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CR Holiday Interview #6 -- Peggy Burns
posted January 10, 2011
 

imageOne of the best at her craft, Peggy Burns is a model for how comics publishers generally and alt-comics publishers specifically have come to more significantly value their publicity and marketing arms. Burns is the associate publisher of the world-class boutique publishing house Drawn and Quarterly, where she's managed tricky, complex and sustained publicity campaigns for some of the industry's finest works, pushing to the North American translated-manga forefront Yoshihiro Tatsumi, renewing comics' interest in the great Lynda Barry and driving attention to Dan Clowes' first ever stand-alone graphic novel. She is both one of the people in comics I like best and in the top one percent of people whom I'm careful never to cross -- if we end up on two different sides of an issue, I'm almost certainly on the wrong side. We've been meaning to talk for years but work and personal issues always cropped up. When we finally decided to get this done for this year's series, Burns agreed only if it didn't knock one of her cartoonists from a slot. She lives in Montreal with Tom Devlin and their two children. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Peggy, can you describe how you worked your way into your current position as Associate Publisher? Did your job considerably when you took on that title or was it more in recognition of the success you were having at that point in the course of you work at D+Q?

PEGGY BURNS: My job did not change, only my title. Associate Publisher is a more accurate description of my role in the company and the variety of things I am in charge of. On any given day, I am working on publicity, authors relations, marketing, distribution, editorial, retailers, grants, foreign rights, art direction, managing a staff, contracts, working with accounting, inventory, shipping, our retail store and since we don't have a cleaning staff, I probably am literally mopping up the place, or at least asking someone to. I was mopping yesterday.

As proud as I am to be a good publicist, there is an inherent bias/disrespect against publicists. If a book bombs, blame the publicist. If a book succeeds, it would have done well anyway. Quite honestly, I had many people tell me to my face that I was "only the publicist," even people who should know better that in any small independent company the lines of responsibilities are much blurred than at a big company, like my previous employer DC Comics where the corporate atmosphere frowned on doing more than your title. The reality is that a title is a powerful thing, so I can understand why people's reaction to "Publicity Director" is different than "Associate Publisher." Chris [Oliveros] and I also thought the title reflected the changes the company itself had undergone at that point. D+Q was no longer a company with 10 books a year, helmed only by the Chief, we published three times as many titles, by three times as many authors as when I came on, and of course at the same time Tom was made Creative Director. Lastly, as there are so few women on the business side of independent comic book companies in publisher roles, having me as second in command signified how gender blind D+Q has always been since first issue of Dirty Plotte, the company's first title. Why not promote that. On the independent side of comics, there's me and Jennifer de Guzman at SLG, and before that Françoise at RAW. Of course as I type, I realize I may be missing someone...

imageSPURGEON: I don't want to suggest this is all you've done, or that you've overspent your time on any single facet of what you do, but I've admired from a distance the job you've done the last few years with your big Spring books -- What It Is and Wilson, a pattern that I assume will repeat with Paying For It? Can you talk a little in broad terms about the strategy that you've developed for those books?

BURNS: Well, What It Is, Wilson as well as Shortcomings, and others have a lot in common that the authors had never received a concerted press campaign from beginning to end. Yes, Adrian [Tomine], Dan, Lynda, all had received a lot of press and attention, and they were not short of accolades. A campaign for a book, however, is different than reviews here or there over a long span of time. It is thinking about what press will have the biggest impact and when in regard to one brand new title. And while I'm very aware that we have these "big" books, but I very much try to concentrate on our whole list. I am always begging Tom and Chris not to add too many titles in a season so I can focus and not be overloaded. They want more, and I am always cutting. It's a careful balance with as much proactivity as I can muster while dealing with daily work.

