Monday, February 27, 2006

Hmmm.... Speakeasy Comics R.I.P.

Just a pointer here.

While I take no pleasure in seeing Speakeasy close its doors, this does serve to amplify the concerns I've laid out below.

I've worked with Adam Fortier in his many industry appointments (Dreamwave, IDW, Speakewasy...) he's a truly nice guy but he rose to his level of incompetence, starting a business without the necessary foundation and in the end leaving behind another mess along with disgruntled creators, distributors, retailers and fans, including friends and customers of mine.

From Newsarama:

Vito Delsante, the "unofficial" press liason for Speakeasy Comics (and a creator with two projects that were due to come out through the publisher) has sent out the following statement:

"As unofficial public relations for Speakeasy Comics, I feel it is my duty to inform everyone that as of 3:30 PM today, Speakeasy Comics has shut its doors and will not be publishing comics for, at the very least, the rest of the year. Most, if not all, creators have been contacted and informed. If I'm not mistaken, all books
scheduled to ship in March will ship. April and May books are up in the air, while June books are cancelled. " click here for more + comments...

The more upsetting thing to me and I wish I could just write it off to Adam's frustration and the immediacy of this situation was his comment:
“There’re so many different things, and it’s kind of tough to point to one thing and say, ‘My God, this is the one things that’s destroying all of us!’ It’s very much a self-fulfilling prophecy. In order to be very successful in the comic book industry, I believe that people believe – and so it becomes true – you need to have your series done before you solicit it. You need to be able to show people, you need to be able to give people confidence in the product, and then you need to be able to pay your bills anyway if they don’t have confidence and they don’t really want to support it. Of course what happens there, is that there’s no way to run a company like that. You just can’t do it. Nobody has money like that. Even with millions, like CrossGen, it couldn’t be done. So, if the multi-millionaires don’t have money to be able to run a company like that, what hope does anybody else have?”

The only truth in this declaration is that, in order to be succesful in this industry that you do, "... need to be able to show people, you need to be able to give people confidence in the product, and then you need to be able to pay your bills anyway if they don’t have confidence and they don’t really want to support it." That Adam still shirks that responsibility, blaming other sources for his failure, as well as his comparison to CrossGen are ridiculous and empasizes the up hill battle to legitimacy that this industry faces.

That is the true essence of a commercially viable enterprise. If you have a product that you expect people to pay for, to commit their fiscal interest in, be it a Distributor, Retailer or Fan, you MUST be able to earn their confidence that you're not some fly-by-night-cash-grab-flake, as well as being able to pay your bills when reality fails to meet your expectaions.

If you can't do that, you have no business calling yourself a business, you are just a vanity press. Unfortunately, these final comments from Adam are likely to be the one point that will stick for most people and I'll try to feign suprise when the next few months exposes a few new pretenders who still refuse to do their due diligence before throwing their hat in the ring of comic publishing.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Abraham Maslow and the Underpants Gnomes Part Deux

OK, a few days ago we looked at some of the unhealthy things comic creators have done to stifle the market. Moving on, let's look at Publishers.

Last time, things got a little finger pointy so this time around, I'm going to offer myself up for sacrifice. In many cases today, the creator is also the publisher and for the sake of full disclosure, I will reveal that I have stumbled as publisher as well, AFC Studio. In June of 2000, I self-published THE END #1, a comic I wrote and which was supposed to be the first of a 4 part series. Actually I had a "co-publisher", the series artist who failed to illustrate the final 3 scripts, despite placing solicitations and advertising with Diamond Comics Distributors.

A little good came out of this excercise. I got to work with Dave "El Zombo" Wilkins who designed the books logo and flip cover and our grey scaling and lettering were handled by web comic phenom and current Marvel editor John Barber. So three of the four of us went on to become industry professionals but enough back patting, let's look at what went wrong and why.

It would be easy enough to blame the industry like many are still doing, hell we launched along with The Red Star (Image/Archangel), Violent Messiahs (Image/Hurricane) and CrossGen all who delivered more than we did but ultimately failed to deliver all that was promised and shut down production. But it wasn't the industry that failed us but us or for the sake of argument me, who failed the industry.

Why am I making a big deal about this? Plain and simple it's because it's disrespectful but even more important, you're screwing with people's livelihoods. When you solicit a book and a distributor and retailer commit to buying it, they are counting on the profits from the sales of that book. If you fail to deliver that book, they can't sell it and when you start late shipping multiple titles along with other tardy publishers, you make it damn dificult for folks to pay rent and meet payroll, which in turn makes it tough for them to take care of their family obligations.

Think I'm funnin you? Check out my letter to Joe Quesada from back in 2001 and see.

