Will Publishing Online First, Ruin my Chances of Print?

I got this question a few months back from a talented artist.

I was just curious to hear your thoughts about whether or not publishing your pages online first, might burn any bridges when looking for a literary agent/book publisher in the future?

Just curious. I’m pursuing the whole graphic novel thing too, and really want into get into bookstores. My worry is that if I start posting the book online first, I might mess up the chance to get it picked up by a major publisher. Y’know, first publication rights or something. I may have no idea what I’m taking about though. Anyhow, just thought I’d get your take on it!

Over the last 8 months I’ve talked to many people about this, read books on it and studied what other industries have and have not done successfully. I’ve come to a few conclusions which may be right or may be wrong, but here they are and I’m not just talking the talk. As you can see I’ve risked my entire project on this train of thought:

The markets are changing. With the internet changing how everyone does business, it’s anyone’s guess if publishers are even a better bet these days. Sure the major publishers can rake in the money on best sellers and established authors, but we aren’t talking about that. We’re talking about you and me, right now.

But before we move on, take a look at this quote I recently heard from Jon Meacham, the longtime Editor of Newsweek, which is now being sold because they aren’t making enough money I guess. It’s been around since 1933.

“We live in an era where all print based media are not exactly rolling in cash.” Jon Meacham<

Did you hear that? So is a big publisher really the way to go? I know this isn’t exactly the same as Random House publishers but it’s still print based. Here is more from the interview:
“Here’s what I suspect the future is. We have had it backwards, which is that we produce a magazine all week. We close it Friday and Saturday and it begins to go out online(to the printers) where the heart of the operation has been. We have Newsweek.com (internet version) every day but for 77 years the emphasis has been on the print. It’s probably time to flop that, in which you are solely focused on the digital and by the end of the week you take the best of, and for people who want to hold a magazine in their hands,(they will buy the printed version) and there are people who can still do that.”

I quoted that from The Daily Show. Did you get what he was saying? They had it backwards by focusing on print. The print should be the ‘best of’ the online content. That’s huge! Learn from this. You and I are small compared to Newsweek and can adapt easily to change. Take advantage of it.

I work in animation and this whole thing really reminds me of all the traditional animators who were laid off because they couldn’t accept the changing industry. Hand drawn animation was being replaced by 3D animation and nobody wanted to adapt. I felt for them but at the same time, it’s was a great opportunity for small animation studios to make their own feature films because the technology was making it possible. Why do we think we need Disney to produce a 2D animation when we have people like Sylvain Chomet making films like “Triplettes of Belleville” and his new one “The Illusionist”. That wasn’t possible before. I think it’s the same thing with graphic novels and book publishers. Now days anyone who is motivated enough can make a beautiful graphic novel and have it printed and get it to an audience.

From what I’ve read, a really good selling graphic novel might have a print run of 15,000. An Indy graphic novel might have 5000. Okay, now take a step back and instead of focusing on how many books that is to us little guys, think about how few people are actually seeing it. If you only print 5000 copies, only 5000 people max are going to be able to read it unless they all share but when I buy a book it pretty much always goes on my book shelf never to be seen again. There are webcomic graphic novels out there that generate 50,000 to 100,000 unique visits a DAY. There are badly drawn webcomics that have a bigger following than the beautifully printed and drawn Indy comic that sold a whopping 5000 copies at conventions. You know why? Becasue nobody knows the printed comics exist. How many people go to Indy Comic conventions and dig through all the clutter to find the one rare golden nugget? Maybe a few people out there. But how many people have access to the internet and can type in http://mystupidcomic.com? Nearly the entire world. Which brings me to another point.

You need to have fans before you can sell books. The internet is where to find your niche fans now days, not door to door with a case of books. You don’t spend all your hard earned money printing your first book and then start looking for fans. Also, an agent or publisher wants to see that you’re committed before they commit to you. Unless the agent or publisher is also a no name, but that’s another story.

I read a great quote from Seth Godin, “The only people who should plan on making money from writing a book are people who made money on their last book. Everyone else should either be in it for passion, trust, referrals, speaking, consulting, change-making, tenure, connections or joy.”

So, If your goal is to make a living with a newly started graphic novel career, then stop. Just quit while you’re ahead. Stop before you’ve wasted a month of your life laboring over it only to realize that it’s going to take a lot more work than you are passionate enough to spend. If you’re not in it for one of the reasons above then please, PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING HOLY, JUST STOP NOW. I DON”T WANT TO READ YOUR HEARTLESS COMIC EVEN IF YOU FINISH IT.

