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Newsmaker Interview: Joey Manley
posted November 2, 2007
 

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There was more than one webcomics entity making news this week. On Monday Joey Manley of Webcomics Nation and its related family of sites and Josh Roberts of ComicSpace and Onlinecomics.net announced a merger and the new merger's partnership with an investment firm.

With the prominence of both sites in the webcomics world and the number of creators and readers affected, I wanted to ask a few follow-up questions. Manley was good enough to humor me, and Josh Roberts even showed up for a cameo.

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TOM SPURGEON: Can you talk a little about the timing involved from here on out? When should we see changes and will the first signs be?

JOEY MANLEY: The first thing that will happen has already happened -- but it is kind of small and cheesy: we are selling one set of advertising slots that stretch across all of the sites that will eventually be combined (Webcomics Nation, OnlineComics.net, TalkAboutComics, ComicSpace). I don't want people to think that that's the ultimate goal or anything, but it is an easy and convenient little baby step.

SPURGEON: When should the sites that are going to combine, combine?

MANLEY: It's important that we not launch the new combined site until every single thing that people can do in each of the current sites is represented -- and improved upon significantly -- in the new site. You can look for that somewhere between 3-5 months from now. After that happens, we'll start layering on the new features.

SPURGEON: Do you have an idea of where you're going to be six months, a year from from now?

MANLEY: For the past few months we've been doing our detailed financial and technology planning for the next three years. Three years! It's mind boggling. So the answer to your question is: yes. I do have an idea where we hope to be at those times you mentioned -- and well beyond.

SPURGEON: [laughs] Okay. Now, I was surprised when I looked around for information on your investors E-Line that I couldn't find anything other than what was in your announcement. Who are they, exactly?

MANLEY: E-Line is a new early-stage venture capital firm started by Michael Angst and Alan Gershenfeld. They have not yet formally announced the venture -- which is why there is nothing yet posted on the internet about them -- ComicSpace is one of their first investments. The fund is focused on companies that provide innovative solutions that empower individuals, small businesses and disenfranchised populations.

The E-Line folks have relevant experience to help support us, have introduced to us to technical and business advisors who have been great -- and they are in the process of closing other investments that we believe will be very complimentary. I've attached their bios to this email to give you a little more background on them. [see below]

SPURGEON: Can you talk about how the deal came together with E-Line? How did you guys get in touch and for how long did negotiations progress before you came to a deal?

MANLEY: Alan actually contacted me first. We began speaking back in the summer -- before he and Michael had actually formed their new venture fund. He originally approached me to chat about comics on mobile, but as we got to know each other, and especially after I introduced him to Josh, we began to see the potential for a larger partnership. When Alan told us that he was planning to start a new fund with Michael, everything fell quickly into place.

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SPURGEON: I know that you might not be able to talk about this in full, but can you speak to basic ownership issues? Are you two sharing the merged venture? Does E-line's investment include an ownership share? Is there a third company set up with all of your investment? Are there silent partners out there?

MANLEY: Together, Josh and I are the largest shareholders of the new venture -- which will be called ComicSpace -- and we each own an equal percentage of the company. E-Line is a minority investor and together we may invite a few individual and strategic investors to participate in the round.

SPURGEON: On what basis did you decide what sites to fold into the new ComicSpace site and what to keep as separate brands? Traffic? Artists involved? Your own rough estimation? I'm sort of intrigued by how you made those distinctions.

MANLEY: Webcomics Nation, ComicSpace, TalkAboutComics and OnlineComics.net are what we call in our ugly parlance "user generated content" sites -- meaning that the material contained within those sites is created by the people who visit them. Modern Tales, Girlamatic, serializer and Graphic Smash, on the other hand, are quite the opposite: they're highly-curated anthologies of quality comics, each with its own unique editorial mission and voice. The secret to Modern Tales' success isn't just that it's a "quality comics" portal, but that it is, very particularly, Shaenon Garrity's vision of a quality comics portal. To merge that with all the other sites would cause it to cease to exist, for all intents and purposes, because its sole purpose is to exclude things that don't fit its mandate. It would be like merging Kramer's Ergot with Arf! with Dark Horse Presents. Just wouldn't make any sense.

Another metaphor that springs to mind is that WCN, OnlineComics.net, TalkAboutComics and ComicSpace are printing presses. Modern Tales, Girlamatic, serializer, and Graphic Smash are magazines.

SPURGEON: Can you talk in terms of your new partner and a few skills each of you might bring to the table? I know that you've said you complement each other, and I'd love your perspective on exactly how you do.

MANLEY: Josh's sites have been more concerned with helping readers find, and keep track of, the webcomics they love. My sites have been more concerned with helping creators publish and monetize their own webcomics. Each fits tightly into the other.

SPURGEON: In your comments thread you talk a bit about your ability to make functional attractive sites; do you think this is a greater issue now than when you were first working with webcomics?

MANLEY: Not really. Great design has always been important.

