"I'd do it for free if I didn't need the money."The reasons why, and the ways in which, publishing is in crisis have been well rehearsed. I'm interested in solutions.
– Vim, Bad News Tour
Kieron Gillen talks about the missing two thousand fans whose timely support would have made Phonogram viable as an ongoing series. Let's break that down: Phonogram is/was essentially a two-man operation, based in London, published in America and circulated internationally through a distribution chain that eats two thirds of the cover price before the printer even gets paid. If Gillen and McKelvie were making as much as 20 cents apiece off a three-dollar comic they were doing well. Times 4000 actual sales that's 800 bucks, or about £500. Times 6000, it's $1200/£800 – I guess their return per unit must be better than I thought, because I don't see how even that would keep the wolf from the door at London rents.
Around my neck of the woods, though, that extra three hundred quid is the difference between the dole and an office job after tax. It's the elusive "Doing Okay Thanks": If I could make £500 a month from comics, I could quit filling in application forms for Mac Operator and Admin Assistant jobs and just draw full-time instead. And I don't need to sell 4000 comics to do that.
For a start, there's only one of me. That's 2000.
For another thing, the comic shop distribution system is broken. It's fit for purpose, but its purpose is to funnel ever more Marvel and DC merchandise to a motley assortment of impressionable kids and middle-aged completists, and other publishers get a look in only in as far as they can generate their own buzz and/or seize on trends that the big two aren't already exploiting (there's a whole other post that could come out of this exploring the situation in more detail and adding some useful qualifications, but I'm not saying anything new here and I don't want to get bogged down). To get those 4000 sales, Image Comics and Diamond Comics Distributors had to punt Phonogram to every specialist shop in NAFTA, the English-speaking Pacific, the British Isles and a few more places besides – which seems like disproportionate effort. Yes, comics are a niche market, and indy muso wizard comics are a niche within a niche, but despite the vast difference in geographical scale, the population of the USA is only about 5 times that of the UK, and I'll bet you the proportion of sales of Phonogram in Britain is closer to 50% than 17.5.
Back in the late 1990s, I was on the point of taking Something Fast to Diamond – it took four issues before they'd touch it with a bargepole, but once they realised I could stick to a regular schedule they were prepared to give it a chance. But for logistical reasons as well as financial, North American distribution meant I needed North American printing – partly because otherwise I'd be spending a bomb shipping boxes across the Atlantic, and partly because no printer in this country could match Kim Preney's quote in any case. At about US$700 for a minimum print run of 2000 (35c/copy!) in a bigger format (6.7x10.2" rather than A5) with a colour cover, I reckoned I could maintain my existing cover price of £1.50 (then about $2.50), give Diamond their cut and pay various logistical costs, and still break even selling about 70% of the print run. For all that adding 1200 extra readers from a single catalogue listing was a tall order, if I'd had a spare grand lying around to cover the gap between entering the payment cycle and seeing a return, I'd probably have gone for it. Of course, if I hadn't had to print 2000 copies to get a viable unit price in the first place, I'd definitely have gone for it. But in those days, that was how commercial printing worked: setting up the plates was the expensive bit.
Not anymore. Digital prepress really has changed everything. I'm looking at estimates now from printers in Britain who're charging a couple of quid for the equivalent of what Preney – the best value comic printer in the world at the time – was charging three or four hundred dollars for twelve years ago. The unit prices thereafter are higher (but they always were, over here), even in relative terms adjusted for inflation – for runs in the sub-500 range you're looking at a little over a pound, which is too much to sell through Diamond at even £3 a copy...
But do I really need Diamond?
If my goal is international distribution per se, then... even then it's not crucial. If my goal is to be in comic shops, it's the only game in town, but as we've established, that system is broken anyway. And for everywhere else, we have the Internet now: people buy things online all the time, to a degree I'm old enough to still be amazed by. Without even getting into digital editions, consider this: I posted a sample copy of The Spectacular Santa Claus to a New York publisher for under £1.50. If that had been in response to a £3 Paypal order, it would still have made a marginal profit of about 20-30p. Alternatively, I can use something like Comixpress to produce US editions of my work on demand at the same or higher margin, and I don't even have to lick an envelope. Neither of which solution will ever result in a thousand paid-for and unsold comics sitting mouldering in a distributor's warehouse four thousand miles and a retina scan from my being able to do anything with them. The risk that put me off in the Nineties is gone.
On the other hand, the rewards aren't great: if my short-term goal is to make £500-£800 a month from comics, then relying on 20-30p micropayments from the USA is not going to cut it – we're still looking at 2000 sales a month. America is irrelevant.
But Britain... That same £3 comic ordered direct from within the UK can make a marginal return of let's say £1.25 after p&p. If I had 400 regular mail order customers, that would hit my lower limit; anything more is gravy.
400 is the magic number.