From Zine to Print: My Experience with Self-publishing an Original Comic Book
A little over a year ago I challenged myself to write an illustrate an original comic book.
In hindsight, I would encourage myself to start a bit smaller — maybe just a one-page strip instead of short story length— but I was determined to prove to myself that I could accomplish the task. Although an artist, I had never attempted to create anything in the comic format though I had fallen in love with the medium the moment I discovered Daniel Clowes. I felt intimidated by the entire process, from writing the story to making sure there was a cohesive flow to the reading experience. Not to mention quality of drawing. For over a decade I told myself I couldn’t possibly do it. Until I told myself I was GOING to do it, no excuses.
Five months later I had written and illustrated ‘The Last Cyclops’, a story of a cyclops who lives along the banks of the Missouri River, the region where I live.
‘The Last Cyclops’ is 24 pages long and had challenged me in every part of the creative process. Many long hours had been invested in the comic, but the work was not even close to being finished. After all the time invested in the creation of the ‘The Last Cyclops’ I had to find a way to share it with others.
Not only that, but I had to find means of publication and distribution which made sense for me financially.
Which meant as free or as cheap as possible.
At this point, I had invested much more time in the publication process than the actual creation of my comic and I want to share what I’ve learned. I have found many articles about self-publishing yet few on graphic novels or comics in particular which made me feel a bit like a pioneer at times. I hope this article can be useful (and encouraging!) to those interested in self-publishing a comic book.
I have self-published ‘The Last Cyclops’ in three waves: Zine, E-Book, and a Printed Book (color edition) just released. Each form of self-publication took information and work accomplished in the previous wave and built upon it. I also used different methods to connect with people about the book, and let them know about the new version, for each release.
First, I published my comic as a ZINE!
For those who may not know, a zine is essentially anything you want to print and distribute yourself, using a copy machine or home printer as means of production.
This was the method of least resistance. After months of work I wanted to push out a publication ASAP and get people’s feedback, as terrifying as that sounded, to see if my story resonated with others like I had hoped.
I decided to print on standard 8.5" x 11" white paper, which would then be folded to form a 5.5" x 8.5" comic book.
Before printing I had to collate my pages. Which means making sure all the pages are in order for publication.
This may not seem that complicated, but believe me — it can blow your mind. Since I was physically printing each page how it looks BEFORE the zine was put together, the panels are not arranged consecutively on the page. In order to wrap my mind around this, I made a mock-up book. The comic needed (8) 8.5" x 11" sheets of double-sided paper to become a 24 page book when folded. I took 8 blank pages, folded them, and on each page I taped the original comic panels. The pages weren’t attached to each other so I could pull each full sheet out to copy front and back, assured each panel was where it needed to be. Downside? I had to literally cut any full-page spreads in HALF in order for this printing method to make sense. And then I also needed tabs to tell me in which order the full pages went. Does this sound time-intensive? It was. But then I was finally finished and it was time to print!
At first I tried printing from home.
However I had used A LOT of black ink in my drawings which translated to my ink supply being quickly depleted. I figured my local copy center would end up being the cheaper option, so I moved the operation downtown. The ink depletion was still an issue (resulting in some sub-par reproductions) but the end result was enough printed comics for the zine-release party. Which was that night.
My sister helped me throw together a “Last Cyclops” zine release party at a local cafe. We had gotten permission from the cafe, found a friend to DJ, and made flyers to post downtown. At the party, there were cyclops eyes I had made for folks to wear, dance music, and I had a table set up with my literally hot-off-the-press comic zine, available for $5.
It felt great to see over 30 copies of ‘The Last Cyclops’ leave in people’s hands that night. And it felt even better to hear the feedback. People loved that the story was set in Missouri and I felt like I had made connections with others through my art.
Pros for Zine-Making
- Fast (for small projects)
- Readily Available / Don’t need a computer
- Easy (for small projects)
- Cheap (for small project)
Cons for Zine- Making
- Distribution is your responsibility so it can be difficult to reach people who don’t live nearby.
- Time-consuming. Did you read about my collation method? And I spared you the details of PUTTING the comics together. It was many hours my friends. The longer your zine is, the longer the publication process takes.
- There is a point where using the local copy place becomes too expensive. Although I charged $5 for each comic the copy fees alone were near $2.75 /copy with the color cardstock cover. Each were packaged in a compostable envelope bringing the total production price to over $3 /copy. This does not factor in the woman hours it took to copy, collate, and package each comic. I could raise the price, but I feel there is a point where people are going to say — Hey, isn’t this only photocopied? and not really be into paying what the book is really worth if one wanted to make, say, minimum wage.
So then I tried publishing my comic as an E-Book
After the zine-making frenzy I was ready to try my luck at digital publishing. I choose this format because I craved a publishing format which would require very little from me in terms of money or time but could provide wider distribution for my small comic.
The success of my zine told me people were interested in what I was making — I just had to make it easier for ‘The Last Cyclops’ to reach them, and also make it easier on myself on the production end.
I chose to publish on Kindle because it seemed easy. And it was.
