I have a number of panel recaps to write up for you all, so you should expect them to occupy the next few days on the site – and we start with a panel from the ICv2 conference held before the convention opened. Called ‘Comics First!’, the majority of the focus of the conference was on digital comics, and their relation to print.
The ‘From Creator to Consumer’ panel was about how the internet has given creators room to get their comics seen in new ways. From webcomics to Kickstarter, the panel was moderated by Heidi MacDonald, with panellists Jamal Igle, Simon Fraser, Calista Brill, Dan Mauser and John Roberts. The words below are my own.
The panel saw the ‘creatives’ sat on one side of Heidi and the ‘suppliers’ sat on the other side, which leant a back and forth to the discussion. Starting with the creative side, Jamal Igle (the writer for Molly Danger) talked about his experiences online, marketing himself. He said that when he first started he was spending around 6 hours a day on promoting his work through social media, which over time has fallen to 3 hours per day as he’s gotten better at spreading out the content. Calista Brill, the senior editor for First Second, agreed with this need to be on social media. First Second have found that one of the primary goals for them is making sure that the creators they publish are available online.
Several of their print comics were first published digitally prior to their physical launch, and the company have apparently never found this has impacted on the sales. The panellists all agreed on this point, in fact – having the work available online for free did not have a negative impact on sales of the print versions.
Igle agreed, and said that he felt the most important aspect of promoting his work was in the communication. People are now as interested in the creative process as they are in the final created product. He created a logo which he started to feature universally as a branding on all his work, which made it clear when he was involved with a project. If there are issues with production, fans are more likely to understand if the creator is upfront about them and explains the problems to the fanbase.
He also made the point that this attitude has moved from Kickstarter and small-press projects across to the Big Two, which is perhaps why DC have recently received so much criticism from readers – their production process wasn’t previously important, but now fans almost demand to know what’s going on in terms of editing and creation.
Simon Fraser, the artist who is also well-known for his webcomic portal ‘Act-i-vate’ which publishes work from creators including Daryl Cunningham and Igor Kordey, said that it’s never been easier for individuals to become publishers. If mainstream companies are only now marketing things which already sell (to offer an example myself, this would be like the tightening of Marvel so most comics have to have ‘X-Men’ or ‘Avengers’ in the title), then it becomes more beneficial for creators to publish themselves – the publishers have less to offer.
Igle said that he ultimately took Molly Danger to Action Labs, who publish it, as they could help assist him in the aspects of publication and distribution that he didn’t know how to do. Brill also spoke on this, saying that self-publishing can get out of hand rather quickly. Working with a publisher like First Second would mean assistance with aspects like distribution, marketing, and editing. Some creators find they can handle these, but some appreciate the publisher taking the strain for them.
The conversation flipped across the table to ComiXology’s co-founder John Roberts and Diamond’s Director of Marketing Dan Mauser. They were asked how their companies had adapted to digital, and how ComiXology had picked their time to start up. Roberts felt he came to digital at the right time due to a movement through the fanbase he called ‘the rise of the creator’. ComiXology’s Submit program meant that creators like Becky Cloonan and Joshua Hale Fialkov could self-publish their own work cheaply and have it be seen widely. At the same time, the digital service meant companies like Monkeybrain could come into existence, which had their own focus on creator-owned work.
Mauser said that digital had not affected the need for a company like Diamond. He said that he had talked to a number of creators who relied on Diamond for help with aspects of publishing like international shipping. There is a physical side to distribution which includes calling retailers, incentivising product, and so on – this is where Diamond can be of use for small-press publishers.
Digital start-up relies heavily on social media like Twitter and Tumblr, Roberts added – ComiXology started with Roberts himself answering all the questions he was asked on Twitter, and as the company grew he was eventually able to hire somebody to take over that task.
As Tumblr was brought up, the panellists all made faces, which led Heidi to ask specifically about Tumblr as a marketing tool. Igle said he had only joined Tumblr six months ago, but found that the fanbase were very specific about their content. Certain things were deemed more acceptable than others, and content had to be carefully chosen to aggregate hits and reblogs. Fraser agreed to that, noting that companies spent a lot of money and time trying to make things ‘viral’.
