Comics, Geek Culture, Interviews, Primer

Pre-Orders, Debt, Timekeeping: The Stressful Economics of Indie Comics

Today we’re talking about the absurd economics of comic books. It feels strange and rude, asking ugly questions about income and insider knowledge. But what does the readership of a comic know about the economics behind the book in their hand or on their screen? Not as much as they, or we, could–and that’s a shame, because ignorance might be bliss, but it sure doesn’t breed it. With thanks to the Tet creative team (issue one of four out now from IDW, reviews coming soon) of dual Pauls Tucker and Allor–let’s appraise this leaking boat that we call: the comic book industry.

Paul Allor, you mentioned that you’ve yet to turn a profit on a creator-owned title, is that right?

Tet | Paul Allor Paul Tucker | IDW PublishingALLOR: Yup. Pretty much the opposite. Though I should note that Tet is going to be my first book to break that streak, not because I’m making fat cash off of it, but because my upfront expenses were much lower than they generally are.

But, yeah, I’ve lost a rather spectacular amount of money on my creator-owned work, and taken on quite a bit of debt working to get into comics. My first book, Clockwork, was in progress right as I was going to grad school (I have a Master’s Degree in public management, which will be very helpful when I pitch a Gotham City Hall book). I ended up maxing out my non-subsidized Stafford Student Loans, and used that money to pay for Clockwork. So, a healthy part of my educational debt is actually comics debt. And since then, I’ve taken out lines of credit to accrue fun new debt.

Honestly, when I went down that road, I kind of thought that I would start getting more work-for-hire jobs, sooner. I knew I was taking a risk, but I thought that risk would pay off significantly faster than it has. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to pay off!

So, about a year ago I had to take a step back and go, “okay, wow, you really, really can’t keep doing this.” The biggest impacts of that are that I’m no longer able to invest as much in the printing costs of self-publishing, and (much more importantly) I’m no longer able to pay artists an upfront page rate, as I’ve nearly always done in the past. Which pains me, and also severely limits my opportunities, because people gotta eat, and a back-end deal–especially when that back end is so completely not-at-all guaranteed–just doesn’t work for most people. Understandably.

This is getting off to a super-cheerful start! I guess I should take the time to mention that we’d discussed this interview as being a very honest and brutal look at comics economics, so the tone of it is going to be kind of… like the tone of this answer. But I’m very optimistic about my comics career. I’ve gone into this with open eyes, and made the choices I’ve made because I have faith in my work, and do believe it’s all going to work out in the end.

Is it the same case for the work-for-hire books you’ve done; do you get expenses for research, for example? Do you tend to need to “spend money to make money”

ALLOR: No, no expenses for research, but I tend to keep that pretty minimal. The internet and the public library helps with that. And since I know what my page rate is, from the start, I can take that into account. Most of my work-for-hire earnings go into paying for convention travels, and in paying down my debt from my creator-owned work.

Paul Tucker, are comics a lucrative triumph for you at this time? Don’t rip open your pockets to make it rain receipts, but if you could give the clueless reader the gist–is comic art your primary source of income? How much supplementation does it need? How much outlay does it generally take to produce pro-level comic art?

How do you both come with timekeeping? Allor has a day job; is it hard to find time to work on scripts? Does your wider life suffer?

ALLOR: Well, Paul has a day job as well. And honestly, the pace of his work, especially when you consider that he does is own coloring, is pretty astonishing. For me, my day job lasts, technically, from 8 to 4:30 every day, but it’s usually more like 8 to 5 or 6. Then I come home and work on comics–writing, lettering, marketing–until late at night or early in the morning. And then I work pretty much all day on the weekends as well. My wider life does suffer, in that it’s essentially non-existent. But I’m not complaining. This is a choice, and it’s hopefully temporary. And I have been trying to moderate, recently, both for health reasons, and because I’ve definitely noticed my productivity decreasing in the last several months. I’ve felt for a couple of years now like this pace is kind of unsustainable, and I think now that’s, you know… starting to be true. Rest is important, and I tend to forget that.

