Archive for the 'economics' Category

on lime green jello

I guess I should offer some kind of response to Robert Kirkman’s green-screen video manifesto beyond my twitticism: is the new

Which I’m still kinda proud of.

All kidding aside, I do agree with Kirkman’s thesis (maybe not with all the side rants and theories). I applaud him for saying it, as I applauded Brian K Vaughan for saying it in this January interview:

And to be crass, the comic [Y: The Last Man] also bought my house. That’s just the comic, not optioning the movie rights or anything. And I know that makes me sound like a douche, but I only brag in the hopes of inspiring some of my colleagues who think that the only way to provide for their families is through corporate-owned superheroes.

I love those characters, and would never begrudge anyone who wants to write or draw them, but I’m always shocked by my fellow creators who are reluctant to make their own characters solely because they don’t think that creator-owned books can be profitable.

I was paid very handsomely to write Top 10 books like Buffy or Ultimate X-Men, more money than anyone deserves to be paid for work that fun, but it was definitely a pay-cut compared to what my artistic collaborators and I make over the long run for relatively lower selling work that we own, which will be taking care of us in various forms for years to come.

Plus, what’s more fun than making something new?

Certainly, there’s no guarantee of success with starting a creator-owned book in this marketplace, but I’d venture to guess that established creators like Robert Kirkman and Brian Bendis and Mark Millar are probably making more from the books that they co-own with their artists than they are for the excellent work-for-hire stuff they do for companies like Marvel and DC.

So if you’re even a somewhat successful mainstream writer or artist who’s looking to “sell out,” it’s time to create something of your own! I don’t think Y was an anomaly. You can do this, too.

It’s an important message to spread, with a host of caveats. We don’t need another early-90s Dave Sim, hyping the limitless riches available to creators if only they would start self-publishing (with his own ostentatious self as proof), only for the bottom to drop out on everyone (especially those who weren’t as lucky or as business-oriented as Sim). There are apparently still quite a few people from that period who feel taken advantage of. Any kind of magic-bullet “it worked for me; it’ll work for you too” needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

But Kirkman isn’t proposing anything as insane as expecting a bunch of artists to also be savvy businesspeople. I think most people realize that making a comic and running a publishing company are demanding jobs that require different skill sets. In fact, my limited understanding of the restructuring of Image is that doing a book with Image is going to become less like self-publishing than it used to be during the hands-off “Image Central” Valentino years.

No, Kirkman seems to have two goals here:

  • Using his financial success from creator-owned comics to encourage work-for-hire creators to do more creator-owned work, and
  • Using his high profile among superhero fans to encourage them to accept and purchase creator-owned comics.

Maybe I spent too much time on Warren Ellis’s Engine messageboard during my formative years, but I’m not sure point #1 is news to any creator. Are there that many starry-eyed writers and artists who see Batman as the pinnacle of their dream career? …Okay, don’t answer that. But how many of them would really produce something worthwhile if they dedicated themselves to a creator-owned comic? Setting aesthetic considerations aside, how many of them would be able to create a book that sells at the level of Kirkman’s Walking Dead or Vaughan’s Y?

It just seems like this message is already out there. Mark Millar’s regular announcements of his enormous financial success are hard to miss. Ellis has made a career out of cursing the backwards thinking of the American comics market and (rightly) insisting on the moral superiority of creator-owned work. It kind of seems like at this point, people have made their decisions. Most creators who are interested in this sort of thing are already in the trenches trying to make it work; I suspect their answer to Kirkman’s question of “why aren’t there more Hellboys and Walking Deads?” is “I would very much like for my book to be a Hellboy or Walking Dead, thanks for asking.”

Unless Kirkman and Image are actually changing the game. If they’ve got a new deal that would somehow allow Jamie McKelvie or Matt Fraction (or Kagan McLeod) to drop everything and do their own comics full-time, then by all means let’s have it. But it’s not going to happen overnight.