This past Spring, with Wilson on the horizon in May, we sent James Sturm on tour in April and Market Day was reviewed in the NYT, [on] NPR and [in] many other outlets and has since made many best-of lists. We made sure to get Market Day out on time and give it the attention it deserved as James' first graphic novel in some time, while knowing that Dan's book was sure to get a lot attention. In Spring 2009, we had brand new books by Seth and Tatsumi. Tatsumi was in the NYT Arts section and Seth on the cover of the Globe & Mail and reviewed in the NYT as well, and interviewed on the CBC; both authors had North American events. It's a careful balancing act. But it can be done. And I think D+Q does a very good job of not putting all its eggs in one basket, nor trying to not put any eggs in any basket.

imageWe send as many authors as we can out on the road; especially authors with books who probably wouldn't get to go on the road at other companies. We think it's important for the company, the stores, fans and authors. In the past few years we have sent out R. Sikoryak, Vanessa Davis, Rutu Modan, Marc Bell, John Porcellino, Gabrielle Bell, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Jason Lutes, Leanne Shapton out to do events. We just published Lynda Barry, but made sure that we supported Vanessa Davis with a four-city tour, too. And yes, for Spring 2011, I am gearing up for Chester Brown as Paying For It will certainly have a life of its own, but right now I am plotting out campaigns for Shigeru Mizuki, Anders Nilsen, Pascal Girard, Joe Ollmann and others. That said, I do try my best to not focus all of my attention on the "big books" but the reality is having "big books" is healthy for the company overall, it signifies to retailers that your books have the ability to perform on a top level, they trust your list and are willing to take more chances. I don't think it benefits anyone to treat your books as though they will all perform the same in the marketplace.

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SPURGEON: To follow up with something a bit more specific, what has it been like working with Lynda Barry as she's roared back into comics' consciousness?

BURNS: Working with Lynda has been nothing short of incredible. She's very giving, open and friendly. What It Is came out right during a period when I was diagnosed with cancer and my son was sick. And while I was able to place a profile in the NYT and an interview on Talk of the Nation before taking a personal leave, I think it speaks to her as a person that she didn't freak out that she just signed with a new company and the publicist was checking out. We love publishing her though; we were taken aback in 2008 with just how visceral a response her fans have to her work and meeting her in person. This is comics, right, the fans are rabid. But with Lynda, it's a whole new level. I remember Chris coming back from BEA in 2008, saying he had never seen anything like the variety of fans and their excitement level surrounding What It Is. And then you watch her interact with her fans, and I do not mean on her blog, twitter or Facebook page as she doesn't have any of that, I just mean in person at a signing or a show. She's very genuine with her fans. She enjoys her fans. And while I can't speak for Lynda, I feel like in the past two to three years, she enjoys the process of promotion and dealing with a publisher more with D+Q than perhaps she has in the past. When her tour ended after the Brooklyn Comics Festival, she said she was sad. That's a high compliment to me as a publicist.

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SPURGEON: As explicitly as possible, can you describe how the differences in the personalities of the various D+Q artists have an impact on how you roll out their books? Do you play to the strengths of individual cartoonists -- is it ever a worry taking a cartoonist out of their comfort zone, and can you think of anything a cartoonist has backed away from doing?

BURNS: Yes, each cartoonist is different, but so is each press outlet. It's developing a marketing plan in advance that benefits the book, the author and the outlet: not throwing everything at an outlet to see what sticks; not saying yes to every interview; and not sending a review copy to everyone who asks. Once in a while there's an awkward moment, misquoting, inane commenter, bad headlines, etc, most of my authors understand that shilling is part of the job. I think Adrian says it best when he says that he knows he is lucky that he has a job that suits his quiet personality, and if he has to do a few months of promotion every few years so he can sit at his drawing table everyday in between, he knows it's good deal. It's all been fairly civil, I can't think of anything too outlandish. I can recall a funny conversation during the photo shoot for the NYT magazine, where all the cartoonists were lamenting about how photographers always want them to act, or to pretend or to have funny props, and how you don't make any author pretend they're typing for a photo. At the same time as this, the NYT photographer was hearing all of this, and instructing his assistant to put away a feather boa, stuffed animals and some teacups. Now, I make sure to say beforehand "no acting" for photos and TV. The most I have to do now is remember which authors like do their interviews via email or the phone.