Once I had made all my pen and ink drawings into digital image files and then made sure all those files were formated for Kindle’s specifications. I actually didn’t have a scanner back then so I took photos of each drawing and uploaded those photos to my computer. This resulted in a lot of resolution problems later on down the line so I would recommend scanning if you can.
I used GIMP (an opensource photoshop program) at every step of this process and am eternally grateful for its existence. Its FREE and you can find it here
Once the files were ready it was a breeze to publish - I remember it was very guided, fast, and easy.
Kindle even has a specific format for comic e-books that seems to be kind of cool for the reading experience. I haven’t read too many comic books online though so I don’t have anything to compare it to.
Once my book was published it was time to let people know. I sent out my first group email and offered ‘The Last Cyclops’ e-book for free for a week. Most people didn’t know that they can read Kindle books on any phone, tablet, or computer — they thought they had to own a specific reading device. However, because I offered the book for free many people had a chance to read it (since I had sold out of the first printed run at the zine release) and it was also reviewed.
I wrote a short blog article about Missouri as a character in ‘The Last Cyclops’ as a way to further connect with others while also letting people know my comic was available as an e-book. Although it didn’t result in sales, someone saw my blog post which later led to my comic being featured in the magazine ‘The New Territory’.
Pros of E-book Comic Self-Publishing
- Looks good on computer, tablet, and phone
- Cheap! It was completely free for me to publish on Kindle. And free for my free giveaway promotion too.
- Wide distribution, i.e. the WORLD
Cons of E-book Comic Self-Publishing
- No sales. None for me at least! I haven’t fiddled with SEO or done anything other than offer it for free so I do take some responsibility.
- People were confused about Kindle, how to use it, etc
- Final product is virtual. No ‘actual’ book to hold, which I feel like comic nerds are into.
Publishing my comic as an e-book felt like a good exercise but not like a final product. Now all of my images were digital files.
I wanted to take those digital files, add color, and publish a real comic book.
So I did. Once again I went with an Amazon platform, CreateSpace.
I had an account with them already but if you don’t, its not tooooo crazy. It does take a while though — so don’t count on being able to upload some files and have a printed book available for sale in the next couple days. They verify a bunch of stuff, like your taxes, but it makes sense since you’re about to be selling books through them. Fingers crossed.
Once you have an account, there are many publication choices.
I knew I wanted my book to be as small and cheap to produce as possible, but of the best quality possible too. I chose the 5" x 9" full-color, full-bleed option. The size is standard which means it can be widely distributed and the full-bleed would allow me to do color all the way to the edges of the paper.
I colored each panel digitally in GIMP (remember, I already had the files from the e-book to use). I removed the handwritten text and replaced it with typed, mostly for ease of reading but also to make the comic look of better quality.
The formatting specifications were a bit tedious and I spent many hours in GIMP making sure each file was perfect for publication. Once the files were ready, I had a few other book-making tasks to take care of.
- ISBN : Every book needs one. Its your choice where you get yours. After research I chose to be assigned one by Createspace. They can provide you with a FREE ISBN although you can still publish with one you get elsewhere, however you won’t be eligible for their extended distribution network, just online sales.
- Book Cover : I designed a new one and added a bit of that free review I got from the e-book on the back. Work it!
- All those OTHER pages. You know the ones. That say things about the book, the author, the date of publication. They’re called Front and Back Matter and I found a template here that I used when typing up and arranging all that stuff. I love the internet — so helpful!
Once all these items were taken care of I merely arranged my files, exported it all as a PDF, and uploaded it to CreateSpace. Oh yes. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, of course I still had much to learn about formatting and many hours of GIMP ahead of me before CreateSpace gave me the OK on my book. But thats cool. They just want it to be as good as I do.
Once the files are approved they will send you a physical proof if you want. You should really get one. Seriously, you need to hold that book in your hands because by this point you’ve been working HARD. And you also need to make sure your name is spelled correctly.
My proof arrived a little over a year from when I first started on ‘The Last Cyclops’. What a journey its been! It feels great to know not only have I challenged myself and learned so much, but I’ve shared a story about my home of Missouri with many people.
Its difficult for me to list a comprehensive PRO and CON list for using CreateSpace since there are a lot of variables. I will say this publication method is for someone who is comfortable with a computer or who can pay someone else to help them. I am not a computer whiz by any means and I managed to make this happen by using free software (GIMP) and the internet (which I constantly consult for technical advice). It took many hours, and much trial and error, but I finally got those files ready for publication.
Not only that, but the end result looked better than what I had hoped!
My total cost for publication was under $10 — the cost of the proof and shipping. This is a MAJOR PRO.
I can’t think of any other way to print a color comic for so cheap, with such good quality, without having to put down a stack of money first or commit to a large quanity.
I hope to post more about the life of ‘The Last Cyclops’ as a real comic book in the future, and more about my experience with Amazon as a book-seller. I just approved my book for publication a few days ago and I’m excited to see where this leg of my self-publication journey takes me.
I hope that my experience can perhaps encourage you to start that comic you’ve been dreaming of — or print and share the one you’ve already made with others.
It is amazing to share your work with others through self-publication — and its not as hard as you may think.
‘The Last Cyclops’ is available here