Which brings us to point 2: Kirkman’s efforts to develop a larger audience for creator-owned work. While there will always be some fans who need something like this to awaken them to the economic realities of publishing (I certainly did), this strikes me as something of a futile effort. Remember the shitstorm that erupted when Paul O’Brien announced he was “bored” with comics? It turned out that Paul, like many people, doesn’t want anything more from his comics than to see a good X-Men story. Or the infamous angry reaction from Newsarama readers when Jerry Siegel’s family attempted to squeeze some justice out of comics’ original sin (aka beads for Manhattan). Is it possible to turn every X-Men fan into a Casanova fan? Is it possible to make fanboys care about the creative independence or long-term financial stability of comic creators? Will they take this message more seriously when it comes from the author of Marvel Zombies rather than a pretentious hipster or a condescending Englishman?

Maybe so. I didn’t think of comics as a business until I started reading Paul O’Brien’s reviews, actually, when I was around 18.

Can I put myself back in the fanboy mindset? I started reading comics in the early 90s, just after the Image launch; I didn’t like any of their books. I loved Joe Madureira on Uncanny X-Men but when he quit to launch Battle Chasers it didn’t occur to me to follow him. Fabian Nicieza was my favorite comics writer, but when he left Marvel in 1995 I barely noticed. I just now found out that he went to Acclaim Comics to be their editor-in-chief. Things are surely different now in terms of news getting around (if it wasn’t mentioned in a Marvel house ad or Wizard, I didn’t know about it), but… how different?

If, hypothetically, two of my favorite creators back then had followed Kirkman’s advice and launched a new creator-owned project that they could really put their heart and soul into, would I have followed them there? Well, they did, and it was called Steampunk by Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo. My brother brought a bunch of the issues home and it confused the hell out of me. I retreated back to my safe and comprehensible Marvel Universe.

Bad example. Steampunk was sort of legendarily incoherent. But I guess it does underscore that whatever plans Image is concocting, hopefully they involve a degree of editorial guidance?

I dunno. Maybe this is a message that just needs to get re-announced every year or so. Maybe my perspective has changed too much from being inside the industry and I can’t see the hordes of fans who need to hear exactly this message. On the flip side, maybe I’m not close enough to the Marvel and DC circles to hear the grumbling pros who have great ideas for creator-owned books but are reluctant to give it a shot. If so, here’s hoping Kirkman makes an impact.


Trend to encourage: indie comics apparel!

As previously discussed, lots of webcartoonists sell t-shirts — it would be hard to find a successful comic that doesn’t. It’s pretty endemic to the whole notion of webcomics. Yet for some reason, it’s considerably less common among artists whose primary work is in print form.

(maybe webcartoonists have more committed fans in general? the regularity of updates means that fans get a little daily dose of the artist on a regular basis — even, with RSS, delivered straight to them. Not to mention the community fostered via message boards & comment threads. That makes it much easier to gauge the demand for any particular merch item — John Allison can talk to every single one of his fans at once by simply adding a sentence to that day’s update, whereas a great number of Adrian Tomine’s fans are people who just bought his book somewhere, making it very difficult for Tomine or his publisher to keep track of them.)

Ad for John Allison’s Scary-Go-Round merch

(Of course, it makes sense that people like John Romita aren’t whipping up T-shirts to sell — their reputation and fanbase is based on drawing characters they don’t own, and I’m sure Marvel and DC have labyrinthine corporate arrangements regulating the production of merchandise. But the contracts of “indie” publishers are rooted in creator ownership, so the process is much simpler. And self-publishers can of course do whatever they want!)

The available “clothing” items in stock at the Drawn + Quarterly webstore.

Not to pick on D+Q — it’s not like Random House has John Grisham shirts available on its web site. Fantagraphics seems to have exactly one (XL and XXL still in stock!). Top Shelf at least has our Owly shirts, which are pretty rad. The most T-shirty of indie publishers, Oni Press, clock in with two. Overall, it seems like a lot of missed opportunity.

But this is a post about Trend to encourage, not Absence that I wish would become a trend! There is, to quote Ryan North, a lot of sexy exciting merchandise for you! It’s largely cartoonists operating independently of their publishers. A lot of the reasons why there haven’t been more indie comics shirts — namely the time, labor, cost, and expertise required to produce and sell decent shirts — are being mitigated with the arrival of sites like Threadless, Design By Humans, and Shirt.Woot, which accept design submissions from artists, and handle all the production & sales for designs that do well enough in user rankings. I hear that even good old CafePress doesn’t suck anymore.

