Tilting at Windmills: Fantagraphics, Kickstarters and OGNs

Thu, November 14th, 2013 at 11:58pm PST

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

I got a bit of a twinge when I saw the Fantagraphics Kickstarter campaign.

I'm an enormous fan of Fantagraphics -- they publish some of the greatest comics and cartoonists of the 20th century -- and I really like all of the principals of the company. The loss of Kim Thompson to cancer was a blow for the entire market, and I strongly think that supporting a company like Fantagraphics is a wise move for the aesthetic health of the marketplace. I want FBI to be around for a very very long time into the future.

I, in addition to my normal support of FBI as a retail store (they're my #7 supplier in 2013 so far, and they account for 2.5% of my sales; that's roughly ten times the average for the market as a whole) paid for one of those $25 t-shirts. You should consider doing so as well.

But my twinge came from the place of pragmatism. This is at least the third, and maybe the fourth, time that FBI has come to the market, hat-in-hand, needing a cash infusion to continue publishing. This is a bad habit, and one that I very much want FBI (and almost all of their contemporaries) to avoid going forward.

FBI has a number of problems as a commercial enterprise. Among them would be the notion that they publish a lot of only marginally commercial material. As wonderful as it is for the market to have access to the works of, say, Roy Crane, the number of people who are willing to take cash out of their pockets to pay for that work is probably very small. I think it is generally admirable to publish material because you want a copy on your bookshelf, rather than a desire to make money per se, but it makes it difficult to continue doing so indefinitely.

In addition, they don't typically charge "what the market will bear" -- most of those Crane books could probably have $5-10 added to their cover prices and the majority of the kind of customer for that work wouldn't even blink twice -- or have strange pricing, like $28.99 for the Peanuts hardcovers. In terms of shopping psychology, that's thought of exactly the same if it were $29.99 -- they both "read" as $30 in the consumer's eyes. So why not charge the extra buck if it means your "rainy day fund" is more solvent?

EXCLUSIVE: Gary Groth Explains How and Why Fantagraphics Has Turned to Kickstarter

You'll note that I didn't say anything about "publishing 'alternative' comics is hard," because I really don't believe that canard at all -- FBI is currently 2.5% of my business, right? -- I'd accept the notion that publishing in general is not the easiest game, but at their height "Eightball," "Hate" and "Love & Rockets" were Top Twenty sellers as new comics for us, and Fantagraphics has a tremendous backlist catalog that they could leverage if only they had any real passion for engaging the Direct Market. That is much like virtually every other publisher in comics, though, so that's not a charge that can be singled out on them!

No, what the real structural problem that FBI has, and therefore by extension so many other publishers face, and the reason I wanted to write a "Tilting at Windmills" about it for the "permanent record," is this:

Original Graphic Novels (OGNs) are a shitty business model.

It is shitty for creators, it is shitty for stores and it is shitty for publishers. Especially in the face of a marketplace that is not only rock-solid non-returnable, but that has evolved a mechanism to draw significant numbers of repeat customers in for regular, scheduled and most importantly paid, weekly visits. That's a remarkable advantage for a marketplace, and one that doesn't have any really significant comparable in any other art form.

Honestly, the periodical nature of the Direct Market is an astonishing strength that can and should be leveraged if you want to be a successful publisher of comics. Why? Because your actual manufacturing costs on any individual project is almost always a smaller number than your fixed overhead costs -- staff costs (salary, insurance, the occasional perk), rent and utilities, equipment and repairs, and all of that other stuff indispensable to running a business are generally both fixed and immutable. You can shop your printing costs around, you can change prices, you can manipulate format, and so on, book-by-book, but you can't pay your editors and production and marketing staff and landlord and phone bill some months and not others. When you add in the cost of creation itself -- that is: paying the cartoonists who are doing the comics -- there's an enormous set of costs before you've even sold the first copy of anything.

Therefore, you want as many revenue streams as are physically possible -- you want to serialize, you want to sell it digitally, you want a regular hardcover, you want a paperback, you want a deluxe hardcover, you want a fancy version in a slipcase, and if you can possibly sell variants of any of those permutations (say, signed, or sketched) for upmarket prices, you probably want to do that as well.

Of course, there are realistically very few projects that can actually thrive in five or six different formats, but you absolutely want to have more than just one format, and when you find the ones that can triple- and quadruple-dip you should pursue them with vigor because it's an honest transaction in the marketplace.

Even if the serialization itself only breaks even on production costs it is worth pursuing, because your second format then has no direct creative costs, only backend money owed after you've been paid. And while it still has to absorb some of the overhead costs, it will be a significantly smaller amount than the original creation process.

It costs you $X to produce a page of comic book work regardless of it being serialized or not, so why not get as much cash flowing as you can throughout the production process? While the book is of course the long-term goal, making money, hopefully, year-in, year-out unto the end of time, serialization doesn't stand in the way of that book. In twenty-five years of chart watching I've never seen any market-based evidence that the lack of a serialization increased the sales of the book format edition. And, in fact, looking at examples where there's a real comparable (Putting, say, the OGN "Sandman: Endless Nights" up against the originally-serialized volumes of "Sandman"), the OGN invariably performs significantly worse over the medium-and-longer-term.

From this point of view, even a serialization even loses a small amount of money is worth pursuing -- if it costs $4000 to produce a work in the first place, and $500 to make the same work ready for collection, even if you only make $3000 from the serialization, you're still in a better place for the collection than you would be if you had gone straight to OGN -- you only have to make another $1500 to start making a profit on the book, not the full $4000 you'd need to recoup without it.

Even putting aside the benefit of cash-flow (which is a truly silly benefit to put aside!), there are other valuable reasons to serialize -- primarily marketing and "awareness" of a cartoonist. There are a lot of talented young cartoonists coming out of the schools these days, but it is much, much harder trying to build an audience and career if your work only gets released every 200 pages or so. Who was the last non-genre-oriented cartoonist who "broke big" in American bookstores? I think I'd argue it was either Marjane Satrapi or Craig Thompson, and both of those examples are ten years ago at this point.

I think serialization inherently produces more work, as well -- beyond the lash of the regular ongoing deadline, I think that a serialization-first model allows and encourages work that isn't already fully-formed -- would we have had Chester Brown's "Ed the Happy Clown" or Dan Clowes' "Like a Velvet Glove" in an OGN-only world, or would those projects been abandoned when the cartoonists figured out they didn't have an ending? I think the world is a better place for having those works (however flawed they are) in it, and I don't think we'd have come to a place where "Paying For It" or "Wilson" could have been created if those earlier works hadn't come out serialized originally, and the cartoonist hadn't built an audience and a following.

Ultimately, I think the primary value of a publisher (and this is as true for FBI as it is for Marvel) is their ability to "break" a creator (or character in the latter case) -- to give them the stage to build that following so that creators can continue to create. And serialization is almost uniformly the best way to "break" cartoonists, both because of frequency of release and the (relatively) low-cost entry point for the audience.

That low-cost entry point is essential for people to "sample" new work -- without it, most consumers stick closely to only what they already know. Yes, one can get some of the same impact by putting material on the web for free, but the connection between online viewing and making a purchase at the cash register is tenuous, at best.

Obviously, not every project is suitable for serialization, and I'm not trying to say that it is a certain or universal panacea, but from my position are a pro-"alternative" retailer and market-watcher, it certainly feels like too many publishers have or are abandoning the format of the "comic book" in the pursuit of the "respectability" of the "Graphic Novel," while fundamentally losing site that one actually feeds the other, and makes the entire creation process more cash-flow positive.


Brian Hibbs has owned and operated in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, fantagraphics, kickstarter

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