In theory, digital distribution should make the process of selling self-published comics easier. In many ways, he did.
Creator KC Green, best known for his comic gun show, recalled the auction of sketchbooks on eBay and original pages on Etsy. At first, he didn’t factor in the cost and effort of shipping physical copies. “I didn’t expect to know my postal friends as well as I do,” he says. “The only thing I would do differently is remember to charge shipping for international orders. I slipped and forgot, and it took a hit on my budget.
While Green relishes those initial, painstaking experiences, he’s since let online retailer TopatoCo handle the publishing and shipping of his books. “Having to do everything yourself in your business is something that helps you appreciate it when you can ask a company to do things for you later,” 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 that self-published creators can use to sell digital comics.
ComiXology is the giant of online comics distribution, and after its April acquisition by Amazon, that’s unlikely to change. Since its inception in 2007, the company has become the primary repository for online comics from major publishers such as Marvel and DC.
In 2013, during the SXSW festival, the company launched a service called Submit, through which creators could upload their single-issue comics and graphic novels directly to the ComiXology platform, getting 50% of net sales (after ComiXology , on its website, paid “mobile distributors their standard fees”). To date, Submit hosts 2,000 titles.
“Submit offers the widest range of comics and graphic novels possible, and that’s what customers really appreciate,” says John D. Roberts, co-founder of ComiXology and director of Submit. “From superheroes to queer comics, slice-of-life graphic novels, manga for all ages and beyond, the readership of Submit titles is as varied as the books submitted.”
But it’s not a free quote for everyone. ComiXology Submit applies quality control with a list of formatting guidelines that must be followed.
The biggest problem with incoming submissions, says Roberts, are low-quality PDFs (the default format for online comics) that “suffer from artifacts and pixels, mostly due to excessive compression.” . It is the creator’s responsibility to understand the software they are using to convert their files to PDF. “Some of the most popular PDF tools have default compression settings that are hard to find and change, and that’s what we get a ton of files that we can’t use,” Roberts says.
Distributing digital comics is more than just scanning hard copies and converting them to PDF. A digital comic is as distinct a product as a physical book and should be treated as such. Techniques that work well in print are not ideal for a digital environment.
“Things like zipatones – sticking, cutting and peeling sheets of screentone patterns – that creators and designers use to cost-effectively produce print comics don’t look as good digitally because zipatones produce moiré patterns that can obscure the illustration,” says Roberts. “Thinking about the digital experience and working backwards not only produces a better digital experience, but it will also build the fanbase needed to grow that of print.
This is to ensure that his work is as professional as possible. Besides visual presentation, this means correcting grammatical or spelling mistakes, asking others to look for mistakes as well, and making sure lettering is crisp and clear.
Creators working with Submit should also be aware of their competition, Roberts says. They’re not just vying for the attention of other self-published creators, they’re trying to attract readers who also browse high-quality professional comics and graphic novels from traditional publishing houses.
“Taking the time to make sure the comic is created correctly and ironing out as many issues as possible will not only speed up the process, but also give you a better chance of standing out in the store,” Roberts says.
DriveThruComics, owned by digital download marketplace OneBookShelf, started before ComiXology. Founded in 2004, DriveThruComics describes itself as “the premier online retailer specializing in downloadable comics”.
While it sells comics from independent 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 each sale; those who are not exclusive earn 60%. It also has its own set of quality control rules, which it calls “minimum quality standards”. “Digital comics should strive to look professional, both in content and presentation,” says Matt McElroy, Marketing Director of OneBookShelf. “We work with established businesses, whether they’re companies or creators publishing their own work and selling those titles to customers who expect professional quality in the titles they buy from the store.”
Part of that quality starts with the presentation of the comics on 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 lure readers to an unknown or unadvertised title. McElroy said. “Indie creators need to attract new readers and show them why their characters are worth investing in.”
McElroy also echoed Roberts’ advice to treat a digital copy as its own entity, separate from hard copies. That 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 ability to pick up the book and flip through it like they would in a store, the overall presentation must sell the work.”
Along with an eye-catching description and cover, McElroy advises using online tools to compile a preview, a teaser that offers an advanced preview of the pages. DriveThruComics also has Flash preview tools.
Gumroad is different from both DriveThruComics and ComiXology in that it’s not just an online storefront. It is an e-commerce pipeline that allows its users to sell goods directly from their social media profiles. A link on a tweet, for example, sends a customer directly to a shopping page. Unlike DriveThruComics and ComiXology, Gumroad isn’t a place of discovery – its value allows for a transparent payment method, and creators can sell whatever they want: single issues, graphic novels, or leftovers from their sketchbooks.
Travis Nichols, the content editor at Gumroad, came to the company as a client. His work includes a children’s book titled Monster Doodle Book and passages illustrating the SpongeBob SquarePants comics for Nickelodeon. Initially, the idea of digitizing and selling his work was not appealing. “I was never interested in learning an entirely new skill set for selling digital comics,” he says. But a friend told him about Gumroad at a time when Nichols had released a comic book with an EP of music. He sold his first copy within minutes of posting a Facebook post with a purchase link through Gumroad.
The advantage of Gumroad is how quickly creators can get up and running. There is no waiting for submissions to be verified, accepted and appear on a storefront. And Gumroad takes a tiny cut – 5% – in sales. It also has a suite of real-time analytics that show conversions, revenue, and referral traffic, so creators know which social media platform performed the most. It also provides the email addresses of people who buy from them, allowing creators to build a list of customers.
“Direct distribution is nothing new for comic book creators,” says Nichols. “We have tables at conventions and interact directly with fans. Gumroad takes this model and futurizes it.
Because Gumroad is not a marketplace, creators using it must have an established fan following on social media or another online channel, which the creator must build themselves.
“We help you sell to people you already know,” says K. Tighe, communications manager at Gumroad. “We have overlays that you can put on your website, but we still handle the hard stuff, payments, processing.”
The best of worlds
What about more traditional e-commerce portals, like eBay or Etsy? What about the most popular payment pipeline, PayPal? The problem with these services is that they are not optimized for digital distribution. PayPal and eBay require the creator to email digital copies. And while Etsy allows instant downloads, its reputation as a showcase for all kinds of crafts makes it inefficient for discovery, unlike ComiXology or DriveThruComics.
Although digital distribution is less physically taxing than packing and shipping single issues or transporting boxes of graphic novels from one convention hall to another, it has its own demands. Creators interested in getting into this game need to understand the rules as well as the tools that can make this process as efficient as possible.
Ryan Joe is a writer living in New York.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 9/29/2014 issue of Weekly editors under the title: Digital Comics, Digital Payments