Thursday, December 27, 2012

Looking Back...and Ahead.

So, we’re headed towards 2013.  With the end of 2012 fast approaching, it reminded me that it was about 12 years ago that I ended Caliber….and that Caliber was around for 12 years, so now the “post-Caliber” days match the “life” of Caliber.  Not that I assign any particular significance to that, but Caliber seems so long ago---in a way.  I’m entrenched in a lot of aspects of it so I’m still involved in although not as a traditional publishing company.  The time at Caliber raced through pretty fast even though it seemed to be such a major chunk of my life.  Caliber released some 1300 comics and over 75 graphic novels and considering the first and last year had very little output, that was about a 10 year period.  My fondest days were when there was a full staff of 6-7 but in reality, that was only a few years in the middle.  Over half of the time, Caliber was primarily me and one other person.

I think back on the time after Caliber and obviously, I’m not nearly as prolific in either the writing or publishing, especially considering that I dropped out of comics completely for a few years.  I am quite surprised at how much this “part-time” work which I always feel is neglected has actually accomplished in the last dozen or so years.  While I realize that I work full time teaching college biology, I always feel way behind in the writing side of things but I guess I keep comparing it to the Caliber days instead of being realistic.  I’ve had six graphic novels from IDW, five from Image, three from Desperado, one from Simon & Shuster, two from Penguin, and 12 from Transfuzion.  Plus I had three kid’s books from Magic Wagon and one from Actionopolis.  So, that’s 33 graphic novels/books released since that time and granted, many were collections but I also released some dozen or so comics plus contributions to a number of anthologies.  Yet, it seems like I never have time to work on this stuff.

2012 was a pretty good year.  I had the Deadworld series of War of the Dead come out on a weekly basis for IDW and it got some good reviews and was nominated for some awards.  I also did the Deadworld graphic novel, Voices from the Deadworld,  which is actually full page scenes with my narrations of the characters who lived and died in Deadworld.  Technically, not a comic per se but I had to write some 80 different character scenes.  I also had to write a chronology of Deadworld for the Breygent Deadworld cards and that was some 75 cards but I had some fantastic help from Dan Royer on that.  I finished off the latest Saint Germaine story and released the third graphic novel in that series.   I lso contributed three short stories for anthologies.  So, that’s a couple hundred pages I did this year but it always felt like I never had time to work on my comic writing.

In publishing, Transfuzion released about a dozen books and I launched Binary Publications with Paul Burke and we got the first four titles out this year.  Both companies have a pretty extensive waiting list of projects to be completed for 2013 so I know that’ll keep me busy so I’d expect to nearly double the 18 books out this year.  There were a few titles that went through Diamond Distributors this year and some books had some good sales.  But because the way the market is, I had one book sell over 800 copies but it didn’t make as much profit as another book that only sold 150.  Of course, the difference is which ones sold to distributors (and then to retailers) and which ones sold directly to consumers at full retail.  We also had another title picked up for the college bookstore market.  Overall, some books continue to sell really well and one mention in a magazine brought in sales well above what comic shops ordered.  Of course, some titles only sold in single digits for the entire year so nothing’s a given.  Some books do well in comic shops and others don’t and same for other markets.

As for writing this upcoming year, I have the next Deadworld series.  I actually have the first three issues nearly done and Sami has the first issue nearly completed.  I really want to get to the Deadworld novel this year and the comic series lays the groundwork of where I want the novel to be.  I tinker with the novel continually and as I shift things in the comic, it will make both more compatible to each other.  Another project I want to finish is the Subversives graphic novel which is nearly complete but I just have to finish it off.    A couple of years ago, I released Of Scenes and Stories, which had many of my short stories along with scenes from specific comics and it came out to some 320 pages.  I plan on updating it with more recent stories and eliminating the scenes section to bring it in around 160 or so pages.

There’s two comic series I want to do.  I never like to talk too much about things in the planning stages but I’m excited about both of these and anxious to get moving.  One is a mystery set in the turn of the century and I want to bring in a lot of elements into it besides the mystery itself.  I really want to do this one as a comic series as it lends itself well to the periodical form.  I had a lot of fun with the recent Deadworld series and found that I enjoy the pacing of the serial format.  Once the first 2-3 issues are complete, I will start to look around to see if I can find a comics publisher.  Yes, I have Transfuzion but that is not geared towards doing comics and I like to try to do this as a monthly comic series with a two month break between storylines.  The second project, I really don’t want to say much about it yet although it would be a historical war focus (ala Troy or Zulunation).  I’m configuring it to see if it would work better as a comic series or as a graphic novel.  I may end up doing both projects via Kickstarter and then take it from there…depending on whether they’re successful or not.