I wear my Paul Hornschemeier “OH WELL” shirt proudly on a regular basis.

I would already have thrown down cash for Corey Lewis’s Mecha Naga Buddha shirt if not for the unfortunate fact that redheads can almost never pull off wearing red.

Also throwing some designs at Design by Humans: the totally rad Chris “Elio” Eliopoulos (also known as “Not That Chris Eliopoulos!”), whom you’ll be hearing quite a lot about, very soon…

Then there’s Paul Pope for DKNY and James Jean for Prada, which is just another matter entirely.

“embedded .wav files of coins rattling in a paper cup”

Achewood (The Best Comic on the Internet) just announced The Achewood Donation and Patronage Program, making Chris Onstad the latest webcartoonist to shift into a more explicit system of distributed patronage. The best other example I know of is Danielle Corsetto of Girls With Slingshots, who moved to full-time cartooning purely on the basis of a successful online donation drive. Onstad has, for some years now, been supporting the Achewood family purely through merchandise sales (the traditional model for full-time webcartooning is a combination of merchandise and advertising… do we call this the Khoo model?), but apparently he’s decided to take it to another level. Maybe money was getting tight. Considering that the internet is chock-full of people who would cut off their thumbs to keep Achewood in their lives — and I’m no exception — it sounds like a pretty good idea.

Appropriately enough, the original alt text for this 2002 strip was “Roast Beef tshirts available NOW. Contact with ORDERS.”

It’s also really interesting that this move takes place just as the news breaks about Dark Horse’s publication of an Achewood collection. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but there it is. Just coincidence, I guess.

~ ~ ~

There’s been a lot of discussion about digital arts economics lately — primarily focused on the music business, since it’s the most visible example of an industry flailing around in search of a new business model. Everybody wants digital music, lots of people are ready to admit that artists need to be paid, and quite a few bright people are looking at serious strategies for making that happen.

  • Seth Godin gives a rapid-fire “for God’s sake, try something new; here are some ideas” speech to a room full of record executives.
  • Kevin Kelly presents a cogent summary of one very popular strategy: make almost everything available for free, which creates a few die-hard fans who will spend big money on exclusives, thereby subsidizing everything else.

As both of those articles insist, a key factor to this new model is creating a personal connection, so that fans are able to trust that their money is going to the right place. What’s happening is that the per-unit cost of a piece of art is being eliminated — not just becoming zero, it’s ceasing to even be a concept. Instead, fans are being asked to pay for the whole experience of receiving stuff from an artist. But in order for that to work, it needs to be a sustained, thriving experience rather than a cut-and-dry transaction. To draw upon a bit of anthropological theory, it’s the transition between a market economy (in which the item is a commodity, i.e. its value is completely irrespective of its source) and a gift economy (in which a large amount of the item’s value derives from the relationship in which the exchange takes place). Seth Goodin wants to give lots of money to his favorite musician, Ricky Lee Jones — he admits he’s already spent a fortune acquiring every recording she’s ever made — but he wants to hear from her in exchange. If you want a less touchy-feely example: I joined Netflix, and my estimation of the value of an individual DVD immediately plummeted. But I was (and am) extremely happy to pay Netflix a monthly fee for the ability to have the world of film at my fingertips, see all the movies I’d always wanted to see, discover great obscure works, interact with my friends’ movie tastes, and generally be a member of the Netflix community. If they were to launch a new feature where filmmakers contact me (respectfully and tastefully) based on my previous viewing habits and request funding for new projects using a portion of my Netflix subscriber fee, I’d be happy to do it.

An interesting question (and rather pertinent to my situation!): what happens to the middlemen? What new directions can, say, a publisher be exploring, so that they can continue to follow their mission of helping creators and fans reach each other, and continue to make a living? Considering that artists are often too busy creating to handle editing/production/marketing/distribution/programming/accounting, I don’t think there’s any chance of us becoming obsolete. Also, Top Shelf artists in particular tend to have a shared sensibility that fans respond to loyally (at the very least, they’re unified by the fact that Chris and Brett like them, so so there’s naturally a lot of crossover appeal). There will always be a need for ancillary staff to handle the things that artists aren’t good at or don’t have time for, and there will always be a need for trusted voices that help readers sift through the overwhelming amount of culture available to them. But I suspect that both of those roles will continue to change as the digital economy continues to grow.

