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The “Open Minds” Panel Transcript By Rich Watson
The following is a transcript of the panel discussion I moderated at this year’s Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo, entitled “Open Minds: How do you get someone to try a small press comic?” from April 5, 2003, in Columbus, Ohio.
Rich Watson: Hi. Thanks for coming. My name’s Rich Watson - I’m a columnist for the website Slushfactory.com. Our topic is about small press promotion – how do you get somebody to actually pick up and buy a small press comic? So let me introduce you to our panelists here. Starting to my left, is the writer-artist of Amelia Rules and Shades of Gray, Jimmy Gownley [applause]. Moving on, there is the artist of Amoeba Adventures, a very popular ashcan comic from the 90’s, and currently he’s the founder of the small press advocacy organization Sequentially Speaking. This is Max Ink [applause]. To my right, the writer of the popular teenage drama The Waiting Place for Slave Labor, and he’s currently writing Sentinel and Inhumans for Marvel and Vampi for Harris. He runs the website ComicsMover.com and he also works at the Laughing Ogre here in Columbus. Say hello to Sean McKeever [applause]. And last but not least, the writer-artist of Dog & Pony Show, B-36, and the upcoming Fox Acre, and an online columnist for the website SequentialTart.com, Pam Bliss [applause].
Some people don’t realize how much time is spent on promotion of the comic book. Once the comic is finished, a huge aspect of what comes next is promoting the comic and getting it out there. So I wanna first ask all of you, how much time do you spend on promotion with your comic? Whether it’s conventions, or store appearances, or online, or whatever. Whoever wants to go first…
Pam Bliss: I don’t do enough. I almost completely lose interest in a project immediately after it’s done. I mean, the project that I’m most excited about is always the one I’m about to start working on. I lose interest slowly over time, from the time I draw the first page. And by the time I’m finished with the cover and sending it to the printer, I hate it and don’t ever want to see it again. And I only start liking it again maybe after six months, y’know, where I can go back and read it and say yeah, that was pretty funny or that was pretty moving or whatever I was trying to accomplish. So I don’t do enough. I think that’s an ongoing problem with a lot of creative people I talk to – that it’s the act of creation that’s most appealing and the business aspect of it is not so interesting.
Sean McKeever: It’s not really the same for me. I grew up in a retail environment. My parents owned a hardware and sporting goods store, so I always had the commercial end of it in my blood. I mean, I even had my own comic shop for nearly a decade inside my parents’ store, up in this little town in Wisconsin. So I write the comics, but at the same time, I really do wanna make sure that people go out and read it, and so to do that, you can leave it up to the publisher, or you can take an active role. And I’ve always taken an active role, especially when you’re doing small press comics, because when you’re competing with a thousand books out there and a hundred of them are getting the spotlight, nobody’s gonna be seeing your book and nobody’s gonna know what makes it special. And so I like to go to conventions and talk to people about the books, and I like to go online and talk to people about the books, and [on] my website, and on the message boards.
It’s really time-consuming, and I’d like to be more efficient at it personally, just because I think you spend a lot of time doing things that wind up being just wasting your time. Not in a sense that you’re not getting through to people, but in a sense that you really are just sitting around on the Internet or whatever and thinking that you’re promoting your book, when really you’re not working and you’re being lazy. [a little laughter] So on one level I think I do too much promotion because I spend too much time [on it] but at the same time I think there’s more that I can do. Even on the level of working for somebody like Marvel, I even, in the instance of my new series that just started, Sentinel, which I have at my table - $2.99 [laughter] – I actually sent scripts of the book out to fifty retailers just because I wanted to make sure that people had a chance to see the quality of the book, and not just judge it on one piece of artwork and two sentences of story concept.
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RW: Did you target these retailers specifically?
SM: Well, I picked the fifty because I actually just sent a call out via my mailing list and a couple of the news sites picked it up on the Internet and a couple of the retailer-specific message boards. I posted it on there as well. And so people contacted me through that. So I was sending the scripts out, which were nicely made, signed scripts – I actually sent those out to retailers who actively wanted it, and were actively interested in finding out if it was a good book. So I wasn’t sending out a hundred scripts to a hundred retailers that I thought maybe might be interested in this and then maybe only ten of them actually read it.
PB: You always worry about that with a mass mailing.
SM: Yes, absolutely. [others voice agreement]
PB: I mean, especially with the cost of postage these days, and the cost of printing, especially for someone like me who does mini-comics – which most retailers won’t touch with a ten-foot pole because they don’t fit in the rack. You have to be really careful. I do send out retailer mailings, but I use kind of a list I’ve put together over time out of different people’s lists that they’ve given me!
SM: Yeah, you have to find the people who are gonna care, who are actively promoting certain types of books.
Jimmy Gownley: Well, the truth of the matter is if you only target the stores that are already interested in that kind of thing – I mean, we already know who those stores are – that, in a way, is as much of a wasted effort as just doing a mass mailing. If you’re doing a mass mailing blind in any market, you may just get 2% return...
JG: ...which is insanely low, but it’s water against the rocks. You do 2%, and then six months later you do another, and you get another 2%. That adds up. It adds up to a 4% increase or whatever, of stores that would never have approached you.
PB: But for me, on my budget, I can’t do that. I literally have a choice between doing two mailings like that or printing my comics. It’s about the same cost. I can’t sell them if I don’t have them.
