So Long and Thanks for the Fish, man #006: Indie Comic Book Publishing 101 Part 6

Making a comic, sadly, isn’t as simple as knowing how to write or draw. It’s an amalgam of skills that run the gamut from the soup to the nuts (I seriously love that phrase). And in our world, you either choose to learn it all, or pay to have it done. This week, we’re going to cover the DIY approach that Unshaven Comics took. Experience our highs, and wallow with us through the lows. Let’s make an omelet, kiddos.

Printing your comic is far harder than you think.

When Unshaven Comics first started publishing on our own — recall that our first gig was through Mendoza Publishing, which was great, but they weren’t interested in doing floppy copies with us— we’d figured finding an affordable printer who could produce short runs of our book would be a cakewalk. Here we are, in the digital age, where the internet shrinks the world by the second! How hard could it be?

Hard. Very hard, in fact. 

Before you’re even tempted to click print, you must determine the actual finished product you wish to place in the hands of your potential customer. Will you print digital or offset? Digital printing means your comic is printed on a large-scale laser printer, offset means your comic will be produced off a set of printing plates that are inked and pressed into the final paper. Digital is affordable, but offset produces a higher quality end-product. And what paper will you print to? Slick glossy paper like DC and Marvel use can give your book that professional feeling you want to promote. But good old fashioned newsprint can be far cheaper, and produce a retro vibe if you’re feeling extra hipster. You see? It’s already a rabbit hole and you’ve not even saved down to a printable file yet!

Another valuable lesson to learn about printing is that it only starts to become affordable when you’re printing in large quantities. And let me not hide behind a veil of vague terminology. When we decided to print our first comic to sell at the only convention we could afford to show at, we modestly figured we would print 150 comics that clocked in at a whopping 24 pages with cover. We’d found an online comic printing service that sold in small quantities. With shipping (and again, this was ten years ago) we wound up with a bill that came to a little over three dollars a book.

Three dollars was our cost for 150 books that we had planned to sell for four dollars. And for our trouble of using the online dealer? We learned about the harsh reality of shipping books. When one uses the low-rent provider? One receives a single cardboard box with your order sloughed into its unlined interior, where upon it can be dropped 17 ways from Sunday before arriving in a heap on your stoop with a mere day and a half out your comic con — leaving you no opportunity to be refunded for damaged books, or dare ask for some reprints. And to be clear? We didn’t sell out at the only convention we would attend in that year to boot. To say we were discouraged was an understatement. But I digress.

It was at this time, I learned an important set of skills in the DIY comic publisher’s toolbox: persistence, negotiation, and fearlessness.

Following our soul-crushing defeat at our first convention (post “The March: Crossing Bridges in America”) I set out, determined, to find a better printer. I wound up calling two dozen local printers and explained my plight. And it was only the very last one I found that could offer us a price that finally let us squeak the faintest of margins should we sell out. But hey. Local printer meant no shipping issues or upcharges. And local meant that I could see the books as they came off the line to ensure that our colors were bright, and no mistakes were made. And should we trip over a bent or defective book? Well, we could bring them back after the show for a credit or reprint.

Now, as it stands, the game has changed significantly over the last ten years we’ve been making books. While certain rules remain the same — printing more copies means less to spend per book — there are now far better comic-specific vendors operating presses both in the states and abroad. Vendors who will do all the legwork for you for a small upcharge that eliminates the hassle of doing the leg work. But even a small upcharge is more money out of your pocket. What is the opportunity cost of your time, young padawan?

All this, and we’ve not even begun to discuss distribution. Put a pin in that though. We’ve got a few more weeks to go.

I’d like to end on a bit of snarky business, if you’ll indulge me:

After Unshaven Comics completed the work on our first graphic novel, I (as the acting business dude of the company) turned to a trusted friend to assist in my pursuit of a printer. Because our local floppy-copy producer didn’t specialize in the kind of binding and production we needed for the 200 page tome we’d produced… I acquiesced in hopes of not needing to do all the leg work to ultimately pull the trigger on the single biggest purchase in our li’l company’s illustrious history. After securing all the specifications (size of the book, type of paper to use, etc.), I was given our price by said friend. As I was pulling out the checkbook to get things rolling, my Spidey sense tingled, and I asked a throw-away question…

“So, we’re looking at a total bill of X dollars, lock, stock, and 2 smoking barrels?”

“Well, yes. Plus our brokerage fees. For finding the printer, and getting you into the Diamond Previews book, we’ll be charging you X percent on top of the cover price.”

The next day, I called that printer, cold. I explained who I was (they didn’t care), and gave them the specifications of our book. The quote they gave me was a whopping 25 cents more expensive than the quote given to me by my friend — before the upcharge for the brokerage fees. I crunched the numbers to learn that it would cost us a dollar and a half per book to be off to the presses. It didn’t sit right with me.

So, I set forth to do what I’d done long ago. I hit the digital pavement hard, and called no fewer than two dozen printers across the country. I pulled in a dozen quotes, and ultimately found a printer who beat my friend’s quote by over 33%. No upcharge. No brokerage fees. No worthless Diamond placement (and trust me, we’ll get into that soon enough).

The lesson, I hope you can see, is that you can’t hate the game. Hate the players. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, it can mean the difference between slinging pulp that profits or walking on easy street with hope merely to break even.

Next week… The game-changer. The world-breaker. Crowd funding… Blessing or bane?