August 3, 2014
CR Newsmaker Interview: Tracy Hurren
Drawn and Quarterly relaunched their web site last Friday
, after announcing
they'd be doing so at Comic-Con International
. It's a slow roll-out, with some technical difficulties. If you don't see it through the banner above or the text links provided, know that it's being worked on and plan a re-visit soon. I'll post some reminders over the next couple of days.
Perfect time to do an interview!
I don't usually get to talk to people about specific tasks like this, so I was happy that Tracy Hurren
was available to talk about her role at D+Q, marshaling the massive web site redesign through completion and her life in comics more generally. I've known Hurren for a couple of years now via conventions. She is unfailingly polite, helpful and sharp. I feel the same way after having the following discussion, only more so. I am greatly appreciative of her grace in this interview's strange little journey to publication.
Now please go crash her site
. Or if you have already, go back and visit when it's better. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Tracy, I know next to nothing about you. I hope you'll indulge me in a few questions about yourself. First, can you talk about your childhood/teen years in terms of your interaction with art and with comics directly? Would people that knew you growing up think what you're doing right now makes sense according to what they know about you?
Oh god no. Well yes and no. I absolutely hated reading as a kid. It didn't come naturally and I hated practicing. But I spent much of my time drawing. Stories or reports I'd have to write for school would turn into illustrated books. My illustrated Pecos Bill
fanfic got pretty out of hand when I was in grades five and six. So, you know, I guess I've been practicing for a while now in many ways, but I don't think it's the path people would have expected me to take. I didn't really get into comics until I was 20 (except for Ren & Stimpy
comics when I was a kid, which I would read and then turn into homemade pogs
). My boyfriend at the time was reading The Invisibles
. I ploughed through those but quickly realized there were comics out there better suited for me.
SPURGEON: What was the process of you going to work there? What was the process by which you thought that this was something you wanted to do for a while?
When I was doing my undergrad in writing, I hated spending all that time writing papers or short stories and then just handing in a boring word doc. So I'd usually make them way too fancy: spend forever typesetting and then add some illustrations. My professors never got it. So I started seeking out classes that encouraged me to play more with image and text. All this lead me to do my master's in publishing in Vancouver. Part of the program was an internship. I was pretty set on comics by that point -- the medium seemed perfect to me, as a way to tell stories and as object -- but also I never really expected it would work out. It didn't know much about the industry, or about how one went about finding a job in it. Anyway, Drawn & Quarterly was my first choice of places to intern. My professor sent way too many emails to Peggy [Burns]
begging her to take me on. They all still bug me about that around the office. Tom [Devlin]
forwards me my old resume and cover letter from time to time. It's all very embarrassing.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Can you talk about the responsibilities you've added since you started the job? How are your responsibilities different now than when you first started working in the office?
Well, I really didn't know much when I started, so they've changed a lot as I became more capable. Tom, Chris [Oliveros]
, and Peg taught me most of what I know, and I figured out the rest as I went along. Tom trusted me with a lot, probably too much, and that made the learning process go pretty fast. Though I still learn things everyday, so that's nice. Anyway, basically when I started Tom would make me design small things -- ads (my first design assignment was an ad for The Comics Reporter!
), book spines, then back covers -- dish work out to me one task at a time, all with a lot of art direction. Tom still very much so art directs my designs, but his direction now is usually just a doodle thrown on my desk, or a comforting "I trust you" when he doesn't think I need his help. We get each other so it works. It's efficient.
The main change in my job now from when I started is instead of helping Tom and Chris with particular tasks along the way, I'm now involved in the overall process of making our books -- I do forecasting for our titles, work with the printers, work with the cartoonists, and set schedules to make sure books are back from press in time for key sales periods, to debut at shows -- while still doing the production tasks, copy editing, and design stuff that I started out doing. Tom and Chris do very little production work now, which makes sense. They have time now to focus more on actually being publishers and editors instead of fussing over these small things. It also clears up time for them to work on big picture things, on special projects, while Jade [Menni], our production assistant, and I take care of the day-to-day, getting the commas and DPIs right, aligning spines.
I also manage the interns, which is a pretty big job, but always very worth my time. They do great work. I manage production of our ebooks, too, though Jade and Alex [Auger] do all the real work there. If you take a look at our new website, we have a fancy new ebook tab in the shop. We're just getting started with those, but it's exciting, and we'll be taking on a lot more there in the next year or so. And lastly, having a bookstore is a big job: everyone in the company helps out with hosting events, hosting book clubs, attending events, attending shows, and helping with stock. Jade and I also do their design stuff.