JG: Well, that’s true…
PB: Now if you’re doing a full-sized book that makes a big difference then.
JG: Well, think about the cost though.
PB: Yeah, but I’ve done four full-sized books and I know the unit cost of those relative to the unit cost of an equivalent sized digest and it’s a really unpleasant thing to contemplate! [laughter]
RW: Lemme step in here – Jimmy, how do you target the retailers who you think might be interested in your book?
JG: Well, what we did when we started out, we sent out, blindly, to Diamond, 3,000 comic books and [we were] gonna give them away to every single store. And that’s insane! [laughter] That’s a lot of money. But you have to do it because the cost of being in the business and the cost of getting people to read your book isn’t the cost of printing. That’s a huge mistake. It’s the cost of printing plus whatever it takes to get those people to read it. Going in, we knew we were gonna need double that amount of money so that we could do that type of thing. And I think for a book that no one had heard of, we did alright. It was 3,600 copies of the first book, and we’ve gone through 10,000 in a year and a half. That paid for those 3,000 that we sent out. A year and a half later we went to Diamond again and we said, “Look, we can’t pay for it, but if we gave you 1,000 free copies, could you target 1,000 stores, 1,000 accounts who do not order Amelia?” And they said sure. They actually waived the fee. And if you’re nice about it and you’re on time and you’re professional they’ll generally waive fees for stuff like that. And we got another order in for some 850 copies. So it’s a tremendous expense, but y’know, you get what you pay for in a lot of ways too. I think a lot of it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in that [people say] “I can’t do this or I won’t do this, so therefore it’s only gonna sell like it’s gonna sell.”
RW: Max, what about you?
Max Ink: Well, as you were talking about, I was just thinking – connections. Making connections. Where Pam, you’re talking about doing mass mailings yourself, and then [to Jimmy] you’re talking about using the structure that’s already there, using Diamond, using that structure, and utilizing that, rather than just doing the same thing that’s been done before. Being creative, and going just a step beyond what’s already been done, I think is one of the most important things…
RW: It’s very difficult to do, to take that extra step.
JG: Every door is closed to you. Make no mistake about that – every door is closed to you when you start out. But after a long enough period of time, suddenly doors start opening – you start making contacts. Maybe you do an entire issue knowing you’re gonna lose all the money on it. Maybe you get every single one out, but that’s the number one promotional tool you have is your work. I think giving away free copies of your book is the smartest thing you can do.
MI: Whenever I go travelling with Amoeba Adventures – I worked on that basically in the mid-90’s, [a] digest-sized book – but whenever I’d go vacationing, I’d always look in the Yellow Pages, find different comic shops, and I’d go visit them personally and hand them a comic book. And I’d say 60-70% of those people, they might not carry small press books, but they liked Amoeba Adventures enough to carry it regularly. So you know, [I was] introducing them to a whole new format of comics just because they had it in their hands and looked at it.
RW: Okay, let’s move on – and by the way, if anyone has any questions, feel free to jump in at any time. So who are the people, judging from what you’ve seen in letters, and conventions, and online, that are buying your books? [pause]
SM: Hmm. [laughter] It’s really hard. It’s a pretty wide range in terms of my small press stuff. People from teens to [people] in their forties, men and women, it’s really all over the board. I think that one of the common threads that I’ve found is that obviously when you’re going to a convention you’re finding people who are passionate about the art form anyway. But it’s all people who really love comics and really love diversity in comics.
PB: What I get a lot of is, I got a lot of mail from people related to the people who buy my comics. [laughter] Rose’s little’s brother is one of my loyal correspondents! [indicates an audience member] I got a letter awhile back that touched me dearly from the parents of one of my regular readers, who said they saw my Dog & Pony Show book at their son’s place and read it, and thought it was delightful. It reminded them of old-fashioned funnies that they’d seen when they were children.
RW: Do you get a lot of parents?
PB: Parents and kids, nieces and nephews. I think people are taking my books home and showing them around and I find that great. I sold four copies of my book to one person who’s buying it as presents for his nieces and nephews, and just people he knows who he thinks will like it. I’m obviously not adverse to a retailer buying my stuff, I very much want them to – and I love seeing my work in stores. And like I said, I’ll admit freely I target retailers who I know are already interested in a more diverse range of comics. But I sell an awful lot of my work directly to the readers, either at conventions, through my website, through Amazon.com, and because my work, in so many ways, does not fit the model that retailers expect in that it’s not a series with the same name, coming out on a regular basis, in one of the standard formats (at least nowadays it’s one of the standard formats and not the standard format). I don’t publish on a schedule. I won’t apologize for it; that’s the way life is for me. When a work is done, I publish it. And because of that I find I have much better luck selling directly to the readers. And when I think about ways of advancing my promotion, I think of more ways to reach the readers directly rather than more ways to contact the retailers, because of the way my work is.
JG: I think that’s important, not only just targeting readers, but there is a world of outlets for comic books. We tend to think of the outlet for comic books in comic book stores, but that’s like the world’s worst outlet for virtually anything!
RW: Well, you’ve done some stuff with libraries, haven’t you?
