What are comics today?
Certainly the general public has long been trained to think of comics as artifact first. For decades, any “outsider” who didn’t blow off comics at the first mention would almost inevitably ask how much some comic their cousin found in his attic was worth in the collectors’ market. That’s where public acceptance that comics might have some sort of genuine “value” sprang up, in the notion that somebody spent $10,000 to buy a copy of the first appearance of Superman. While people collect comics for different reasons, the traditional collectors’ market is all about artifact, not content.
Content is something you only become aware of when you read comics. It’s very zen: if you buy a comic book but don’t read it, does it have any content?
In theory, content is what comics companies have traditionally sold. Look: Brainiac and Luthor have a powerless Superman shrunk down and stuck in a bird cage. That one I’ve got to read.
Then someone in comics became aware of artifact, and for awhile everyone tried selling new comics for their artifact value. And still try to. It worked until it didn’t (at least for some; others never did get the hang of it) and intermittently works again. So that’s been filled in by the more conceptual notion of content as artifact, which spans a broader if no more useful range: buying, say, BLACK SUMMER not because you have any specific interest in the superhero story but because It’s A Warren Ellis Comic. Or avoiding ALL-STAR BATMAN & ROBIN THE BOY WONDER because Frank Miller wrote it, if you bend that way. (It works both ways.) Which is a natural progression from simply content as comics: experience teaches you what you’re likely to like or dislike, so that you assess the level of the content on the basis of exposure to the artifact separate from any specific representations of the content.
The flipside of this is the development of the extended storyline – the content – as sales point by which to encourage the reader to buy multiple titles: i.e. COUNTDOWN and its multiple spinoffs, extensions and tributaries. (Things like Image’s new FANTASTIC COMICS #24, or any story that can be summed up “Thor vs. The Hulk” sort of represents the fourth quark in the equation, artifact as content.)
Ultimately, content as artifact is a marketing ploy, and its no surprise that marketers throughout the business have increasingly tried to hang their marketing on the idea. A good idea can no longer simply be a good idea. Now it has to be an event as well. At least where many comics companies are concerned.
These are the things we mean when we say comics. Any comics we produce can be hung on that triangle.
There used to be one way to produce comics. “You” (however many parties that comprised) wrote and drew stories, pages, issues, then surrendered them to a publisher for publication. The publisher was mandatory, if not for pay then for distribution. As with all traditional publishing, this put the publisher in the control seat. While cheaper than movies the physical production of the comic book – the artifact – was expensive enough that artifact was generally given priority over content, and publishers mandated the alteration of content to improve the perceived value of the artifact. Content, though it has always at least been given lip service by publishers, has thus always been undervalued by the comics business. Except insofar as it matched whatever “content” whatever publisher had come to prefer.
For a time circumstances undermined this traditional pattern. Forces outside the industry broke down traditional magazine distribution channels, and new distribution was forced to rise up in the meantime. Underground comix pointed the way by ignoring traditional distribution (and probably under duress, given that their highly sexualized, drug-ridden and anti-authoritarian content was material traditional distribution chains would never touch) and piggybacking on distribution of other materials to reach their desired audience. While the undergrounds coalesced around four or five major publishers, there was plenty of room for self-publishers to tap into the new system, and “publishing” was often a matter of printing or not printing completely pre-packaged content anyway, rather than the more traditional system where the publisher actively molded a book’s contents.
At this point, the early ’70s, the business still viewed itself mostly as content rather than artifact. Though there’s always some sense of artifact, comics collectors still aren’t widely acknowledged and even within the industry are still viewed askance, though a few comics shops have already started up and the back issue market bubbles under the surface. But comics are still largely viewed as material bought to be read once or twice, then passed around or thrown away.
