In the world of self-publishing, comics and graphic novels have carved out a special niche for themselves. This is partly a response to publishers’ lack of interest in stories that are out of the ordinary, and partly down to ability of some authors to build passionate communities and sell directly to their loyal followers.
Every self-respecting comics fair, wherever it’s held in the world, always devotes some space to self-published authors: whereas in the sixties these titles would largely have been experimental pieces that had been photocopied rather than printed, the level of quality has grown steadily over the years to the point where today you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a self-published comic and a release from a traditional publisher.
If you want to see for yourself, you’ll find a good example in our article from 2020: “Self-publishing comics and illustrations: tips from authors at the Lucca Comics and Games Festival”.
BONE: A STUNNING SUCCESS STORY
Throughout the seventies and eighties, on both sides of the Atlantic, there was a thriving underground publishing scene of authors, fanzines, collectives and other organisations who produced their own work. Generally, these self-publications had a circulation that was local or confined to particular niches or communities with common passions.
Then, in 1991, a comic came along that completely revolutionised the publishing paradigm. That comic was Jeff Smith’s Bone.
This self-published epic was created in Columbus, Ohio. There, Jeff Smith had started a small animation studio and spent his spare time publishing comic strips for the university newspaper (the comic stripis a self-contained format that is usually published in newspapers and magazines. Perhaps the most famous example is Charles Schulz’s Peanuts).
At the start of the nineties, with the green light from his wife, Smith decided to drop everything and attempt to self-publish a light-hearted fantasy in the form of a graphic novel. Bone, whose characters are three odd creatures that look like a cross between Casper the Friendly Ghost and a Disney character, was actually inspired by the legendary American comic strip Pogo.
The idea was to produce a series of albums: Smith sold 1500 copies of the first, then reduced the number of copies printed to stay within the budget set out in hisbusiness plan. But just four years later, Bone broke through and was one of the 100 bestselling comic albums sold in America, before going on to achieve global success and critical acclaim.
One of the most interesting aspects of Bone’s success is the approach taken by its author, which can be summed up as follows: “The fan is not the customer. They are in the sense that you have to give them a story that will make them come in and buy it. But it’s a direct market where the comic books are sold non-returnable.”*
So Smith’s idea was to do everything he could to woo retailers and distributors so that they would take sell his work. It’s an insight that still applies today, especially in markets that are smaller than America’s.
Self-publish and be damned!
Another stand-out example of a self-published album is issue 0 of one of the most successful sagas in the history of comics: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. Fun fact: TMNT started life as a parody of Marvel superhero stories (more on this here).
In 1984, with the help of a loan, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird opened their own comic book studio. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was their first release, and in the space of just three years it was a global smash hit!
Faith Erin Hicks is a Canadian author of graphic novels. In 1999, she began a storytelling experiment with “Demonology 101”, a teen drama set in a fantasy world: pretty much every day, Hicks published a page of her story online (it was a web-comic, as it’s known in the jargon). This enabled her to create a community of loyal fans who followed and interacted with her, even suggesting potential plot developments. She eventually finished the story in 2004, five years and 700 pages later. And, at this point, she could publish the graphic novel in print, safe in the knowledge that she had large fan base eager the purchase a physical copy of Demonology 101.
An interesting trend in modern self-publishing is the use of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.
Alec Longstreth, creator of the Basewood graphic novel, is a sophisticated author who publishes books that are more like illustrated albums than traditional pocket-sized paperback comics albums.
Longstreth’s business model is based on subscriptions and crowdfunding, which enables him to focus on creative work, safe in the knowledge that he has the financial side of things covered.
You can read more about his approach here: /
And in Italy? Self-publishing works
You might think that the examples above only work because they benefit from an enormous, thriving market: the population of North America is over 500 million, of whom most are English speakers (although some read comics in other languages, principally Spanish and French). Meanwhile, although Europe’s population is larger at over 700 million, dozens of different languages are spoken there. But despite the significant differences between the American and European markets, even Italy has its fair share of self-published successes.
One of the best-known examples is Marco D’Ambrosio, A.K.A. Makkox, who started out publishing web comics in vertical format (an innovation at the time) and experimenting with self-publishing, which saw his work quickly spread across the peninsula.
By publishing a few hundred copies, Makkox was able to build a passionate community of fans who have now been following him for some 20 years.
In this article that appeared on Ninja Marketing a while back, Makkox explains the economics of his approach: “I produced 1,000 albums on two types of paper. I sold 800 at €10 a copy and another 200 at €30 a copy (the latter were printed on premium paper and personalised with a little water colour drawing). If I sold them all, I would make what a publisher would pay me for an album that sold 10,000 copies in bookshops, or for selling 2,000 copies of five books.” He goes on to reveal that he sold his first 500 copies in a week.
In 2011, towards the end of his tenure at the helm of Canemucco magazine, Makkox encouraged a protégé of his to self-publish, even helping to fund the first 500 copies.
Zero Calcare, an artist already active on the fanzine scene, released “The Armadillo’s Prophecy”, managing to sell 5000 copies, a hitherto unimaginable number for a self-published comic.
In this interview, Zerocalcare talks about Makkox and getting his big break:
Humorous in tone and existential in theme, they were fairly unique cases in the Italian market at the time, which was dominated by fantasy and superheroes. But the desire to publish anyway, despite what publishers’ thought, blazed a new trail for Italian comic books.
Alessandro Baronciani is a seasoned author and illustrator who has embraced self-publishing. It enabled him build an audience before he started selling his work in bookshops by experimenting with word-of-mouth marketing and mail order sales of his self-produced albums.
In 2016, using a crowdfundingmodel, his book “Come svanire completamente” (How to Disappear Completely) was one of the comic book hits of the year, despite its complex format (it comes in a box complete with an album, poster, maps, postcards and more).
Here’s a recent interview with Rolling Stone
Self-publishing can be a smart move
Self-publishing often makes sense for authors of graphic novels and comics. However, it does require a certain amount of entrepreneurial flare, some basic maths and a small fan base at the very least (apart from friends and family). It also involves going to comics fairs and festivals, but fortunately there is a growing number of these, with many also having sections dedicated to self-publishing.
You also need to know how to use to Internet to your advantage: build a website, use crowdfunding platforms, create content on social media and do a bit of healthy self-promotion.
As we’ve seen, the results can be not just rewarding, but truly stunning.
But does everyone think the same way, given that the comics sector is one of the most anarchic and chaotic in publishing?
Here’s what one of the most successful authors of the past few years, Micol&Mirco, thinks: “Self-publishing is something that shouldn’t exist: it should be publishers enabling authors to publish what we want. It’s been left to us, like many other artists, to fill in the gaps. And a myth has developed that’s it’s cooler to self-publish rather than go through a traditional publisher.”
Taken from the an article on Minimaetmoralia.