Monday, December 13, 2010

On Self-Publishing: Carlo Jose San Juan

The following is the seventh in a series of email interviews with some recently acquired contacts in the komiks community. If you'd like to share your own story, or just be a contact, please email me at

Today's article comes from Carlo Jose San Juan, who shares his experiences on self-publishing online as well as in print.

Carlo Jose San Juan, MD is a licensed physician and writes and illustrates the Callous comic strip series which has been running since 1996.  He has been producing comics in print and online since 1993.  

My First Year as a Webcomic

There I was, slumped on my desk with a pile of rejected pages.  My inkjet printer, exhausted from printing out page after page of errors, stood silently but beckoned me to call it quits.  So, I did what any other online-junkie in my position would do to vent my frustration.  I took a picture of my pile of faulty pages and posted it on Facebook.  One reply I got from a fellow webcomic artist was, “That’s self-publishing!”

Go back to just over a year prior I was tooling around with the online sitebuilder of a service that provided free website hosting with the intention of transferring my scattered archive of scanned comic strips published in various student newspapers to it.  Since the site was remarkably easy to update, I decided to try doing a daily online comic strip... just to see how long I could do it. 

I set it all up through Yola which was very helpful in helping you register your new site on places like Yahoo!, Google, and Bing and gave basic tips on search engine optimization (SEO).  I then Googled for advice on free website promotion and free online comic promotion and was pleasantly surprised with the wealth of detailed guides which would help you start off your “webcomic” (a new term for me at the time) and bring it to readers around the world.

My comic had been on hiatus for a little more than four years at the time and during my absence from that world other artists had slaved through various processes of establishing themselves as pioneer webcomic artists and figured out feasible business models.  It’s easy to think that had I stayed on I probably would have been one of those pioneers but I’d rather think like that’s one piece of hard work done for me and I now benefit from the trail they blazed.  So just think, it’s all out there.  All the guides, advice, and techniques are online, as varying as they are numerous.  It’s all a matter of figuring out which path suits you best.

What about skills?  You may have noticed I’ve hardly talked about actually drawing the comic.  There’s a good reason but more on that later.  Anyways, here are the minimal artistic skill requirements you need to produce a comic:

1) You need to know how to write in a manner that would reflect on a narrative sequential illustration medium and you need to know how to illustrate that writing in a manner that the message comes across to someone looking at it.  Some people are good at one or the other while some are good at both.  

2) Furthermore, you don’t need to be Leonardo da Vinci to be a comic artist (though I’m sure it helps) but it’s more important that you are able to convey what’s going on in the writing.  I also think of comics as a form of public speaking and one rule in both forms of expression is that you have to cater your work for your target audience and they must understand everything you’re saying.    In the end, it’s all about communication.

Now it is crucial to master your own craft in making the comic itself.  It is, after all, the heart and soul of all this.  But as many artists will tell you, drawing the comic is easy.  If you’ve read this far it’s quite likely that you’re already skilled at it.  It’s marketing and distributing your work that will take up most of your time.  And for webcomics, learning the byzantine language of HTML and CSS code is an additional burden.

The popular software of choice in the webcomic world is the wordpress plugin, ComicPress (and in the near future, Comic Easel).  It requires at least basic knowledge of HTML and CSS.  With it you can design beautiful sites and expand your creativity beyond the comic and it has a great comic management system.  I, however, had no time to learn all that code.  So I went with hosts like Yola and Square Space which have online sitebuilders where you simply drag-and-drop site components (I personally use Yola’s blog interface... and try to make it look like a Comicpress-scripted site).

As for marketing, yes it takes up a lot of time but it’s really not that hard.  I go through various channels to market my comic but the main ones are Twitter and Facebook.  Yup, Web 2.0 is the way to go, at least for me, and being “social” has benefitted me in more ways than just gaining more readers.  I’ve found that readers like to connect with the creators of the comics they read and nowadays it’s easier than ever!  It’s great to communicate with readers and fellow artists and the community is, mostly, a friendly one.  Most give constructive advice as well and you in turn can help other struggling artists out.  But be prepared.  The internet can be a vicious place as well with a myriad of trolls just waiting to pounce on a weak spirit.

Once you have your home on the web set up, it’s time to publish your comic.  The best marketing strategy you can have is to regularly update your site.  Give people reason to keep coming back.  Obviously, for a newspaper-style comic strip series like mine, daily updates are the absolute best thing to do.  However, it’s not unheard of to find similarly-styled comics that update two to five times a week and still be just as successful as long as they maintain their publishing schedule.  Comic book-styled comics can even update once a week or even less often than that and still get good readership.  So, figure out the most frequent update schedule you can realistically accomplish then make sure you stick to it.

After producing around a year’s worth of online daily comic strips and gaining a decent readership, I decided it was time to bring my efforts to print to introduce my work to the non-webcomic reading public (which was, admittedly, a vast majority of the Philippine comic-reading populace).  I had landed a table at an upcoming comic con and began looking around for printing services that would cater to my publishing needs.  After all, I only needed around a hundred comic books for the event, how much could it possibly cost?

WHAT?! P200 – P300 a copy?!  The best prices I got weren’t much better.

Why did it cost so much?  The main reason is that my comic is now primarily in color.  Simply shifting it to grayscale didn’t agree with my eye’s palate.  You might think I’m overreacting but hey, it’s my comic.

After much frustration looking for a printing service I was left with only one feasible option: to print the darn thing myself as an ashcan compilation comic.

I used Paper One’s A4 Presentation paper because it guarantees being able to take back-to-back color printing without having the ink bleed though the pages.  For the cover I used CD-R King’s A4 Photo Paper.  I saddle-stitched each copy myself with a long stapler.

For the layout I used Microsoft Word to arrange my pages in booklet format.  The upside is it makes figuring out the page arrangement for printing quite easy!  The downside is it comes out lousy.  My print turned out pretty small due to one factor or another creating a white border around each page, shrinking it.  I advise using MS Word only to figure out your layout in booklet format then reflecting these arranged pages as images, printing them out as separate photos.

The greatest monetary investment will come in the form of printer ink.  I resorted to using the cheap ink refills you see around which cut costs dramatically.

So I found myself in a comic con selling my comics and reaching a whole new audience.  As nice as it is to see your comic online, there’s still something about seeing it in print that is particularly thrilling!

But I’ve found, after keeping my series in relative obscurity for so long, that it is incredibly rewarding to have someone actually read your hard work and hearing them say they loved it.

P.S. – The above methods were figured out all on my own with little to no help from anyone else, shaped to fit the circumstances of my life.  It may or may not fit yours but I hope it helps you find your own direction. J

You can read Callous here.  

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