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A Short Interview With Larry Young
posted July 3, 2005


I know Larry Young by reputation as a fair, honest, and supportive publisher; through his work, on the Astronauts in Trouble series in particular, as a clever, economical writer with a penchant for the american-adventure story as realized in modern motion pictures; and through my comics-related duties as an unrelenting promotional force on behalf of books from the first two categories.

It's the last role I'm interested in here. Unlike most of the other marketing and sales people I know in comics, Young approaches his role as point man for the works he publishes with a fearless, unwavering zeal that hasn't been seen since Stan Lee in his prime. In the interview that follows, Young and I enter into a brief exchange about whether or not the books Ait/Planet Lar publishes cure cancer. I think I lost the argument.

Comics is still a relatively small industry in that a certain amount of imagination, careful planning, and furious hard work can secure someone a place in which to create, publish and thrive. I've long been interested in how Larry Young pursues the marketing portion of his day, how he relentlessly hand sells his comics not just to consumers but to press and shop owners as well. A week or two after a personal appearance on something the Time Warner magazine Entertainment Weekly was calling its "Must List," Young was eager to share some of his insights with me. I appreciate the generosity he showed with his time, and although I could have asked a ton of follow-ups to some of little sidepaths explored in what follows, I think adhering as closely as possible to marketing issues and results was the better choice.

It may be the kind of thing only I find interesting, but while preparing this interview I noticed that Young mentioned nearly 20 of the titles his company publishes.

To learn more about Larry Young, please visit his company's site here. Look for his current series, The Black Diamond, in comic book shops across America this summer.

TOM SPURGEON: How early in the process do you think about marketing the book? I seem to remember that you encourage proposals that have the kind of hook that leads to marketing opportunities.

LARRY YOUNG: I'm one of those rare folks who understand that comics is a Commercial Art, with all that that implies. Entertaining an audience via the medium of comics is very literally a tightrope walk between the two high towers of Commerce and Art. Too much Commerce and you're just doing CPR on some dusty corporate trademark from sixty years ago, and too much Art and the creator can't pay his student loans because he made me spend all his profits printing his comic book on bulletproof paper to create his dream book when fire-retardant paper would have fulfilled his vision just as well and left him with money left over. I spend most of my day saying to one person "Less Commerce; more Art!" and then picking up the other line and saying to a different creator "Less Art, more Commerce!" Fortunately, it all gets rather self-selecting. Peeps who trust me listen to their Wild Uncle Lar and will die rich or well known and those who don't listen go off to other arrangements that better fit their delicate constitutions. We're Making Comics Better over here, not Personally Fitting Cure-Listeners for Diapers. Some folks can deal with that and others can't. I deal with those who can and shine on those who can't. That's easy math.

So if someone can hit me with a good title, a tagline that puts a thought in my head, and they back it up with some professional skills, we can work something out. Let me give you an example how it can all work. Our September book, Smoke and Guns, worked like this: Kirsten Baldock said to me, "You know what a cigarette girl is? From those Bogart movies? The girl with the tray of smokes? I gotta story I want to do. The Warriors with cigarette girls." OK, I say, that sounds good. Write it up and I'll see if we can't do something with it. So she does, and it's great, and I think, "We should call this Smoke and Guns." A nice transliteration that puts an image in your head even if you don't know anything else about the work. So Kirsten and I were talking with the Isotope's James Sime about artists we thought would be good for it, and he says, "High heels and hot lead, huh? What about Fabio Moon?"

So, there you go. Commerce and Art. Smoke and Guns. High heels and hot lead. License to print money.

SPURGEON: Do you feel your notion of comics as a commercial art is a superior one to those who feel comics is an art and let the commercial chips fall where they may? Certainly there's a track record of artists who are commercially successful who haven't had anyone suggest "More commerce!" If you were publishing Chris Ware or Art Spiegelman or artists who can sell over 150,000 copies of a trade, would you work with them the same way?

YOUNG: I don't feel our view is "superior" to anyone else's. What works for them works for them and what works for us obviously works for us. If I say "A," of course anyone can trot out the anecdote that "B" works in an opposite way. That's cool. The comic book industry isn't an if/then-either/or kinda thing no matter how much any individual might strive to name it so. There's room for all sorts of entertainments.

SPURGEON: Do you map out a formal strategy for each book? What does your basic strategy look like?

imageYOUNG: The tack for every book is different. Something like Surviving Grady gets a different sort of attention than Electric Girl Volume Three, although both make a big splash with their attendant audiences.

SPURGEON: Do you prioritize your marketing strategies according to your expectations for each book? For instance, would you agree to interviews in certain web sites for some artists but not for others, or do you hold out to release certain information through a certain magazine?