JG: Yeah, and that’s what I was gonna say – she mentioned people showing her book around. I think alternative comics, small press comics, have a huge pass-on rate, I mean so much more than mainstream comics. I found out that going to schools and libraries –
PB: I love to do library talks. In fact I was just talking to somebody whose wife is a librarian and she says, “She really wants to get in touch with you” and I said “E-mail me! Call me anytime!” I just did one on Monday, and I’ll probably do another one next chance I get.
JG: Because a lot of graphic novels, particularly in libraries and bookstores, is the number one growing section. Graphic novels is the buzzword in the book industry right now. And they’re not looking for the new take on Spider-Man. That’s one advantage we have – I mean, all those icons of all those big companies have been diluted to the point where they’re meaningless. There’s a Batman for everybody, so therefore there is no Batman. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. But everyone up here and everyone in that room has something that they can offer them that’s individualized, and that’s much more receivable in the real world, in bookstores and libraries and schools.
RW: Max, you’ve got your co-op thing going. How’s that been working out for you?
MI: It’s quite enjoyable. Sequentially Speaking just started at the end of last year and getting into libraries, galleries, basically any public forum, and talking with different art counsel organizations, going into different art fairs and things. Going to places… and bringing the comics to the audience. They might not even think that they’re comic book readers, but they read the newspaper comics every day – and showing them what kind of things are available, like everything that Jim, Sean and Pam, and Rich, all that you guys do – there’s just such a wide open audience.
RW: Do you think people make a distinction between comics in the newspapers and comic books?
MI: Yes. Absolutely. [others voice agreement]
PB: And what they think of as comic books they think of as superheroes. I often tell people when I’m describing my work to them that it’s more like what you see in comic strips. You say you do comics, and the first question is, is it in the newspaper? And the second question is, do you draw Batman? [laughter] And I find girls especially are much more receptive. Everybody’s got those little clamp books, y’know, those little manga things [others voice agreement], it’s becoming, like, over the last year, it’s become so much easier to talk to girls. And there are more girls to talk to, and I think that’s really exciting. And you can say, oh, [Dog & Pony Show] is a story about a little town in Indiana where all kinds of magical things happen, and that’s something that maybe you can relate to a little bit more if you were reading some of the girls’ manga.
RW: Sean, how well does manga sell at Laughing Ogre?
SM: Well, I haven’t been there since the end of the year, but when I was there, it was actually selling pretty well. We get a lot of female customers coming in, and they go directly to the manga section. The TokyoPop books in general are doing really well there.
MI: TokyoPop, what is that?
SM: It’s a publisher. It’s like, the biggest publisher of Japanese material in American format.
MI: Is that an anthology?
SM: No, they publish a bunch of different series of books. I think they had an anthology for awhile… I don’t know if they have it now. I believe they have an anthology.
MI: ‘Cause I heard about a manga anthology…
JG:Shonen Jump. [others confirm the name]
PB: That Shonen Jump book was everywhere for awhile. I saw somebody reading it on a bus! How long has it been since I’ve seen somebody reading a comic on a bus?
JG: And this is kind of an interesting case because [publisher] Harold Buchholz – and I don’t know if anyone’s familiar with Harold...
PB: Harold printed my book! [others voice recognition]
JG: ...he and I were talking about this and he said, “Look, it’s a really viable format, [the] magazine format. It’s huge, you get your money’s worth,” and we were kinda talking about it, and then someone else said, “Oh, it’s not because it’s a comic book. There was a Yu-Gi-Oh trading card in it!” [others voice recognition] But who cares? That’s what I’m talking about!
SM: Right, once you get them to read the comic… [a little laughter]
PB: Well, the point is, I’ve seen people reading it. Maybe they just bought it for the trading card, but who cares, if they’re reading it afterwards – even if they’re just leaving it in the bathroom and opening it, y’know?
SM: We’ll get them even if it’s by accident! [laughter]
JG: Because everybody especially in this end of the arena is so afraid of selling out: “Oh god, I don’t wanna sell out.” Well, somebody better sell out [a little laughter], it’s really important! It’s not gonna be a flourishing art form if there’s not people reading it. I mean, we could come to shows and pass them out to each other and we’ll appreciate each other’s work, but that’s not really a flourishing art form. So it’s okay to be commercial; it’s okay to go that extra step.
SM: Greed. [laughter]
RW: You had a question? [indicating audience member]
Audience member 1: I know that the underground comics from the 60’s, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and all, went through head shops and record stores. What I want to know is, besides libraries and bookstores and comic book stores, are there any other sources that you guys can pursue?
MI: Street corners. [laughter]
RW: Well, I’ve done some self-publishing myself, and I’ve had some of my work sold in a record store. When I worked at a record store for a brief time I had my comics sold there on a commission. It did okay. I had ten comics sold on commission to the store and I sold maybe, six. This was a Tower Records out in the suburbs.
SM: I think I had considered, at one time, when I was looking into doing self-publishing – on a larger scale than what I’ve done, which was one book – that I was going to target specifically records stores and alternative pop-culture-type stores -
MI: Tattoo parlors.
SM: I know that a hot topic right now doing really well with bits of comics that sell Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and the retro stuff like G.I. Joe and Transformers, and that does pretty well for them. I think if you look at a book and if it has some sort of a unique hook – say, if it’s a book about a race car driver – obviously there are opportunities there that exist outside of comic book stores. You can go to Pep Boys or whatever, like that, go talk to them about carrying the book up at the counter and I’ll bet you it would sell copies.