Looking back at Part 1, I mentioned the Comic Industry's Hierarchy of Needs. So what went wrong? Well hindsight being 20/20, before I wasted the time of distributors and retailers, it was my obligation to make sure I had these parts handled.

  • Profession or Hobby needs - Decide this before anything else. Will you need this to provide for your food, shelter, drink, sex, etc.?
I didn't. My job was running Comickaze but I believed the artist who swore becoming a comic artist was his dream and rolling into issue #1 he had stepped up.

  • Safety needs - have back-up to ease "unforeseen" stumbles. Have issues in the can and capital to cover materials or inventory when reality doesn't rise to expectations. Know your responsibilities to others and theirs to you.
Here's where things started breaking down. The artist got engaged and as often happens, it appears his fiancee wasn't as excited that time and money that could have been spent on her was instead being spent on comic books. So issue #1 shipped on time and we appeared at San Diego Comic Con, also showing off a preview of issue #2 which was due to ship in a few weeks, or so I thought.

Mistake #1 was soliciting a book that isn't completely drawn. Mistake #2 was continuing to solicit once I realized the artist wasn't keeping up. Without having issues in the can, we had no fall back position and were left making weak-assed excuses to Diamond who had orders to fill, to retailers who had customers to appease and budgets to make and fans (yes, we actually had fans!) who were anxiously awaiting the next part of the story.

It was a 4 issue series! Had I put more thought into it, been a responsible business person, I would have never solicited without all of the books being drawn, hell if I had done that, I could have died and the books still could have shipped on time! But hey, it was so easy to solicit the books and Comic Con was on the horizon and hey it was me, I'm special! Ego took hold and meeting my responsibilities took a back seat. So the book is a litle late, so what, it's good, it'll be worth the wait, right?

WRONG! Publishers when you make mistake #1, don't compound it by advancing to mistake #2. STOP SOLICITING until you can guarantee you won't repeat it. And for those of you who think you this doesn't apply to you, ask Joe Mad, Michael Turner, Todd McFarlane, J. Scott Campbell and Joe Linsner if they'd like their 90's sales #'s back or ask a retailer there opinion of publishers Image Central, Alias or Speakeasy.

I'm gonna deflect from my self for the moment and address this a little more. Mentioning these publishers is not done lightly. These three while among the most egregious at missing ship dates are certainly far from the only ones doing so, just ask fans of Secret War, Infinite Crisis, Spawn and Cal McDonald Mysteries. The problem though, especially with these three, in my never to be humble opinion, is that they appear to be hobby publishers, as in their purpose in publishing is just not to lose money.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they should be publishing to lose money but I do think they should be setting things up to make money. However none seem to have any mechanisms in place to guarantee a complete story arc will ship at all let alone on time. None are capitalized or staffed well enough to promote outside of the DM to generate new readership. And what the hell is going on with all the bed-hopping between these three by so many titles? And the biggest problem with hobby publishers is that it promotes unprofessional creative efforts and keeps potentially successful efforts from being succesful with professional for-profit publishers.
  • Belongingness needs - find your peers as well as your client/partners, share and learn, but also find your Jiminy Cricket, that voice that will tell you what you need to hear, if not always what you want to hear.
Here's a huuuuge hurdle. Your publishing peers, at least those willing to share info with you, probably don't know anything worth sharing, because everyone is to busy rushing books to market to get the attention of the video game or movie makers. There are some, like Larry Young (AiT/Planet Lar) who are willing to give you a peek behind the curtain and his True Facts, is a must read for any creator/publisher but it has been my experience that most folks continue to make the same mistakes over and over again, aping what they've seen come before and suffering the same setbacks. Probably couldn't hurt to read Brian Hibbs', Tilting at Windmills too.

However there is another group of professionals all too willing to share their opinions and experience with you, the folks you most need to convince to buy your books , the Comic Retailer. This is probably the reason why we started with decent sales despite no advertising for issue #1 of The End. Being a retailer and having access to some of the best and the brightest through the Comic Book Industry Alliance, I had some insight on what would appeal to retailers.

  • Promotional needs - advertising, promotion, public relations, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
Part of our website contained free downloadable shelf talkers with art and quotes from reviews, as well as ashcans and post cards. Helping pro-active retailers to promote my books. Even with my new project Wasting The Dawn, being published through IDW (because I knew I didn't have the time to be publisher this time), I still took it upon myself to meet with retailers, to send out full galleys to the media, and to make interior art and a downloable portion of the book available through my studio site, to help consumers and retailers understand why they needed to buy this book.

