Vado Discusses Slave Labor's Digital Future

This year, Slave Labor Graphics celebrates twenty-five years in operation. This fact likely flew under the radar as Dan Vado, SLG's owner and publisher, hasn't made of the milestone. While it continues to be a small publisher, SLG has managed to remain both relevant and interesting over it's quarter century. Its influence and legacy can seen in the creators that it's published over the years, which -- to name just a few -- includes such notables as Jhonen Vasquez, Roman Dirge, Ed Brubaker, Andi Watson, Evan Dorkin, Faith Erin Hicks, Phil Hester, Ariel Schrag, Camilla d'Errico, Ross Campbell, Jim Rugg, Sean McKeever, Ethan Nicolle, Landry Walker and Eric Jones.

SLG recently announced that moving forward, the publisher's comics will be released digitally first, abandoning the comics singles format. In speaking with CBR News, Vado makes it clear that collections will remain in print and that the move is digital first, not digital only. We spoke with him about what this means for readers, the details on how it will work and what readers can look forward to in the coming months.

CBR News: A move like this, from print to digital, isn't made quickly, though it's also not unprecedented. Indie comics have moved towards graphic novels and collections and away from single comics for years. From your perspective, when did that happen and what do you think were the reasons?

Dan Vado: There are so many answers to this question for me that I almost hesitate to answer it. It's too easy to just say that a distributor's policy, or the inability of comics stores to break out of their niche, or the fact that most publishers who are doing smaller books come in to this business with no formal business training and no real capital to start with. Heidi McDonald put it to me, reminding me that none of us from our particular generation got into this business to get rich.

But, the business aspect of things and the way the marketplace for comics has sort of evolved, especially during the Great Recession/Depression, has made it increasingly more difficult to sell something in comic pamphlet format that is not a Marvel or DC super-hero title. Even if you wanted to say that serializing is something you do to build a brand, it becomes impossible to do when you get a distributor who has an expectation that needs to make a certain amount of money on everything that passes through its doors (and I am going to add that I do not feel that is an unreasonable expectation -- Diamond is not giving out grants and they do not owe anyone but themselves anything).

A lot gets made of Diamond and their minimums, but it's not about them. Think about it. If you are doing a comic book (and I mean a $3-4 pamphlet) and it is selling like 500 copies (which is a real number, by the way -- that is what I can, with the best of marketing, hope to sell of a comic or graphic novel in the direct market), who is really making money on that and what good is it doing anyone? Is building a readership that small going to be anything that will make the effort worthwhile from either the creative or business side? Is a circulation of 500 copies something that will lead to larger sales of a collected edition? It might for some people, it has not been true for us.

So, I, and I think everyone else kind of gravitates towards the higher end higher retail product like a graphic novel, because the format opens up a lot of avenues not available to a comic book format, like libraries, bookstores and lots of online places like Amazon.

In recent years, what percentage of sales have come from the Direct Market, and have those numbers changed over the years? Do most of SLG's sales come from bookstores, Amazon and other outlets?

Prior to Hot Topic dropping comics, nearly 80% of our sales came from outside of the direct market. I think if I ever decided to release the numbers, you would be stunned at how many comics we sold in only a few hundred stores.

Now, we are closer to 50/50, maybe even 60/40, with the Direct Market getting the larger share. But it is worth noting that the larger share does not show any particular strength in that marketplace as much as it reflects that we lost a major outlet for our titles.

It also reflects that the DM is the primary market for new releases, but if I isolate it to backlist -- which has always been our strong point as a company -- Amazon now outsells the entire direct market on our backlist on a dollar to dollar basis. We do as well on Amazon selling backlist as we do in the direct market.

SLG began publishing Stephen Coughlin's "Sanctuary" digitally earlier this year. Was this the first attempt to see how this model would work? And if so, how has it done?

It is still kind of early. One of the major issues is that I want to have everything available everywhere all at once, so that someone reading your interview could then go to our store, the iTunes store, BN.com or any of our app partners and grab a copy to read. But the learning curve was pretty steep, and we are still not hitting on all cylinders in regards to that kind of coordination. I am still trying to get it figured out.

