Can you make money from creating comics?

Illustration from the book the Life of Joe Shuster by Julian Voloj and Thomas Campi

Comic Laureate Hannah Berry is asking a series of questions about the comic industry as a whole including publishers, what they pay and where improvements could be made. This is a good debate to have as it does vary, which I will touch on below. But what about the creators? The artists? The writers? If you are any of these what is your capability even if the pay was the best there is? Is this ‘industry’ for you? Can you make a living out of it?

I’ve been asked that question a number of times from comic creators while producing ComicScene and I thought it was about time I provided some guidance.

I am currently working on two comic projects. One is funded and offers £200 a page for a creative team to produce 40 pages. I’m told it’s quite a good page rate, far higher than some top indie US publishers. The comic will be free to its intended audience and all story and art will be owned by the organisation commissioning the work.

The other project pays a more modest page rate to the creative team, based on kickstarter expectations. The creators also benefit from rewards they provide and will get a royalty over a certain number of sales. They get to keep creators rights. Therefore the creators are taking some of the risk – the publication would need to sell 700 copies for the rate to increase per 100 copies, 2400 copies for them to get a £200 page rate. So sales equivalent to about 6% of Beano sales and slightly less than the overall Judge Dredd Megazine newsstand sales (if guesstimates are to be believed). Unlike other publishers the page rate increases per 100 copies for sales above 2400 on the kickstarter. It probably won’t happen but we can always hope that comic fans will get behind the project. I’m sensing it’s a bit of a ‘first’ allowing creators to create and share some unique content featuring their own characters without the pressure of running their own crowdfuding campaign (find it on kickstarter here. )

Batman sales, we understand, are about 60,000 worldwide. So let’s just say that DC get orders for that amount – making £120,000 after distribution fees. Printing is about £15,000 and they probably need to take about £60,000 for shareholders per comic. That leaves £60,000 for creators on the comic alone (minus graphic novel, international rights, reprint rights or merchandise spin offs) who probably get £20,000 per issue (maybe more for such an iconic character). That leaves £40,000 to invest into lesser selling books and the artist makes at least an average salary of £39,000 a year for 12 22 page books. That’s producing 22 pages a month. Drawing and colouring 5 pages a week. (a writer or colourist would have to do three times that a month, a letterer a lot more.)

In Europe comic readership has increased. But so has the number of publications via bookshops – from 500 in the 1980’s to 5000 a year today. Most are lovey hardback books produced over a year, 48 to 56 pages for £15. The number of publications is outstripping demand and money in the pocket of readers. This means less return for publishers, creators and books being junked.

If you were working on a major series for 2000AD and producing the colour art you’d expect £200 a page. Most major series are 12 parts, 6 pages each week. So about £14,500. You’d need 2 series a year for an average wage. So over a year 3 colour pages a week (over 48 weeks). This would be a challenge. Most could handle one series over a year. As a writer you’d get £50 a page, so once again six stories a year, so 9 pages a day. A letterer gets about £20 a page so 18 to 20 pages a day over 48 weeks. 2000AD might just cover their creator costs by their newsagent sales alone (guesstimate, assuming they lose 50% of their cover price from the retailer but not taking into account print and editorial overheads). Subscriptions, collections and reprints are additional income but printing and any other costs are additional.

In terms of work ethic over the years we are talking about a Pat Mills, John Wagner, Alan Grant, Carlos Ezquerra and Ron Smith levels here – I’m not sure who else over the 42 years of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic comes to mind (there will be a few) but they are who I can list with my limited knowledge. I’m sure even over their long careers they will tell you some days you are regarded as ‘hot’ and get plenty of work and sometimes ‘not’ and the work dries up. That’s true of many of the creative industries.

Unfortunately there hasn’t been the equivalent of Jimmy Hill fighting your corner demanding pay be at three times the level it currently is for creators in their 20’s and 30’s so prepare for a long game! Or a move into film story boarding or £350 a pop cover art that a number of classic U.K. artists seem to do now.

There are royalties also available on books and on average there is a reprint fee for the writer of about £7.50 a page and £15 for the artist so another grand/£500 for a major series and any percentage royalties from sales or merchandise (maybe 1%). Again these are very rough but all add up to that average wage mark of £30,000 a year.

Now of course there are many opportunities these days to achieve this, even without the weekly comics and sales of 200,000 copies per week of yesteryear. You could even have one great album and live comfortably off it for a few years!

Some people are already pioneers of web comics and seem to be doing well. Girl Genius has about 990 subscribers, paying out just under $3000 per month for example. Entry level is around $1.20 a month upwards (source Luke E Pierce). Steve Tanner points out Mias and Ellie by Jenny Clements is successful in the U.K. Many have built up their audience over a number of years.

The book market of course is ever growing for comics (more than it was thirty years ago) and on average a creative team might expect a £10,000 ‘advance’ to produce their work (far lower in some cases). Having no connections, agent or talent for writing or drawing this is a semi-educated guess. That’s £138 a page for a 72 page ‘graphic novel’. About £112 less for a writer/artist on the Galaxy’s Greatest. And then you wouldn’t get any other payments or royalties until that money is clawed back. And with a prose writer recently buying 400 of his OWN books to get into the Times Top 10 Best Seller list those sales aren’t huge for the majority of writers, many of whom only make £10,000 a year as it is (interestingly, however, their household income is quite high as they or their partners tend to have other professional qualified jobs) The publisher would have to sell 2000 books at least to get their money back on what they paid you before print/marketing etc.. On the other side, of course, some graphic novels have sold 1,000,000 copies in the States (with 5,000,000 print run). In December 2019 the New York Times Best Seller List Had 5 comic books in the top 5 places! Quids in – and a way to avoid producing three books a year and at least five colour pages a week giving you the weekends free and four weeks holiday a year.

