Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Self-Publishing, with Extras

Scott Morse, the cartoonist behind the splendid Soulwind and the sublime Magic Pickle, is making the leap to self publishing. With an interesting caveat. From the press release: "Helping Morse realize these projects to their full potential is award-winning designer and publisher Chris Pitzer, of AdHOUSE BOOKS, who will not only serve as designer and consultant, but as distributor of RED WINDOW's catalogue of products."

This is interesting, and reminiscent of the relationship between Chris Ware and Fantagraphics for Ware's announced self-publishing efforts (though Ware, of course, will be handling his own design work). In both instances, established comics creators are initiating self publishing projects, with their previous publishers handling all distribution (and, one assumes, order fulfillment, accounts receivable, and the like, at least from retail). From the perspective of the retailer, then, and the end consumer for that matter, the transition will be an invisible one. Presumably Morse's self-published efforts will be listed with all of AdHouses's other offerings in their catalogs and such, just as Ware's will be with Fantagraphics. But editorial control and, evidentially, the financial risk is entirely the creator's.

This is an interesting model. In the broad strokes, its somewhat similar to creator-financed outfits such as Digital Webbing and the like, except that with the extant examples the financial risk is largely (or wholly) the creator's, while the "publisher" still exerts some level of editorial control. It's hard to think of any similar construction in prose publishing, barring subsidy publishers, more commonly known as "vanity" presses.

I suppose that this is similar, too, to some aspects of independent film. The festival circuits are crowded every year by film-makers and their self-financed films, looking for someone to pick up the distribution rights. Even George Lucas, an "independent film-maker" any way you slice it, uses just this sort of model in his relationship with 20th Century Fox--he pays for all of the production costs, has complete editorial control, and Fox handles distribution, in exchange for a cut of the profits, naturally.

In prose, at least, this kind of structure would only work with really well established writers (and, arguably, the same is true in comics, as well). I can't imagine retailers or readers troubling themselves to pick up books from untried authors, by and large, unless the publisher logo on the spine is a familiar one. If the publisher and the author is unfamiliar, the book is likely to remain on the shelf, if in fact it was ever ordered by the store in the first place. (This was, largely, the lesson of Clockwork Storybook.)

On the other hand, if someone were to set up a structure whereby established prose writers could publish anything they liked, assuming all of the production costs themselves, with someone else in the chain to handle all of the printing, distribution, and accounting on the back end, could that work? Possibly. But I think that the old adage, "Money always flows to the author," is so deeply ingrained in prose publishing (albeit for good reason, in the vast majority of cases) that I doubt that many writers would seriously entertain the notion.

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