Sunday, December 27, 2009

Another year passes and what that usually brings is a rash of New Year’s resolutions. Although I don’t make resolutions for the upcoming year, I do a bit of self reflection on the year that passed and think ahead for the upcoming year. Part of this is probably because my wedding anniversary is on New Year’s Eve so the end of the year is not just a calendar timeline, it’s also a milestone with the family.
Even though the year goes quickly, and the older you get, the faster the years go by, some things still seem so long ago. It was not a productive year for me as a creator as far as printed material goes, as most of the stuff I worked on will actually come out in 2010. I had A Murder of Scarecrows come out earlier in the year but Deadworld: Slaughterhouse only had one issue released before Desperado decided to forego the “floppies” all together and just release material in graphic novel format. So, even though I wrote the issues for this year, the graphic novel (actually a hardcover) will be out in early 2010.
I also planned to have the re-workings of Sinergy (now retitled Sin Eternal) and the Magus storyline in Saint Germaine to be released in 2009, but they too will be held until 2010. Sin Eternal will have about 20 new pages which was primarily done this year and the Saint Germaine collection will have two brand new stories in it. In addition, I have a new graphic novel called Subversives which will hit in 2010 even though most of it was done in 2009. A upcoming anthology of Sherlock Holmes is yet another project that was primarily created this year but won’t appear until 2010. So, it seems that 2009 was a creative year and 2010 will be a production year.
As for the publishing company, Transfuzion, 2009 was a good year. There were 9 titles released and of the 26 books from Transfuzion, five of the top six sellers on Amazon, came out this year. So, perhaps less in quantity of titles but more in overall sales. I’m especially proud of getting Vietnam Journal out through Transfuzion and eventually releasing the entire series. A major change with Transfuzion that will start in 2010 is the shift from reprinted collections to all new material. The Apocalypse Plan and Midnight Mortuary were the first two entries of all new material and soon Transfuzion will be releasing Ferrymen, two Lovecraft books, Sherlock Holmes, and a few others that still need to be officially announced.
The market proves to be in flux with some dynamic shifts in content delivery and perceptions of what is “legitimate”. The print on demand format, once shunned as being for unpublishable works, now is a viable option. In fact, it is something that increasingly becomes more important for someone like me that has a great deal of material from the “old days” where film and hard copy were the means to publishing. I continue to work at bringing that old material to the digital format, not only for print on demand, but to archive the files so that they can be exploited in various delivery methods.
The printed format is just one aspect of this new direction. The goal is to get the files into a delivery system so that I can take full advantage of all the opportunities presenting themselves. With print on demand, one of the key factors is that almost all of them also have a methodology for selling the books, usually in the form of an online store. So, that behooves me to take my POD to as many places as possible and have 3, 4, or even 5 different versions of the same book so that they can be sold through the vendors’ marketplace. And when you add new sources popping up such as Google Books, Kindle, the Sony Reader, etc. it makes sense to be flexible across all platforms. In addition, there are the numerous download sites such as Drive Thru Comics, Comics XP, the upcoming LongBox, and many others.
That’s one of my goals over the next year or so…to bring all of the titles (my personally authored ones as well as Transfuzion’s) to full exploitation. With a large backlog of material from the Caliber days plus the new stuff that I put out, I personally already have 25 books out and quite a few more getting ready and Transfuzion continues at a pace of 6-12 books a year…some collections, some all new material.
There seems to be quite a division occurring between the books (I’ll leave comics outside of the equation for now) that are direct market geared and “other” markets. Most companies and/or creators are lined up on one side or the other. Transfuzion sort of straddles that line. Most of our books have gone through Diamond Comic Distributors for a “regular” release into the comics market. But there are some that didn’t make the cut. Oddly enough, the ones that do not succeed with Diamond are usually those featuring all new material. It appears the comics market would rather have reprint collections because they at least know what it is. You would think that with the incredible expanse of the internet, getting the word out on new projects (such as interviews, previews, synopsis, etc) would be easier but I think that retailers and fans are so inundated with information, there’s no easy way to sort through the noise.
But most importantly, let’s face it, the comics market is a very limited one. The overwhelming appeal is for superheroes and the only viable options to that are the licensed properties that appeal to the same core. Yes, there are exceptions (which are always brought out ad nauseam) but as I’ve said numerous times, you can’t build expectations around exceptions.
I gave up a long time ago regarding my books’ success in the comics market. When I did Red Diaries, for example, the comics market was lukewarm in its acceptance. But I sell a lot of copies to mystery stores and continue to get regular orders from fans who are interested in it. Renfield had more success in the traditional comics market but again, it seems to have much greater appeal outside the market, including being used in a college literature course. Deadworld is probably my most successful comic title in the market and that’s likely because zombies are big. Even though Deadworld existed before just about any title currently on the market, for some reason, I still feel like I’m pandering to that audience when objectively, I know I’m not. I guess it’s because I’m tired of seeing all of these silly excuses to use zombies that somehow, I feel that I’m contributing to that.
It’s shaping up that 2010 will be an interesting year. The delivery options are enormous, sometimes there are so many choices out there that it can be overwhelming. Setting up accounts with the various downloadable vendors, for example, only to find out that their business plan stops at launching the line. Sort of a case of “we’ve launched…now what?”
The important thing I keep in focus is that comics (in whatever format) is just a medium, it is not the product. Just because something is in comic format doesn’t mean it will attract the comic audience and conversely, comics have gained a great deal more acceptability in the mainstream world so now, the term comic is no longer a major detriment.
However, until the day that bookstores put comics on the shelves (and figuratively apply the same sensibility online) by genre rather than grouped all together as if a special interest, it will be a long road.
But it’s better to have a road filled with promise than one shuttered by signs denoting the road ends.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bookstores and Returns

