What Can Self-Publishers Learn from Comics?

How We Learn From Comic Books

I grew up reading the likes of Uncanny Xmen, Incredible Hulk and disturbingly, Watchmen, among scores of other super hero titles. For better or worse, those comic books help shape much of my personality and imagination.

Spending six years contracting for the Department of Education, I repeatedly ran into educator innovators, centering student learning on comic books. See Columbia’s Comic Book Project for an example.

Reading comics, I absorbed massive amounts of knowledge: the basics of quantum physics, chemistry, astrology–naturally my vocabulary and word usage was improved. To boot, comic stories were my only source of highly creative drama long before I could afford cable (I still can’t) or take in a Broadway show.

With so much rich foundational learning, I’m not surprised to still learn a thing or two. It’s been a decade since my golden years of collecting comics. (Geek moment: The heights of which include owning 1st editions of the death/rebirth of Superman, the meld of Bruce Banner with the green and gray Hulks and issue #1 of the initial Image titles. Woot!).

WOTG @ New York Comic Con 2010
My latest lesson from comics came as part of attending New York Comic Con 2010. It was an awesome event for Shinta. The fans loved her and she loved the crowd. My first time, I was awe struck as both a fan and a professional. Under the guise of the latter, I truly appreciated the DIY-spirit of comic creation.

Striking out on your own, producing new creations toe-to-toe with rival, likely more popular, offerings and selling them directly to your audience. The entire industry embodies the spirit of independent publishing. And why not? That’s practically how any popular title or line begins.

Stan Lee may need to do little more than give a nod of approval these days, but the godfather of Marvel got his start taking orders from someone with half his creative flair. Lee began his comic book empire feeling like he had nothing to lose, so why not try doing his own comic.

Comic Con gave new meaning to enjoying comics as an adult. I may have to start reading them a little more. Ah, the refreshing spirit of that independent artistic flair.

Somehow, when you put graphic in front of the word novel (or ‘comic’ in front of ‘book’), it’s like a golden fleece opens up and blocks any misjudgment.

By the way, how did book publishing get so snobby anyway? Seriously, someone please tell me.

In the comic world, if a book is good, it’s good. End of story.

Now, us independent creators have our own part to play in this, despite the snobs. Just like comic creators have techniques and practices that make books viable, things like lettering (typography), sketching (drafting), inking (editing), coloring (page design)-all of which happens after you write a story to begin with.

Clearly, there are lots of independent no-picture book creators that get all of these things right, and offer viable products as a result. But until we independently unite, and create some basic point system of book viability, there will be no golden fleece vibe that’s so common in the comic industry. You know, because of the snobs.

Seriously, and more importantly, without a set of-dare I say-standards, those playing in a sandbox won’t know little castles can be mashed like potatoes. Isn’t that the worst thing of all? Think of the kids who aren’t learn anything about publishing. What do they have to live up to? It’s so sad!

By the way, if there are benchmarks for independent publishing, tell the world! If there isn’t, I’m with anyone that wants to work on building something reputable. Contact me.

Somehow, I’ve got to tie this all back to where I began—the educational value comics still offer me as an adult. I’m not really sure how to do that. Hopefully, something else I’ve said so far has been useful.

I’ll end on: The merited air of book publishing can and should match that of comic publishing. As independent creators, it’s in our vested interests to piece together the necessary precursors to making this happen.

End of story.

  • Good writing is good writing. The vehicle doesn’t matter. When I was a child, I read Hemingway, Steinbeck, and every comic I could get my hands on. I learned from all of them. My imagination soared then and still continues to soar as I read some newer works from writers not bogged down by restrictions. We are limited only by what our minds tell us we are not allowed to do.The unshackling of writers is everywhere. And it’s going to get better and better. Great post,Jaebi!

  • I think self-publishers can learn A LOT from comics creators — particularly the way independent comics folks are adapting to new media and carving out new business models out of whole cloth. Phil & Kaja Foglio at Girl Genius, for example, discovered that they sell more books by publishing their comic in free web installments, reeling in fans who then buy a printed copy for their bookshelves. Other creators started on the web (think Dinosaur Comics or Penny Arcade) and really don’t try to sell comics at all — their revenue comes from selling T-shirts and knicknacks to their legions of fans.

    In terms of why independent creators seem to get more respect in print comics than in book publishing, though, I think part of it comes down to kind of a gut instinct on the reader’s part. Comics have art. And if they’re beautifully (or even competently) illustrated, a reader can pick them up off a shelf and immediately think “I couldn’t do this.” If the thing is self-published, they’re impressed. “This clearly talented creator is an entrepreneur, too.”

    With a novel, though, there’s no way to take glance at a page and see if you want to find out more. Most people know that if they had the perseverance they could knock out an 80,000 word book. And that it would be crap. So their default position when confronted with a self-published novel is that it’s likely by some regular schmuck, and it isn’t any better than what they might churn out themselves. With this in mind, why would they invest the time to read enough to make an informed judgement? Why would anyone? (Also, even a crappy comic only takes 10 minutes out of your life. A novel, on the other hand is more of an emotional investment).

    There really isn’t a market for self published books, specifically. And unless we create a way for readers to separate the wheat from the chaff, I don’t think there will ever be one. No reader thinks to herself “You know where I’m going to find high-quality, innovative stuff? Createspace.” And although there very well may be high quality, innovative stuff to find there, looking for it in the sea of titles is going to be a losing proposition for any reader. It’s just a quantity issue.

    Of course, any attempt to separate self-published books based on quality goes right back to the gatekeeper issue that so many people object to in commercial publishing. So the only solution I see, as a self publisher, is to take the self-published factor off the table as much as I can. I don’t hide the fact that Zombocalypse Now is self-published, but I don’t play it up, either. And I certainly don’t rail against or vilify the mainstream publishing industry — instead I study it and try to learn whatever I can from the people who’ve been doing this for centuries. Because my market is people who buy books, period.

    Hey, sorry this honest reply to a post about comics turned into a bit of a rant! Happy to hear everyone else’s thoughts, including those who think I’m full of crap!

    • Matt,

      You’re not full of crap! I think most of where you are is right on. Let’s say there is a ‘benchmarking’ tool for book production: age old industry standards that simply make a book appealing, accessible to readers and enjoyable to read (a well written story is assumed)–what we could potentially have is much more powerful than any kind of gatekeeper tool. We’d have an educational tool–something that ANY writer, particularly those who are new or not accustomed to book making can use simply to produce a book.

      This ‘benchmark’ is the vehicle that can help take the ‘self-published’ factor right off the table. Not only does it have the potential to do that within the self-pub community but in the industry as a whole.

      And as Cathryn suggests, the result is a better, stronger product (awesome books) for readers–which I think is what all writers and indie publishers want.

      I guess I’d like to just keep talking about this in the short-term, building out an idea that is really beneficial to the community.

  • Great point, Matt, about learning from the mainstream publishing industry. We should direct our attention to readers rather than draining energy by ranting about the flaws in the traditional publishing model.

    Some of those flaws might drive us to self publish, but they shouldn’t be a force that hijacks a writer’s focus.

  • Not sure if this helps, but I’ve got a few articles on comic book marketing that can be applied to any other form (and any type of selling online). Check them out at: http://www.matnastos.net/comic-book-marketing/

    -Mat N