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 Simon Moreton
Moreton has had his comics published as books by Uncivilized Books (USA), Kilgore Books (USA), Retrofit Comics (USA), Avery Hill Publishing (UK), Sotokaramita (Japan), as well as having shorter stories appear in numerous publications like Kus (Latvia) and Revista Larva (Colombia).
When Daniel Elkin asked me to write something for this feature, I immediately said yes because I love Daniel and I love SOLRAD. Then I thought “what on earth do I know about publishing?” — I don’t make a living from comics (I have a full-time job as a researcher in a university), and I am primarily a self-publisher. But in the hope that any of this is relevant for anyone, here are some things I’ve learned.
The main thing(s) I expect from a comics publisher is/are…
Accountability; who does what and whose responsibilities are where in the process of bringing your work to a wider audience? Are they (and you) willing to own up to successes and failures?
Transparency; be honest and open about process and take one another with you on that journey. Hold ups? Concerns? They should be shared, not hidden, and faced together.
Communication; one email a year that has failed to tell you about your sales, events that have affected the success or otherwise of your book, isn’t ok. Publishers can’t tell you everything, all the time, but they can be in touch.
Reciprocation: you need to adhere to these standards, too. Speaking from personal experience, coming from a space of hyper-control over every aspect of my process from inception to distribution, handing over the reins to someone else was hard. I didn’t hold myself accountable for (potentially) coming across as an anxious micro-manager, and I wasn’t clear about my expectations, I wasn’t transparent about my feelings, and I didn’t communicate them. This may have had little material effect on sales, but it sure makes you feel better if you’re all moving in the same direction.
A sneaky red flag or shady thing I would warn new creators to look out for…
…is the discourse that having someone else publish your work is a) the only goal you should have and b) the high-water mark for your achievements. Being published can be an important and meaningful step in your journey as an artist — it has been for me — and it can help you see yourself or your art differently. But it is a waypoint in the journey, not the destination.
There are a lot of different forms of publisher. Little ones, big ones, publishers run by one person in a bedroom, publishers run out of warehouses and multinationals. From the outside, they may look quite similar, especially in the tiny world of comics — micropublishers in the Eisners and the NYT Bestsellers list (when that was a thing) and the Ignatzes… Wow! … but the realities of publishing mean that your life is unlikely to be changed overnight — at least not in the way it does in the popular imagination (fame, fortune, stability) — by a publisher signing your book.
Don’t get me wrong — publishers of all sizes are a necessary part of the ecology of making comics. It would be nice if there were enough publishers, with a big enough readership, and enough financial independence to take risks on all sorts of books, but there aren’t. Bottom lines are constrained, distribution models are shot (from top to bottom in the industry). There are cultural changes happening far wider than the development of comics as an arts form that are affecting how we get work into the world. There are also deep inequalities at play in the very structures of our economy that keep some people out, and some people in. A published book could become part of your earnings when it comes to making a living from your art, but it is very unlikely to be the whole paycheck (The #publishingpaidme hashtag on Twitter has some good perspectives on this).
Should it be this way? No. Are people fighting to change this? Yes. But this is what we’re up against, and if you tie your sense of validation, of the success of your artistic exploration of the world, or your only ambition to the straw person that is “being published” you and your art will suffer for it.
I wish someone had told me ___ before I started working in the comics industry…
2020-Simon here, writing from the future. You’re currently 23 years old, you’ve just moved to a new city, and you’ve been exploring a comic shop, looking longingly at all the lovely work never really seen before — the D&Qs, the Fantagraphics, the Top Shelfs, and all sorts in between — and you’re getting this dangerous glint in your eye. I am currently 37. I’m not going to give you any spoilers (do you know what a spoiler is yet?) about this timeline because, frankly, your head would explode. Instead, here’s some unsolicited advice, which you’ll probably hate. Here goes.
- Fads and fashions should not be mistaken for the real structure of things. Within the first year or two of your being in comics, autobio and webcomics booms will already on the wane, as will Livejournal; in fact, you’ll miss that boat entirely. You will engage with a first wave of Twitter and Tumblr before others arrive, and then things will change again. Currents in content, form, and voice will always be evolving and changing — and they will be changing fastest in the self-published part of the world, where the conversations are deeper, the experimentation more unconstrained, and production is faster. Publishers will try and keep up, but they won’t always succeed. Neither will you. So follow your nose/heart/brain/feelings, not what other people are doing, unless those things align. You may find yourself at the confluence of some amazing movement or moment. You may arrive too soon, and you’ll probably arrive too late. But don’t worry, just keep going.
- Old models for making a living from art don’t work — if they ever did. You won’t make a living from comics unless you are very lucky. Markets — no matter how arbitrary, unjust, or exclusive — serve to dominate the majority of investment decisions. The economies of scale mean that you are very unlikely to make a work that enough people will see to make sufficient income to live off from publishing a book. People will not pay you what your work is worth. Talent rarely has anything to do with this. You will have to supplement your income. Don’t buy into a mindset that this devalues either the work you do outside of comics or the art you make outside of your other job. We’ve all got to survive and we’ll all need to make different choices about how to do that. There’s no shame in it. You will choose to pursue a career outside of art because you will need and desire financial security and you won’t want to compromise your art. Also, you’ll still feel horrible about drawing for other people so your commercial illustration career will be… short.
- Don’t be taken in by the myth of “creativity” as it exists nowadays. It’s deeply embedded in a form of capitalist exploitation that reconfigures what capitalism can sell you, and, more importantly, what it can take from you. 21st-century creativity discourse is about individualism, not collectivism. It’s a scam to exploit you. This doesn’t mean ‘creativity’ doesn’t exist. However, just because you could be called “a creative” and told you’re important, it doesn’t mean you are “owed” a readership. Just because you chose — or are chosen, depending on your outlook — to dedicate your life to making art, don’t assume that makes you any more (or less) deserving of adoration, acceptance, success, or an income, than anybody else in any other field. Nobody owes you a living under capitalism. In fact, not allowing you to have a living is probably a safer way for the system to stay stable.
- This does not mean you cannot forge a life where art is at the heart of it. It just takes a lot of work, a lot of questioning, and a constant process of learning. It will not be what you think it will be right now, but it will be worth it.
- Community will be essential to this. Making art can bring wealth to your life — love, friendships, travel, (a little) money, connections, passion, new experiences, a broader understanding of the world — but this does not happen in a vacuum. 99% of the process of making art is about your comportment in a community. What you make, how you make it, why you make it, how you share it, who you share it with: all of that is about other people.
- Communities are diverse, divergent, overlapping, contrasting, conflicting, even within the tiny world of comics. This means you need to think carefully about how you act. To grossly paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm (which we’ve both read), we’re all equal, only some of us are more equal than others. What are you going to do about that? How are you going to make space for people who aren’t like you?
- You will take from that community in the next thirteen years and beyond, but you will need to give back, too. We have a responsibility to support one another: to fight for representation, fair pay, IP protection, safe working environments (from office to convention floors and everywhere else) — whatever the issues are. We might not overthrow capitalism, but we might mitigate its ill effects and find new ways to circumnavigate its vicissitudes.
- This struggle is about designing for a future that hasn’t arrived: you’re not the same person today as you will be tomorrow: your art will not be the same tomorrow as it is today: the world will not be the same tomorrow as it is today. Everything is a process. Everything should be a process.
- Allow yourself to change, to be changed, and support others to do the same.
- Be nice.
PS Yes, you will get the hang of pagination and laying out zines as spreads: you’ll be able to do it in your sleep. And because you spend too much time thinking about zines, you really will be doing it in your sleep.