Unless, of course, some computer company'd like to donate a new Athlon-64 machine with USB2, 512 megs of fast DDR, and an ATI 9600 or better videocard...
Nah, didn't think so... Anyway, happy anniversary. Where we go from here, I'm not sure yet. Three years is a long time for anything...
Comics are arguably doing better than they were five, or even two, years ago, but it's still not what I'd call a healthy business. So what's with all the new companies suddenly rising up? Did I miss something? I'm not talking about little companies – those spring up all the time, maybe make a little burst of noise, maybe not – I'm talking about would-be players, the guys who appear to have money to throw around. The ones who want to be Marvel.
Don't get me wrong. I want lots of companies that want to throw money around in the business, particularly if they want to throw money my way. I love companies with money. But you know what I love even more?
Companies with a game plan.
I'm sure all these new companies think they have a game plan, but I've seen a lot of companies that thought they had a game plan come and go: First, Valiant, Tekno, Eclipse, CrossGen, Malibu, etc. etc. Given that the sales of most "successful" comics get above the 50,000 range these days, and the vast majority of comics sell 15,000 or fewer (many far fewer), I'd love to know how these guys entice investors to put money into a company. Force of personality? As I've mentioned before, the "money" appeal of comics these days seems to be in the prospect of creating a Disneylike "universe" of licenses that'll become cultural icons and reap billions upon billions of dollars for generations to come. Now it's true, it could happen. Odds are pretty good it won't, and I can't imagine that buying into it requires a great capacity for self-delusion.
Most companies' game plans seem to come down to this: we'll put out a lot of comics, everyone will buy them, producers will want to make movies from them, and we'll own all the rights. A friend of mine calls this the FIELD OF DREAMS philosophy, after the Phil Alden Robinson film about a sports fan who erects a baseball field in an Iowa cornfield: "Build it and they will come," the voice of God tells him. "Build it and they will come" is the operative philosophy of many would-be companies.
It's a philosophy for idiots, a business plan that practically guarantees failure. Yet, time and time again, you get new publishers out to make a "killing" in comics, which in 1993 was theoretically possible, but these are different times. It's certainly possible to get your comics turned into movies, and it's still theoretically possible for your characters to even become icons. But it takes promotion, it takes money, it takes time, it takes work. It takes good work. And luck. Spider-Man isn't an icon today because everyone woke up one morning and "Wow! We want Spidey underroos!" He's an icon because AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, in the early years, was good enough, striking enough, original enough and enough of the time, with enough consistency that, over time, he caught on, and caught on enough that the piles and piles of later crap might've occasionally threatened continued publication, but never threatened his iconhood.
If having movies made on your properties automatically made stars and publishers, Max Allan Collins (ROAD TO PERDITION) and Dan Clowes (GHOST WORLD) would be stars, and Fantagraphics would be raking in the dough.
It's nice to have faith in your properties and all, but what do you do if they don't come?
Here are what I like to call "stupid publisher tricks":
Insufficient capitalization. It's amazing how many publishers start out basing their budgets on projected sales of untested books in a questionable market. Don't worry about what you'll do after your first releases sell 100,000 copies, worry about what you'll do when they don't. Most companies start up looking three months or six months or a year down the line. Look ten years down the line.
Insufficient promotion. Dropping an ad into the monstrosity that is PREVIEWS, sending a press release to The Pulse and Newsarama and CBR, and dropping a house ad in your other books isn't promotion. You've got to do more, and not necessarily even spend a lot more money. Original and clever promotion doesn't have to be expensive, though it's likely to cost something, so figure it into your budget.
Proving you're a "major" by getting big Right Now. This is the theory, foisted on many dot-coms by venture capitalists, that in order to convince everyone you mean business you have to have big offices, a large staff, throw parties at conventions, etc. In other words, become successful by acting successful. And many of those "dot-com millionaires" are working the fryer at Wendy's now. Don't try to grow any bigger than you absolutely must be at any given moment, which means: don't spend any money you don't absolutely need to spend.
Underpaying talent. This may be a business in which properties are the path to success, but those properties are only as successful as the talent on them. Bad writing/art/lettering/coloring/covers will destroy property credibility, and company credibility, faster than anything. When you offer people nothing to work on books, unless it's offset by some other equally alluring incentive, you either get people whose work is worth nothing or people who will leave you, basically throwing away the time and effort you put into developing them and their reputation, as soon as possible. Only the people who believe their work is worth nothing will stay.