In fact I pulled off a rather interesting and still unique promotion for The End #1. In trying to pin down a demographic to promote The End to, I was approached by a local magazine, SPIN, whose editors felt that the rock theme, along with the look of our long haired & tattooed main character would appeal to their readership. Their free publication covered the indy music scene and 300,000 copies were distributed to major cities in California, Illinois, Texas, New York and others as well as England, Mexico and Japan each month. With the commonly accepted pass along readership of 3:1, The End was being serialized to nearly 1,000,000 readers every month! I pissed off some folks at Comic Con by pointing out that it was possible more people were reading my work than X-Men, Spawn and Batman combined and I got that coverage for free!

Unfortunately, despite respectable initial orders and a great retention of those orders on subsequent issues, since those issues were never drawn, and thus never released, I never got a chance to fully gauge what could have been accomplished with this promotional effort. It was pretty far reaching though as we were contacted for copies of the book for Comic Convention and Comic Shop Scenes on Showtime's Queer as Folk.

  • Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences, forget about just being better than those around you and focus on being the best you can be.

Well as should be apparent by now, I never got that far with the publishing myself, deferring to a professional full-time publisher to put out Wasting the Dawn but I am working with a number of newbies as well as lending whatever support I can to even the stalwart veterans daily via the CBIA.

Still here? I'll finish up with Distributors and Retailers next weekend and tie it all up with an IF I WERE IN CHARGE, I promise. Then maybe we can tackle something fun like the Army!

Friday, February 24, 2006

Abraham Maslow and the Underpants Gnomes Part 1

I thought this week was going to be about fandom but this came to me in a dream so I thought I'd run with it.

There's an hierarchy of needs in the comic industry but damned if I can tell whether anyone knows it! Actually, that's not totally true, while many folks don't have a clue, it often seems that even those those who do, seem to believe that they somehow transcend them.

Abraham Maslow theorized that, "... crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy." A quick peek at the industry reveals that he might have been prophesizing about comics.

Only when the lower order needs of physical and emotional well-being are satisfied are we concerned with the higher order needs of influence and personal development. Unfortunately too many in the industry never meet the most basic Biological and Physiological needs - food, drink, shelter, sex, sleep, etc... to ever move up the pyramid.

For those who are zoning out at this point, how about a South Park shout out? South Park addressed a similar concept in Episode 2-17 "Gnomes" where The Underpants Gnomes have a three-phase business plan, consisting of:

  1. Collect underpants
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

None of the gnomes actually knew what the second phase was, and none seem to concerned about that key missing part as if their dogmatic allegiance to steps 1 & 3 would magically resolve step 2. Much of the comic industry believes:

  1. Make/buy comics
  2. Profit!
Without even an allusion to a step 2! But back to the Hierarchy, the Comic Industry's Hierarchy, as I see it goes something like this:

  1. Profession or Hobby needs - Decide this before anything else. Will you need this to provide for your food, shelter, drink, sex, etc.?
  2. Safety needs - have back-up to ease "unforeseen" stumbles. Have issues in the can and capital to cover materials or inventory when reality doesn't rise to expectations. Know your responsibilities to others and theirs to you.
  3. Belongingness needs - find your peers as well as your client/partners, share and learn, but also find your Jiminy Cricket, that voice that will tell you what you need to hear, if not always what you want to hear.
  4. Promotional needs - advertising, promotion, public relations, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
  5. Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences, forget about just being better than those around you and focus on being the best you can be.
This applies to every facet from Publishers to Creators to Retailers but don't just take my word for it, lets take a look at why this fantastic industry, while putting out some of the best work and receiving the most media attention ever, is still incapable of supporting more than one full line distributor and the one distributor it has is spending more time chasing toy deals than in working with it's small press vendors to ensure that they can be profitably distributed in the direct market.

Creators. Without someone creating comics there would be no comic industry. No need for publishers, distributors, retailers, fans... Probably more than ever before, their is more creative output and a lower barrier to entry for creators to bring a comic to market. While this has yielded many gems, unfortunately this has also resulted in not only a ton of half-assed creative efforts but also many fantastic efforts stillborn due to half assed promotional and fulfillment efforts.

Sturgeon's Revelation, "Ninety percent of everything is crud", can explain away many of the creative failures but to see books like Hawaiian Dick, Rex Mundi, Wahoo Morris, Finder, Nothing Better... rendered commercially unviable (at least in the print comic format) is a sin. Actually Rex Mundi started well due to the fan base generated by the Brother Matthew Sunday Style Online Strip, a unique story line that introduced the public to the world of Rex Mundi. It ran for a year prior to RM's release, but the repeated failure to meet their solicitation schedule killed the creators' credibility and all but killed the title.