PB: I sell a lot of my comics to people who are interested in dogs – the dog mailing list that I’m on and stuff like that. All my sig files have a link to my website. Trouble is, I mean, we always complain about distributors, but y’know, if there was a distributor, or if we could get our comics into the hands of distributors who distribute stuff to those stores –
SM: Non-comics material.
PB: If you could get your stuff into – I was actually pursuing this before the company I was pursuing it to was bought by PetSmart! [laughter] The entire thing went crashing! I was talking to people at a kennel supply dealer who sold both to stores and at retail – they carry lines of trading cards, lines of T-shirts, and I was talking about doing a book of collected dog stories. And I was putting out inquiries, to see [if they] would they be interested. I did some illustrations for a book about corgis that went out and I’ve gotten some business back from that, y’know. They said, “Well, what can we pay you for these illustrations?” and I said no, it’s a charity book, it’s a fund-raising book, but please print my address and my website URL for more information. A small way I do that is, I’ve got my “May I draw your dog?” sign out on my convention table, and I draw cartoon drawings of people’s dogs from a description, or from a photo if they have one. And that brings people who are interested in dogs, and often they’ll leaf through and say “Hey, look at these cute dog stories in your book” and buy them. I mean, that’s a small version of that, but maybe there’s a way to get comics looked at, not by comics distributors, but by distributors that handle material for other types of stores.
SM: Really good point.
PB: ‘Cause I know a lot of stores don’t like to buy from one person. Rather, if they can put it in a distributor order it becomes a lot easier, a lot more possible.
RW: Okay, let’s move on to the next topic that I want to address, which I think is a big one – the stereotypes that are associated with small press comics. We’ve all heard them, we all know pretty much what they are and why they exist. I just want to go into a few of them and find out, are they justified or not?
PB: No, there are no stereotypes. [laughter]
RW: Okay – lack of timeliness.
SM: Ah, well, that’s true. You’re dealing with a lot of people that have full-time jobs, and they’re not doing this for a living, and they’re on a budget, so I think that’s part of the business.
PB: I solved that by not having a schedule. [laughter] I mean, I’ve always said that I’m fitting this in around the rest of my life –
RW: And your fans are okay with that?
PB: Well, they got no choice. [laughter] I mean, I will talk about things with my colleagues, and of course, there is a lot of overlap between the fan and the colleague group, right? In the small press. I mean, because a lot of us – I mean, I’ll say I’m trying to get something done and if I don’t, well, then, maybe they’re disappointed. This is year 14 for me, and I have a lot of fans who have been reading my stuff since day one, and it hasn’t driven them away yet! And I have new fans all the time. I think it’s better to not make a promise than to make a promise and not keep it. You see what I mean? It’s better to be honest and say the work will be done when it’s done and here it is. And I never solicit something until it’s actually printed and sitting in my – [Sean applauds, a little laughter] – and that way it can’t be late! And you know, I lose timeliness that way. I mean if people are worried that they don’t wanna buy a comic that was printed three months ago, I don’t see that as a problem.
JG: Y’know, when I started out the mantra was “Regular schedule. Stick to a regular schedule and we put it out - ” Oh boy. It doesn’t matter. I’ve done it both ways, and I’ve lied through my teeth and said, oh it’s done, it’s at the printer, whatever. The first time in ten years doing this or whatever, just two months ago, it was past the acceptable date. I had to do an order adjustment. I thought, well, this is a catastrophe. This is the end of everything. The orders went on. [laughter]
RW: Now is Amelia bi-monthly?
JG: Yes. [laughter]
SM: On paper… [laughter]
JG: Oh, when does it actually come out? Bi-monthly is such a subjective term. It’s two months from sometime… [laughter]
PB: Or you could say you do it six times a year. [laughter]
RW: There you go. Alright, what about small press comics being “artsy”?
JG: Well, we all run around and go, “Really, you don’t understand – comics are an art form!” Well, no one cares. No one’s gonna go, “Well, I’m gonna see Daredevil because I think film is an art form!” [to Pam] When you said something like [your work] reminds people of the daily funnies, that’s a much more valid approach because people like that sort of thing.
RW: People aren’t intimidated by it.
JG: Exactly. “Oh, this is for an elite market” – you’re by definition limiting your audience.
PB: I always say my work is there to entertain the audience. I mean, I hope you find it entertaining, I hope you find it funny or scary or intriguing or whatever, depending on the kind of story it is.
RW: But why do people find artsiness as a problem?
SM: As a problem? I think that that’s just an attitude thing. I think that’s just people making a judgment call about a cultural attitude.
PB: There are certainly people in the small press who project an artier-than-thou attitude.
RW: Not to name names… [laughter]
PB: But it’s not that typical – I mean generally, a more down-to-earth, ordinary group of people who just happen to be really passionate about making comics – I mean, I have met people with an artier-than-thou attitude. I had somebody show me a sample mini-comic once, and I praised the look of the drawing, and I said I was looking forward to reading the story and it looked really interesting. But I pointed out some things that could’ve been better about the layout, and it was obvious that the book had not been dummied up right. You know what I mean? You could tell from the level of the pages – and I made a couple of comments about layout, and he said, in the only really snotty comment I think I’ve ever gotten, “Well, you obviously have a craft sensibility.” And my response was, “Yeah, damn straight!” [laughter] I mean, I enjoy the act of making mini-comics, and trying to get them pasted up straight, trying to get everything right. And I’m not saying that that is more important than the story, but it is something I enjoy.
