Friday, October 19, 2007

And then they moved the library to a new building which I hate

-Not really a review, but a note of appreciation for Bookhunter; if you want a real review, you couldn't do much better than Dirk Deppey's. I mostly want to say this: if libraries have been a big part of your life, you will want to read this book. Back in my childhood/adolescence, I spent a lot of time in libraries. I liked our local branch just fine, but the main county library was almost magical. The building was one that would have looked modern in the middle of the 20th century--very flat, lots of blue-tinted glass and white bricks. It was much darker and much, much larger than our local branch. Downstairs, there was a room reserved for children's entertainment--puppet shows, mostly. The children's section was enormous, with murals on the walls and toys in the center of the room. The main reading room was imposing, surrounded by the main fiction stacks on one side and the genre fiction on the other (paperbacks in spinner racks), right next to several big, two-story windows. The nonfiction was upstairs, with a balcony looking down on the reading room. That's where my brother and I found many of the books which expanded our love of comics beyond superheroes: Fantagraphics' The Best Comics of the Decade, books about Pogo and Krazy Kat, a collection of Pat Oliphant cartoons, histories of comics which included underground cartoonists other than Robert Crumb, and even Lorenzo Mattoti's Fires. And right next to the comics section (in the mid-700s) was a mysterious employees-only area, shrouded in darkness, yet made all the more intriguing by a large window affording glimpses into this world.

And that's not even getting into all the time I've spent in various university libraries, some of which were legitimately Sala-esque. I want to emphasize, however, that my psychological attachment to libraries was not a precondition for enjoying Bookhunter. Even not plagued by such strong bibliophilic memories will find it incredibly entertaining for reasons best explained by Deppey in the link above (here it is again, for the lazy reader). But people who share my strange fascination with libraries will find special pleasure in reading Bookhunter.

-With all the talk of the impending deaths of formats and whatnot, I thought I'd once again share my completely uninformed, unrealistic solution, a clumsy application of elements of the manga publishing model on North American comics. It goes something like this: DC and Marvel should stratify their main lines into three categories--one for kids, one for the dedicated fan, and one for "prestige" projects. The latter would be totally untethered to continuity and would feature works by creators whose approach might be too idiosyncratic to exist in today's "shared universe" publishing model. Kind of like what the All-Star line was intended to be. These comics might or might not be serialized in pamphlet form, but most sales would come from collected, graphic novel-type volumes.

The hardcore fan-oriented line would be condensed into big, thick anthologies, perhaps with a production process similar to the television model being used by Countdown: one or two head writers producing outlines for a staff of several writers, each of whom would be assigned a strip (or possibly multiple strips). The art process would be further broken into assembly line steps, with dedicated layout artists separate from the penciller. These anthologies would be printed on cheaper paper than today's DC/Marvel books, but would still be in full color. The stories would be dense, giving readers a whole lot of bang for the buck. The anthology format would allow Marvel and DC to cycle through intellectual properties, while maintaining that "shared universe" dynamic so important to many superhero fans. The individual strips would eventually be collected in some type of format, so that readers wouldn't be forced to buy an anthology if they were only interested in comics starring the Flash or Wolverine or whoever.

The children's line would follow the same anthology format, but with more attention paid to synergy with cartoon and/or movie versions of the characters. Stories would be self-contained, for the most part.

There are a ton of problems with this plan, the biggest being that it would drastically reduce sales volume in DM stores. I don't want that to happen; it's the people buying every X-title who allow stores to stay in business, which in turn allows me to buy the comics I want to buy at my local comic shop. But if the Direct Market were to collapse at some point, a series of anthologies might not be the worst way to go. I mean, assuming we're ignoring the internet here. In any event, I would think that the comics industry would be in better shape today if that model had been adopted in the 80s. But that's not an especially useful way of looking at current problems in the industry. And declining manga sales suggest that the anthology model is no panacea. So what I'm basically saying is, we'll look back on this conversation in 20 years and laugh, remembering a time when human beings could sit around and speculate on the future of comic books rather than trying to fight off the marauding motorcycle gangs who prey on our fragile communities in their ongoing search for food and petroleum.

(Oh, and on the same subject: Stuart Moore repeatedly mentions on this Beat thread that overall sales are up for comics (and I assume he's referring to North American-produced comics sold in the Direct Market here). I thought the current fretting wasn't due to reduced aggregate sales, but dips in the sales of mid-line titles. Like, the big crossovers are stealing readers away from the mid-level titles. Now, to say that's bad, you have to put a little trust in anecdotal evidence--like growing negative reaction to all these fucking crossovers on the internet. And then you could look at sales figures for something like Fables--they're remarkably even from month to month. Put them together and you get this: You hype the latest crossover to hell, browbeating your reader into buying everything connected with it. But since this hypothetical reader needs to eat, certain sacrifices must be made--in this case, Dependable Mid-Level Title is dropped in favor of Countdown to Infinite Whatever: The Search for H.E.R.B.I.E. So sales drop on Dependable Mid-Level Title and it gets canceled, or a new creative team turns it into something unrecognizable. Then the reader (and this is speculation based on anecdotal evidence) gets burned out on crossover mega-events and just quits reading comics. A lot of things happened in the 90s which nearly killed off the industry. This phenomenon was not the most important factor, or even one of the five most important factors, but it was a factor.)

