This was one of those weeks when it was genuinely fun to read the Internet, from Heidi Macdonald's Beat through Deadline Hollywood in the L.A. Weekly, as person after person weighed in on the apparent imminent apocalypse at DC Comics. Somehow it all evolved out of the news that DC abruptly informed longtime freelance writer Chuck Dixon no more assignments were coming his way, intersected with convention season and at least critical disappointment with DC's megacrossover-to-end-all-megacrossovers, FINAL CRISIS, and fanthink gripped what passes for the nation in our circles.
Fanthink is an interesting beast. It starts with the premise, which perhaps not coincidentally is what the DC comics universe has been based on for the last 20-some odd years, that reality is whatever you want it to be. Which is perfectly fine for a fictional world controlled from on high where any unpleasant complications can be explained away, rebooted or ignored as desired, as long as you're aware that anything done will have fans unwilling to accept your explanations, reboots or willful ignorance. In the real world? Mmmmm... doesn't work so well at all, like when you invade a country while figuring all you'll have to do in the aftermath is dropping a malleable new government into place and sweeping up the flowers its grateful citizens strew in your armies' path. Nonetheless, it has become a popular game among Internet comics fans especially to decide on the outcome they'd prefer to see, act as though it's already reality, and extrapolate their arguments backwards.
Last week's anticipated outcome, apparently, was the end of Dan Didio's reign as master controller of DC's superhero universe.
As near as I can tell, this originated (at least in the context of last week) as a revenge fantasy of Dixon fans, since Didio was reputedly directly responsible for Chuck's loss of assignments at the company. They're an interesting bunch in their own right, and very much in the mold of "vocal fandoms" for various comics talents. Central to their claims of misconduct and incompetence by DC's editorial decision makers was the notion that Chuck is a "fan favorite" comics writer. That's a very fannish thing to say. Bear in mind this is in no way a slam at Chuck; he's a good comics writer, and always has been. He does have his own vocal fanbase, which is certainly bigger than, say, mine.
But while "fan favorite" is a term both fans and the fan press like to throw around with great abandon, in the context of the business it has a very specific and often willfully overlooked meaning: a "fan favorite" is a talent whose name alone has a significant impact on sales. Traditionally editors and marketing departments have been among the first to abuse and weaken the term, editors because for quite a while (and to some extent still) were all in a mad race to find comics' Next Big Thing, and, also no strangers to magical thinking, they started to anoint whatever talent they could manage to debut with the "fan favorite" label, usually in the hope that if they said it enough people would believe it. Problem was that it wasn't long before a lot of editors " and talent themselves " started operating on the premise that they could tell the market who'd be the next fan favorite, regardless of the quality of the product. (This coincided with a widespread editorial belief that something was good because We Say It Is, which, maybe coincidentally, reached its zenith shortly after the utter collapse of the comics market in the mid-90s. It's still not entirely out of fashion today.) Marketing departments pulled the same sort of thing: "fan favorite" became a buzzword for any talent they were hot to market who got even the slightest bit of attention.
But having fans isn't the same thing as being a fan favorite. This isn't a "fan favorite" climate now, and I'm hard pressed to name many talents whose name alone draws widespread attention and significantly jumps sales. Frank Miller. Warren Ellis. Alan Moore. Grant Morrison. Maybe. Are there any real fan favorite artists anymore, people whose work will sell widely regardless of the other elements? I don't know what the sales on Chuck's books were, compared to other DCU titles or compared to sales by the writers who preceded him, but would all his NIGHTWING fans readers who'd follow him no questions asked to an ULTRA THE MULTI-ALIEN revival, or where they NIGHTWING fans who liked his work on NIGHTWING fans. This is an important distinction. The only really safe conclusion one can reach about Chuck is that he has traditionally been an editor-favorite writer. Which may make his abrupt ejection from DC puzzling, but here's a dirty little secret superhero comics fans generally don't want to acknowledge:
In the world of work-for-hire comics, freelance talent can be removed from a book on a whim. They don't need a reason. That's what work-for-hire means, in practical terms. Sometimes it's politic to produce some sort of public justification, but... really, not necessary. They're the company's books, the company can do whatever it bloody well pleases with them. And if they want Chuck to go away, well, he ain't the first by a long shot. This is what superhero fans really don't get, or don't want to get, because for many of them all they really want is that next issue of JLA or FANTASTIC FOUR the way they want it, but this is the cold hard reality for fans and talent alike:
If you live by the system, you die by the system, and the house controls the table.