TUCKER: Comics haven’t paid the mortgage for me just yet. Hopefully someday, but for now my day job as a graphic artist keeps me afloat. Juggling both has instilled a certain discipline, however. With time limited I’ve gotten into the habit of an early rise so I can get some comics done before the day job. Also, most of the stages in my production have kind of been boiled down to 2-3 hour chunks which means I can slot in different tasks whenever free time presents itself. Like Paul mentioned, the schedule doesn’t have a lot of flexibility so I try to take on projects with realistic deadlines.

As for other aspects of my life suffering–the early rise has helped with that. I’m sure I could be a better presence with my family and friends, but I do always try to strike a balance. That being said, I have left many social gatherings prematurely because I knew I would be getting up early the next day.

And as for outlay, there are some material costs. Bristol, ink, and graphite are finite and computers often require some maintenance. I’ve been using the same nib for about two years so how’s that for savings! I do love that making comics can be relatively low cost. Anyone can scrape together a pencil and paper and put some ideas down.

Pre-orders are often mentioned by cartoonists and independent creators, yourselves included. Why is that? What makes pre-orders so vital, and how did you personally learn about it? Can you talk us through the processes and layers of sales and sales forecasting?

TET, Paul Allor and Paul Tucker, p1

Page one of Tet #1

ALLOR: I’m probably not the most qualified person to answer this–all of my knowledge of pre-ordering comes from creator necessity–but I’ll give it a shot. So, two months before a book’s release, it’s solicited in Diamond Distribution’s monthly Previews catalog. So, if a book is coming out in September (like Tet #1), it appears in the July Previews catalog, which is actually released at the very end of June (clear? clear).

Every month, every comic book retailer places their order, based on the information in that catalog. So, it’s incredibly important. Tet #1 had a lot going for it: IDW is one of the publishers featured in the front of the catalog; Tet had a full-page ad; it showcased Paul’s amazing covers; and it included a quote from Garth Ennis, who was kind enough to read all four issues of Tet before the first issue was solicited.

Pre-orders refer to individual readers/consumers who go to their local shops and tell them to make sure they have a copy of a certain book reserved for them. Basically, it means that Jane Smith goes to her comic book retailer and says, “Hey, I really like the cut of Paul Tucker’s jib. Please order me a copy of Tet #1.” The reason that’s so important is that it lets the retailer know that its customers are aware of this book, and are interested in purchasing it. If enough customers pre-order, retailers will also likely assume that others customers are also interested–even if they AREN’T pre-ordering. So pre-ordering may not just result in one additional copy sold. It may result in several additional copies sold, as retailers use those pre-orders to gauge the potential demand for a book.

It’s also important from the consumer side of things, because in a lot of smaller markets, if you don’t pre-order, there’s a pretty good chance that your shop simply won’t have a copy of the book for you. They may have ordered so few that they all sell out right away, or they may have simply not ordered any. You can never assume that your shop will order even one copy of any given book– especially when that book is a wartorn romance from two unknown creators. That goes double for future issues. Comic shops almost never order the same number of a #2 issue as they did of the #1. By contrast, after the first issue, they cut their orders down, brutally. So if you know you want to read more of a book, you have to let your shop know. Don’t assume that just because you got issue #1, you’ll automatically get issue #2.

[pullquote]You should always have a contract with your publisher, and you should always have contracts with your co-creators. Always, always, always. And yeah, having an attorney on your side is very helpful.[/pullquote] The other reason preordering is so vital is that publishers base the print run of a book based on how many are ordered. They do print more, to cover late orders (this is called an overrun), but not a lot more. The print run of a book can be a pretty complex financial decision. And when you hear about a book selling out at the distribution level, what that generally means is that the number of late orders exceeded the overrun of the book.

So, that’s why Paul and I pushed pre-orders so hard. We made a pre-order form, like a lot of creators do, to make it easier on consumers. We promoted it relentlessly (and, as anyone who follows me on Twitter can attest, I do mean RELENTLESSLY) on social media. And I called hundreds of retailers, and e-mailed hundreds more, to make a direct sales pitch on why Tet is worth ordering. And as a result of all of that, sales on Tet have actually been pretty good, within the context of the type of book it is, and how well-known Paul and I are. I’ve been very, very happy with the response.