We live in interesting times!

Levitz: Free Kills Art

A while back, Newsarama has had their annual chat with DC head Paul Levitz on the state of the industry. Here’s a part that jumped out at me:

NRAMA: Speaking of piracy, obviously you’re aware of the debate going on between fans that it helps bring new readers in via sampling vs. it hurts the industry overall because publishers and by extension, creators, aren’t being paid for their work. You are of course, going to take the “hurt” side of the debate as the Publisher of DC…

PL: The hell with being the Publisher of DC – I’m a comic book writer, and I like my royalties. When I look at the music industry, I think less music is being created and marketed today than there was 10 years ago. I think the effect of piracy has been to discourage creativity. You have a tremendous amount of ground level creativity – the group that would’ve only been a band in somebody’s basement, who now have access to the market by putting their stuff up on YouTube or in some other fashion, being able to have a shot at a moment of fame and some income, which is wonderful. The internet has been very positive and powerful that way.

But the amount of music that’s being created by any form of an established group has diminished enormously. I don’t care for that, as an occasional music shopper – to find that my choice is diminished. I find the amount of effort being made to introduce new music to a wider audience, the amount of money being spent on what I’ll describe as “introductory marketing” has diminished enormously. I don’t think it’s as vibrant a marketplace as it was years ago. I think that’s a bad thing.

Is this true? I don’t have ten years of experience as a mature consumer of music (in 1998 I was just starting to buy used CDs from the dollar bin after church), but isn’t the general consensus just the opposite, that the Internet age has seen a renaissance of creativity? Levitz acknowledges the growth of “ground level creativity” but claims that “established groups” have become less prolific.

Is he just missing the point? Is he an old fogey who’s wondering why the Stones and the Who aren’t putting out albums every year? (hint: Mick, Keith, Roger, and Pete are all over 60. So’s David Bowie, who’s spent the last few years recovering from a heart attack instead of recording a new album). Potentially he’s missing all the new developments in music because he’s only looking at his old favorites (which of course grow less prolific over time).


Another possibility is that the very concept of an “established group” is changing. As Chris Anderson says, we’ve seen a decentralization of entertainment — the days when everyone in America watched four TV channels are gone forever. There can’t be another moment of Ed Sullivan introducing the Beatles to America because there’s not another Ed Sullivan (or even another John Peel). So any “introductory marketing” that happens is going to be targeting a decentralized market, rather than having some monolithic tastemaker declare the next Important Thing.

On a related note, we know that the major labels have been spending obscene amounts attacking individual pirates; maybe those expenditures have damaged marketing budgets as well, and it’s not merely declining sales that are to blame? But anyway, back to Levitz.

When someone takes creative work that has been made at expense and with effort, time, energy, and says, “I don’t need to pay for this – I can find a way to enjoy it without rewarding the people who created it”…I think that tends to make that stuff go away over time. I think that’s a great challenge for the next generation of society in many media, not just comics. If people become convinced, as a society, that all forms of entertainment ought to be delivered to them free, they’re going to get a lot more advertising in their life. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s probably not the best either, and they’re going to get a lot less investment in entertainment, and I think that will reduce choice over time. We’ll see.

Interesting — and directly at odds with Chris Anderson‘s optimistic vision of a FREE STUFF economic model. Also relevant: this NYTimes article ruminating on the growing gap between the cost of reproducible information (a U2 mp3, the text of the Magna Carta) and unique objects/experiences (a U2 concert, the Magna Carta itself).

Advertising is only one way of subsidizing FREE STUFF. Another model postulates that giving your product away for free greatly reduces the likelihood that casual fans will give you money, but greatly increases the number of casual fans you have, of which a percentage become hardcore fans who are willing to pay for a deluxe edition of your product. Ideally you end up making the same amount of money (or more) and multiplying the size of your audience.

Girl Genius by Phil & Kaja Foglio
Well, it worked for the Foglios.

