Comic Book Publishing Follies: Issue #3

Fri, June 29th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Todd Allen, Columnist

Read anything about Platinum Entertainment lately? They get around a little and they seem to leave a fair number of upset people in their wake, but it's one thing to bitch and moan around the water cooler. It's another thing to actually talk to somebody with business dealings at Platinum.

To this end, we had a chat with T Campbell. T will shortly be leaving an editorial position with Broken Frontier, a web 'zine owned by Platinum, and possibly better known for his book "The History of Webcomics," the "Divalicious!" graphic novel series from TokyoPop and a number of webcomics.

So sit back and learn a little about Platinum, contracts and making the jump between journalist and comics creator.

T. Campbell's "The History of Webcomics"
Publishing Follies: First, T, what's your job description over at Broken Frontier?

T Campbell: Well, I'm the editor and head writer for their webcomics coverage. I ended up doing a lot more writing and less editing than I expected, for which I blame no one but myself.

PF: How many columns and podcasts are you doing in a given week?

T: Currently, we're up to 5 items a week and about 4 of those are mine. I'm trying to help the company get a few more contributors on the roster so that they won't be left completely in the lurch when I leave in August.

PF: Which bring us to the question, why are you leaving?

T: Excellent question! It's tied to why I came on board. I sure wasn't motivated by the money. Short version: I was deeply unhappy with my last attempt at webcomics coverage and I saw this position as a chance to do things better. Now that I've "cleared my name" a little, that motivation has diminished. And, I confess, it's a lot of work. The interviews, especially, were more tiring than I thought they'd be. I'm ready to refocus my energies on other things. (That sounds kinda vague and evasive to me, but I'm just trying to keep it short. I'll get into more detail if you like!)

PF: How many hours a week are you putting into Broken Frontier?

T: It varies, but it's a lot. The early interviews represented about two and a half hours: time spent researching questions, conducting the actual interview, editing all the pauses and ums and uhs out of the results. Then there are the super-mega-chocolate-fudge articles like "What We Don't Know" that represent obsessive-compulsive writing and research. I went through 307 Alexa rankings, 307 Quantcast rankings and 307 Compete.com rankings for that one, plus all the nosing into Alexa, Compete, Quantcast, Hitwise, Nielsen and comScore and their general levels of reliability. Final article's word counT: 2207. I don't keep count of the hours on a project like that, I'm afraid, but I think I can say "quite a few" with some degree of confidence.

PF: 10 per week?

T: Yeah, that's probably safe to say. I'm resorting to e-mail interviews now, but the Monday articles are still going to be pretty big.

PF: 10 hours a week is not a small commitment. It creates what they call "opportunity costs" in economist circles - time that you can't spend on your other pursuits. Now I know your primary motivation wasn't monetary, but what are you making at Broken Frontier?

T: $300 a month.

PF: For 40 - 50 hours a month, roughly speaking?

"Divalicious" Vol. 1
T: Right. I took the position as a long-term investment, at a time when my opportunities, and therefore my opportunity costs, were low enough to justify it as a business decision. I would recommend it to someone else who wants now what I wanted then: a chance to get further as a reporter on this scene, both in terms of an audience and in terms of the people who will talk to you, than you could on your own. But if you're planning to use that time to pay the rent, then it's not for you!

PF: Definitely. Looking at a 40-50 hour/month time commitment that breaks down to $6 - $7.50/hour which may be below minimum wage, depending on which state you live in. That said, what benefits have you been able to identify and quantify from your tenure?

T: Through Broken Frontier, I was able to reach a new audience, one that I don't believe would have found me, or the things that I talk about, any other way. Constantly reaching out to new readers is good for my sense of purpose, and also good for my career. I have requested interviews representing no one but myself, and I have requested interviews representing a site like Broken Frontier or Comixtalk, and the latter gets a higher percentage of responses, especially from the people who capture the public interest. I doubt Jimmy Wales would have done an interview with "some guy with a blog." (Maybe I'm wrong about Wales, specifically, but it's a good rule in general.) [PF Note: Jimmy Wales is the man behind Wikipedia. I had occasion to meet him in a casual setting last year. He's more down to earth than you'd expect.]

PF: I know you have some ongoing activities on the creative side. Your own webcomics, a new series in print at TokyoPop. Have there been any bumps in the traffic or sales with those properties? I know this column gives a boost to my business text on online comics, for example.

T: Well, I expect that you're going to see a more direct effect because your column is very similar to your academic work, while Broken Frontier and my blog are my only nonfiction-about-comics right now. I do think, though, that there are indirect effects. Doing these pieces sharpens my thinking about what works in the field, creatively and commercially and the ways in which it's changing.

PF: So the bump in your creative work would be under 10% and the benefits are more cognitive?

T: For now. Being a webcomics commentator and not just a participator has opened some interesting doors in the pasT: it led me to a couple of positions and got me my first direct-market publishing deal. My reputation took a big hit with the publication of "A History of Webcomics" (which would be a whole 'nother interview), and I think I'll need at least a couple more years of rebuilding before I reaped any more benefits like that. But in three to eight years, I might like to teach. The response to my tenure at BF has not been uniformly positive, but it's been acceptably so, and I think as it concludes, I've laid the foundations for that rebuilding. Now it's time to let someone else build.

