Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Swimming With Sharks, Part Two

Last week I talked about the hazards involved with dealing with traditional publishing for you creative types who long to see your work in print.

This week I want to talk about the alternative– publishing it yourself. Because there are huge hazards there, too. A great many of them involve money, but there are a few that don’t. There are all sorts of things you can trip over whether your primary intention is to support yourself (unlikely), cover your costs (slightly less unlikely), or just enjoy yourself (okay, I’ll give fifty-fifty odds on that one.)

Let’s start at the beginning. You want to Make A Thing. Drawing, video, prose fiction, comics, whatever. You want people to see it and in a perfect world you want to get enough money from it to at least cover what it cost out-of-pocket to make it. Getting a publisher to take it has been ruled out for whatever reason, so you are going to do it all yourself. How do you do that? Is it even possible?

Possible, yeah. Sure. But you need to bear a few hard truths in mind. I’ll run down the most common ones for you. These are the things that many beginners get not just wrong, but spectacularly, heartbreakingly wrong. To begin with…

Traditional distribution is closed to you. Period. It just is. You are not going to get your book in bookstores without a major publisher behind you. With comics you have a slightly better chance of getting your project into a local retailer’s shop–IF he’s indie-friendly and IF he has the space to offer– but it will be ghetto space with lots of other self-published zinesters, probably, not up front with Batman or the Avengers. As for the deal itself, the best you’ll get is something like an offer to take three to five copies on consignment, strictly on a returnable basis. Sure, you might persuade Diamond to list your comic but there is very little chance that leads to retailers ordering your comic. On a non-returnable basis? When no one has ever heard of you? Pfft. Forget it. Comics retailers balk at ordering newly-launched character comics from DC or Marvel, not when a new Batman title is a much better bet for them. The ones that even bother with ordering “back of the book” stuff in Previews are few and far between, and in those rare cases it’s usually from name creators doing work through fairly large and well-known outfits like Boom! or Oni.

Likewise with music… back in my college days, I knew dozens of local punk bands that thought they could monetize their huge fan following into a CD or even just a cassette, and that would be the gateway to the Big Time. The project invariably ended up crashing and burning, because packing a dance hall with a couple of hundred vociferous fans is barely a blip in terms of wholesale record sales. Even if every one of those cheering slightly-drunk people on the dance floor goes and buys a record Monday morning after the show, it probably won’t cover the cost of the studio and production time, let alone turn a profit. Even today, where you can offer to sell a download instead of a physical product like a CD, it’s still long odds that you’d move any product at all, let alone in triple digits… which is what it takes.

Gambling that you can wholesale your dream project is a great way to go broke, and it has happened A LOT; in books, in music, in comics, everywhere. Even to seasoned professionals who’ve built a rep. So forget about getting your Thing placed with a retail outlet like Barnes and Noble (frequent commenter Jeff Nettleton was very eloquent about this last week) or a major distributor like Diamond. Even if the miracle happens and you persuade them to carry your stuff, it won’t be enough of it to make any kind of financial difference to you.

The big thing that indie entrepreneurs trip over is wholesale price versus retail price. Because there is an upper limit on what a consumer will spend on a particular item. To take the closest example– me — speaking as a consumer, I just won’t pay more than $3.99 for a comic book, more than $12 for a paperback, or more that $20 for a hardcover. Period. Not for new stuff, not even from creators I hugely admire. And I’m a FAN, I blow most of my disposable income on books and comics.

It’s not enough through traditional distribution to sell your thing– just to break even, you have to sell MANY of them. Wholesale, the creator sees maybe forty percent, usually far less. (Best consignment deal I ever saw a local retailer offer was half, and the books just sat there on the shelf for months until finally the retailer gave them back with a sigh and said, “We tried.”) You have to move huge numbers of your project for wholesaling to be any help to you, and as an unknown self-published creator you aren’t going to. Many creators try to compensate by charging a higher price for the book or whatever, but they run into the brick wall of the distaste consumers have for paying more than a reasonable amount. (I have seen guys trying to charge $7.99 for a 32-page black-and-white zine. Sorry, but I wouldn’t pay that for something by Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, let alone by some unknown goatee’d hipster at a small-press festival.) So forget it; even if they take a chance on you, wholesaling to a retailer or a distributor is not going to work if you’re a beginner.