You don't like it? Support a different system, because that one's not going to change without quasi-geological upheaval. But you don't want to support a different system, do you? Because that would be a system without Spider-Man or Green Lantern.
Speaking of upheaval, all this, including the underlying idiot notion that karma would rise up to bite Dan Didio on the ass for Chuck's ill-treatment, got exacerbated by the revelation that Marvel's SECRET INVASION #2 was the top book of the month, with DC's supposedly pivotal FINAL CRISIS #1 coming in second, along with the speculation that "we can't imagine anyone at DC is very happy about that."
It has become ridiculously easy to confuse reviewers' commentary on comics with the real-world facts about those comics, but usually the one doesn't have much more than peripheral connection to the other. I've mentioned in the past the dichotomous, contradictory standard "fanthink" on the matter: the comic that we like that fails failed because the audience isn't sophisticated enough to appreciate it, the comic that we don't like that fails failed because the audience couldn't be fooled by crap. Corollaries: the comic that we like never fails because it's crap and we're the ones who got fooled by it; the book we don't like that succeeds always succeeds because the rest of the audience is dazzled by crap.
But market success and failure are determined by innumerable factors. The level of artistic competence is only one of them.
Let's move FINAL CRISIS sales into real terms for a moment. Marvel has pretty much dominated American comics sales since around 1972, and its impending dominance was pretty easy to predict several years before that, provided they didn't make any fatal blunders. It was nearly another twenty years before DC got another month in which they dominated comics sales, and even since dominant months have been harder to come by than not. Even during the '90s when Marvel was making a string of idiotic blunders, some of which we're still paying for today, the company dominated the direct market. DC has had its share of successes, and it has been a strong direct market #2 for over a decade. In some areas, like its bookstore program, DC would seem to have it all over Marvel (it's a bit hard to be sure since figures in that area are hard to come by, and fans don't pay much attention to it anyway).
The short version: SECRET INVASION #2 seems to have come in at around 200,000 sales, FINAL CRISIS #1 about 40,000 less than that. But head of everything else Marvel published that month. It wasn't that long ago that number and position would have had DC execs sending out for champagne and 8 ft. cakes. Would they have it to have been the #1 book of the month? Undoubtedly. But disappointment at a "Dan Didio's job is at risk" level?
No way in hell.
Yet the Internet decided FINAL CRISIS was the tipping point and that the Heroes Con this past weekend would be Dan Didio's public swan song, a theory inexplicably reiterated in the weekend's LA Weekly story despite not a shred of supporting evidence at Heroes Con. It was fed by widespread disillusionment with many of the mini-series and special projects leading, out of continuity alignment, into FINAL CRISIS and probably not helped by a spate of interviews that seemed designed to distance Grant Morrison from the project, especially where Morrison stated many FINAL CRISIS scripts were written well in advance, and writers of those other series simply didn't follow what he wrote. Leading many to the conclusion that Didio, the coordinator of all these projects, was incompetent, and that the FC snafus would make this so apparent to DC management that of course he'd be replaced.