Old distributions channels crumbling away (or walking away, as comics become intolerably unprofitable for them) forces open new distribution channels by the end of the 1970s: the Direct Market. Comprised mostly of comics shops springing out of back issue shops that still cater mainly to the back issue market, the Direct Market – so named because its proponents like Phil Seuling buy their new comics directly from the companies – finds Marvel, DC and other companies unwilling to turn completely away from the newsstand distribution system that has mostly abandoned them. While underground comix suffer from legal threats and are mostly shut down, the implications of underground comix – at one point vastly outselling “straight” comics – aren’t lost on an incoming crew of comics talent and comics fans. Given a new distribution channel capable of delivering product – new talents are mostly thinking of comics as content at this point – directly to a theoretically appreciative audience, a smattering of self-publishing and new publishing attempts start up. The new distribution channels themselves have growing pains, with distributors starting, overreaching, failing. But the comics shop gains ground, coalesces an audience, and the traditional notion of comic book as cheap throwaway entertainment, while never quite dying off, takes a hit. The rise of the comics shop enables distributors to stabilize, and the stabilization convinces DC and especially Marvel to view the comics shop as its increasingly dominant focus.
By 1981, the golden age of comic as artifact had begun.
It’s not surprising that many creators decried – still decry – the concept of comic as artifact, even as they molded their work around it. Something was felt to have been lost by treating material “seriously” (the rampant puerile and overliteral interpretations of “serious” didn’t help) and it wasn’t uncommon for creators to nostalgically praise the inane illogic that made comics a laughingstock for years.
Comics as artifact has almost always had a limiting effect on comics as content. The content of most American comics has been restricted by the limitations of format – even EC Comics stories were usually crammed into a restrictive number of pages, though EC was, as a company, much better than compensating for its limitations than most – and much innovation in both content and format was triggering by annoyance with limits. Where comics as artifact was first seen as potentially progressive was in the earliest discussions of the graphic novel, where length was postulated as a palliative for what was often viewed as sub-par material. Not that anyone in their right mind proposed length as a cure-all; rather, the theory – bolstered by the very extended graphic novels already being produced by French comics and other foreign markets – was that additional length would allow the space and leverage to move beyond that material into more substantial content. The concept of the graphic novel involved a permanence – comic as artifact – that “comics” weren’t generally considered worthy of, and it was both the desire for that level of permanence (and, by extension, respect) and a hunger for the advanced content it was anticipated they’d allow. In practice, the vast majority of what passed for “graphic novels” in the ’70s and ’80s – especially once Marvel got in on the action and started pumping out piles of what were essentially issues of MARVEL TEAM-UP – were pretty much long issues of ordinary comics material. There were always exceptions, but we entered the ’90s crept it became more and more the trend to consider comics artifacts more than anything else. Formats were chosen in advance of projects – it would be decided, for instance, that the “Dark Knight format” “sold” so projects in other formats would be physically retooled to fit, rarely with any other considerations – and gimmicks laden on to suggest value divorced from content, etc. Actual content was often dismissed as irrelevant; we were suddenly back in the day when reading comics was considered foolish, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Artifact was all.
Until it wasn’t. The collapse of the “comics as artifact” paradigm also collapsed distribution and much of the comics shop market, leaving options tight, innovation rare, and newer content even more restricted, with companies not trying to ride the market so much as survive it.
The crawl back from that has been interesting, with content as artifact getting a whole new lease due to the second coming of the graphic novel, which was influenced by the manga influx – which to a large extent was American readers looking elsewhere for the content (and, yes, the main appeal of manga isn’t stereotypical artwork but its content) that American comics had abandoned most pretext to. It doesn’t much surprise me that this decade has been marked by DC and Marvel on the one end of the market returning to comics as artifact on a large scale, at least in their mainstream superhero universes, which are commonly seen to exist as at least some kind of content in their own rights, and the rise of the graphic novel on the other end, with an increasing focus on individual content as main selling point, and the potential expansion of the “graphic novel shop” (recently proposed by Borders Books but certainly on others’ agenda should Borders find success with them) that stands a decent chance of splintering graphic novels into an entirely separate market.
