You don't have to sign up with a big publisher to be an internationally successful cartoonist
Unless you're one of Dave Sim's 30,000 readers around the world, the name Cerebus won't mean much to you. Cerebus - short, acerbic, covered in grey fur - is the main character in Sim's self-published black-and- white comic, and also the name of the comic itself. Sim, a Canadian, and a collection of Britain's leading self-publishers met last weekend in Nottingham to discuss the future of their chosen medium.

Cerebus sells about 30,000 copies each month, roughly 10 times as many as even the most popular British equivalents. Sim has been smart enough to do all the book's publishing and distribution himself, ensuring that he and his publishing company get the lion's share of revenue, rather than seeing much of the profits creamed off by an outside publisher. This means even a relatively modest circulation can provide Sim and Gerhard, his collaborator, with a very healthy living.

He started the book in December 1977, announcing that it would be a 300- issue series, a claim no one took terribly seriously at the time. That would make Cerebus a 26-year project. The latest issue, number 211, is now out, leaving Sim with "just" eight years to go until the story's completion in 2004. Cerebus is Sim's shot at the big one - a 6,000-page work substantial enough in tone and page-count to call a "graphic novel" without embarrassment.

Sim says: "Most publishing companies are like an inverted pyramid, with a few creators at the bottom, and a lot of parasitic managers, administrators and bureaucrats at the top.

"Without the creator, nothing can happen, and yet the administrators and the bureaucrats all take their slice from the money his work has generated before he sees a penny himself. Not only that, but this mass of people - who have never had an original creative idea of their own in their lives - then try to justify their existence by making quite arbitrary changes to the creator's work at every stage."

As the book has progressed, Sim has dispensed with more and more of its early fantasy trappings to deal with adult topics such as politics (both governmental and sexual) and a meditation on the death of Oscar Wilde. Sim has ensured that all the back issues are available as collected volumes, providing him with useful extra income and ensuring that his work stays in print - another bone of contention between many cartoonists and the publishers they work for.

Sim has turned down lucrative offers to sell rights to Cerebus to a major comics publisher or an animation studio, again because he is determined to retain 100 per cent control of his work. He says: "I might be going down in flames. Maybe this plane won't fly. But, by God, this is the plane I want to go down in."

Sim is undoubtedly the father-figure in this particular world, and has inspired many British cartoonists to follow suit. Among the most successful are Paul Grist, who produces a comic called Kane, and Gary Spencer Millidge, who writes and draws his own Strangehaven. Like Cerebus, their books are distributed on both sides of the Atlantic and sold in specialist comic stores.

Grist is now approaching his fourth year of Kane, with 14 issues on sale. He subsidises his self-publishing work by accepting freelance writing and drawing work from larger comic publishers such as Marvel and Dark Horse.

Grist breaks down the economics of self-publishing like this: "In the UK, Kane sells for pounds 1.80. The distributor pays me 50 per cent of the cover price in UK shops. For the American shops, it's 38 per cent of the US cover price, which is $3.50. Out of that, I have to pay all my production costs." Assuming that the printing bill for a run in the low thousands is about pounds 1,500, that means you need to sell about 2,000 copies to stand a chance of breaking even.

Both Grist and Millidge's sales are comfortably above that level, but as yet nowhere near the 7,000-8,000 point, where it becomes possible to make a reasonable living from self-publishing alone.

Grist decided on self-publishing when a publishing company he was working with shut up shop, leaving a lot of his work unpublished. He says: "I decided that other people were letting me down, and that the best way of getting a book out was to do it myself. I thought, if I'm putting all this time and effort into it, it doesn't take a great deal more time and effort to actually do the whole thing myself. There were all sorts of problems that cropped up, but they were fairly easily sorted out."

Millidge turned to self-publishing after failing to attract much interest in samples of his work. He says: "I didn't get much reaction from actual publishers so, because of Dave Sim, I decided to give self-publishing a go, and it all just fell into place. Strangehaven has gone through the roof. It's far exceeded my expectations.

"The advance orders for each issue are 3,000. I've sold around 5,000 of the first issue now - the first three issues are in second printings, and they've all sold out. Obviously, I'm not making a living from it yet, but hopefully, in about 12 months, if I can get my circulation to about 7,000 or 8,000, and maybe get a collection out, I should be there."

Both Grist and Millidge agree that the aspiring self-publisher needs an entrepreneurial edge and the ability to enjoy not only creating his or her pages, but also all the production and administrative work that comes with it. It is also a great deal more practical - at least until you are in Sim's league - if you can do all the writing and art on the book yourself.

Another problem is illness. Because self-publishers are, by their nature, one-man bands, the whole operation comes to a halt if they get sick or have some family crisis. But Kane has managed to keep a regular bi-monthly schedule for the past two years, and Millidge has produced five quarterly issues in the past 18 months. This is important, as readers are quick to lose interest in a book which does not appear regularly.

The last word goes to Millidge. "I've had offers to publish Strangehaven from various companies, like Caliber Press," he says. "But I prefer to do it myself."n