We quoted some of Mark Andrew Smith’s interview on Robot 6 about his successful SULLIVAN’S SLUGGERS Kickstarter campaign just a little while ago, but he’s made his thoughts on the new market for comics funding a little more explicit in a new essay. With his permission, we’re reprinting it here.
The A to B Manifesto. The creator as retailer. (Spread it)
By Mark Andrew Smith
We stand on the brink of a new Golden Age for comic books. Never before has there been such a diverse range of material and stories to choose from.
There is truly a comic book for every reader under the sun. In the next few years creator owned comics are going to spill into the mainstream of society in a big way.
In particular with this essay I am referring to ‘creator owned’ books and not applying these ideas to Marvel or DC.
This is not an essay where I will spell out or predict anyone’s doom. I believe there are infinite resources when it comes to reaching potential readers and infinite potential for growth. The success of one kind of distribution model doesn’t mean the detriment of another and indeed they can all benefit from each other and grow together.
The main message of this essay is ‘creators first’ which I will explain. This is the era of the creator.
CREATOR OWNED COMICS, THE UPSIDE DOWN PYRAMID:
A comic book creator I really respect often says that people focus on the negative things in comics but fail to provide solutions. For this essay I have to go over the bad to get to the solutions, so please be patient here. This essay is a jumping point for others to add to or subtract from, and I’ve given my piece here and after I don’t have anything to add or debate. Feel free to pick up the torch and run with it if you like.
I will also do this without any finger pointing or blame placed on anyone.
The state of comics now is no one’s fault.
The current distribution system of comics is failing the makers of creator owned comics and has been doing so for years. Comics are a place where people create something out of love painstakingly. They invest their time, money, and energies into creating their comics, and often it takes years before a series is ready to come out.
The creators put the book into the hands of the current comics distribution system and ‘roll the dice’ to see where they may fall. Most often the distribution system that exists fails those creators in many ways. I predict good health for comics in the next few years, but you’ll have to read the next sections of the A to B Manifesto for me to explain why.
The distribution system for comics as it stands is an upside down pyramid with the creators at the very bottom. In this upside down pyramid the creators are the last ones allowed to recoup from their work and they get the leftovers or scraps after everyone else is finished. (If there is anything left for them.)
The creators are the people who put in all of the time and energy into the very product that’s being sold. Even if you heavily promote your book, you’re doing it to make other people money.
The distributor makes their money, the printers get paid, the publishers, and the retailers before the artist gets to make anything or recoup money invested into a book. It’s easy to loose money even after everyone has been paid and very common.
Usually the rent is too high and it’s hard for creators to recoup unless their book has strong enough sales. Usually, it’s the exception that does, and not the rule. Or as Eric Powell puts it, “Making it big off creator owned work is like winning the lottery.”
The distribution system fails creator owned books again and again. If you work for years on a book and retailers don’t as a collective entity order enough copies of your book, then your book is dead, strangled in its infancy in its crib. It’s not the retailer’s fault. It’s the nature of the distribution system that’s in place.
If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s the creator’s fault for not doing more to put their futures in their own hands by being entrepreneurs.
There are so many books on the market to order and it’s difficult for retailers to take a risk with everything, because books are non-returnable if they don’t sell, and so they go with what’s safe and hedge their bets by ordering conservatively so as not to loose money. I would do the same in their shoes.
But rest easy, everything as we know it is about to change and we’re going to soon flip that pyramid right side up, and creators once again will be first and at the top of it in their rightful places. The shortest distance between to points is a straight line. This will also be the best thing for everyone involved and everyone will benefit from creators once again being at the top of the pyramid. I’ll explain this after I go over my second point.
NO MAN’S LAND:
To make comics grow we’ve got to stop beating each other senseless for a small piece of land. There are a lot of books that come out every month that have to fight it out for space on shelves to get noticed. They’re fighting for a small piece of land and space in comic shops. Creator owned comics are like being a minnow in a fish tank with two huge great white sharks (Marvel & DC).