RW: I know I’ve seen that people who feel they don’t have any artistic talent, when they see that you can draw something, they’ll be so amazed.
JG: Of course. All of this comes back to the number one thing, the bottom line of the topic – trying to get people to try your work who maybe aren’t going to. Professionalism is the number one thing, and professionalism means different things to different people. It might mean a craft sensibility, which it does to me, certainly; being knowledgeable about your subject and about the marketplace you’re approaching; being kind and courteous – these are all super-important things that we don’t do, by and large as an industry. We mope behind our tables, and we hope someone comes by, and if they don’t like it, they’re a jerk. [laughter]
SM: Yeah, I always try to hammer the point home to all my colleagues that yes, comics is an art form, but it’s a commercial art form. But at the same time, I have to hammer home to some of my other colleagues that yes, comics is a commercial art form, but part of that is art form. It’s not completely just the marketing. There is an art to it. There’s an art and a craft.
PB: Isn’t one of the things we have to sell our personal viewpoints? I mean, the fact that we’re creating something ourselves that’s sincere and in some ways different from what other people do –
SM: You are kind of a commodity as well, sure.
PB: Yeah, as expressed through your art. I mean, the worst way to succeed in mini-comics, if there is such a thing – I mean, to at least have your work be known and to maybe place some things in some anthologies and sort of make a step forward – is to imitate somebody else. That’s the one thing that’s guaranteed to get you absolutely nowhere. You have to present something that the reader can’t get somewhere else.
RW: And people don’t realize that, that comics are a personal expression.
PB: My imitation of Batman would be really bad. And there would be no way that it could compete – besides the legal issues. [laughter] I mean, you could call him “Flying Fox Man” and maybe you could get him far enough away from Batman that you wouldn’t immediately be crushed by AOL Time Warner like a bug!
SM: Yeah, I’m glad I don’t write Batman. [laughter]
RW: Okay, next stereotype is that small press comics are poorly drawn or poorly written.
SM: Ha. [laughter]
PB: I’d like to think not!
JG: Even if you say 95% of them are, you can say that about every single part of pop culture. 95% of all music is terrible, 95% of all movies is terrible…
SM: It’s all subjective.
PB: And at the same time you have to remember that mini-comics is a great entranceway into the world of storytelling for beginners. You do see a lot of beginner work, right? In mini-comics you see a lot of people’s first efforts. And I think there’s a difference – in my opinion there’s a difference between work that is unpolished and work that is unformed, and work that is bad. You see what I mean?
SM: I think there’s a lot of people who are into comics in general and into comics’ mainstream – which is different from the actual mainstream – who look at mini-comics and look at the small press and what they mean when they say that something is unprofessional or bad, they mean, “You’re not gonna work for Marvel or DC!” But, you know what? Y’know, like Jhonen Vasquez got into comics so one day he could draw that Spider-Man story he’s always wanted!… It was my goal as a writer, coming into comics and the small press, but a lot of people are just happy producing the work they want to produce. So it doesn’t have to be commercially viable at one of the major publishers.
RW: You thought that one day you would work at Marvel?
SM: Oh yeah. [a little laughter] I was one of those guys, I mean, I wanted to write a Spider-Man story or whatever. But since then, when I actually got into writing stuff that wasn’t somebody else’s existing character, I said, well what would I write about? And I wrote The Waiting Place, which was a teen drama. When I actually finally got around to writing at Marvel it took awhile before I even had like a proper fight scene in the comic, because what really changed was why I want to write comics. And sure, I’m writing at Marvel like I’d wanted to, but it’s for totally different reasons and I’m writing totally different kinds of stories than I would’ve wanted to then, which would’ve been just like everything else.
RW: Yeah, the book Sentinel is unique in that it’s part of the Marvel Universe, but from what I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t have any established Marvel characters.
SM: Right. It takes place in Wisconsin.
RW: Right. It feels more like a creator-owned book in that sense.
SM: Y’know what, I was in the middle of writing Sentinel #1 and I had to stop in the middle of it and I sent an e-mail out to my editor and I said “Thank you. I feel like, for the first time since I stopped writing The Waiting Place, like I’m writing The Waiting Place again. ‘Cause really, I’m at Marvel writing a teen drama! Sure, with a 30-foot giant robot [laughter], but that, to me, is just amazing that I’m able to do that.
JG: Well, I thought The Waiting Place suffered from a lack of giant robots. [laughter]
PB: I always say every story is better with a wooly mammoth or a talking dog.
RW: Now, Max, what is the art level of the people you’ve seen in your group?
