How Much Self-Publishing Really Costs

I knew putting out your own graphic novels wasn’t cheap, but this cost breakdown astounded me.

Tyler Page, creator of the excellent graphic novel series Nothing Better, added up his costs since 2002 and concluded he’d spent almost $47,000 on printing and promotion costs, mostly convention appearances. Wow. Then again, that’s less than $7,000 a year, and I can see that you could easily spend that much with significant travel combined with up-front print costs. As he says,

I think there may have only ever been a few shows where I did so well as to cover all costs and turn a small profit. But those were the exception rather than the rule.

My question, then — and I’m not criticizing here — would be “why keep doing it?” I know people think you have to get out on the circuit and meet people in person, but maybe if you don’t break even, you rethink your product mix or do more online promotion, fewer in-person appearances. Then again, that’s a much more viable option these days than it used to be.

He does say at the end, after being refreshingly open about his financial standing, that he’d do things differently if he could do them again, and I hope he elaborates on that in future posts. He’s changed to print-on-demand and webcomic promotion now, from his original strategy of going straight to graphic novels (as he did with Stylish Vittles). His post was a followup to a previous one where he discusses why he went print-on-demand, in large part to minimize his up-front debt on the project.

I’m very glad to see this kind of discussion taking place, because I would hope that aspiring comic creators would educate themselves on the many options open to them these days and make sensible decisions. It doesn’t do anyone any good for a talent to burn out or be financially crippled out of ignorance — I wish long careers in comics for everyone.


21 Responses to “How Much Self-Publishing Really Costs”

  1. James Schee Says:

    The tax pro in me hopes he kept receipts and wrote a great deal of those expenses off. Too often people don’t take advantage of the things that could save a lot of money. (reading his post alone he likely could have taken off airline, hotel and even meals)

    SE income especially has so many possible writeoffs…

    Good to see someone show their numbers tho, as its interesting to see what things cost.

  2. Johanna Says:

    There’s a business opportunity! Tax advice specific for comic self-publishers. You could set up at conventions!

  3. Howard Says:

    That article doesn’t seem to make it clear what his net is- in other words, did he ultimately have a 47,000 loss or did he make some back on book sales?

    The expenses alone are not a very useful metric. I hope he’s at least close to the break even point…

  4. Johanna Says:

    He does say that he wound up covering his print bills from sales, but it doesn’t reveal how much more was covered. He does say that he’s still paying off a $10,000 debt, though, which may give some idea of the profit/loss overall.

  5. Max Says:

    This is why when I go to cons now, I only go to network and I don’t get a table. Too expensive, and it’s too hard to get noticed in a sea of other artists, even if you have a bit of a fanbase.

  6. tyler Says:

    I’m glad people are finding this interesting.

    james – yes, all business expenses accounted for and written off. we work w an arts-specific tax firm here in Mpls.

    In writing about my experiences I wanted to start by just pointing out the (potential) enormous expenses involved. I will get around to looking at my Diamond order numbers and, since people seem interested, get particular about where and when I made a profit.

    I pointed out to a friend who read this that the years where I made a clear profit it was mostly because I took on freelance jobs which helped push me into the black.

    I will get around to providing as much specific info as I can since I see a real lack of it out there. it’s just going to take some time for me to dive into my records.

  7. Johanna Says:

    Max, but what do you do about those who want to get more of your work? Are they stuck with mail order?

    Tyler, very much so. I admire your willingness to share the details and be open about the costs of all this. Thank you for educating us.

  8. Max Says:

    @Johanna Ha! I actually have to have work to sell, and people that want to buy it :)

    But seriously, even if you keep costs down with POD, you’re still cutting yourself off at the legs since your margin is so much higher getting the books made to order for a convention appearance. And if you want to be in Diamond you HAVE to do an offset run in order to have any hope of making that back.

    If I go off of the old e-comm benchmark of 1% of traffic will convert, then as of now, I don’t have enough fans right now to extrapolate that to a real world appearance (unless I get invited as a guest, which happens occasionally – free tables will convince me to go to a con).

    Personal story: Got a table at a large con right after I won the Isotope award. Sold 10 copies and received one sneer from a kid carrying a signed copy of Badrock/Wolverine. One of the most depressing weekends of my life.

    After that, I decided to spend more time on promotion and craft versus spending a ton of money on what was basically a series of expensive vacations.

  9. Tara Tallan Says:

    Why do we do it? Good question! :-D Going to cons was easier and cheaper when I did it as part of a group– share the table, share the hotel room, share the gas, etc. Now that I have a family, it’s harder to do that. I’m lucky to have a bunch of good shows in my city, so I can make some sales without the extra travel expenses. But I’m planning a few out-of-town cons this year, and I’m trying to look at them as a family vacation that happens to have a con stuck on one end (after the Baltimore show, for example, we’ll all spend a few days doing touristy things in DC). Fortunately, my family is geeky enough to consider the con part fun.

    Here’s a thought that usually makes me feel better about the costs: lots of people spend stupid amounts of money on their all-consuming passions (golf, for example, gets pretty expensive), with no financial return on the investment. At least with comics, I get to make some of that money back!

  10. James Schee Says:

    Johanna, lol! I could even write off all my con travel and booth price expenses then too!

