GETTING INTO COMICS AND PUBLISHING (revised)
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By LiamSharp   |   Watch
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Published: August 2, 2009
This is an old piece I wrote and posted as news over two years ago, but just recently people have been asking what my experiences were with regard to publishing and getting published - so here it is again, with a few new notes added. Please, don't be put off by this - the point here is to try to help you go into the business enlightened and with open eyes. It's NOT easy - as too many outsiders frequently imagine - and neither is it a glamorous rock-star existence. Like all other trades, it's work, and should be treated as such.

Getting into comics is something a lot of people want to know how to do, but there's a lot of questions you want to ask yourself first. There is such a vast array of genre and subgenre, technique, approach, and so on, that it’s important to be clear on where you want to go with your work at the outset – and you have to be REALLY honest and tough with yourself at this stage!

If you’re into the capes and tights and you want to go mainstream you’re going to have to want it incredibly badly, as the competition is the most extreme I’ve ever known it right now. There seems to be more titles than ever - and with the digital revolution more people are capable of producing sleek, mainstream art - but right across the industry there's an enormous amount of competition.

One thing I'm NOT seeing at cons is break-the-mould, edgy and accomplished new types of comic art. Invariably it's by-numbers superhero fare of a fairly similar standard - what I would typify as three or four years off pro-standard but showing promise. I often wonder when we're going to see the next Sienkewicz, the next great stylist. Originality is not only becoming rarer, it seems less desired - either by the industry or the fans, who want above all else consistency.

You might be interested to know that very few artist or writers are “discovered”, becoming over-night sensations. Most UK writers will have cut their teeth in 2000ad, and that‘s certainly the case for many artists too – even though the art in 2000ad isn’t necessarily done in a US mainstream technique. If you can’t get in to the industry through a break in 2000ad, or you're US based, then you have to go direct to the US editors at DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and so on. You’ll most likely find one of them at a con – at which point you can pester them, endure any criticism or advice they might make about your work, and get the details you need to submit work. It’s not easy, and it’s fraught with disappointment – even as a pro of 20+ years, I’m lucky if one in maybe ten pitches gets off the ground! I have pitches right now at several publishers. It's a lottery.

Another thing nobody tells you about the mainstream is that, as an artist, you’ll almost certainly be drawing stuff you’re NOT prepared for, and don’t really have any desire to do or passion for. You won't generally get the book you're most suited too (I've been trying to get a Conan gig my whole career - a book I'm so clearly suited to it's not true - but so far I've been passed over.) Your portfolio – which should be mostly pencil art, half as big again as regular comic pages on high quality paper, and not inked with ball-point pens or felt tips – will be stuffed with things you LIKE drawing. Nobody practices the stuff they don’t! I’m pretty good at monsters, barbarians, trees, natural landscapes, organic alien technology, and yet early on I found myself struggling to strips packed full of things I'm not so good at - such as cars, house interiors, buildings, all things I find uninspiring and tough to work out. And it’s not fun for me doing that work, even when it’s on a great book like The Hulk! So be warned!

Your other alternative is the indi route, which is the route for committed auteurs doing comics for love. This is much more flexible, though you still have to find a company that fits your vision and buys into your work – and you absolutely will not make any money out of it 99.9% of the time. If you can’t find a publisher, you might as well just go ahead and publish it yourself – far more easily achieved than ever before with print on demand outlets like Lulu, etc.

If you’ve decided to go down the self-publishing or indi route, then you need to be very honest with yourself, and you need to know how unbelievably hard it is to get your stuff seen and sold right now. It has never been so easy to create comics and produce printable files, it has never been so cheap, and subsequently neither have there been so many people doing it.

