What's in a Publisher?

By | Tuesday, August 25, 2020 Leave a Comment
What do you think of when you hear the word "comic publisher"? Odds are that you think of a company like Scholastic or Marvel or any of a number of other companies that put out books that you regularly see in comic shops and book stores. And while they certainly are publishers, they're hardly the only ones. And if you're prompted, you might think to name smaller companies like Oni and Lion Forge. These are also certainly publishers. But do you know who else qualifies as a publisher?


And not just, "Hey, I wrote and self-published a book as some kind of vanity press project" but a genuine, sold-in-bookstores, has-important-names-on-it book. Here's the copyright page of The Lost Work of Will Eisner...
The Lost Work of Will Eisner copyright page
You'll notice that I'm listed as one of the Associate Publishers. You might ask, "How did Sean get to be one of the publishers of this book? What was his role as one of the publishers?"

The answer is simple: I gave them money.

This was a Kickstarter project, and I just backed it at one of the higher levels. High enough that Locust Moon Press -- the people who actually published it -- were willing to put my name among a handful of others creditted as Associate Publishers. That's literally all I did. I gave them money.

And, at their root, that's essentially all publishers are. They're the people who front the cash to have a book published. Now, they can (and often do) do other things like dealing with the printers and distributors, and deal with marketing and all that, but the primary role of a publisher is just to pay for stuff.

As you may recall, a few years back when Kickstarter began gaining attention and popularity, some known publishers tried running Kickstarter projects for their books. I seem to recall there was an Archie project at one point and a number of people (understandably) complained when they saw name publishers running crowd-funding projects. What is the point of a publisher, after all, if they're not the ones fronting the money to begin with? Why not just hire a reasonably compotent college student to monitor and manage your own Kickstarter?

I've heard several stories over the past week or two where creators have run into significant issues with their publishers. Money isn't being paid on time, promised marketing efforts don't materialize, abrupt changes in contracts... And you might think, "Well, yeah, there's always going to be shady people calling themselves a publisher" but I'm talking about companies you've probably heard of. Not ones the size of DC or Dark Horse, but names you probably recognize. I won't name them here because I don't have anything close to full details on any of them, but I've heard enough that I'm looking sideways at them now; and if I knew of someone who was looking at a contract with them, I'd tell them to wait a bit and go talk to some other folks who've dealt with them before.

I don't know that these stories are indicative of all small press publishers, obviously, and I don't know that these folks are doing anything out of malice or greed necessarily, but go back to my earlier thought. Anyone can be a publisher; you just to have to throw money at a book. There's nothing there that says you know the first thing about printing processes or intellectual property contracts or even basic money management, for that matter! All you need is enough cash on hand to give to the printer.

So I'm wondering, if that's the only criteria for becoming a publisher, and crowd-funding options like Kickstater and IndieGoGo have repeatedly proven themselves viable... why are you using them?

I don't mean that to be completely dismissive of all publishers, but if you're looking to take your comic to a publisher, ask yourself what you're going to get out of the deal. What are they providing above and beyond just fronting the money to the printer? That's a judgement call you have to make for yourself, of course, but if they're not doing much more than putting up some cash, you might want to look at other options.
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