No, if you are to have any success at all, you need to get the full retail price of your book or video or album going straight to you, with no middleman. But if you can’t be in stores, how can you possibly do that?

The obvious answer to that, I hear all of you shouting, is “the internet!” Which brings me to my next point…

The internet is a tool, not a magic wand. First of all, it’s very, VERY difficult to make any money on the internet. Everyone thinks content should be free; even for things like novels and films that no one thinks they should be able to grab off a physical store shelf, you’ll contend with a staggering amount of whining and bitching about the idea of paying for an e-copy. People twist themselves into knots trying to justify not paying for work they find online. (To say nothing of the whole torrenting/piracy subculture. Out in meatspace, taking stuff without paying is theft. On the net, it’s just how it is. For some reason, it seems less real to consumers to pirate a movie for free, even though most of those people would never try sneaking into a movie theater without paying. )

The few who are willing to pay won’t pay a lot. I know quite a few Eisner and Harvey award winners who have pay-for-content sites up at places like Patreon, and they’re lucky to see a hundred bucks a month out of that. These are seasoned professionals with fan followings numbering in the THOUSANDS. A beginner like you, on the other hand, has no track record or following and it’s highly unlikely someone will take a chance on you just as an impulse buy. Consumers of art, as a rule, are hugely conservative. Mystery fans are far more likely to buy a book by a favorite author than to take a chance on a new one, and doing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche is vastly more lucrative than a new series idea. Take a look at paperback book covers sometime… see how often you find the phrase, “in the tradition of…” or “from the author that brought you…” Genre fans, especially, want it the same, but a little different.

So understand that even if you make some sales through your site, there won’t be many. That leaves advertising as your primary internet income option.

It’s not much and it takes years to build an online audience big enough for it to provide anything at all. Here at the Junk Shop, we use a few different channels for that– Google and Amazon Associates, mainly. But we made a conscious decision to, first, invest our time without worrying about the financial reward, and second, NOT to use all the options available because pop-ups and autoplay internet ads are hugely annoying. The number of clicks that we’d get that might generate income are far outnumbered by the people who’d swear they’ll never go back to our shitty website again. So we decided we were working for love for the time being and hope that eventually we’d get to a place where instead of pennies, maybe we’d be making nickels. So far that plan is on track; what we get from those income streams is not really enough to cover our time, or even the money we spend on the things we write about, but I think we’re at least breaking even on our server fees. Long journey, single steps.

Another hazard to bear in mind with the internet is that most novelists and comics creators and musicians really suck at web design. Here at the Junk Shop we are blessed with Jim MacQuarrie, who’s been doing it for money for decades. (I assure you that without Jim’s expertise none of us would have dared to even try this venture.) Without an expert’s help, your website is going to be largely useless even if you do it through somebody like WordPress or Etsy or whoever. I mean a REAL expert, not someone like your nephew who’s “really good with computers.” Be prepared to pay or barter, because expertise costs.

This brings me to the hardest truth of all…

Everything costs money and everybody but you wants it up front. Period. No printer in the world is going to care how many years you’ve been slaving over your graphic novel or how good it might be. They charge the same to copy and bind books or comics or zines whether it’s genius or crap… and remember what I said above about sales. Gambling that you can get all your costs back from sales is frankly insane, because sales income takes months– years– to come in. But your producer/supplier/whatever that you need to get your thing made won’t accept payment on the installment plan. They want it up front. This, more than any other factor, is what crashes small-press concerns. Even if your guy gives you a ninety-day invoice, that’s not going to be enough time to pay it off with actual sales from your project.

