In theory, digital distribution should make the process of selling self-published comics easier. In many ways, it has.
The creator KC Green, best known for his comic Gunshow, recalled auctioning sketchbooks on eBay and original pages on Etsy. He didn’t at first consider the cost and effort that went into shipping physical copies. “I wasn’t expecting to know my post office friends as well as I did,” he says. “The only thing I would do differently is remember to charge for shipping for international orders. I slipped and forgot, and that took a hit in my budget.”
While Green values those initial, effortful experiences, he’s since let the online retailer TopatoCo take over publication and shipping of his books. “Having to do everything in your business yourself is something that helps you appreciate it when you can get a company to do things for you later on,” he says.
Green still sells digital copies of his comics, using startup services like Gumroad as an e-commerce platform. Here are three online tools self-published creators can use to sell digital comics.
ComiXology is the giant when it comes to online comics distribution, and following its April acquisition by Amazon, it’s unlikely that will change. Since its founding in 2007, the company has become the primary repository for online comics from major publishers like Marvel and DC.
In 2013 at the SXSW festival, the company launched a service called Submit, through which creators could upload their single-issue comics and graphic novels directly onto the ComiXology platform, getting 50% of the net sale (after ComiXology, on its website, paid “mobile distributors their standard fees”). To date, Submit hosts 2,000 titles.
“Submit has the broadest range of comics and graphic novels possible, and that’s what customers really enjoy about it,” says John D. Roberts, cofounder of ComiXology and director of Submit. “From superhero to queer comics, slice-of-life graphic novels, all-ages manga, and beyond, the readership of Submit titles is as varied as the books submitted.”
But it’s not a submission free-for-all. ComiXology Submit enforces quality control with a list of formatting guidelines that must be followed.
The biggest problem with incoming submissions, Roberts says, are poor quality PDF files (the default format for online comics) that “suffer from artifacting and pixilation, primarily due to excessive compression.” The onus is on the creator to understand the software she’s using to convert her files to PDF format. “Some of the more popular PDF tools have compression defaults that are hard to find and change, and thus we get a ton of files that we can’t use,” Roberts says.
Distributing digital comics is more than a matter of scanning hard copies and converting them to PDF format. A digital comic is as distinct a product as a physical book and should be treated as such. Techniques that work well in print aren’t ideal for a digital environment.
“Things like zipatones—stick, cut, and peel sheets of screentone patterns—that creators and cartoonists use to produce print comics in a cost-effective way don’t present as well digitally, as zipatones produce moiré patterns that can obscure the artwork,” Roberts says. “Thinking about the digital experience and working backward not only produces a better digital experience, but it will also build the fan base necessary to grow the print one.”
It’s a matter of ensuring one’s work is as professional quality as possible. Besides visual presentation, this means editing for grammatical or spelling mistakes, having others look for mistakes as well, and ensuring the lettering is clear and crisp.
Creators working with Submit also have to be cognizant of their competition, Roberts says. They’re not vying for attention solely among other self-published creators—they’re trying to attract readers who are also browsing high-quality professional comics and graphic novels from traditional publishing houses.
“Taking the time to make sure that the comic is created correctly and eliminating as many issues as possible not only will speed up the process but will also give you a better chance of standing out in the store,” Roberts says.
DriveThruComics, owned by the digital download marketplace OneBookShelf, started before ComiXology. Founded in 2004, DriveThruComics describes itself as “the first online retailer to specialize in downloadable comics.”
While it sells comics from indie publishing houses like Top Cow, Valiant Comics, and Archaia Entertainment, it also has its share of self-published titles, like Madeleine Holly-Rosing’s steampunk webcomic, Boston Metaphysical Society.
Like ComiXology, DriveThruComics takes a percentage of each sale. Publishers and creators selling digital comics exclusively through the platform earn 70% of every sale; those that aren’t exclusive earn 60%. It also has its own set of quality control rules, which it calls “minimum quality standards.” “Digital comics should strive for a professional appearance, in both content and presentation,” says Matt McElroy, OneBookShelf’s marketing director. “We’re working with established businesses, whether those are corporations or creatives publishing their own work and selling those titles to customers who expect professional quality in the titles they are buying from the store.”
Part of that quality begins with the comics’ presentation in the online portal. This includes a well-written description of a book or series and a good cover, especially if a creator is trying to attract readers to an unknown or unheralded title. McElroy says. “Independent creators need to hook new readers and show them why their characters are worth investing in.”
McElroy also echoed Roberts’s advice to treat a digital copy as its own entity, separate from hard copies. This means creators need to know how people read on tablets and phones.
“Optimizing the digital edition of their book for things like smaller file size is a no-brainer,” he said. “Since the customer doesn’t have the option to pick up the book and flip through it like they might in a store, the overall presentation needs to sell the work.”
Besides an attention-grabbing description and cover, McElroy advises using online tools to compile a preview, a teaser that offers an advanced look at pages. DriveThruComics also has Flash preview tools.
Gumroad is different from both DriveThruComics and ComiXology in that it’s not solely an online storefront. It’s an e-commerce pipeline that enables its users to sell goods directly from their social media profiles. A link on a tweet, for instance, sends a customer directly to a buying page. Unlike DriveThruComics and ComiXology, Gumroad isn’t a place for discovery—its value is enabling a seamless payment method, and creators can sell whatever they want: single issues, graphic novels, or scraps from their sketchpads.
Travis Nichols, the content editor at Gumroad, came to the company through being a client. His work includes a children’s book called Monster Doodle Book and stints illustrating the SpongeBob SquarePants comics for Nickelodeon. Initially, the idea of digitizing and selling his work was unappealing. “I never was interested in learning an entirely new skill set to sell digital comics,” he says. But a friend told him about Gumroad at a time when Nichols had a comic coming out with an EP of music. He sold his first copy within a couple of minutes of posting about it on Facebook with a link to purchase via Gumroad.
Gumroad’s advantage is the speed with which creators can get up and running. There is no wait for submissions to be vetted, accepted, and appear on a storefront. And Gumroad takes a miniscule cut—5%—of sales. It also has a suite of real-time analytics that show conversions, revenues, and referral traffic, so creators know which social media platform was most effective. It also provides the email addresses of people who purchase from them, allowing creators to build a customer list.
“Direct distribution isn’t new for comic book creators,” Nichols says. “We have tables at conventions and directly interact with the fans. Gumroad takes this model and futurizes it.”
Because Gumroad isn’t a marketplace, creators using it need to have an established fan following through social media or some other online channel, which the creator has to build herself.
“We help you sell to people you already know,” says K. Tighe, Gumroad’s head of communications. “We have overlays you can put on your website, but we still handle the hard stuff, the payments, the processing.”
Brave New World
What of the more mainstream e-commerce portals, like eBay or Etsy? What of the most popular payment pipeline, PayPal? The problem with these services is that they aren’t optimized for digital distribution. PayPal and eBay require the creator to actually email digital copies. And while Etsy enables instant downloads, its reputation as a storefront for all sorts of crafts make it inefficient for discovery, unlike ComiXology or DriveThruComics.
While digital distribution is less physically taxing than packaging and shipping single issues or lugging boxes of graphic novels from one convention hall to the next, it has its own requirements. Creators interested in getting into this game need to understand the rules as well as the tools that can make this process as effective as possible.
Ryan Joe is a writer living in New York City.