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Case Studies in Webcomics Book Collections by Rob Balder

Disclaimer

In this article, I am taking a look at the experiences of webcomics creators who have (or soon will) put portions of their archives into book collections. I'm using first person, because I will be including my own experiences as well.

This article is intended to tell a range of stories. It is not meant to be the definitive guide to putting your webcomic into book form. The creators I selected represent some, but not nearly all, of the most significant approaches and achievements in webcomics book publishing. You are especially invited to add your own experiences to the comment thread.

Overview

The realities of small-press niche publishing are harsh. One of the biggest barriers has always been the capital investment involved. Traditional book-form publishing of comics, particularly in color, has always required a lot of money up front. Those few who could find a company willing to risk that much money to publish the work would often find that there wasn't a lot left over for royalties.

Those who sought to publish for themselves would find a break point in the numbers, somewhere above 1,000 copies and often more like 5,000, below which it was not feasible for the book to turn a profit. Printing 1,000 color copies in the style of a graphic novel prices most creators out of the self-publishing game. Even black-and-white quotes typically run well into the thousands of dollars.

So the story of webcomics publishing can almost be seen as the story of dealing with the economic realities of the small press. Some creators have used the traditional means of finding a publishing house, some have taken more creative approaches (such as becoming their own publishing house), some have taken advantage of the new technologies changing publishing itself, and some have leveraged their web power to make the customer shoulder the investment.

Case 1: Ctrl+Alt+Del by Tim Buckley

Pent-Up Demand Makes An Explosive Launch

Tim Buckley launched the first CAD book in 2004. Printing and distributing the book himself was the only option he seriously considered. Tim writes, "With the help of a friend* who knew more about graphic design and printing than I did, I managed all aspects of bringing my book to print."

[*EllChan of UpEvil, who also assisted in the production of the Mac Hall book.]

Some of the work for the book involved "remastering" older strips, improving backgrounds, changing the speech font, etc., in order to get the work in shape to look its best on a printed page. After getting some quotes for printing in the quantities he wanted, Tim announced pre-sales on his site.

All hell broke loose.

In one day of pre-sales, he found that he had covered the cost of printing the entire run.

That print run has since been completely sold out (two-thirds of it as pre-orders). The CAD books are beautiful, full-color glossy softbacks with additional commentary on strips included. The second CAD collection will be printed with the same printer, who will also be printing a second run of Book 1. Pre-sales for both books were announced at the same time.

In terms of a publisher, all of the sales for CAD Volumes 1 and 2 are direct to consumer. The books are printed, but technically not published, because they lack an ISBN and are not labeled for wholesale distribution to retailers. In this way, Tim saves on expense and keeps every penny after his print costs are covered.

This experience reads like a best-case scenario. But although the story represents one of the biggest financial successes for anyone in webcomics, Tim is not planning to stick with the same formula for Book 3.

"I just signed a deal with a major comic book publisher to handle the books starting with Volume 3," he says. "I'll be making a more official announcement in the coming months."

Among the reasons for making this switch is the incredible amount of time and energy it takes to handle orders and shipping for such a big volume of copies. (Having hauled one box of his books home from San Diego Comic-Con last year, I can't imagine dealing with stacks and stacks of them.) All that time lugging and labeling can be better spent creatively.

It's important to note: of the webcomics mentioned in this article, Ctrl+Alt+Del has the highest overall readership, inhabiting a place in the top five for traffic by most measures. With numbers that high, the economic equations add up differently from the other 99.975% of titles. That's not a meaningless exaggeration, but my best educated guess at a figure. Of the roughly 20,000 titles in existence, about quarter of a tenth of one percent of them could reasonably expect a publishing experience like this.

Lots and lots of major-name webcomics are not yet in that category. If you are, then you know it.

Case 2: The Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew

If You Want Something Done Right...