In the last week or so, there have been interviews with publishers that among other things, discussed the weight (and debt) of book returns from the mass market bookstore chains. Both publishers explained the heavy losses from the chain stores when unsold product was returned. In both of these cases, the publishers provided titles that have “mass appeal”, which means to the market outside the traditional comic readers. Another way to put it, they weren’t standard superhero titles. In neither case do the publishers indicate what percentage were returned as opposed to what sold through but judging from the affect the returns had on the profitability of the company, you can expect the returns were quite heavy.

I know exactly where they’re coming from. I’ve dealt with book chains in the past and the returns can kill you. Now, ideally, a company should set aside all the sales revenue until the returns come in but that’s simply unrealistic in most accounting systems. I remember we did one book that was packaged in a display dump of 12 copies. Sales were very good but then we got the returns…about 95% came back. About half of those display boxes were never even opened. On the ones that came back returned, most were so damaged that they were essentially unsellable. So, not only were we out the profit but also the printing and the shipping of the books that were returned.

I decided with Transfuzion, I wasn’t going to subject myself to that. I sell books to a number of major book stores (Borders, Barnes and Noble, etc..) but my terms are at a high discount and non-returnable. Essentially, what I give Diamond Comics. I didn’t plan to venture after the book stores because many won’t carry titles without returns and I can understand that. I managed to sell to a couple of stores that were located on different campuses because, and this was surprising, Diamond refused to take their orders. Diamond gave me their reasoning but it still doesn’t make much sense. Granted, selling 50 copies to one store every semester (so, 3X a year for 150 books) may not seem much to Diamond, but I’ll take it.

There are a number of publishers that utilize Diamond as their “book” distributor as well as their comic distributor. It’s a good dynamic as Diamond already has the vendor accounts set up and they are familiar with the product. The publishers essentially have to do very little extra, so on both sides, it makes a great deal of sense. However, this inputs another factor on returns as Diamond has to cover their costs on handling. So on top of getting damaged product back (if you get it back at all), you’re out not just the printing costs and perhaps shipping costs but you have to tack on the service fee that Diamond (like all distributors do) adds, and you’re hit with some sizable bills. Another factor is that seldom can you anticipate when the returns will come through so it can throw estimated budgets and schedules way out of whack.