MI: Well, it’s called a visual narrative workshop, and I know it sounds kinda artsy fartsy, but that’s what it is – telling stories visually. And so far we’ve had both writers and artists show their work off, and from what I’ve seen, everyone at least has an understanding of what it means to tell a story. They’ve done their work, that they’ve read about how to write a story, they’ve been practicing, and so there’s always strengths that can be pointed out, inherent in people’s work. And that’s one of the things that I strive to do in critiquing people’s work – is to see what it is they’re accomplishing and what they’ve done well and correct, so to speak, and then also at the same time, see where there’s improvements to be made. I work mainly in the visual narrative workshop with adults, and it’s peer-to-peer critique. Everyone has an understanding, and it’d be something different if I was working with teenagers or kids. ‘Cause I did a talk with sixth grade kids and as a thank-you they sent me comic strips. That was good. Actually, two or three were done by girls and four of them were done by guys, and the girls were more fluid and sure of themselves as illustrators than the boys were. It was an interesting contrast.
PB: Well, at that age the girls are ahead of the boys.
MI: Yes, that’s true.
PB: In general, in the growing-up time, I mean, the girls are always one step ahead of the boys.
SM: I’m pretty sure they’re always one step ahead of the guys! [laughter]
PB: I was gonna say that! [laughter]
RW: Alright, let’s move on. The final stereotype I wanna address is how small press comics are supposedly poorly put together.
SM: Aw, isn’t that true. Whew… [laughter]
PB: It’s the staplers…
SM: God, I mean all you have to do is walk out there and look at all the amazing production design, things I never would’ve considered, y’know, different paper stock, different shapes and sizes, wonderful stuff.
JG: And that’s an interesting thing that we can do that maybe mainstream comics can’t do – make it an art object. I’ve picked things up at these shows just because it’s a beautiful item and then later on I’m interested in the story – or maybe not.
PB: You often buy things at a show – or at least I often do – [where] you can’t really read the whole thing through and evaluate it. You do sometimes have to go on your instincts and attraction to the object as an object. How many art forms do you have where you can write a story, and the next step is to decide, well, what shape do I want it to be? Do I want it to be a square, do I want it to be a long rectangle, and to have these as your options – I always say if you have access to a photocopier or a laser printer and a paper cutter, you can do just about anything if you’re willing to do the work. If you’re willing to do the cutting, or pay to have it done, if you can afford that. When people say, “Oh, we’ll have them cut it for you at so much a hundred,” I said, “I can cut it for myself at nothing for a hundred!” [laughter]
SM: You look at TV – they’re stuck with this [draws a squarish shape in the air]. You look at movies, they’re stuck with the widescreen [draws a rectangular shape in the air]...
PB: And they need millions of dollars and hundreds of other people.
SM: ...and I think it’s a major failing of the mainstream comics business that they’ve decided there’s one unique ratio and size that they’re gonna do their books at. I think they’re kinda doing a disservice. I can understand why in that sort of assembly-line manner that it’s important, but now you’ve got a lot of stores where their racks are actually built around this six by ten or seven by ten art object and y’know, if something comes in – even at stores that are more progressive and will carry the odd-shaped books – honestly, there are a lot of stores that will order less of a book if it’s oddly shaped, which is so unfortunate. There are retailers that I’ve talked to who’ve said, “This is a beautiful book, I really like it, but I have nowhere to rack it because it doesn’t fit on my shelves. I’ll carry it once it comes out and once it’s gone, it’s gone because I don’t have anywhere to put it.” And I think that’s an unfortunate thing about the comics business. I’d like to see us diversify more; I’d like to see the larger publishers diversify more, and I think as we get into bookstores we’re gonna see more of that.
JG: I don’t think Love and Rockets or Elfquest would make it past issue one if they started today. Just because of the magazine size, nothing else.
PB: And that’s a nice size. That’s a nice size for a comic.
JG: There’s nothing particularly aesthetically pleasing about a comic book size. It’s kind of awkward…
PB: I don’t like it myself. When I went to do my trade, I deliberately sized it down. Now I’m thinking actually – I’m working on a graphic novel right now, in the very early stages – and I’m thinking of going down to that manga size. I went down to six by nine. And I’ve had a lot of people pick it up and say “I like this.” It’s nice, it’s comfortable, it doesn’t flop.
JG: Certain publishers have sold me some of the most ungodly comics ‘cause they’re beautifully produced! [laughter]
PB: I keep my bound volumes, my book format comics, in bookcases, and I’ve got some of them stacked on their sides [and] people say, “That doesn’t make sense. You’ve got such-and-such next to such-and-such” and I say, “Well yeah, that’s ‘cause they’re the same size!” And I’m trying to get the maximum amount of books in a minimum amount of space in my little house. And of course it doesn’t bother me ‘cause I know where all this stuff is. When I want Three Fingers [11” x 9”] I know it’s in that pile turned sideways where you can’t read the spines.
RW: We got a question? Okay, go ahead.
Audience member 2: You mentioned how different sizes than six by nine are difficult for comics retailers. What if a comic was smaller than regular comic size but larger than a regular large trade paperback size? Is that unusual, or...?
SM: No, I think Oni does some of their trade paperbacks in that size; as a sort of digest size. That doesn’t seem to be a problem, unless they have those cascading shelves where you only see the top third of the book. Then you’re probably not gonna see any of your book. But any retailer worth their salt doesn’t have just those kinds of displays. They can display it somewhere else.
PB: In general, the problem doesn’t seem to be as bad for trades as bound volumes. Because people are more flexible with – somehow the idea of what a book is, is more flexible, in terms of size. People are used to seeing books of all different sizes all around them all the time. For some reason it’s more that the serious seem to be committed to the fanboy size, and the shorter-length forms are committed to the fanboy size. Trades I’ve never seen a problem with. People just sometimes put them in a bookcase like they do at the Ogre – spines out, y’know, and it’s like the library.