Yes, certainly closer editorial coordination of the projects would have been a good idea. But the basic problem, the cult of obsessive secrecy in the DCU, goes way back before Didio's arrival on the scene, to when DC felt stung by the pre-revelations of its biggest "surprise endings," the death of Superman and the revelation that Captain Atom would become the supervillain Monarch in ARMAGEDDON 2001. Breaking the former story ahead of time resulted in an astronomical boost in sales of that SUPERMAN issue and one of the few months where DC just crushed Marvel's sales; the latter leak " it's not like it was hard to figure out, I did it in twenty seconds when Archie Goodwin told me the premise over lunch one day, months before the world even knew of the book " was "repaired" by deciding the "shock ending" was far more important than a pretty decently worked out story, and the cure turned out worse than the disease. But from that point on the DCU books became obsessed with playing their cards close to the vest, apparently on the premise that audiences will be more inclined to buy if they're told something big is coming but they don't know what (which has mostly resulted in letdown after letdown as audiences decided this and that just wasn't as big as promised, since eventually everything in the DCU reverts to status quo, making real shocks far and few between) but know if they know what's going to happen but don't know how.
Cut ahead a few years, to 1997. I was reminded of this story last week when directed to an interview I'd done about Challengers Of The Unknown a couple years ago. Back then, the SUPERMAN offices had concocted a Big Crossover called "The Millennium Giants," and sent out the urgent invite for other DCU books to crossover with the series. Not many were signing on, by my COTU, Dan Thorsland, always eager to give marketing an excuse to push the book, volunteered us. That was fine, it wouldn't have been my first choice but it didn't break my heart, I was willing to play along. But if I was going to do that, I wanted to do a story that had some overall significance in the storyline, not one like many they had concurrent to CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS where the only connection was some character saying, "Look! Crimson skies! Ooooh!" So I had to have some idea of what the Millennium Giants were all about.
The Superman offices wouldn't tell us. They wanted us to do a crossover, and they wouldn't tell us how, because they didn't want any story secrets leaking out. We had no hook, no in, but now we were committed because it was already on DC's sales forms. I ran into Dan Jurgens, at the time writing the key, titular Superman book, took the opportunity to quiz him " and it turned out he wasn't being told much about the series, since he wasn't it's prime mover. Eventually, Thorsland pried out of them that the Giants were connected to ley lines, and that was all the hook we needed for a book like COTU. It was that culture of secrecy " which companies seem to obsess on more the less it works " cutting as many people as possible out of the loop to protect the Big Surprise Reveals... and then, ultimately, it turned out there weren't any.
It also became clear that the "culture of secrecy" was also a big shield to keep anyone from finding out they didn't know how they were going to end it, which was a huge problem nowhere near confined to DC and remains a pretty big problem today. (One thing I really wish everyone working in comics would get through their %*#$ing heads: figure out how the story ends first, so you know where it's going and what you're trying to say. No more, "here's a kewl idea, don't worry, we'll figure out some way to make it work later" please. Trust me, you'll find life ultimately so much easier if you don't do that.)
Anyway, it wouldn't greatly surprise me if the continuity gaffes around FC and its lead-in series like COUNTDOWN happened not because the lead-in writers couldn't be bothered to follow Morrison's storyline but because they were never allowed to know what it was. Maybe that was Didio's fault " I've got no idea who decided who sees what in regards to the project " but it's also the culture he inherited. Fans tend to think anyone walking into a power position in a comics company has carte blanche to do whatever they like, but whoever is in Didio's job would find it difficult to change the prevailing corporate culture overnight.
Then there began the suggestions for who should replace Didio when he got fired. The first time I ever saw this sort of wishing game was in an early JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA letterpage, where readers got into fantasy casting for a non-existent JLA film, like the Flash played by Troy Donahue. When fanzines started up, fantasy assignments were a favorite game, with fans mixing and matching their dream character-talent combinations without consideration of whether Neal Adams could actually draw 23 books per month or if Roy Thomas even had ideas for SUGAR AND SPIKE. The Didio replacement fantasy game, though, just made it clear how little people really know of what his job entails.
Three things to keep in mind with someone on Didio's corporate level:
Jobs at that level and up have a public and a not very public side. In Didio's case, fans tend to look at the "fun" side and imagine who they'd like to see controlling DCU creative, to the extent any one person controls it. But there's also the perhaps far more important corporate political side, and that's an entirely different skill set entirely. Especially in the expansive Time-Warner corporate environment. (Things are arguably a little different in Marvel's more contained corporate environment, but Didio's role is split between more than one person there.)