PF: No media tenure is 100% positive. Broken Frontier is a subset of Platinum Entertainment, correct?

T: Platinum owns it, but doesn't run it. Best I can tell, they've been using the site's banner space to advertise their properties and leaving the content alone.

PF: Platinum has been a bit controversial over the years. We've all heard some stories. How have they been to work with?

T: Honestly, I haven't had any trouble. But then, they've been extremely hands-off with me. Frederik Hautain, the site's creator, has had more direct involvement with them. The only time things got a tiny bit conflict-of-interest was during the "Cowboys and Aliens"/Entertainment Weekly brouhaha. Frederik was worried about my desire to cover that one, but those were clearly his worries and not Platinum's and I convinced him we had to run with it. But then the story died on its own. [PF Note: If you're in downtown Chicago and want a copy of the Cowboys and Aliens book, go to Graham Cracker's Comics at Madison and Michigan, they're selling copies for roughly $2 a piece, if memory serves. Display on the counter and everything. Gotta love a publisher subsidy, even if that's a largely foreign concept in comics and was presented in such a way to raise suspicions of sales chart manipulation.]

T: I don't mean to disparage anybody else's experiences, one way or the other. But they've never given me any trouble.

PF: Did this position involve signing a contract?

Penny & Aggie, Written by T. Campbell, art by Gisele Lagace
T: It did.

PF: Did the terms of the contract match your verbal discussions?

T: Not at first. The first thing I signed was an NDA about their upcoming business plans (not, obviously, their past and current practices, or we wouldn't be talking). Then they gave me a modified version of the same boilerplate that they give to artists on their properties. But it wasn't modified enough. The language could have been interpreted as a non-compete clause, which I sure as hell couldn't sign when I was doing my own online comic that competed with Platinum's Drunk Duck for mindshare! Things like that. So I asked Platinum to modify the contract and sign some statements which would address all my worries, and they did so. (The noncompete was narrowed to mean that I couldn't work for other comics news outlets like CBR.)

PF: Too many people think reading a contract is 1) optional and 2) just how things are going to be. That doesn't just go for Platinum, although it's good to have an on-the-record example of this process. Do you think commentary and journalism is a good launching point for aspiring creators?

T: I'll respond to the statement first, because I think it's a very good one. [In many cases, when negotiating changes in a contract,] just a little talking will let you discover if you and the company can live with one another or not. But yes, absolutely, check everything: I would have refused the position if I thought the contract was non-negotiable.

As for commentary and journalism, I think it depends on the creator's personality. There are lots of firebrands in this field who do a great job making the work but really shouldn't be talking about it. On the other hand, if you're doing it right, then it's forcing you to learn things that you might otherwise resist learning, and that's good for you as an artist, while you're writing things that hardcore comics fans will sit up and notice, and that's good for you as a public figure.

PF: When does the search for your replacement start?

T: It'll have started before you publish this interview, man.

PF: Got any contact information for any would-be-T's out there?

T: Just send your application to frederik@brokenfrontier.com. That's for Frederik Hautain, whom you'd be working under. If you've got any more questions for me, you can shoot 'em to tcampbell1000@gmail.com.

PF: Anything people should be watching for from you?

T: My blog is always the single best place to answer that question: My big project these days is Penny and Aggie. "Divalicious," Volume 1, is in stores now, and I've just seen the final artwork for Volume 2. It's gonna be a blast.

What can we learn from T's world? The first thing for perspective pro's (and few established pro's, I'd wager) is to read the damn contract before you sign it. You've doubtless heard all about Mike Strang not being happy with his dealings with Platinum and his signing away of his creations? Strang should have read the contract. He's not the first person to have this problem, he's not the last, and it isn't just Platinum you hear these stories about.

Read the contract. If you don't like the terms, ask to amend the contract. If you can't come to an agreement, be it on rights, licensing or cold, hard cash - walk away. If you sign the contract and the publisher breaches the terms of said contract, send Destroyer Lawyer on them. If not, shut up. You signed the contract.

Quick, what's the difference between selling your child into slavery and selling the rights to your creation? Your creation isn't going to escape from bondage and seek out its biological parents. There's nothing wrong with a conscious decision to sell intellectual property. Just be sure you're aware of, and OK with the ramifications. I'd also compare the royalty structure of a Platinum contract with other Hollywood Intellectual Property agreements, but that's just me. You sign it, you've just said you're fine with it. If you want the cash up front, and you don't much care what happens at a later date, there are worse deals to be had.

Now, Platinum put to bed, there is a long tradition of journalists going into comics. Denny O'Neil. Jay Faeber. A certain Gail Simone who used to pen a column, albeit a send-up, not straight reporting, right here on CBR. We offer no explanations for Rich Johnston, who would still like you to check out "The Flying Friar" at www.RichJohnston.com.

Your rule of thumb should be 1% of your online audience might buy something of yours in the physical world, so if you have 20,000 regular readers, you shouldn't reasonably expect more than 200 of them to fork over for a book. Sometimes the percentage is higher, sometimes lower, but your goal here is to network and get noticed, if that's the game you're playing. Think of it as an internship with a stipend and it may be more palatable.

Todd Allen is the author of "The Economics of Webcomics, 2nd Edition." He consults on media and technology issues and is an adjunct professor with the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, see http://www.BusinessOfContent.com. Todd even did a comic this week. Sort of.

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