The question I'm sure everyone is wondering: how much will each issue cost?

Each first issue is free. Each subsequent issue is going to be either 99 cents or $1.99, depending on the length of the comic.

How important was it to make sure that when you announced this, comics would be available in the various digital formats?

Very. I am not trying to decide how people should read this stuff. Readers should be able to read comics in the format of their choice. I am, though, for people not buying through an app be personally pushing and stumping for people to try out our comics in ePub format.

It's one of the reasons I am offering everything for free, as far as first issues go. If someone pops in and sees that they can grab each format for free, maybe we can convince them to go from reading CBZ format files to ePub files. Same for PDFs; I would prefer in a year to only be selling in ePub format, but if the consumer says -- with their dollars, not with their free downloads -- that they prefer PDFs, then who am I to say no.

Likewise, if we see sales at, say, iVerse or Graphicly outstrip our own website sales or if people prefer buying from the iTunes store over anything else, that is where we will put the bulk of our efforts.

Have there been any challenges in dealing with Apple? The iTunes store, of course, has limits on what they'll offer for sale. They've been accused of dragging their feet in approving work for sale and selective enforcement of their own guidelines.

It is a challenge, mostly, figuring out the technology. Apple is much fussier than, say, Amazon or BN.com in terms of what they will accept in terms of ePub files, but I have had other ePub publishers tell me that they sometimes feel like the approvals can be somewhat arbitrary. Case in point for us would be "Monstrosis." We put issues #1, 2 and 3 all up at roughly the same time. They were all authored at the same time in exactly the same way. Issues #1 and 3 were approved without problem. Issue #2 was rejected for a small technical issue which existed in both of the approved books.

I think they tend to change their rules. One of the bigger things is that Apple's iBooks reader for the iOS device is one of the few eBook readers that supports all of the features in the newer ePub 3.0 standard, and maybe they might just be wrapping their heads around that. Your ePub file needs to be flawless in order for it to be approved by Apple.

Will the success of digital sales be a deciding factor in terms of whether there will actually be a print collection?

Yes, absolutely. If a project cannot gain some measure of traction in a digital format, I would expect it would face similar difficulties finding an audience in the physical world. We have been offering free download samples to consumers of most of our titles for some time. I keep track of the number of downloads, and I noted on one title that the free download was not really getting downloaded. If, based on the preview of the book on the website, if someone looks at it and says, "No, not interested in downloading it for free," then chances are they are not going to pay to read a physical copy either.

Keep in mind that what I am looking for is some measure of traction and not just a simple numbers thing. If people are downloading something for free, coming back and buying digital copies and maybe telling people or linking to the page or writing positive reviews (all of which are things we can measure), then I know that following up with a printed graphic novel has some measure of a chance. The number might be 10 copies, or maybe 100, or two years from now maybe 1,000 copies sold. Whatever the standard for success that I decide to set for something at the time is what we will use to determine future print projects.

I was talking to the guys who do "Eldritch" (SLG Alumni Aaron Alexovich and Drew Rausch). They are doing digital first and they were talking about the difficulty and frustration they had over people not getting understanding that there might not be a print version of their comic series if the digital did not show some promise.

That makes sense, but let me throw out a scenario. What if a book gets some attention, lots of people download it for free, but for various reasons, not many people buy the subsequent issues. I'm not trying to hold you to anything, but if that happened would you think, maybe people are interested but those readers don't have tablets or hate reading comics on a screen, let's do a small print run and see what happens? Or would it never come to print?

I think what I am going to be looking at is how constantly engaged people are and not just how many copies got sold. If we have a digital comic and it is seeing regular action on a daily/weekly/monthly basis, then that tells me people are into it enough to maybe warrant a small test run in print.

