So Long and Thanks for the Fish, man #002: Indie Comic Book Publishing 101 Part 2

Indie Comic Book Publishing 101

Part 2: Exposure is a Four-letter Word

Welcome back to my ten part deluge on how to become an independent success. Wait, let’s curb that term. Would you be OK with “independent non-failure”? Yeah… that’s the ticket. So, you’ve learned all about my trust issues. Now, we move on to the deadliest term bandied about to rookies trying to break in:


Don’t let its character count hide the fact that exposure is a four-letter word in my book… and it should be in yours too. 

Think about it. How many success stories can you name in the arts world where someone did something for free, for someone else and wound up rich beyond their wildest imaginations due specifically to the exposure of that artist to the public at large. Here’s the rub: find it for me, and let’s both go ask them how the hell it worked. Pardon my citing of Satan’s dominion, but after ten years at it, I’ve sacrificed enough of my time and energy to learn “Fool me eighteen or so times, and shame on me.”

The fact of the matter is this: People offer exposure when they can’t offer money. And when you except publicity as payment – with no contractual obligation for the original party to ever compensate you – you price your work and worth at zero dollars.

Free is a fatal term. It reduces value to null. Buy one hamburger, get one free? Well, what that really did was reduce the price of two burgers. Next time you visit that restaurant (sans sale), you’ll view that same hamburger as being overpriced. Now, mark down your time, energy, and effort writing, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering, or editing a book for free. When you’re done, what incentive does the producer really have to balance the books so to speak? None. Your value is zilch!

All too often whilst peddling our wares in Artist Alleys across the US, we get pitched by a plethora of plucky producers sporting any number of titanic talents. And with each portfolio we review, comes the hard part: beyond any constructive criticism we may offer, comes their inevitable ask to join our ranks, or collaborate. And we have always sadly needed to decline – knowing that if their work was such that we felt compelled to collaborate with them? We could hardly pay them a fair (or even insulting…) rate. And we at Unshaven Comics were told, literally on the day we started making comics, that no one should ever work for free.

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. Let’s say a spritely entrepreneur grabs you by the ink-stained hands, and tells you how they love your work, but can’t pay right now. So, you help them make their mutant space rabbit noir comic book, and they promise to get your name out there. It’ll be on every book! And they’re going to go to every comic con across all 50 states and sell those books! And then, when all those sales pay for the printing of the books? Well, that next book they do with you, they’ll pay you double. Great! 

So, what happens when they don’t sell well in Wichita? What happens when it tanks in Topeka? Your would-be benefactor now has a basement full of books, and you have a tired drawing hand. And your epic yarn about the bourgeoisie and killer dolphins is still left on your board, unfinished. One person has product and an unkept promise. But you, my dear artist, can’t pay the bills with unkept promises, now can you?

Charging for your work, in all situations, sets precedent. A line in the sand where you declare to the world at large “my hands will not create X without compensation Y!” In the eyes of your would-be suitor? You’re creating a more balanced ledger. Exposure promised by the marketing and distribution of the work you contribute to, simply is not tangible legal tender. It’s an investment. A risk. A gamble. It’s saddling your worth to the ox cart you’re not driving. If it ends up in a gulch? Well, partner? Thems the breaks.

Stated clearly: You should be investing in yourself first. Especially in this modern era of the independent publisher. You can’t demand a Big Mac for the promise of hashtagging it on your Instagram page (unless you’re like a super insta-lebrity and like, you totes got that marketing shiz on lock, ya’ll). Hence, no one should ask you to sacrifice your hand for their vision. Art, when it becomes a commodity, means we have to separate our enthusiasm for pragmatism. And at the end of the day?

Bitch better have my money.

Next week? The importance of networking. It’s not for IT nerds anymore!

[read part 1 here -Adriane]

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