The panel were asked about editors, and Igle said that he had specifically hired an editor to work o Molly Danger – as he needed a second pair of eyes looking at the work, catching the mistakes he couldn’t. Fraser said that, as an example, Daryl Cunningham is very open about requesting strong feedback from his readers, to look out for errors in the work which could then be fixed.
Sales weren’t affected by things being online for free, so a site like Tumblr allowed Fraser to created a ‘constituency’ of fans who specifically wanted the kind of content he made available. This was mainly the sort of content which focused on creative process and art, he found. This could only be built up over a very long period of time – something Igle agreed to, adding that he had a long-term plan for Molly Danger, a project he’s spent a decade working on.
Brill mentioned that the internet has a short-term attention span sometimes. At the same time, once content has been put online, it stays online – it creates an indefinite opportunity for new people to find work and share it with their friends.
The word ‘discoverability’ was floated to the panel, and Roberts said it was important to remember that even with a service like ComiXology Submit, people were still competing with big name publishers. Fraser then spoke on the idea of ‘discoverability’, saying that this is the core idea of Act-i-vate. Small communities online slowly work together and build themselves up into something more substantial and stronger. He mentioned the Sequential App as an example of what he meant – ComiXology may be the biggest provider, but that means they offer everything. A smaller store like Sequential can act as a ’boutique’ which offers a smaller but more specific range of content.
Somebody who is looking for non-superhero work is going to be able to find it more easily on Sequential than on a huge market like ComiXology.
So at this point, Heidi asked Mauser: what is keeping print alive? His reply was ‘content’. Image Comics provided the most significant example of this. Context is the most important thing for companies to offer – and he noted the sales at the bottom of the sales charts as being important. His said that the titles selling near the bottom of the sales charts were selling more copies than ever before, in a strengthening of the lowest tier.
Retailers are also moving into marketing quite naturally, with many finding the best way to compete with Amazon being to offer service and availability. Locally, retailers can offer a service, which helps them nuture and maintain an audience.
Igle agreed with this idea, saying that retailers have stepped up and started treating their businesses as, well, businesses. Many have spent time individualising their storefronts to make themselves more casually inviting. He suggested the idea that parents, walking into a store with no idea about comics other than a birthday wish-list, now found it easier than before to find the sort of content they were looking for – and also to understand what that content was.
Roberts added that many retailers have branched out into areas of social media like podcasts, which gave them an international presence.
The topic of piracy then came into discussion, and Igle spoke on the subject. He said that piracy could never be stopped – in fact, he mentioned the Free Comic Book Day issue of Molly Danger which was put out, and within hours had made its way onto torrenting sites. The comic was free to get online, but it still appeared on pirate sites. He said the most important thing was to make sure creators copyright their product as substantially as possible, and own their own work in as many respects as possible.
Torrenting will always be part of the comics industry, Roberts said. But at the same time, Mark Waid was able to market his Thrillbent line on the back of piracy. There’s no metric for illegal downloading of comics, and it can’t be measured how extensive the practise is.
Fraser added that the most important thing for creators, when dealing with a publisher, was to get a reversion clause. Some publishers want more ownership than others – handing over parts of a creative work can mean a company will be more invested in marketing and selling that work, but it’s up to creators to decide where they want to hold the line.
Igle also said that “first writer refusal” was another important thing for creators to make sure they got.
On that, Brill explained the contracting for First Second. When they sign creators, they use a standard modified contract. If a creator already has an agent, they’ll use a different deal – but if the creator doesn’t have an agent looking out for them, First Second will ask the creator if they plan to shop their copyright through to other media. If the creator hadn’t planned on this, then First Second make the offer to do this on their behalf.
Novels can’t be sold without an agent. Comics, however, are less constricted. Brill estimated that half of their comics had been sold without an agent in the deal. Instead, word of mouth has proven important when the company approaches creators about content. She advised creators that, if they were approached by a publisher and didn’t know which clauses in the contract were standard – they should speak with an agent.
Heidi added that if you are selling your IP – make sure you definitely have an agent or lawyer.