YOUNG: Well, I'm not sure I'd characterize it as "prioritization" so much as "picking your pitch and swinging." A major league baseball player when faced with a low-and-outside slider is going to swing at it or not based on whether or not there's men on, which inning they're in, whether or not his team is leading in the game or not, and so on, you know? It makes sense for me to do an interview with or Ad Astra about Astronauts in Trouble, but not so much sense to do one with about it, yeah? But Suicide Girls would be great for Danielle Henderson to talk about Tales From Fish Camp or Bri Wood to talk about DEMO, and, in fact, they have.

It's that commerce/art thing again. Entertainment Weekly can do more with The Black Diamond than The Comics Journal can. The first audience is going to be receptive to the action-movie aesthetic, and the second will miss it wide. The sky is blue, water's wet, and AiT/Planet Lar is the comic book equivalent of FM radio's "Less talk, more rock." More easy math.


SPURGEON: Have you seen a noticeable jump in sales directly attributable to appearances in EW, and can you characterize it? A lot of people feel that such mentions are nice, but don't really transfer into sales.

YOUNG: Well, how do you answer that? If something sells at X amount with an Entertainment Weekly mention, you'd have to get a time machine and scroll back along the timeline and talk the EW folks out of mentioning your book in the first place so you could say, "Well, yes, in timeline LY Black Diamond sold Y amount by itself and in timeline EW Black Diamond sold X amount when we added a mention in Entertainment Weekly." I mean, c'mon. It seems to me that real-world PR mentions have an impact with sales and attention, but that's just my feeling and nothing quantifiable.

We sell a different comic experience every month. If we sold Batman or something month in and month out, maybe I'd have something interesting to say to this question, but it just doesn't apply to us. We give you a new entertainment experience every month, and if you don't like The Black Diamond, say, stay tuned and you might like Smoke and Guns the next month.

SPURGEON: What marketing effort are you proudest of of the ones you've done so far - and if you can't answer that, is there one that was a pleasant surprise?

YOUNG: Anything that brings attention to all our hard work is a home run, if you ask me, and we don't really do "stunt" marketing, but that's more of a result of my personal view of comics. I know there are some cynical tools in the Peanut Gallery who decry all the "hype" they see coming from me but they miss a crucial point. I am as enthusiastic about every book we publish as if I had produced it myself. So when I metaphorically grab potential audience members by their proverbial lapels and tell them we are actually Making Comics Better with our latest and that if they buy a copy of this month's offering from us, it will cure cancer and do their homework and make them even more impossibly attractive to the opposite or, indeed, even the same, sex if they just part with their thirteen dollars for our latest graphic novel... the thing that separates me from everyone else presently publishing funny books is that I absolutely believe this to be true.

So, in a general sense, I suppose I'd have to say I'm most proud of the tireless and effective hand-selling I do to direct market retailers, corporate bookstore buyers, and audience members. I very much enjoy connecting with the full comics audience because, at the core of it, I'm the world's biggest fan of the form. I love comics so much I have to make my own.

SPURGEON: But your books don't cure cancer and don't make anyone more attractive. Do you ever worry about turning people off to your books with this approach? Isn't there a risk in marketing long-term of no longer being trustworthy?

imageYOUNG: Well, honestly, and I'm not being arch... but how do you know? Maybe our books actually do cure cancer. Maybe reading one of our books really will make somebody talk to you on a bus when they see you reading, say, DEMO, and one thing leads to another and you really do become more attractive to the opposite sex by reading one of our books. Seriously, man, our books really do Make Comics Better. There's no risk in saying that Out Loud, because I can demonstrate it. Many creators have made much money (Commerce) and many audience members have enjoyed our work (Art), so one can trust that statement. We're not Acclaim, or Crossgen, or Tekno, or whoever. Slow and steady wins the race.

SPURGEON: You've pointed a couple of times now at the overall commercial success of your company's books as a sign that you do marketing well.

YOUNG: I think I ever only point out that we actually do some marketing for our books, although I allow that sometimes a little pride in the effectiveness of it might edge in.

SPURGEON: Let me challenge you on the wider point. Blind samples, rough percentages, any way you want to put it to protect information by individual title: what does an AiT/Planet Lar book sell? If it's a range, what's the top end, and how many books on a rough percentage basis get within 50 percent of those sales?

imageYOUNG: Every month is different since every project, every creative team, every economic cycle impacts "sales," by which I take you to mean initial orders in the Direct Market. So there's no real way to answer this. We're not selling AiT/Planet Lar books; we're selling a unique comic book experience.

