals have since vanished down the memory hole, but Jen Contino was kind enough to allow me to reprint them here. I'll be adding a new one every day or so, to give them a permanent home. The information is, of course, a few years old, but the majority of the advice is still quite valid.

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