    Tyler, good to know! I just started working for H&R Block this year and its just been surprising to see how many things there are that I never would have even thought of that can be written off. (for instance if you went to a movie while at a con, that’s covered under an entertainment writeoff)

  11. Thom Says:

    I just assumed indie artists kept doing this because they were heavy drug users and it impacted their ability to weigh the realities of the self publishing biz. ;)

  12. Johanna Says:

    Y’all bring up some good points about costs and cons. I think some people just like having a tax-deductible way to hang out with like-minded folk at conventions, maybe. Like Tara, I stick closer to home these days, now that putting six people in a room and sleeping on the floor is less attractive.

  13. Jay Faerber Says:

    I’m always envious of my artist friends who can do sketches and sell original artwork at conventions to help turn a profit at conventions. Being a writer, I’ve got to rely on selling books and nothing else if I’m going to make any money. That’s why I don’t do many shows anymore — it’s simply too expensive, and if I’m going to spend that much money on a trip, I’d rather spend it on a vacation where I’m going to have fun, versus at a convention where I’m going to be “working” all weekend.

  14. Ben Towle Says:

    It’s important to note exactly what “tax deductible” means; I hear lots of folk on the con circuit use it in a way that gives me the impression they think it means “free.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong here (my accountant does the nuts and bolts of my taxes), but… it just means that you get to deduct those expenses from your yearly earnings, which themselves get taxed. So if you had, say, $1000 of tax deductible expenses from going to SPX and you’re taxed at 15% (just making up numbers here), $850 of that’s still coming out of your hide.

    People sometimes seem to justify expenses that make zero economic sense with, “oh well, it’s tax deductible,” as if $1000 of tax deductible expenses = $1000 less you pay in taxes. Not at all the case….

  15. tyler Says:

    that is a really good point Ben!

    I’ll admit that I occasionally find myself thinking like that too – “oh, I can write that off.” but yes, it means you subtract the cost of those items or services as an expense of doing business. if your expenses outweigh your earnings, then you’ll have had a negative year and won’t have any ‘earnings’ to pay taxes on.

    on the flip side, say you brought in $5000 in sales for a year, but spent $3500 on a new computer. your earnings or profit would then be $1500 and *that* is what you’d pay taxes on.

    at least that’s how I remember it. I’m going to see my accountant next week so we’ll see if I remember correctly.

  16. Johanna Says:

    Ben, Tyler, great points. You still have to be sensible about choices, but if you make any kind of income at all from cons (selling books, art, interviews), which you should be paying tax on, it is a nice bonus that your expenses help reduce your income and thus taxes.

  17. Max Says:

    Also a note – if you are in a formal business structure (not a sole proprietorship, but an LLC or S-corp for example), you need to be profitable 3 out of 5 years. This is so you aren’t constantly taking a loss and gaming the system. In a sole proprietorship, your losses are tied to your personal assets, so your personal return is going to cover that.

  18. James Schee Says:

    Yeah as Johanna points out your expenses can just help reduce how much taxes you may have to pay.

    One thing I’ve seen A LOT of this year is people who thought they were being paid regular wages which would come on a W2. Yet wound up getting 1099 MISC which is like they were self employed contracted to work for the company.

    We enter that total on a special form, and then work like crazy to find deductions on that to lower it for their AGI so they have less taxes to pay.

    Though of course you have to be careful on that too, as too many deductions making for a net loss for too many years and the IRS starts considering it a hobby more than a business. And a hobby’s expenses can only be taken up to the amount of revenue made by the hobby.

    Anyone bored yet? :) Another tax related comic thing. If you’ve worked for DC’s Wildstorm imprint in recent years, its my understanding that you may get a letter from the state of California demanding state income taxes. Its a tricky situation, but if you get with DC you can probably get it handled without much fuss. (and no cost to you) CA is bankrupt and not able to pay out their state refunds, and are looking at any way possible to get funds.

  19. Johanna Says:

    It’s good to hear someone who knows about all this talk about it, James. I didn’t know California was hurting that bad.

  20. Hsifeng Says:

    Ben Towle Says:

    “It’s important to note exactly what ‘tax deductible’ means; I hear lots of folk on the con circuit use it in a way that gives me the impression they think it means ‘free.’…”

    Maybe they’re just confusing “tax deduction” and “tax credit”? That’s a common mistake off the con circuit too.

    Ben Towle Says:

    “…Correct me if I’m wrong here (my accountant does the nuts and bolts of my taxes), but… it just means that you get to deduct those expenses from your yearly earnings, which themselves get taxed. So if you had, say, $1000 of tax deductible expenses from going to SPX and you’re taxed at 15% (just making up numbers here), $850 of that’s still coming out of your hide…”

    The difference between a tax deduction and a tax credit is that a tax deduction is exactly as you describe here and if you had, say, $1000 of tax credits from whatever and you’re taxed at 15% (using the numbers you made up here), none of that’s coming out of your hide because you subtract the $1000 from what you owe in taxes instead of subtracting it from what you owe taxes.

  21. tyler Says:

    FYI-
    I’ve finally gotten around to finishing Part 4 of this series where I discuss my Diamond order numbers and some other publishing considerations:
    http://tylerpage.tumblr.com/post/2531177711/publishing-pt-4-the-other-numbers

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