SPURGEON: How is what you do decided? I know that small publishing houses, having worked for one and having worked with a couple of others, can sometimes give their employees as much as they can do as they express a desire to do it? Do you have firm parameters in terms of what you do there? Are you allowed to explore new responsibilities if you want?
The parameters are pretty well-drawn, though with any small publishing house, sometimes something just has to get done right now and you've got to do it, so lines do occasionally get blurred. And there's room to explore things, but mostly it's always pretty clear what I'm responsible for, without having to make a decision or talk about it. It's a great feeling, as a youngish person, to have that autonomy, to not be told what to do.
SPURGEON: How do you view the office culture there at D+Q? Since I asked Jessica Campbell much the same question, maybe you can talk about how it's changed in the last couple of years. I'm fascinated by small offices because it seems to me adding one person can change the entire office culture. Are you a tight-knit bunch? Is there a division between the older folks and the younger?
Well for starters, there's no more topless Fridays. Ha. Kidding! I swear. But things aren't dramatically different. Chris works silently from precisely 9:30-5:30 without breaking for lunch and then goes home to his wonderful family. Tom, AKA Old Man Devlin, djs and says sarcastic things and hoards dried fish and old peanut shells at his desk. Peggy taps around in her clogs, keeps the plants alive over in Peggy's Cove. Alex, our new-ish publicity assistant, makes wacky jokes and dresses really hip and reminds us all that we're not 22 anymore. Ann [Cunningham] (our business manager) does her best to ignore us all and as a result gets a lot of work done. Jade sits at her desk chain smoking Popeye candy cigarettes and taking care of everything for me. Julia hovers around the office like the beautiful angel she is, delivering us tasty homemade squares and cakes cut into wisely proportioned servings and it drives us all bonkers. Just cut them bigger, Julia!
We have company lunches: we order vegetarian pulled pork sandwiches from the local dep and gossip and the interns walk away knowing too much. We've got a super strange cast of background characters that are constantly popping in -- our super insists on naming his tools inappropriate things like "Mr. Nasty"; our DHL guy will only let Julia sign for packages because she's so beautiful; we got too close with a mailman once and I think the last time we saw him he was lying on his back on the office floor; our tech guy Rick is too hard to explain, but he's sarcastic and conservative and a real handful/hero and he seems to really like us all but I'm not sure why.
Jade and Julia and I usually close up shop. Sometimes Julia and I grab a beer after. It's nice. Woody, Tom and Peg's son, broke my favourite dinosaur toy last fall when they came over for a jam swap my roommate Kathleen -- who is also our freelance copy editor -- and I hosted and then he hid it so I wouldn't notice but I just found it recently SO NOW I KNOW. Tom and I took French classes together last winter. We'd go for beers after. We both ended up dropping out but I dropped out first.
In other words, we all get along pretty well.
SPURGEON: At what point had you been working there before you did a show or two? I don't think of you doing a whole lot of them, even now... is that something you like doing? Is there a specific memory that comes to mind about doing shows -- that's something we all take for granted, but I don't think any other industry routinely puts its people out in front of their material in that way.
I had been with D+Q for about a year when I went to my first Comic-Con
. I just worked my third -- one was skipped along the way. I think I've been at SPX
every year since I started, so four times. I've been to most shows at least once though, including Angouleme
, which was incredible. Julia and I stayed in a castle and felt like queens. I feel like I do my share of shows. Peg is pretty fair about that -- sharing the shows between us all. I don't know how Jacq and Jen at Fanta do it, do all the shows.
I love working them, but if I had to work every show I think it would suck the life out of me. It's hard work. But of course it's a lot of fun. Especially now that I've worked more of them. I've got friends there now. It's nice to hang. And I'm proud of my work, proud of the books I help make, and endlessly proud of our artists, so it's nice to see people's reactions, talk to people about the books, and to get that QT with our artists, who are always very fun to hang with. It's a special part of our industry, and you're right: my friends working in normal book publishing rarely get that face time to interact with their authors or the people who read their books. It's rewarding and I'm grateful for it.
SPURGEON: Now that we have this like wall of shows, every freaking weekend, is there something that part of the industry can do to better serve people like you and the company you work for? Peggy Burns, for example, once told me that you guys really appreciate having some downtime on the calendar so that a sustained amount of work can be done. Is there something you'd have changed about any or all of the shows you attend?
Oh, I don't know that I have a great answer for this. We really appreciate all the hard work the people organizing the shows put in. Shows are important to us, to the success of our business. But some shows just have more life than others, are funner to attend, and more profitable. But I don't know that I can say much more without digging myself into a hole that I don't really want to be in. It's a hard thing to do, organize a successful show.
