So I’ve already talked dollars. Now it’s time to talk Diamond order numbers. I’m going to only address the initial orders for my books solicited through Diamond Comics Distributors to be sold in comic shops. I’m only addressing Diamond order numbers because orders and sales in the general bookstore market are much harder to quantify. Yes, I have records of those numbers but it would take much more work to pull them together and using these Diamond numbers gives a good general picture of sales from a self-publisher.
Initial Diamond Orders
Stylish Vittles: I Met a Girl (2002)
208 pages b/w $15 retail
(Eisner nomination for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition)
Stylish Vittles: All the Way (2003)
296 pages b/w $17 retail
Stylish Vittles: Fare Thee Well (2005)
184 pages b/w $13
Nothing Better #1 (Nov 2005)
32 pages b/w $2.95 retail
Nothing Better #2 (Dec 2005)
24 pages b/w $2.95 retail
Nothing Better Vol 1: No Place Like Home (2007)
200 pages b/w $15 retail
(Xeric Grant recipient)
Nothing Better Vol 2: Into the Wild (2009)
162 pages b/w $15 retail
So there you have it. For those of you in the comics or publishing business these numbers might have some meaning. Certainly from the perspective of a traditional, large publishing company these numbers are tiny. And remember that these are only for the initial orders. For example, the first full year that Stylish Vittles v1 was out, I ended up selling over 800 copies (which is still pretty low).
And I didn’t start getting distribution into regular bookstores and such until 2003 or 2004. Part of the reason I wanted to only look at the initial Diamond orders was because the numbers were quickly at hand but also because they are non-returnable. Book sales in the Direct Market (through Diamond to comic/specialty shops) are final sales. There are no returns. But the general book trade is like a giant consignment shop - everything is returnable up to a certain point.
My initial orders/sales through my first book distributor were in the several hundreds, on top of what Diamond was ordering. Which was great. Except that six months later a lot of those were returned and so while you might get paid right away for some of that, you don’t know for six, twelve, sometimes even eighteen months or more what your final sales are going to be.
It’s interesting to compare the five paperback books’ sales - the very first one, Stylish Vittles v1 had the highest initial orders and it was a first book from a new artist. But I’m pretty sure that’s also the book I worked the hardest on promoting because it was my first time. I sent out review copies, mailed postcards and promo packs and wrote personalized emails to hundreds of comic shops so that by the time the book was available from Diamond lots of people were already aware of it. And once a lot of that legwork was done I kind of just coasted along with it for the rest of my books. Not because I got lazy over the years but because I had less and less time to devote to the activity of being a publisher.
I had Stylish Vittles v1 printed before I had any orders. I went to WizardWorld in Chicago that year and was really overwhelmed by the response I got. A month later I went to Comic Con in San Diego and did very well too. I came home from that and spent every night for two weeks straight in front of my computer researching comic shops, getting contact info and sending personalized emails. All of that work ended up with me having a very reliable list of promo contacts. I was as active as I could be in the online forums then as well.
But with every subsequent book, every time I sent out an email or promo pack, more and more would get rejected and returned. And as I mentioned, it got harder to find the time to follow up on that - it came down to deciding do I spent time with my wife, spend time drawing my personal comics, spend time on paying freelance work or spend time rustling up/updating my promo list?
And at first it didn’t always seem like I needed to worry about that. Stylish Vittles v1 got a lot of attention (relatively) and I got the feeling some people thought it sold a lot better than it did. By the time Stylish Vittles v2 came out I got a review in Entertainment Weekly even. But it didn’t translate into more sales. Neither did the Eisner nomination.
So as the years have gone by, with each book I’ve done less of a promotional push, instead relying on the supportive fans and retailers I already have who are waiting for my next book. Yes, it means I’m not really going to grow my audience but I’ve sort of settled into a place where I realize that’s not going to happen on my own. Especially now that I have a family I have even less free time than I did before. And I’m okay with that.
The Xerix Grant got me some attention for the first volume of Nothing Better and I got some good high-profile reviews. The initial orders were only 30 books fewer than Stylish Vittles v1 and all I really did was send out emails and press releases to my standard list of shops and media contacts along with some review copies and promo packets.
With Nothing Better v2 though, things have changed even more. I did pretty much the same thing but almost half of my emails bounced, either from shops that had gone out of business or just changed their contact info. And while I kept a list of what changed I haven’t had the time to look up new contact info for any of those shops. So I sold 101 books to Diamond with almost no effort on my part.