Overpaying talent. A lot of would-be publishers think they can make a huge splash by "stealing" name talent with offers of money far beyond what that talent normally earns for the same work. For some reason these lines always fail. If you want to compete on Marvel and DC's playing field, all you have to pay are rates competitive with Marvel and DC. Overkill almost always leads to that painful moment when you have to ask them to take a pay cut. Anyone who'll work for you for twice their normal page rate will work for you for $10 over their normal rate. Overspending drains coffers; it's stupid.
Deciding whatever talent is willing to work for you is the greatest talent ever. A lot of publishers seem to want to publish so badly they'll publish anything, and try to hype what they publish as the greatest thing ever to hit print. Bad writing can sometimes be masked by great art, and there's bad art that's slick enough in some way to be oddly appealing, but there's usually just bad art that's obviously bad. Any idiot who takes half a glance can see it bad. Publish enough of it and you're the publisher who publishes bad art. Try to sell it as great art and you're either the publisher who knows nothing about art or the con man who thinks we don't know anything about art. As I said, good art can mask bad writing. But only until the audience reads enough of it, and then the artist had better be damn good.
Having a bunch of "ideas" you figure you'll get other people to put on paper for you. If your ideas mean that much to you, put them on paper yourself. From a craft standpoint any talent worth their salt will put their full effort into any assignment, but it's an emotional reality that most people do better work on material they feel personally connected to. Trying to turn them into your personal create robots is like kicking yourself in the balls. If you're hiring people to create, let them create. (See last paragraph.)
Trying to be all things to all people. We're in Darwinian survival territory here. "Survival of the fittest" doesn't mean the biggest, toughest kid on the block always wins; "the fittest" is the one who can find an untapped ecological niche and fill it best. Fact is only very well-funded companies can afford to take a shotgun approach to publishing, and even those, like Marvel and DC, have a core niche. Success in comics these days is all about finding your niche. Don't try to go after every audience at once, figure out what niche you want to fill and go find good properties that fill it. But niche publishing is scary. An untapped niche means it doesn't pre-exist, you have to develop it yourself. It's working without a net. It requires faith and determination, and the rapid development of acumen.
Creating a line, not building a brand. The philosophy of the "line" is that comics fans won't pay attention to a single comic, they need a group of comics to sink their teeth into. A line. A universe. Whatever you want to call it. The last 10-15 years are littered with failed comics "lines," because almost no one wants to buy a whole line of books, particularly from creators whose work they don't know. Building a brand takes a lot more time, planning and attention to detail, and it's scary. (See paragraph above.) But a brand – let's say Marvel Comics – is your promise to your audience that when they come to you, they will get what you've based your brand on. As I've mentioned many times before, Marvel really took ten years to create and solidify as a brand. A recent successful brand, IDW, is still in the process of solidifying their brand, but underlying it is the promise that when you buy an IDW comic you have some idea of what to expect. Not surprisingly, their biggest successes haven't strayed far from the brand image; most of their failures have. (Same with Marvel, actually.) A successful brand is worth the effort; as Marvel again shows, an established successful brand can dominate a market and provide a huge buffer against downturns and the unknown, and Marvel has been as successful with marketing their brand as with marketing individual characters.
Publishing too much too soon. Everyone wants instant gratification, and publishers are no different. Want to know why lines really fail? Because throwing four or six new books at once onto the market doesn't mean the audience will have room in their budgets for four more books. Tying books together in lines doesn't encourage audiences to buy the whole line but to ignore the whole line. Look at Valiant, in its heyday a surprisingly successful company; it started with two books, and, until it picked up momentum, introduced new titles at a fairly slow pace. Outstripping audience willingness to buy your books will very quickly kill you.
Having no publishing philosophy aside from making money. Your philosophy toward the material is gives your brand its identity. But way too many publishers just want to publish because they want to publish, or they think they can make money at it. The publishing philosophy is where the publisher rightly gets to display his own creativity. Included are: choices of material, marketing approach, design and visual approach, and all the other little choices it's the publisher's function to make. It's the bedrock of the brand. If you don't know what your publishing philosophy is, you don't know what you're trying to say with the comics you publish, and if you don't know what you're trying to say, you're not going to build a successful brand. Because your philosophy is your promise to the audience.
Anyone got any other stupid publisher tricks?
Very few successful publishers are created overnight, and most of the successful ones will tell you it's still an endless struggle. I really do hope the new publishers inexplicably springing up not only know something I don't but represent a changing tide for the American comics business. Do we need new publishers? A: we need successful ones.