Saturday, 22 November 2014

S.R. Bissette: Advice To Self-Publishers

Spider-Baby Comix #1 (December 1996)
by Steve Bissette
(from the Spider Trax letters page, Spider-Baby Comix #1, December 1996)
Dear Mr. Bissette: I would like to ask if you could offer any suggestions or tips on self-publishing comic-books. Many thanks! Sincerely, Jesse Landrum
I get letters like yours every month: a one-sentence question on a loaded topic worth 20 pages or more, Jesse -- which alas, I never have time to reply to.

I hope this reaches some of you who've written asking the same question.

First, Jesse, do the work. Write and draw your comic. One issue, two issues, ten issues -- whatever leads you believe you're ready to move to print.

Okay. That's the fun and easy part.

Secondly, evaluate its relative "worth" as a marketable item. Be honest with yourself. Determine which format best serves your creation. Is a photocopied mini-comic format (inexpensive, easy to handle, cheap to mail) the best option right now? Are you ready to jump to full-blown offset printing, saddle-stitched with four-colour covers?

Third, determine the most effective and appropriate means of distribution open to your comic: trade, mail-order, convention sales, or the direct-sales-marketplace distributors? If you chose the latter, be aware of the consequences if the distributor(s) do(es) not choose to carry your creation -- and be creative in determining what options remain open to you.

Finally how are you going to market your creation? You have to let people know it exists and how to get their hands on it. Internet, paid ads, trading ads with other titles, classifieds in the fan and trade zines? There're no easy answers. Guerrilla marketing and ingenuity go a long way. Good luck!

Time, skill, the perceived 'quality' of your product (don't fool yourself -- your precious brain child is merely product in the marketplace), hard work, luck, and money will determine much. Be honest with yourself before jumping in too deep -- and best of luck. The market place is a pretty ruthless arbitrator these days.

Dave Sim wrote a useful series of "How To" articles in Cerebus, which he plans to collect into a single volume (along with transcripts of all his relevant speeches about the topic). Given the current state of the market and how readily the prominent self-publishers of two years ago jumped under the perceived "safety" of various company umbrellas, Dave may have shelved those plans for the time being.

Of course, there are larger issue to consider.

Some people work fine under publishers. You might be one of them. Assess your needs and goals. If seeing print and earning a page rate are your goals, find a publisher. Good luck.

If your goal is establishing long-term control over your own work in the comics medium, in my opinion self-publishing remains the only viable alternative to working under the auspices of a publisher.

If you're out to collaborate with other creators, publish other people's work, or build an empire to make your character a pop-cultural icon visible in every home in America, self-publishing may provide a short-term vehicle to attracting larger media interests, but don't waste my time asking for advice. If other people end up writing and drawing your character, you're a publisher, not a self-publisher. Again, good luck, but go away.

Dave Sim maintains "it's not a movement, I'm not a leader," but, by the power of his example, he has proven the long-term viability of self-publishing. For me and my generation, Dave was the model, staying true to his course while others -- the Pinis, Eastman & Laird, the Image coalition -- strayed into proprietary work-for-hire studio-driven production-line publishing.

Of late, we've turned a significant corner in comics history, as a generation of self-publishers have emerged without Dave as their role model. Paul Pope, Dave Lapham, and other embraced self-publishing as their most direct route to their respective goals -- period. That they feel no debt or allegiance to Dave only reinforces the validity of self-publishing as a vehicle without proprietary interests, save those of the individual self-publisher.

Self-publishing is hard work, but I wouldn't trade this hard-earned independence for the coziest of umbrellas. If self-publishers choose to co-opt autonomy with employees, assistants, exclusivity deals, or what-have-you, that's their business. They choose to muddy their pond, but that doesn't mean the water table is sullied: it doesn't invalidate the strength and clarity of true self-publishing.

I've traded a certain level of productivity for autonomy. I do everything at SpiderBaby. I pack the boxes, I do the bookkeeping. I haven't any partners or assistants. My output is slow, but it's a pace I can maintain, and it does earn a decent living. Even with this year's series of financial crunches and disasters, I've had more options (including the comic you hold in your hands), more freedom to move and solve my problems, and more pleasure in my creative life than I ever had in the twenty years of working for (or, as they like to put it, "with") other publishers. I've broken many cardinal rules -- my publishing schedule is erratic, I'm not a dependable presence on the racks -- but Tyrant is alive and thriving. I for one am thankful for the years Sim poured into convincing me by his example that the option to self-publish was the best option for me. Three years into it, I've no regrets. It remains the clearest path -- for me.

