Robot 6

The Middle Ground #136 | Wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you

Something that jumped out at me from last week’s (must-read) interview with Mark Waid at Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter:

I think the system is, in terms of the way we’ve been doing business, the way we’ve been doing print business, stacked against them. Unless you’re one of Diamond’s premier publishers, you’re not getting the discounts you really need to make a go of it. I love the fact that guys like Nicky at Dynamite and the IDW folks have managed, by my outside perspective hanging on by their fingernails, to continue to be a viable force. Or at least a voice out there that can make a living for people. Not a great living, but they can get paid for doing what they’re doing. I find it kind of astonishing, I think “Oh, my God. How did some of those companies stay in business?” I haven’t the foggiest notion how it is that Oni Press is still in business. [Spurgeon laughs] That’s not a critical assessment of their company. That has nothing to do with their work. It’s that I know how expensive this stuff is. I just don’t know, and I’d be fascinated to find out.

The cost of comics — like, the actual monetary expense of making and distributing these damn things — is a source of constant curiosity/wonder/horror to me. I am arguably the furthest thing from business minded in some ways (read: most ways), and I admit to looking at sales figures and shaking my head at times, wondering how publishers managed to break even on certain titles, or even if they actually did.

(That math gets weirder, for me at least, when you consider the number of licensed titles out there that don’t exactly set the sales charts alight. Is the meager profits offered by, say, Charmed enough to offset whatever license fee Zenescope inevitably has to pay the rights holder to be able to publish the comic in the first place? Does that kind of thing explain why Dynamite made the most out of the Green Hornet franchise when it first acquired it: Having six different titles for the price of one license as a way of minimizing the cost?)

That Marvel and DC (or Image or Dark Horse) get discounts from Diamond which smaller publishers — which arguably need discounts more — don’t is one of those “Sure, I get the business logic, but still” moments for me; another in a line of signs that that the comic business isn’t your friend and, yes, will break your heart if you let it.

It’s tempting, at times, to look at digital as the savior of comics in the way that it removes certain barriers of entry from the whole process. You don’t have to pay a printer to make a book exist, people say, as if that somehow makes the prospect of making digital comics almost entirely without cost whatsoever, the imaginary flowchart in their heads reading some variation of “Step 1: Make Comics, Step 2: Put Them Online, Step 3: Profit.” That’s not true, of course (There are the costs of actually making the comic, and preparing it to be published digitally, for one thing), even though you can certainly make an argument for the democratizing influence of the Internet on the medium.

For those wanting to work in print, though? Just like fame, it seems, that’ll cost, and you’ll start paying in sweat. And then, unlike fame, you’ll move on to cash, and then credit, and then hopes and dreams and and and … Reading Waid’s comment, I found myself nodding my head in agreement, thankful that publishers like Oni or IDW or Fantagraphics, or Top Shelf or [insert your favorite publisher here] have smart people to make the tough decisions on how to stay solvent and stay in business, even when their efforts aren’t appreciated nearly enough. And I found myself wishing that there was a way to say thank you to the people behind the scenes who keep everything going, doing math and paying bills and making the deals and decisions that most of us never really think about. So, instead of rambling endlessly, I should just shut up and say this, I guess: Thank you, all, for making it possible that I could read and enjoy things that would have been impossible — or, at least, unlikely — otherwise.

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A major way to say thank you to these indie publishers is to buy their books. Pre-order them if your LCS won’t carry them as a matter of course. That’s what I’ve been doing for a long time now. Or if you download the digital comics, buy a little bit of the merchandise. That way you’re doing something to help the publishers and creators you like to stick around and continue to publish.

I find it funny that Oni Press is mentioned, and that their financial situation would be called into question. I automatically think of them as one of the indie comix financial success stories. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Scott Pilgrim, like, a HUGE success, which offsets all the losses from their other books? If I’m not mistaken, Scott Pilgrim sells really well outside of the Direct Market, and is a consistent top seller on Amazon in the graphic novels department. Also, most of Oni Press’ other books are primarily black and white and printed on lower quality paper to offset the costs. I, too, know how expensive it is to print graphic novels. Most indie creators (unless you’re a huge name like Chris Ware or Dan Clowes) aren’t given huge advances, and make money on the backend. You take a mid-selling 150 page B & W graphic novel, put in a print run of, say 1500, print it in China where it is dirt cheap, and you’ll most likely break even (unless the orders are just GHASTLY, like under 300 units). Combine all that with their overhead (a staff of under 10), and I think I have a pretty healthy idea as to how Oni Press makes their money.

I suspect part of the draw of licensed comics for smaller publishers is to help shine a spotlight on their own properties. If having Charmed on the shelves with a Zenescope label on it raises awareness of other Zenescope titles, then it might be worth taking it on as either a loss leader or maybe something that just breaks even. Heck, would there be a kaboom! if BOOM! hadn’t had the Disney/Pixar/Muppets licenses?

Something there has to work, though, because more and more small publishers are getting into the licensed titles business.

Staying in the print business for smaller comic publishers is tough and many do follow the Oni model where much of their continued existence is dependent on one or two break-out hits, or name authors who are critical darlings, if not necessarily commercial successes. You can see then why a lot of the smaller publishers need to be really careful about costs. Those hit books won’t always be pulling in the same numbers.

Over-seas production is necessary for your 4C trades and hardcovers, but China is no longer as cheap as it used to be. And if you’re just printing a B&W book it’d be more cost effective to do it domestically, unless you’re doing at least 5,000 copies or you need special cover treatments.

Oni Press, since that’s the current example, also has some indubitably intelligent marketing people who know exactly what they’re doing. Enabling a longer shelf life of their titles through book fairs, library agreements, and a generally diverse slate of what’s available — and knowing how to use these elements to boost awareness of not just one title, but all of their titles, is what helps keep that company churning in the right direction.

I’ve been working in magazine publishing for the past five or six years. The magazine itself has been around for about 22 years. I’ve done my research, and as far as I can tell, my company has almost never produced the magazine at a substantial profit of any kind. We justify it as “a member benefit” and toss its budget in with a slew of other programs and elements tied to the organization, but when it costs upwards of $20k just to print a single, glossy, bi-monthly issue, you either give up on your two primary revenue streams (subscriptions and paid advertising) or you relegate them (the revenue streams) to a Sales Department ghetto (“that’s just the way it is”), and consider any revenue, good revenue, and leave it at that.

China is still relatively cheaper, if not astronomically cheaper for B & W printing. At 1500 units, you can still get a decent looking book for $1.50 per unit (on not-so-great- but-adequate paper). I think it’s $2 to $3 domestically, or in Canada. But hey, I could be wrong on that front.

As for Oni Press’ hits, we have to remember that Scott Pilgrim is a transcendent comic. It is enormously popular outside of mainstream comics readers and not-so-mainstream comics fans. I’ve met hipster kids who don’t read any other GNs but Scott Pilgrim and Sandman. The color editions are selling really well, and there are 5 more editions on the way. Even when the sales inevitably decline, those numbers will still be noticeable, and Oni Press will (hopefully) have another hit by then.

I still love Mark Waid, and I’m not trying to be some shill for Oni Press. It’s just that we’ve all seen how Oni Press has transformed themselves from a relatively unknown publisher into the publisher of one of the most popular graphic novels of the decade.

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