Thursday, June 9, 2011

Caliber part 3

First off, I decided to just start numbering the posts specifically dealing with Caliber so I didn' t have to think of names for the post titles. So, obviously, this is the third with the first two immediately preceding this one.

It’s interesting to see how the current call to action regarding creator owned comics is sort of repeating what happened at about the time that Caliber started in the late 1980’s. The circumstances aren’t the same, of course, and the world back then and today are so vastly different from each other that the only similarity that can be correlated is the creator visioned stories.

Following the explosion of creator owned titles from both the black and white boom (and subsequent bust) as well as from the entry of publishers such as First, Comico, Pacific, Eclipse, etc., there was a general surge in creators wanting to do their own material. What soon developed however, is that many of the companies slanted towards creator owned titles developed by established creators, those who had proven their skills at Marvel or DC, or moved towards licensed properties. But still, there were a lot of creator owned titles that emerged and held their own at the time.

But there were a lot of potential creators who found themselves wanting to create but there were only so many companies out there. Many of them were still either mystified about the whole publishing process though and so it left self-publishing, as led by Dave Sim, as an unlikely option for many.

So, companies like Caliber came into demand. I won’t go so far as to say they were needed, but it was obvious that Caliber and many others such as Antarctic, Slave Labor, Fantagraphics, Cry for Dawn, etc., provided the right service at the opportune moment. A burgeoning growth of creators looking to get their stuff published but not wanting to deal with all of the publishing duties. As publishers, we filled a void that opened as so many creators found the business side of things a bit daunting.

Compared to today’s world, it was quite a bit more intimidating. You have to remember that there was no internet back then. Access to information was done by mailing and phone calls and the use of fax machines was considered progressive. Computers had not yet taken over yet and if you wanted an editorial or text page, you had to go to commercial printers which were quite common but expensive. Having a copy machine in the office was way too costly so the arrival of Kinko’s in your general area was cause for celebration.

Putting together the books demanded quite a bit more time than today. Now, when I send a book to be published, I upload the completed project from cover to cover on a ftp and that’s it. Back then, we had to sort through original pages, typeset any text pages, usually have the logos drawn by hand, and so much more. This also applied to advertising and promotional material. A lot of labor intensive design work diminished dramatically after the arrival of Corel and Photoshop and I was dejected when I found out that PageMaker was being incorporated and then phased out later.

There were about 15 distributors, most of them regional, and the giants of Capital City and Diamond, weren’t so gigantic back then although they were the two largest. In order to get a title out, you submitted to all of the distributors and usually with different terms depending on payment structure, quantities, shipping, etc. Having access to retailers was done primarily through the mail so it was very expensive to send any kind of promotional material. It was the same with the press as that also required the physical mailing of press releases. I don’t want to get all nostalgic and spew out “back in the day” scenarios but the incredible ease of today’s world in communication goes beyond just a paradigm shift, it is essentially a whole different world.

One of the aspects that helped Caliber succeed was that I was organized in terms of finances and accounting. That primarily came from my background with my retail stores and running conventions. From the outset, there were spread sheets made up and we adopted computers almost as soon as they became viable. (Yes, I do remember the Commodore 64.) I also remember using the computerized spread sheets and not sure if Lotus 1-2-3 was our first but we used it for quite awhile and I remember a bit of resistance of switching when Excel came along. The first defacto Caliber employee was one of my store employees, Kathy, who took on more hours to handle the Caliber number crunching while she was a business student in college. For some reason, I have kept just about all the records for Caliber…I guess for nostalgic reasons. But it does come in handy occasionally when I want to research something. Now, just because things were organized doesn’t automatically mean that money wasn’t a problem. Like most small businesses, it was always a concern, especially towards the ending days of Caliber.

I am always quite surprised how lackadaisical so many companies were about their accounting systems. That is true even today. I was once asked to be a consultant for a comic publisher by a lawyer who was involved in a lawsuit to see if I could make any headway in understanding the company’s accounting system. Since I was a publisher and a creator and therefore, experienced both sides, they were more or less looking for some standard practices. I was stunned at the ineptness of the publisher and frankly, not sure how they manage to continue.

So, how Caliber was set up was that we would publish the material but the creators owned everything completely. There were usually a set number of issues that we contracted for but it still involved primarily a handshake deal. If someone got hired by Marvel or DC, obviously I’m not going to expect them to continue (and that happened a lot). Conversely, if sales were suffering, I wouldn’t expect a creator to continue on their book and not make any money and they didn't want to. Again, back then, there were no other avenues to find sales outside of conventions and that was a really tough road to go so most creators gladly opted out if their sales were low.

The split was 60-40 of the profits with the creators getting the 60%. On our end, we would provide handling all the production, advertising in other titles, putting together previews and interviews for the press and our in-house promo magazine, Caliber Rounds, and quite a bit of the production. Lettering was an outside cost but we handled most everything else. We would cover the usual advertising which were distributor catalogs for solicitations and some other magazines such as Comics Journal, Comic Buyer’s Guide, and whatever else was out at that time. If the creator wanted to embark on a very ambitious plan, than that was something that had to be configured.

The creators owned their properties with Caliber having no rights beyond the publishing. After the first year or so, I put a clause in about having the collected reprint rights but that often depended on the project and/or creator. Later, as Caliber was repeatedly wooed by Hollywood, we offered creators an opportunity to give up some percentage for exploitative rights if we pushed it through our agents. That, unfortunately, never worked out. I can remember times that the creator’s agent said it muddled things up so I had to sign off. The creators’ vow to “take care of me” never panned out and after the third time, I grew to expect it. The problem was that we couldn’t pinpoint that it was our activity that got the eyes of the interested party. But that’s another story for later.

Again, I feel that the reason Caliber was successful was that it was at the right place at the right time. Creators had a chance to showcase their talents. I realized early on that many of them saw it as just a stepping stone but that was okay. In the heyday of the mid 90’s, we actually had a lot of major creators coming to Caliber. They had already proven themselves but now wanted a chance to do their own creator projects. So, for some, the purpose of Caliber was different.

I stumble sometimes when I talk about the success of Caliber because after all, it isn’t around any more and hasn’t been since for almost ten years (yet, even now, I still get 4-5 submissions a month). But it had a good run with some 1,300 issues and about 75 graphic novels (before graphic novels became the trend). It could have continued even after the disasters that befell us but it was my voluntary decision to close up Caliber and frankly, walk away from comics completely. Not that I was bitter or anything, it just seemed time to move to something else.

I found a few years later that for all its faults, telling stories in comic format is still a great way to do so and I love the medium and potential of comics. I may not like what’s going on in the marketplace or how it is dominated by superheroes, but to throw out a cliché…it is what it is. That doesn’t mean it can’t change, though. I don't, however, know where that change may come from.


Anonymous said...

After reading this and knowing at least a small sliver of your legend and legacy... albeit garnered from the periphery and sometimes from the peanut gallery. I have no problem with super heroes in comics...after all you've done to help so many creative people fulfill their dreams...I've got no problem with super hero's in the comics world at all no matter how mild mannered or soft spoken. We just hope you won't be hanging up your cape or utility belt any time soon.

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