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Self-Publishing Graphic Novels: Part 1
By Wesley Craig Green 


For anyone who reads comic books and graphic novels and/or keeps up with news surrounding them, the following will come as no surprise: the market for graphic novels is growing at an exponential rate. According to a recent Publishers Weekly article, graphic novels earned $100 million dollars in 2002, a 33 percent increase from 2001. To give you a more precise example: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (published by Pantheon, $17.95) by Marjane Satrapi has sold 35,000 copies since its release in early 2003, making it one of the top-selling graphic novels of the past year. Another example is Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Endless Nights graphic novel, debuting at number twenty on the New York Times Best-Sellers List For Hardcover Fiction this past October. What makes this even more significant is the majority of the sales were not in comic book or pop culture shops but in your local bookstore. 

What is and isnít a Graphic Novel 

So what, you may be asking, exactly is a graphic novel? While there is no set definition, a basic definition of a graphic novel is that it is a single story with a large page count (typically between 64 and 128 pages) done visually in the same manner as a comic book. If you are thinking they are just glorified comic books, well, in some cases, they are. But the overwhelming majority of graphic novels published today are aimed at a broader, more diverse and mature audience than that for comic books. 

This leads to another difference between the two formats: comic books are typically sold only through comic book shops known as the direct market. Graphic novels, on the other hand, are not only sold through the direct market but also national bookstore chains, major online web sites like Amazon, book clubs-- just to name a few. This is something which I will discuss in more detail later in the article. 

The last major difference between graphic novels and comic books is the shelf life. Your typical monthly comic book only has a shelf life of a month since a new issue is published monthly; a graphic novel does not have this time limitation. Just like any book with an ISBN, a graphic novel can be re-ordered and kept in stock for years. 
Before I go on, it might be best if I clarified something that some of you may have a question about or may not have a clear understanding of, and that is trade paperbacks. 

Trade paperbacks (or TPBs, as they are commonly referred to) are similar in size and page count as graphic novels, but they are a single volume of previously published comic books that tell one story. For example, Frank Millerís classic Batman story "The Dark Knight Returns" was originally published as a four-issue mini-series that can now be found in the majority of major book stores as a trade paperback. 

Now that we have a general understanding of what graphic novels are and how there is a growing market for them, time now to talk about the steps involved in creating a graphic novel. While there are variations in how to create a graphic novel, I will be talking about how I went about doing it as a novice self-publisher. I will be covering the many and varied steps I followed in self-publishing Before Dawn, a horror graphic novel I wrote and Jason Whitley illustrated. The graphic novel is scheduled to be shipped in February 2004 to comic book stores and to bookstores this summer, 2004. 

To make things easier, I have broken down the steps in creating a graphic novel into the following:

The Idea

Know Your Market

Research, Research, and More Research

Finding a Printer

How To Get The Book Out 

To Collaborate or To Hire

Pre-Press Chaos

Marketing To The Masses 

Yes, it does look like there is a lot to this self-publishing deal-- and there is! But now that Iíve done it, I would not have done it any other way. There is a satisfaction in knowing you put so much work into something that you control now and in the future. So without further ado, letís get you started on the road to self-publishing a graphic novel. 

The Idea

The next time you go to a bookstore or a comic shop, take a look at the varied graphic novels in stock. Of course each store will have different graphic novels in stock but look at the genre these graphic novels fall under. Hopefully your bookstore or comic shop stocks a variety of genres for their graphic novels, because there are many graphic novels published in a variety of genres. 

So where does your idea of a graphic novel fit? Is it fantasy? Drama? Mystery? A combination of any of the three or something entirely different? The one thing to remember is your graphic novel does not have to involve superheroes! It can, mind you, but keep in mind as a new self-publisher, you are going to be competing with not only DC and Marvel but also a slew of other established publishers who already publish graphic novels involving superheroes. You are already going to be fighting an uphill battle when you self-publish, why make it harder on yourself?

