The Middle Ground #131 | The numbers game
For some reason, I keep reading and re-reading Jim Zubkavich’s breakdown of indie comic economics, as if at some point it’s actually going to make sense to me. It’s not that I don’t understand the math as he presents it, but more than my brain refuses to comprehend the scale of the unfairness of distribution of wealth when it comes to comic books.
In case you haven’t seen it, Zub’s breakdown for a $2.99 comic goes like this:
• $1.00: Approximately 1/3 of that cover price goes to Diamond, the distributor who solicits orders and ships comics to retailers. This varies based on shipping, gas prices, amount ordered and who the publisher is but it’s a good approximation. Diamond deserves their share for soliciting, storing and shipping comics to retail outlets.
• $1.00: Approximately 1/3 of that cover price goes to retailers, the people selling the comics to customers. This varies based on the publisher and amount ordered, but is a good approximation. Retailers deserve their share for selling comics to their local customer base.
• $0.50 to $0.75: printing (which varies wildly based on the amount printed, paper availability, and press availability) 50 to 75 cents is a pretty good benchmark for small print runs, which means 1/2 to 3/4 of the remaining money is now gone.
The remaining money — 25 to 50 cents or so — has to be split between promotional costs, publisher costs and the creative team. Which is to say, the people actually responsible for making the comic manage to make almost nothing for their work. This isn’t exactly news; Kieron Gillen’s 2010 interview on the then-end of Phonogram, in which he famously said “There’s a difference between making only a little money and starving. We’re very much in the latter [category],” remains one of those things that breaks my heart and makes me angry every single time I read it, after all, and it’s not as if there’s been any massive shift in the direct market in the two years since that would change things in any meaningful way.
One of the worst parts of reading Zub’s post is the realization that, well, there’s no immediate fix to this situation. It’s all well and good to declare “Diamond should take less money!” or “Retailers should take less of a cut!” or “Digital comics will change everything!” — and I’m not arguing for a second that any of these things are bad ideas or untrue — but sloganeering and righteous indignation don’t actually change anything; if you’re wanting to make print comics to sell in the direct market as it stands, you’d better be doing it out of love, and not as some kind of get rich quick scheme.
(Actually, that’s the one silver lining part of this thing, in a perverse way: The realization that those who do do this kind of thing longterm? They really are doing it out of love, because that’s the only explanation that makes sense other than masochism.)
Of course, just because there’s no immediate fix doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be looking for/working towards a long-term solution that is more than “Digital comics, right everyone? Right?” It’s obscene that the American comic industry is so resistant to supporting new ideas, new creations and especially creators throughout the entire thing. Maybe the thing we should be doing now as individuals is that “voting with our dollars” thing that everyone always talks about, and demonstrating to publishers and retailers alike that there’s value in their investing in creator-owned work. Higher demand means higher orders means higher chance of higher sales, after all, and that’s the fastest way to ensure that the people responsible for the work see more reward for everything that they’ve put in.