One of the creators who could comfortably use a similar model is Rich Burlew. Much as Tim did, Rich used pre-orders to fund a print run he took control of himself. He writes:

"I decided to self-publish Order of the Stick for several reasons. I didn't really trust anyone else to do a good job producing a book I would be proud of, for starters. Also, I found myself facing imminent unemployment, and realized I could produce the book using my background as a textbook designer faster than any publishing company could get the book to market. We basically used the pre-orders to pay for the book's production. Since I didn't have $20,000 handy, we started taking orders in January, before I even sent files to the printer. By the end of the month, I was able to use the number of sales thus far to accurately project the total number of books I needed to order--good thing, too, because I would already be sold out if I had relied on my original estimate of how many I might be able to sell!

"That part of the plan worked smoothly; where I ran into trouble was in the shipping. I can't stress this enough: Have a shipping plan BEFORE a truck dumps 5000 books into your living room. And if you hire a fulfillment company, make sure they can actually deliver what they promise. One of the downsides of the pre-order model I used is that when I ran into fulfillment problems, the customers had already been waiting three months for their book. That made for some very angry fans, and I still haven't sorted it all out. For the next book--a shorter (and thus cheaper) book of all-new material--we'll be printing strictly using money earned from the first book; no pre-orders means I don't have to put the book on sale until it's ready to ship. That book will then pay for the third (the second compilation of web strips) and so on."

The first OOTS book Dungeon Crawlin' Fools has had strong sales, and accounts for the majority share of OOTS income at this time. However, the popularity of this comic with the role-playing crowd has attracted the attention of Wizards of the Coast, which will be working with Rich to develop an entirely new comic project. The revenue model for Rich is likely to change dramatically over the next few years, though current and future books will remain a big part of it.

Case 3: Schlock Mercenary by Howard Tayler

Now Stepping Up to the Plate, Number 23...

Clearly, there is money to be made in webcomics books. So it shouldn't be surprising if the field is attracting new players, willing to put up the money and take on the role of traditional publisher. Besides WOTC picking up Rich Burlew, and Tim Buckley's "major comic book publisher" (major is no exaggeration), a well-known name in the gaming industry has casually but deliberately strolled onto the field: Steve Jackson Games. (Specifically, SJGames' book publishing arm, Warehouse 23.)

Their lead-off hitter is Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary. (They've got Something Positive's R*K Milholland in the on-deck circle...not too shabby.)

Howard has made a lot of news in the webcomics world lately, first by leaving Novell to do his comic full-time, then by leaving Keenspot and discovering he could make more money on his own. This will be the first book for Schlock, now in its sixth year, and the first Warehouse 23 webcomic collection. But it won't be the last of either.

"Getting Schlock Mercenary in print has been a long, long process, and obviously (from the lack of schlock-on-shelves) it's one I'm not done with yet," writes Howard. "Steve's a big fan of the strip, and for the last year or so I've been doing all my other merchandising through his "Warehouse 23" online store.

"Working with Steve and his crew has been a pleasure. I've never had any trouble with my other merchandise, and the disbursements from Steve have been timely and very easy to understand.

"That said, we've still got hurdles to clear with this first Schlock Mercenary book. The original plan was to use Diamond as the principal retail distributor, but after about four months of unclear communiqués with them we finally determined that they don't know who I am and don't really care.

"Well, if Diamond doesn't want to take any chances on me, Steve and I are okay with that. In business terms, we've got a built-in market for the product, and we have an established channel to reach that market (we'll be doing pre-orders for the book, and selling it through the W23 store-front.) It'll probably get picked up by Diamond and other distributors eventually, but we'll have to show them how much money they're leaving on the table first.

"Right now the biggest reason for delays is on MY end. The book needs a bunch of bonus materials that I need to sit down and create. Our goal is a book that is around 120 pages long, and that includes the "Under New Management" and "Blackness Between" storylines, all in the wonderful Sunday-style colors done by Jean Elmore, who did the coloring back in 2003 and early 2004."

One of the interesting side effects of the move from Keenspot and the dropping of Diamond Distributors was the creation of two ghost books on Amazon. Neither the Keenspot version nor the first SJGames version will ever actually see print, but there they are.

Case 4: Goats by Jon Rosenberg and Phillip Karlsson

A Short Hop from Point A to Point E

Few webcomics creators are as attuned to financial reality as Jon Rosenberg and his partner Phillip Karlsson. Goats' recent sober, analytical experiment with BitPass micropayments got a lot of attention, because the cold hard numbers were there for all to see. They sincerely wanted to test the financial worth of micropayments as it could be applied to their comic, and sincerely wanted it to succeed. Unfortunately, they concluded, reality said no.

