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I was struck down by faceache in the middle of the week, and the painkillers I was initially prescribed proved hopelessly inadequate. Following a nine-hour campaign to have the latter fact recognised by anyone in the medical profession, however, I eventually managed to get an alternative script, and the pain is now under some sort of control. It was touch and go for a while, but I've had 24 hours now to get used to the new regime and I think I've got my schedule optimised.

Which means I can go to Hi-Ex after all!

Offline now till Monday.


Comics Economics 2

"I'd do it for free if I didn't need the money."
– Vim, Bad News Tour
The reasons why, and the ways in which, publishing is in crisis have been well rehearsed. I'm interested in solutions.

Kieron Gillen talks about the missing two thousand fans whose timely support would have made Phonogram viable as an ongoing series. Let's break that down: Phonogram is/was essentially a two-man operation, based in London, published in America and circulated internationally through a distribution chain that eats two thirds of the cover price before the printer even gets paid. If Gillen and McKelvie were making as much as 20 cents apiece off a three-dollar comic they were doing well. Times 4000 actual sales that's 800 bucks, or about £500. Times 6000, it's $1200/£800 – I guess their return per unit must be better than I thought, because I don't see how even that would keep the wolf from the door at London rents.

Around my neck of the woods, though, that extra three hundred quid is the difference between the dole and an office job after tax. It's the elusive "Doing Okay Thanks": If I could make £500 a month from comics, I could quit filling in application forms for Mac Operator and Admin Assistant jobs and just draw full-time instead. And I don't need to sell 4000 comics to do that.

For a start, there's only one of me. That's 2000.

For another thing, the comic shop distribution system is broken. It's fit for purpose, but its purpose is to funnel ever more Marvel and DC merchandise to a motley assortment of impressionable kids and middle-aged completists, and other publishers get a look in only in as far as they can generate their own buzz and/or seize on trends that the big two aren't already exploiting (there's a whole other post that could come out of this exploring the situation in more detail and adding some useful qualifications, but I'm not saying anything new here and I don't want to get bogged down). To get those 4000 sales, Image Comics and Diamond Comics Distributors had to punt Phonogram to every specialist shop in NAFTA, the English-speaking Pacific, the British Isles and a few more places besides – which seems like disproportionate effort. Yes, comics are a niche market, and indy muso wizard comics are a niche within a niche, but despite the vast difference in geographical scale, the population of the USA is only about 5 times that of the UK, and I'll bet you the proportion of sales of Phonogram in Britain is closer to 50% than 17.5.

2000 copies...

Back in the late 1990s, I was on the point of taking Something Fast to Diamond – it took four issues before they'd touch it with a bargepole, but once they realised I could stick to a regular schedule they were prepared to give it a chance. But for logistical reasons as well as financial, North American distribution meant I needed North American printing – partly because otherwise I'd be spending a bomb shipping boxes across the Atlantic, and partly because no printer in this country could match Kim Preney's quote in any case. At about US$700 for a minimum print run of 2000 (35c/copy!) in a bigger format (6.7x10.2" rather than A5) with a colour cover, I reckoned I could maintain my existing cover price of £1.50 (then about $2.50), give Diamond their cut and pay various logistical costs, and still break even selling about 70% of the print run. For all that adding 1200 extra readers from a single catalogue listing was a tall order, if I'd had a spare grand lying around to cover the gap between entering the payment cycle and seeing a return, I'd probably have gone for it. Of course, if I hadn't had to print 2000 copies to get a viable unit price in the first place, I'd definitely have gone for it. But in those days, that was how commercial printing worked: setting up the plates was the expensive bit.

Not anymore. Digital prepress really has changed everything. I'm looking at estimates now from printers in Britain who're charging a couple of quid for the equivalent of what Preney – the best value comic printer in the world at the time – was charging three or four hundred dollars for twelve years ago. The unit prices thereafter are higher (but they always were, over here), even in relative terms adjusted for inflation – for runs in the sub-500 range you're looking at a little over a pound, which is too much to sell through Diamond at even £3 a copy...

But do I really need Diamond?

If my goal is international distribution per se, then... even then it's not crucial. If my goal is to be in comic shops, it's the only game in town, but as we've established, that system is broken anyway. And for everywhere else, we have the Internet now: people buy things online all the time, to a degree I'm old enough to still be amazed by. Without even getting into digital editions, consider this: I posted a sample copy of The Spectacular Santa Claus to a New York publisher for under £1.50. If that had been in response to a £3 Paypal order, it would still have made a marginal profit of about 20-30p. Alternatively, I can use something like Comixpress to produce US editions of my work on demand at the same or higher margin, and I don't even have to lick an envelope. Neither of which solution will ever result in a thousand paid-for and unsold comics sitting mouldering in a distributor's warehouse four thousand miles and a retina scan from my being able to do anything with them. The risk that put me off in the Nineties is gone.

On the other hand, the rewards aren't great: if my short-term goal is to make £500-£800 a month from comics, then relying on 20-30p micropayments from the USA is not going to cut it – we're still looking at 2000 sales a month. America is irrelevant.

But Britain... That same £3 comic ordered direct from within the UK can make a marginal return of let's say £1.25 after p&p. If I had 400 regular mail order customers, that would hit my lower limit; anything more is gravy.

400 is the magic number.


Comics Economics 1

Boy, can I relate to this. Kieron Gillen at Comics Alliance:

Will we make some money off the trade? Maybe. And that's a big maybe. But that means Jamie not earning any money for the six months it would take to draw it, which is the main reason why we took over a year to do 7 issues. As in, every time Jamie ran out of money, he had to stop and do something else. A couple of hundred dollars doesn't cover rent or pay for his fashionable haircuts. And doing this bitty work f--ks up the production anyway, because you can't concentrate or plan. You just spend your entire life in low-level money panic.


Imagine if we could have just done the comic and not had to deal with any of the shit we've had to. We'd have been up to issue 44 now...

... just to give you an idea about narrow the margins are between what we are and what we could be, if we were selling 6K instead of 4K, we could have done those 44 issues. The difference between breaking even and actually being able to do it in comics is insane. It's like being kept under ice, clawing.

I got into Phonogram too late to really get into it, having initially dismissed it as gimmicky and self-indulgent*: I'm one of the missing two thousand, and I'm sure Gillen would spit on my sympathy. But he's absolutely right about this, and all of us who've been round the block even once trying to get started in this business know it, even if the numbers are different from project to project. Depending what you count as a serious attempt, it's something like third time out for me, and although technological changes have made things easier in a lot of ways, there's still a missing step between Almost Viable and Runaway Success, a sort of Daathic Abyss where Doing Okay, Thanks ought to be.

Lest this sound like special pleading, I'd point out that such a gap is not unique to comics: check out messageboards for film/TV production staff and you'll find similar complaints, and one of the things I discovered during my years in the so-called real economy is the extent to which it's increasingly adopting the showbiz model. Consider: twenty years ago, if you used the word "intern" outside of politics or the media, people would have no idea what you were talking about. Changed days.

But comics and publishing are what I know anything about, and have an interest in getting right. And I need to do it soon. As somebody commented on Warren Ellis' blog earlier, in response to the same article:

Waiting for someone else to fix publishing looks less and less sustainable by the minute.

Thinking cap is on. More to come.

*Which it is, of course. I just had to see the whole thing before I realised that was what made it good.