Making Comics is expensive!
ED:This post is pretty out of date now, some of the general info is still usful but a lot of details will have changed since i first wrote it years ago, FYI.
In both time creating them and financing their publishing. To start I’d say, don’t rush into printing or publishing, until you’ve invested a decent amount of time in practice, and have reasonably polished work to share. But once you do, there are ways to try to generate an income from the work, and some interesting alternate sources of income available.
Again when you’re just starting out, I wouldn’t worry too much about $ other than the funds you need for supplies and time to practice. At that stage, if you want to publish at all, just post examples of what you’re doing to Facebook or twitter, set up a tumbler maybe? They have a few webcomics templates too and can work without one as well. Another good way to share it at 0 publishing costs. That’s a great way at first to test a new comic on your friends and start to build an audence. Join communities of peers to learn and share tips. In time, you’ll become more confident with what you’re doing and ready to expand on it. The readers feedback for your work will be one of the best indicators of whether your comics are ready to be monetized somehow.
Once your work is, there are a number of common questions. First, do you want to work on your own stories, or are you interested in working for a company fulfilling their IP?
For many people getting to work on characters they grew up with, or simply being paid to make comics is an attractive idea. But it’s not without its downsides. The Creator’s Bill of Rights is not a widely officially recognized document but expressed the desire for something better within the american comics industry. Neil Adams attempted to kick start a Comics Creators Guild in ’78 in part to set fair rates and creators rights, but that failed to take off with only 36 notable creators signing up as members. The ROZZ-TOX Manifesto is an interesting alternate idea about creative freedom and business. Written by a youthful Gary Panter in the ’80s, it famously influenced a few artists including his friend Matt Groening,
Suffice to say the comics industry’s labour practices and compensation for IP has been less than always fair to creators. It’s very important for creators to know their innate rights, and some idea of fair rates for their work. First, here’s how page rates in the US comics business are usually established. They are not fixed, there’s a generalized average range but for the most part publishers offer a wide range of rates and compensation arrangements. Marvel, DC, and most companies that own their line’s IP and do licensed work, use WFH contracts of one form or another. In this you’re paid a flat rate per job category [ penciler, inker, artist, colorist, letter, and writer ] per page of the book. Graphic Novels sometimes also follow this model, or they are contracted based on a flat fee for the whole project.
Pricing of comics art is based typically on a projection of sales by the publisher and self evaluation of the artists. Artists speed, ability and importantly today more than ever, built in readership they bring to a book, all are considerations. As are the size and deep integration in the market of the publisher.
So the imprints and titles *retailers and readers consider must haves command the best page rates, and or backend returns for Image/creator owned titles. So of course experience, general appeal of the creators, the size, and prosperity of the publishers all drives the valuation of the work. It is also often why WFH comics can get canceled quite suddenly, if that projection fails, they start to lose money really fast. [ *arguably comics publishers customers are the retailers first, and readers second in the current direct market model. ]
You’ll find confirmation more or less of this in the GAG handbook mentioned later in this article under Pricing in the comics section. For me this was also how It was explained when I first started 1992 and had my professional page rates established. Which increased twice over 5 years as well thanks to a bit of competition between clients.
Something that also often fails to get considered in comics circles by creators is their intrinsic Copyright in the work they do. Really even working on someone else’s IP, their creative contribution has to be accounted for. WFH contracts today basically do that by negating it. You agree to give it up in exchange for payment.
Something that i’d consider in pitching or accepting rates is if I’d also retain my copyright, and thus a stipulated stake in the IP, both backend sales of the book and whatever else came of it. If I don’t I want the page rate to reflect that, or the buyout to be an additional payment we agree on. If I keep my share of the IP and I’m confident about the project, i’d set a more bare bones page rate. It still has to make the work worthwhile, no lower than equal to minimum wage for the hours put in. But that’s one way in which there can be negotiable flex in my rates.
And then there are creator owned books, which mostly are paid enterily via sales, or the ‘back-end’. In a few cases, usually when the publisher both has the funds and believes the book will sell well, their may be an advance given. But typically any profits the book makes are paid after the book sells. That typically takes a few months to be processed.
One thing I’d recommend any freelance artist to do first off, is to pick up a copy of Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. And any local equivilant information, in Quebec we have Illustration Québec’s ‘Illustrator’s Survival Guide’. There are digital tools online including a very handly online Editorial illustration rate calculator, and links to buy the print edition.
Regardless of you decide to do work for hire comics, or pursue your own work and probably pick up some freelance work to pay the bills, resources like those prove an invaluable tool for many. The first includes sections on comics and graphic novels, as wall as many other mediums. And lots of info on and direction in how to negotiate, set rates, and get paid and protected. The Quebec handbook has great local resources critical to navigating the regional market.