It was this careful, unsentimental attention to the numbers which guided them when they first set out to put Goats into book collections in 2001. Given an offer for a traditional publishing arrangement through Plan Nine Publishing, the Goats guys ran the numbers and decided that they could make much more money if they handled their own printing. Furthermore, having gone through the legal and bureaucratic steps to become a publisher, they could then offer their services to other webcomics.

Point E Publishing was born.

With their own capital, they arranged the layout, design, and printing of two versions of the first Goats collection, Behold the Power of Ignorance. The main copy was a glossy color-cover softback with black-and-white matte interior pages. The "limited edition" version was hardbound and came with a "Certificate of Limited-Editionness." Pre-sales of the Limited Edition were intended to offset the cost of printing both, but the success was "limited" also. A significant out-of-pocket investment was still required. (Special as it may have been, many readers found the $40 price point of the LE copy prohibitive.)

Behold the Power of Ignorance was actually Volume IV, starting with strips in Year 4 of Goats. "This is mostly because we did not want to be stuck publishing Year 1 art with nothing else to show," says Jon. Subsequent volumes actually went backwards in time to the beginning of the strip.

The nice thing about a case study that begins in 2001 is that there's a good deal of data collected on it. So how is Point E Publishing doing today?

With three main Goats volumes and two mini-comics in print, the answer appears to be "quite well." The first non-Goats volume, Now You've Done It, a collection of Creatures in My Head by Andy Bell, is due to premiere at San Diego Comic-Con. And, "We have a couple of other artists we're working with at various stages of completeness," hints Jon.

Where does Point E fit into the Goats revenue model? It does not represent as much of the total income as you might suspect. Whereas Tim Buckley estimates that 50% of his total revenue comes from books, Phillip puts their figure at more like 5%.

This is due in large part to their other successes: in premium subscriptions, apparel and other merchandise. And it's difficult to separate. Premium subscribers to Goats, for example, get exclusive online content, a t-shirt, ad-free Goats viewing, additional merchandise such as stickers and buttons, a piece of original art by Jon... and a book... for $60 a year. It's harder to attribute the books' contribution to the overall picture.

"I also think that there's intangibles involved with book sales that aren't necessarily reflected in the numbers," Phillip says, "it's a medium for distributing the strip in addition to just making money, so if it's sitting on a book store shelf and you find us that way, it's possible that we'll make more money from t-shirt sales to you later."

Case 5: PartiallyClips by Rob Balder

One Bad Plan Can Ruin Your Whole Year

So now we come to my story, because where Goats zigged, I zagged. And I paid for it dearly.

I knew that Jon and Phillip had looked at the math and decided that Plan Nine was not their best financial bet. And, in fact, they offered me a chance to publish under the Point E label.

I chose to pursue a deal with Plan Nine for several reasons. First and foremost, it was a traditional publisher, who would put up the money, handle the printing, distribution and online order fulfillment, and simply pay me royalties and provide books at wholesale that I could sell at cons. The deal seemed to make a lot of sense.

Publishing through Point E would have resulted in more revenue per book, but also would have required some capital investment on my part. I was also talking with Pete Abrams of Sluggy Freelance, who was then on about his sixth book through Plan Nine, and seemed quite satisfied. Team Goats was (and still is, to a limited extent) using Plan Nine as a distributor. So with Jon and Pete's help, I got the attention of David Allen, who liked my work and offered me a contract for the first PartiallyClips book.

In the interest of brevity, I will simply describe my experience with Plan Nine as "horrendous." In the end, I had to involve my lawyer, and in April 2004 the agreement was dissolved. There are people I respect who still recommend them, but based on my experiences, I advise you to avoid dealing with Plan Nine Publishing in any capacity whatsoever. Choosing them as a publisher would be my number 1 through number 50 biggest regrets of doing my comic.

Being without a publisher unraveled my business plan completely. I was supposed to be sending books out to newspaper editors for reviews and to entice more of them to run the strip. The books I got from Plan Nine were too crappy to use for that, and couldn't be sold retail, either.