Unfortunately the titles above are just the tip of the iceberg and in most if not all cases, this is due to the creators failure to understand the hierarchy of needs. "If you print it, they will come", might make a cute movie premise but it just doesn't work in the real world. Comics need promotion as much or more than CDs, DVDs, Video Games, TV Shows... Not only to reach current readers but more importantly (especially for non-spandex work) to reach beyond the direct market customer, to the potential new reader who has no clue that there are comics that would be of any interest to them nor where to find them.

When was the last time you went to the movies without knowing the exact movie you were going to see? Why? Probably because of ads, interviews, reviews, online trailers... and while at the theater you probably also saw a lot of posters, maybe ads on your soda or snack package and certainly some trailers which planted the seeds for the movie you would see on your next visit. Comics can't afford to market like this? Bullshit, they can't afford not to, any of 'em. See what John Taddeo is doing to promote the release of his series, Zoom Suit. Do a Google search on Zoom Suit and see how many hits come up and where John's home page falls. Then run a similar search on your favorite underloved comic. Do you get any hits? Where does the "Official" site show up if at all? As a retailer I am constantly frustrated when trying to find info on small press books that are unavailable from Diamond or Cold Cut (more on them in the Distributor section) because these folks haven't even bothered to set up a home page and fed the search engines!

Man, if movie studios tried that, there would be no theaters and guess what? The only way to see a new flick would probably be online, assuming anyone could afford to film one without any capital. Maybe they could do it in 15 minute increments over a few years, eh? It's a great story, the fans will wait, right Messrs. Tucci, Campbell, Maduriera and Liefeld?

How about the music group that put out their CD recorded on their answering machine, in mono, because they couldn't afford studio time or real recording equipment and oh yeah, it still costs as much or more than most CD releases but you should still buy it because it's an alternative to the big studios.

Look, I love a wide range of comics from up and comers like Shana Manion, Ryan Claytor, Julia Sage, Robert Tritthardt and a host of others along with my Batman, Astonishing X-Men, Y the Last Man and the rest of the Big 2 output but I don't owe them a living. One of the reason I love the creators I just mentioned is that they show respect both to the industry and to me as a retailer and a fan. They don't look for hand outs, they work to create awareness for their projects, they deliver what they promise and they don't make excuses. I would go out of my way to promote their work to my customers and friends because they've earned it.

Oh and just to set the record straight, yes, I know the industry is heavily reliant on super hero comics but here's a little known secret... IT'S BECAUSE THEY SELL! And you know what else? They sell at the movies too! Who had the bigger box office, X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman or I, Robot, Ray and The Note Book? And it wasn't comic fans driving those ticket sales. it would take each of the 150,000-200,000 people who buy New Avengers or Infinite Crisis to buy 2,000 tickets each to achieve their Domestic Box Office totals. Artificially preventing the public from buying what they want won't make your work sell better, making your work better than what is currently available and making it accessible just might.

End of Part 1. More to come this weekend...

Publishers, Distributors & Retailers, oh my!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Have You Fallen For It?

Two of my favorite creators, Writer Warren Ellis and Artist Ben Templesmith (yep the guy who did the cover for my IDW Novel Wasting the Dawn) have teamed up to deliver a very cool, very unique project, Fell.

From the Solicitation:
Detective Richard Fell is transferred over the bridge from the big city to Snowtown, a feral district whose police roster numbers three-and-a-half people (one detective has no legs). Dumped in this collapsing urban trashzone, Richard Fell is starting all over again. In a place where nothing seems to make any sense, Fell clings to the one thing he knows to be true: Everybody's hiding something. Even him.
Why do I say unique? Well if you'd already read it you'd know, right? Well maybe, so I'll tell you what, if you haven't read it and you can't rush over to Comickaze to pick up a copy, click here to read it for free over at Newsarama, then hurry on back.

Done? Good! Nice read, eh?

So besides the unique take on crime and horror, notice anything else? Well you got to read it for free but the folks who actually bought it, didn't pay much more. Ellis, in order to entice readers who may be on the fence about his work or just a little to strapped to add another book to their reading list has slapped a paltry $1.99 price tag on it. Great deal eh? Or is it? Personally, I found the read satisfying and definitely worth $1.99 but look again... Fell is only 16 story pages vs the normal 22-24 found in most comics, so 2/3 the comic for 2/3 the price. Those of you who bought it, did you even notice? Is that a deal?

