Archive for the 'industry' Category

ABA, DOJ, BBQ

Most of the “shop indie bookstores / fight the big box chains” rhetoric I’ve heard has been rooted in a vague all-purpose anti-corporate sentiment rather than concrete concerns. This recent letter from the American Bookseller Association to the US Department of Justice is useful in spelling things out:

Publishers sell these books to retailers at 45%-50% off the suggested list price. For example, a $35 book, such as Mr. King’s Under the Dome, costs a retailer $17.50 or more. News reports suggest that publishers are not offering special terms to these big box retailers, and that the retailers are, in fact, taking orders for these books at prices far below cost. (In the case of Mr. King’s book, these retailers are losing as much as $8.50 on each unit sold.) We believe that Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target are using these predatory pricing practices to attempt to win control of the market for hardcover bestsellers.

It’s important to note that the book industry is unlike other retail sectors. Clothing, jewelry, appliances, and other commercial goods are typically sold at a net price, leaving the seller free to determine the retail price and the margin these products will earn. Because publishers print list prices indelibly on jacket covers, and because books are sold at a discount off that retail price, there is a ceiling on the amount of margin a book retailer can earn.

The suggested list price set by the publisher reflects manufacturing costs – acquisition, editing, marketing, printing, binding, shipping, etc. – which vary significantly from book to book. By selling each of these titles below the cost these retailers pay to the publishers, and at the same price as each other, and at the same price as all other titles in these pricing schemes, Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target are devaluing the very concept of the book. Authors and publishers, and ultimately consumers, stand to lose a great deal if this practice continues and/or grows.

What’s so troubling in the current situation is that none of the companies involved are engaged primarily in the sale of books. They’re using our most important products– mega bestsellers, which, ironically, are the most expensive books for publishers to bring to market–as a loss leader to attract customers to buy other, more profitable merchandise. The entire book industry is in danger of becoming collateral damage in this war.

More at the link.

It’s a messy situation all around (from a publisher’s perspective, the chains are skimming off the “sure things” rather than supporting the whole line; from an indie store’s perspective, they’re hogging all the books that bring people in the door and making it impossible for small stores to use them; from Wal-Mart’s perspective, they’re just trying to get books to people as affordably as possible, and they only want to carry the items their customers are interested in), but it’s nice to hear facts rather than vague suspicion.

EDIT:
Techno-optimist Clay Shirky offers commentary, calling these “arguments that made some sense twenty years ago, but have long since stopped doing so.” Instead, he proposes that booksellers begin “treating the old side-effects” — i.e. the physical amenities that bookstores uniquely provide in addition to selling books — “as the new core value.”

Advertisements

Wrestling with more pamphlet/distro questions

I can’t let it rest there. If the “alternative” giants abandoned the comic-book format years ago (and they did), who is producing something like this format today, who might be affected by the policy shift? Setting Chris Butcher’s “death of the direct market” aside for the moment, what sort of content is in danger?

I don’t know how the economics of these things work(ed). Would new comic books from Kevin Huizenga, Sammy Harkham, John Porcellino, or Anders Nilsen (or their un-famous equivalents) make the cutoff? If not, are these guys making enough money from single-issue sales that it would be a significant financial blow? How often do these things really come out any more? Selling a $5 comic book to 1000 loyal fans once a year doesn’t pay the bills, especially after distribution and retail take their cut. I don’t think we’re cutting off a revenue stream that subsidizes the gradual creation of a masterpiece. If you’re not selling enough copies to make it into Previews, you have a day job already.

breathers

What about minicomics? The deluxe little self-published booklet, whether standalone or serial is a beloved icon of the alt-comics scene, even today. Recent favorites of mine include Jonathan Case’s Sea Freak, Andy Hartzell’s Monday, Chuck McBuck’s Snake Oil, Justin Madson’s Breathers, Sean Ford’s Only Skin, and Alec Longstreth’s Phase 7. But has Diamond ever really carried this stuff?

