Comics & Side Projects / Don't Say Pitch

The basic business of tabling at zine fairs

I just tabled for my third year at Canzine. Instead of doing a typical show recap, I thought I might reflect upon what I’ve learned about $$$ doing all these fairs.

[Edit: You’ll notice an obvious omission below and that is compensation for labour. It’s because I don’t actually consider zine-making a business or a job in which my labour is commodified. I’m just crunching numbers to ensure I’m not losing tons of $ on zines. However, if you are tabling fairs with the mindset that this is going to be how you make a living or at least, a viable side-job, you need to approach things with a different attitude than me.

I also don’t want readers to get the impression that I am applying a capitalist framework to tabling at zine fairs by using business-related language. Repeat after me: capitalism is NOT selling goods and services for money. Obviously selling stuff is a necessary part of capitalism, but if this is how capitalism is defined, we would have to call medieval societies and ancient civilizations capitalist too LOL. Thanks for reading!]

The first zines I printed out on a friend’s unused university printing account so basically, the early days were 100% PURE PROFIT. But then my friend graduated. Left to my own devices, I had to start thinking about INVESTMENTS and NET PROFITS.

I offer around 10-18 titles each fest, mostly self published. My prices range from $1-$6 self-published items in runs of 25-50, with a limited number of $15 magazines that are either contributor copies or that I’ve bought at a contributor’s discount. My revenue is generally $150-$250 and I sell around 45-65 units per fest.

If you invest in really promoting your work online and make more popular items, you could definitely move way more units than me. To give you an example of what I mean by my titles being unpopular, half the people who pick up my food zine (which opens up to a recipe that involves shoving a piece of peeled ginger up someone’s arse) are kind of scandalized by it and leave my table.

Popular items tend to involve things people are familiar with, so quotidian affairs like zines about social media or current events; famous figures (my friend Gart has a couple hilarious Kermit the Frog zines that always sell like hotcakes); and for some reason cats (ask Annie Koyama). There are also trends that come and go – occult and tarot card imagery has been popular for a few years.

You might want to consider making other items, like larger prints, that are more profitable than zines. People are willing to pay more money for prints and swag than books even though they are cheaper per unit to produce in labour and materials. Personally, I don’t have an interest in making prints, stickers, or non-book stuff.

So let’s talk margins. Selling contributor copies is the best. It’s pure profit and these professional looking items tend to sell well. If the math works out, I’d rather be paid in contributor copies than cash because I’m confident I can sell them. For example, one anthology I was a part of paid $100; contributors could purchase additional copies for $8, a nice discount from the retail price of $20. So let’s do the math. $100 payment / $8 per copy = 12.5 copies OR 12 copies + $4 leftover – shipping.  In my case, the books were heavy and shipping left me with only 8 copies. 8 * $20 = $160 in sales (vs $100 fee).

I try to keep my margins for laser cartridge print titles very high, at least over 50% profit. (A 50% margin means you have to sell only half your inventory to break even.) My $1 zines like my Hot List or Interview series pull in the most profit and I’ve never lost money on them. For example, the little interview ones cost maybe $0.05/unit (cost of colour paper I bought on sale + print free at home). Totally FAT margins!

Colour items have a much lower margin because I can’t print them at home but I still try to keep a 50% minimum margin. For example, my $2 food zine cost me $0.80/unit to print (1 b&w page + 1.5 colour pages) so that’s a 60% margin (or $60 profit for selling 50 units). My popular $5 K’s Guide to Falling in Love is $2.45/unit for 7 colour pages – so it’s a close shave with a 51% margin (or $127.50 net profit for selling 50 units). [Also, see my post about printing comics for under $20.] These are my low-risk items that subsidize production of my high-risk items.