As for people’s tendency to devalue something because it is inexpensive: it certainly has been known to happen, but I’m skeptical about its application here. You can get Shakespeare for free on the internet and I’m pretty sure his reputation is intact — not to mention the sales of well-edited and/or convenient editions of his work. Ditto for the best comic strip in the universe.

Or you could be like many indie comics publishers, and make books that are beautiful objects which people want to own. Funny how nobody’s complaining about piracy of Darwyn Cooke’s Absolute New Frontier.

Growing out of the magazine business model, part 876534

The latest meme is that Vertigo and (especially) Wildstorm are losing single-issue sales, and therefore in danger.

First of all, nobody knows anything about the numbers except the publishers, so this is a ridiculous discussion to be having.

Secondly — confessing that I don’t know anything about the numbers — I’m pretty sure that when it comes to stories that real humans might read,* single issue sales are a fraction of the story. Quick, which has sold more: Sandman #21 or Season of Mists? Bone #10 or The Great Cow Race? Black Hole #6 or Black Hole? All the Year Round for 4/30/1859 or A Tale of Two Cities? Look, guys, a paperback edition is not “a cheap and easy way for latecomers to catch up with what they’ve missed.” (1991 is <— that way.) It’s a book. It’s the only thing libraries will stock, it’s the only thing bookstores will sell, it’s the only thing NYRB will review, it’s the only thing most people in the world are interested in reading.** The book’s the thing.

Related point: a purchase of a book in a given format is not an ideological declaration of allegiance.*** For years I’ve been hearing “buy the book in X format or you’re a traitor.” “Our team is losing! Buy single issues of She-Hulk or there may never be a collection!” “CIVIL WAR: I’m with Waiting-for-the-Trade Man.” You guys read too many comic books! There are no teams. Consume the media you like, in the way that makes sense to you, and the market will recalibrate itself to suit the consumption trends that emerge.

*i.e. stories in which Green Lantern does not appear and the female characters do not habitually stand such that you can see all their erogenous zones simultaneously.
**Excluding digital and disposable formats.
***With apologies to my lit theory prof.

Now then.

As for this question of profitability. Why doesn’t Vertigo cancel its low-selling books? Profitability is a really complicated concept, and I imagine the mechanisms behind a title’s cancellation are considerably more complex than some are implying.

In every area of publishing, some products are (strictly speaking) profitable and others are (strictly speaking) not — it’s a fact of life. In fact, MOST books are unprofitable. Every publisher uses the revenue from the high-performing products to subsidize the loss from the low-performing products. Additionally, it may take a product many months or years to make back the investment that produced it — particularly at a company which pays high page rates and/or advances. If every publisher canceled a title the instant it dipped below the strict “profitability” line, almost none of them would last long enough to make real money, and the publisher would go bankrupt.

There are a dozen reasons why a strictly “unprofitable” title might be continued:

  • expected revenue from future formats
  • contractual obligations to the creators (I believe Rushkoff was promised at least one TPB when he signed Testament, and I suspect this is standard)
  • public relations and other intangible/indirect profits (could DC really just cease production of kids’ comics? could Vertigo really cancel 80% of its line? what would people think?)
  • editorial preference/indulgence
  • contractual obligations from a movie option (GOT NO LEGS BOY must remain in publication because they might make a GOT NO LEGS BOY movie)
  • etc.

With the first bullet point being the most significant, in most cases.

And for that matter, a low-selling book may have considerably lower production costs than a higher-selling book. So it may not be nearly as unprofitable as it looks.

“gold appearing in hands”: money, poetry, politics

ἀλλὰ κέρδει καὶ σοφία δέδεται.
ἔτραπεν καὶ κεῖνον ἀγάνορι μισθῷ χρυσὸς ἐν χερσὶν φανεὶς
ἄνδρ[α …]

But even wisdom is enslaved to profit.
And gold appearing in hands (reckless wage!) turned
that man […]

Pindar, Pythian 3.551

At Powell’s the other day, I noticed an anthology called Poetry After Modernism (Robert McDowell, ed). Since I think contemporary poetry, in its overwhelming rejection of traditional forms, has often thrown the baby out with the bathwater and created a new, equally boring, status quo, I was curious to see what the deal was with the “New Formalists” mentioned in one essay. The author was particularly enamored with Dana Gioia, author of the apparently-famous essay “Can Poetry Matter?,” and one of Gioia’s poems quoted in the book impressed me. Some research at home reveals that Gioia is an ex-corporate-executive and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, appointed by George W. Bush.