There are some standard comics rates listed in the Handbook, I’ve posted the 2010 edition numbers here for my students. That’s an older edition I own but fairly accurate. The 2015 Year In Review Fair Page Rates survey shows from a small professional sample base, what comics companies are actaully paying for various services as disclosed by anonymous artists, divided by two ‘levels’ of the industry. Jim Zub has also shared some good insights on the question of page rates.
I think it’s important to say WFH & Creator Owned are not either or decisions either. Many creators do both WFH and contract work for publishers, and self publish or do indie deals for their own stories too.
If you’re self-publishing, do you want to go digital first? Or some mix of digital and print? Or just print, or just digital…webcomic or app based? When I started it was making Zines! There’s a lot of options now. A lot of paths and international markets even available to you. And the forms of distribution you want to exploit can shape the physical form of your work will take, and the kind of business plan you’ll need to get it done, and get readers! I’m myself still learning about all this, so I listen a lot to what other people are doing and what seems to be working or not. So here’s some recommendations.
To start, here’s a great talk with Jason Brubaker at the Emerald City Comic Con 2015 (March 27 – 29), “Making Money with Creator Owned Comics” (50:41, 46.4mb) He covers this subject very well – he’s on patreon now too, this will come up later in the post: Check out Can You Make A Living in Comics? By Colleen Doran: ‘How Do I Break In?‘ by writer Jim Zub: Tor’s Advice to Aspiring Comic Book Creators: A few relevant entries in the “How Do You Make a Living” series of posts: Molly Crabapple: Neil Googe: Faith Erin Hicks talks a lot about this which is great: “Drawing Comics is my Job”: “Do you need to tour to make it?“: Make Something That’s Yours: An Interview with Faith Erin Hicks: A bit of law and creators rights history, Marvel vs. Jack Kirby: Legal Rights and Ethical Might. Presented by The Vermont Law School and The Center for Cartoon Studies. A conversation between Oliver Goodenough and Stephen Bissette held Friday, Oct 21,’11: And finally, let’s go metta for this link list, and link to a BIGGER links list! The Beat’s “How To Get Into Comics and Survive Once You’re There“. We really live in a time of embarrassing riches when it comes to the sharing of this kind of knowledge, so don’t stop there!
Secondary income streams
Typically these means merchandise linked to your art, like prints, t-shirts, mugs, vinyl toys, games, that sort of thing. My own interest in this is limited but it’s a big factor for many creators these days.
I’ve tried other platforms for this, but for now I’m sticking with Society6 for myself. I always recommend doing your own research. If you’d like to work with an operation more local to Montreal, check out needen.com, wordans.ca, & spreadshirt.ca. There are more out there too based in the region and most areas have their own relatively local operations. Both in the online class like those sites, and small screen printing shops and fabricators you could work with offline to supply goods for either online sales or tabling at events, and selling wholesale along with your comics! Investigate!
Those are all non specific operations to create merchandise via. There are others that specialize in working with web comics and ‘geek culture, like topatoco. They are harder to join, but if you’re project gets really successful someone like that might take an interest!
The catchphrase of the day, but also a real viable option for financing print runs and some projects. I recommend having a comic book done BEFORE you go to something like Kickstarter. There are other sites like it, but not many of them work as well. I’ve used Indiegogo, and it’s not bad, their ‘Flexible Funding’ model appeals to some but is higher risk for backers, and way fewer people trust it and are comfortable pledging there.
IMO One time goal oriented funders like that are a great way to pay for getting something printed, and try to build buzz and market interest in the work. In many ways the secret to good crowdfunding is when it’s also good marketing. But I caution that I think they get to be high risk options if you raise the funds to DO the work. In that case if anything, ANYTHING goes wrong with the project schedule it can go bad. There’s already a lot of risk in any supply chain, making sure your first job of making the books is done is a good way to reduce the risks to yourself and backers. Trust me on this, I’ve made the mistake.
And keep in mind it truly is a LOT of work to run a crowdfunder, even with a team. I’ve held one time crowdfunders three times now. Running a Kickstarter WILL eat your brain while it’s live, completely dominate your attention when it’s on, and then drain you getting the fulfilment done, no matter how well prepared! And it can go bad very easily if you don’t plan for it properly! Check out this podcast on the prep one repeat Kickstarter has done. You’ll need to think about the full shipping and sourcing of every item you offer. Including the envelopes and stamps! Outsourcing a lot of it is a great idea i’ll be embracing if I ever do it again. And keeping it really simple is another. if you’re crowdfunding a comic, ideally the main reward would simply be the comic. Maybe, just a digital comic? Anything that makes it more manageable is worth thinking about.
My favorite cautionary example is the rather dramatic self sabotaging of the ‘sad pictures for children’ Kickstarter. I don’t think I could do it service, so just go watch and read this.