Corporations don't like to give away money for nothing, and while firing a line editor or assistant editor isn't likely to cost a company much compensation, by the time we get to Didio's level odds are pretty good we're talking a decent-sized severance package. There are basically only two circumstances under which a corporation will remove someone at that level: personal behavior seen as great liability or potential liability to the company, in which situation dismissal compensation is usually voided, or performance so bad that it's worth more to the company, compensation and all, to get rid of the person in question than it is to keep them. Neither applies in Didio's case. You can say that FINAL CRISIS, the company's big ticket for 2008, was only the #2 book... but it was the #2, quite profitable book.
Didio's hiring for his position was, in the first place, a signal of a new corporate direction for DC. He didn't come up through comics but in through media. Which puts fan suggestions of people like Joey Cavalieri and Jimmy Palmiotti for new overlord of the DC universe books way off-track, unless Didio were considered a failed experiment. That's not likely. His hiring was a big neon sign that said DC is no longer just a comics publisher but a media company, and it's even if they were to decide he was the wrong guy for the job odds are pretty good that whoever replaced him would again be headhunted from media, not comics. Unless they felt there was some corporate advantage to once again being perceived as only a comics company, which, given that Marvel also now views itself as a media company, would be tantamount to stating they no longer feel competitive with Marvel.
It's not hard to figure any of this out. All you have to do is pay attention. But who did? Heidi, who's as wired in as anyone I know, played right along with the Dreaded Didio Doom plotline. Even after Heroes Con gave no sign the status quo at DC wasn't still in place, the LA Weekly still ran their article, apparently in an attempt to whip up qualms in Hollywood over DC's movie slate. (There's no question that DC's property stable couldn't be better exploited by Warners, but that's not exactly Didio's purview anyway.
None of this is to suggest I'd be especially surprised if Didio and DC parted ways, or if there was some sort of editorial shake-up at the company " things like that happen all the time. (A few years ago I did a column giving "inside scoop" with three predictions, that a top editor at a major comics company would be out within the week and I forget what else, and by the time the next column rolled around all three predictions had come true, though I'd whipped them up from whole cloth, but that's not precognition, just stochastics.) There's just no special reason to expect it.
I'm not suggesting that many of the reasons behind last week's little outburst of hysteria don't apply. DC did screw up the lead-in to FINAL CRISIS something fierce. Morrison's story has yet to provide a solid hook. The marketing has been questionable; pretty much all they've let us know is "The Day Evil Wins." Which may again be part of the culture of secrecy up there, but, as I mentioned a few weeks back, this is supposed to be showmanship, not poker. The line sounds good on paper, but when doesn't evil win, at least for a while, so the heroes have something to fight back against. The problem such a line can't overcome is that their audience is so trained that nobody is going to believe that any real long term change is going to happen, nor will anyone be inclined to believe it unless the series ends with The Joker drinking wine out of Batman's skull or Lex Luthor showing off his new jacket made of Superman's skin. Thrills and chills aside, the best any can expect " and everyone knows it " is "The Day Evil Won For A Little While." In the DC Universe that's really no different from any other day.
It's here that DC could probably pick up some pointers from Marvel, and Marvel probably could too. Accessibility problems aside " it's been established that Marvel makes their megacrossovers like CIVIL WAR and SECRET INVASION more accessible to the average buyer than DC makes theirs, which probably impacts sales some " it is likely that anyone really thinks Skrulls will conquer Marvel Earth and remain a permanent fixture there? (I guess there's always a chance this is a big parallel of the Iraq invasion and, yeah, Skrulls will maintain a longstanding military presence trying to put down insurgent superheroes, but that'd be a big leap for the Marvel Universe so I kind of doubt it.) You'll notice SECRET INVASION wasn't marketed as "The Day The Skrulls Conquer The World," just "the invasion," which is more an invitation to be dazzled by how they do it and how Marvel's heroes beat it. It's really pretty traditional storytelling, which certainly has its appeal, and maybe what's most impressive is that Brian Bendis started quietly setting it up years ago, with this bit inserted here and that there, and no big fingers pointing at any of it. A patient setup and slow build, until Marvel was ready to unleash the whole story, and in the meantime focusing on whatever story arc was up, and SECRET INVASION is turning out to be pretty cleverly designed. That's the direct opposite of how DC has been doing it, screaming "here's a development you don't want to miss and you have to see this before we get to that development, which is coming up next, which will lead to the next big development after that." The problem with that approach is that snowballs can only roll downhill for so long before they look more like an avalanche, and that's about the point where people stop believing there'll be a snowman when they get to the bottom. And I suspect it has pretty much sunk in at DC they've ridden that pony about as far as it will go.