For better or worse, at Comickaze not many have noticed the price or the length without prompting. Fortunately all 3 of the issues that have shipped so far, are selling well but based primarily on the reps of it's creative team. But what does this mean? Should comics downsize, like candy bars and tuna fish, ever smaller packages to maintain an attractive price point or are we willing to pay a fair price increase to keep our comics at full length? And let's face it, if you're still willing to pay $1.99 for a book then $2.50 or $2.99 really isn't going to affect your quality of life and if it would, then perhaps buying a comic shouldn't be high on your list at any price (although if you're anywhere near San Diego, stop by Comickaze and you can wash some windows or slap together some bags and boards to get that out of reach $3 book. ;)

Over on The Engine Ellis has confirmed that this package has been ordered in significantly higher quantities than any of his other "creator owned" books (qualifier his) but a quick look at order numbers on ICv2 show estimates that peg #1 at ~30k in sales including reorders and 2nd prints. Not bad, it broke the top 100 but not great either. Ultimate Secret #4 (also an Ellis book) more than tripled that, Red Sonja #2 almost doubled that and Mutopia X #3 (a failure of a title) initialed at 130% higher than the combined estimate for Fell #1.

Oh one more thing I forgot to mention... Image offered retailers an extra 10% discount on issue #1 if we ordered in the same amount or more than we ordered for Spawn #150. A great idea as it enhanced the likelihood that we would order a lot more up front instead of waiting to re-order at a later date. Lots of #1 on the shelves means lots of potential sales but with that incentive removed from issues 2 & 3 and no way to know how #1 would sell when orders for #2 & 3 were placed Sales on #2 dropped 25% and #3 another 10% despite still being $1.99. They still sold out but only because Image obviously dropped their print runs to mirror retailer orders, so the subsequent reprinting is not all that impressive.

This to me indicates (as I've mentioned elsewhere) that the qualified "success" of #1 is due more to the incentives that got retailers to go heavy on #1 and have it on the racks and not the price. If #4 initials exceed those for #2 & #3 that would clinch that for me.

Ordinarily I wouldn't concern myself overmuch about this but there is a lot of buzz about the "success" of the format and with Casanova by Fraction and Ba to ship shortly I'm bracing myself for the rush of imitators who think people will line up for their books just because it's $1 cheaper than most others, the way so many publishers thought the key to Manga's enormous popularity was it's pocket size and not it's content.

So far 0nly Ellis and Image can say if this exercise has been a financial success for them. For Comickaze it's done OK but has cost us a few hundred dollars that it would have generated at the usual $2.99 for most Image books (heck, that's a part-time employee for a couple of weeks). Were this generating new customers searching for inexpensive entertainment and not just selling to the existing comic readers, I could applaud the effort but I have to wonder, with the market still as depressed as it is, what kind of promotional campaign could have been generated with a little more thought. So here comes the first of hopefully many....


The book would have been priced at $2.99 (with additional content) and the retailer incentive would have been extended to the first 3 issues with the 10% extra discount being contingent on orders being maintained at at least 90 % of #1 levels. This is important because it rewards only those who support the book at a level that benefits the publisher and creator. But lest you think I'm just a greedy bastard reaching into your pocket just to line my own, I'd use the extra $30k+ (at wholesale) that would have been generated on the 65k units sold (#1-3 so far), for advertising in areas outside of comics like Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Crime/Horror magazines... to bring new readers into the market. The fact that both Fell creators also have a huge body of collected work make them ideal to pitch to curious book readers.

In fact this would have also been a great opportunity (which is still possible) for Ellis/Image to sign on retailers for a co-op campaign highlighting his other works as well as the first Fell TPB. Similar to the discount incentive, there would be a buy-in target that would garner the retailer's inclusion in book market advertising.

That's how it would be, IF I WERE IN CHARGE!

Next week: What can the fans do?

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Blog Virgin No Longer...

Despite hosting online forums like The Comic Book Industry Alliance on Delphi (probably the first comic related forum there) for almost 10 years, I have never blogged, so why now?

Well, a lot of what I do is done behind closed doors, with a limited membership so as to keep the signal to noise ratio as high as possible as well as giving folks a little more safety in sharing sensitive information that isn't necessarily for public consumption.

I've also been asked to act as one of the judges for the Eisner Awards (the Acadamey Award of comics) for the 2006 San Diego Comic Con.

So between that, running Comickaze, having a family and publishing, I just don't have the time to drag my soap box from The Engine to Comicon to Newsarama anymore.

So every week or so I'll regale you with the way things would be done, IF I WERE IN CHARGE in order to give everyone the opportunity to read and share the world according to me. I'm opinionated and I know it but regardless of what you think of me, remember that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

It would be such a boring world if we all agreed, so please share your feedback but let's keep it civil, eh?

Back in a bit with my first missive, Ciao!