Despite the rumours, self-publishing is not dead. It's just been co-opted and/or abandoned by a certain few.

These decisions and defections must be scrutinised on a case-by-case basis. Some simply could not continue to finance their creations amid financial crisis after crisis, precipitated by the collapse of retailers and distributors and the subsequent unpaid bills. Others feared the mere possibility of such a situation, and preemptively sought shelter. Doing so, they argued preserved their self-interests by trading true autonomy for the perceived "safety" of umbrella publishers. I wish them luck. Unfortunately, a few distorted the genuine issues by taking cheap shots at self-publishing per se, downplaying their own responsibility for their respective situations and inflating the perceived "safety" of the respective umbrella publisher of choice. (We'll see how things go in the coming months for those who signed on with the various Image partners and imprints, as the coalition continues to unravel.)

The"independent publishers" have been even more insidious in their undermining of industry and fan perception of self-publishing, disparaging its virtues even as they competitively fish its waters for the prize trout and bass.

Some of these publishers passively foul the waters by promoting their respective operations as 'self-publishing".

Make no mistake, when a publisher maintains a propriety interest in a creative concept by mobilising freelance talent or studio operations to perpetuate and expand upon said publisher's creative properties, this is tried-and-true publishing, in the grand comics' industry tradition.

Other publishers use their various public ventures to mount more overt attacks on self-publishing as a vehicle of self-expression. Their motives should be transparent: if self-publishing is a viable alternative, who needs the perceived security of an Image, Homage, Caliber, Antarctic, or Fantagraphics? Again, Sim has been the target of choice, and it's been a pretty sorry spectacle in what feebly passes for "journalism" in the current environment.

The lack of any genuine responsible journalism in our field is another factor in the equation, and one with far-reaching consequences. Responsible journalism has become as even more remote ideal in today's monopolised environment.

The current marketplace can be pretty fucking discouraging. The direct-sales market continues to implode, its distribution system dangerously consolidated. Presently, we're down to one major distributor, Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc., effectively monopolising the only marketplace still conducive to self-publishing (self-publishing is decidedly problematic in a returnable market).

We're approaching a bottleneck comparable to that which existed  back in 1962-63. DC Comics (at that time, National Periodicals) effectively controlled and restricted comic-book distribution for many of its competitors, including up-and-coming Marvel Comics. Marvel flourished only after breaking out of the DC-controlled distribution.

Currently, the content and presentation of Diamond's catalogue is effectively controlled by DC, Image, and Dark Horse, who call the shots as Diamond's power-house exclusive accounts. Who will end up at the top pf that three-party pig pile is anyone's guess, but the Time Warner subsidiary certainly has an edge. As a result, the non-exclusive "independents" and self-publishers find themselves in dire need of new distribution and retail opportunities which, as yet, do not exist.

Increasing efforts by Diamond and its partners to (a) further ghettoize and financially compromise true self-publishers producing viable product and (b) thus "force" those self-pubs popularly perceived as "the cream of the crop" into partnerships with "umbrella" publishers (some of whose prior exclusivity relations with Diamond played a decisive role in the current state of direct-sale marketplace) can (c) only be reasonably perceived as an ongoing pattern of restraint of trade, extortion, and collusion.

Other than that, Jesse, it's a piece of cake.

Stephen R. Bissette is best known for his collaboration with Alan Moore on Saga of the Swamp Thing from 1983-87, and for his self-published Tyrant comic, the portrait of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the late Cretaceous. He also edited the ground-breaking horror comics anthology Taboo, which launched From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. He co-authored the books Comic Book Rebels and The Monster Book: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and his novella Aliens: Tribes, illustrated by Dave Dorman, won a Bram Stoker Award in 1993. More recently his articles on horror films have been collected in the Blur series published by Black Coat Press and Steve currently serves on the faculty of The Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont.

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