Why Self-Publish?

October 31st, 2011 | Posted in General

I thought about making this a Sunday Mailbag question, but thought it deserved it’s own post since it deals with some pertinent issues on the changing dynamics of today’s publishing world. I have received not a few queries from readers of The MAD Blog, friends and colleagues asking me why I went the self-publishing route instead of shopping the book about to established publishers. A few went so far as to hint I was being hypocritical insofar as they say I have showed some level of disdain for self-publishing in the past.

Let me address that last point first. I am not sure where I gave the impression I think all self-publishing is nonsense. That is quite inaccurate. In fact, as few years ago I wrote this blog post about the new face of independent publishing, and how self-publishers are rising from the image of narcissistic self-servers and producing high-quality and very worthwhile content while cutting out the traditional publisher/middleman. It’s true that this was not always the case, and that 10-15 years ago “self-published” probably meant not good/sellable enough to interest a publisher. That is simply no longer the case. Several good pals of mine have self-published some great books that are very worth having and can be compared to the best of the fare published by the big publication houses. In certain conditions it makes more sense to self-publish than it does to take a book to a traditional publisher, even though it is likely one would be happy to publish the tome… I’ll get to those conditions in a minute.

I think where those making those allegations about my perceived self-publishing bias are confusing general contempt for my dislike of a certain type of self-published work… the “Hey, Look at Me!” book. This is the type of book that serves no purpose other than to collect and reproduce the work of an artist. In my view, those types of books are only appropriate for an artist with a significant and influential body of work. Too many of these books are done by artists who, while their work might be really good, have done nothing to justify publishing a collection of it. Having been an illustrator for a few years, doing a few dozen jobs and having a blog where 50 of the same people post “awesome!” in the comments after the artist posts their latest cocktail-napkin sketch does not give one the “art cred” to collect their work in a book. That’s just my opinion, of course… call me old-fashioned. Not all are like this. There are many self-published books of this type where the artists behind them do merit such treatment, and have the “art cred” to back it up. My pal Steve Silver has several collections of his work self-published, and with his considerable credits in the world of animation he has a name and career worthy of interest.

So why did I self-publish if I hold such “Hey, Look at Me!” books in contempt? Simply because The Mad Art of Caricature! is NOT a “Hey, Look at Me!” book. It has a much different purpose and content, and that is the difference. I know a number of other artists who have published books that have a point outside the simple publication of their art, and that added dimension is what elevates self-publishing from narcissism to something that has greater appeal. Joe Bluhm‘s book Rejects, for example, is not just a book full of his terrific art, but a collection of live caricatures that were rejected by the customer complete with the story behind each AND an examination of the live caricaturist’s eternal dilemma between producing art and producing a product. That is fascinating and a great premise for a book. The Mad Art of Caricature! is a how-to-draw book that examines the art of caricature in a comprehensive and (hopefully) easy to understand way, and is only self-serving in the fact that my name is on the cover and my art is illustrating it. I do reference some of my own experiences in the book, but only in a way that illustrates or reinforces some point or lesson on caricature I am trying to communicate. It is about as far from a “Hey, Look at Me!” book as possible. For the record, in my opinion I have not had the kind of career worthy of a “The Art of…” type book…and would never presume to publish such a thing… maybe after another 20 years of professional work, but not now.

The other reason I self-published?


I mentioned earlier that “in certain conditions it makes more sense to self-publish than it does to take a book to a traditional publisher”, and those conditions seemed to be in play with The Mad Art of Caricature! It really all comes down to doing the math.

In all modesty I am pretty sure I could have found a traditional publisher to publish my book. A how-to art book, even one so narrowly targeted a one on drawing caricatures, has a fairly strong potential market and coupled with my credentials with MAD and elsewhere as the author, getting a publisher to pick it up probably would have been pretty likely. However looking at the numbers I would probably come out ahead financially by self-publishing for the following reasons:

  1. A core audience to market to– I’ve been branding The MAD Blog for over five years now, and while it would hardly compare to some of the real heavyweights in comics-related sites I do get about 3500 page views a day here. That translates into a fair number of people who would probably buy a book like The Mad Art of Caricature! This is a principal part of how self-publishing works these days… cultivating an audience online and then producing a product for that audience that they would purchase.
  2. Willingness to store and ship the books myself- this is a lot of organization and work, but by doing it we cut out another middleman: the distributor… at least for direct sales. That means more of the cover price ends up as profit. There are several “fulfillment” companies cropping up that service self-publishers willing to let them to this work for a percentage of the sale price, but I decided to go it on my own.
  3. Amazon and other on-line retailers- One drawback to self-publishing is that your ability to market the book is limited to direct marketing to specifically targeted audiences (via forums, etc) and that takes a lot of time and work. Through retailers like Amazon you can open up your publication to the entire world, and it is only an Amazon search for “how to draw caricatures” away from a potential sale. The bad part is that Amazon buys the book from the self-publisher for 40% of cover price and I have to pay to bulk-ship to Amazon for distribution, but what’s left over is still higher than the royalties you can expect from a publisher. BTW I have not yet listed The Mad Art of Caricature! on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, but will eventually do so when direct sales have dried up.
  4. Secondary/reprint publishing rights- Many publishers are recognizing that some self-published books, which generally have a very low number of copies in their initial print runs, have a value with respect to a second printing. One of the big drawbacks of self-publishing is that it is next-to-impossible to market your book to libraries, schools or brick-and-mortar stores. Publishers have been known to buy the reprint publishing rights to a self-published book to take the book into that market, which has great potential. Often the advance for reprint rights is as high or higher than the initial advance would have been, as the self-publisher is delivering a complete book with all design and production done.

When I compared how much I could reasonably expect to get as an advance from a publisher to how many self-published copies I would need to sell to equal that same figure, it seemed likely I would stand to do better financially by self-publishing. Was I right? Time will tell. I have easily paid off the entire print run and am in the black on the book (THANKS to all who have bought a copy!), but I will need to sell a few hundred more copies before I pass the “probable advance” figure. If I sell the entire print run, I will certainly earn several times what I would have earned with a traditional publisher, even if they had sold 5 times that number of copies, due to the low royalty percentage I’d have gotten past the advance.

It’s an interesting business, of which you now know a lot more that you probably cared to. Publishers still have the ability to tap markets that self-publishers simply cannot access, but unless your book is going to sell tens of thousands of extra copies that way, self-publishing it increasingly becoming an option that makes financial sense in the right circumstances. Publishers also basically leave the promotion of the book to the author, which adds to the attractiveness of self-publishing.


  1. Neil Davies says:

    I just got my copy in the mail this morning Tom and it looks amazing, congratulations!

  2. George Cook says:

    Thank you for this info, Tom! I have, at times, wondered about self-publishing, but that is an idea for another time, as my stuff is no where near a point where any kind of book could come out of it. I have no interest in doing a “hey, look at me” book. The look of my art changes all the time and i have yet to pick one look that screams at me to stay with it. I have stated before that I plan to get a copy of your book, when I have the funds, and that is true, as I know it will be filled with information that could help me with my drawing and inspire me to practice more often than I do now.

  3. Bill says:

    Tom, I was just getting ready to ask you this question for your “Sunday Mailbag”. Your answers were pretty much what I expected them to be, but it’s still nice to read your specifics. Your “core audience” comments were enlightening to me.

    Very glad to hear the book is doing well for you. I am still waiting for my copy. It supposedly shipped last Monday, but still hasn’t arrived. I shouldn’t have opted for the “Pony Express” shipping rate, I guess.

    I’m sure it will be worth the wait.

  4. Bearman says:

    I disagree with there not being a market for the “Hey Look at Me” type collections. There are plenty of people doing quit well at cons etc selling their collections.

    HOWEVER, I agree not everyone should be putting them out. As many comments as I get on a post and given where I am in hits per day, I don’t feel I have an audience (and more importantly an audience that are also buyers) to justify the expense.

    At some point I may do a limited run but that would be just for me and some Christmas presents.

    • Tom says:

      I didn’t say there was no market for these, I just said they are narcissistic and in my opinion have little to offer past some pretty pictures. Many people do sell these despite not having much in the way of a real body of work behind them, but much of these sales are incestuous in the way that artist A buys artist B’s book and artist B is then obligated to buy artist A’s book when it comes out. Those aren’t really sales, those are swaps.

      I am also not talking about self-promotion sketchbook collections that an artist prints up in an ashcan format and sells for $5-$10 at conventions. Those are marketing tools. I am talking about a hardcover book with nothing in it but a person’s art. At least add in some technique instruction or some type of narrative that gives it more interest.

      Anyway, if somebody wants to print a “The Art Of ME!” book in hardcover with their name in 5 inch letters on the cover and fill it with a bunch of unpublished work and sell it for $40, then more power to them. I prefer to fill my shelves with books that teach me something.

  5. […] could have found a print publisher, but Tom opted to explore and publish through self-publishing. He posted his reasons why this morning. When I compared how much I could reasonably expect to get as an advance from a publisher to how […]

  6. Brian Ridgway says:

    Mr. Tom-
    THANK YOU for sharing your informative comments and sound reasoning on this subject. I’ve worked on some cartoon and ongoing strip ideas for quite some time, and now that I’ve been able to get some sound submission packages out to publishers, I find that this is probably the WORST time in the past 20 years to try to syndicate material. Information like yours…offered in a clean, concise style…provides invaluable resources and direction for someone like myself in my ongoing efforts. Trust that I will stop back on your site and find the funds to support your efforts in the weeks ahead.