The creation of a separate “graphic novel” market implies, at least for a time, a need for new graphic novels to feed that market. As that market is unlikely to be dominated by the superhero interests that have heavily influenced if not controlled most choices made by the Direct Market since its inception, this suggests the potential both from the major American comics companies and from the “big New York” book publishers who are now generating many of the new graphic novels. Meaning we as creators sit on the cusp of a potential revolution where content and artifact will essentially be indistinguishable.
In the midst of this we have one other new factor, the Internet. The Internet isn’t exactly dirt cheap, but, as making comics is cheaper than making movies, publishing comics on the Internet is considerably cheaper than publishing comics on paper, and distribution is wide open. Profit, that might take some work, but whereas the publication model for most creators used to be to have a publisher buy, publish and distribute your work, with the publisher absorbing accruing most of the income and rights, and making the decisions, now that’s only one of several potential models, and the one likeliest to go into heavy rotation in the fairly near future is Internet for early exposure of your comic as it is being produced – comic as, basically, pure content freed from artifact – resulting in graphic novel publication (comic as artifact) either self-financed or through an established publishing house (as opposed to a comics company) and sold through the graphic novel chains. Whether this succeeds in the long run, however, will depend almost entirely on quality of content. So it’s time to start some serious discussions about what quality of content really means.
Books worth mentioning:
A few truly superb books have made their way down the transom recently. Let’s just say it right now: read them all.
INCOGNEGRO by Mat Johnson & Warren Pleece ($19.99)
This is a disconcerting book to read parallel to watching Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, a not-really mystery that riffs off superhero conceits as a way into an examination of some of the ugliest days of American history. “Incognegro” is a “high yellow” black journalist whose ability to pass for white allows him unparalleled access to lynchings of blacks throughout the South of the early ’30s, and whose syndicated column exposing those crimes has made him public enemy #1 for the Klan and other whites who feel their fun is being spoiled. (This isn’t flip characterization; Johnson recreates the culture of the time, when lynchings functioned as public entertainment and a souvenir photo taken with the corpse was the thing to do.) Looking to retire and take a more creative role in the blossoming Harlem Renaissance of the day, the book’s hero goes “incognegro” once last time when the arrest of a black man for murdering a white woman hits close to home, and he finds himself deep among Klansmen, missing deputies, hillbilly Manson families, and a tangle of sexual, racial and social double identities. Pleece’s artwork works fine, but the novel’s biggest flaw is the black and white printing where color would have given it a lot more impact, especially where skin shades are crucial to the story. The mystery’s pretty transparent, but it’s really just a vehicle; INCOGNEGRO‘s brilliance is in its deft examination of racial and gender politics. (It also has the single best, clearest definition of racism I’ve run across anywhere.)
FABLES: SONS OF EMPIRE by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham et al ($17.99)
In some ways this volume, collecting issues 52-59, sums up everything wrong about trade paperback collections these days. In a perfect world, a trade would combine issues making up a specific story arc, so that each book could function as an individual novel. Willingham’s structural approach is more… freeform.
Fortunately, that gives him room for fairly ambitious stuff. The FABLES setup: the dimension where fairy tales exist has been conquered by a power-hungry Adversary, forcing many “Fables” to relocate to our dimension. In the prior volume, Earth’s Fables struck back – a little – and this volume starts the Adversary’s counter-attack. Sort of. Willingham’s interest (I don’t want to downplay the role of Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha and other artists – this is one of the most consistently good-looking, well-designed comics in the business – but the story is clearly Willingham’s show) is less action than strategy; these are characters involved not in “battles” but in vastly critical war games. So it works beautifully that the main sequence in this book are thought experiments: one of the Adversary’s key strategists works out a conquest of “our” world in mercilessly, seemingly inexorably apocalyptic detail, with the strategist’s personality really selling it as a looming possibility – and then another character deftly dissects the plans’ faults, mispresumptions and especially its psychological blind spots to propose another scenario with opposite results that is no less horrifying in different ways. Underneath it is a defter (deft is probably the single most appropriate description of the series) understanding of the psychology of war and its effects than you’ll find almost anywhere – without any war being fought. But it’s tremendously interesting.
