The graphic novel has garnered attention in recent years as comic artists and cartoonists have turned to the long-form narrative as a means of developing in-depth characters and stories. Graphic novelists fall into several categories with different earnings profiles. Some create work for mainstream publishers with licensed characters such as Iron Man and Batman, while others work for independent small publishers. There also exists a vital self-publishing scene with some graphic novelists breaking through to good earnings.
Graphic novels are sold primarily in comic book specialty stores. Chain bookstores and independent bookstores are an important secondary market for graphic novels. They are also sold at comic conventions held in various locations around the country such as Comic Con, held in San Diego each summer. Most graphic novels are distributed by Diamond Comic Distributors. There are also smaller specialty distributors such as Last Gasp, Sparkplug Comic Books and Top Shelf Productions.
Graphic novelists working for mainstream comics publishers like Marvel and DC create material using characters owned by the publisher on a work for hire basis. The mainstream publishers break down production into a series of distinct tasks with page rates for each task. Pencil artists earn $100 to $250 per page. Writers get $75 to $120 per page for script and plot. Inkers earn $75 to $200 per page with colorists earning $100 to $150 per page. Variables in page rate include the popularity of the character and the book, as well as the reputation of the graphic novelist. Page rates are from the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook.
Independent or small press publishers work with graphic novelists on the auteur model, where one artist is responsible for the complete work, from writing to finished art. The pay for these graphic novelists is defined by a contract with the publisher. The graphic novelist earns a percentage of the cover price for each book sold. Publisihers such as Fantagraphics or Top Shelf Productions might pay 8 percent of the cover price for the first 5,000 books sold and 10 percent of the cover price for units sold above 5,000.
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Some graphic novelists are self publishers, contracting with printers and distributors to manufacture and distribute their graphic novels. Ideally, they seek to print books for 20 percent of the cover price or less. The books are sold to Diamond and other comic distributors, who in turn resell them to comic shops and book stores. Diamond pays 40 percent of the cover price to the self publisher. Big profits have been earned by self publishers like Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Contracts between graphic novelists, publishers and distributors are negotiable. Experienced graphic novelists are savvy about the comics market, page rates and royalty payment percentages. Graphic novelists who work with independent publishers often own the copyright to their work and are able to negotiate a percentage of profits from licensing everything from merchandise to movie and broadcast rights. Some graphic novelists work with agents and attorneys specializing in publishing and entertainment in order to obtain the most favorable contracts.