There are plenty of people generating blog buzz and underground acclaim via tabling at shows like MoCCA, SPX, Stumptown, and APE, just as they always have. And certain retailers will go outside of Diamond to pick up some of those minis, just as they always have. Right? And artists then parlay that underground buzz into a project at an established publisher. It’s just that that first pro-published project is now a small graphic novel, rather than a comic book. And the internet has essentially provided an endless SPX, so that buzz-building and feedback-receiving can happen year-round — and with readers who can’t make the trek out to small press shows.

johnny-hiro-2.jpgFred Chao’s justly acclaimed Johnny Hiro is moving to a book collection. If you’re like me, you responded to all of its Eisner buzz last year with “Great! Now it can be collected in book form, reviewed in major outlets, placed in libraries, and sold to the general public.” It kind of seemed quaint that it was ever a comic book at all. For better or for worse, that’s the new industry assumption that I see. The cursus honorum of comics. Everything is aimed at producing a Blankets or Fun Home or Bottomless Belly Button or Asterios Polyp. The Great American Graphic Novel.

It’s problematic, of course. Some stories don’t need to be graphic novels, and some cartoonists don’t need to be graphic novelists. And even for those who will someday, is the infrastructure in place to allow them the time to gestate?

Yes and no. Comics will not continue to be created in the same way they once were. We’ll see fewer and fewer projects take the serial-comic-to-big-book format a la Maus, Black Hole, Box Office Poison, Local, Bone, From Hell, or Jimmy Corrigan. But the books will still come out, one way or another. Some of them will surely be underbaked, deprived of the reader feedback that serialization provides (but on the other hand, look at how many webcomics and newspaper strips have decayed into self-parodies, stunted by the shackles of constant reader feedback). Others will die stillborn, unable to find a publisher willing to risk a 400-page book on an unproven creator. Some will be published, only to find customers balking at dropping $15-20 on somebody’s debut. But, y’know, I think we’ll figure it out.

Done with pamphlets for the moment. Open question: what about book-format books that sell in small quantities? Is Picturebox really fucked?

Also, where do comic shops fit in?

One thought on the death of the alternative comic book

tomine

Lots of talk lately about Diamond raising its order minimums. Tom Spurgeon has a characteristically meditative but surprisingly assertive piece while Chris Butcher spells out the reasoning behind his even more alarmed response.

I don’t feel that I have enough years under my belt to take a stand on this, but I have to record my reaction to this part of Tom’s post:

If it’s not the end of the alternative comic book, it’s certainly a vicious blow to those comics as we’ve come to know them. This is worrisome because an entire generation of excellent cartoonists came to prominence through alternative comic books — Joe Sacco, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Julie Doucet, Jim Woodring, Chester Brown, Seth, Joe Matt, Adrian Tomine. Alternative comic books were not just a vehicle for those talents but played a huge role in shaping how those cartoonists developed by giving them platform that offered legitimacy without permanency, unfettered control with periodic feedback. Although there are more opportunities now and have been other opportunities all along, one can argue that none of those formats has been as useful to this expression of comics.

I don’t doubt it. But when I read through that list of names, the only ones I feel the slightest connection to are Woodring, Brown, and Tomine — and Tomine is the only one that I encountered in comic book form. (Are the Hernandez brothers left off for some reason? They would add one more, but the point remains.) For better or for worse, the “alternative” generation, and especially the alternative comic book, has been almost completely irrelevant to my comics life. And I’m hardly a comics illiterate.

It’s possible that what we’re doing here is not so much killing a living thing as burying a dead one — acknowledging that it’s not going to come back. The Eightball/Optic Nerve/Palookaville format had its pros and cons, but its moment does seem to have passed. Dissecting it for useful lessons would be a good idea; agitating for its return strikes me as pointless. There aren’t any full-page newspaper strips anymore, either.

Hey, have you read Steven Grant’s essay

about how “2008 was one dreary year for comics”?

yes-and-it-is-crap

I won’t bother repeating my ‘best of 2008’ list … except to say it was two items long, and both were reprints.

What the hell has Steven Grant been reading?

Not that there weren’t good books, and entertaining ones. People keep telling me there’s a higher general level of skill and creativity in the field than ever before. That may even be true. Doesn’t change anything. It also depends considerably on what one considers “creativity.” A jungle girl comic with the most exquisitely crafted prose and finest art in existence is still just a jungle girl comic. A finely honed symbolist Batman story is still just a Batman story.

Oh. That might have something to do with it.

This is just Paul O’Brien all over again.

on lime green jello

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

http://tinyurl.com/5rl9ua is the new http://tinyurl.com/5h65md

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.

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).

keith_richards.jpg

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.


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).

Categories

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