The things you look for as a publisher of anything (comics, music, novels, whatever) is how people are reacting to the material. Not just, do people buy it, but do they write about it, do you see people linking to your pages, are fans talking about it and recommending something to their friends? At some point, of course, people have to spend money on this stuff, but it is not the only factor.

If you think about everything that has ever been a huge success -- looking at "Harry Potter" is a good example, but look beyond what the franchise and the property is right now, go back to before it was a publishing phenomena, and basically "Harry Potter" is a book that was written by a single mother based on it being something she thought would be cool.

"Star Wars" took everyone by surprise, "Twilight" (whether you like the books or not) took everyone by surprise, as did "Seinfeld." Heck, even "Star Trek," before it was a billion-dollar movie franchise was just another cancelled TV series. In our case, if I had based the future of "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac" or even "Milk & Cheese" on how their initial issues sold, they would not have lasted past issue # 1 as neither book sold over 3,000 copies. If I based every decision on sales, then I would still be publishing "Samurai Penguin" and "One-Fisted Tales."

So, engagement, not just sales, that's what I will be looking for.

The fact that there are lower upfront costs without printing and shipping and such, will it mean that what you choose to publish will change? Will it allow you to take more chances or do anything differently?

No. I am not one of those throw shit against the wall to see if it sticks kind of people (although I have been accused of it). I am also not someone who is into wasting time, either my own or anyone else's. I need to believe in something or someone, and I need to get a sense that people have something to their work before I will commit my time to it. It might all be for different reasons, but I saw something in every single thing I have ever published.

What will be different is that the next Jhonen Vasquez or Evan Dorkin or Roman Dirge or Ariel Schrag or Faith Erin Hicks or Derf or James Turner or Andi Watson or "Street Angel" or "Elmer" or "Pinocchio Vampire Slayer" or or or or -- those people will be on our label digitally first. That will be the point of entry for them.

What about the backlist titles? As you just mentioned, you have some great books from people, including Phil Hester, Igor Baranko and others. Will we be seeing those books available digitally soon?

Yeah, when we can get to them and when I can get a chance to sit down and hash out a new arrangement as those older contracts did not have any clauses in regard to digital. We just did "Spookgirl," which was always a favorite of mine from way back when, but the effort has to be put to the newer stuff first and there are still only two people working on this entire digital project, one of them being me.

It becomes a double edged sword. I need the sales on digital to improve and for there to be a real revenue stream. I know how to budget for this stuff, but it cannot improve until we make it a priority.

But just to make a point here, we will not be taking a good selling comic book like "Johnny" or "Squee" and making it digital only -- that would make no sense. We will keep our print books in print for as long as someone will buy them. What we are doing (and I feel this is getting lost in the conversation) is going digital first, not digital only.

Tell us a little about the new books coming out in the next couple months.

The next three titles we will be releasing are "Knights of the Living Dead" (zombies in the time of King Arthur) with art and story by "Pinocchio Vampire Slayer" artist Dustin Higgins and co-writing being done by Ron Wolfe. Now, before anyone dismisses this as being gimmicky, "KOTLD" is a tremendous series and goes well beyond the funny title and high concept (just as "Pinocchio" did).

"Snow White: Through a Glass Darkly" is by Pinocchio writer Van Jensen and illustrated by SCAD alumni Robin Holestein. This project actually started with me, as I had written an outline for a Seven Dwarfs comic book to be part of our Disney line of comics. I realized that I was giving away too much to Disney and was going to write and publish the story myself. The I got to talking to Van about it and I gave him the outline and what he came up with was waaaaay better than my shit.

"Peabody & D'Gorath" is by M.D. Penman, began life as a Zuda comic and is sort of a victorian/steampunk Indiana Jones adventure comic book. It is being colored by Andrew Tunney and it is an amazing looking piece on both screen and paper.

In January, we will start re-releasing "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac" as digital comics. When that one comes out, issue #1 (my prediction) will become the top selling digital comic, outselling even Marvel and DC titles. We are going to take our time with that one, as I want to make sure we have all of our outlets selling it at exactly the same time.

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