The best way out of this dilemma for self-publishers are websites like Kickstarter where you can get your costs covered with pre-orders. It’s the best option, certainly, but it’s not foolproof, and the chances are you won’t get fully funded. Why? Because…

You can’t be an option if you are invisible. That means you need to be out there relentlessly shilling for what you do. The genre convention circuit is one way to do this. Tabling at a local show is usually under fifty bucks for two days, and it’s a way to connect with like-minded people who might like what you do. There’s a lot more I could say about HOW to table successfully… but that deserves its own column and this is already running long.

You can harangue people on social media as well, but that’s more likely to be an annoyance for your friends and family than anything else. I am pretty relentless about banging the drum for the column and my various book projects but I doubt I’ve actually sold more than thirty books in the last four years through that kind of badgering. Still, it’s a way to let people know your project exists.

If you are with me this far and still wanting to do your project and get it out there even if you lose money on it? There are still two things I want to warn you about.

First is that the amount of work involved is likely going to take the fun out of the art. Seriously. Nothing sucks the joy out of publishing your book like being faced with packaging and mailing out copies of it to people in a timely manner, especially if you have successfully Kickstarted it and have a hundred pre-orders you need to fulfill. It’s drudgery and it takes a meticulous attention to detail that creative people tend to not be good at. If you can recruit volunteer help — a spouse or significant other is probably going to be willing to pitch in, but boy, they better really love you a lot– you still don’t dare leave the detail work to them unless they’ve been shoulder-to-shoulder with you as a full partner all the way. Even then it can be problematic. Remember, once money changes hands, it’s not about art any more, it’s business. Even when it’s just a break-even proposition.

Which brings me to my final warning….

Don’t make enemies out of your collaborators. Passion projects, especially, are prey to this. Book, comic, film, epic poem, whatever, no one is going to love your thing as much as you do. My wife is without question, my biggest fan… but I don’t drag her into all the drudgery involved in submitting work, or packaging and mailing out books, or any of that stuff. When she volunteers to help out it is a gift, never an obligation. I treat it as such.

So when people help out because they care about you but don’t seem all that interested in your project, don’t punish them for it. I mentioned all the bands I saw break up over this kind of thing, and there are dozens more examples I can name where years of friendship have been destroyed over something as simple as who pays for a convention table space. Remember that if you have help you have to treat them with the kind of respect and courtesy you would hope for from an employer, even if– ESPECIALLY IF— they are volunteer help. Because it’s not the holy cause to them that it is to you and never will be.

After all these caveats, last week and this week, you are probably wondering why I even think it’s worth all the trouble to make a piece of art if the hazards are so omnipresent for such a relatively small reward.

I occasionally ask myself the same question. Here’s the only answer I have — because I love doing it. The act of making a thing and sharing it, in and of itself.

I don’t know where it comes from but it’s been lifelong with me– from making posters in grade school, to doing zines in high school and college, to years of writing for magazines and websites from the early 1990s to now. It’s hard-wired. As I tell my Young Authors students, you kind of HAVE to love it. Because the tangible rewards just aren’t there until you’ve done it for years. I have been writing stories since age three– literally before I could read, I was making picture narratives with crayons– and my first magazine sale anywhere to anyone came at age thirty-one. I’m fifty-five now, over two decades as a published author and artist, and the income is still hardly more than date-night money… or on rare occasions weekend-at-the-beach money.

But the joy of doing it, of seeing an idea realized as a tangible piece, is still there. That’s payment enough.

Which is a good thing, because the intangible reward is really the only one I can count on.

Back next week with something cool.


  1. Le Messor

    “I just won’t pay more than $3.99 for a comic book, more than $12 for a paperback, or more that $20 for a hardcover. Period.”

    Gah! You Americans and your ability to pay such low prices! I can’t even get a comic book for $3.99 or a paperback for $12. Not new, anyway.

    “and second, NOT to use all the options available because pop-ups and autoplay internet ads are hugely annoying.”

