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The New Playing Field
posted July 31, 2005

Two readers have suggested articles on the book trade that might be interesting reading for the comics fan.

The first is a New York Times piece on pay-for-play co-op advertising I assume someone had the permission to reprint here. The article provides seemingly every figure it can, while at the same time takes a blunt but not defeated stance on how booksellers refuse to divulge to what extent these kind of payments are used. In fact, the nebulous parts of the practice may be more fascinating than the figures. New York booksellers keeping more control over shelf space than their peers in Chicago and Los Angeles is a concept that makes me laugh; also, it's good to know. More importantly, I think it's not so much a rhetorical dodge as an accurate reflection of reality for the article to so even-handedly embrace the nebulous notion that while there are payments for shelf space, sellers are likely to avoid accepting payments for a suspected sales dog. This just sounds like one of those things that developed slowly, with a lot of very specific understandings between publisher and bookseller.

In addition to learning a bit about a facet of bookstore sales some comics releases are now expected to negotiate, one can't help but also think of it in terms of possible comic shop equivalencies. To be frank, I don't know if something like this exists or could exist in the direct market. I suspect that display tactics could work in comic shops because of my personal experience buying comics placed on the corridor from racks to cash register at my first real comic shop in Indianapolis. At the same time, I doubt that the ramshackle atmosphere of most shops, their sole-proprietorship status, and the firing-product-from-a-wood-chipper publishing schedule of nearly every editorial entity would allow for a very sophisticated adoption of this practice. Although for all I really know, maybe a blunt version of this already exists or was tried in the 1990s.

The second article is a piece from Sarah F. Gold in the 6/20 issue of Publisher's Weekly that has now been forwarded to me twice. Gold's article, which I will not reprint here out of deference to Publisher's Weekly's right to do what they do with their material, examines the success some mid-list authors have had with keeping work at academic presses as opposed to bringing books to the larger publishers even when that's an option.

The advantages these authors seem to have with the smaller companies include a longer relationship, expertise in the specific market of academic books sales, more flexible and targeted marketing, and keeping work in print longer. All of these are obviously advantages that you could easily transfer to a discussion of comics companies versus book publishers with and without comics imprints -- with "comics market" taking the place of "academic books market." It's an interesting counterview to enter against the general assumption that big publishers are the Promised Land, and one that I think holds a bit of obvious wisdom. That every comic book published may not have a chance for broad mainstream hit status is a notion that is only now beginning to wash from the eyes of several comics observers and professionals, poisoned as they were by the context of a market which had beaten all but that single model for succes to death like so many thugs with lead pipes.

I do suspect in terms of some matters there may be a wider difference between book and traditional comics publishers' policies than there are between an academic press's trade publishing program and a big publisher's way of doing things but even that may change as some of these companies enjoy great success and greater competition. No artist should ever make a business decision based on schoolyard concepts of loyalty or as a reward for past services; that's nonsense. Business deals in publishing, even comics publishing, should not be made in a series of vague promises that could nab the principals 15 minutes on Texas Justice. What this article suggests is that if comics publishers continue to emphasize what they do well and in some caaes improve the quality of their business dealings they might offer enough that the personal for the personal's sake need never enter into it, but personal comfort for a stronger professional tie certainly could.

For now it should make us stop and reconsider the role of comics publishers, particularly as the first few slots at the bigger imprints are filled in and they develop their own versions of mid-list authors. While a certain kind of author has benefited thus far, it's almost impossible to imagine some of the more unique success stories having replicated themselves at book publishers. Could anyone really have done better with Jhonen Vasquez than Slave Labor has? Would Scholastic have done as well with its first Bone books if they were brand new and Jeff Smith were just starting out? One hopes that the option of publishing with a major book publisher won't create a generation of cartoonists who take the big deal, sell a decent number of copies, and then are rarely seen again. Sometimes the Promised Land turns out to be a gated community with nice lawns.