This last year was a lot of work “behind the scenes”.  In addition to getting Binary off the ground, I spent a lot of time with the process of redoing all the websites that I have (my own, Transfuzion, Binary, Caliber, Deadworld, and a couple of others) and setting up a storefront marketplace for all of them together.  I’ve had these sites on servers and used Microsoft’s Front Page but that’s been defunct for a while.  I knew I’d have to redo them some time because less and less servers want to install the Front Page extensions any more.  I decided to take a serious look at Dream Weaver and even took a class for it.  With the websites, like Photoshop, everything I know how to do is self taught by trial and error.  I know I’m probably missing out on some techniques and short cuts, so I figured taking a class would help me with that.  All it told me was that I wasn’t too eager to go through such a learning curve again.  I found myself just resisting the plunge into revamping all the sites into full blown ones so I am just retooling blog sites to serve that purpose.  Again, I have the help of Dan Royer for that.  But it’s a lot of work bringing all the information into the right formats and structures but it’s nearly finished.

I’m also in the process of implementing an easier accounting system which means bringing everything together into a new, hopefully streamlined, process.  As far as other things go, it looks like I will have to find a compatible lawyer.  Right now, I handle everything myself and though I think I’m capable of continuing, it seems that I will need a lawyer to carry the weight of dealing with certain people.  That part of it is something that would be best served by someone who understands the legal system.  I have a couple of contracts that aren’t being adhered to and I think that legal action will ultimately have to be put in play as that’s the only way some folks will listen.  Plus, working with some licensed properties can get a bit more complex.  I’ve never used lawyers when dealing with creators as it wasn’t necessary and I still don’t think it is but there are other situations where I can see they are.  I can complain about not sticking to the contract but it appears unless legal action is taken, there’s no motivation for them to do what’s right and what was intended.

Looking back at 2012, as I said it was a good year in comics for me.  In addition to the Deadworld material coming out and well received, I also received a Shel Dorf Award (for contributions in comics), continued as a co-organizer for Detroit Fanfare, and have a new science related book lined up.  The comics market isn’t what it used to be but there are a lot of areas where one can find different types of success so have to see how those will eventually play out.  Besides, nothing is the way it used to be, and never has been, so just have to keep adapting.  Makes it more interesting.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Independent Comics and Money (or lack thereof)

Lots of recent buzz regarding a blog from a creator who posted how little money there is in producing independent comics.  I’m not specifying who it is because it doesn’t matter…it’s the same situation for almost all of the creators working in independent comics.

My first reaction in reading his post was surprise that this was a revelation to anyone.  That’s the way it’s been for practically forever in the comics market.  But I have remember that there are a lot of creators (both published and unpublished) that grew up with independent comics always there, found on the shelf with creators making names for themselves.  Some of us older folks recall when the idea of independent comics was a “new” thing.  It’s a cyclical trend and the realities for some people are disheartening.

But comics are no different than film, music, or writing prose stories and books.  Just about all of those are also unsuccessful financially and the sheer number of entries into those areas dwarfs comic creators by a considerable amount.  Yet, of all those, comics still has the easiest time getting into the “system” than the others but being part of the system doesn’t guarantee anything.

I thought the key point in the blog and with many respondents was that the money aspect wasn’t the most important thing and is not what drove the creators.  This a realistic view necessary for those creators because the odds are that you’re not going to make a living doing comics…very few people do.  I do notice that trend of acceptance over the last few years---a lot of creators just want to create and they know it is not going to be their primary career.  You’ll find the same thing in film, books, and music.  For others, however, the passion that drives them to create comics isn’t complete unless they can make a living doing so.

Outside of being driven purely by passion, most creators have other goals in mind.  For some, it’s to show the “big guys” such as Marvel and DC what they can do and their ultimate plan is to move to superhero worlds they likely grew up on.  Others utilize the comics to build up an intellectual property for possible exploitation and others yet, work within the restrictions of today’s market with an eye on exploration into other markets.  The hope is that their style, genre, themes, etc. will resonant with those outside of the traditional comics market.  But the majority just want to create with no illusions of their labor of love spinning off into a life changing revenue process.

For whatever reasons, it’s all good.  First and foremost, creators should create the best they can and that should be the tangible goal…anything else is an exception, and when you’re modeling your plan, you always have to ignore the exceptions because you can’t build a strategy around that.  Sure, it happens and in a few rare cases, someone can plot out their exception place but it doesn’t occur too often.  When Jimmy Gownley published his Shades of Grey through Caliber, his only goal was to get his book out.  He had to tell the story and although sales weren’t great, it was enough to get the material in print.  Then he shifted to a new passion and Amelia Rules! was born.  He had no idea at the time that it would be picked up by a major book publisher for eight volumes and hit the NY Times best selling list and be signed for a film.  You can’t plan that.

