The story of indie comics has always felt profoundly American. A group of rag-tag creators trying to buck the whims of mainstream giants to carve out a little space for their own. And while there’s been fits and starts galore, indie comics feels like that triumphant underdog tale worth celebrating now more than ever. From the renaissance ushered in by the likes of Image Comics to the promise of crowd-funded comics nowadays, indie comics has continued to serve as rich ground for innovation both on and off the page.
But in recent months, the comics business has experienced some significant structural changes, and it turns out there’ still more for creators to learn as to fully prosper. From distribution to hiring representation, the business of indie comics can be deeply confusing for creators across the board. Luckily, Gamal Hennessy wants to help.
A publishing/entertainment lawyer by day, Hennessy has written The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing. (The book was edited by Aftershock editor-in chief Mike Marts and features a thoughtful foreword by Heavy Metal executive editor Joseph P. Illidge). In it, Hennessy provides a veritable wealth of information for indie creators — not to mention some great industry insights for fans. It’s sort of like “inside baseball” meets every MSNBC business show ever, only about something actually cool.
I recently touched base with Hennessy , where we talked about the business savvy of most indie creators, how comics stands out in the publishing biz, the ins and outs of putting out niche genres and much, much more.
A Kickstarter for the book launched this week, and runs through September 9. As of Monday evening (8/10), donors had already exceeded the $3,000 goal.
AIPT: What was the particular moment or motivation that made you want to write this book?
Gamal Hennessy: I decided to fill a gap in the industry. There are a lot of great books about the creative process of making comics. There are a few books on the legal aspects. There are a couple of books about specific parts of the business, like digital comics or conventions. But there wasn’t one book someone could turn to if they wanted to find out about the whole process of publishing comics. The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing satisfies that need.
AIPT: Generally speaking, how savvy do you think indie comics creators are when it comes to some of these behind-the-scenes/business affairs? Are there any noticeable holes in knowledge or some larger issues?
GH: There is a spectrum of business knowledge in the community of comic book creators. Most of them have some kind of day job (which I refer to in the book as their secret identity). Depending on the work they do, they might have a basic understanding of those aspects of their secret identity that impact their comics, whether that’s website development or sales funnels or advertising. What most of them don’t have is a foundation in the whole process. Most people learn about the comic book business by making mistakes and getting burned. I’d like to help people avoid that with this book.
AIPT: How much of this book will be of interest or even apply to casual fans? Should more consumers be this savvy about the indie comics business in general?
GH: Anyone who enjoys reading comics might be interested in the business of comics in the same way anyone who is interested in the MCU might read a biography of Stan Lee or a Star Wars fan might watch a behind the scenes documentary. The comic book fan who does read The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing will probably come away with a greater appreciation of the publishers they see in Artist’s Alley because they’ll understand the work it took to get those books on the table.
AIPT: How does the comics industry differ from some other entertainment sectors in terms of challenges for creators? Or some unique opportunities?
GH: The comics business is unusual in a lot of respects, but the three areas where this is most notable are distribution, marketing and illogical public stigma.
A lot of people have written about the detrimental newsstand distribution practices that led to the creation of the direct market, which in turn created unintended consequences for getting books into the hands of readers. Comics in the US also still lag way behind other countries and other industries in terms of digital distribution depending on the genres you look at.
In terms of marketing, most other entertainment sectors have embraced niche marketing and long-term conversational campaigns designed to keep core consumers and attract new ones. Comics have historically benefited from a fan base that was so devoted to the characters and stories that they essentially marketed books to themselves. That approach isn’t sustainable in the 21st century.
Finally, the general public understands that there are movies for kids and movies for adults. They get the idea of books, TV shows and games for kids and adults. But American comics have historically struggled against the idea that comics are only for kids, even when the same public that won’t read comics will jump at the chance to watch comic stories in movies or on TV. It’s like they’ve come to the conclusion that they like wine, but they couldn’t possibly eat grapes. Other entertainment sectors don’t have to deal with that. Video games did at one point, but I think that’s over now.
AIPT What do you think has been behind the “boon” experienced by indie comics? Are the creators really taking advantage of the success of a Walking Dead, or is there still some disconnect between the creative and business sides?
GH: A lot of the growth in independent comics comes from reduced costs due to technology and expanded market potential. High speed internet access allows an aspiring creator to start a company, find talent, build a market, establish a distribution system, produce a book, advertise it, and generate revenue from anywhere in the world while they sit in their house. Publishing comics is not necessarily cheap, but the lower relative cost and the growth of niche markets gives more publishers more opportunities to succeed.
AIPT: How would you describe the state of indie comic publishing right now? How has it changed or grown in the last few years, and is that necessarily a good thing for fans and creators?