SPURGEON: Do you have procurement responsibilties as a managing editor? How does that get done at a house like D+Q? It's hard for me to think of you guys pulling stuff off of the slush pile. Do you feel like you have editorial input at the company that way? How might we have seen it? Is there a specific Tracy Hurren project?
No, I don't have procurement responsibilities, which I'm content with. I don't want to have to take the heat for a lemon! But my opinion is respected. If there's an artist that I'm really into that's not on Chris's or Tom's radar, I like to think they'll take my recommendation to heart, but in the end it's all up to them and Peggy. Julia and I went to Angouleme two years ago, to look at books, bring books back to the bosses that we thought might be interesting
to publish. That trip resulted in us publishing Brecht Vandenbroucke's White Cube
last winter, and the acquisition of Bendik Kaltenborn's Adult Contemporary
, which we'll be putting out this winter.
As for specific Tracy projects, the Rookie Yearbooks
are the most obvious examples, because, with a lot of help, I built those from the ground up, collaged them, designed them, everything. There's a lot of me in those books, more than will likely ever be in another D+Q title, because that's not normally how we publish things. The colour Moomin
s are my project, though. As is Showa
. Those are both series that I designed front to back, and in the case of the Moomin
books, got to colour (with the help of many interns). Both these series are really fun to work on, things I'm proud of. There's more room for me in books like these, translations or older work where the artist is no longer with us.
SPURGEON: You mention design responsibilities... that's not in your job title.
Job titles in comics, on the editorial/production side anyway, are always a little weird, compared to traditional book publishing. It's just so much more organic. Having strict editor, designer, production roles, at least in a small company like D+Q, is just not an efficient way to make a comic book. It seems natural to me that the editor would also do the design, since the medium is visual. Those extra design elements are part of the narrative, in some ways anyway. So yes, I do a lot of the design on our books. Some authors hand in a completely finished product, others are just less interested in design, in the non-comics part of the book -- what the front matter looks like, or the back cover design, or the title treatment -- so then I help out. Both Miriam Katin
and Rutu Modan
's latest books, Letting It Go
and The Property
, are good examples of that, books where I feel more ownership over the design.
SPURGEON: Do you have an opinion on the very strong house series designs that D+Q provides many of its books? I know that some readers have suggested to me that D+Q and other houses might work with outside designers more than they do.
I guess I'm not really sure what you're asking. Our only house design is good design. If our books have a look, it has more to do with the artists we acquire and our production values than anything else. Our mission is pretty simply to give our cartoonists complete artistic control over their books; implementing a house style or bringing in an outside designer would undermine that. Unless of course it's a designer they've chosen to work with, which we have done over the years.
For the most part, being a designer at D+Q really just means typesetting the indicia, or telling [Michael] DeForge
that no, his endpapers are not too manic and he'd be foolish to make something new. Or whatever other small advice it was that I gave to Michael that has resulted in him tooting my horn to the whole industry. I certainly appreciate it -- it's what keeps me skipping to work everyday -- but it really has so little to do with me. Why are you interviewing me again?
SPURGEON: The web site! The web site project... do you have a background in this kind of thing? Back when I worked in an office a project like this might fall to someone who simply showed any interest, but I imagine that might not be the case anymore. Why you?
I don't have a ton of experience designing websites, but a large portion of my graduate work focussed on publishing websites -- studying them, figuring out what worked and what didn't, and then actually building a new website for the program from the ground up. I learned a lot about user experience doing this -- how to make a website that's easy to navigate -- and also just some valuable project management skills. After that experience I designed and programmed a couple basic sites for friends, but certainly nothing this complex.
That being said, the main reason I was assigned this job was because I'm good at managing large projects, keeping them on track. I don't burn out easy. That's a key part of my role at D+Q.
SPURGEON: What kind of technical support did you have? Who did the grunt work?
Our programmer is local, Adam Harvie. I'd love to plug his website here but he doesn't seem to have one! Programmers, amirite? He was great to work with though. I asked him to do a million crazy things and he rarely said no. And the couple times he did, I made him do it anyway, and he always found a way to make it work. My programming skills are very rudimentary, but I think having a bit of a background there made the process smoother. And as for grunt work, everyone in the office helped to transfer data over and make sure everything was properly in place. This was a big job and required us all to chip in.
SPURGEON: What was the overall hours spent on the project?
Ooof, this is probably too embarrassing to answer. In the end, the project took about 18 months.
SPURGEON: Yow. Okay.
The first half of that was spent on implementing the database and a couple previous iterations of the site that ended up getting scrapped. This version that you see now is about nine months in the making. Some of that time was full-time work, other weeks I'd just be checking up on things, answering questions the programmer had, or delegating tasks around the office.