Here's what happened, though. The fewer things your website does, the easier it is to make it usable. A website with one webcomic on it, for example, is pretty easy to design effectively. Add two webcomics, by two different creators, and you hit a whole 'nother level of complexity in your design spec. Add seven thousand webcomics, plus four thousand blogs, plus nine hundred fan-art items, plus seven hundred merchandise items, plus twelve thousand art galleries, plus nine hundred forums with hundreds of thousands of conversations, plus seven hundred webcomic reviews, and so on and so on and so on, and usability becomes even more important, and even more difficult to achieve. At a certain point in the growth of my websites, the ante got upped in terms of usability far beyond my own ability to improve as a designer.

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SPURGEON: What is one thing that Josh doesn't do well that you might?

[editor's note: this question was passed along to Josh Roberts, who answered]

JOSH ROBERTS: There are many things Joey does better than me because, well, we're completely opposite in almost every way. It's kind of humorous to the people we work with, I think. Top of the list: Joey is infinitely superior in all things related to communicating with other human beings. I prefer to sit at my computer and tinker with code all day, and most days that's exactly what I do. We've been in this business for about the same amount of time, but where I've cultivated maybe a handful of relationships, Joey's cultivated hundreds... thousands?.

SPURGEON: What has been the reaction of your artists to any of this news? Have you been keeping them informed through the process? Are there any special concerns the artists have?

MANLEY: As I mentioned in my announcement, I've been looking for a business partner or investor to help me move forward for the last two years -- and I've turned down a lot of offers. Every time I did have a suitor, I let the Modern Tales, Girlamatic, serializer and Graphic Smash artists know, in the vaguest possible terms, that there was a possibility some kind of deal might be in the works. I think in the end it turned into a "boy who cried wolf" kind of situation, where I had done this so many times, they didn't take me very seriously when I started telling them that I was talking to some guys in New York, and that there might be a deal to be made. Which is all I told them until the announcement came out the other day.

I have had the opportunity during those two years to get a good sense of what kinds of concerns the artists would have if a deal ever came down -- and went into every negotiation with those concerns at the top of my agenda. For example, there was no way I'd be making any kind of deal with any company that would be asking for any share of the artist's intellectual property rights -- never mind those companies who ask for all of it. Giving up any share at all of their intellectual property rights would have been completely unacceptable to the majority of the artists I work with, and to me.

Going into conversations with potential partners with that kind of stance tends to weed out a lot of potential partners, especially in the comics field! Which is good! It took me a while to find the right investors -- but once I did, the way that I knew they were the right ones is that they actually approached me with every one of the same creator's rights bullet points that I'd been using in my negotiations with others. I didn't have the educate them. They already knew.

SPURGEON: You made a special point in your initial press statement that E-Line has interest in the social impact of the properties in which they might invest. Are there social aspects to your work that you think they found attractive?

MANLEY: Absolutely -- we are all about empowering comic creators and readers with the best possible services, while leaving them with full ownership and control of their own intellectual property. This is directly aligned with E-Line's investment thesis. When we began our discussions it was all about values and goals -- not money. The financial discussions came after we made sure we were really in synch. on the mission. This was really refreshing after some of the ways other folks had approached us.

SPURGEON: This might be too much to ask, and I'm really only interested in the generalities of it, but when you say that you were only going to merge if you could find an investor, where in what you had in mind was something that needed investment to do, basically? Were you targeting manpower? Paying certain talent? Just taking the already-existing financial strain off of you backs?

MANLEY: On the most practical level, Josh and I were both operating as sole proprietors, and we had no way of splitting the money if we merged without a business infrastructure to support us.

Beyond that, we'd both been aware for quite some time that neither of us could continue to innovate at the level we needed to, without hiring some very significant programming, design, and business management talent helping us out. Our sites were profitable, but not so profitable that we could afford the kind of people we needed. Between us, we'd each put in a cumulative total of about twelve years working solo. It was time to turn to others for help. Josh just passed his six-year anniversary, and mine's coming up in March.

SPURGEON: Was the timing of the announcement meant to coincide with Zuda's launch, the way the baseball player Alex Rodriguez and his agent crashed the World Series?

MANLEY: What is a Zuda, again?

Ha! No, not at all. The announcement happened immediately after Josh and I signed the paperwork -- we'd been wanting to put this out there for months, but couldn't. We got the paperwork from E-Line last week, then our respective attorneys had to read everything and do their attorney thing. I dropped my paperwork off at FedEx Monday morning, called Josh and confirmed that he'd done the same, and then we went and posted our announcements. The Zuda thing just sort of happened accidentally. Though I do note that they didn't actually get their comics up until around 6pm Eastern, so they managed to dominate the, um, late evening news cycle after all.

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logos; images from Dwarf Attack, Rex, Lil' Mell and Planet Saturday

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Alan_Gershenfeld_Bio.doc
Michael_Angst_Bio.doc

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