graphic novel class 9 - self-publishing

I’m going to take you through the process of a graphic novel in a series of posts. This is from my perspective, as a writer and artist who makes fantasy books for middle grade and young adult readers - but hopefully it will be helpful even if you’re interested in making a different kind of book!

I’ve talked a lot about preparing books for a publisher, but I—and pretty much every cartoonist I know—got started with some form of self-publishing. Self-published zines are an important part of the history of Western comics, especially for work that fell outside the mainstream and work by women, people of color, and queer folk. So when you self-publish, you’re part of a rich tradition!

Digital comics

To my mind, a big part of the graphic novel boom right now is thanks to longform narrative comics that started being published on the web in the early 2000s onward (shoutout to Gunnerkrigg Court, the first webcomic I ever read). People could experiment with styles and make work that wasn’t being published; and in doing so, prove that those kinds of comics had an audience.

There are a lot of different ways to host a comic online, and I’m guessing you’re familiar with enough of them that I don’t need to go into detail. But a quick primer:

Sites like Twitter and Instagram seem to be best suited to newspaper-strip style comics. There’s a lot of slice-of-life and personal work among these comics, and each piece generally is meant to stand alone. The work of Aminder Dhaliwal, who publishes entire graphic novels on Instagram, is a notable exception!

For a longform narrative that’s meant to be read in order…well, when I made in a webcomic way back in 2011, I made my own website, and it was also common for people to use Tumblr. Now I know that Webtoons is hugely popular and…there are probably sites I don’t even know about because I’m old!

I’ve also loved seeing more and more people sharing and selling their comics on sites like gumroad and itch.io (which is mostly a games publishing site). These sites present the comic as a file download, rather than hosting the actual pages on the website. By publishing a comic in that way, you get to control the release, format, and spread of it more than you would on a website like Twitter. The downside is that you don’t get the specific kind of audience build and participation that happens from posting a comic one page at a time.

When I published How the Best Hunter in the Village Met Her Death, I knew I wanted it to read as a long scroll, inspired by the 2010s work of Emily Carroll (this one in particular blew my mind when I was in art school). By putting a .pdf on Gumroad, I could ensure readers read it the way I wanted, rather than chopping it up and putting it into a twitter thread.

Physical comics

HOWEVER, there is something magical about a physical comic! I was the kind of kid who always fantasized about having books with my name on it (to the point that I would use up loads of printer ink making books with fake publication information in the front, which is…SO nerdy). When I started publishing the webcomic Strong Female Protagonist with Brennan Lee Mulligan back in 2011, our goal was to eventually collect it into bound volumes.

Crowdfunding

In 2014, the best way to do that was through Kickstarter. (Let me know in the comments if there’s a more relevant crowdfunding site these days!) Kickstarter basically let us collect preorders from the webcomic readers, plus extra merch for dedicated fans. I arrived at our funding number after a ton of research into printing and shipping.

This research meant contacting printers for quotes, sourcing options, and asking a ton of more experienced cartoonists for their recommendations. There are a lot of hidden fees that go into a Kickstarter: shipping the books, storing the books, all the envelopes and postage (international postage is a nightmare) and time that goes into labelling and shipping, plus every other piece of merch you decide to do, PLUS the inevitable back strain when you find yourself carrying two tons of books up a New York City walkup:

Which is NOT to say it’s a bad idea. But it was the kind of thing that was much more possible when I was a 22-year-old trash baby and had boundless enthusiasm. If you’re going into a crowdfunding campaign, make sure to read a lot of different accounts and tips, and do your research! The planning stage is very important.

There are plenty of places that will help with fulfillment for crowdfunding campaigns, if you DON’T feel like filling the inside of your very small apartment with book boxes. We worked with Topatoco’s Make That Thing for SFP’s second Kickstarter, and it involved significantly less back strain.

Printing

Regardless of how you fund it, you have to put the book together before going to print. This will be easiest with an Adobe program called InDesign, which has a ton of features for book publishing. To be honest, I don’t have a great handle on this program, but there are a ton of online tutorials that helped me get my books ready for print (you can also hire someone to help you). InDesign handles issues of trim size and bleed that I talked about in the page template class, and I believe it’s the industry standard for preparing documents to print.

I made a diagram of common binding types below. If you are printing an entire book (~40 pages or up), it will need to be perfect bound. If you’re printing a minicomic, it can be saddle stitched. Thread binding is the kind of work you’d see on fancy hardcovers, and requires a very big order to make it worth the cost:

I printed SFP through a company called PrintNinja, and they have some helpful resources on their site. (EDIT: since I used PrintNinja there’s been a lot of discussion about it being a shitty company. Here’s a thread on that, which is full of suggestions of other, better places to print)

However! Not everything you publish will be a full book. As I said up top, minicomics and zines are the backbone of indie comics. You can get a printer to print and saddle stitch minicomics for you; two that I’ve had good experiences working with are Keness and RA Comics Direct.

But you can also do this yourself! And if you’re just getting started and want the absolute cheapest option, hand binding minicomics is a rite of passage in comics. There are a lot of ways to do this (here’s an exhaustive resource). You’ll generally need a printer, photocopier, paper cutter, and longarm or saddle stitch stapler. I made a LOT of minicomics at my college’s library. Sometimes public libraries will have these materials; if not, ask at a local FedEx, Kinko’s, or Staples.

Making minicomics is a wonderful way to better understand the whole process of bookmaking! And then you can take them to conventions to sell and share. If you’re getting started in comics and have a short story you want to share in physical form, I really recommend this route.

Self Publishing

The obvious downfall to self publishing is that you have to come up with the money to print your work in the first place. Another downfall is that distribution to bookstores is difficult; publishers have distribution networks in place that a self-publisher generally can’t access. Assume that you’ll be selling most of your self-published books yourself, via online orders and conventions, when you’re planning if you want to go this route or not.

But there are a lot of upsides. You retain all the rights to your book, and you get to tell exactly the story you want without restrictions. If you’re doing digital work, you can explore format and push boundaries in a way that traditional book publishing doesn’t allow. And there are many examples of self-published work getting picked up by a publisher once it’s been out in the world!

Even making a very small comic is a powerful act. You’re bringing to life something that didn’t exist before! You got to create something, from the beginning to the end of the process, and the next time you do it you’ll have more information and ideas.

Comics are, at their heart, a punk-rock medium. Any person with access to mark-making tools can tell a full story, something that shows their unique view on the world. That’s more than can be said for pretty much any other visual storytelling medium; film and animation require expensive tools and are difficult to make without a team, which become barriers to making even the simplest work. But comics are accessible. And self-published comics are the heart of that. That’s why the stories you’ll find at indie comic shows are a hundred times more original, fresh, and exciting than whatever’s at the top of the box office (in my opinion—shade fully intended to the mainstream feature film industry).

To make a comic, all you need is an idea and the will to follow through.


I’m wrapping up this series, so please let me know if you have any questions or topics you’d like to see covered!

News: I have a comic in the upcoming anthology THIS IS OUR RAINBOW, which is a collection of short middle-grade stories exploring the many prisms of queerness. We just got a star in Publisher’s Weekly!

Also, speaking of self publishing…I have a new graphic novel that I’ll be publishing via this newsletter! It’s getting close to a point where I can share pages. Look for an announcement soon!