Marvel and DC Comics owned 69 percent of the U.S. retail market share in comics for September 2014, according to Diamond Comic Distributors, but the remaining 31 percent was mostly fragmented, with many publishers owning a few percentage points or less. David Clarke, co-founder of Off Shoot Comics, is among those small publishers. In a recent interview, we asked Clarke about how to break into the industry.
eHow: What training and education are necessary to be a comic book publisher?
Clarke: I'd recommend getting a degree in English or any degree that focuses on storytelling. A college degree isn't important by itself. It’s more about who you meet and learning the work ethic that comes with the degree. Try and get an internship in the comics industry doing literally whatever you can. Just being in the room with professionals will allow you to gain experience and knowledge. The comics industry is about who you know more than what you can do or know.
eHow: How did you recruit your staff? Are there any secrets to finding the right group?
Clarke: Off Shoot is staffed by seven people. The college experience was crucial to our formation. I met my artist through an editor/filmmaker I met in school (at California State University-Northridge). He introduced us to another artist and all the other artists came through that person. I wish meeting people was as easy as meeting at a comics club but, no, all our artists and writers except one have come through personal referral. The exception was a writer who submitted to us via email.
eHow: What big mistake did you make and how could you have avoided it?
Clarke: We had a company want to get the rights to sell our title "Heroes R Us" and get it into theme parks and movies. We were introduced to this company through a lawyer we met through our agent. They wanted us to sign a contract with them getting rights to "Heroes R Us" and everything else we did for life. When we questioned it, the next morning they dropped us. In the letter we received confirming our separation (we had to bug them to get it) we found at the bottom that our lawyer was their vice president of business affairs. They had dropped us to prevent us from suing.
eHow: What business tips are essential for comic book publishers just starting out?
Clarke: Always ask questions. If the people you’re doing business with are honest, they will have no problem answering you. If they ignore you and try and move past the question, something is wrong. Trademark your name and get the URL for it ASAP. Someone tried to take our name from us back when we first started. Copyright your books before anyone hears of them. You don't want people stealing your ideas. Make sure to knock the stars out of your eyes when dealing with other entertainment companies who want to publish your work. Take it slow, think and do not try to grow too quickly.
eHow: What risks did you take to start your business?
Clarke: I started putting all my free money into the company to get it off the ground and to get recording equipment to start doing videos to promote ourselves. My company co-founder is a father of three, but he put all his spare money in as well. Our biggest sacrifice was time. We met every week for hours for four straight years. Finding your limitations is very important. You need to be willing to put everything in the business, to forgo family time and money to make it happen. I can’t recommend it for everyone, but if it’s your dream you gotta chase it.
eHow: How do you balance artistic integrity with sound business decisions?
Clarke: Start out knowing you need to make a book that makes money before drawing the art. Don't draw the book and then try and fit in ways to make money. If your story has a bunch of cute living stuffed animals or creatures, you have something you can put on shirts and cups and toys. You can have a great, meaningful story if you have enough flashy, shiny things to distract the executives who want to finance your work. Some executives will want to start changing things so they feel they left their mark on your work. We had an executive ask us to make a couple of characters look like his kids to “increase our chances of viability.”
eHow: How do you balance your commitment to your business with your personal life?
Clarke: Owning a comic company is a daily sacrifice. There are times where you have to go without things to pay for the comics. My partner, Walter Bryant, and I have missed birthdays of sons, daughters, nieces and nephews and other family and church events. With both Walter’s and my father being pastors, missing church events is a big issue. A few weeks ago Walter worked a graveyard shift at the hospital and did a convention event for three days on just an hour’s worth a sleep. But it pays off when a fan at a con asks us to sign a book, or a family comes up talking about how they love "Heroes R Us."
eHow: How important are marketing and promotion, particularly on social media?
Clarke: Marketing and promotion is everything for a start-up company. You go to events and conventions, hand out flyers, go to comics stores and maintain a Web presence. We post videos on YouTube because that can net you money from the YouTube partner system. You also need to be on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. These places are free and reach millions of people in seconds. Different strategies work for different kinds of books. For our kids’ book "Heroes R Us," we set up kids events at conventions and libraries and that gets us play in newspapers and on the Internet.
About David Clarke
David Clarke and Walter Bryant launched Off Shoot Comics in 2011 in Pacoima, California, with the goal of creating the sorts of heroes you won’t find in the pages of DC or Marvel comics. Clarke has written most of the titles, including "Heroes R Us," "Heretic," "Soul Family," "The Project" and "Rage of Gressevia." He graduated from California State University-Northridge in 2012. His company sold all 200 issues it printed in 2013 with requests for more on back order.