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SPURGEON: You've been doing this long enough to note what some say is a near-paradigm shift in the way books are marketed and promoted. I'm not sure that I agree 100 percent, but I do get the sense that there's more of a fractured media with which folks like you deal -- so many web site, so many podcasts, so many media outlets with an interest in comics now -- and that there are elements to social media that may represent something that's different and new as opposed to when you were starting out. Do you think it's changed? How? Are there aspects to what's developing you're think you're better at doing than some other aspects? Where would you like to become better at your job?

BURNS: Well, it's funny I started in the year 2000. Basically the first year of the graphic novel golden age. And leading the golden age -- rightfully -- were David Boring and Jimmy Corrigan from Pantheon, which of course wasn't easy for a DC Comics publicist. And now I think things have changed in that now that I am publicist for Dan and Chris [Ware], there's almost a reverse bias against independent comics. It's probably just the contrarian streak of journalists who ten years ago were saying, "It's not all superheroes" and now are saying, "Superheroes are literature, too" or wanting to be the first to discover the book no one else is writing about. The contrarian streak is probably a few years ago, say about two to three. I think we are just coming into an age where comics are being treated on an individual basis. You're seeing more and more individual reviews of comics, by a variety of companies and authors, and not just a lumping by medium and not genre. Though, lumping by medium and not genre, with nary a segue happens too often in publications who should know better. We're not really there, but close.

As for social media, I think there are two great things about it. It allows very easily for the author to complement the company's efforts, which wasn't the case pre-Internet. Because we do so many events, it makes marketing an event or a tour so much easier. While getting the coveted calendar slot in an alt-weekly, a radio interview, newspaper interview is always preferable, Facebook and twitter has made it such that the store, the author, the publisher and the fans can all promote an event at the same time, guaranteeing a better outcome.

As for my job? I would like to do every single aspect of it better. I'm trying to plan out all of 2011 press, trying to get better with pre-pitching and follow-up -- basically the tenants of the PR, so I've been trying to improve upon those for about 15 years now. One of the many things I would like to get better is marketing our reprint comics. It's tough, especially when they get into the later volumes. I asked Gary Groth how they handle this at the reprint panel in San Diego, and he was very honest, he answered "you can't." Fantagraphics does a great job with their reprint comics, and I would like to emulate that performance.

Some nuts and bolts -- I'm upgrading my CRM software right now as my filemaker files are 10 years old. We signed up with a better e-mail mass marketer (you may have noticed!), I need to wean myself off Quark and into Indesign. We need to find the time and money to redo our website, though I am very happy with both of our blogs -- D+Q and our store's 211. I think we keep a great balance of promotional, topical and fun so it's not too dry a read.

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SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you about working with another cartoonist in the D+Q stable that seems to me an interesting story: Yoshihiro Tatsumi. What are you memories of promoting his books, particularly those that involve him? He seemed to me genuinely and deeply touched by the reaction his work received in North America, and a gracious man generally.

BURNS: Tatsumi-san! The sweetest ever! Due to the kindness of CCI and PEN, I've been able to spend a lot of time with Tatsumi, more than I have with Lynda or Rutu and others. Some favorite memories include him falling asleep on the Hollywood mansion tour we took him on (he was right; it was boring), having lunch at the Getty in LA and taking a photo of Donald Duck's star on the Walk of Fame. A one-day stock-signing schedule stretched into two days in NYC as he elaborately signed each book. As he explained to us, if someone had told him when he was 20 that he would be in NYC one day signing hundreds of books the least he can do is leave little surprise for the fans who will buy them. There's also how much he and his wife loved Pokez in San Diego. Tatsumi being floored by how many women attend comic conventions in the US. He and his wife enjoying my kids so much at TCAF. He really is the sweetest.

Technically, the success of Tatsumi is due to a number of reasons. The Push Man came out at exactly the tipping point of the manga in book culture. Press, customers and retailers were looking for literary manga. And while Vertical was doing a phenomenal job with [Osamu] Tezuka, especially Buddha, I think the fact that due to our small list and that we had never published manga before, combined with Adrian's involvement and impeccable design, just tipped everything to his favor.

