We here at the Alliance get asked this question a lot: “When will I know I’m ready to print my first book?” This is a loaded question and the real question should be “Is my comic ready for printing?” What I mean is your audience ready to shell out hard earned cash for your comic in print form? In this article, I’m going to take you down that treacherous road to your first printing. It’s a slippery road, so hang on and be prepared to ask yourself some hard questions and give yourself realistic answers.
This article is aimed at the novice webcomic creator out there. You seasoned folks can tag along too, as you should still be asking yourself some of these questions. Also, I am aiming this article at newspaper style comics, not full page comics. Graphic novel type comics are a whole different ballgame. Now that that’s settled, the first question you should ask is this:
1. “Why would anyone pay cash for a print version of your comic when they can read it for free on-line?”
In the good old days, getting a comic in print form was the only way to see a comic again. Once it went by in the newspaper, poof, it was gone. Not true today. Once you publish your comic on-line, it’s there forever (technically speaking). The good thing is new readers can see your archive and dig in (and hopefully stay). The bad thing is it’s there for your readers to view again and again. Yes, some folks will want to hold that comic in their grubby little hands, but that percentage is dropping more and more, especially considering the economy’s state. One tip is to motivate your readers with extra, exclusive content in the book. That is a sure winner but adds a ton of work to your schedule. Another tip is to be leery of putting a poll on your website and asking if folks would buy a book or not. Most will say they will and very few will follow through. Pre-orders are a great way of judging, but you better be prepared to burn the midnight oil if you meet your sales goal as most folks won’t wait 6 months for you to do the extra content and then deliver the book.
2. “How do you know you’re ready for a print version of you comic?”
Well, one way is simply by the sheer volume you have created. If you have 50 comics done, that may not be enough to entice someone to buy nor is it worth all that work for a relatively small number of comics. A good rule of thumb is to have at least one year’s worth of comics done. And that’s assuming you’re doing 2 or 3 comics per week. So, between 100 to 150 strips is a good number. It makes the book substantial enough for printing. Another good way to build up for your first print is to wait until you’re 6 months or more into your second year of publishing the comic on-line. This way, you can also see where your readership is. If you have a small readership, there may not be enough willing to shell out cash for your book to make it worth your while. Which leads us to the next question:
3. “Are you going to make enough on the book to make it worth your while to produce?”
I’m not talking about the actual per-book profit, but the total profit divided by the hours it took you to produce the book. If it would take you 40 hours of work to assemble your book and produce the extra content, how much total profit will make it worth your while to produce the book in the first place? Let’s use $10/hour as an example hourly wage. If you make $5 per book, and it took you 40 hours to assemble at $10 per hour, that’s $400 profit to make back your time. Divide that $400 by $5 and you would have to sell 80 books to make back your time. In some ways that’s a small number, but I know of many creators who never sell that many copies of their books. And if you’re producing the book at a loss financially, well, that’s sheer madness from a business point of view.
Let me state clearly, that I approach this totally from a business point of view. I do not take into consideration the sheer personal joy of holding your book. If that’s all you want, then assemble your book, publish it over at LuLu and buy yourself a few copies for your friends and family and call it a day. BUT… I’m in this for the money. If I can’t make back a decent profit, then why would I waste the time when I could invest that time into learning a new inking or coloring technique, or better yet, actually take the time to write and produce a better comic. In the end that’s what folks want from us; a good comic delivered on time. Invest your time in improving your craft both in terms of writing and drawing. The end result will be a readership that WANTS your book and will demand it. That is the real answer here: create an audience for you book willing to put down the cash for your products.
One final tip I will toss out is to produce a digital version of your book first.
I lay my books out in Adobe’s InDesign and it easily lets me export a PDF for web as well as for print. By offering it in a digital form first, you can test the waters and see who really is willing to cough up the cash for you comic in a “print” form. If this digital version goes over well enough (you’ll know as folks will say “Hey, can I buy this in print?”) then you know you’re ready for print. Then all you have to do is simply open InDesign and export a print-ready PDF file and send it off to the printers! I’ve done this and it has saved me the headache of printing a book that no one will buy.
So, you should now be ready to test the waters with your readers and see if the next best seller is waiting in your comic archives. Even if it’s not, it is pretty darn cool to hold your comics in your hand, I have to admit. This from a guy who likes to joke that “print is dead”.