Knowing Is Half The Battle: Dan Berry Gives Advice on the Publishing Industry

You’ve been working on your comic for what probably seems like forever and finally, you feel that you are ready to share it with the world. Of course, you can always go the route of self-publishing, but that carries with it a number of obligations and expectations — printing, shipping, marketing — that you may not have the desire or the knowledge to take on. Thankfully, there are a number of amazing small press comics publishers who are constantly looking to expand their catalog and bring new voices into the world.

Unfortunately, though, as much as there are ethical publishers who want what’s best for the artists they publish, there are also bad actors who prey on the talents of young and new creators.

How do I move forward from an idea to a finished book? How should I approach the licensing of print and digital rights for my comics? Who owns the copyright for my work? How do royalties and advances work? There are a lot of questions about the publishing process, some of which are unique to comics, and some of which are standard areas of concern for working artists around the world.

Part of the goal of Fieldmouse Press, the nonprofit press that publishes SOLRAD, is to advance the comics arts. We see the continued social and economic success of cartoonists as integral to that goal. SOLRAD has devoted and will continue to devote resources to this area of focus.

To this end, we are running an ongoing feature at SOLRAD called KNOWING IS HALF THE BATTLE where we both feature an artist every week and ask for their advice about navigating the world of comics publishing, best practices for the business of comics, and other general advice.

For the initial interview series, Sarah Wray from Astra Editorial, who has worked with publishers such as Avery Hill, Liminal 11, and Breakdown Press, reached out to a number of cartoonists that she has worked with and provided them with the following prompting statements:

  • The main thing(s) I expect from a comics publisher is/are…
  • My #1 advice for submitting to agents and publishers…
  • A sneaky red flag or shady thing I would warn new creators to look out for…
  • I think it can be worth it to take a lower-paid illustration job in return for ___…
  • If a publisher/offer seemed too good to be true, here’s how I’d check it out…
  • An organization I’d go to for support if I needed advice or if something went wrong…
  • My best tip for promoting your work online and at cons…
  • To take care of your health / mental health as an artist, I recommend…
  • I wish someone had told me ___ before I started working in the comics industry…

To add to the dialogue, we continue to reach out to cartoonists using this format. Today on The More You Know we’re featuring tips from Dan Berry

Dan Berry is a cartoonist, illustrator, podcaster, and educator based in the town of Shrewsbury, UK. He is a frequent collaborator with the author David Gaffney and is currently working on the follow-up to The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head; a book called Rivers. Since 2012, he has produced the podcast Make It Then Tell Everybody in which he has spoken to over a hundred other artists about what they do and how they do it. 

Between 2008 and 2019 he was the Programme Leader for the illustration, comics, and children’s books degree courses at the School of Creative Arts, Wrexham Glyndwr University. He has produced illustration work for The NME, Michael Rosen, The National Union of Teachers, and more. 

He has produced the following books (in roughly chronological order):

The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head with David Gaffney & Sara Lowes (2016), Sent/Not Sent (2016), 24 by 7 (2015, with Kristyna Baczynski, Joe Decie, Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, Sarah McIntyre, Fumio Obata & Jack Teagle, published by Fanfare Presents, nominated for Best Anthology, Eisner Awards 2016), Bear Canyon (2015), Hourly Comics 2015 Nicholas & Edith (2014), The End (2014), Carry Me (2013), Throw Your Keys Away (2013), The Suitcase (2013, by Blank Slate Books), Hey You! (2013), After We Shot The Grizzly (2012, with The Handsome Family), Cat Island (2012), Lasagne (2011), Silky Wilson (2010), Onion Soup (2010), Oxford Clay (2009-10), and a bunch of mini-comics and stuff too profoundly embarrassing to share before that.

If you want to buy his comics, ask questions, discuss commissions, or anything else, you can contact him via his website. Dan is also on most social media as @thingsbydan. Apart from Facebook. Screw Facebook.

Dan Berry

The main thing(s) I expect from a comics publisher is/are…

A few things really — to help facilitate your story through editorial and design work, but also to market the book in a way that is going to give your book the best chance to sell the most books. It often feels like a book has a very brief window of a couple of weeks in which it is new and exciting, and, after that, the book becomes much harder to publicize. A publisher should work with the artist to give a book a really good run up at success, helping to facilitate interviews, events, and reviews. 