Tatsumi's comics are very straightforward and extremely readable. I strongly believe that the fact that we published it left to right was a huge reason of why it was able to make such an immediate impact. You sent the book, and Adrian's design made people want to read an unknown author, the left to right allowed people to read them, and the comics themselves kept them reading. He also benefited from being able to come to the US, with the first invite by Comic-con International, and then for A Drifting Life with TCAF and the Pen Festival. The one memory I have that is peculiar about working on his book was the comic industry's response to A Drifting Life. So many people said "who wants to read this 600-page if they don't read comics?" I found that reaction very strange. Yes, who doesn't want to read and learn about a fascinating life. I think it said more about the low self-esteem of comics fans than the quality of the book.

SPURGEON: Can you talk a little bit more about comics' self-loathing? That's something you and I have talked about in the past in terms of, for instance, when you started out that no one believed certain media gets were possible. How much of comics' success the last decade was just realizing how talented and interesting its best cartoonists are, and how much still needs to be done in terms of comics getting out of its own way?

BURNS: I read a lot of comics press and reviews. And it always amazes me when a reviewer makes the assumption that a non-avid-comics reader wouldn't like the book, like A Drifting Life. I don't really think there is "us vs. them" attitude in other mediums. Perhaps in poetry. If the past ten years have proved anything, it's that the general public does like comics, and all kinds of comics. I feel like the press hasn't really caught on to that fact yet, not to mention that it is weird when anyone in comics appoints themselves the spokesperson for the public at large.

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SPURGEON: How has D+Q negotiated the worldwide economic slump? Has there been any change at all in the way you do business because of the way the economy has performed over the last few years? How worried are you about long-term damage to the bookstore infrastructure? How worried are you about DM retailers like Comic Relief and Pitkamies either being on the brink or going out of business outright?

BURNS: Some segments of our business are fine: our front list is still strong; we pre-shipped our titles in record numbers this year; many books went back to print; foreign rights are in place; shows were decent; and our store had its best October and November to date. But what happened this year is that we saw a hit in some of the backlist, stemming from stores cutting back on carrying older titles or complete list and maybe from universities not ordering as many books. And a five percent drop in backlist sales can mean $80,000 less coming in. We can't complain though, if this is the reverberation we feel from the recession it could be much worse. We also just received a 400-unit order for each Berlin from a university class, so perhaps we are on the mend. God bless professors who adopt our books.

Operating a store has taught us how hard it can be. We now understand why stores do not order books in the Q1. How a book that may get press, may not sell. Or that a book that doesn't get press, may sell. Or keeping in stock the book that is selling. Or how hard it is to get books from a certain distributor or wholesaler and seeing if that is the same for stores with our books. I am worried about any store on the brink. But I feel like in independent comics from the artist, to the publisher, to the distributor to the store, we are all on the brink. It's the nature of the business.

imageSPURGEON: From a marketing standpoint, is there anything you miss about D+Q's sustained shift away from the comic-book format? Was there any advantage to that kind of publishing, say, for instance, putting something in front of people on a more regular basis?

BURNS: The pamphlet was been dead way before D+Q ended ours. I've been in comics for ten years, and it never has been a collective vital force in my time. Everything about the market has changed in the past decade, from retailers to printing to artists to readers; the expectations for the comics reading experience is just different in the new century. People want heft. People want to know how a story ends. I only miss pamphlets from a fan standpoint: the letters, end notes, etc. Towards the end, there was little marketing value in pamphlets. The margins were so razor thin, if there were any, that even sending a press mailing was losing money. And for publicity, books always outshine comics. It's like trying to promote one short story vs. a full-length graphic novel, a short film vs. a full-length film, it just doesn't compare. Did we hear anything about the end of Big Questions even though it debuted at the Brooklyn Comics & Graphics Festival, its perfect audience with Anders in attendance? No, and that surprised me. Will the 600-page collection of Big Questions stun people this Spring, will we hear about it? Yes.

imageSPURGEON: Where does D+Q stand in terms of developing a digital strategy, or is that even on your radar? Have you given any thought as to how to launch a successful digital initiative, and what that might entail from a marketing/publicity perspective? Are there on-line initiatives with comics that you admire?

