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Getting a comic book from script to print can be a complicated undertaking, with lots of moving parts to consider. We’ve complied this article to help simplify the process and hopefully explain how the relationships between the illustrator, writer and publisher work in general without going into too much detail, but while still covering all the main talking points. Although this article is written with comic book writers being the primary audience, we do encourage comic book artists and others in the creative field to read it too.
These questions were devised and answered by Jason Piperberg (professional comic book artist), and edited and updated with additional content added by Darren Di Lieto and Jane Di Lieto. Feedback was also given by comic book artists Matt Timson, Brendan Purchase and Christine Larsen.
So, should I hire a comic book artist?
If you are working independently to publish your comic or graphic novel and you want to get your book into the hands of an adoring public, absolutely, yes, you should hire an illustrator – or more specifically a comic book artist. Independent and self-published comics are a vital part of the publishing industry. A lot of new writers and artists make their mark in the independent (indy) market, which can be a natural stepping stone into the mainstream market if that’s what they want. New ideas and creative stories keep the market vitalised and interesting, plus, everyone needs to start somewhere, so stop dithering!
For those who are more inclined to work with a publisher that will hire and handle the illustrator, you may want to submit your script directly to a publishing house for consideration. If a publisher decides your story is right for their brand, it’s very likely that the they will hire the illustrator directly without the author’s input, although some do require an artist to be attached to a book before it’s pitched to them. Either way, you’re only going to know what each publisher’s requirements are by finding and following their submission guidelines, and in most cases these will be available on their websites.
First things first…
It’s important that your script is formatted in a suitable fashion, especially if you decide to go down the independent, self-publishing route and hire a comic book artist to illustrate your story. A screenplay or a novel is great, but leaving it to the artist to adapt it into a comic script can create a lot of extra and sometimes unexpected work, even for an experienced artist. A comic script is structured differently from other forms of writing. For example, comic scripts will have page breakdowns, whereas a screenplay is usually broken down by scene. A comic script page will often contain multiple panels and pages, like the following example.
There are plenty of books and online resources on how to write in a comic script format. Research and attention to detail are essential for a productive and smooth flowing project or commission. If you don’t understand something, look it up and don’t be afraid to ask. In the same way that different publishers have different guidelines, different freelance illustrators manage projects in different ways. Most people learn on the job in this industry, and what is common practice for one person may be alien to another. Communication is key.
How do I find a publisher?
You may have decided that you will be pitching your book to an established publisher, rather than self-publishing or seeking out an alternative partnership. There are some publishers like First Second who will accept a manuscript or a pitch without artwork, and will help find or recommend an artist for your script if they’re interested in working with you. On the flip side, there are other publishers like Image Comics who will (at the time of writing) only accept pitches from a writer with an artist already attached. Having an artist in place before pitching is the most common practice as far as we are aware. Be aware that submission guidelines are always subject to change, so it’s important to check current requirements – including whether or not the publisher actually accepts unsolicited submissions. It is also very important to consider whether your proposal is a good fit for the publisher you are sending it to.
When a publisher requires that you have an artist attached, they won’t usually expect you to pitch a finished or complete comic. They normally only want to see 5 or 6 pages, along with a full story synopsis. Not having to commission an illustrator for the full novel will keep your initial costs down, but do make sure you get a quote for the sample pages and a separate quote to complete the book. Then, if a publisher rejects your comic, having both quotes will give you options, as you may decide to self-publish instead. Not all rejections are based on quality or marketability; most publishers will have a set quota to fulfil, so the timing of your pitch can also be a factor. Again, always check the submission guidelines for each publisher you’re considering, as you’re wasting your time if you don’t follow them. As previously mentioned, the guidelines are normally found on publishers’ websites, so always make sure you go to the original source rather than a blog or forum post, as publishers guidelines can change frequently and you may find you are referring to an outdated version if they are on a third party website.
