Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Why Digital Publishing Won't Save Comics (Yet)

I was pondering the state of digital comics the other day. As much as I love traditional dead tree publishing, there are kids today growing up with iPads in their hands for whom paper holds no such charm, and it is there, if anywhere, that comics might recapture something resembling the mass market it (foolishly, IMO) ceded when it withdrew from the high street and supermarket to the specialist comic shop.

Before we get to the nitty gritty, I think it's important to define some basics, especially since we're going to be talking about a business model.

Firstly: how much is a comic worth?

Here are some numbers -- these are for illustration purposes only and are chosen as much for easy maths as for accuracy, but aren't a million miles from what you might expect from a low-to-mid-level indie publisher in the US:

Script: $50 per page
Pencils: $80 per page
Inks: $60 per page
Colours: $50 per page
Letters: $10 per page

That's based on each contributor making about $10 an hour for working on the book. That probably stiffs the writer a bit, but I imagine they'll be used to that by now.

That makes $250 to produce a page, meaning that a 24-page comic contains $6000 of work. If the book makes less than that for its contributors, then the creators would have made more money flipping burgers at McDonalds. Now, as an individual, you might be fine with that. Your book might be a labour of love, you might be happy just to have it in front of an audience. As an individual, that's no problem. As a model for a business, never mind an industry, I think we need to be paying our creators more than McDonalds.

Second: we need to define a couple of terms, most importantly, what I mean by publisher in this post. By publisher, I mean the person, group or organization with the legal right to publish a work. In a self-published work, this will mean one or more of the creators; in other circumstances it may refer to a publishing company in the more traditional sense.

I'm going to talk about how money from digital sales flows to the publisher. If that's a different legal entity to the creators, then there's a different mechanism by which money passes to the creators, but that's a discussion for a different day.

So… you want to get your comics onto a digital platform. Phones are, let's be honest, a rubbish medium for reading comics, so we're mainly talking about tablets. Right now, we're talking about iPads.

Unless you have access to a friendly iOS developer to do write you a dedicated app to serve up your content, you're going to need to go through one of the comic apps that already exists. I believe the deals on offer are broadly similar, so I don't want anyone to think I'm singling out a specific app; let's refer instead to GenericComicApp. You know the sort of thing: the publisher submits their comic to GenericComicApp and people can buy the comic through their phone or iPad using the App.

As for the specifics, let's take Mark Millar's word on this since, if there's anyone in the industry today who knows how to make money from comics, it's probably Millar, who wrote:

  1. Apple take 30% right off the bat.
  2. In the case of Wanted, Comixology then splits 50/50 with the publisher.
  3. Then the publisher pays the agent and creative team out of the remaining cash depending on their deal.

(Note: I remember Mark making a post about this on the Millarworld forums, but I can't find that post for a direct cite, so I have lifted this text from Andy Yen's My Day Will Come blog.)

Mark refers to Comixology, but I don't believe their deal differs in any significant way from GenericComicApp.

So… crunching a few numbers:

Let's say that, as a publisher, you're really invested in the future of digital comics; you've got no print overhead and no returns so why not price the product aggressively and try to pick up casual sales. Let's say that you price your book at $0.99.

Apple take 30% right off the bat, leaving $0.70 (rounded up for easier maths).

Publisher and GenericComicApp split that 50/50 and get $0.35 each.

Remember that there is $6000 worth of work in this book, so simply ensuring that the creators make their money, before we've even thought about profit for the publisher, you need to have sold 17,143 digital copies.

That's a lot. You're not going to shift those sort of numbers without some promotional activity, which is going to cost money in itself and drive up the number of copies needed to turn a profit.

Of course, you can drive the number of copies needed down by raising the price, but I'll say right now that I believe $2.99 is too much for a 22 or 24 page digital comic unless you're adding value over and above the normal comic page (I always like Infurious' rather ingenious approach). $3.99 for a single issue is, in my opinion, impossible to justify.

So, let's stick with that $0.99 number for now.

Let's back up for a minute, though, because I think there's something distinctly iffy about that illustration. Let's think about traditional distribution for a moment -- I worked in the newspaper and magazine industry for years, so I know a bit about this…

Traditionally, the publisher approaches a wholesaler/distributor (pretty much always Diamond for US comics but there is more plurality in the wider publishing industry). In return for a discount on the cover price, the wholesaler agrees to distribute the publication to as many retail outlets as the agreement covers. The wholesaler will usually want a discount on the cover price ranging between 45% and 65%, call it 50% for easy maths.