BURNS: We're taking the lead from our artists. Most have said they don't mind being the last ones to the party and are willing to wait until a certain platform presents itself as the appropriate method for digital comics. Actually, I am excited to do an e-book and see how it works. I'm a believer on some level; I think it has huge potential for the backlist. A large proportion of our backlist is academic sales. Can I blame an 18-year-old freshman who is reading Pyongyang for class for not wanting the actual copy and for wanting to read it digitally? No, of course not. What I am not excited about is what it means for the printed book. We benefit from the Random Houses of the world fueling the print industry and making it cheaper for us, the little guy. If there are less people printing, paper costs go up, printers charge more, shipping goes up, and inevitably the costs of our books go up. Comics isn't kind to raising cover prices, this is an industry still fighting over the cost of a superhero pamphlet. Even in 2010, people expect their comics to be cheap. I think that is the comics industry, though, the general book buying population understands that the new hardcover of Freedom costs $28 and you can choose to wait for the paperback.

SPURGEON: One thing I've always wanted to ask you about is that you and Tom are US citizens that have found a home working in a country other than the one of your birth. Now that you have some years between the decision to go and now, how do you look back on that decision? Was that difficult transition to make? Do you expect to eventually apply for citizenship? Are you happy in Canada?

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BURNS: Looking back the decision seems kind of nuts. I took a pay cut the size of a middle management salary. I wouldn't even tell people what the cut was, because I knew there would probably be an intervention from friends and family. Not to mention canceling a wedding, moving to another country where we didn't speak the language, a city we never lived in and to work for a man we barely knew. I can't emphasize it enough that I do not regret it at all. I didn't want to be a lifer at DC and work 60 hours a week. I wanted the satisfaction that if you work really hard, it makes an immediate impact, that I wasn't a cog in the wheel. I wanted to fervently believe in what I was promoting. And in that respect, every reason of why I left a corporate company in NYC is no longer an issue at D+Q.

On the flip side, I think the hardest part of the move was working at such a small company. You don't really meet people in a two-person company. I had a wonderful network of friends in NYC and it was a difficult process moving away. We have been here seven years now, and have made friends, outside of comics even, if you can imagine. We are happy in Montreal, it feels right as it's a city that supports its arts, families and middle class. Honestly, though, we never would have been able to make the transition, if it weren't for Chris Oliveros. Chris is really everything that people say and more. We're opposites in personality (no surprise there) and I must drive him crazy with my obnoxious, bossiness, non-stop chatter and he is still the kindest, most supportive and loyal friend we have ever had, not to mention a boss. He really would do anything for Tom and I or any of his artists, Chris always does the right thing. He really is a model citizen.

SPURGEON: Do you want to talk at all about the circumstances that kept you from doing this interview the last time we planned on doing one? You alluded to those reasons earlier in the interview, and brought up one of them in San Diego last summer, so I thought it might be something you'd be comfortable talking about.

BURNS: I know, I'm sorry; we have tried to do this for the past several years. There are the obvious health issues and time constraints that prevented me before. But truthfully, I always panic and I can't finish. Here's the first rule I was ever taught back when I was a wee publicity assistant at PolyGram. My first boss Kristen Foster (who's now SVP of music at PMK/HBH) taught me that a good publicist is never the news, never does an interview and always puts the client first. Your name is not even to be mentioned. It's the old school idea of a publicist. As such, I just can't shake that doing this interview is wrong, Tom. Wrong. You should be talking to one of my authors. That would be right. Which one do you want to talk to?

my thanks to Peggy Burns. I will be interviewing six D+Q creators next week

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* Drawn And Quarterly
* Librairie Drawn & Quarterly

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* photo of Peggy Burns supplied by Burns
* image from Wilson
* Joe Ollmann's imminent next book
* Lynda Barry envelope art
* photo of Chester Brown by Gil Roth
* work by Seth
* photo of Tatsumi by Gil Roth
* an awe-inspiring Jason Lutes Berlin image
* Big Questions #15
* from Pyongyang
* Adrian Tomine draws the family
* Burns and Devlin, Halloween costumes a-ready (below)

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