But that's still not something to get rid of Didio over, because while they were riding that pony they got a lot of mileage out of it. He wasn't wrong. That alone, barring other factors, is enough reason for them to keep him the man to find the next pony.
Comics fans really should get used to the fact that comics companies only rarely make decisions based on fan desires, unless there's a completely overwhelming fan solidarity on a matter. Which rarely happens. It's not like DC is any stranger to bad reviews, or good ones. If 160,000+ copies of FINAL CRISIS #1 weren't ordered, that might be a different story. Fan opinion is rarely monolithic, and while comics companies tend to overdownplay sentiments expressed via the Internet they are justified in not assuming those sentiments represent widespread feelings without specific evidence backing it up. For some reason people were eager to stoke the anti-Didio outbursts into a runaway train, but who, especially when the premises are so easy to demolish, wants to hop aboard a runaway train? In most cases, they just run off the rails.
Another '50s Western for you: The Hawk, from the 1951 Ziff-Davis comic of the same name. It's a decent story, typical of the time, with storytelling on a few pages apparently very influenced by Eisner's THE SPIRIT. But its main interest is a rare "never the twain shall meet" moment, since the pencils are by Marvel stalwart John Buscema, demonstrating he was just as good an artist long before he debuted on THE AVENGERS, and DC mainstay Murphy Anderson on inks. Turns out to be a dream team if there ever was one, and where else would these two have crossed paths?
What's with Abhay Khosla's fixation on the new Blue Beetle series, anyway? He has written several so far, going from praising the series to, in the most recent, reciting everything he felt was wrong about it.
He's right about one thing, though: underlying it all is the standard George Lucas-bowdlerizing-Joseph Campbell "mythic hero's quest" nonsense that Hollywood has been eating up with a spoon the past couple decades. But, really, that's irrelevant, as Abhay himself mentions. Like most structures, the structure's only as good as what you do with it. But one of Abhay's comments scratched an old itch of mine:
"Blue Beetle acquires a “mentor” figure in Peacemaker, a minor DC hero notable for fighting evil with a bucket on his head. They at least updated him. By taking off the bucket. Which was a good start.
So: we have a screenwriter writing a story about a Mentor Figure tutoring the Chosen One on his Hero’s Journey."
If I could choose just one staple story cliché to shove a damn stake through the heart of before I shuffle off, I'd pick "The Mentor." The Mentor is a figure, usually an older, experienced man, who is instrumental in drawing out the true, hidden inner self of usually a much younger man and leading them on the path to true fulfillment. (See: Obi-Wan Kenobi/Luke Skywalker.) But that's pretty much the NAMBLA philosophy too. Would anyone have thought Obi-Wan introducing young Skywalker to the joys of man-boy love was cool? (That scenario really puts a creepy spin on the butch Darth Vader "Luke, I am your father, Luke" speech, dunnit?) Maybe it's guilt by association, but I find this whole "Mentor" thing completely repugnant, not to mention at this point ridiculously derivative when used as a story gimmick. Dump it for good, and let heroes learn the ropes the old fashioned way: the hard way. I was always a much bigger fan of the Arthurian bit about entering the Forest Perilous by carving out your own path. Now that's a hero.