With the advent of platforms like MySpace and reality TV, Warhols assertion that everybody would be famous for 15 minutes seems to be coming true. We’re seeing everybody selling themselves everywhere – often with absolutely nothing to sell BUT themselves. That’s what you’re up against – everybody else selling something. So you have to have a good idea WHO is likely to buy it, and why, and where you’re going to sell it to them. You’ve also got to know why you’re doing it – because if you honestly think it’ll be a good business venture you’re almost certainly in for a shock. The only way to succeed as an independent is to do it for nothing else than the love of the medium, and belief in your product.

But then again - you MIGHT get lucky!

Also, be sure you really know what it is that you have. You’ll need a pretty accomplished and experienced eye casting over most work to genuinely know if it’s pro-quality. There’s an awful lot of self-delusion in the indi publishing world!

At cons you’ll need funds for tables, hotel rooms, etc, and you’ll most likely not cover your costs with sales. If you get a distribution deal, you’ll be in the long shadow cast by the big companies, buried in a dark corner of a vast monthly catalogue.

If you’ve no marketing budget, then your only option is messageboards, MySpace, indi-driven sites like Warren Ellis's late, great The Engine, and getting hold of a list of internet comics news sites – they’re available, you just have to find them.

If you have created your own book, and your dream is to see it printed, but you have literally no funds, and nobody is willing to publish it, there are other great options, such as the afore mentioned Lulu www.lulu.com. Here you can upload your entire book having placed it into one of the templates they provide, and you can then order a printed, bound copy direct from them for the price you set for it. Print on demand is an incredible innovation, and like Amazon, they will list your book for anybody to buy, they’ll even generate an isbn number and barcode, and provide editorial services if you wish. This is completely free, and they will take a small percentage of any book sold. The downside is you have no stock you can sell and show at cons, (unless you order a bunch as samples, but they will cost you the full price,) and you have to find a way to market them sight-unseen online – which is bloody hard if nobody has heard of you, and not easy even when they have!

If you accept all of this, I can promise you – there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing it through. It’s amazingly satisfying and cathartic.

Most of what I’ve outlined above we found out at Mam Tor Publishing, and in my career in general, along the way. The first book Mam Tor produced, about six years ago, was really a glorified convention sketchbook. These had become the thing to do in the US, and every artist had a pulpy black and white A5 booklet with a colour photocopy cover, that progressed to an A4 book with a card stock cover the following year. By the time I did mine, which ended up being “Sharpenings: the Art of Liam Sharp”, we found it could be on glossy paper, with a colour section and cardstock cover. It had become - almost by accident - a real book. At around the time we were printing this, which was also a fallow work period for me (another reason for producing a showcase title) I met a group of highly talented artists at the Bristol Comic Expo – Dave Kendall, Kev Crossley, Emma Simcock-Tooth, Cardinal, and Emily Hare, to name a few. We had met on my old messageboard, but it was the first time we had come together face to face. John Bamber (old friend, and long-time art collector) and myself simultaneously – and entirely separately – came up with the notion of an anthology showcasing their work. When we discovered this it became obvious we should unite our efforts, and put it out under the MamTor banner, as we had my artbook. I thought it might help to get some pros involved, and started asking around to see if anybody had any personal work they’d like to see in print. Some had, but as it turns out, most creators are desperate for a chance to do something for the hell of it, and without the usual editorial constraints. “Event Horizon” slowly started to give birth to itself.

We also received a few pieces that literally stunned us, such as Matt Coyle’s unprecedented “Worry Doll” (still available here: www.mamtor.com) which has been hailed in the Australian press as a landmark, and is getting it’s author TV and radio spots, major exhibitions, and international attention. Work like that comes along once or twice in a decade I think. It’s hard to recall the last time I saw something so unique and technically awe-inspiring, and it set a new standard for us as a publisher.

