How I Self-Published a Graphic Novel (8/10)


This is the eighth in a ten entry series of blog posts about my experiences self-publishing my first graphic novel, Tonoharu: Part One. I’m writing this informal “how-to” guide in the hopes that my limited experience might be of some value to aspiring comic book self-publishers.

This guide is offered with no guarantees. I’ve done my best to provide accurate information, but I assume no responsibility for any negative consequences that result from following my advice. For other important disclaimers, please see the first entry in the series. Links to other installments in the series can be found on the bottom of this entry.

Part Eight: Distribution
If the intended scope of your self-publishing plan is particularly narrow, you could maybe get by without a distributor. You could keep it grassroots, sell your books on consignment at independent booksellers & comic shops in your area, sell them yourself at conventions and through your website, and maybe set up an account with to get a few national/international orders.

But if your distribution plan is a little more ambitious than that, it’s best to work with a distributor. You can still do the grassroots stuff, while relying on your distributor to reach markets you otherwise wouldn’t be able to (like chain bookstores across the country, or whatever). Plus having a national distributor makes you seem more legit, making it easier to get media coverage and the like.

But there’s a big catch-22 for self-publishers looking for distribution. Distributors don’t want to talk to you unless you’re already an established publisher with a track record, and you can’t become established unless you have a distributor.

My solution to this problem was to contact established “alternative” comic publishers and ask them if they’d be willing to serve as sub-distributors for my book. They basically act as middlemen, taking on your book as if it was one of their own, and distributing it through the distribution networks they already have in place.

There’s really only one negative aspect of such an arrangement, but it’s an important one: money. You don’t get something for nothing, so it goes without saying that your sub-distributor will take a cut of every book they sell. By itself, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but your sub-distributor’s cut is on top of the already hefty percentage the distributor takes. When you factor in all the middlemen (the booksellers, the distributor, and the sub-distributor) the majority of the money the consumer pays for your book will go into someone else’s pocket. (Even though you’re the one that created the content and paid to its production costs!)

But hey, that’s the nature of the business. And in my personal experience, the positive aspects of working with an established publisher as a sub-distributor make the arrangement worthwhile.

For one, you’re able to get national distribution when you otherwise probably wouldn’t be able to, which will translate to hundreds (or thousands?) of sales you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. Your sub-distributor will sell your books at conventions that they attend, and perhaps wrap it into some of their own advertising / marketing efforts.

Another advantage is that by working with an established comics publisher, you have access to people who understand the comics industry better than you ever could hope to. The publisher I worked with (Top Shelf Productions) provided me with information regarding who to send review copies, and was happy to field questions I had about the industry.

So all around, I think the sub-distribution arrangement is worth the cut the sub-distributor takes.

Seeking Sub-Distribution 
I contacted three publishers that have previously distributed Xeric Grant books; Fantagraphics Books, Drawn and Quarterly, and Top Shelf Productions. If I were to do it again, I probably would have also contacted Alternative Comics. (Links lead to their respective submissions guidelines page, or the closest thing they have to one).

I sent an inquiry e-mail to each of them, explaining that I had won a Xeric Grant (just to give myself the slightest air or legitimacy), and inquired if they’d consider sub-distributing my book. Drawn and Quarterly and Top Shelf Productions got back to me, saying they’d be willing to a look at it. (Never did hear back from Fantagraphics). I sent the books off to them, and got an “okay” from Top Shelf first.

My experience with Top Shelf has been very positive, so I would recommend them. But I’ve only heard good things about the other publishers as well, so you’d probably be in good shape with any of them.

Once you’ve got distribution squared away, it’s time to start up your marketing efforts in earnest, which will be the subject of next week’s entry.


How I Self-Published a Graphic Novel
1/10 – Introductions / Disclaimers
2/10 – Honing Your Craft / Creating Your Comic
3/10 – Research, Research, Research
4/10 – Savings & Money Management
5/10 – The Xeric Grant
6/10 – Preparing for Press
7/10 – Working with Book Printers
8/10 – Distribution
9/10 – Marketing
10/10 – The Long Haul / Conclusion

Complete List of Recommended Self-Publishing Books / Resources

  • Hi Lars! I got a Xeric grant this year, and I’ve been slogging through the printing process. While trying to figure out the whole distribution nightmare I came across your website, and I just wanted to thank you for all the info. I’m actually from Marietta, GA (where Top Shelf is based), so I’m going to try to meet up with Chris to discuss sub distribution when I visit my folks in a couple of weeks. How has that worked out for you (I’m assuming well since I see your book all over the place!)?

  • Lars Martinson

    Congrats on getting a Xeric Grant!

    Yeah, I’ve been very happy with Top Shelf; no real complaints, really. Chris, Brett and Leigh are all really great guys.

    One thing I should mention, though, is you should take marketing your book very seriously; if Top Shelf agrees to sub-distribute you they’ll probably do a little bit for you, but you should almost pretend that you’re the only one doing marketing for your book. So send out a bunch of review copies, contact reporters, etc., etc… I wrote a little more about all that here:

    Good luck to you!