Notes from under the floorboards:
Graphic novels and trades currently available: THE SAFEST PLACE from Image/12 Gauge. TWO GUNS from Boom! Studios. (You might want to pick that one up right now so you can say you were there when. But more on that later.) PUNISHER: CIRCLE OF BLOOD from Marvel. X OMNIBUS from Dark Horse. You know the drill: go to your local retailer or Amazon or the publishers' websites. And two more original graphic novels on the way.
Is it really only a month until San Diego? Now if only someone can turn up a room for me within a block or two of the convention... (Can't share, though, sorry. Ain't I greedy?) Again, pencil in Larry Young's "So You Want To Create A Graphic Novel" panel at 6:30 PM Thursday, which will feature in action Dan O'Neill's words of wisdom: "You've got a sense of humor. Use it! And if all else fails, dazzle 'em with b.s."
Could that be correct? Did I actually read that Quebecor, printer of a great many comic books published in America, which has been going through a painful bankruptcy, actually lost two billion dollars!! last fiscal quarter? (Canadian or American, no idea.) Seems now in an effort to survive they're coalescing their divisions and selling off their European operations. But two billion dollars? Is that decrease in company value or actual money? How is that even possible?
Speaking of Canada, are American comics cheaper in Canada now? Seems to me with the caving rate of exchange they should be...
Seems a new operation called Topspin has started up to help musicians take advantage of the opportunities new tech has made possible. Not a record company, hard to tell yet whether it's a breakthrough, just another management company, another online social network, or the new boss same as the old boss. Those of you out there looking to make careers out of music might at least want to check them out...
Seems it's true: girls really do prefer bad boys. Not that that's exactly news, but what's interesting now is that researchers are speculating that being bad may be successful evolutionary strategy. Wow, could that notion have repercussions (among them whole new Mark Millar comic books)...
So John McCain suggests offering a bounty of $300 million to anyone who invents a more efficient gas-burning engine? Wasn't that called the wankel? And given that the whole idea now should be to get as much of America's energy needs away from oil as possible, isn't promoting further oil use just trying to put off the problem to another day rather than deal with it? Wouldn't that $300 million be better spent creating an infrastructure that would make the wide use of electric cars feasible? Of course, the more we go in that direction, the more those oil company profits " and their donations to political campaigns " would taper off. And, of course, it's exactly the sort of forward thinking proposal I'd expect from a political candidate who doesn't even think it's worth knowing how to use a computer. (According to his own staff, he doesn't.)
Meanwhile, environmentalists seem to be holding up a new proposal to transform vast tracts of western land into alternative energy farms until studies of the environmental impact of such farms and getting the energy they produce to market are studied. Which sounds, on the surface, like environmentalists are tripping over their own feet. But the whole plan is indicative of the blind spots in our collective thinking: the fact is that we don't need vast solar and wind energy farms because the technology already exists to make most buildings, at least here in the Southwest, their own energy mini-farms. (To punctuate that for me, it's 105 out and we've had mad wind blowing through all day.) But here's what the vast energy farm accomplishes: it keeps control of energy in the hands, and bank accounts, of the energy industry. No doubt there are some concerns best served by the vast energy farm, but the average consumer isn't one of them. Which is something we all ought to be asking: how much "public policy" is mainly intended to keep money flowing to them what money has traditionally flowed to?
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) now apparently estimates they're entitled to $150,000 per copyright infringement on pirated movies on the Internet " and, taking a page from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) playbook, don't feel the need to even prove a violation took place to claim damages. I presume this means whatever plan they have for recovering damages doesn't involve going through the courts.
Congratulations to Eric Schaefges, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "rock." Eric wishes to point your attention to the "disturbing yet fascinating" Garfield Minus Garfield, which demonstrates the mystical eternity of the humor of "Garfield" by photoshopping the cat out of his own strip. Check it out.
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme " it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. (You never know; I might just go on a mass linking spree one of these days, if I can ever find the Internet's answer to a water tower.) As in most weeks, I've hidden a special secret clue to the answer somewhere in the column, but solving the challenge will smell just as sweet even if you never find it. Good luck.
TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.
IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me " I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them " at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.