I sell my publication to the wholesaler for 50% of the cover price, let's say $0.49 on my hypothetical $0.99 cover price. The wholesaler sells the publication to the retailers for 75% of the cover price, say $0.75 netting themselves 26 cents profit on each copy. The retailer sells the publication at cover price, $0.99 which is $0.24 over what they paid for it.

Now, let's go back and think about that digital model again.

In that model, Apple is the retailer: they provide the merchant services, the servers, the bandwidth and, most importantly, access to their shopfront which is arguably the most trusted channel in the world for online purchasing of content.

GenericComicApp is the distributor. So why are they loading the cost of the retail mark-up onto the publisher?

What should be happening is this: publisher approaches GenericComicApp and sells their comic to them for 50% of the cover price, netting the publisher $0.49 per sale. GenericComicApp then distributes to the retail channel at $0.99. The retailer, Apple in this case, takes 30% of the cover price, $0.30, leaving $0.20 per issue for GenericComicApp.

Using this model, you need to sell 12,245 copies, nearly 5,000 less to cover the work done by the contributors.

Obviously, you can see why GenericComicApp would rather run their business in the way it currently works, but this is essentially screwing the publisher by loading both the wholesale and retail mark-ups on the publisher when, in fact, each 'link' in the chain from production to sale should only be concerned with the sell-on price to the next link in the chain.

Even Diamond, of whom I am no fan, follow this model and they, at least, have to warehouse stock and move physical product around. GenericComicApp doesn't even have those overheads: a couple of iOS developers retained on a freelance basis to keep the app maintained is hardly going to break the bank.

Let me phrase that as simply as I can: at least some online comic distributors have fashioned a business model that is even less favourable to publishers than the one Diamond uses, despite having lower overheads.

If even Mark Millar can't make money from digital comics, then we're doing it wrong.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Forgotten Wisdom: Part One (continued)

After I'd made yesterday's post which was -- essentially -- about the importance of remembering that a comic page reads from left to right, I remembered one more example that arises from not remembering this. So, before we move on to another topic, here's an addendum to yesterday's post…

Two Wides And A Tall: Don't Do It!

I think it's uncontroversial to say that any layout which requires little arrows between the frames is a layout that the artist should have re-thought. I don't care if you can find me examples by Kirby, or Byrne, or Miller… the fact is that a page layout should be immediately readable and the eye should flow effortlessly through that layout.* 

There is one particular arrangement of panels that is used with tiresome regularity, and it simply does not work. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

Two wide panels and a tall one.

Nine times out of ten, the artist has interpreted the script so that the panels read like this:

Which is simply not the way that the reader will want to read this layout. The reader's natural instinct will be to read left to right until they hit the right-hand edge of the page, and then move down to the next row, as they would with lines of text.

In some circumstances, the letter can rescue this layout by bridging the panels in such a way as to pull the reader's eye in the required direction:

However, if there is no dialogue, or if there is a scene change from panel 1 to panel 2, then this is not always an option.

Additionally, the solution is still less than ideal, since it then expects the reader's eye to travel from bottom to top when it jumps from panel 2 to panel 3:

Remember that Left-to-Right and Top-to-Bottom are reading conventions that have been imprinted on the reader's brain since they first learned to read. As a storyteller, you mess with this at your peril.

OK, so you've decide to use this layout in one-in-ten arrangement instead, like this:

Now panels 1 and 2 follow the Left-to-Right rule, so surely all is well, then?

No, it really isn't, for two reasons, Firstly, you're expecting the reader to read Right-to-Left between panels 2 and 3, but, more subtly but just as importantly, you're messing with the Page Out…

Page Out is what I call (perhaps incorrectly, I don't know!) the bottom right corner of each page. On a left-hand page, the reader knows to jump to the top of the right-hand page, and on a right-hander, they know it's time to turn the page.

In the last panel of any page, if it's humanly possible to put a caption, sound effect or speech balloon in the bottom right hand corner without disrupting the flow of the panel, then I will do, because I think it helps the flow of the book to lead the reader out of a page.

