Is the ship sinking? A short chat with Peggy Burns
Continuing our occasional series looking at how small press and indie comics publishers are weathering the downturn in the economy, not to mention Diamond’s recent policy changes, today we’re talking with Drawn and Quarterly’s Associate Publisher Peggy Burns.
D&Q rather unintentionally became regarded as one of the first martyrs of Diamond’s new cut-off policy when two of their serialized comics, Sammy Harkham’s Crickets and Kevin Huizenga’s Or Else, were cancelled. The fact that said cancellations were due to the separate decisions of the artists themselves and not the publisher or Diamond didn’t matter much at the time; its close proximity seemed to have a direct cause and effect.
I was curious as to what Burns had to say about that matter and the industry climate in general, since she’s one of the most intelligent and candid people working behind the scenes in comics today. She didn’t disappoint and I’d like to thank her for taking the time to respond to the plethora of questions I emailed her.
I don’t really want to get into a numbers game with our authors whose comics fell below or near the Diamond minimum. Obviously, the titles (Or Else, Lucky, Crickets) that have been announced as ending in their pamphlet form hovered around the minimum, though the conversation with Or Else happened before the minimum news. Ending a series is not something we want to do. The artist wanted to tell their story in this form, and we have the job of telling this form is no longer viable. It’s not an easy decision and wasn’t fun to do.
Right now, how many “pamphlets” or serialized comics or what have you does D&Q publish?
Are any of them in any danger of not making the new minimum cut-off?
No, the comics that have been coming out regularly for over a decade enjoy a certain awareness that places them well above the minimum, I think a wider number of stores recognize the title as it has been around for ten years and will automatically buy it. That said, even Palookaville, which wasn’t near the minimum, is becoming a book series. And Big Questions and Berlin are nearing the end and will be collected. I think any independent publisher would agree that you just can not achieve the same awareness and sales for comics by new authors. Big Questions has a high cover price, and the series is on its tenth issue, which helps it buck the trend for comics by new authors. If any author, new or not new, asked me whether they should continue to do a pamphlet or start a new one, I would in 98% of the cases say they should just do a book. I guess I should say that only in comics is an author who has publishing less than ten years considered new.
How important is the Direct Market (and Diamond) to the success of these comics and to the success of the company in general?
Diamond is critical to the health of pamphlets, as they make up 90% of the sales. And for our books, Diamond, and the direct market as a whole is critical as it is about 1/4-1/2 of sales depending on the title, Diamond and the Direct Market is critical to any company who publishes comics in book form.
What about the Petit Livres series? Many of the books in that series feature new or unknown artists and I would imagine be a hard sell to a lot of comics retailers. Are any of them in danger of not being carried by Diamond?
Our Petit Livre series is a good example of trying to come up with an alternative format to the pamphlet. There are so many new artists we adore and want to publish, and the pamphlet clearly was not working. The cover price itself makes each book viable for Diamond, but you would be surprised by the unit numbers and the very fact the Petits Livres are books (or perhaps booklets) makes them able to be sold in the book market.
Are there any other current or future projects that you fear might not make the new cut-off?
Assuming a book does not make it into Previews, what other distribution options do you have to make sure retailers are able to get a copy?
I assume you mean a pamphlet? As if it is a book, it would go out through our book distributors, directly through us and various sub distributors. If it is a pamphlet, and it doesn’t go through Diamond, it would go out directly and through various comic distributors like Last Gasp and Haven.
How much of a hindrance are these new policies? How much of an impact do you think they’ll ultimately have on your bottom line?
It’s not a hindrance. It’s business; about ten times a day we face business decisions that make us reflect what we are doing. Choosing what kind of paper to print on, whether or not to overnight a press request, everything is a business decision that affects the bottom line. My whole day could be one big hindrance. Really, the minimums were more of a wake-up call that the medium has profoundly changed to not include the alt pamphlet.
Do you see this new policy as being the final nail in the coffin for the alt-comic or was it already dead and this is just the death certificate?
No, I definitely do not see it as the final nail in the alt-comic. The pamphlet, maybe. But people said that with vinyl, and look at vinyl making a comeback. Perhaps we’ll see floppies come back in a few years. Bottom-line is, with this thing called the Internet, people will find a way to get their comics known. For the author who needs to tell their story in 24-page serials, they can self publish, whether online or on paper. In fact there are probably more ways now to get your comic out there than ever before and that made the decision slightly easier for us. Matt Forsythe was nominated for an Eisner before his online comic became a book. Top Shelf stopped doing pamphlets of American Elf, which is now just online and then collected into a book. Kate Beaton has a huge internet following. And god bless John Porcellino! And this doesn’t even include all anthologies out today.
I don’t find Diamond initiating new minimums in this economic climate shocking; I find the opinion of everyone in comics reaction more shocking. Just the other day I heard that Gary Groth is planning an article on us canceling these titles. I knew comics was a nostalgic industry, I never knew it was so nostalgic that it ignored basic business trends. (Or wait, maybe I did know that.) And I love pamphlets, but it seems like most pundits are mad at the idea that pamphlets won’t be in stores anymore and are ignoring the fact that comics sales have been declining steadily for the past decade.
I think Kevin Huizenga sums it up best when he was in the D+Q office for the Kramers tour and he said (before the news of the minimum) that if Love & Rockets is becoming a book, then it’s pretty clear that the pamphlet is over. I would venture to say that most people in comics do not buy pamphlets anymore. For the publisher who has fixed costs of overhead, actual salaried employees and pays fair royalties, publishing comics by new authors became a break-even situation about 5-8 years ago, which was the reason why the Diamond minimum was more of a wake up call and less of a blow. I don’t know what it costs for Diamond, but I would assume that they can not break even either.
Look, when our artists decide to create their work in the pamphlet format, they are making a decision that this will just be sold in comic stores. When the main distributor for comics stores decides to institute minimums that may affect their work in pamphlet form, we – as both their publisher and not just their biggest fan – have to have an honest conversation with the artist if this is the best way to publish their work and if we, as a company, can continue to publish it as a pamphlet to a declining audience that is beyond our control, no matter how good the comic. The alternative of publishing books to an increasing audience is a win-win situation for everyone involved-author, publisher, retailer, distributor. This may sound like a sacrilege – such an obvious mixing of art with business. I would imagine our artists and fans know that we place art before commerce about 99% of the time, more often than not, to our disadvantage.
At the end of the day, though, we have a business arrangement with the author. The author has asked us to sell their art and to be in charge of the business aspects of publishing this art, and we have to have honest conversations. We can’t pay our bills if we are breaking even and we wouldn’t be a very good publisher to our authors if we ignored basic business trends in the industry, and didn’t have these conversations to try to steer the author to where the audience is. Our job is to get the largest paying audience for their book as possible.
I find it sadly ironic that the rest of the publishing industry around the world is seeking electronic rights to their backlists, and is facing a huge Google copyright settlement that barely makes a ripple in comics news, we are debating over the apparent “health” of the comic book. I understand why no one wants to have the conversation over what increasingly seems to be the inevitable digitization of books, but it seems like the pundits and journalists are misplacing the debate. It is like insisting your movie be on VHS, when everyone watches DVD, and eventually all will be a moot point when everyone downloads it from Netflix. Or, as one of authors said when discussing the Google news, “I just don’t want to end up like Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights … refusing to jump on the newfangled video bandwagon and sticking with reel-to-reel film.”
Beyond Diamond, has the bad economy affected D&Q in any way? If so, how?
So far the economy has not had an adverse effect. Knock on wood, and thanks to all of the customers, distributors and retailers who support us.