Did anybody mentor you in the economics of indie creatorship? Or have you discovered any sticking points or troubles, having lacked mentorship? Do publishing companies tell you much, or do they assume you know what’s what already?

ALLOR: Andy Schmidt, the president of Comics Experience, has kind of been my mentor about comics in general, and he has walked me through a lot of this, both individually, and as part of the Comics Experience workshop. A lot more of it I learned just through necessity, and through self-publishing, which is a great trial by fire. I think in general, publishing companies expect you to already know, or expect you to ask, if you don’t. But Tet is my first creator-owned book to go through a print publisher, so I don’t have a lot of experience upon which to base that assumption.

What sorts of contracts does an independent comics creator generally find themselves signing, and with whom? How often can it backfire? Do you have a lawyer ready to take care of you?

ALLOR: You should always have a contract with your publisher, and you should always have contracts with your co-creators. Always, always, always. And yeah, having an attorney on your side is very helpful. Beyond that, I’m… not 100 percent comfortable discussing specifics, given that these contracts are generally confidential, and my legal knowledge lies somewhere between minimal and non-existent.

Have you ever been messed around by a co-creator? Has anybody ever warned you off working with somebody, because of their business record?

ALLOR: I have been incredibly lucky with my co-creators. The few times when things haven’t worked out, it’s never felt malicious. Just unfortunate circumstances, or life interfering. Having said that, I do tend to check up on people before I work with them, and yeah, I have had people kind of warn me off certain folks. This is a creative partnership, but it’s also a business relationship, and should be treated as such. It’s okay to ask for references. It’s okay to follow up on those references. I knew Paul Tucker for about three years before we started working on Tet together, and had seen him work on projects with a lot of other folks I respect, so there was a definite level of both personal friendship and professional comfort there, as we started work on Tet.

TUCKER: I think finding people you like to work with is kind of like dating. It can take a while to find someone you gel with! You might be exited by a project, but end up having issues with communication. Or what often happens in indie comics is that everyone is always spinning a lot of plates so logistics/timing gets in the way. I’ve never really been warned off anyone that I can recall.

Is selling your own books at a convention a simple matter, or is it a financial risk?

ALLOR: I don’t table at many cons, because I very rarely make money at them. But this is, in large part, because I am a horrible salesperson. Truly, truly horrible.

TUCKER: I have very little con experience. Travelling from where I live is usually the most prohibitive part. I’ve been able to swing NYCC a couple times because I’m lucky enough to have a place to crash in Manhattan. I think tabling might be more in the cards down the line when I (hopefully) have more work published.

Do you get comped printed copies of your books from publishers? How many? Does it vary between publishers, and how much?

ALLOR: It does vary, quite a bit. I don’t feel comfortable going into details, but I will say that I’ve never had any complaints about the number of comps I receive.

TUCKER: I’m generally fine with the comp situation. I’ve been bad about being assertive when it comes to procuring them and I’m pretty sure I have a few items missing from the complete Paul Tucker checklist.

What have I not asked that you’re full of ire knowing that people don’t know? What do you think would convince readers to bother pre-ordering by habit?

ALLOR: Not really? I mean… I do think people do have an unrealistic idea of how much creators are making. I know a lot of people are surprised to learn I have a day job, and I’m like, “yo, you do realize that I don’t have a lot of books coming out, right?” I also once overheard someone in my LCS saying, “well, (that creator) has a book at Image, so you KNOW he’s doing okay for himself, financially.” Which is a truly, truly, truly absurd notion. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of creators at Image and elsewhere making a very good living off their creator-owned work, because there are. But it’s not a guarantee.

But–and this is something I think a lot of creators forget–we can’t expect readers to know the ins and outs of comic-book economics. We can’t expect them to know how much self-publishing costs us, and the financial structure of creator-owned books. They don’t owe us that knowledge. They owe us the cover price that we put on our books, and absolutely nothing more.

As to what would convince people to pre-order by habit… boy, howdy, do I have no idea. If I did, I’d make a million dollars selling the knowledge to retailers and publishers.