Wednesday was a black letter day for the book publishing industry, as it seemed to be Armageddon all over the place. Jay Franco rounds up most of the news:
It’s all over the blogosphere. Publishers are making major changes. One publishing news site already referring to today as Black Wednesday. That’s awfully disheartening. But reality, it might be.
Random House, Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Thomas A. Nelson — major players every one, and all publishers of graphic novels — all announced layoffs, restructuring, executive shuffles, or all three. Sam Theilman at Variety laid it all out:
In the past few days, publishers including Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Random House have all seen layoffs, painful reorganizations or both. The contraction culminated Wednesday in layoffs eliminating positions at Simon & Schuster and Thomas Nelson and in a massive consolidation at Random House that left, among others, “The Da Vinci Code” publisher Steve Rubin without a job.
Of course, book publishing is just one aspect of the decimation now taking place. ICv2 has been reporting on the layoffs at Wizards of the Coast:
The fallout from Wizards of the Coast’s consolidation of its digital initiatives (see “WotC Pulls the Plug on Gleemax”) has become apparent in a new round of layoffs that reportedly includes VP of Digital Gaming Randy Buehler, Director of Digital Games Andrew Finch, Creative Manager of Digital Design William Meyers, and Online Community Manager Jennifer Paige.
And then Hollywood, lavish, entourage-emulating Hollywood, fell yesterday:
NBC/Universal: 70 from Universal, 500 overall.
Viacom: 850 people, 7 percent of its workforce.
O’Brien, who has been CNN’s chief technology and environment correspondent since ending his stint as anchor of “American Morning” in April 2007, is departing as the network dismantles its science and technology unit. Six producers also will be leaving.
Enthusiastic, forward looking Miles. You were always there for us through the falling shrapnel, sonic booms and vengeful astronauts wearing diapers. “Dismantles” science and technology is not a sunny face upon the future.
Thus far — THUS FAR — comics have been weathering the storm relatively well, with the biggest cuts coming, sadly, in the newsaper biz, where editorial cartoonists are dropping like flies, as at the Des Moines Register:
Among the positions cut was the newsroom’s editorial cartoonist, Brian Duffy, who has been in that position since 1983. The Register had claimed to be the only newspaper in the United States with an editorial cartoon on the front page. The tradition extended back to at least the early 20th century, according to Register archives. Ted Rall, the president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, estimated that about 20 editorial cartoonists have been laid off or retired in the last three years.
In comics, immediate news of layoffs has been limited to Devil’s Due and Tokyopop, with some publishing contraction, as with Broccoli Books.
All in all, as we surely don’t need to tell anyone reading this, it’s hard times around the world. As more than one pundit has noted, we’re in the grip of a course-altering economic crisis that will leave little unchanged.
So how bad will it hit comics?
As we’re fond of pointing out, we’re not an economist, and lack basic abilities to balance checkbooks or invest properly. So consider all this the vague ramblings of a person who spent the last two years wondering, “Who the hell is going to live in all those expensive apartments?” and “How can those people actually AFFORD a mortgage?” But you know, only timid losers question giving people with bad credit lots of mortgages they can’t afford; it takes real vision to find a way to get banks and municipalities the world over to INVEST in giving people with bad credit mortgages they can’t afford.
We have, however, lived through a few minor recessions, none of them as bad as the one we’re in now, and things always came out okay at the other side. Previous experience gives a little guidance, although as noted, this Great Global Recession is likely to have severe and lasting effects. How soon will the comics industry start having the kind of layoffs and cutbacks the rest of the media world is having?
If you’d asked us at the beginning of the week, we would have guessed longer than you probably thought. Comics have never quite recovered, emotionally speaking, from the Great Comics Implosion of 1996-2001, which saw hundreds of people laid off, and general contraction and hiring freezes everywhere. That was our Armageddon. Folks in comics have very long memories — with the memory of the Bad Old Days fresh in everyone’s mind (relatively speaking), comics companies have tended to keep rampant hiring and expansion under control. Even a failure like the Minx line was cheap in the broader scope of things.
Plus, as we were pointing out in an earlier post, the margins in comics are already so small. It’s not like web cartoonists are suddenly losing millions and will have to get rid of their armies of assistants. Comics have always been running lean.
Which leaves the industry in the hands of the grim consumer market. And it is very grim right now. Comics, the recession-proof industry, have lasted the past year — which we just learned was a recession, hello! — pretty well. Anecdotal evidence we’ve heard is that comics shops have been holding their own. In other words, the tidal wave hasn’t hit the comics atoll just yet.
That was the beginning of the week. Now, things around the world are looking even gloomier. And there’s a price increase on the horizon, with Marvel having made a jump to $3.99 all but official, and DC not far behind. In a world where thrift is the new religion — even Super Bowl ad sales have slowed, although Monster.com, the job search website, just made a big purchase — consumers will look once, twice, three times at those extra purchases, and comics are an extra. Publishers damn well better have a reason and a target audience for what they publish or they won’t last at all.
Deep inside, I suspect that comics will weather the storm just fine. The fat will be trimmed, and a periodic purge is usually beneficial. Graphic novels that offer satisfying, memorable stories, webcomics that make you chuckle, and periodicals that can hold monthly attention will always tough it out. Sincere publishers who want to put out the best books that they can will keep going.
In a world where people can only afford necessities, you must make comics that your audience NEEDS.
If the comics industry could withstand losing over half of their retail outlets, as they did back in 1996, they can — it is to be hoped — stand losing a lot of customers. Of course there will be pain and suffering. And a lot of bit players are going to exit, stage right. I’m hearing quite a few names being tossed about of companies who are circling the drain. I won’t add to their woes by speculating, but it’s probably the ones you can guess.
This week had been so draining — and the clamor of expert voices is so cacophonous — that I can’t tell if what I’ve just written is too gloomy or too optimistic. Or whether I’ve said anything at all. Time to retrench and ask questions, I think. To be continued.
[Above: Joan Blondell in the Busby Berkeley number “We’re in the Money” from GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933.]