(Oh, and if TPB sales offset lowered pamphlet sales, thus making Vertigo basically healthy, how can you explain the cancellation of American Virgin, especially with four other ongoing titles selling around the same level or lower? Are those titles (Exterminators, Army@Love, Scalped, and Crossing Midnight) going to significantly outpace American Virgin's GN sales? If not, then surely they're in imminent danger of cancellation, right? That's four titles in total--a quarter of Vertigo's current, uncanceled, ongoing output (the other titles are Hellblazer, Fables, Jack of Fables, Y the Last Man, 100 Bullets, Un-Men, and DMZ, plus the newly-launched Vinyl Underground). And of those remaining titles, Y is months away from wrapping up and Un-Men isn't really burning up the sales charts. Surely this talk of problems at Vertigo is more than half-baked rhetoric, yes?)

(And just to repeat myself, I very much want to see a successful Vertigo, because I think it's good for the overall health of the Direct Market. More importantly, it funnels in new readers into other (better) comics, and I'd like to see the people who make those comics be able to make a decent living off of them.)

-Two quick Trader Joe's reviews:

Colombian House Blend French Roast whole bean coffee: This was perfectly fine, about as good as what I normally drink in any coffee house around town (bearing in mind that 99% of the time I order the darkest roast available and drink it black). Sigh. Maybe I'm getting to that stage in my life where I only want to consume one particular product for every product category, and it's gotta be French roast when it comes to coffee. But then I remember that I can't stand eating any particular breakfast cereal for more than two weeks at a time, and I think, "NO! The fault lies with the exceedingly poor quality of Trader Joe's Safari Blend! I like medium roasts, so long as they don't taste like grass!"

While we're on the subject, do any of you out there go to coffee houses which feature more than, like, three types of coffee at any given time? I mean, are there parts of the country which have massive cafes with 10+ blends sitting in the carafes? That's my dream coffee house, sort of like those bars with several dozen beers on tap and several hundred in bottle, including all those fruity Belgian beers which don't really taste like beer at all. Mmm, Lindeman's Frambroise. Even better, Lindeman's Pomme.

Country Italian artisan bread: I assume that the nature of Trader Joe's artisan breads vary significantly by bakery, so your local store might not carry the version of this which severely strained my jaw muscles last night. This is an insanely chewy bread, with a positively rubbery crust. I've never had so much trouble eating bread before. It tastes very good, and has a very rustic texture--beneath the crust. I'd describe the crust's texture as akin to industrial-grade sound dampening material.


Alan Brown said...

I wish someone would give the anthology model a try, and I think Vertigo is pretty much perfect for it. I mean, they don't have a whole lot of floppy sales to lose at this point, do they?

Instead of 10-14 vertigo pamphelts a month, move to just one. It could be about the size of the diamond previews - with around 250-300 pages of comics with 100+ pages of ads (ideally between stories), at a $10-12 price point. Vertigo probably has a much lower percentage of "collector" buyers than Marvel or the DCU, so way fewer complaints about getting that collectible pamphlet.

The downside - one book selling (hopefully) 25k+ copies at $10 is less revenue than 14 books selling at around 10k average at $3 each (although I'm sure there are some cost savings in the anthology format).

The upside - New books aren't forced to carve out a place for themselves instantly in a crowded market. Writers aren't constrained to a strict 22 pages per installment. In as much as pamphlets exist partly to promote the eventual trade (and previous trades), the anthology format does a much better job, and is much easier to start picking up than an ongoing series that is already at issue 10+.

From a personal point of view, I would buy this, and I currently buy zero floppies. What Hibbs is suggesting, essentially blackmailing readers into buying pamphlets because there might not be a trade, is not going to make me come back to pamphelts, it's just going to mean less trades for me to buy.

My one fear is that there would be some desire on the part of Vertigo to break out there bestsellers as separate pamphlets, which would totally kill the whole thing right there. I mean, how many people would buy weekly jump if they could pick up One Piece, Naruto and Bleach separately for a fraction of the cost?

Vertigo, if you are listening: carpe diem, make lemonade, take the plunge. It'll be the best thing since Sandman.

Stuart Moore said...