And that's not even addressing something like Astronauts in Trouble, which has been packaged five or six different ways, with each packaging getting a promotional push, or books like Electric Girl and Channel Zero that are on their fourth printings. I mean, the best-selling graphic novel for online retailer for all of last year... the entirety of last year... was Channel Zero, a book that's what? Seven years old?

So you can't compare initial sales with different subjects, creators, and cycles with "sales," you know? It's all fruit, yeah, but it's apples and oranges, and even then the apples are the kind that you can get at any supermarket or corner stand anywhere and the oranges we're talking about are the highly-prized Honeybells that any orange-lover in the know can tell you are so rare and sought-after that they can only be found one month out of the year.

SPURGEON: Larry, I apologize, but I have no idea why you would think I'd mean "sales" to mean "initial orders in the Direct Market" instead of "sales" as in "how many books you've sold." Can you reply with that clarification in mind? To follow up, as well: print runs and sales figures can vary by tens of thousands of units. If you're marketing a company that is making comics better, why not tell folks how much? Why should readers trust marketing that veers away from plain talk and easy math?

YOUNG: Because context still has meaning, and raw numbers aren't context.

But let's talk raw numbers and context, then, yeah? We have to stick with a comparison of a couple of my books, but I hope you'll get the point: as a writer/creator only, not as a publisher as well, just as a writer/creator, I've made much, much more money on a color book that we published that just came out, that had an initial five thousand unit print run, than the money I made from a book I wrote and created for Image comics in 2002 that had a cover on PREVIEWS and a print run of twenty thousand. Now, I'd wager most folks reading this would be able to name the recent book I did from our company with the print run a quarter of the Image book I did, and, at the same time, not even realize I ever did a book for Image. And that's the difference good marketing makes.

Now, that's as close as you can get to all things being equal, right? Except that, you know, one was published in 2002, and the other in 2005. They were drawn by different artists. They were written by the same guy, sure, but three years apart. They addressed two different audiences. Both of them had wildly different print runs, but both have "sold out." Both were innovative, experimental formats, but one was offered by a front-of-the-catalog brokered publisher, and the other was from a back-of-the-catalog brokered publisher. And so on.

Context is everything, and raw numbers aren't context. I've made more money in three weeks, as just a writer, from the single issue of The Black Diamond than I have from the totality of the five issues of Double Image. So there's that. Comparing raw numbers is meaningless without context. And that's the easy math.

I've never put forth that it is our mere "marketing" that is, as you say, "making comics better;" rather it is the complete AiT/Planet Lar experience of creators having an unfettered platform by which to tell their tales... the direct-brain interface of the writers/artists/creators we offer limited only by their talent, drive, and gumption to deliver our entertainments directly from our brains to yours. That is the AiT/Planet Lar hallmark that is... Making Comics Better.

SPURGEON: How do you in a practical sense measure success with the marketing effort specifically? Do you assess how things went on a book by book basis?

YOUNG: Of course; we have to send our creators an accounting every quarter, so it's all book-to-book. It's easy to assess the utility or relative success of a marketing effort because there's a big "expenses" column and a big "receipts" column and when the in column is bigger than the out column, the writer and the artist and me all did our jobs well. That's just more easy math.

SPURGEON: Do you assess marketing as an expense on a book-by-book basis?

YOUNG: Not in a lawyer-ly "billable hours" sort of way, no. Out-of pocket advertising and promotions and marketing expenses are tallied and accounted for, but I don't submit a slip of paper to Mimi at the end of the day that says where I mentioned who or what online or how much time I spent crafting a press release and where it went or whatever and charge the books for my time. Just the cross I bear for it saying "Planet Lar" and not "Planet Mimi" or "Planet Josh" there, at the end of the company name.

SPURGEON: As a follow-up, some book and some comics companies, and I find this fascinating, actually have certain aspects to the marketing negotiated in the contract - like "I will receive this many ads in this trade magazine." Does AiT/Planet Lar spell that kind of thing out? Has anyone ever asked for marketing support -- like "I want a TV commercial" that you've been unable to provide them, for whatever reason? Most cartoonists I know always want more marketing support.

YOUNG: Hey, me too. It was easy to market the talented Brian Wood into "the genius Brian Wood" and give him his own month and whatnot and hammering that message paid off for us both. But that would look like the worst sort of self-aggrandizement were I to bundle the four Astronauts in Trouble volumes, the AiT script collection, True Facts, Planet of the Capes, Proof of Concept, and The Black Diamond and market Larry Young Appreciation Day or something. Tears of a clown, baby. Tears of a clown. Talent always wants to be recognized.

But, no, I can't think of anything reasonable somebody wanted in terms of promotions that we haven't been able to deliver on in some way. We have a pretty good infrastructure in place.