The biggest issue of all concerning new publishers, indi publishers, and publishers of niche material in general, is promotion, distribution, and printing. Securing a distributor in the first place can prove extremely difficult. Many book buyers simply won’t take you seriously. Some require you to have published 10 books before they will even take a look at your material. I’m still coming up against barriers on an almost weekly level, and we’ve been established for almost six years now. But lets say you get a deal with a distributor; immediately you’ll be losing 62% of your revenue – and that’s excluding advertising and printing costs. To get seen in the catalogue will cost you an arm and a leg if it’s going to compete, and there’ll be no concessions in the price. Big companies receive huge discounts for advertising space because they buy so much. You, on the other hand, will have to pay the going rate.

You will also have to pay top dollar for your printing, as – unlike the big companies who get good deals for huge print runs – you’ll most likely be involved in one generally tiny print run.

Promotion is an endless cycle of head-scratching and frustration, and it often doesn’t seem to be reflected in sales. You can win awards, receive great reviews and endorsements, even get yourself in national – or even international – papers and magazines, and you still won’t be able to get decent orders, the trust and faith of the retailer, and the full backing of the distributor. It’s the most talked about subject of any indi comic publisher, and it can break hearts and bank accounts. Be warned!

If you really want to hear it as it is, you have to network within the industry – and be prepared to listen! It’s a tiny business, so you really DON'T want to make enemies!!! THAT MEANS - BE CIVIL!!!. Do not, on any account, force yourself into conversations, or make demands on pros. DO NOT BE RUDE OR SUGGEST YOU KNOW BETTER. A bad rep, once it gets hold, is near impossible to shake, and in such a navel-gazing industry it can be remembered for a very long time indeed. Look long and hard before asking a question, but if you do, you’ll find there are a lot of people willing to give you answers and fill you in on how things work. Again, civility is the key-word.

If you think you know it all you’ll be laughed out of the industry…

If you can build up a good raport online, you’ll find that pros are more open to you at cons, once they’ve established who you are - don’t hide behind online pseudonyms, they don’t help you. People want to know they’re talking to real people, not “Frag Gor the Battle Rat”! There's a lot of vitriol being spawned because people hiding behind their avatars feel they can say what they please - and creators feelings and emotions are seldom spared!

Having said all this, something inside me drives me to continue, and thankfully my partner in all of this – my wife Christina – understands completely, and gets as much out of it as I do. I love what we do, and I will keep on doing it as long as I’m able. Few art-forms are so labour intensive - if any - but few can transport us so readily to the places we imagine. Comics have the potential to be pretty much anything, as a fusion of words and pictures, and the more people who see and understand this the better. It's important we learn to be broad-minded in the things we're interested in, both as creators and readers, so that this evolution in the art-form can take place. We're in a time where the whole medium could really explode, but only if we let it - and that's something we're all a part of and responsible for.

Very best,

Liam.
Comments61
anonymous's avatar
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vampeer1's avatar
vampeer1Student Traditional Artist
great advice, Liam. thnx!
LiamSharp's avatar
LiamSharpProfessional General Artist
My pleasure. Hope it helps!
vampeer1's avatar
vampeer1Student Traditional Artist
i am certain it will...will let you know in about 1.5 years;)...
michaelstewart's avatar
michaelstewartProfessional General Artist
Thank you. I read it all! Very helpful!
BorgMoose's avatar
Thanks for the this great article Liam. It is good to get a thorough understanding of how backbreaking it can be to get into this industry. I am still an amateur trying to break into the industry and have started to try and make a habit of posting my stuff on the 2000ad website forum and the feedback is generally constructive criticism by people who don't pull any punches. But each time I look at my work afresh with eyes untainted by familiarity and see how I must improve and the next lot of work is better.
My next move is going to be to study at the Julian Ashton school of Fine art. This is a move spurred by the fact that I can still see a massive gap between my work and the industry standard.

