To Publisher, or Not to Publisher?

By Rick Duree

Jump on in; the water’s great! Or so it seems when you check out random comic groups on social media. The posts are colorful and gripping. Everyone is passionate and engaged. The same is true when you go to Comic Cons to meet stars and industry professionals (my favorites are Geoff Johns and Jamie Tyndall). Such is the culture of comic creation… until you get through your first Kickstarter campaign and realize the money you earned might not be enough to pay your artists, let alone the publishing costs of your book. You realize you could really use some help. You need distribution. You need… a publisher! Or do you?

As a new comic creator, I jumped in headfirst. I wrote 10+ hours a day, scouring Facebook groups to find pencilers, colorists, and editors. I added friends like crazy to expand my audience. I had normal questions like:

  • How much do I pay per page for all these services?
  • How do I sell at comic cons?

As well as some uncomfortable ones like:

  • Should I include NSFW covers for my books? Tons of other writers seem to be going that route.

I was new to the comic community and didn’t know who to trust, so I just trusted everyone and hoped for the best. There are tons of great people out there willing to help you at any time on any issue, but it was not all roses. Looking back, I laugh at myself a bit for all that blind trust. There were some hard lessons learned.

On that note, I’m going to do my best to help you avoid making the same mistakes I made. The question at hand is which direction you should go in: join an existing indie comic publishing group or go it alone, like so many of our fellow, excited, wide-eyed comic creators?

First, let’s start with what is generally seen as the benefits of joining a publisher, assuming you can get picked up. In the end, it’s all about who you know. Publishers know the industry inside and out. They’ll help you avoid mistakes, help you negotiate pricing with premier cover artists, and connect you with podcasts to promote your series. Their community becomes yours, and you’re now part of a select professional group of serious creators.

Just by being surrounded by career comic creators, your level of production can improve more easily. Scout Comics, for instance, is one of the premier indie publishers in the market right now. They’ll help with grammatical editing, yes, but more importantly, they focus on emotional development in the story and between your characters—something many new comic creators have difficulty with.

After improving your story in small but important ways, publishers attempt to duplicate their previous successes by applying their proven sales methods to your book series. Most assuredly, they’ll have a contract in place with one of the big two national distributors (albeit with a minuscule markup) and hopefully good traffic on their website and thorough email campaigns, boosting your sales.

Are you sold yet? It sounds great, right? But let’s look at what you give up to be part of such an organization. Intellectual property and contracts are real when it comes to publishers. They’re not going to help you build your following without having some ownership in the product (i.e., your comics). Read the contracts closely; you may need to allow the publishers to take some control over your characters, story, and cover art choices. They may require exclusive distribution rights. (NOTE: Look for an “out” in the contract if your book doesn’t meet sales goals. Make sure ownership reverts back to you.)

When it comes to the money, publishers will itemize the profit sharing, describing what you get and what they keep. If you end up with a 50/50 deal, that’s a really fair place to be, even if the pot you are splitting isn’t that large. But sometimes, you’ll be offered an 80/20 split with the publisher claiming the lion’s share of the profits. You may want to rethink this type of financial deal. (NOTE: Make sure you are contractually allowed to do Kickstarters for new book releases to recoup some of the initial cost of comic creation.)

Listen, there are no guarantees in comics. We all know the comics industry is in the middle of a shake-up, and past sales numbers are difficult to duplicate, even for publishers. In the end, success is largely dependent upon your individual efforts. Truth be told, no one is going to make your comics successful except you.

That brings us to the big decision: whether or not you should go it alone for a while and get your sea legs in this industry. If you do end up going with a publisher, seek out a creator-friendly company with creator-centric policies, and you should do well. But let’s see what you can do on your own before hitting up established publishers.

Starting out as a do-it-yourselfer, you most likely don’t know what you don’t know when it comes to making great comics. So go find out! Join social media groups, ask questions, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Wasting a few thousand dollars chasing a rabbit down the wrong hole is inevitable. If that amount of money is too much for you to lose, this is probably not the industry for you.