So I’ve been having a morning of cognitive dissonance, reading through this essay by Steve Evans, “Free (Market) Verse” and sorting through some thorny questions about art, commerce, populism, tradition, and form. These questions seem especially relevant now that I’m a member of the arts industry. I’m currently living off (running out of!) the cash award I got for the poetry I wrote for my thesis. As I begin working with Top Shelf I’m going to be intimately concerned with (and dependent on!) the principle of charging people money for art.

My thesis was centrally concerned with questions of accessibility. I may not have succeeded in my goal of writing a thesis my grandmother could read, but I’m a big fan of art that actually reaches people, and in some ways to translate is to popularize (or to vulgarize — in Latin they’re synonyms!). I wanted to get the poems out of the Classics department and into the ears of the public.

My work in comics activism/advocacy is similarly rooted in a desire for accessibility, although I hadn’t made the connection until now. I try to promote comics to people who don’t read them; I hunt for books that appeal to those readers. I’m more likely to change somebody’s life by giving them Blankets or Strangers in Paradise than Crisis on Infinite Earths. The comic book scene, like (Gioia argues) the academic poetry scene, has its head up its own ass and is busy talking to itself rather than communicating with the world.

Yet I’m uncomfortable with the idea of connections between aesthetics and politics. Does nostalgia for an old-fashioned art form imply nostalgia for an old-fashioned ideology? Is the impulse to defend the institution of rhyme related to the impulse to defend the institution of marriage? I think not, in my case at least. I think there are a few more things at work here.

I’ve been asked to write a new school song for Reed College. Writing an alma mater is one of the most public, populist things you can do. The alma mater genre, like the Pindaric victory ode, is inherently conservative — institutionally normative, you might say, or counterrevolutionary — but I love the challenge of writing an anthem that the notoriously cynical student body of Reed can proudly stand behind. (Luckily, Reed itself is weirdly conservative in many ways.) It’s the same challenge I enjoyed as an atheist at Baptist Youth Camp, serving on the worship planning committee: finding ways to create a service that would be meaningful to everyone. In my thesis, I loved the challenge of writing deliberately old-fashioned translations of old avant-garde texts for a contemporary audience.

My father once made a remark that has stuck with me ever since: I was raised in a relentlessly heterogeneous environment, in a world of apparent contradictions. A liberal & educated city in a relatively rural state, a fiercely progressive church in a resolutely conservative denomination, a lower-end neighborhood in a wealthy suburb. My brother and I are both devoted to the idea of applying high-culture perspectives to low culture, and vice versa. I tend to feel like the geekiest person in a room full of “normal folks” and the most well-adjusted in a room full of geeks. In the Taijitu, my father implied, I’m the white in the black and the black in the white.

I don’t think I’m going to figure this all out today. I don’t think that everyone who agrees with my aesthetic values is going to be someone I’m comfortable standing with. But, I realize, that’s nothing new. I’ve been preaching the gospel of heavy metal and comic books for years, and God knows I have a pretty dim view of the average metalhead and comic fan. The fun part, after all, is loving something that’s insufficiently loved by people I respect, and then teaching them to love it.

[Did that make any sense? All of these points could use some elaboration, but this has been sitting on my computer for a long time now and I need to get it out. I’m sure there’s more to come.]

1 Pindar is describing the corrupting influence of wealth on the ancient healer Asclepius, who was once paid a ton of cash to resurrect a dead man. Zeus, outraged at this violation of the laws of nature, killed him with a thunderbolt. As a freelance poet who sold his praise to the highest bidder, Pindar is very careful to denounce the evils of capitalism and conceal the economic realities of his own situation. The way he operates, the poet assures us, Pindar only writes poems about people who are genuinely his friends, and every word is deserved because his patrons really are that awesome.

Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.