At Caliber we had a lot of creators who knew that they wanted to do comics and so they did.  A lot of them got their project done and they were satisfied and went onto the rest of their lives.  Many honed their skills and eventually found themselves making a career of doing comics.  There are a couple of dozen creators in comics today who used the early days at Caliber to develop their craft and found themselves producing comics for the Big Two.  There were a few creators who found success in other avenues because their property got made into a movie and they continue to feed off of that.  

For me personally, I’ve always looked at the creative side as just that, a creative outlet.  Of course, I’d like for the comics to sell better and it would be sweet to devote my full time to writing although I wonder if I would really enjoy it as writing is a hard and lonely task dependent on motivation and diligence. But I think I’ve always been pragmatic in my approach.  Even when the first comic I wrote was nominated for a Harvey Award, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make a living on just writing comics.  I’ve done some work for hire here and there but for the most part, I write what I want to and I know the limitations in terms of appeal within the comics market.  Regardless of all the awards, acclaim, and buzz that certain non-superhero titles get, the sales still primarily go to the spandex crowd.  I enjoy doing what I do and my primary frustration is the time factor, I just don’t have enough time to get to everything I want to do.

I had a friend that said I was lucky that I had a real job to fall back on (I teach college biology) but luck had nothing to do with it.  I earned that position as I went to school at night while toiling at dead end jobs and even after I opened my comic shops, I continued to go to school eventually earning my Masters.  Granted, I left the academic world and concentrated on the stores, the publishing, and other ventures such as McFarlane Toys, but at the time, that was the path that was there.  When I closed Caliber, I moved into teaching part time in more of “let’s check this out” and found I enjoyed it.  I teach a full time schedule yet still spend considerable amount of time writing and currently am involved in a few different companies.  I like the balance and certainly feel more secure knowing that the teaching not only provides me with a good income (dependent on how much I choose to work) but also a benefit package and a retirement plan.  

Although I’m certainly not a big name in comics, and I doubt if anyone who rarely ventures outside of Marvel and DC would even be remotely familiar with my name, I feel successful in the biz even though to many, I remain an unknown.   I’ve been able to write some 30 graphic novels (some are collections of comics), I’ve had some of my work used in teaching college classes, been sold outside of comic shops in book stores, Wal-Marts, and had many deals signed for exploitation whether games, films, CDs, card sets, etc.  I have a number of books that continue to sell primarily on Amazon that provides a small but steady stipend each month.   I seem to have a pretty strong base in the foreign markets as I quite often get large orders from countries that look outside of superheroes.

Simply put, I ain’t got no complaints. Would I like a best seller?  Sure, of course.  But that doesn’t motivate me.  I will likely never appeal to the market that determines “success” stories in the comics market---I don’t see myself ever writing  Marvel or DC superheroes---so I am relegated to that “independent” creator and I’m fine with that.

I think that the creators out there who adopt the same approach in understanding that the separation of the creative endeavors with the realities of the market are likely to have more long term success.  They may have less of a resume but it’s better to create out of desire and satisfaction than out of desperation.  You also have to take a long range goal…existing from project to project, especially when you accumulate nothing in terms of ownership, is likely to land you in a murky situation when you get older.  We’re seeing that now with a number of well known creators who have been discarded, for whatever reason, and have had to go to charity organizations for help.  I know of quite a few creators who had their time at the Big Two and now rely on government assistance.  Some have gone to have minimum wage jobs and living on subsistence incomes.  I think fans would be shocked at just how many of them are out there.

Going back to the blog, outside of the surprise part, what I found intriguing was the attitude that the “creators” were being short changed because of the amount of money going towards the distributor and retailers.  Well, that’s the system and anyone that deals with it understands that those are necessary components.  When creators make little money on doing comics, they aren’t getting screwed by the system as a lot of the comments indicate.  Sure, they do all the work and often times for minimal money and believe me, I know how discouraging that is, but it isn’t because they’re being taken advantage of in any way.  They just don’t have enough sales for whatever reason.

Sure, you can bypass the system and keep a much higher percentage but your sales likely will be a fraction of what they could be.  But, and this is a big but, you have to evaluate whether more sales will equal more profit.  I have always been someone that looked at profit over sales figures.  I do a number of titles that do not go into the system and obviously, they sell considerably less…but they are more profitable.  I do understand though, that sometimes going through the system has other benefits such as exposure.

There are a lot of creators who are upset that they can’t make a living doing what they so passionately want to do.  Well, passion is not enough.  Just think of all those hopefuls on shows like American Idol who feel that they deserve their shot because they “want” it so bad.  Frankly, the “want” is irrelevant except in terms of how much it motivates you.  Your passion doesn’t entitle you to anything.

I will agree that it’s a shame because even though I’m not a big comic reader myself, the few books I do pick up and the ones I browse indicates to me that there’s probably more good books out there than ever before.  It would be great if the sales reflected that.  I’m glad that for some, their passion continues them to producing comics.  It’s what continues to drive me.

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