That’s extreme, and a warning against letting yourself ever get antagonistic with your backers. These are your die-hard fans, or could be. burn that bridge and it’s going to take a long time to build a new base or have anyone trust you again.
I’ve had late fulfilment on my crowdfunders but for the most part good communications have kept things positive. People who support your work this way generally want to help you get the thing done. Again, your die-hard #1 fans mostly. So long as we don’t overload them with drama, keep them informed, and stay civil at all costs and they will tend to root us on.
And again, this is why having the work basically done, and ready to print is the best case scenario usually. I’ve tried both ways and the difference is profound.
But that means, I have to draw it without financial suport?
Maybe. That’s always the big issue with things like comics [large long term creative projects]. How to pay the rent while you get the work done?
There are a few solutions. To start, if you can’t swing getting a job behind the cash at your local comics shop, or a paid internship or office gig at your favorite publisher, check out Patreon. It’s the new kid on the block in the otherwise relatively new business of crowdfunding. You can watch a short video explainer here.
Started by Youtubers and other creatives looking for a way to connect with their supporters and generate an ongoing stable income from their work.
I use it as well, here’s my profile UPDATE: After I started working full time in Animation when the pandemic started, I shut down my patreon but set up on Substack, a hybred of a mailing list platform, patronage/subscription sytstms, and blog. You can see how I’m using that here. I’ve not started employing the paid sub mode yet by many have and it seems to work very well, I’m liking it more than i did either Mailchimp or Patreon.
Take a look at how other artists doing comics employ it here, and here. It’s a kind of crowdfunding platform but more like setting up your own PBS broadcasting/publishing channel. It’s ongoing, and is best built to not be reward based the way something like Kickstarter is. Ideally any perks people get for backing you on Patreon are digital insiders access and the frequent and public thanks from you [though some prefer to be anonymous]. The authors doing the best there, had a large readership before launching, realistically don’t expect to be making hundreds or thousands on the platform unless you have hundreds or thousands of readers. My own is right here, it’s been a very slow and modest build up but does help a bit with my monthly bills.
There are other options like this, Tapastic has a similar system built into its site for example. The field is changing fast, so again, hit google and do some research for yourself too! I suspect we’ll see more like those in time, and know I’ve seen others around I’m not remembering now. They are an interesting evolution in the comics market. Patreon primarily works on the model your work, comics in this case, is mostly free to consume online. They provide an opportunity for regular readers to show support in a more sustainable way than just buying a T-shirt and one book now and then. I would never expect a large percentage of your audience to support you like this, but it doesn’t take many to accumulate into a substantial amount of funds. Some use the analogy of a digital tipping jar, but with a monthly renewal.
Last for this post, is something that as a comics artist I didn’t consider myself until I’d been in the business for over a decade. I wish I’d known about it sooner! You can’t bank on it, but never underestimate the value of…
Grants & Prizes!
Grant funding if you qualify, can be a massive boost for any artist’s work. Even Just the affirmation of being recognized by a Grant Jury is like rocket fuel!
Small grants and prizes can help make focused short-term projects possible with minimal fulfilment requirements [Just the one granting body usually, not hundreds of crowdfunding backers!]. And larger grants can buy creators months, even sometimes years of time to work on a project.
Very recently a new Grant body was formed by Image & Iron Circus Comics, it’s a Peer Juried grant called Creators For Creators. it will be $30k + publishing and marketing assistance, to eligible applicants over 18. It’s limited to creators who’ve never had a solo book published, a break-in-grant if you will.
The goal of the Creators for Creators grant is to support original work from new creators. Applicants must either be a single creator or a writer-artist duo with joint ownership of the submitted work.
Each applicant must be eighteen years old or older, and the work cannot have been submitted to a publishing company or similar entity within the past year. The Creators for Creators grant is international, so there are no geographic restrictions on applicants.
Applicants must have never had solo work published by a third-party publisher. Self-published work is acceptable, as is participation in anthologies, but any non-anthology industry publication is unacceptable.
Eligible stories for proposal must be between 64-100 pages upon completion. Works may be intended for print or digital distribution of any type, but must be wholly new works—no reprints.
The Creators For Creators grant at this time is the largest available that i know of for comics. It’ll be a huge boost to the lucky recipients.
Each year the Cartoonist Studio Prize is awarded to work that exemplifies excellence in cartooning. The creators of two exceptional comics will be awarded $1000 each. Not a huge prize but substantial, and it comes with the esteem of the Center for Cartoon Studies, and the perk of being promoted on Slate, a fairly large media outlet!
The Lambda Literary Awards identify and celebrate the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender books of the year and affirm that LGBTQ stories are part of the literature of the world. The Lammys, which receive national and international media attention, bring together 600 attendees—including nominees, celebrities, sponsors, and publishing executives—to celebrate excellence in LGBTQ publishing. Awards page: Emerging Writer Award Applications; Mid-Career Novelist Prize.
