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‘Skullkickers’ Writer Jim Zubkavich on the Grim Financial Realities of Direct Market Creator-Owned Comics

In something of a heartbreaking post, Jim Zubkavich — writer of Image Comics’ very well regarded but not hugely popular Skullkickers series — breaks down the costs and rewards associated with creator-owned comics. The conclusions can only be described as grim. Factoring in the costs associated with printing and distribution and the cuts owed to publishers and retailers, Zub estimates that the writer and artist of a creator-owned 20page comic selling 5,000 copies a month would receive less than $38 per page.It should be noted up front that Zubkavich — or Jim Zub, as he is affectionately known — is not complaining. Indeed, Zub declares that writing Skullkickers through Image is “a thrill and an honor.” His missive on the money of creator-owned comics follows similarly helpful posts on how indie writers can find artistic collaborators, how to pitch, and other tutorials of that nature. This is just what he does.

Zub presents the money stuff simply by taking apart the $2.99 cover price many of us pay for single issues sold through the direct market — a.k.a. comics retailers.

-$1.40: 40-50% of that cover price goes to retailers, the people selling the comics to customers. This amount varies quite a bit based on the publisher and the number of copies ordered by the retailer, but is a base approximation. Retailers deserve their share for selling comics to their local customer base. They buy non-returnable product and take great risk each and every week. In many ways, they’re the distributor’s actual “customer”.

-$0.80: Printing is substantial (and it varies wildly based on the amount printed, paper availability, and press availability so this is NOT an exact figure). 80 cents is a pretty good benchmark for small print runs. On very low print runs (sub 3000), printing can cost more than $1.00 per copy, which really eats into the budget.

-$0.50: 1/6 of that cover price goes to Diamond, the distributor who solicits orders and ships comics to retailers. This varies based on shipping, gas prices, amount ordered and who the publisher is but it’s a good approximation. Diamond deserves their share for soliciting, storing and shipping comics to retail outlets. They’re an international distributor with lots of expenses to keep the system running.

… With the remaining 30 cents per issue, the following has to be paid:
• Advertising/promotion.
• Publisher operation/office expenses.
• Money left over for the creative team to actually get paid anything.
• Profit?

Assuming that promotion, lettering, coloring and cover art costs are nothing, Zub estimates that leaves the artist and writer with $37.50 each, which as he says is a “bogus number” given that such costs will obviously be incurred, thus making the creators’ profits even smaller — often nonexistent. And because the cuts which go to distribution and retail are not flat rates but percentages, increasing the cover price to $3.99, while not without benefits, mainly injects more money into those various other areas he outlined.

“It’s the price of doing business in the mainstream comic industry via retail outlets and international distribution. That’s how it works,” Zub wrote.

Why it works like that is a very long conversation having to do with distribution models, marketing, the nature of serialization, the big two, the audience, the retailers, taste, and really every other facet of the system we call the direct market or “mainstream comics.” It’s a complex system whereby a good book like Skullkickers, which is available in three collected editions as well as a hardcover volume, treads water but also where a good book like Saga can sell 70,000 copies.

For now, Zub offers the following prescription, which we endorse wholeheartedly:

• Support indy titles.
• Support creator-owned comics.
• Pre-order books you’re interested in from your local retailer.
• Tell your friends about books and help build support.
• Support Kickstarter campaigns for great independent comic projects.
• Buy direct from creators at conventions so 100% of the cover price goes into their pocket.

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