In this example, the Page Out is bottom left and the reader's eye has to travel across a bunch of stuff they've already read to get the position it should have been in to start with.

So, basically, there are things you can do to salvage this layout to an extent, but it's a bad layout, it forces counter-intuitive reading and you should not do it.

It's worth noting in closing, however, that the mirror of this layout -- One Tall and Two Wides -- is just fine. The reader's eye will travel quite naturally through the layout and end up exactly where it needs to be!

Two wides and a tall. Don't do it. I don't think I can be any clearer than that!

*As with all rules, I can think of specific circumstances where one might wish to disorientate the reader as a narrative effect but, let's be honest, this isn't something any artist should be looking to do on a regular basis…

Monday, 4 July 2011

Forgotten Wisdom (or: What Are They Teaching You Kids These Days?)… Part One

I don't think it's controversial to observe that the comic industry -- certainly in the English speaking world -- is a shadow of its former self. This isn't the place to talk about why that should be, but it's undeniable that there is just less money in the business than there was.

One upshot of this has been to squeeze the editorial side of the industry particularly hard. If it's not on the page, the bean-counters often argue, then it's not bringing value to the product, and the sometimes intangible value of the editorial department gets criminally overlooked.

Of course, this feeds back into the industry in ways that might not be instantly obvious, but which are unsurprising if one thinks about it for a moment.

One of the key areas where this becomes apparent is in the coaching of new talent. Once upon a time, editors would have assistants and art editors and the lead time on books was sufficient that great swathes of a book could be sent back to the artist for re-drawing; and artists learned their craft.

These days, not so much. Although it's true that almost no-one was ever employed out of the slush pile, the fact that larger publishers prefer to see published work from hopefuls, either via web-comics, small press or self-publishing, means that many artists will have substantial portfolios under their belts before ever receiving the first shred of editorial guidance.

And, as noted, with editors expected to turn round more books in less time with fewer staff than ever before, many editors simply don't have the time to sit down and produce detailed critiques of areas where artists (and writers, for that matter) could strengthen their work.

And in the process, some basic, fundamental truths of comic book storytelling get lost.

I thought it was worth a couple of posts to highlight some of these. If you recognize something I describe in your own work, I'm not criticizing you: comics are a collaborative medium and someone should have pointed this stuff out to you long, long ago. That no-one has, speaks only to the financial state of the industry at present.

(Please don't think I'm setting myself up as the arbiter of all wisdom here! This stuff used to be writ large in publishers' submission guidelines, back when they had submission guidelines…)

So, let's start with something that was once on Page One of the metaphorical comic pencillers' handbook:

1: First Speaker On The Left

In any panel with multiple speakers, the first character to speak should be standing left of panel.

(Note: if your comic is not in a Western language that reads left-to-right and top-to-bottom then this rule, obviously, applies relative to the reading direction of the particular language!)

This issue is often highlighted by the letterer and it is sometimes assumed that the letterer is complaining because it makes their job more difficult. It does make the letterer's job more difficult, but they are complaining because it makes the reader's job more difficult.

For all that comics try to appropriate storytelling techniques from visual media like television and film, the fact remains that the pages are still read, like any other written form, from left to right, and from top to bottom. This is the direction that the reader's eye will expect to travel and anything else will be counter-intuitive and disruptive to the reading experience.

In panels without much left-to-right travel, a letterer can get away with stacking the balloons vertically and the reader will follow without too much difficulty:

As soon as the panel becomes wide, then the reader's eye is primarily travelling left to right…

If the first speaker is on the left, all is well. The reader's eye will hit their dialogue first, then the character on the right second:

With the characters the other way round, we have a problem:

Of course, the artist's instinct is often to put something in all that dead space, which complicates matters still further!

So… comics read from left to right, and so should the panel layout.

However, we've also touched on another basic element of panel layout that is often overlooked.

2: Dead Space is GOOD

I understand that an artist wants to feel like they're delivering value, and that fans can become quite vociferous if they feel that an artist is skimping on the backgrounds, but it is also true that right underneath "First Speaker On The Left" in that mythical handbook is "Allow 25-30% of each panel for lettering."

It's as simple as keeping this in mind when framing the image in a panel…

Feedback, thoughts and comment on any of the above is gratefully received.

Next time, I think we'll talk about those (apparently) mysterious markings on comic book art board, and the reason why they're in blue…