My high-risk items are my risograph titles (two-colour single sided cover stock; single colour interior; 16 pgs; saddle stitch binding trimmed to 5″x8″). They have cost me around $3.40-$3.80/book at runs of 50-75 – my latest project was $285 for 75 units at $3.80. [Edit: Printers usually require a minimum run of 50-100 units so you can’t do a test run of 25 to see how a title sells!] I’ve priced my riso titles at $5-$6 to keep them affordable, definitely below a “market rate.” This means the margins for my riso zines are sad, 24%-35%. My latest title, EASY, will take me forever – 57 units to be precise – to break even unless I raise the $5 price. So far, I’ve sold 8 units at two fairs. Riso zines are beautiful and I love them but if I don’t sell over 3/4 of my stock, it’s basically a vanity project.

Thankfully zines never go off and you can sell them into perpetuity. Even though I still haven’t broken even on my riso zine, Everlasting Dérive (after three years and six shows, I still need to sell 4 more units – not counting the consignment units at The Beguiling), I’ll likely turn a small profit in year four. This is also the title that the editor at LooseLeaf Magazine liked. She later published a short story of mine for which I was paid. Another piece had an editor from a small independent Canadian publisher invite me to submit a manuscript.

In addition to the cost of production, there are ancillary costs to consider like travel, food and such. I haven’t counted these because for me, they have been negligable. These costs are things like:

  • tabling fees: they’re usually around $20 or so for zine fairs.
  • materials for tabling: I made a one time investment pre-TCAF that was about $20. I bought a nice table cloth on mega-sale for around $10 and three photo frames from the Dollar store that I prop my most expensive titles up against. I spent around $7 on cute little cards and washi tape to make pretty price labels.
  • promotions: I keep this cost super low and most of it can be done online. I used to print business cards but now I think they are a total waste of money and paper. So many people would take a card but after a show it’s not like I suddenly received a spike in web traffic after. I keep a pen and some cards to give my deets to someone on the fly. (For a more professional show like TCAF though, I think you do need some.) I also consider the $35 purple wig I bought a promotional cost.
  • travel: there’s the cost of ttc tokens or uber fare. If you are traveling a significant distance (I’m thinking about Montreal’s Expozine), that will definitely eat into your profits because you’ll need to factor in train/plane tickets, food and maybe even accommodations.

Regarding rando trades. These can eat into your profits. Don’t do it if you’re not into it. Just say no.

I usually offer a zine for free to someone I like with no expectation of being offered anything back. Sometimes people come back to me with their work. Those are the best trades!

As for the fairs themselves. I have done multiple Zine Dreams, Canzines and one TCAF. Zine Dream is my most profitable table despite it being the smallest, I think because it attracts a very hardcore zine crowd. There’s less foot traffic, but also less competition. The show where I made the least profit was TCAF – not because it’s not a good show to sell at, but because my titles were too cheaply priced. TCAF attendees are willing to drop more money than zine fair attendees but they are more interested in professional looking products than rough looking, DIY photocopied titles. The tabling fee is also way higher than the zine fairs. I had some more professional titles at the $12 tier, but because these were all contributor titles, I only had a handful of them to sell and sold out quickly.

In contrast, my friend who applied with me for TCAF spent a fair bit on a single title, a riso comic at $10 (?)/unit. He sold out of all 50 units, turning a tidy profit when all was said and done. In addition, someone who loved his work contacted him later to buy some original artwork. All in all, I don’t regret it but I don’t plan to reapply until I have something heftier to sell.

For those just starting out and thinking about TCAF, if you’re self-publishing, definitely invest in printing a few titles you can sell at a higher price point instead of offering a plethora of cheap titles like me. I would also advise looking at TCAF as an investment in developing your career and meeting amazing people to make your dream creative teams. You could also use TCAF in your CV to apply for arts grants. There is a certain level of professional cred and real cache that comes with having tabled at TCAF, especially because people know it is difficult to be accepted.

I trust you have enjoyed this post authored by a running bitch whose mercantile heart only warms to the phrase PURE PROFIT. Seriously, there isn’t any big money in little zines but I hope this post helps you to at least break even.