For the record, I agree about the problem of the midlist book -- you're talking to the former writer of FIRESTORM, after all. In the Beat thread, I was responding to some more extreme statements about the impending death of single-issue comics and/or the industry. The topic had drifted a bit.

To Alan Brown: The big-anthology idea just doesn't work at DC and Marvel, for two major reasons. The big one is the "magic price point." You're assuming they could afford to publish ten to fourteen times the amount of material in magazine form for, at most, four times the price. It simply doesn't work that way, because the greatest component of a DC/Marvel comic's cost is creative -- the per-page cost of writing, art, lettering, and color. Those costs don't go down just because you bind the material between one set of covers.

(Indy comics work on a whole different economic principle...far less money paid to creators up front, potentially great rewards down the line.)

The other problem is that, honestly, a lot of readers don't want to be forced to buy, say, EXTERMINATORS to read FABLES. They're very different kinds of books, with different readerships. (No slight intended to either book.)

And Vertigo actually still sells a fair number of singles. Not as many as they used to, and not enough to make all the books profitable. But enough that they'd be crazy to pull FABLES out of that format.

Dan Coyle said...

Jason Aaron said on his message board re: Scalped (a good book IMO) that "the trade seems to be selling great, and that goes a long way with Vertigo." So take from that what you will. I'll take a dollar. Achachachachacha!

alan brown said...


I know no one puts too much stock in the monthly numbers, but they are the only ones available, and they are probably good in so far as looking at relative levels for various titles.
Anyway, looking back at August, Vertigo released 13 titles with average orders of 10.8k. Assuming that an all-encompassing anthology would, in the worst case, sell as many copies as Fables (25.5k), then DC would be giving up 27% of their revenue with a $12 anthology over the floppies.
That does kinda suck, but there must be some cost savings, however minor, in the anthology model, and I think the potential sales of said anthology might actually be much higher.
More importantly though, I don't see this as people being forced to pick-up extra books that they don't like. Essentially, if there are just 3 books that you love in a given month, then you are getting the other 8-11 books for the price of a single floppy, and who doesn't love a bargain?
Biggest benefit? People who only read Fables or Hellblazer get to see how amazing (and completely incomprehensible at this stage) 100 Bullets is, go back and start picking up 11 trades worth. Similarly, use it as a venue to preview large sections of uncoming OGNs, or classic Swamp Thing, Transmet, Sandman, Lucifer, etc...

At this stage, pamphlets at Vertigo must be unprofitable, or very close (they are getting about 13k/issue average to cover talent, printing, promotion, editorial, etc...), so why not swing for the fences?

Stuart Moore said...

I really don't want to be a giant wet blanket, but two reasons:

1. A DC/Marvel book with 250-300 pages of original material would cost about $30.00 minimum. And honestly, that's an optimistic assessment. The economies at work here are just WAY out of the scale you're thinking about. That's why original graphic novels are usually published these days in hardcover first -- at prices of $25-30 for far fewer pages than that.

2. Even if it did cost $10.00, what on Earth makes you think it'll sell as well as the best-selling Vertigo monthly? More likely it would be ordered in trade paperback numbers -- which means an initial ceiling of 10,000 copies, without a trade paperback's potential for reorders. And that strikes me as optimistic as well -- because again, people are going to see it as paying for material they don't want.

The general model of entertainment is toward specialization, away from the general-magazine model. The monthly comics publication is far from the perfect delivery model for books like this; everyone knows it. But there are worse.

Again, please don't take this as argumentative or anything -- I love this kind of discussion! But this particular idea keeps coming up, and it's just flat-out impossible because of the nature of DC/Marvel page rates.

Jog said...

There's a super-grocer/'market cafe' chain here on the east coast called Wegmans that actually does keep around 14 different blends of coffee going at their coffee bar, including various types of decaf...

I just had some brown rice tuna sushi there today, and it was ok... the food there ranges from really good to pretty meh, and it's all trial and error figuring it out...

Dick Hyacinth said...

Mr. Moore, while I've got you here--is there any situation where you can see an anthology working as anything more than a curiosity for Marvel or DC? I'd always thought that the major impediments were on the retail side (mostly that today's fans don't like them), but it sounds like there are a lot of potential problems with the format. Is there anything that can be done to offset the expense of creators' salaries? Like lesser quality paper, a B&W format, or more advertising? I'm talking hypothetically here, especially for that last possibility.

Bruce said...

I don't want to push the comparison too far, because I have a healthy respect for different markets being, well, different, but I work in the pencil-and-paper roleplaying game market and got to see the sales figures for various versions of supplements for White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade game. White Wolf vampires come in clans, and there were sourcebooks providing additional background and game goodies for each one. In most cases these came one per clan, but there were several cases where two or three clans would be covered together in a single volume.