SPURGEON: Was that more or less than you figured?
Ha, it took a lot longer than we expected. But we'd never taken on a project like this, so there was a lot of learning that had to happen before we gained some efficiency. Also, because the project dragged on for so long, it gave us a lot of time to change our minds about decisions we had made months ago, which turned into a lot of scrapping of under-considered ideas, and having to re-build stuff. In the end, the site is better for it, but it certainly wasn't an expedient process. We have a phase two for the site planned, and plan to redo our Montreal store's site in the next year or so; we expect those projects to go much more smoothly.
SPURGEON: The web site. What was wrong with the old one that a new one was necessary. Did that kind of critique even drive any of the redesign?
The old website really only had one flaw -- it was 15 years old. Fifteen years ago, it was cutting edge. But the internet changes fast. And we waited 15 years. Basically everything needed to be reconsidered, so though we've received pleeeeenty of critique over the years, I wouldn't say any of that necessarily drove the design. There were definitely whispers from very smart cartoonists that we'd be foolish not to listen to, but mostly what we needed from our website as a marketing tool informed the design -- we didn't want anything getting in the way of users reading about our authors and buying their books. The challenge was finding a subtle design that could promote an array of styles and authors while still selling the books, promoting events, having information easily available and well organized.
SPURGEON: How much pressure is on a small publisher like you to captialize on on-line and social media opportunities? How is re-launching the web site, for example, a big deal for D+Q?
I mean, it doesn't really feel like an option not to focus on these things. Our online presence is pretty strong. We get a lot of compliments about how funny our twitter account is, and likewise people seem to love our blog, but when it came to the overall website experience, we knew there was a problem. It wasn't effective as a communication tool anymore, as a platform for us to showcase our cartoonists and their work. What's the point in a publishing website if you can't showcase your authors effectively? I think we've solved that problem. Peggy and I put endless hours into thinking through all these problems and how to best solve them. And Tom and I put a lot of time into establishing an aesthetic for the site that wouldn't overpower our artists' work. Our website is an asset now. It will help us all to do our jobs better. It's also just a super solid database. That's obviously a crucial thing for a company of our size to have. We didn't have that before. Everything was just recorded on scraps of paper and then lit on fire.
SPURGEON: Are there publishing web sites you admire? How much of a redesign like that is kind of solving things right on the ground as they're presented to you and how many are a kind of general upgrading of functionality and seeing what's out there?
To be honest, publishing websites are notoriously terrible. Everyone is overworked and the website has only recently become a priority to us digitally shy print lovers, but even so, time and resources are scarce. To make things worse, publishing websites are just really really hard to organize. There's a lot going on. Just organizing the shop alone in a way that 250 differently shaped books are easy to find without scrolling forever through a plain-text list while front list and perennials are promoted without burying your backlist is a feat. And that's just the shop! And we're a relatively small company. Imagine if you had 1000+ books! It's a hard map not to muddle. I don't think a perfect publishing website exists.
As for designing our site, we did look to other sites -- design sites, publishing sites, museum sites, cultural news sites -- but much of what we built is pretty new. We solved some problems that I don't think have really been solved yet on many other publishing sites. Or I think so anyway. It's certainly not without flaws. We'll clean those up as we go. I'm looking forward to and dreading feedback from our readers.
SPURGEON: Is there any added pressure in that you're a company known for its design and its relationships with cartoonists? Does your site need to look nice in a way that a prose publisher's doesn't? Or is that even a concern?
It was important to us that the site be visually appealing. People expect that from us. But our primary concern was always to create a space that was easy to navigate and showcased our authors and their work effectively and fairly. We wanted our authors and their work to be the feature of the site, not our design.
SPURGEON: How much of a say do your authors have in how they're represented on the site?
For the most part, our authors trust us. It would not have been feasible to create a specific author page for each artist that represented them in a unique way. We had to settle on a template that worked across the board. We couldn't run the template past all our author's for feedback, but the few we did were very happy with how the author pages work. And when we found a title that didn't work as well within the template, we discussed best solutions with the cartoonist and came to an agreement on how to proceed. We tried to make the author pages as comprehensive as possible. Since many of our authors don't have much of a web presence, it was important for us to create a space for them that fully showcases their work and all of their achievements.
SPURGEON: Is there anything old-fashioned about working on a site? For instance, I know that some comics creators have either explicitly or by virtue of abandonment moved their primary web presence to their twitter account. Where does having a site that works fit into a wider plan for publicity and having a presence on-line?
