Knowing Is Half The Battle: Josh Bayer 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 Josh Bayer.

Josh Bayer began his underground comics practice in 1988, appearing in zines and in small shows. since then, his work has appeared in print, video, posters, and exhibitions all over the world. Currently, he is teaching comics and drawing classes at 3rd Ward in Brooklyn, the 92st Y, and the Educational Alliance. His work has included both the Raw Power and Suspect Device series, Theth, as well as his work on the All Time Comics series. You can find Bayer’s store HERE and you can follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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

The main thing is that they want me. I also like to see that they have worked with other people that I like or I respect. If the latter quality is missing, the first one is more essential.

My #1 advice for submitting to agents and publishers…

Sorry, no idea. I just reach out. Many people I know have had zero response from publishers even if their work is good, and I’m not alone. I’m weird, and my work isn’t for everyone. 

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

Inconsistency, flakiness, iciness. Elaborate sarcasm. It’s amazing how many people you work with put more energy into elaborate bullshit then answering your questions. This causes a rabbit hole where, if you take the bait, you start discussing why you are discussing their shitty response instead of the thing itself. I once asked a publisher about the size he wanted my pages to be, I asked if they should be 6×9 or c x 8.5. He replied that if I submitted the pages at Y size it’d be fine, he could just cut the pages off to make them fit (!?). I think he felt justified because he thought my question was dumb, and it turned out he had a mistake in an earlier email and had given me two different sets of specs.  So when I addressed it, and he saw he’d made a mistake and actually, I think, was embarrassed.      

And I guess I’ve been there too. People need to mutually inevitably tolerate each other’s stupid mistakes because I think one of the traits of dysfunction is that it’s invisible to the dysfunctional person. You’re always gonna have issues with your collaborators, and I, myself, am not as easy as other neater, more fastidious cartoonists to work with. It’s humbling to realize that I might have made a mistake, like I may forget a page and realize it only after the publisher has already accepted my PDF. So I try to go in assuming that I need to be humble because I am making mistakes. I’m not the artist who carefully compiles work in a neat pile. I might end up with a relatively neat pile, but it’s more like my comics are a tangled mass of hair and, before I put it out in the public, I need to process it into something that’s ready for showtime. It’s not a process that is always smooth, so I need someone who will put up with the fallout from my specific madness. 

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

For the experience. That’s a personal choice. There’s a natural arc to a career; you will start accepting paid gigs more as you get busier and more known. I have a friend who makes great work, and I’ve started coaching him to accept more money for his work. He was putting 55 hours of painstaking labor into it and had only been charging $100 a page because he “used to throw the work in the garbage” but still did it cause he had to. Now, though, he’s starting to build an audience. People will argue for demanding higher rates and making sure you are compensated for your skills, but I think you train yourself to do work professionally by doing it and eventually you level up, and it’s more of an organic process. It’s the same way tattooists usually do stuff for free early on, to learn their trade. And the trade isn’t just being able to make work, it’s being able to make work on request, and that can involve its own learning curve. 

I did a storyboard job once that was so miserable and I did it as a favor. Then the person who asked me to do the work refused to pay me because I wouldn’t make some minor revision. That was the final time I would ever do an ink monkey job like that which I had no interest in. It was some shitty short film, but I liked the person and only learned how to conduct myself by getting burned. I wouldn’t recommend that for everybody but it’s what worked for me. Sometimes you just need to learn by failing.

Here’s another thing: I will rarely do a comic for someone else at this point in my career. Comics make no sense as a for-hire gig the way I do them. Just ruling in the panels is an hour and a half of work. Planning the page is hours. I wouldn’t teach a class for less than 50 bucks an hour but to ask for that rate as a cartoonist is nuts, it’d make every page cost $500-1500 bucks. Unless you’re Michael Golden, that’s a pretty steep rate. And I wouldn’t expect people to pay that, but also I wouldn’t do it for less if it was just a job. I will do comics for free if I love the project, though. l reserve my creative energy for doing my own personal comics. 

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

Just ask someone you trust or who seems experienced. If they don’t know they can ask someone who does.

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

If you are just starting out, I think that’s one place that doing art about established stuff and appropriating established icons is good for amplifying your voice. I played around with Rom Spaceknight in my early stuff, and all the stuff I put in Suspect Device was partially because I loved those things, partially because I had no idea what I had to say, and partially because I thought it’d give me common ground with an audience. How you push your content is another matter, but the choice of what that content is can help amplify you. I might be more apt to pick up some Fort Thunder looking comic that had characters from CSI or Inspector Gadget in it, or Strawberry Shortcake drawn like a Henry Darger painting.

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

I’m not sure my recommendations are good for everyone, and wouldn’t want to sound condescending. Exercise, even once or twice a week is important, and I think drinking alcohol is a huge energy vampire, but that’s me. I’ve always been hostile towards drinking culture and addiction growing up and liking straight edge. Unfortunately, social media is maybe the most pervasive narcotic and I am as strung out on that as anyone. 

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

I’m not sure I define myself as being in the industry. Is someone who makes a baby a parent or are they in the human-making industry? I’m just an artist who makes comics. Ok, I am in the industry, but maybe halfway.

When I met Raymond Pettibon in 1998, he said two things: 1. Put your stuff in print, it does something to you psychologically to see your work printed even of its just a folded copied zine. and that’s true. Making comics is transformative and publishing them is the second part of that metamorphosis. Publishing successfully and sustainably is the final level. 

The 2nd thing he said was don’t be surprised if you get screwed over by exhibitors, publishers, and distributors. It’ll happen. Pettibon said he never made money off his early zines even though they were distributed all over the country, but if you’re afraid of that, it’s almost like germaphobia, you can end up in a self-imposed bubble and you’re not going to get anywhere.

I think that it’s a lot easier in the modern era to make people accountable then it was in the 80s and 90s. When I met Janelle Hessig years ago, I told her someone we both knew had owed me 100 bucks for zines dating back to 1999 and she knew the distributor and immediately made it right.

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