SM: I think that’s kind of fun even though I’m really anal-retentive about organization and stuff. It looks disorganized, but, I don’t know, I think it’s really cool.
RW: Let me go a little more into retailers. [to Sean] You would probably know more about this than anybody else here – retailers these days, when they go through Previews, the catalogue where you order the comics, a lot of the time they don’t have enough knowledge of a given title. Is that something you see a lot at the Ogre?
SM: It’s a huge problem. In that catalogue, they have something like 10,000 SKU’s. Not all those are comics. Every month there’s probably at least 1,000 books. The kind of time you would need to actually spend just to go through that catalogue and to read four sentences of description and maybe see a little piece of art that represents the cover and doesn’t even show what the story’s gonna be like – I think retailers really only take a chance on books that they know who the creators are, if they know who the characters are, or if it’s a publisher that hasn’t let them down. Those are the known quantities. Other than that, I’m sure they go through and they punch in whatever numbers they’ve been selling of it. If it’s not a new book, or if it’s a new book, they just go, “Well, do I pass, do I try one, see if anybody special ordered it – Oh, I had five people special order it, I’ll throw in another two - ”
RW: That’s another thing – retailers, a lot of the time, are concerned about whether a given title will be able to sell at all.
JG: Or even come out. That’s the other thing – if you’re betting your rent every month, it’s hard to bet on something that you have no idea who the person is, or company is, or title is.
PB: That’s why Cold Cut works so well for you sometimes, because Cold Cut only buys things that are actually there, things that actually exist! I’ve had retailers where I’ve approached them to buy something and they say “Well, is it in Cold Cut?” and I can say yes it is, and I notice my Cold Cut order. I mean, I’ll notice Cold Cut buying more of my stuff [and] I’ll get a little bump, and I’d say “Well, they must’ve ordered some stuff.” Or at least there’s a chance that there are people who did. I’ve never worked with Diamond at all.
MI: Some retailers only work through Diamond.
RW: Yeah, that’s a big problem.
SM: You know, I put out my self-published book last year and I talked to retailers, a lot of retailers who are activist retailers even, and I said, “Well look, I’ve got this book, y’know, free shipping, 50% off,” [and they said] “Yeah, well, if you had it through Cold Cut or Diamond, I’ll pick it up, but I’m not gonna…” Free shipping! “Naah, it’s just too much hassle.”
JG: And you wanna get really sober about the reality of this? I had six years and 16 issues or whatever of Shades of Gray, and I took a couple of years off and I thought well, if I’m gonna do this again, I’m gonna go all out. It’s gonna be color, I’m gonna save up, I’m gonna get the money I need, and I’m gonna really launch it. So we bought a full-page ad in Diamond, full-color, we bought the back cover of the order form; full-page ad in Comics Buyer’s Guide, the back cover of The Comics Journal, and retailers would say, “I’ve never seen this.” [laughter] It’s on the back of the very form which you use to order things! [laughter] How do you order? Is it like with darts?
SM: It’s really just that they have so little time. They’re running their stores, and that’s more than a 40-hour-a-week job as it is, and then they have to plunk down this catalogue and meet this deadline to get through this –
RW: [to audience] And it’s a very big catalogue, if you’ve ever seen it. It’s huge.
PB: Even if you looked for ten seconds at every thing, how many hours would it take? I don’t even bother looking at it anymore.
SM: And retailers are so busy that they’re usually looking at it on the last day before the deadline’s due.
PB: As a reader, I don’t even bother opening it anymore. It’s just too much.
SM: I found out when I was flipping through it, I found out a couple of weeks later that there was actually a book that I had done something for in there and I didn’t even know, y’know! [a little laughter]
PB: If you can’t even see your own name [laughter], something that you’d recognize above all those words –
SM: And I looked through that book! It’s tough.
RW: Alright, we got a little bit of time left. What I wanna talk about next is some of the activist methods that have been rising up. I’m sure that some of you are aware that there’s been a trend lately of having money-back guarantees for a specific title. As a matter of fact, Sean, you talked about it in an article recently at the Newsarama site. How do you feel this is an effective way of getting people back into reading comics again?
SM: Well, I don’t think it’s getting people back into reading comics in that sense because it’s really kind of preaching to the choir. Because the creators who are doing this – and what they’re doing is, sometimes it’s the creators who are writing the book, sometimes it’s actually another creator who’s just pimping out one of his friends’ books – where they’ll say, “Look, I think this book is so good that I will actually buy this book back from you if you do not like it.” And what happens, I think a lot of the time, is people will try a book out and they will actually like it or they won’t like it, and they’ll decide to keep it anyway –
PB: Well, what’s the level of risk, really?
SM: Yeah, because of the level of risk, they decide to try it out, and maybe a couple of people’ll take them up on the offer.
PB: I was gonna say what’s the level of risk of the person offering the guarantee, because I can almost guarantee you if I bought a comic and didn’t like it, I would not go to the trouble of sending it back. [a little laughter]
SM: It’d be like a pain, wouldn’t it? Which makes you wonder how long this is actually going to work, before people go, “Ah, I’m not doing that again.”