Ditching a website might be an option for an artist (though I wouldn't recommend it!), but it just isn't for a publisher, for all the reasons mentioned above. 140 characters is not long enough for a press release! Nor is it enough space to brag about all an author's achievements. We also need a place to list our author tours. Facebook events on their own are not enough. But also we rely on our website to generate income, especially if we're in a cash crunch -- we can have a sale on the site and it really saves our butts. And in this case, ease of use is so important. We're curious to see how our sales go moving forward, now that the site is easier to navigate.
SPURGEON: For that matter, I'd be interested to know. What is the D+Q approach to social media? What are the nuts and bolts of how that is done at the company?
If you're asking who writes our tweets, we'll never tell! We all have a hand in our social media. It's no one person tweeting, no one person blogging. Tom and Peg tend to write most of the twitter jokes, Alex does most of the Instagram, but the other stuff is pretty well distributed. Social media is more fun if there's some heart behind it -- if it were one person's sole responsibility, I can't imagine how that wouldn't start to sound a little tired. Plus we all like doing it.
SPURGEON: How do things like Facebook, instagram, twitter and particularly tumblr work in conjunction with the site?
We try to have different voices for each platform. Our blog is where we're very long winded. We can pour our hearts out and out and out there. Twitter is pretty jokey and casual -- the voice is similar to the blog but even less serious. Facebook is more informational, we post about our blog posts and publicize press hits, or other links that we are excited about. For our tumblr, we try to make it less promotional, more of a lookit this cool thing. Tumblr really only works if you get reblogged, and people are not really interested in reblogging super promotional things. They want something nice to look at, or something funny. Though we're not really tumblr pros. We're new there
. And Instagram
highlights cool things we have around the office, closeups of our favourite panels from new books. But again, any promotional tone or commentary is kinda stripped away so the images can speak for themselves. To be honest I can't really wrap my head around it all. I had to consult with hip/savvy Alex to get you this jumbled answer.
SPURGEON: So exactly how tech-savvy is Chris Oliveros?
Far more tech-savvy than we'd like to think! A while back we realized he's been following our twitter account and I think we were all a little embarrassed. But mostly, he's too busy to be bothered with internet jokes (and too smart). When he does blog, though, his posts are hands down the best content on the blog. He's one of the kindest men I know, and this, along with his true passion for the medium, really comes out in his writing. It's always very sincere and endearing and makes us all look like hacks.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Are there any good jokes in the office about Seth and the Internet? Because I think outside the office we've worked through about 100.
Ha! I'd like to hear those jokes! For a man who's stuck in the 40s, he does remarkably well on a computer. He used to send us production notes for his books typed out on a typewriter, with white-out blotches and hand-written corrections. We always saved those documents. They're treasures. For his last book, the instructions were typed on a computer and printed out. Clean and easy to read. I'm sure he thought nothing of this change, but I read a lot into it. It made me sad.
SPURGEON: You guys have worked with a number of first-time or early comics authors in addition to your old guard. Is there something specific that younger cartoonists look to their publisher to provide, do you think? Are they different than the cartoonists in their 50s that you publish?
I think the biggest thing is that more experienced cartoonists are more relaxed. For a first-time author, the stakes are so high. For someone like Lynda Barry
, they've done this so many times, nothing's a surprise. There's an ease there. With Seth, or Anders [Nilsen]
, or Chester [Brown]
-- I've been with D+Q long enough now that I've worked on several books with each of these cartoonists so the whole relationship and workflow is very smooth. Fresh cartoonists are fun, though. They are often less decided in how things should be, so they're often more eager to get my opinion on things, to ask for help. Which makes me feel smart. But it's a much more intense experience for them, which I totally get, and I really try to consider that when navigating through the process with them.
SPURGEON: What's a favorite in the back catalog? Is there one you'd tell someone to go grab, to reconsider, from before this year?
HURREN: Ron Regé's The Awake Field
is a book I reread often. It just makes me happy. I often go back to Rutu's short story collection, Jamilti
. Seiichi Hayashi's Red Coloured Elegy
is another favourite. And I can't think of a better way to turn a bad day around than staring at some dicks in Lisa Hanawalt's My Dirty, Dumb Eyes
* Drawn And Quarterly Site
* Drawn And Quarterly On Facebook
* Drawn And Quarterly On Twitter
* Drawn And Quarterly On Tumblr
* Drawn And Quarterly On Instagram
* Drawn And Quarterly logo as it appears on the new site
* photo supplied by Hurren
* classic D+Q logo
* convention set-up from 2012
* The Property
, by Rutu Modan
* icon used by the publisher on its Facebook page
* from The Awake Field
posted 6:00 am PST
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