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!

1 comment:

  1. Very informative. While I am working on comic story ark of my own. I'm kinda glad I did not get to solicition and distribution yet. I thought I was ready, but I find myself rewriting and redrawing my story. I still have some lose ends to tie up.You should give tips on the best way to soliciate and promote. I know about comic con. But I need to know best way advertise, and how to solicate comic stores.