One thing to note with some publishers is that if you do get picked up, you may end up retaining all of the rights to your work, but the downside with this arrangement is that they tend not to pay a page rate. This means that your earnings will be based on sales minus the flat fee the publisher takes for themselves. In this situation you’ll need to make sure you have funds in reserve to cover your expenses (and those of the artist if you have hired one yourself) until royalties start providing you with an income.
A final point about approaching publishers… unless invited to do so, don’t ambush a publisher or their team with your pitch at any of the various comic conventions or other events that they frequently attend. If they’re doing portfolio reviews, that’s slightly different and if you can strike up a conversation, they may invite you to pitch your comic or graphic novel, especially if it’s a smaller con and not something like San Diego Comic Con. In general though, unsolicited pitches will be over before they’ve started. Publishers have guidelines and procedures for pitches and submissions, and they’re normally at conventions to promote their products, sell merchandise, and recoup their costs, just like everyone else who has a ridiculously priced table at one of these events.
How do I self-publish a comic book or graphic novel?
Self-publishing your story is always a viable option, especially in this day and age of on-demand printing. There are many artists and writer/artist teams, along with traditional authors, who successfully self-publish thanks to having a decent following and reach through social media or a dedicated fan base, and all without the backing of a publisher’s marketing department and resources. With e-comic services and on-demand printing, self-publishers no longer need to produce thousands of copies of their comic or book to get their product out there and turn a profit. That also means that they don’t need to find somewhere to store a few thousand copies of their book, only to have them sitting around for several years because they didn’t anticipate a lack of customer demand when they put in their print order. With e-books and print-on-demand the risk is reduced; you can start small and expand quickly with increasing demand.
Companies like Ka-Blam are great for small, cheap, quality print runs. They also have an online store which you can upload your book to for direct on-demand printing sales for no additional cost. You get to set your prices, keep the profits (less their production costs) and in addition they also handle packing and shipping your comic directly to your customers. It’s a good arrangement if you’re not very good at, or you just don’t want to manage, the production and retail side of self-publishing.
Keep in mind, though, when self-publishing your works (depending on the service you use) that you are responsible for all the financial and marketing aspects of publishing a book: distribution, scheduling, convention appearances, plus everything else required to get your book into the hands of your fans and followers. In addition, you need to consider funding for future books. It can be very rewarding to self-publish a comic book, graphic novel or book, but it’s not an easy task to do well. Some people have tremendous success with their first attempt and publication; others will take years and multiple attempts to get off the ground. But rather than luck, you’ll find that hard work, planning and a good product are the main deciding factors for success.
If the artist’s fee isn’t being organised by a publisher, you will need to budget to pay the artist. This might be in the form of a page rate including a buy-out fee, or an advance with royalties being paid additionally later on. You might be passionate about your creation, but you can’t expect an artist to feel the same way and put in the work for free. Professional comic book illustrators will expect to be paid with more than empty assurances for their craft and contributions. It takes time and a lot of skill to produce the artwork for a comic or graphic novel, and however much they enjoy what they do, comic book artists need to be financially rewarded for their unique creations so they can earn a living and pay the bills. No matter how tempting it might be, asking an illustrator to work on spec is a big no-no! Speculative work, contests and free sample work are the bane of the creative industry, and the comic book sector is no exception.
The same goes for Kickstarter or other crowd-funded projects. If you want an illustrator to bring your ideas to life for your fund-raising campaign, you’ll need to pay them. Just offering them a share of the money that may (or may not) be raised won’t cut it when they could work with someone else who appreciates their expertise and pays upfront and on time. If you’re not confident enough in your own script to put your money where your mouth is, why would the artist you’re pitching to be willing to shoulder the financial risk of low or zero returns themselves? You’ll need to pay a sensible page rate if you want a top-notch comic book artist to bring your comic to life, and give it the edge it needs to break through all the white noise so consumers notice it.