But take heart: even as you are dropping cash to put your story to paper, you’ll meet some of your comic idols along the way. Feel free to reach out directly to your favorite celebrity artists and writers. Most of them are surprisingly approachable and friendly. Don’t worry about sealing the deal right off the bat. Just start by getting to know them. You’ll be shocked when one of your idols does you a solid “like,” promoting your book or doing a quick cover for you just because you’re their fan and an all-around great person. People in this industry are way cool like that.

For more advice, follow great comics podcasts like Geek News Now or Comics Related Madness and see who’s who. Blow up their chats! They’ll thank you for just being there. Reach out to the hosts, their guests, and everyone. Build those relationships. It’s easier than you think.

Next, attend all of your local Comic Cons, whether they be traditional, anime, horror, or cosplay-focused, etc. Be at anything within a few hours’ drive from your house. If the comics industry is to survive, we need those local cons to flourish. In that same vein, your local comic shops are a great resource. Set up book signings and attend their in-house events. “Support Local” is a tried-and-tested mantra for a reason.

After you’re deep into this crazy, colorful cosmos of comic creation, you can finally decide if joining a publisher is the right way to go for you and your story. Just in case you’re not sold yet, here’s one more option for you to consider:

Create your own! There are so many cool creators out there in the same place as you, Kickstarting their books, being guests on podcasts, and slingin’ their floppies at cons. Here’s a thought: what if you teamed up and made your own publishing house? Between the half-dozen of you, you’ll have a good number of industry contacts and several book series underway. I personally am a freelancer with Charter Comics out of Fort Worth, TX, who position themselves as a creator-first company. Their communication could be better, but the price is right, as they don’t take any ownership of my IP. Instead, they get a small cut of any national distribution sales, a small price to pay for me to have the right to change publishers at any time.

Morgan Quaid, creator of Dusk Witch, is a long-time indie comics guy who has created some 24 comics, 15 novels, and 3 screenplays. He’s been on both sides of this publisher question and says this to prospective comic creators: “The main blocker to self-publishing is going to be you. There’s a lot to learn, and that will take time, experimentation, and a lot of effort. You’re effectively starting a new business. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that signing a deal with a publisher will be a stroll down easy street.” Quaid knows that even with a publisher, you’re going to have to do the heavy lifting yourself, so he advises, “self-publish first, learn everything you can, then apply what you know to your comic creation journey.”

Smart guy! There are more smarties where he came from. Dave Cook, creator of Killtopia, says: “When it comes to considering the publisher route versus self-funding, you need to ask yourself what a publisher can do for you that you can’t do on your own. Crowdfunding can cover some, if not most, of your associated comic costs, but your reach will be smaller than a publisher with strong distribution. Likewise, there’s no guarantee that a publishing deal will yield strong sales, and might actually result in a huge loss. It’s worth trying both approaches, as you can use crowdfunding to start building a fan base at a lower cost, before thinking bigger with larger projects and pitches with bigger (and likely more expensive) teams. If that team lands a pitch with a huge publisher, it might just make your career. Trust your gut, do the maths, think logically, and do what feels right for you at the time.”

Looks like we’re all on the same page here, but what do you think? Which direction do you find yourself leaning toward? Feel free to reach out and/or comment to be part of the discussion. For more approachable, helpful videos about writing and self-publishing, check out Quaid’s YouTube channel called Write with Morgan. You can reach the immanent Dave Cook at, and for more info about what I’m up to, you can reach me at:

About Rick Duree

Rick Duree is an inspirational speaker, angel investor, professor of entrepreneurship, TV producer, missionary, musician, martial artist, author, and proud husband and father. He founded the Duree Center for Entrepreneurship to support young creators, has been honored by fellow business leaders with awards and recognition, and has served as a Board Member for multiple non-profit organizations.

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