Sunday Mailbag

April 21st, 2013 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: After reading about your fourth printing of the book (congratulations!) I was wondering if you could dispense any advice about self-publishing art books and how to do it successfully. What’s the secret?

A: I appreciate the thought but I am hardly an expert in self publishing. I’ve only done one book, and some very unique circumstances came together to make that book work out pretty well. I’d be happy to share what I have learned along the way, but the formula that worked for my book is very specific.

First off, there’s a post I wrote some time ago about why I self-published the book.

Reading it now, after a lot has happened in the ongoing process of marketing and selling the book, the reasoning seems to make even more sense. Much of what has contributed to the success of my book was just plain old dumb luck on my part. For example, I’d spent years writing this blog and doing these tutorials on drawing caricatures, not realizing that I was slowly building up both a “brand” and a top spot in any web search for “how to draw caricatures”. That’s been an important part of how people have found out about the book and purchased a copy.

You asked for the secret. I actually do think there is one:

Write a book people will want to buy and read.

That sounds ridiculously obvious, but you’d be surprised how many authors, particularly artists, don’t seem to consider who the content of their book will actually appeal to, and how many people would be willing to pay money for that content. There are an incredible number of self published books that are only collections of pieces of art by the author, also known as the vanity book. “The Art of Joe Blow” is only going to appeal to fans of Joe Blow, and no one else. If Joe happens to be a well-known comic book artist or animator, that might be a big enough potential audience to sell a good number of copies, but if not the potential market is limited. Having a narrative of some kind in the book expands your potential audience, because anyone can then read it for the story and then become a fan of Joe Blow, rather than just looking at the pretty pictures. Enormously successful self-publishers like Dean Yeagle don’t just do books full of their beautiful pieces of art, they tell a story and, in Dean’s case, do work that appeals to fans of a genre as well (sexy pin-up art). Another very successful self-publisher is Stephen Silver, and while many of his books are sketchbook collections they also have a message about hard work, inspiration and the constant search for improvement that adds another dimension to his books. Tom Bancroft has several great selling books that are fantastic learning tools for developing characters for animation, which is a lot more than just a collection of his illustrations and animation designs. It’s worth pointing out that Tom, Dean and Stephen DO have the added benefit of being big names in animation, so they had a big potential audience to begin with. Despite that, they still chose to do books that did more that just contain examples of their terrific artwork, and as a result they have books that are marketable far past a core group of fans, and more importantly have staying power in sales potential.

How-to books in particular have an appeal far past just those who like the work of the author, and I think that is the major circumstance that has contributed to the continued sales of The Mad Art of Caricature. New artists are born every day, and some of them will become interested in caricature, and those become potential buyers of a book on how to draw caricatures. That’s the other thing I sort of lucked into… I had no idea how big a market there is for how-to art books. That is one area that traditional book sales are still very strong in.

It’s not that simple, of course. You don’t just write a book, even one that would have great appeal to a large audience, and it magically starts selling. You have to market it and get it in front of that audience. However, it all does start with creating something with content that does have broad appeal.

Thanks to Owen Sigler for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here.

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