Understandably, not everyone has a big budget to hire an illustrator to produce a comic or graphic novel. A lack of funding shouldn’t necessarily be seen as the end of the road for your script, though. Some comic book artists are willing to let their clients pay by instalments, and this is something to keep in mind if you get the feeling or impression that an artist is out of your immediate price range. Work out the budget you have, act professionally, be polite, and don’t be afraid to ask an artist if they offer an instalment plan. If an illustrator is kind enough to offer you a payment plan, just make sure you pay on time, as late payments can do serious damage to an artist’s business. Unlike other businesses, illustrators tend not to be able to get bridging loans when invoices aren’t paid on time. So, don’t be that client that illustrator’s love working with, but hate chasing to settle an invoice.
How much does it cost to hire a comic book artist?
Simply put, comic pages take a lot of work to create. Some artists are faster or more experienced than others, and there are a wide variety of styles to consider. Therefore, each artist will set his or her own rates and it’s very difficult to make a direct comparison. Most comic book illustrators will have a page rate rather than a flat fee for a project, meaning the fee will vary depending on the number of pages you require. Another factor that will affect the overall costs will be whether you’re putting together a traditional comic book team or not. Traditionally, you’d have the writer (yourself), a penciller, inker, colourist and a letterer all working on the project. A comic book artist can often assume these different roles, but this will increase their individual fee, as there is obviously more work involved. Other things to consider which will affect your costs will be whether the comic is black and white or colour, and the complexity of the artwork in relation to the story. Also, if you’re working with an illustrator and they end up having to edit your script, correct continuity or change other aspects that are factually incorrect, it is only reasonable to expect to pay the artist for the time it takes to do this (and you should probably have hired an editor or researcher before the illustrator if they’ve ended up assuming this role too!). When you work with an artist, it’s a team effort and a competent illustrator will speak up when something isn’t working or right, in order to make the comic the best it can be, so there’s no need to take offence if this happens. Instead, it’s worth appreciating and reaping the benefits of working with someone who has this sort of dedication and experience in the comic field.
OK, so how much will it cost?
Black and white pages will generally cost less than full colour pages, while lettering will add to the costs. Most artists’ rates (per page) will be in the hundreds, especially if they’re not only doing the pencilling, but also taking it to a complete inked, coloured and lettered page. If, for example, your graphic novel has a hundred pages and you have three thousand dollars, that’s not a large enough budget, as it would work out to be only thirty dollars per page. This is not a realistic page rate for a professional comic book artist earning a living from their work. In addition, it doesn’t really make any difference to the price whether an artist works traditionally or digitally as most of the time you won’t be able to see the difference between the two mediums.
Really, how much does it cost?
That all depends on which artist you want to work with and their individual page rates. Generally you’re looking at spending from one to two hundred per page at the lower end of the market, with it going up exponentially from there. Your best course of action is to contact the illustrators you’re interested in working with and ask them what their rates and conditions are. If you can’t afford full colour, black and white might be within your budget, and if offered by the artist, a payment plan could be your way forward.
When an artist is being paid a proper page rate it’s usual for the contract to be a Work-For-Hire (WFH) agreement. This is fairly standard practice when working with an established publisher, with some exceptions such as Image Comics. WFH means that ownership of the copyright for the artwork will belong to the client rather than it being licensed from the artist for production. However, don’t expect an artist to agree to a WFH contract if the pay isn’t reasonable and fair for such a one-sided agreement. With self-publishing, WFH can be less common, although it’s still preferred by many writers. Instead, in order to keep costs down, a licensing agreement can be used. In this case, the artist will retain the rights to the artwork and the client pays for a license to use it for a specific purpose, length of time and/or print run. Other aspects such as distribution, usage for advertising and so on are also taken into account, and an extension or re-licensing at a later date will usually be an option. Basically, WFH contracts are the norm within the comic industry, but expect to pay a premium for the privilege. Original artwork, if not produced digitally, can often be purchased from the artist with a separate agreement and at additional cost. It’s also not unknown for an illustrator to be commissioned for a comic book, but retain the rights to the artwork for other merchandising opportunities such as prints, coasters and t-shirts.
