Interview: Phil Foglio on the many lives of Girl Genius

Last week, Phil and Kaja Foglio announced a whole slew of new projects tied to their long-running webcomic Girl Genius: Prose novels, audiobooks of the prose novels, games, a Danish translation of the comic, and a full-color omnibus edition of the first three volumes of the Girl Genius comic, to be published by Tor to kick off their new graphic novel line. Come 2011, it seems, Girl Genius will be everywhere.

Curious about how this came about and how it will play out, I called Phil yesterday and asked a bunch of questions. Here's what he has to say.

Brigid: Why are all these things happening at the same time?

Phil: I was working with our agent ages ago, and the first thing of course we sent out were the graphic novels, and they got circulated around, everybody looked at them and were like, "Wow, we love this story but this isn't what we do." Then when we had the novel finished, or finished enough, we sent that to the agent and he sent it around, and one of the responses we got was, "You know, we read the novel and we remembered how much we loved the graphic novel. We aren't interested in publishing the novel, but we would like to publish the graphic novels." So the one reminded them of the other.

Brigid: Was that Tor?

Phil: Right. They are apparently starting a new graphic novel line, and they wanted to launch with Girl Genius, and we were like, "Yes!"

Brigid: How will Tor's graphic novel be different from the ones you have self-published?

Phil: It will be different in that it will be smaller than what we published, a smaller dimension, but it will be larger than your typical manga size, it will be full color, and it will be the first three graphic novels slammed together into an omnibus edition. But that's really the only difference. They say they are going to shoot for around a $10 price point. We said we want to keep publishing and we want to keep bringing them out in the current format because there are a whole bunch of fans who have been supporting us over the years and they are invested in this format and the last thing we want is for nine of these things to be on the shelf and the next one to be totally different. And Tor was like, "How many do you publish?"—and we gave them the numbers—"And you sell them for how much?"—and we said, "Around 25, 28 dollars"—and they were like "Ahahahaha, you go right ahead, you are not going to affect our demographic at all. You sell to your people we will sell to the other 99 percent of the world."

Brigid: So are you worried that Tor's edition will cannibalize sales of your self-published graphic novels?

Phil: It's always a possibility, but I don't really think so. We certainly have penetration in the comic book markets, and we have been very active on the webcomic front, which is certainly someplace where the publishers would like to be but they are still a little leery about the whole nope, 98 percent of the people are not going to give you money kind of thing. So they believe they will be able to sell these to people who don't go into comics shops, don't go online, may have never heard of Girl Genius before, but might think it's interesting.

If they turned around and scooped up all of our readers, and I didn't have to publish the books any more and I got to empty out my garage and just concentrate on producing the book and not selling it and schlepping it around—well, I could find something to do with my time.

Brigid: Would you consider doing more volumes with them?

Phil: Yes, absolutely. They kind of have an option on the whole series, on all 10 proposed volumes. They want to bring out a series of three graphic novels. They have only actually put the contract out on the first one because they want to see how it does, and if it does really, really well, they will already have a foot in the door. We'd be foolish to go to anyone else, and they would be foolish to let us go to anyone else.

Brigid: Did you write the prose novels yourself?

Phil: Yes. You know how when you have a novel that you really like and you go and see the movie, you're like "Wow, they took out all of that interesting background detail and political machinations and all the world building detail"? Well that's what we put back in. We knew all that stuff, but in many ways a comic is very similar to a movie in that there's only so much stuff you can put in, so there's a lot of detail that we were able to actually put in the novel and commit to paper.

Brigid: Do you have a bible for Girl Genius?

Phil: We do. We had to put one together a few years ago when we had another potential publisher buyout deal which fell through, through nobody's fault but theirs. At that time they wanted us to assemble a bible, so we did. We had a lot of notes and we know where the story is going, but it was kind of interesting to see what we had and where we needed work. Even though that deal ultimately fell through, it was very educational.

Brigid: Is there any talk of a movie or TV deal for Girl Genius?

Phil: No, there is not. Not that we are against one. Every year at San Diego, somebody comes around and they are like "Who is representing this, is anyone dealing with you in Hollywood?" and we say "No," and they say "Here's our card." Somehow these cards have not magically produced me a movie. And our feeling is, great, because the longer they wait, the more we figure out what we want in the story and quite honestly, the more readership we get and the more clout we get and eventually we will be able to say "No, this idea for the movie sucks and you can't have it." We are thrilled with what we are doing, and we are making a pretty good living at it so we don't need their movie. We don't have to please them.

Brigid: What about iPhone and iPad apps?

Phil: There are iPhone games and Facebook games in development. We have a couple of teams working on those and we are very excited about it. These are groups of young people who want to become rich and they think by working with us they are going to get rich, and we say that's fine, get rich as Croesus, just give us our ten percent.

Brigid: But you don't have t-shirts?

Phil: No. I just suck at doing t-shirts. What we need to do is get enough cash flowing that I can hire somebody to do t-shirts. Every now and then I get the idea to do a t-shirt, and I wind up with 5,000 extra small and petite t-shirts that nobody wants to buy.

Brigid: Do you think winning the Hugo award helped you get all these deals?

Phil: It did. Being able to slap "Hugo award wining" on something before you even publish it, that will rate an automatic "well I have to try this" in the science fiction community. A lot of people in the active science fiction community already read our stuff—there's what we call science fiction fans and science fiction readers, and for every fan there are a hundred readers who never show up at a convention or publicly identify themselves because of the shame, but they are still aware of what the awards mean.

We certainly picked up more readers, we got more people interested in the book who had never heard of it before, but just being nominated did that. Howard Tayler, who does Schlock Mercenary [which was also nominated for a Hugo] got a lot of positive blowback on that as well. He's up again this year.

Brigid: Is there anything you do not want to do with Girl Genius?

Phil: I'm sure there's a bunch of things we wouldn't do. If and when we do something connected with Hollywood or television, we would be very persnickety about the story. The last thing we want is for something to do something where the title Girl Genius is ironic.

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