From Rebellion Books:
THRILL-POWERED OVERLOAD: THIRTY YEARS OF 2000 AD by David Bishop (£34.99)
Coffee table books about comics tend to pretty tepid “official versions,” watered down histories to put the subject matter, and creators, in the best possible light. This excellent history of 2000 AD, one of the pivotal comics of the ’70s, isn’t one of those. It’s all here: the origins of the magazine when punk rock was on the rise, the cultural and business fights that threatened to kill it, the messy creative battles and sometimes cynical decisions – not to mention the rise of talents like Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Garth Ennis, Pat Mills, Grant Morrison and seemingly thousands of others who went on to shape American comics from the ’80s on; author David Bishop gets it exactly right, neither snarky nor obsequious, freely cuing us in on both the praiseworthy and the warts. Along with tons of art covering virtually every strip that ever appeared in the magazine’s still ongoing run – while its true that the story formula, as Warren Ellis once put it, is “ultraviolence punctuated by low humor,” the sheer breadth of material nestled in that mold is staggering – this beautifully designed, very well-written book – unlike most books of this type, once you’ve read it you’ll understand not only what worked and what didn’t but why, and why is the element almost always glossed over in similar works – that turns out to be ridiculously entertaining tribute to a little magazine that ended up an incredible phenomenon. Absolutely excellent.
From Henry Holt:
A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF AMERICAN EMPIRE by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki & Paul Buhle ($17)
While it’s traditionally held that the victors write the histories, Howard Zinn’s A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, which told the story of America from the perspective of the underclasses instead of the upper classes, has been pissing the victors off for decades. This is the graphic story version of that book that approaches the information as a lively historical lecture and puts it in a more modern post-9/11 perspective that covers multiple events in American history from foreign interventions and the lessons lost to them to wars against the Indians, organized labor, antiwar movements and others. Zinn’s writing is its usual clear and direct – his case that the government has lied to the American public time and again to get support for foreign adventurism (the Ghost’s administration just followed a long tradition) is well-delineated – and the simple, quiet art carries the work nicely. Larry Gonick long ago proved that comics are a great medium for easy delivery of fairly complex historical content; this book continues that trend.
So… two important and entertaining books, two very entertaining ones. Not bad for one week.
Back around – when was it? Last June? – when this election season began, nothing glowed so brightly for our futures as five or six extra months of ugly tedium. But it really has been the most entertaining presidential election I can recall. It started out, basically, with two New York candidates – Rudy Giuliani & Hillary Clinton – declaring themselves the frontrunners (the first primaries and caucuses were still months away), as if to render the process irrelevant and the run for the White House little more than a political Subway Series. Now, of course, Giuliani is a laughable memory (who else could turn the phrase “9/11” into the 2008 equivalent of “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”) whose showing in primaries was considerably worse than Ralph Nader’s, while Hillary seems to be growing more desperate and erratic by the moment.
And the chaos of this year’s primary/caucus season, which broke with tradition and had every state scrambling to make their imprint on the nomination by pushing voting schedules sometimes beyond tolerance, has given The System at least a robust veneer while bringing all its little quirks into sharp relief. How many people knew about Democratic Superdelegates (they have to duck into phone booths before they can cast their votes) before last Christmas? Last week, my sister (who lives in Texas) drops me a note to say that this year she’s even going to the caucauses after the Texas primary, and I’m thinking what the…?!! Turns out you get to vote twice in Texas, at a primary during the day and then at an evening caucus after the polls close, and each of the sends a certain number of delegates so, say, Obama could win the primary while Hillary wins the caucus – and then select power brokers in Texas get to vote, theoretically, a third time. (Did the Democrats steal the superdelegate idea from Texas or vice verse, or is it just parallel twisted development?)