And none of this addresses the books I sell directly. Since Nothing Better is something actively updated online, orders are always coming in from my website. I did a healthy pre-order with NBv1 and sales on NBv2 online have been okay as well. Add in convention sales and you’re looking at a, still small, but reasonable amount of sales for one guy doing basically all the work (who is also has a family, works a fulltime day job and freelance work).
Somewhere in there, before I started doing Nothing Better, I switched bookstore distributors. I had initially signed up with a company named Biblio who seemed to be seeking out graphic novels to push. After a few years of lackluster sales they let me go. But I was contacted by Baker & Taylor right away. And that’s worked out a lot better because Baker &Taylor don’t require you to keep a bunch of stock on hand in their warehouses. You can if you sell a lot of books. But if you’re a small operation like me, they just send along orders as they get them and it’s worked out very well. I get a slow, steady stream of orders from them, maybe a handful a month, instead of one giant order that doesn’t amount to anything. And Baker & Taylor are one of the prime distributors for Libraries and Schools, which has become a great market for cartoonists. The orders they send through, since they’re placed only as needed, are generally ‘guaranteed’ sales.
I think the last issue I’ll address here is the sales of the floppy issues of Nothing Better. After doing the OGN SV books I got it into my head that doing a book every 6 weeks would be a neat thing to try. And from a potential income standpoint, it would provide steadier money. That’s a big reason the larger comics publishers still do it. And more importantly I hadn’t yet become a convert to the world of digital publishing so I saw a regular comic as a way to keep my presence out there.
This ended up being another of those ventures where I vastly overextended myself. I have a history of being overly ambitious. I know this. It can be a good thing. But you can also get in over your head very quickly. And while I might have been able to keep up with the creative side of things, it became painfully evident when I was getting ready to send the third issue off to the printer that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the financing.
Each issue was $1500-$2000 for 1000 or 2000 copies or so. A thousand books is pretty much the minimum when you’re talking offset printing. Anything less than that wasn’t worth it. So I was looking at kicking out that amount of money every six weeks and getting $500-$1000 from Diamond every 30 days based on my orders - and the orders on the initial three issues wouldn’t have covered the printing costs (I believe the Diamond orders on NB#3 were somewhere in the 400’s). Projecting that out over a year it was just a financial burden I was no longer willing to risk.
And it was unfortunate because I got a lot of support - Chris Butcher from the Beguilling claimed that my order numbers on NB#1 were higher than the orders on Jeff Smith’s Bone #1 and he tried to point out some more budget-concious printers. But again, projecting those costs out 6 months to a year it just didn’t look good. True, if I’d stuck it out for a year or two and really hit hard on the promotion and conventions, I might have been able to ride out the downswing and see the book start to slowly make its costs back. But I just couldn’t do it.
I was already, at that point in time, sitting on about $15,000 in debt from the printing/expenses of the SV books. My then-girlfriend (now wife) and I had been together for a while and were seriously looking at our future together - buying a house and getting married. And the financial risk I was happy to take on myself wasn’t a risk I was willing to push on to her. It no longer seemed responsible.
Do I regret not trying harder on the single issue thing? Not really. I have this feeling that even if the series had started to balance out cost-wise, it would have been at such a big expense that I would have been under a larger mountain of debt that would have taken forever to climb out from under. Even as it is, I am just now, five years later, getting close to paying off the last of the debts I incurred with the SV books and NB singles. It simply didn’t make any more sense for me at the time to push my luck. And more importantly, even if I had ‘succeeded’ at that, would it have been what I really wanted?
By that time I had started following some online comics and social media was starting to take its hold online and I found all of those things interesting. So the idea of posting pages of my comics online and putting out print collections occasionally really appealed to me. Plus I’d finally started to feel like I was making a difference with my day job at MCAD and it helped to balance out my perception on where I was with my life, career-wise. Yes, I was not a successful fulltime artist, but I was a successful administrator at one of the country’s top art schools and I had experienced some measure of success as a comics artist and publisher. So I felt a degree of satisfaction that wasn’t there earlier - that hunger that kept forcing me to print comics and spend money was partially satisfied.
Would I have done things differently in hindsight? Yes and no, and it all depends on the desired outcome. And that’s really the tricky thing - the difference between what we think we want and what we actually need out of life to thrive and be happy. That’s what I will end this series of essays with: what lessons I’ve learned, what I would have done differently and why, and how the whole experience showed me what I did and did not really want out of life and a career as an artist.