So I spent more than a year looking for a new solution for books. Believing that my comic has more mainstream appeal than most web-only comics, I wanted to see if I could place the book with a major house, such as NBM or St. Martin's. I wanted to be able to walk into a Borders and see my books on the shelf, like Piro can. At San Diego Comic-Con, Ted Rall got me an interview with the head of NBM, but I was told that their slate is full for two years or so. St. Martin's won't consider a book unless it is submitted by a literary agent, a step I haven't taken yet.

Being without a book to sell and to send out to get into more newspapers has meant the loss of so much income that I gave up on my original business plan entirely. After eighteen months of supporting myself through the comic, I went back to programming at a full-time job. It's impossible to calculate what one bad choice has cost me.

In the year I have been without a book, I started seeing lots of my friends publishing their first book collections. Besides the ones I mention in this article, there was also Ben at Townies, Brian at Big Fat Whale, Kara at ConScrew, and a few others from the bCx boards. Brian Clevinger published a novel, and has a very cool 8-bit Theater project in the works.

But the story that impressed me the most was Fragile Gravity.

Case 6: Fragile Gravity by Barb Fischer and Chris Impink

The Early Bird May Get the Worm, but the Second Mouse Gets the Cheese

When Chris Impink and Barb Fischer started considering print as a venue for their comic, Fragile Gravity, they looked at the low profit margins and lack of control given by existing full-service print-on-demand publishers such as Lulu, and decided they could do better on their own. A few weeks of research and several pages of paperwork later, they had set themselves up as the small press-publishing house, Unseen Productions, LLC.

Chris had experience laying out books, but they still needed to find a printer. Their first attempt was less than fruitful; after a few calls to get some quotes, the sales rep dropped off the face of the planet. They then found Lightning Source, Inc. (LSI), a digital press owned by retail book distributor Ingram. LSI provides on-demand printing for large publishing houses like Simon and Schuster, but seems to be catching on to the small press idea since they're getting a booth at the San Diego Comic-Con this year.

Unseen Productions found the advantage of dealing with LSI was after a setup fee (based on the length of your book), a publisher could order very small print runs, or even a single book. No matter how small the run, the price per book remained fixed and competitive with traditional presses like Brenner and Quebecor, without having to buy and warehouse thousands of copies. This has allowed Unseen Productions to reach its break-even point before selling its first hundred copies of Fragile Gravity: Summertime Brews, even after taking rush shipping charges to make the Bethesda Small Press Expo and purchasing a block of ISBNs.

LSI may not be for everyone; they only accept press-ready PDF files and don't provide layout services. Comic creators unable to generate these themselves are better off with a company like Lulu (see Ben Thompson's recent article). Also, some comics may have difficulty conforming to LSI's limited choices of print sizes. In particular they don't offer landscape formats; however, this wasn't a problem for the Fragile Gravity compilation. After assembling the book in Adobe InDesign, Chris sent the files to LSI as two PDFs - one for the cover and one for the interior of the book. A web form on the LSI site allows a publisher to FTP it directly; once the files are verified, the account page lets the publisher order a shiny new proof. Upon approval of the proof, print runs can be ordered which ship in one to two weeks.

In addition to working on their second book - Fragile Gravity: The Winter of Our Discontent - Unseen Productions is providing layout and print management for my new compilation, Suffering for my Clip Art: The Best of PartiallyClips. At long last, I will have a book again. I can pick the pieces of my business plan out of the gutter and move forward. We'll be using LSI to produce the books under the Unseen label. The new books will be available July 2005.

Conclusion

In publishing your book collection, deciding what path to take is going to depend mostly on these four factors: 1. the size of your readership/market, 2. the level of book quality your art requires, 3. the amount of capital you can put up, and 4. the amount of work you are willing to do yourself. You'll need to do a great deal of research before you make up your mind how to proceed. But take heart. Even if you screw yourself as badly as I did, or worse, as long as you keep the long view and stay true to your comic itself, you will find ways to get yourself back on target. Good luck, and my thanks to all who contributed their stories to this article.