So Long and Thanks for the Fish, man #001: Indie Comic Book Publishing 101 Part 1

Indie Comic Book Publishing 101

Part 1: Trust is Earned

For those (few) who know me, I sincerely welcome you back to the Snark Show. For those uninitiated? Allow myself to introduce… myself. Oy.

My name is Marc Alan Fishman. I have been in the indie comic book publishing game now for about ten years. My studio, Unshaven Comics, has been slinging pulp and paper in the trenches of comic cons from our home base in Chicago, to as far east as New York, to as far west as Denver. Over my decade of work — as a writer, artist, designer, letterer, colorist, marketer, salesman, and company chauffeur— I have amassed a sundry sack of salacious sapience for the would-be indie darling. In addition, I’ve also become quite adept at useless alliteration. Natch. So, you want to make comic books? I’m going to take you on a journey over the next ten weeks dissecting what could have been a nifty listicle, and expanding each of my ten points into full-fledged advice columns.

Let’s start with the single most important thing I’ve learned in my decade (and change) of comic bookery:

Trust is earned.

I know it sounds either like a useless platitude, or plain common sense… But please hear me out. After ten years being fed promises, half-truths, and a few outright lies by friends, mentors, and sage advice-givers… I’ve come to realize that no one is deserving of your trust until they do what they say they’ll do for you. Comic Books are a business too, and as such, there are sharks in the water awaiting fresh blood.

While the less said about Louis CK the better these days (as in: I don’t like shining a light on people who no longer deserve said spotlight), there’s a set of episodes in his mostly brilliant TV show Louie that immediately come to mind. Entitled “Late Show”, the premise showcased a somewhat surreal take on the titular schlub being tapped to take over the then retiring David Letterman and his distinguished throne on “The Late Show”. At one point in the episodes (it was a three-parter), Jerry Seinfeld makes an important cameo to lend some sage advice to his floundering friend. A few story beats later, CK realizes the advice was sabotage, and it ignites the fire necessary for him to succeed in his audition, alone. While he still loses the gig, the lesson remains cemented in his (and our) psyche; even would-be friends can become enemies if you let your guard down.

Don’t misconstrue my message though; the silver lining to this dark and foreboding cloud is that when trust is earned, lean into it! Enjoy this tale of two cohorts, to get my meaning:

Early in our Unshaven careers, we were woo’ed by an important-sounding set of suitors. Over some shared meals and conversations drowning in name-drops and when I worked at [Major Publisher] anecdotes, we were welcomed into the fold. Anything we thought we could need was offered to us on a silver platter. Marketing advice! Cost-saving printing! Distribution! A library of colorists, letterers, and production specialists to help us if we ever got into a bind! Opportunities to produce work outside of our own imprint! The future seemed so bright, we went out and bought shades. Trust, in this case, was given by pedigree. Certainly folks offering us as many solutions, couched in their years of experience, seemed like the right move to make as veritable greenhorns in the industry.

Smash cut to me being waken from the fever dream. The silver platter was tarnished by rust of reality. The marketing advise was outdated and fruitless. The cost-saving printing came with a markup that would see us pay more for our books than had we patiently and painfully sourced a printer on our own. The distribution felt like a big risk for a minimal reward. The library of assorted production help was never offered up when needed. And the opportunities to produce work came only after literally everyone else had been asked personally, while we begged for the chance to pitch. Under the guise of friendship, Unshaven Comics took a long hard look at the relationship and came to a sobering conclusion. Personally, we’d made bonds with these folks that we cherish to this day. Professionally, it was as if we’d never known them at all.  Or worse, perhaps we never should have.

Contrast this with professional relationship Unshaven Comics forged with our current production assistant. We stumbled over an errant social media post where he was seeking some freelance work — color flatting (a very time-consuming but necessary component of comic production) for a nominal fee. We reached out, and a promise was made; send the black and white artwork to him, and in an agreed upon time, it would be delivered as desired… after which payment would be required.

And so we sent him some black and white artwork. And in an agreed upon time, it was delivered back to us, flatted perfectly. We paid the very affordable rate for the work completed. We slapped a digital high-five, and have since worked with him for the better part of a year now. Trust, as it were, was earned.

Lesson learned. Take it to heart, as you make your own journey forward in the indie comics game.

Next week? Indie Comic Book Publishing 101: Exposure Is A Four Letter Word