SPURGEON: I get a sense from what retailers tell me that your marketing efforts have paid off with deeper penetration into a percentage of direct market stores that may not carry similar books. Do you think that's true, and is there a difference working with a retailer for whom AiT/Planet Lar books is a real "out there" line and someone who runs a diverse shop? Do you emphasize different things?

YOUNG: Of course it's a marketing truism that it's easier to get a customer to buy fifty units who's already buying forty-five than it is to get a customer to buy one unit who is presently buying none. So we look at it as a mountain climb, yeah? Everyone can get a cab to the bottom of the mountain, but only a few will make the climb to Base Camp One. Of those cats, only half, say, will get up to Base Camp Two. And of those, only half will be able to strive to Base Camp Three. And of those, only one or two get to the top of the mountain. Slow and steady wins the race. And that's us.

SPURGEON: Is there a book of yours you've found was a particularly good point man for picking up new accounts? Or a few?

image YOUNG: Sure, Astronauts in Trouble: Live From the Moon anchored the company, which is very flattering from an ego standpoint and continues to be a touchstone. Channel Zero continues to sell. Electric Girl has conquered the libraries. Hench hooked the superhero guys, and Surviving Grady gave us a toe-hold into the book market. Every month we do something that somebody is gonna dig. The upcoming Smoke and Guns was mentioned on Joan Jett's blog and on when we announced it, so there's always something happening.

SPURGEON: Do you have any books selling in markets where no other AiT/Planet Lar books go? How do you meet the concerns of specific-subject matter accounts?

YOUNG: Surviving Grady, about the Red Sox pennant win last year, and Tales From Fish Camp, about a city girl's adventures in an Alaskan fish facility, have been winners for us. But books are books, man, whether they have pictures or not. If we kill the trees, there are folks I can convince to sell the books.

SPURGEON: Would you make any differentiation between your marketing and your sales tasks, like many companies do? Do you engage in any traditional marketing activities, like breaking down sales patterns or setting up direct response cards or any of that stuff?

YOUNG: Of course.

SPURGEON: Oh, Larry. Can you share maybe one or two that you've found useful, or maybe even one that hasn't transferred into comics? Would you recommend other companies pursue traditional marketing mechanisms?

YOUNG: I don't really follow what other publishers do, honestly. I do watch DC pretty closely, though, because I personally admire Paul Levitz and Bob Wayne and Patty Jeres very much. I think they're some of the smartest people in comics. The reason we do freight-paid overships is directly a result of a conversation I once had with Patty Jeres. When I did marketing and promotions for Brian Hibbs' shop in San Francisco, Comix Experience, I would talk with Patty or one of her marketing folks like Marco Palmieri or Maureen McTigue at least once a day about marketing and promotions and strategy. So I know what the mindset of DC corporate was four or five or six years ago, and I keep up with the news they make public, now. But anything I could offer about other publishers would be from the standpoint of a fan and my personal tastes for the comics they make.

SPURGEON: Given an expanded staff and/or resources as your company continues to be successful, along what lines would you like to see your marketing efforts develop?

I would like to see marketing/promotions/advertising given over to someone so I could go back to writing comics and developing talent. I don't want to be a publisher, Tom. I just wanted to produce a comic about spacemen in jeopardy, written by me. Then DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and Image turned down Astronauts in Trouble. Since I had worked, on and off, in publishing, promotions, marketing, and advertising for, I dunno, at that point, sixteen or seventeen years or so, I figured that if it wasn't being published by one of the Big Four, I would just have to go ahead and do it myself. So, if anybody is offended by having AiT/Planet Lar on the scene, they can blame Mike Carlin, Stuart Moore, Phil Amara, and Jim Valentino, who were the editors I pitched it to. If they'd said "Sure," I wouldn't have had to start the company.

Just cursed by being good at it, I guess.

SPURGEON: Would the market be better off if there was more than one Larry Young performing marketing tasks, or do you benefit because there's only one person who does what you do?

YOUNG: It's very flattering for you to even ask that question. I certainly would like to see a healthy comics industry present the things I personally enjoy as a fan, like the "DVD extras" of Channel Zero we published in the Public Domain volume, or the comic book script collections we pioneered with The Making of Astronauts in Trouble. Certainly there are collections of online ruminations that wouldn't exist if not for the success of Come In Alone and True Facts.

… but AiT/Planet Lar's success is predicated on the fact that no one else looks at the comics industry like Mimi and I do.

Art from Smoke and Guns; cover from Electric Girl Volume 3, interior from the newly released Black Diamond, cover from a DEMO comic by Wood and Cloonan, Channel Zero by Brian Wood, stalwart title Astronauts in Trouble: Live From the Moon