Every year, Prism awards the Prism Comics Queer Press Grant to assist in the publication and promotion of LGBT comics [Grant is in the $2000 range]. The grant is funded by donors who are either creators who want to help others just starting out, or fans who want to see more LGBT creators get published. it’s eligible to applicants from outside the USA, and paid out in US dollars.
The Sustainable Arts Foundation. An org that offers awards of up to US$6000 to writers and artists with children. The money can be used for costs such as child care, workspaces, new equipment, research and travel. There are two funding rounds each year and typically a total of ten grants are made in each round: five Sustainable Arts Foundation Awards valued at $6000 each and five Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Awards valued at $2000. To be eligible to apply for a grant you must have at least one child under the age of 18. Applicants can be based anywhere in the world and there are no citizenship restrictions but you do have to apply in english. Writers may apply in one of the following categories: Fiction, Creative Nonfiction, Poetry, Long Form Journalism, Playwriting, Picture Books, Early and Middle Grade Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, & Graphic Novels! Visual artists are also eligible able to apply.
The annual PRIX JACQUES-HURTUBISE. A small award given during the Festival de la BD francophone de Québec. The award was created in 2016 to promote new work and emerging authors in Quebec. In addition to a prize of $1000, the winner’s work will be exhibited during the following years FBDFQ!
Short aside: Not many comics awards come with a cash prize like these do, i’ll update this post with any more I find. FYI in my experience as a rule awards or prizes, most will only require you to submit a copy of your book to enter along with meeting their eligibility requirements. If they ask for cash/registration fees, have doubts and investigate before applying! That said entering your work in awards its applicable for is a great way to get more attention for it.
The Canada Council for the Arts is applicable to graphic novels and comics, as well as potentially financing a small publishing operation! Most canadian publishers rely heavily on grants. You’ll need to establish yourself as at least an emerging artist to qualify, look here under Literature for info on that I think, that’s how they classified comics and graphic novels in the previous systme. Contact them here if you have further questions.
I have the most personal experience with the CCA, all good, but under a past organizational structure. It’s been changed dramatically since. I was awarded grants three times out of seven tries under the old structure, which is a high success rate from what I’ve been told. I’ve also once served as a judge for them, most of their juries are made up of peers in the same field. I would say generally expect to get refused the first few times, that’s normal. Both your own learning curve and luck.
I have some gripes about how it’s been restructured but the Canadian arts federal grant system is pretty great still. They offer substantial sums and were very positive about comics as a medium deserving of suport. A key to it like many is applying often.
The judging of the grants is pretty fair from my experience, with the judges instructed to look for a good story, professional skills, and then give extra consideration to stories that focused on a list of social issues or author status. I think the proposals that probably do best are more socially or literary minded, than very commercial or pop properties. But the judges change every year and it’s down to them in the end.
CALQ! Every province has its own regional grants, Quebec’s are quite substantial. Ontario’s are as well! Check out your own provinces arts funding infrastructure. At CALQ as I understand comics projects and cartoonists qualify, but you’ll have to contact them to check on exactly how? Comics were specfically mentioned on past versions but I can’t find them on The site as of now 8/23/17. CALQ also has a Writer and graphic novelist exchanges between Québec and the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles. One of many residencies actaully!
And, every city and many towns, also tends to have their own grant systems! Conseil des arts de Montréal for example is my local body: I’m still doing some research on this one. Look under Supporting the arts if you want to beat me to it! I have seen this on the site, a WRITER IN RESIDENCE IN LIBRARY program. This is a blog by a past resident, to give you an idea of some of what that’s about.
You can always take the initiative and write the department heads to see what they advise themselves. For any grant, I recommend doing this, it’s how I learn more about them!
And last for my students, If you’re young, there might be something of use here on Yes Montreal. Kind of related as well, Emploi-Québec has an interesting system for young ‘volunteers’, they basically pay you to do something for the community, I know one young artist who’s doing a comic about depression with their assistance.
Ok, that’s all I’ve got for now but I’ll update this post with new info as I come across it. For many of your favourite independent comics creators, the answer to how to pay the bills long-term lays in freelance work as writers or artists, or some kind of stable day job that leaves them with enough creative energy to still do their own work.
There sadly isn’t enough cash in comics for most for them to not have to rely on something other than their comics to do this. Though if you’re fairly successful, the profile of your comics art will attract things like freelance illustration work and if you’re open to them, contracts to draw graphic novels for authors who can’t draw their own or publishers looking to get something made. Each creator tends to have to find their own formula for this, there’s no real one right way to do it.
Anyway the cookie crumbles for you, prepare to be creative and probably have to work pretty hard at it. Hope this all helps, and if you feel like returning the favour, you could always pledge a buck or two on my patreon!