The trick is just to get off that one piece of land where everyone is beating each other senseless and to make your own piece of land, that’s your own sovereign nation and reflects what you’re all about. The trick is to find your own audience and to sell directly to them, establishing a relationship with the reader and direct communication.
Even digital comic shops are full of clutter and the same with many creators battling for limited space and attention. With Marvel and DC taking the front and creator owned books in the back. If you’re not featured, your not there. Unless people go in looking for your book, they’re not going to find it in a digital comics shop that I feel is a shortcoming.
For many of us this consists of people that we already know and not subtracting from comic shops, but actually benefiting shops in the long run.
We’ve got to lower the price of digital comics dollar an issue to make buying comics easier than pirating them. Also we need to make people aware that people create books, and depend on them for income. I think in the same way that Louis CK did recently. Because if they have a direct connection and interaction with a creator it becomes exponentially more harder to pirate from them.
I got the negative points out of the way and it’s all rainbows, sunshine, and unicorns up ahead in the next parts of this essay, I promise. This part was tricky to navigate and I’m sure I’ll come back to it after getting feedback from friends and give the beta version a second polish, but right now I’m just trying to get the main ideas of the essay out on paper so that I actually write and finish it, instead of it being a bunch of notes in a notebook.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line and for comics to thrive and grow in the future comic books have got to go from point A (The Creator) to point B (The Reader). We live in an exciting time where creators once again will be at the top of the pyramid, with it right side up. Perhaps for the first time in history.
In order for comics to grow the creator has got to take the center stage as one of the retailers and we need to start cultivating a spirit of entrepreneurship among creators so that they take their own destiny in their hands. In 1988 a group of creators got together and came up with the ‘Creator’s Bill of Rights’, I think now with so many technological breakthroughs that it’s time to update that bill of rights to include a new right which is the right of the creator as retailer.
In order for comics to thrive I believe that the solution is to get comics out of comic shops. Well no, that’s not right. The solution is to keep comics in comic shops, AND to get comics out of comic shops and onto new soil. For creators to win they need to break away from the pack of other comics and find their own audience that they can communicate with directly.
The success of creators selling direct will not effect shops or take from their audience, in fact I believe that creators selling direct digital comics will help comic shops when readers want to pick up copies of the books in print and that the print run will be healthier because the creator established an audience for the book first.
I think that very soon, there will be a web template with paypal, where readers can go to a creator’s website and order digital copies of their books. The money will go directly to the creators. I also think that comics might take the form of webcomics, but with a monthly subscription model where there is a built in readership through places like, Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and Kickstarter.
I think this model will make it easy for creators to recoup and they’ll have no print costs. Print will also be an option, but I think it will be the second stage in the cycle after the creators take care of themselves. Everyone loves printed books myself included. But the trick to being successful is to establish and to build your fanbase in the same way that digital comics do. To do this creators need to promote their books like they would with actual physical comic books. Creators also need to rely on ‘older brother figures’ to bring in more traffic to their projects and to get the spotlight on them.
The creator will be first once again.
I know there are many myths about Kickstarter or that books on Kickstarter are books that were rejected by other publishers. But I feel that in the future Kickstarter is going to become the first choice of many creators as a distribution outlet. Another is that Kickstarter is begging for money or asking for a handout, but it’s really not, it’s a built in creator centered distribution system and you’re giving readers something of value that you made in exchange for their money and support.
I think we’ll actually see some millionaires on kickstarter who are big names in comics, that give digital comics a roll of the dice and try it out.
I think in the future the goal of creators should be to look out for themselves and it’s essential for them to grow their audience numbers and be in direct communication with them. The success of creators as a distributor is not to the detriment of the system already in place and will benefit it because everyone has their own unique audience and fan base in place. No two fan bases are alike and it’s really about growing the audience of comics.
The sky is the limit.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.