GH: I define independent publishing as the development, production and commercial distribution of narrative sequential art without the support or assistance from any larger corporate owner or third party publisher. Based on that definition, the number of creators and publishers have grown, especially if you include webcomics and distribution models outside of the direct market. But overall market share is still dominated by a dozen major players and traditional publishers like Random House and Simon and Shuster are having major success with their graphic novel imprints.
So you have a situation where there is more potential competition from a lot of different sources. This can be a benefit for both creators and readers because everyone has the chance to get their stories out. The key for both sides is for creators to build an audience with the right readers and not get drowned out by all the noise.
AIPT: How much does content, the storyline, or genre even, impact the success of an indie comic? Are we looking at books that do better than others, or are there different circumstances facing books of a certain type or focus?
GH: The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing subscribes to the theory of niche marketing. The idea is that every comic and every story has a potential audience, regardless of content or genre.
If you try to sell a niche comic to the wrong audience, it doesn’t matter how objectively good it is, you’re going to have a hard time. If I own a five-star steakhouse in New York but I’m marketing my restaurant to vegans in Tokyo, I’m not going to be open for very long. The quality of my food doesn’t matter.
So, if you have a horror comic then you need to find horror fans whether or not they read comics. More specifically, if you have a campy horror comedy comic, then you want to talk to those people the most, not the splatterpunk crowd. Yes, those groups will be smaller. Yes, you can also attract some casual fans too, but it’s your true fans that are going to make your comic viable from a business standpoint.
AIPT: How should creators balance their creative efforts with the entrepreneurial side of the business? Is there some kind of secret to it, or is it always a struggle in a way?
GH: Time management is a key component of independent comic book publishing, especially when secret identities are involved. You have to balance your life, your day, job and your comic in a way that doesn’t burn you out.
Fortunately, a lot of comics are produced using an industrial process, meaning that each creator ads their talent to the book at separate times. First the script, then the line art, then the color, etc. This means that members of the team can focus on the business aspects of the book when they’re not working on the creative side.
For example, when the writer sends the script to the artist, he can turn his attention to marketing and setting up the distribution channels. When the letterer is waiting for the pages, she can set up the website and figure out convention attendance. As long as there is a schedule and everyone remembers to eat, sleep and talk to their families, the business and creative sides of comics can complement each other.
AIPT: The book makes some great points about distribution. I think with COVID we’re seeing some of these models change even further. How do you see indie-level distribution playing out in the next few years? Will it get “better” for creators?
GH: Every creator and publisher needs to find the distribution model that fits their goals and caters to their potential readers. That might be the direct market, that might be library sales, or digital sales, or direct sales to readers. In the next five years, the overall industry might see an increased normalization of distribution models that work in parallel, in the same way we see the video game industry divided into PC, console, and mobile sectors.
AIPT: Comics are very much a collaborative medium, and you make some truly solid points about hiring a team. What does a great team (editors, business folks, etc.) do for a book and a creator in general?
GH: The right business team creates an environment where the book can be successful from a financial standpoint. Your accountant can increase your revenue and reduce your taxes. Your attorney can protect your IP and negotiate your contracts. Your editor can make sure you have a quality product on time and on budget. Your print manager can get your books into the real world. Your publicist gets the word out to the right people. The list goes on. All of this doesn’t have to bankrupt you or your project. It’s a question of managing time and controlling costs to give your comic the best chance to make more money than it costs.
AIPT: There’s some great stuff in the book about cultivating self-owned IP. What are creators not doing right with their own IP? Or, what can they do better in the development process?
GH: The biggest mistakes are over extension and short term expectations.
Aspiring creators look at The Big Two and decide they’re going to publish an extended connected universe right out of the gate, instead of focusing on trying to publish one quality comic that is better than their favorite book and then building on that foundation.
They don’t consider the fact that creating, publishing and selling a single successful story isn’t easy and it isn’t quick. Building cult fan bases takes time and consistent effort. Creating an entire catalog takes years, even decades. Anyone who decides to publish comics in 2020 needs to consider what they want to achieve in 2030. That will give them the perspective to manage their IP with more success.
AIPT: What’s the one thing (advice, inspiration, etc.) you would tell all indie comics creators?
GH: The most important thing about publishing independent comics is loving the core idea for your book.
Freelance comic creators don’t have to love, or even like the books they work on if they’re getting paid. Publishers who ship dozens of titles a year don’t love every book that goes out the door because the main goal is the revenue stream. But there is no guarantee of profits in independent comics and publishing can be an intense business. You are going to have to defend and support your comic on a financial, social, political, emotional, mental and perhaps even physical level. You might have to spend more time with this comic than you do with your friends, family or pets. That kind of effort and intensity is wasted on a story you’re not in love with.
So, love the idea for your comic and you’ll have the motivation and vision to stick with the process. That will increase your chances of success.