Page rates for mid-range comic book artists (US dollars, 2017/18)…
|Pencils & Inks||$300-400|
|Pencils, Inks & Grey Tones||$350-475|
|Pencils, Inks & Colours||$400-550|
|Pencils, Inks & Letters||$350-450|
|Pencils, Inks, Colours & Letters||$450-600|
How long does it take?
A contract needs to be negotiated and issued by the illustrator, author or publisher. The contract should include payment dates, artwork delivery dates, and copyright restrictions or the licensing agreement for both the author and the illustrator, and on some occasions will also include a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). It will normally take from 3-6 months for an average length comic book to be completed, give or take a month depending on the illustrator, their technique and the number of pages required for the comic or graphic novel. Payments will normally be made at different stages throughout the project as work is completed and approved, as dictated by the contract. There will normally be an upfront payment to make before work commences, which will be a percentage of the full cost. This will ensure that the work is booked into the artist’s schedule and also shows commitment from the client towards the project and artist. In addition, the upfront fee will normally be non-refundable, unless otherwise stated in the contract, and will act as the kill fee in case the client decides to scrap the project or work with an alternative illustrator after work has begun. Projects can fall apart quickly if there isn’t a contract – or if a contract isn’t properly reviewed by one of the participants before signing it. It’s important not to make assumptions about the terms of the contract. Contracts do not need to be complicated or full of unnecessary legalese; lots of people use boilerplate contracts, and if a segment isn’t relevant to the relationship between the service provider and client, don’t be afraid to ask for it to be changed or removed. The negotiation of fees and contracts is a normal occurrence and nothing to worry about.
What about revisions and changes to the artwork?
Most artists will include a set number of revisions as stipulated by the contract as part of the creative process. For example, several revisions might be allowed during the pencilling stage, but then only 2-3 after the pencil artwork is complete. Any artwork that has been finished and approved at any stage by the client will be considered final. However, people do change their minds and mistakes may be made or spotted after-the-fact, and illustrators will normally be willing to make additional revisions at an hourly rate if needed. Do be aware that revisions after approval and completion of the project will be subject to the artist’s availability. It’s also not uncommon to ask an artist to rework a piece several months later or for a re-release of a publication. Most will be happy to oblige and will relish the opportunity to have more time with the artwork and publication.
A few final words…
Just because there’s a lot of work involved in getting your comic or graphic novel to print, there’s no reason not to follow your dream! Take time to carefully plan, budget and do the research to work out whether self-publishing or a traditional publisher is right for you and your script. If you’ll be hiring a comic book artist for your project, think about the style of artwork you’d like before you start to look for someone to work with. When you’ve found an illustrator who you feel is right for your script, get in touch and provide them with as much information as possible about what you’re after: number of pages, colour or black and white, a summary of the story, your budget and whether you’re self-publishing/crowd-funding/pitching to a publisher. It’s also helpful to let the artist know what drew you to their work in the first place. Always remember that communication is important to a successful outcome throughout the creation process; if you’re not sure about something, ask.
1. The Dark Judges by Matt Timson
2. Spider-Man by John Royle with inks by Philip Moy and colours by Rom
3. Hellboy by Jason Piperberg
4. Spread for Image Comics by Brendan Purchase
5. Harley Quinn by John Royle
6. Self Storage #2 Cover by Matt Timson
7. Paybacks’ Miss Adventure for Darkhorse by Brendan Purchase
8. Raising Dion #1 written by Dennis Liu and illustrated by Jason Piperberg
• Comic book artists on Hire an Illustrator
• Image Comics – Submissions
• Ka-Blam Digital Printing
• Editor tells all! Inside the Submissions Process at First Second, Part I
• Inside the Submissions Process at First Second, Part II
• First Second: On Submitting Books to Us at Conventions