Confused yet. Let’s talk kickstarters. DIY. Hard work (as if using your imagination, the discipline required to write a comic and developing your artistic skills and drawing page after page wasn’t hard work in itself!)

Let’s just say you print 400 32 page US comic size pages (24 pages of art). It will cost you £500 to print and £500 to post. £1000! On average we see sales of between 2 – 300 copies. Kickstarter backers seem to pay more than the standard £4 a comic. They obviously understand the work that goes into these things. Let’s be generous and say they pay £10 for your comic at 300 copies. Giving you £2000 after print/post. £24,000 a year if you make it a 12 part story. Not too shy of the average salary and a workload of a page of art a day plus everything that comes with running a Kickstarter (or a full time marketing managers job!). You can then also sell prints, bookmarks, postcards, artwork, script pages and the kitchen sink too so that £2000 can be five times that! So perhaps you don’t have to do 12 issues – maybe just three or four which is easier on you as a creator and the pocket of your followers. My only piece of advice for anyone is check your postage costs of what you hope to put together in terms of pages and format before you do anything. Trust me on this.

It doesn’t stop there of course. You may even make a little from a collection of your series, at ComicCons (there goes the weekend!) or through Get My Comics or your own online store. You could do print on demand via Amazon, hit Comixology or Drive Thru Comics, sell hardback versions on Artithmeric, translate your book, put it on Comichaus and even get it into comic shops (usually stuffed into some dark corner but someone will find it!).

People responded to our early issues of ComicScene very well and comic distributors and newsagents picked it up. We funded it by selling a few zines and advanced subs (not Kickstarter). It was far easier getting into shops than we had been led to believe. I know this is not the case for everyone. However the costs are high. You have to print far more than you will sell. You can lose 40-55% of your cover price to the retailer. There may be additional management, distribution and marketing costs. So although you might outsell comic shops 10 to 1 (to casual comic fans who might not even know these forums exist) the cost of doing so will wipe that out and you may have to wait four months to see your money (Diamond will pay you quicker based on their advance order model, which is better). 2000AD probably sell far more to subscribers than in retail. Commando may be the same. Phoenix certainly does as does The Beano (14,000 retail, 28,000 subscribers). You won’t make any money in the first two years on newsstands (if you have no investment). 1500 sales would be good. Hope you can build your brand, keep afloat with cash flow and then consolidate. Avoid pandemics!

Of course you take on less risk when you crowdfund but there is still a risk if you want to make a living. Kickstarter is usually all or nothing and you have to have fulfilled out your copies to backers before starting another (or at least not have two live at one time). Indiegogo allows you not to hit a specific target so at least you get something. It really isn’t easy either way and to be able to sustain over a long period of time is very difficult.

Some stories may work for you. Some won’t. My advice is if you get more than 300 sales bank the money in case that happens. There are far more misses or low sellers than hits in the publishing industry so this is good advice. On top of that you can do workshops, talks, sketches – anything that your wonderful talent allows. You may even be lucky and get a Netflix deal (don’t drink it all!). I heard Mark Millar speak a year or so ago and his work ethic remains high despite the oodles of cash he was paid for Millarworld. Good job!

As in general publishing there are some comic superstars who come through on kickstarters with quality books that can make over £250,000+, but the quality shines through. There are some niche publications from creators that know their market and community who tap into the cultural landscape and do very well. As in publishing we are starting to see successful creators, personalities and publishers using crowdfunding platforms for comics with huge sums being raised. Is there a risk that will curtail creativity or enhance interest in the platform so others discover your comicbooks too? The jury is still out on that one

The truth is, irrespective of what the ‘industry’ does, however many people buy a comic or a publisher pays if you are a writer you have to be able to produce three pages a day and as an artist one page of colour art a day doing comics. Possibly for fifty years – and hope there is a readership there to enjoy it. That’s hard work.

So if you want to do comics AND make a living rather than enjoy it as a hobby be honest with yourself – are you prepared for it?

I hope I haven’t painted too bleak a picture or avoided the answer you want to hear to indulge your passion. Whatever you choose, good luck. And have fun.

Tony Foster

ComicScene have an online website and comic creators can be added to the website which is shared with schools and libraries for talks and workshop opportunities https://comicscene.org/comicscene-comic-creator-directory/

To support the work of ComicScene the first ComicScene Hardback Annual 2021 can be supported on Kickstarter here.

You can also join a monthly Comic Club and get the History of Comics series each month from November here.

We were asked about a comparative study about European industry – this article is a few years old but is still relevant http://www.comicbookbin.com/European_Comics_An_Industry_in_Despair001.html

Here is some work on comic industry payment rates here.

Here’s an academic paper on if there is a comic book industry here.

Here is an article on making submissions to a list of publishers here

Read the U.K. Comic Survey here

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