    And I, for one, thank you for it.
    Also, please never give in and go with Taboola-type advertising. I have allergies.

    “Don’t make enemies out of your collaborators.”

    Your examples are about annoying them / treating them like employees (slaves) in things related to what you’re doing.
    Don’t limit to that. Don’t insult your underlings / collaborators / whatever you want to call them, even if it’s completely unrelated to whatever you’re collaborating on. If they keep working for you, it could be the last time.

    “After all these caveats, last week and this week, you are probably wondering why I even think it’s worth all the trouble to make a piece of art if the hazards are so omnipresent for such a relatively small reward.”

    Oddly… no. It never crossed my mind (not about making the art – selling it afterwards? Okay, yeah, I wondered about that).

    Your final couple of paragraphs are the most common (and best) advice: Only ever do this because you love it, never because you want to make money on it.

  2. The trap is this:

    Everyone you do business with, from retailer to reader, knows that you are doing this because you love it, and will try to convince you that getting paid for it is a betrayal of that love, that you are “selling out” or “prostituting your talent.”

    Don’t fall for it. Getting paid is the gas that keeps the engine running. Don’t let anyone exploit you or make you feel guilty for expecting money.

    1. Le Messor

      Whenever I hear somebody talking like that, it smacks to me of pretentious undergroundness anyway. I tend to turn off.

      As if ‘commercial’ and ‘good’ are two sides at war with each other; in truth, there’s no correlation between commerciality and quality, any more than between popularity and quality. Or enjoyability.

      Also, re ‘The Artist’s Paradox’, I wrote something similar once in response to somebody saying ‘Music should be free’ (yes, they attributed it to Jerry Garcia).
      I also talked about how musicians (artists) also need to live; so why should they not get paid for what they do?

      “A final suggestion: learn to speak “managerese”; use empty jargon and buzzwords, and position yourself as an “asset creator” rather than an artist.”

      Gah! I’m not only creative, I’m a lover of the English language. I don’t think I can choke half that crap out.
      (But I will listen to Mission Statement by ‘Weird Al’…)

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    Thanks for the shout out Greg, though I didn’t think it was that eloquent; more of a rant.

    Believe me, when I was a bookseller, I wanted to be a champion for local authors and other authors who made appearances. In central Illinois, we didn’t get many name authors. I did everything I could to stir up our customers, from PA announcements that gave a flavor of the work, to pointing them out to customers, to even asking questions at a Q & A because not many were coming. People just have their own agenda in the store and you can’t always grab their attention.

    I also tried to champion graphic novels and comics and tried to get us to order more and suggested titles and, as a manager, even local ordered some. More often than not, they sat there. I love European stuff and tried to create a nice endcap of titles from Humanoids (when DC was distributing them) and a few others. I sold maybe one book. I love a lot of the self-published comics that were out there in the late 80s ad early 90s and watched most of them take it to a bigger publisher or just fold it all together. I still lament that Hepcats remains unfinished. Martin Wagner had a great series; but, he wasn’t making money at it. Jeff Smith fared better; but, what really helped seal the deal for him was the deal with Scholastic. That gets attention that Cartoon Books just couldn’t.

    Really, the ending paragraphs apply to everything in life; you have to do it because you love it. Finding a way to earn a living doing something you love, or close enough to give you some of the same fulfillment, will do more for you than chasing the job that pays more, in the long run.

  4. toothpaste

    Hi, so this is a good primer for people with a pet project (and I’ve got multiple projects like that), but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on people that want careers in the arts – although specifically writing, as I’m more or less a prose fiction guy.

    Personally, I’m someone who is game to write franchises and do mercenary creative work (not for free) and I’m not looking to make millions at it. I’m fine with knowing I’ll have to work non-art jobs my whole life in addition to creating, but I’d like to develop some sort of presence in an industry like comics or genre fiction, ideally with a chunk of rent coming in from creative endeavors if possible.

    Any advice?

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