Yet that is part of the business model in publishing and no one should be surprised by it and the return factor should be built in as far as expectations and the ledger sheet goes. It’s not an excuse unless something unusual happens.

What surprised me when reading about these two publishers, especially the smaller one, was the vehement attacks that many fans, and some creators, laid against the publisher. I totally get what is being said---a lack of foresight on the publisher should not enable them to delay payments to creators, but it just seemed like the comments were so one-sided.

Almost all publishers have cash flow problems and much of this is based on forecasting revenues. Publishers have to engage in advance expenditures. It’s basic business,--- money has to go in to grow a company and expand into new directions and the plan is for the anticipated revenues to not only cover the costs but add profits to fuel the next growth. Obviously, paying the creators is essential in the budget, but you know what, sometimes shit happens. Often times, a publisher doesn’t get paid from his distributor and the revenue stream stops. Now, this is something that doesn’t occur with Diamond as far as I know. With all the ups and downs with the comics market it seems as if they are the only constant keeping the fragile state going.

When I had Caliber, there were a number of distributors that went under owing us money. By the time Transfuzion started, there was only one real distributor but I did sell direct to comic stores. For the most part, I don’t do that anymore because of the uncollectible amounts that are still outstanding. In most small publishing companies, the profit range is so small that if one vendor doesn’t pay, well, that can affect what the publisher can pay out.

Too many fans don’t think of all the aspects and costs that are involved in publishing: rent, communication functions (phone, internet, etc), staff, updated computer programs, ISBN numbers and barcodes., utilities, etc. The problem is that many of these are fixed costs and have no flexibility. Creator invoices, royalty statements, and promotion are not fixed so that is usually what is going to be affected by a diminishing income. It’s not that publishers feel those areas are less important but paying a creator late can lead to bad blood, perhaps some negative press, but the company will survive. Not paying rent or utilities…well, the company can just go out of business.

None of this is to find a way to justify a late paying company but again, when I read those comments, it was insinuated that the publisher was just keeping the “extra money” and stiffing the creators. I don’t know, perhaps that’s true. But from my experience, I only know of a few rare examples where a company purposely screwed over creators. Chalk it up to over estimated sales forecasting or not taking into account all the costs, or even just incompetence, but most of the time, the lack of payment is not intended.

And of course, it’s not always a one way street. Most of us are aware of what happened with Tundra where Kevin Eastman opened his wallet to pay creators in advance so they wouldn’t have to worry about anything…just do the work. Some millions of dollars later, it’s obvious that didn’t work. I paid in advanced four times and three times I got burned. And one time was from a friend who I would’ve never expected to bail out on me. I work with Desperado often and I know of a few cases where they paid in advance, and also got burned. There, I think they hit 100% burn rate.

It’s not just some creators not doing the work, but their lateness can factor in. If a book is selling a certain amount of copies but then the creator runs late, the book gets cancelled and usually the next solicitation suffers a massive reduction in sales. Well, if the creators are getting paid a certain rate based on the initial sales but then the sales get cut in half (one book I know lost 70% of the sales on the resolicitation), then it becomes a losing book yet the creator who caused the resolicitation and therefore lesser sales, still expects the same rate. You’d be surprised how often this happens.

The point of all this is that nothing is as cut and dried as some people would like to think. Yes, there are “bad” publishers and there are “bad” creators as well. I know of a few enormously talented artists who don’t get work because they’re chronically late. It doesn’t matter how good you are if you don’t produce. I had an offer for a book to be published featuring a certain artist and I passed as I just didn’t want to get wrapped up in that. I’ve been down that road too many times.

I don’t know of any other fields like comics where the “business” is so open to conversation among people who often know little of what they’re talking about, yet they get to voice their opinions publicly. Granted, sometimes these public discussions can bring awareness to some areas, but far too often, they used as a means for a fan to side with a creator they like---not to solidify any factual information but just to “buddy” up---as if the “common enemy” will provide a viable means of friendship.

It sounds like a cliché about there being two sides to every story but the reason some things become a cliché is because they happen so frequently. I know when I read most of the comic “news”, I always wonder what isn’t being told as much as what is.

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