Know Your Market 

Since we have established the genre of your idea, now is the time to talk about the potential market for your future graphic novel. One of the biggest advantages in doing a graphic novel over a regular comic book is the marketplace. As I stated earlier, comic books are mainly limited to comic shops and newsstands. Graphic novels are not. For example, graphic novels can be found in Tower Record stores, bookstores of every size, and even some WalMart stores carry them now. So within this wide market, you want to start thinking in terms of what segment you are going to target with your idea. This might seem like a no-brainer but it plays a part in the upcoming steps I mentioned earlier. 

Okay, you thought out which segment of the market you will target with your idea, now is the time to face a hard decision: will the idea sell? Itís a hypothetical question but one you have to answer honestly before you do anything else. To make this decision easier to make, it is time to do some research. 

Research, Research, and More Research 

Even though it is near impossible to predict the success of your future graphic novel, doing some research on past sales figures of graphic novels is a good starting point. You especially want to pay close attention to those graphic novels that are in the same genre as your idea. 

The one thing I have discovered when doing some research for my graphic novel was that information regarding sales of graphic novels is pretty much limited to the direct market. For information regarding sales figures for the direct market, there is no better web site than the ICV2.com (http://www.icv2.com/) web site. On the site, you can do a search on monthly sales figures as reported by one of the biggest distributors of graphic novels, Diamond Distributors (http://www.diamondcomics.com). The only bad thing about the sales figures Diamond provides is it is only for the direct market, which is essentially comic book shops. This leaves out national bookstore chains, specialty shops, independently-owned book stores, etc. 

So where do you find the sales figures for these markets? I wish I had an answer but I donít. I have done some online research on this and have not had any luck. But I would suggest checking out the Publisherís Weekly magazine, which can be found in most major bookstores. 

You also could go to any or all the local comic book stores and bookstores in your area and just talk to the retailers there about what graphic novels sells for them. While you are talking to them, ask them specifically about the genre(s) your graphic novel idea falls under. Ask them questions pertaining to who the typical customer is for that type of genre(s), which titles are the most popular, etc. 

Another form of research is to check out various graphic novel and comic book-related web sites and message boards. After doing this for a month or two, you should get a good idea of how one segment of your target market feels about the genre your graphic novel idea falls under and how to market it to them. Here are some of the more popular web sites you should check out on a regular basis: 

Comic Book Resources (http://www.comicbookresources.com)

The Pulse (http://www.comicon.com/pulse)

ArtBomb (http://www.artbomb.net)

Previews Review (http://www.previewsreview.com/)

The Comics Journal (http://www.tcj.com/)

!journalista! (http://www.tcj.com/journalista/

If you do as I suggested in regards to research and you realize your graphic novel idea does have a big enough market to support it and there is a demand for it, then you are on your way. But if there isnít, then you should reconsider your story. Maybe even shelve it in favor of putting together another story. 

But when all is said and done, you have to follow your heart where your graphic novel story is concerned. If you have a burning desire to turn your story into a graphic novel-- no matter if your research gives you the impression it will not sell or there is no market for it-- then I would recommend you do it anyway. But only if doing it will not put you in a financial bind of any sort. And even then, I would suggest just doing a small print run of no more than 200 copies. You can always go back to print if it turns out there is a market for your graphic novel. Speaking of printing, please turn in next time when Iíll discuss not only printers, but also distribution avenues and the fine art of collaborating. 

Wesley Craig Green is a self-publisher/writer/screenwriter who along with illustrator, Jason Whitley, recently self-published the horror/black comedy graphic novel, Before Dawn. You can learn more about and purchase Before Dawn at Wesleyís self-publishing company web site (www.greenflyproductions.com). Wesley can be contacted at wesley@greenflyproductions.com regarding this article. 

Copyright © 2004 Wesley Craig Green. All rights reserved. 

 

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