So How Much Does It Take To Publish A Comic?

Coming across my Facebook Feed twice in the past few days has been a link to a great post by Brian Churilla, artist for The Secret History of DB Cooper, where he details his income working in comics and cautions against anyone thinking that they can make a living at it. Recently, it was paired with an article at Bleeding Cool which featured average page rates across the industry. Seeing what creators get paid made me wonder what  it actually takes to successfully publish a comic profitably.

G.I. JOE A REAL AMERICAN HERO (1)Keep in mind that I’m talking about work for hire comics, so deals by publishers for creator-owned comics are not to be considered in this analysis. This is strictly work-for-hire, where the creators have no direct stake in the success of a book. A company may have a profit-sharing agreement with some creators, but this is strictly what it costs. I’m also not addressing how immensely unfair this is to creators who have to try to use these rates to earn a living, and balance their actual production time so that the time they take to complete a page doesn’t translate their page rate into sub-minimum wage pay.

First, we are going to look at the low end numbers for Independent publishers like Zenescope, BOOM!, Dynamite, Dark Horse, Archie and IDW, although the page rates may vary based on the title, the popularity of the creator or on the success of the publisher.

The writer makes $25 a page, then his/her pay for a twenty page story is $500. The artist get $100 a page, so his/her pay is quadrupled, or $2000. We are assuming that one artist does pencils and inks, but given that I’m assuming a bare minimum of expenses here, so I’m considering the penciller/inker to be the same person. The colorist makes a minimum of $35 a page, so $700 is his/her pay for the issue. Then we have the letterer, who is the lowest paid member of the creative team, and $10 a page, earns just $200 for the issue. The cover art costs the publisher $200, meaning for a twenty page story, the publisher pays the actual creators of the book a total of $2700.

As an aside, if we use the high end of the mainstream rates shown in the Bleeding Cool article, then writers go to $100 a page, artists go to $300 a page, colorists go to $150 a page, letterers go to $25 a page, and cover art costs $700. making for a total payout to creators of $12200, so to hypothetically pay artists a fairer rate so that they can make a living doing what they love, subtract another $9500 from any math that we do.

Now comes printing, and with the Diamond ordering system, printing can be done almost to order, although most of the time, a publisher will overprint a little for selling at conventions, comps to creators or copies to give away to various professionals in the industry. The trend on comps and review copies has moved towards digital copies, so these additional numbers tend to be lower than they would have been in the past. The last time I checked Diamond Distributors, essentially the only game in town to nationally distribute your comics, paid 40% of cover price for most of their books. For a publisher to start to make any money, their printing costs (per issue) cannot be more than this margin, and to cover the actual cost of producing the book, it must be lower. For most offset printers, this means a print run of at least 2500 copies to make the per-issue cost manageable. Fortunately, most comics published today meet that threshold. In May, only 2 failed to reach that.

The best selling comic for May that was not published by Marvel or DC

The best selling comic for May, 2015 that was not published by Marvel or DC (NOTE: It was ordered by Lootcrate boosting its sales over 500,000)

At a cover price of $3.99, Diamond pays roughly $1.50 a copy. Printing costs are going to be determined by your printer, which if the print run is higher, will be cheaper per copy. In a 2012 blog post, Mark Waid used $1.00 as an average cost per issue, but in my research, it was around 2500 copies was where this threshold was met. Therefore, your orders from Diamond need to meet 2500 copies. However, if only 2500 copies costs you $2500, then you are only making a profit from Diamond of $.50 a book, or a total of $1250. It cost $2700 to pay all of the creators involved in the publishing, putting the publisher at a loss.

Let’s say the Diamond orders are around 3,000 copies. Most comics can do this. In May, only 7 failed to meet that threshold. Printing costs will most likely stay the same, depending on the printer that is used. Profits after paying for printing are $1500, which still puts the publisher at a $1200 loss.

So we bump the Diamond orders up to 3,500 copies, and we see that in May, at least a dozen comics failed to meet that level, which makes it still an achievable goal. At this level, the publisher is left with $1750 after paying the printer, which means that after paying the creators, the publisher still takes a loss $950.

Rather than type out all of the various math I did, here’s a table. I reduced printing cost per issue at 4000, 5000 and 7500 copies, since at higher print runs, most printers will cut a break in the cost per issue, but each printer will vary where that is. That advantage can mean the difference in a publisher going into the black on a comic book. However in business, if you are making a product, you want your profit to not just cover production but advertising, business expenses and salaries for non-creative people in the company. So using these same costs, let’s look at a table of what print runs make a publisher and how many comics in May did not meet those levels, keeping in mind that in May, out of the top 200 comics, only 35 were not by Marvel, DC, or Image and the 200th comic sold just over 8,400 copies, making that my cutoff for this table. Also keep in mind that of those 35, some are creator-owned books.

Copies Print Cost Profit/Loss #comics failed
 3500  $3500 -$950  13
 4000  $3000 $300 16
 4500  $3375 $675 23
 5000  $3250 $1550 43
 5500  $3575 $1975 56
 6000  $3900 $2400 66
 6500  $4225 $2825 83
 7000  $4550 $3250 93
 7500  $3750 $4800 105
 8000  $4000 $5300 110
 8400  $4200 $5700 121

One of the lowest selling titles in May, 2015

I want to emphasize that most of the figures here are estimates. Printing costs will vary based on what printer is used and what prices are given to particular publisher. Add the costs of a variant cover which means at least doubling the cost for cover art, and most likely increasing printing costs. Profits from a title may be used to offset losses from another that the publisher produces. Revenue may be reduce if a publisher wants to offer a title at $2.99, which on the surface, shows a trust in the title to consistently sell in higher numbers.

Should artists get paid more if their book is placing in the top 200? Yes, but chances are more likely that it is not. However, Marvel and DC should, and most likely are paying more to creators, but remember at the top of the scale, a single issue can cost over $12,000 to publish. at a $3.99 price point, just to pay the creators, a comic easily needs to sell over 12,000 copies just to break even, and a business that just strives to break even doesn’t stay in business very long. It seems that the old saying is still in effect.

How do you make a small fortune in comics? Start off with a big one.