Thanks for the article man and for producing such inspirational work. I'm loving the Gears of War series!!!
MrTuke's avatar
MrTukeProfessional Traditional Artist
It was a good read at the time and still serves as a good read to this day.
My personal observations.
1) Asides from all those facts, what most newcomers don't often get their heads around is that comics is (mostly) Freelance: Self employment. It's not the same as employment that most people are conditioned with. It's not just about selling yourself and working hard, but also business management and all manners of multitasking. Most new artists and writers just aren't ready for that.
2)They're also not ready for a fair share of jerks ready to take advantage of newcomers (a subject mentioned in your other article.)
3) On a happier note, there is a potent plus side for keeping at it. My advice for people considering comics and self publishing in particular, is to look at what one will get out if it in the long term, rather than the short term fantasy that you're "gonna be RICH AND FAMOUS FROM YOUR FIRST ISSUE :D :D :D LOL!" . In which yes I'd say you'd find that happiness \ content Long term. I've got mates who are writers that kept at it and are doing alright, and without over-blagging it, the same goes for me. :)

The love's still there for me I think. I still want comics and illustration as a career choice, even if I'm a smidge more Misanthropic that I used to be. :P

All the best, Liam -Tom
8ight8's avatar
8ight8Student Digital Artist
thanku so much for ...... explaining it as it really is!!
at the end i found myself wanting to read more....know more....but i guess this would be enough!!!
im more into concept art for games and other things but im glad i stumbled across this article... im gunna spread it to my friends!!
again thanku so much for taking the time to guide others [ us ] who dont really know what's out there!!
thanku :]
kre8uk's avatar
kre8ukProfessional Digital Artist
Great insight - Great article !
Reading the comments (especially the age ones) it heartens me to think maybe I'll get my chance one day :)
punisherfemme's avatar
Incredibly helpful. I have an indy comic, Ministry, which is published by Ronin and available through Indyplanet. Everything you've said is spot-on - getting an Indy book noticed isn't easy but definitely can be done if you persist.

Thanks for the advice :) It’s guys like you that inspire us. Thanx :)
assassin-10's avatar
what happens if you get in and you don't get payed?
STeknique's avatar
Great Read! very helpful!
EricNocellaDiaz's avatar
EricNocellaDiazProfessional
Excellent information. Thank you for sharing.
biroons's avatar
biroonsProfessional General Artist
incredible, actually right now Im trying to get in to the comics industry, thanks for the tips and the advice.
johnfsfreeman's avatar
Good piece, Liam, I'll give it a plug on downthetubes!
LiamSharp's avatar
LiamSharpProfessional General Artist
Cheers John! :)

Hope you're well!

L.
LiamSharp's avatar
LiamSharpProfessional General Artist
Cheers!

L.
Slayfire's avatar
I'll wait till I win the lottery to start self publishing my indi work.
LiamSharp's avatar
LiamSharpProfessional General Artist
LOL! Wise move! :)

L.
meikahidenori's avatar
meikahidenoriHobbyist General Artist
Great an informative article, it was interesting to read the bit about indie comics and self-publications, as in Australia most of the time they are the only ways to get publishing nine times out of ten. mostly because the industry here is rather small (very tiny compared to the US and the UK, heck we used to be able to fit most of it in a small auditorium) so we have to not only try and establish ourselves in a very small area of talent, we also have to fight against major print publications from overseas, so alot of the independent company close up shop as they can't afford to market our small industry internationally.

but yes, very interesting article and very informative and helpful. :hug: kudus for share with us!
LiamSharp's avatar
LiamSharpProfessional General Artist
Really glad it was helpful. Take care, and thanks for the response! :)

L.
metalheadkomik's avatar
metalheadkomik General Artist
great post man , thanks for sharing !
LiamSharp's avatar
LiamSharpProfessional General Artist
No problem!

Very best,

L.
MatthewMcIntosh's avatar
MatthewMcIntoshHobbyist General Artist
I love this article. It's honesty is uplifting to me and find myself more inspired after reading it. I'm the middle aged guy trying to break into the business after years of being in the workforce. The kind of encouragement you get as a kid, young artist, doesn't float at my age. So, to read this gives perspective and with that perspective, the path seems so much clearer. Thank you.
anonymous's avatar
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