Saturday, April 12, 2003

hand in glove: business and creative in comics

As a small press publisher, I find myself wearing multiple hats (which isn't really that new or radical, I'm in the same situation with my other business).

Now while it isn't a matter of which hat is more important or which should take precedence, oftentimes it would seem that I am at cross-purposes with myself, given certain circumstances. But really, there isn't a conflict.

Here's a highly simplified outline of Kestrel's process (note that different companies have different ways of doing things - my way is just my way). Let's say, for example, that I want to write a new comic book and produce it in offset mode.

Hat #1: Creative - Being the type of person I am, I'd probably write something funky, without a care as to who will read it or how it will be marketed. I'm the type of writer who writes primarily for myself, audience second (unless that was the goal in the first place, which makes it a different matter altogether, but stay with me here). So from a smidgen of an idea, I'd proceed to develop the story, the characters, the plot (if any), making decisions on style, tone, language and format. When I'm done with my script, I'll edit it or pass it to Nikki for a once-over. Once that's done, the creative process is almost done.

Hat #2: Business - Knowing that I will be publishing a book, I'd need to generate funds to be able to produce the book. Once funds are in, I'd contract the artist, letterer and/or colorist and pass them the script. While they work, I'd be talking to suppliers, getting quotations for color sep and printing based on the mechanical decisions of format - number of copies, number of pages, paper stock, cover stock, colors or no colors, binding, size. I'd also make arrangements for how the book is to be distributed, talking to retail outlets and wrangling some sort of deal, whether outright purchase (good luck) or consignment. I would make projections on sales figures, determine my break even point and manage my cash flow. I decide at this point if I have a book I can pitch to other entities in terms of good advertising space, positioning mindshare of their brands with my assumed universe of buyers. I'd make the command decision of revising the script to be marketable or not, taking all into consideration the context in which I've decided to publish or fund.

Hat #3: Editorial - Once the script comes back, I'd check to see if everything is all right. If I have issues with the artist's rendition of a scene or scenes, then we'd have a dialogue. If I have corrections to the copy that was lettered, then we'd make the changes. At this point, I'll give the final go signal for color sep and printing once everything is as it ought to be.

Hat #4: Production - The final art is sent to the color sep. Any corrections are made. Once they're done and we have their deliverables, then the package is sent off to the printers. Normally, I'd have a production manager to do a press check, to ensure qualilty in terms of colors, cutting of the pages, pagination, all that jazz. Once the printer is done, then the new comics are delivered to us.

Hat #5: Marketing - Some thought must have been done regarding how we're going to sell the book. Why must it be sold instead of given away? Because, at the very least, I need to recoup the amount of money I spent for the creative and production process. If you manage this, then you can peform the cycle over and over again. Note that as a small press outfit, it is never our goal to publish a gazillion copies and rule the world. That would be lovely, but the financial and market limitations are formidable barriers. Anyway, so we hold a small launch/signing event or invite some press people or make announcements as to the availability of the book. We also make sure that, in whatever distribution channel we opted for, there are enough copies available for purchase. Of course, ideally, a certain budget and a plan should be in place, but really, this is one of my shortcomings as producer (the fatigue at the last mile is personally debilitating - and sometimes you feel like saying "Fuck that - I've written and published the damn thing, just let me rest a while.") But significant effort must be made - in fact, preselling and marketing ahead of time is necessary. At a certain point though, you just raise your hands and hope for the best - if you've done what you can, given your limitations (funding, personnel, time constraints, etc.).

Hat #6: Accounting - Once the book is out and sales come in, we make arrangements for the collection of the payments from the outlets. Normally, you'd pay anywhere from 20-40% of your cover price. On a regular schedule, you go and pick up your sales, tally up your sales reports and check your financial books. After the initial "golden age" of a couple of months (when your sales are optimistic), expect sales to slow down to snail's pace. It's the way of life. Now unless you manage to break even in your first month, you have no funds to roll over for your next issue or project, so you have to wait until sales come in. Well, you could do other things like get a backer to pony up more cash, but unless you can guarantee a significant and timely return, I'd advise against it (unless it's your mother whom you sweet-talked into a nice loan payable whenever).

All aspects come into play and have effects on each other.

I cannot approach making comics from a purely creative perspective because, well, how will I pay for production? How will I market it? How will I distribute it? What is the plan for recouping the money spent so I can make another book in the future?

Nor can I look at things in a purely business manner. Where's the creative? Just what am I selling? Why am I selling it? How can I expect an ROI if I have no faith in the product?

If we had a lot of money, I'd have different people responsible for each of these aspects, but we don't. So it falls to a few to do the work of the many, given the fact that my small press outfit is not geared towards becoming a true-blue publisher (in the sense that it's a primary business).

The important thing to realize, if you are a small publisher like me, is that you cannot talk about comics as a business without involving the creative.

You cannot talk about the creative without considering the business side.

Everything has its place and all of them must be thought about in the greater scheme of things. And even if you do everything right, remember that the end users are a fickle lot. You could have a well-written, fantastically illustrated full color book on immaculate paper supported by a gazillion attention-getting devices, but there remains the possibility that your book will not sell well enough for you to break even - and you can just flush your business plan down the toilet as you weep bitter tears.

You cannot coerce your readers to buy your book if they do not want to. Even if you and your friends and the critics think its the cat's meow.

That's just how things are.


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