Then John McCain ends up the most blessed and cursed candidate out there. Blessed because he came back from the pits of derision (but I suspect that clip of him singing “Bomb Bomb Iran” hasn’t stopped haunting him quite yet) to become the shoo-in nominee. His curse? Money and Republicans, or lack of them.
McCain is far from the worst guy we could have as president, and I appreciate the Republican rank and file for not making the worst guy their choice this time around. (I sort of question the wisdom of him using “Experience” and “Keep The War Going!” as his twin battle cries, since the former’s not doing a damn thing for Hillary and the latter’s a land mine just waiting to blow up in a general election, but I take that more of a sign that the Republicans have no message this year than anything else.) But because he’s far from the worst, he’s been under constant savage attack from more outré factions of his own party whose views have been given wide vent for the last eight years and who are concerned now with being marginalized. Part of their proof that McCain isn’t “a real Republican” derives from his endorsement during the NY primary by the New York Times – the very font of the Liberal Media Conspiracy, from their POV.
Yet, last week, the Times abruptly “smeared” McCain with a story implying he’d almost had a torrid affair with a female lobbyist several years ago, saved from it only through his staff’s intervention. The sex angle was cute, but the story seemed to stick a sword through McCain’s vaunted integrity, suggesting his “girlfriend” weighed in on matters McCain was voting on in the Senate. Or would have, had the story included much of anything to back all this up. (Meanwhile, McCain’s Arizona campaign co-chairman, Congressman Rick Renzi, was indicted for extortion, money laundering and other interrelated charges, but it doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on McCain. Yet.) Even for the NY Times, which has pissed any rep it may have enjoyed for journalistic integrity right down the trough these past few years, it was an amazingly sloppy story. Then it came out – who’s more damned by this? – they considered running it before New Hampshire, but (at least according to one version) McCain’s people convinced them to withhold it.
So why even bother with it now?
It’s funny, but lie home in bed sick for a few days, with little else to do but listen to political stations on TV, and hear the same story over and over from different angles, and things start to poke out at you. Presumably sometime between New Hampshire and now, the Times decided The Public Has A Right To Know. But a right to know what? The only other point to the story like they ran would be to lob an innuendo-filled hand grenade at the McCain camp, but who ended up benefiting most from the story?
McCain, who, the instant he became the Enemy Of The New York Times, was reborn as the New Darling of all those loony-Right Republicans who’d been pillorying him. When the Times loved him, he was a Democrat in Wolf’s Clothing. Now the Times hates him so “what’s bad for the Times is good enough for us!” McCain’s people have even started using the story in fundraising letters. And, sure, it’s paranoid… it’s manipulative… but… I’m thinking…
All those bodies are infinitely more important to McCain now, too, because it looks like, despite Hillary’s attempts at scolding and mocking him (not to mention flat out lying about things like her previous support of NAFTA and other causes that don’t play well with the working class/union constituencies that seem to now be deserting her), Obama will be the presidential nominee. In addition to many other firsts, Obama’s the first Democratic candidate is recent memory to be raising considerably more money than his Republican opposition. (Usually it weights heavily the other way around.) So McCain needs to raise a hell of a lot of money if he wants even parity in the general election, so it’s time for all constituencies to hop aboard the donation train. McCain’s money problems go weirdly deep, and answer at least one question I’ve been wondering about: has the rest of Washington come to a standstill for the election season?
Apparently, it has.