    Thank you and Best Regards from Michigan!

  7. […] he puts his new venture in these terms: Why Self-Publish? 1. A core audience to market to- I‚Äö√Ñ√¥ve been branding The MAD Blog for over five years now, and […]

  8. Brian Benson says:

    Honestly, i’m shocked at how affordable your book is. I really really like it. It clears up so much about caricatures, in regards to how to evaluate a face. Like a sort of magic formula. Your ability to explain is a testiment to your writing ability. Of course it still takes alot of practice and hard work. I bought Harley Browns book for $79.00 so i’m grateful THe MAd Art of caricature was self published. I’d buy a DVD too it you take a notion, or better yet an online paid membership, i’d pay for that too. Thanks again!!!

  9. This was a great read. I’ve heard a lot about self-publishing, but I didn’t know publishers were interested in and might even pay a greater advance for self-published books’ second prints. Thanks a lot, that’s good knowledge.

    (P.S., I was brought here by cartoonist Dave Kellet’s Twitter.)

    • Tom says:

      Thanks, Zack- It is only speculation that a publisher might pay more for reprint rights than an initial advance. The reasoning behind this is that the market for the book will already be tested and that the design and production of the book is already done, making it very cheap for the publisher to produce.

  10. A.M.Burns says:

    Tom, Thanks for the great post. I love reading what folks are thinking about the new wave of self publishing. One of the big thing I keep seeing is that it is a monetary thing, folks are tired of so much of their cash going to the big publishers. Hope you do well out here in the indie world.

  11. Alex Hallatt says:

    Great post and I’m glad your book is doing well. I’ve had a lot of conversations with cartoonists who have a good fan base, but can’t sell their collections through traditional channels (Andrews McMeel) anymore. Self-publishing gives them the opportunity to give the fans what they want (The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee is a good example).

    For other cartoonists, print-on-demand services like lulu.com mean they don’t have to handle a lot of stock, though it means less profit (though a higher margin than traditional publishing).

    Although I’ve had requests from fans for a book, Arctic Circle doesn’t have the readership to justify one in print. I’m experimenting with ideas for putting it out as an ebook as a low cost ($ and environmental!) alternative.

  12. Stevie Jensen says:

    Great article, will definately be ordering a copy!

  13. V??ctor Albornoz says:

    Hola… Existe el Libro en Espa?¬±ol? Yo vivo en M?¬©xico. Me gustar??a saber porque realmente me interesa tu libro. Saludos

  14. Hi Tom!
    MY BOOK JUST ARRIVED (in Sao Paulo, Brazil) and I’m really AMAZED with it!!!
    Just can’t stop reading your fabulous advices and techniques to improve our understanding about caricature. It’s funny but it looks that I’m reviewing everything that I used to learn and practice. Thanks for the examples and the variety of forms that you give us the information. The funny comments also helps when you have a page full of texts. (as a drawer you know how we prefer to learn with images – that are also GREAT!) 🙂

    Now talking a little bit about your decision to produce it by yoursel, I would say that it really called my attention, specially for two reasons:
    1- This guy is really “MAD” to assume the total responsability and RISK to have a huge part of his all career work delivered to a far print company outside of his country

  15. …and also his money invested on it;

    2- Your courage to face all this challenges and doubts just pursuing your dream to make it just like your way to do it. This is something that I really admires in people. Their capability to believe in their dreams, and better than that: accomplish them, even when the critics come with it. CONGRATULATIONS TOM. You made my admiration for you even higher! It was fun to see you dealing with the boxes in your garage, you hard working to sign all of the books….your family helping….this is something that people could call “out of date”. I prefer to call it as “UNIQUE” and “SPECIAL”.

    I really hope that you request more prints and editions for your book, but I’m feel privileged to have one copy of the first batch!

    My only bad feedback is regarding the thickness of the cover pages… As I read in bed and while going to the job, It makes me concerned to not knead and damage it…

    Cheers and a big hug from your FAN from South America.


  16. Toki Tover says:

    Hi Tom!

    I got my book just the other day… well actually I didn’t even know I got it until my DAD was done with it LOL…

    I will be getting him one for Christmas though, we both loved it. The detail behind how to construct a caricature is great.

    Thanks a ton!


  17. Connie Nobbe says:

    I would like to blog about your book, and I would like to include a link to ordering. What would be the best link to use?

    I don’t have a ton of followers, but I appreciate your blog and book so much, it’s just a tiny way to give back to the guy who has taught me so much.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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