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‘Friends With Boys’ Creator Faith Erin Hicks on the Economics of Graphic Novels

It seems like we’re hearing a lot lately from writers and artists about the grim financial realities of working full-time in the comic book industry. No doubt made worse by the global economic crisis, some problems include DMZ and Northlanders creator Brian Wood’s report that his income dropped by 30-40% in 2010; Batgirl and Fairest cover artist Adam Hughes’ claim that drawing full comics is actually less lucrative for him than covers and other single-piece illustrations; Cat and Girl creator Dorothy Gambrell and Aki Alliance creator Ryan Estrada publishing charts of their incomes as webcomics creators; now a new blog post from Brain Camp and Demonology 101 artist Faith Erin Hicks in which the award-winning cartoonist reveals income and royalty that are a little shocking, including the fact that an income of $30,000 constituted her “best year ever.”Hicks explained that she often works with publishers who provide advances on future sales of her work, a practice common in book publishing but not so widespread in the comic book business.

An advance is money paid out to a writer and artist (or cartoonist) by the publisher against future sales of their book. So take Friends With Boys. First Second paid me X amount of dollars to write and draw it, because they think it will make XX in sales (God willing, it will make XXX. Please pre-order!). It seems like kind of a gamble, but that’s apparently how it works in the book world. The thing about advances is that you usually (this depends on the publisher) get paid half on signing of the book contract, half on completion of the book. And then you have to go draw the comic. So I got paid half of X for Friends With Boys before I’d even drawn a page, but then I had to live on half of X for a year while I drew the comic. Then I got the rest of X. And I went SHOPPING! (Just kidding.)

By contrast, SLG Publishing, the comics publisher that released Hicks’ Zombies Calling ($9.95, 2007) and War at Ellsmere ($12.95, 2008) does not offer advances or page rates. Rather, SLG paid Hicks a very low percentage of sales.

I was paid no money up front for my SLG books, and instead paid royalties based on sales. Zombies Calling and Ellesmere sold about 2,000 copies each, of which I was given a percentage of the cover price, I think 7%. So I make 7% of $10 and $13. I did not make much money off those two books, which was why I had a job in animation when I drew them. ;)

As calculated by a doubtlessly stupefied Chris Arrant over at Robot 6, this means Hicks earned just over $3,000 for two graphic novels, one of which won a Joe Shuster Award.

But despite the more equitable terms of book publishers like First Second, Hicks found herself earning only $30,000 (including $8,000 in the form of a government grant) drawing comics full-time in 2010. This is far, far less than what most people would guess a cartoonist with several graphic novels under her belt would make, and even more shocking is Hick’s claim that in 2011, she earned about half of that.

First of all, never in a million years did I think I would be

able to pay my rent by drawing comics, or even through doing the freelance art thing. Sometime I cringe inwardly when I tell people that I write and draw comics for a living, because sometimes it doesn’t feel like that; it’s more like I’ve taken a vacation from some real job to draw comics, and eventually I will return to the workforce when I run out of money.

The last time I worked in a studio at a “real job” (I trained in animation) was 2008. So as of now, the money

has yet to run out. The pessimist in me suspects it will some day. That I will no longer get freelance work, that my books will not sell, and I’ll just grind through my savings before packing it all in and (if I’m even qualified to do this) return to work in animation.

Part of the reason for this pessimistic view is that currently I’m living off advances from publishers, and supplementing that money with grants and freelance work (taking illustration jobs for clients, doing the occasional workshop, drawing commissions, etc). I do not have a hit graphic novel that I recieve a steady royalty income from. Not yet, at least. I suspect I would feel more secure in my line of work if I did.

Let’s hope that hit comes in the form of Friends With Boys, Hicks’ forthcoming graphic novel from First Second. The entire thing is being serialized as a webcomic, and the graphic novel can be pre-ordered now.

Heidi MacDonald has compiled some more insights into the financial realities of comics creators, and you can check those out at The Beat.

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