My #1 advice for submitting to agents and publishers…

I think of it in terms of mitigating risk. How can I convince someone that the book I’m proposing is likely to make back at least as much money as is spent on it, and ideally make far more money? This comes down to a load of things that are likely to be specific to the artist and the project but includes: the profile of the artist, the scale of the project, the content of the story, the style of the artwork — these could all be points at which the project becomes too risky. I try to think along these lines — is what I’ve done previously, as well as what I’ve put into this proposal, going to help someone believe in this project? If not, then how do I address that? 

A sneaky red flag or shady thing I would warn new creators to look out for…

For me, this all comes down to communication — how well someone communicates with you is a fairly immediate tell. When someone who wants to work with me is murky on detail or avoids answering questions directly, that’s a big warning for me. It’s not an immediate “pull the ripcord” moment, as not everyone is good at verbalizing their thoughts after all, but it certainly puts me on edge a little. If someone is reluctant to talk about money, or they obsess over one aspect of the job to the detriment of everything else, I start to get worried. If someone is paying me for creative work and they talk more about their own ideas than the work I’m doing, that also gets me worried. It’s a whole separate skill, communicating with people — reading between the lines, understanding what they are trying to say vs what they are actually saying. Where I can, I like to talk face to face or on the phone where you can’t misread someone’s tone of voice in the same way you can in an email. Other than that, the most recurring red flag for me is when the person talks trash about people they’ve worked with previously. “We worked with xxx previously but they couldn’t deliver,” for example. Hearing stuff like this is a glimpse into the future and how you are possibly going to be treated. Red Flag.

I think it can be worth it to take a lower-paid illustration job in return for ___…

There’s this idea that exposure in itself is a bad thing, that working for exposure is inherently bad. That said, I think there are different kinds of exposure. I split my projects into three categories- – projects for money, projects for fun, and projects for profile. Ideally, they’d do all three — pay really well, be a pure delight to work on, and help raise my profile. I’ve done projects behind NDAs that have been really fun and well paid, but nobody else has ever seen them. I’ve also done work that didn’t pay so well, but it was great fun and helped raise my profile. You get the idea. 

If a publisher/offer seemed too good to be true, here’s how I’d check it out…

I’d ask around other people who’ve been in the same position or have worked with them before. If you don’t yet have the experience yourself to know if something is legitimate, turn to the experience of someone you can rely on. 

It’s easy to get seduced by a cool offer just as easily as it is to be overly cynical of it. There’s a sweet spot of skepticism in the middle between the glass being half full and half empty. I’d also google the people — see what they’ve done previously, what their reputation was, and let that help inform me. 

An organization I’d go to for support if I needed advice or if something went wrong…

I have a load of people I turn to in order to ask “is this normal?” — other artists, friends in the industry, my agent, publisher, etc. It’s hard when you are just starting out as you might not have these networks just yet. Having people around you who can give you solid advice is a precious thing. 

My best tip for promoting your work online and at cons…

I think that the selling starts long before you have something to sell. People buy into the capacity of an artist to produce something good long before they actually take their wallets out. Get people interested in what you are doing and how you are doing it. I think I tend to pick up more books at cons that I already knew existed than impulse buys.

To take care of your health / mental health as an artist, I recommend…

Not waiting until it breaks to start taking care of yourself! By the time your back aches all the time or you’ve got what feels like a golf ball under your shoulder blade or your blood pressure gets dangerously high, you’ve already impaired your ability to function properly. I say this as someone who has been hospitalized by stress and it’s subsequent damage a few times. 

I think I’d recommend finding a kind of exercise that suits you. I’m not a particularly competitive person, so I find cycling, canoeing, and running work for me. Find some exercise that suits your circumstance and try to find the pleasure in it. Also, limiting the amount of time and energy spent on social media has made a huge difference for me. I treat social media like I treat strong coffee — fun and stimulating but if I have it after 3 pm, I won’t sleep, and enough of it will give me a stomach ulcer.

I wish someone had told me ___ before I started working in the comics industry…

I had this idea when I was a kid that if I rode my BMX bike to the end of our driveway and popped a sweet wheelie enough times, ONE DAY the owner of a BMX track somewhere would just happen to be driving past and would demand his chauffeur stop the limousine he was riding in and yell out of the window “WHAT A WHEELIE! We’re gonna make you a STAR, kid!”

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see the futility of 9-year-old Dan’s actions, but for whatever reason, this is the exact attitude I took into my early career in comics. I had this mad notion that I had to wait to be discovered by the comics equivalent of the top-hatted BMX track owner in the limousine. I feel that many of the opportunities that formed the basis of my career in comics were a result of going out and asking for it, not just popping wheelies in my garden, artistically speaking.

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