A short interview with First Second's Mark Siegel

Concerns were raised late last year when it was announced the relatively new and justly lauded publisher First Second was being folded into Macmillan's Children's Publishing Group. Fears that the graphic novel line would be forced to forgo  its more adult-oriented material in favor of the more potentially lucrative children's market were expressed by many, including Eddie Campbell, who's had several recent books released through the line, including the recent Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard.

For my part, I wasn't encouraged by a glimpse at the company's recent catalog, which seemed a mite skimpy compared to past years. Rather that indulge in idle speculation, however, I decided to get in touch with Editorial Director Mark Siegel and ask him about their plans for the year ahead and how, if at all, the recent economic woes have affected his company. Here's what he had to say:

Q: Last fall First Second put out eight books. The new spring catalog lists only six titles, one of which is a reformatting of a previously released book (Tiny Tyrant). To what extent is this paring back intentional on First Second's part (i.e. part of an intentional slowing down) and to what extent is it a result of the poor economy?

A: Right now First Second’s program continues to be a steady 12 to 15 titles a year. By design, I want us to have some freedom to shrink and expand as needed—and as the projects come in. So this isn’t really paring down for us, just staying at cruising speed. So honestly neither a slow down for First Second, nor the floundering economy are at play. With a legion of new commissions in the works, we could almost double our list from now to 2014, but I want to make sure we can publish every book with care, else we lose the very thing that makes First Second what it is.

Q: How does being folded into Macmillan's Children's Publishing Group affect First Second, if at all? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such a move? Why was it made in the first place? Is this more of a cosmetic thing or does it hold any real significance for the company?

A: First Second has always been an imprint of Roaring Brook Press—a children’s publisher—and yet, First Second has established itself as a graphic novel house, with no age stricture. Our first season included Eddie Campbell’s Fate of the Artist, as well Sardine in Outer Space, and Deogratias, about the genocide in Rwanda, for starters. So no, the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group is a convenient umbrella administratively, but First Second is a unique publishing experiment and continues to be marketed as such. I’ve never had any pressure to change any of First Second’s core tenets — one of which is to publish quality comics for children, teens and adults. And best of all, I work with some very smart people who understand that the Graphic Novel is its own category — separate from children or adult publishing. That hasn’t changed either.

Q: How does Diamond's recent announcement that they are going to up their order minimums affect a company like First Second? How much does :01 depend upon Diamond and the direct market for sales?

A: We publish graphic novels that meet the new Diamond order minimums, so we’re not directly affected. And it seems that Diamond believes in us as a publisher. The direct market is about a third of our whole picture, and I think it’s fair to say First Second is a sincere, genuine part of the American comics community. We’re not some corporate plant trying to capitalize on a trend. So in that sense, we belong in the direct market, and I hope to see our presence there continue to grow, just like in libraries and bookstores.

Q: Looking at the wider picture, how has the downturn in publishing and the growing storm clouds in the book seller industry affected First Second? Have you been at all forced to delay or cancel any future projects? Are you concerned that you may have to?

No, knock on wood, no delays, no cancels. I’ve been acquiring some big projects recently.

[caption id="attachment_2823" align="alignright" width="106" caption="Tiny Tyrant"]


Q: Why are you reformatting Tiny Tyrant into two books and a larger size? What is the thinking behind that?

The reviews on our first edition of Tiny Tyrant were all excellent, but they almost all said the lettering was just too small for young readers. And it was. So we inaugurated a bigger trim size to set apart our young list—we started with Little Vampire and Kaput & Zosky — which worked beautifully that way. With Tiny Tyrant we wanted to see if a smaller page count and lower price turned out to be even more attractive. Apparently it is.

Q:  Would you care to respond to Eddie Campbell's comments about :01 focusing more on children's books to the detriment of more adult-oriented material?

A: Well, it’s not so. I understand that pressure is felt in the overall industry, since many of the big publishing houses who are pouncing on the graphic novel category first are children’s publishers. But we’re not them. And of course the announcement about First Second in the Macmillan Children’s Division caused some understandable questions. But as I said — First Second isn’t deviating from its trajectory.

Q: Looking over your spring catalog, I do note that the majority of titles seem to be aimed at an all-ages or teen and up market. Obviously I haven't read any of the books listed, but at a glance through the catalog seems to suggest that only one book, The Photographer, seems to be aimed exclusively at the adult market (I'm assuming that Eternal Smile and the manwha books have an all-ages appeal). At the risk of offending you I'll just ask point blank -- has the success of kids' books like Sardine forced you to focus more on that age group to the exclusion of more adult-oriented titles?

A: No, no offense in that question! But the simple answer is no. After our early successes in the teen and young readers markets, I was worried that First Second might be perceived as only for children. But as you’ll see this year, our list of adult works is expanding—with many more in the pipeline. In 2009, as you point out, The Photographer and later on Stuffed (by Glenn Eichler and Nick Bertozzi) and Ballpeen Hammer (by Adam Rapp and George O’Connor) can’t be construed as YA or children's books, in any way. And just recently books like Three Shadows, Alan’s War, Bourbon Island 1730, continue to forge the core of First Second’s program, don’t you think? Not to mention Chris Blain’s Gus & His Gang, our raunchiest title to date.

Q: Beyond the spring, what do you have planned for the rest of 2009?

A: I guess I’ve mentioned a few just now. Keep an eye out for Danica Novgorodoff’s REFRESH, REFRESH. I expect this one will make waves. And Richard Sala’s Cat Burglar Black! And more, of course.

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