So the next logical question is; Can we get from point A(no name artist) to point B(successfully published author making a living) if we are in it for the right reasons? I believe so. So how do we get there? I believe you can get from point A to B by building a fan base one person at a time through the internet. In the book The Economics of Webcomics, the author repeatedly compares indy publishers to webcomics. In every case, the artist who gave away content for free on the internet and later sold the same content as a book would outperform any no-name indy comic who printed first. In fact, the websites that were really popular would start competing with the same sales figures as Marvel’s most popular titles. Even the popular indy titles never hit that number. Even small companies who released books online a few weeks prior to the printed books would make more sales. The idea that the online release is just one big marketing campaign kinda starts making sense when you look at the figures.

There’s a term in the big movie marketing world called “Market Saturation” (I think that’s what they call it). It’s when a company like Disney goes out and asks a random group of people on the streets if they’ve ever heard of the next movie they have coming out. If a studio, through advertising, can get a high percentage of the population to (at least) hear of their next movie then they have done an excellent job marketing it. The idea is that the more people who know about it, the more sales they will make on movie tickets and related products. If nobody knows a movie (or graphic novel) exists then it doesn’t matter how good it is, it will never make any money.

That’s why the big publishers are so powerful, because they know how to saturate the bookstores with advertising to help sell their books. But like I said before, why would they commit to selling your books if you’re not committed to your books. Publishers don’t want a one hit wonder or fluke. They want someone who can make book after book of high quality content. Someone they can rely on.

So to sum up this point; You need fans to sell books. The internet is one big free marketing campaign pre-release for your book. People wont blindly buy stuff anymore. If you have no fans, good luck selling a book. Good luck getting a book deal and good luck impressing a GOOD agent. People need to know you exist. You need at least some market saturation. The real fact here is this; if you can’t get a few hundred or thousand fans on your own then is your art or story really good enough to impress a publisher or agent? You only get one chance to make the first impression on the best agent or publisher, why not refine your skill first and work out some of the kinks before running for president.

Another thing I’ve thought; People who read comics online are never going to buy a book and people who buy books are never going to read them online.

I used to think this was true, but now I think it’s mostly false. And even if it was true, the internet is probably 90% of my audience so I don’t want to ignore it. There is a group who likes reading comics online now days and they may never buy a book in print. But you will always have the faithful readers online who will line up to buy a book in print as proven by all the webcomics doing this now. I also think there’s a middle sized group who will find comics online and just skim through it waiting to buy the books when they hit print. But the fact is, the amount of online viewers dwarf the book collectors. This might seem like bad news for us if we want to make money, but think of it this way, every extra person who sees your work and remembers it, grows your fan base and grows your market saturation. The bigger the fan base, the more people talk about it, the more chances you have at finally making money on a book. Once you make money on one book, you have a better chance of making money on the next book. Plus, don’t forget, if you get a huge following not only can you sell books, you can sell prints, shirts and countless other things.

ONLY THEN can you start thinking about quitting your day job. Notice I said START thinking. I didn’t say to just quit. And don’t use this as an excuse to make stupid irrational financial decisions.

If a publisher sees that you have 2000 followers, I’m sure they’ll respect you more than a no name artist with no followers. If I can get a million hits on my webcomic, I’m sure it’s worth something to an agent or publisher. If I have an entire book online that has sold out of hard copies a few times and major followers then I’m sure a book publisher will be interested to see why. But at that point, do I care? We will see when we cross that bridge.

reMIND is the first book in my career of graphic novels. Maybe by the time I have a second one, the internet will have matured enough to start selling digital comics online somehow like through the iPad. That’s not going to kill the idea of printing books either. It’s just going to be another way to get more fans and potentially another stream of income and more market saturation. Plus, when I have a second book, I still have the following from my first one to build on. It all adds up the longer you do it assuming you have good content.

I think it’s good to shoot for the stars. But I wouldn’t worry as much about what a publisher might want of you when you’re on page 20 of your first graphic novel. I’d just focus on building an audience slowly and keep moving forward on your project. If you have a beautiful completed graphic novel ready to sell a few years from now and a nice following, you are already ahead of the curve.

(I’m sure there are many thoughts on this subject so feel free to chime in.)

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