PB: Well, that’s what I mean – it always sounded to me like a gimmick. Is that bad necessarily? I don’t know.
RW: Well, I can address that. In the article at Newsarama, which I have here, it says that, for example, Ed Brubaker had offered a money-back guarantee on Sleeper, and Geoff Johns on HERO. And it says, according to the article, that Brubaker and Johns would have been out $1475 and $1250, respectively, on money-back guarantees on Sleeper and HERO.
PB: You mean they actually had to pay that much or would have?
RW: They would have.
PB: But it’s easy to say “would have had to” – I mean, I’m not arguing with this as facts, but how many people are actually gonna go to the trouble?
RW: That’s another thing.
JG: Even one of the things that keeps the comic book industry locked in is, I think, a bit of a myth, when they’ll say, “One of the reasons you can self-publish and get your books in comic book stores is because they’re non-returnable.” This is like, the great thing that makes the comic book industry work. But have you been in Borders? Have you seen the mounds of Calvin and Hobbes books this high that sell for five dollars? They’re not returning books either. The returns in bookstores are at the most, like 30%.
PB: Actually, they’re getting those Calvin and Hobbes books new from remainder dealers because they know they can sell them for five dollars.
JG: But they say even at the most it’s something like 30% returning books at regular bookstores. It’s a risk, but it’s not a huge risk. And if you’re honestly going to be in a business where the goal is to get people to read your work, you gotta take a risk.
PB: Everybody takes a risk every day when they invest their own money in something.
SM: Yeah, taking calculated risks are obviously preferred, but sometimes you just gotta go with your gut and try to get people to buy the book however you can.
RW: Sean, you sent retailers a script package for Sentinel. How well did that go for you?
SM: In general, talking to some of the retailers that received the scripts, for the most part there was pretty positive feedback, and it resulted in people ordering anywhere upwards of 300% above what they were originally ordering, three times what they were gonna order. So I think it was really helpful for that book – maybe only with forty or fifty retailers, but you start where you can start and move on from there. And I think it’s worth it to reach out and, not only that, maybe this book doesn’t work out so well, but the next time I have a project coming out they’re gonna remember that [offer]. And in my instance, being a freelance writer, as opposed to being in the small press, a publisher’s gonna remember that I go the extra mile to promote my books.
PB: Get you some work, get you another place to maybe write something.
MI: Last year it was great. They had a whole big thing in the back of Laughing Ogre –
SM: That was fun.
MI: I spent a few hours drawing comics and cartoons. They put ogres down on the wall, got kids to color pictures…
SM: Bat-Ogre and Spider-Ogre. [a little laughter]
SM: We had some comics creators. I was there, Jeff Smith was there for a short while, Keron Grant, who draws New Mutants, which is coming out soon, and we had a lot of people come in. Actually, one of the big reasons we ended up with a lot of people just coming in who didn’t know about Free Comic Book Day was we had people dressed up as Spider-Man and Green Goblin outside the place – y’know, the opening weekend of the Spider-Man movie. And that brought a lot of people in. But what was great was that a lot of the books we had, it wasn’t just the Free Comic Book Day books at the Ogre. They had The Waiting Place, they had whatever stuff they bought in overstock or they bought remainder priced, y’know, they saw it was going to be cheap, and they picked it up to give away for Free Comic Book Day. So we were able to give people who came in there a wide variety of product and it wasn’t just the mainstream superhero stuff, but also small press work.
PB: Did anybody feel like you actually got people coming back?
SM: It’s really hard to say.
PB: A lot of this stuff is terribly, terribly hard to gauge.
SM: I think [owner] Gib [Bickel] would probably have the best answer for that, and even that would be bad, probably.
JG: Well, one thing if you are planning on doing any kind of promotion – something like that, a combination of the retailer, or coupons, or anything you could do – if you put a code on the thing, like you give a coupon and then [they] send it back to you, you’ll know what’s working and what’s not.
PB: Yeah, and you could easily encode something on that coupon when it’s given out, or in what form –
JG: Or even if you have something sent to your house, and it’s like 219 Maple Street, you could have it like 219A Maple Street, and they’ll just know that, alright, all the things that come to A are the result of my Comics Buyer’s Guide promotion or whatever.
SM: One thing I wanna be sure to point out before we run out of time – and this is about getting people to read small press books, but I think this works for any comics. Things that you can do as an individual to promote comics, whether you actually produce comics or not: have comics on your coffee table if you have people over. Read comics in public, y’know?
PB: I’ve sold so many – and this is corny – I’ve sold so many books sitting in a public place and drawing. It’s corny, and manipulative [laughter], but when you just feel like drawing, go outside and do it in a public place. I’ve made regular customers like that. And never go out in your own neighborhood without a copy of your book, because people will say, “How are the comics doing?” and you’ll say, “Look, I’ve done a trade paperback!” And people will say “How much is it?” and they’ll go in the house and get their purse. It actually will happen. I think I’ve sold 50 copies of my trade, over time, to people I actually met. I’m not saying that that’s gonna make you rich –
SM: Right. Every little bit helps. And they might read another comic book. It may not be one of yours, but…
PB: I always feel every one of those sales, just like I do about my Amazon sales, that every single one of those sales is to somebody who might not have read the book otherwise.
RW: Any other questions? [pause] Well, thanks for coming.
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