See, McCain signed on for public financing for the primaries. That limits him to a ceiling – I think $55 million – to spend before the general election. He has spent over $49 mil already, and the Republican Convention doesn’t happen for over six more months. According to law, should he go over that limit – there’s no waffle room, over is over, even if it’s a $10 taxi ride – he’s subject to fines and possible jail time. McCain tried challenging Obama to go the public financing route to limit spending to undermine Obama’s own claims of integrity, but Obama’s people were right to ask what specific terms were being discussed. That failed to arouse much public interest, so McCain’s lawyers have now sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission stating that he is now not bound by Commission rules. Unfortunately for them, it’s the Commission that makes that determination – and the Commission currently doesn’t have enough members to rule on it because stand-offs between Congress and The White House have kept those seats from being filled. I don’t see a lot of incentive for a Democratic-held Congress to rush to fill those seats so the questions can be resolved. Which might lead to another campaign first this year: a party’s chosen nominee conducting six months of his campaign from his garage.
Notes From Under The Floorboards:
Thanks to everyone for their well wishes. The flu was a bitch for a few days but has tapered off into simply an annoying cold (cough, nasal drip) but otherwise things move on. The contracts came in yesterday on my Major New Project, so maybe sometime over the next few weeks I can start letting you in on it. I should probably run a project update once of these days anyway…
Okay, so you’re a blonde bombshell college student who dumps her needy but rich boyfriend to hook up instead with his needy but poor roommate. But you don’t know needy but poor is a superhero, but he ends up getting your cop dad buried under a ton of bricks, and there’s a supervillain who knows who is really is so the supervillain throws you off a tall bridge but your hero boyfriend catches you with his webbing but breaks your neck in the process and you die, but before you even got to the bridge you went to Paris and had an affair with the supervillain in his civvy ID because he was needy but rich’s rich but surly dad, and the affair netted you a couple of secret kids that aged ridiculously quickly… once they showed up, anyway. But now you’re still dead. So what do you do for an encore? Become a Christian metalcore band! Comics inspired? Hard to believe the name is a coincidence…
So I see the Wall St Journal, champion of all unfettered capitalists everywhere, is trying to strike another blow at Net Neutrality, the principle that has been at work since the Internet started up that basically says no one company has the right to determine how the Internet is used – because, basically, the Internet is a huge unhomogenized place whose reach extends in a crazy mishmash across all boundaries, regions and jurisdictions: the first almost totally free place in the history of modern civilization. And a lot of companies just can’t stand that. Many service providers, for instance: Comcast, while publicly proclaiming otherwise, tried to pull little games to limit promised bandwidth to their customers, and are now being sued for it. The WSJ’s argument is that “net neutrality” prevents ISPs from doing exactly what they want, which somehow translates into the dreaded “hampering competition.” But if there’s some sort of thwarted competition among ISPs to provide Americans with the faster, better Internet access we so richly deserve (and which much of the rest of the world already enjoys) why are all the big American ISPs trying so hard to slow everything down?! Mainly, the WSJ’s big moan is that Net Neutrality somehow prevents American ISPs from milking clients for everything their worth by subdividing the Internet into a slew of arbitrary principalities that users would either need to pay a tariff to enter or, subject to the discretion of the ISP, would never be allowed to enter at all. (Like those nasty webpages critical of Comcast.)
Turns out everyone’s been miscalculating the past few decades, and our homeland galaxy the Milky Way is twice as thick (12 light years) as conventionally assumed. The math was there all along, but until a team of Aussies double checked the math recently, everyone went by the wrong number. Bizarrely, it seems that when the new value is substituted, other equations that previously didn’t make much sense (there was a lot more magnetism in our galaxy than our mass theoretically allowed, for instance) suddenly work. Science marches on. (But don’t think this disproves evolution. It doesn’t.)
Congratulations to Greg Matiasevich, the first to figure out last week’s Comics Cover Challenge solution was “benches.” Greg kindly points us to John Siuntres’ Word Balloon, another source of pithy and entertaining comics commentary. Go take a look.
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist… anything, really – binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU’D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. (You never know; I might just go on a mass linking spree one of these days, if I can ever find the Internet’s answer to a water tower.) As in most week, there’s a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in this column, if you’re up to finding it. Good luck.
TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.