Is the ship sinking? A short chat with Dylan Williams
Besides being a cartoonist in his own right, Dylan Williams is also the brains behind Sparkplug Comic Books, which has published such noteworthy titles as Bookhunter by Jason Shiga, Reich by Elijah Brubaker and Asthma by John Hanckiewicz.
Wondering how a small press operation like Sparkplug would be affected by the turn in the economy, not to mention Diamond’s new policy changes, I sent a list of questions to Williams over email and he was kind enough to offer some thoughtful replies. Here’s what he had to say:
In general terms, how has Sparkplug Books been doing financially over the past year?
In general terms, Sparkplug keeps on growing. Last year was best one yet. It used to be that we’d get one order a week and now I can basically spend most of my time filling orders. It is kind of great and I keep on crossing my fingers. Money-wise, it is still a break-even affair but it is nice to not having to be “on the grind” as much as I was four or seven years ago.
How important is the direct market and Diamond to the success of the company?
The direct market is extremely important to us. I feel like comic shops are a sort of evolving thing, and they aren’t going to be what they once were. But I love what some of them are turning into. I really love small business people and the idea of individuals running stores selling stuff that they care about. We are always trying to expand our audience, but I feel like it is really important to work with small and like-minded business.
As for Diamond, they did Sparkplug a lot of good and they’ve been really supportive, but I figure that if they are going to cut off low-selling books, we aren’t going to depend on them to get into stores. We’ve had a great relationship with Tony Shenton, Last Gasp and the smaller distributors. It also really nice to have a relationship with stores through these smaller “distros.” I prefer to be on a first-name basis with as many people selling Sparkplug books as I can. For some of the smaller distributors it is about the same profit margin as Diamond but encouraging smaller business is what Sparkplug aspires towards.
How does Diamond’s new policies affect your bottom line? Are there any past, present or future projects that you feel will not make the cut-off?
Good question. In a weird way it won’t because their discount and cost of shipping was basically eating into any profit but there was an increase in interest with all the books that went through Diamond. By their new numbers, even Sparkplug’s most successful books wouldn’t make their cut. Of course, they turned down some of those books five years ago, so I have faith that things will change. I’m hoping that their change in interest will encourage small stores to go to other sources as well. We’ve been distributing other people’s books for about three years and that side of the business is just growing and growing, which is a sign that people are looking for independent and art comics and don’t know where to find them.
Do you feel as though you will have to keep a better eye on a project’s potential financial success in order to ensure it ends up in Previews in the future?
I’m of the mind that I should always be trying to keep a better eye on the financial potentials of the Spakplug books. I don’t base the potential success of book on Previews orders though. It gives me a good idea of what the people at Diamond and some comic shops think of the books but besides that, it isn’t good business to base art on commerce. Some of our biggest successes haven’t done well through them and the other way around too. Our job is to publish, distribute and promote the best comics we can to the best of our ability.
That said, we’re always looking at ways that we could do better. Shannon O’Leary joined the company last year as a promotions and public relations person and she has helped so much. If Diamond turns down some books now, then it is our job to go out and find new markets and work with the alternatives. We try not to look at the market as a static thing.
Are you worried that you’ll have to forgo pamphlets entirely to focus more on book-length works?
Here is one of the strangest things to me, I’ve heard about a few publishers ditching comic books (pamphlets) as a way of publishing comics. It is so weird to me for a number of reasons. First, the idea of selling luxury paperbacks is not what I started the company to do. “Comic Books” is in the name of our company so we’re stuck. And we like them. I mean, we’re not really tied to just pamphlet style books, but I’ve always been offended by the way “Graphic Novels” replaced comic books in the nomenclature. Ultimately it is all just a name, but it makes me sad to hear that pamphlets are being dumped because a distributor won’t be able to carry them. It is that kind of logic that leads to lower and lower levels of exploitation entertainment.
It is also strange to me because pamphlet style comic books are the most affordable and accessible form of comic books. And at this point in the post-George Bush economy, people don’t have a lot of money, so investing in more expensive books seems to be a big, dangerous mistake. People at shows and stores are still buying traditional comic books, maybe not as many for Marvel or DC or something but for a small concern, they are. I’ve had really good luck with them, we enjoy them artistically, and they are much more in line with our politics or approach to business, so we are continuing on with traditional comic books for the time being. Ultimately it is the artist’s choice.
Sparkplug has several new “comic books” out now — Jin and Jam, Reich and Danny Dutch. How has the public reception to these comics been? Do you feel confident that you can continue to publish future issues of at least the first two series?
We’re pretty excited to do more Jin and Jams. Danny Dutch is a sort of one off project that may transform into more. We also just published an art book/luxury paperback called the Airy Tales too. I feel the same way about all the books, the work and skill that went into them makes me confident more than anything else.
Do you feel you have a strong enough relationship with Diamond that if a project were on the borderline so to speak you could convince them to get it in the catalog?
Our Diamond sales rep is really cool but I wouldn’t want to put him or them in that place. I’ll continue to send things in but if they aren’t interested then that is the way things go. I hope that they’ll see the value of giving smaller publishers a chance but I don’t want to expect them to be more than focused on their financial realities as they see them. I don’t think of them as a monolithic entity, more like a collection of people all different and having their own approach to their business.
Do you have any other distributing options beyond Diamond to ensure getting your pamphlets into comic stores and beyond?
Oh yeah, Tony Shenton has been doing an amazing job. All the other small distros add up to about what Diamond was doing, if not more, actually. We’ve been having great interest through the website and at shows. And right now Portland is the most hoppin’ comic book town in the country. Maybe NYC is better … maybe. Anyway, I don’t want to start a coastal feud cause Bodega Distribution might bump me off or something.
Beyond Diamond’s new policies, has the bad economy affected Sparkplug in any way?
Well, it hasn’t really. It is kind of amazing. I mean, I expect the worst but I’m really happy to see that people are looking for good affordable independent comic books. I feel like if you publish good things and stand behind them, then people figure out that they can come back to you for more good stuff. It is a slow process and we’re not going to be able to publish a lot of things I’d like to, but the goal of Sparkplug is to make interesting and less known work more available to as many people as we can.