Sales on those were way less than twice the sales for individual clanbooks, and often no more or even less than those. It's hard to do reliable market research with no budget :), but asking questions in various venues (online forums, conventions, etc.) and listening to customer feedback from various directions (e-mail to the company, overheard conversations in game stores, etc.) suggest pretty strongly that a lot of customers resented having big chunks of material they were unlike to use in their games in a book, even when that extra material wasn't driving up the price.

This is where I see some strong similarities with the superhero universes in comics. Gaming customers have a tendency to identify with their favorite character types - Brujah over Ventrue, wizard over fighter, whatever. And obviously the core constituency for superhero comics does likewise - Green Lantern over Batman, and so on. If I were in charge of preparing a supers anthology, I'd worry a lot about running into fannish reaction along the lines of "I will not buy this, even though I like titles A, B, C, and D, and it costs as much as individual issues of those four titles, because it is sullied and degraded by the presence of E and F. Take this loathsome thing away from me."

Which is pretty much what Stuart said about Exterminators and Fables, but I wanted to add a few actual data points.

Stuart Moore said...

Dick: If you're talking about a small-sized original anthology book like MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS or the various miniseries Axel Alonso edited at Vertigo in the late '90s (WEIRD WAR, etc.), then sure, those can work on a limited basis. The pricing isn't a problem. Here's what is:

1. The character and creative-team lineups change from issue to issue, so retailers have trouble gauging demand and readers may dip in and out depending on whether one of their favorites (character or creator) is featured.

2. For an editor, anthologies are approximately three times as much work to put together as regular books. You have to chase down a huge number of creators and make sure you have an exact page count that fits, every month -- while still maintaining a balance of new talent/superstars and big characters/minor players. It's a real headache. A publisher may decide it's not worth tying up that much of an editor's time; and editors themselves have been known to run screaming in the night from anthologies.

Stuart Moore said...

Oops, not quite awake yet: I just realized that isn't quite what you asked. In order: Differences in cost of paper grades is far less than it used to be, which is one reason most comics are printed on higher-grade paper than they used to be (though I admit I haven't kept up with this over the past five years). So you really don't save much money that way.

Black and white does save money, yes. But there's a stigma against it for direct market superhero comics. I love b&w comics, but I could understand a fan passing by the one b&w Justice League comic next to a huge array of color ones.

And advertising...I dunno. Again, it's a matter of scale. How much more can you really get? Enough to pay for a huge magazine, consistently, month after month? It's not my area of expertise, but nobody at DC or Marvel has ever been ready to take that gamble.

The late Lou Stathis, who had extensive magazine editing experience, tried to put together a Vertigo magazine while he was there. It would have been pretty cool, too; but it just died at the pricing stage. Not saying it can't be done, but it's kind of like trying to invent the wheel and market assembly-line Fords all at once. And given the state of the magazine market in general, I wouldn't want to lay all my money down there.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Oh, should have mentioned that the B&W format would be for something more Vertigo-ish. I don't think superhero readers are eager or willing to abandon full color.

So really, then, DM-dependent publishing has developed in such a way to rule out the anthology format. (I still think this would have been a viable option 20 or 30 years ago, but there really was no reason for Marvel or DC to switch formats at a time when newsstand sales were still pretty good.) It's all really just an academic exercise, since the online publication does basically the same thing as an anthology. At least for Marvel and DC, in my mind.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Moore,
Thanks for the continued insight. I hope no one minds me sticking my mostly-uninformed nose into this discussion. It's just that I love Vertigo and I worry about the way they are going.

I think what makes Vertigo different than Marvel or the DCU is that pamphlets are much less important to them as a revenue stream. Whereas at the latter two, collected additions are a small but growing portion of their revenue, I'd be fairly confident in suggeting that Vergito gets at least twice as much revenue from collected editions as it does from pamphlets (not "bet my life savings" confident, but educated guess confident).
So for Vertigo, the role of the pamphlet is less to make a profit (still important of course), and more to add material to, and advertize for the collected editions.

Even so, I'm sure it is difficult to justify continuation of a monthly series that is bleeding money every month, with uncertain future trade sales. I'm sure cancellation is a difficult decision to make - series that end before their time aren't going to be perennial sellers as trades.

Take Crossing Midnight. Great critical buzz, abysmal sales. No matter how well the trade sells, there will come a point where it is going to get the axe as it falls deeper and deeper below profitability as a pamphlet.

I guess my point is that for a trade-focussed imprint, the anthology would bolster trade sales in 2 major ways: by exposing readers to more material, and by allowing series like Crossing Midnight to find an audience.

As to the price point and potential sales - I guess I'm just imagining that even readers who had been buying just Fables and Jack of Fables every month would be willing to shell out $12 to continue their fix, paying an extra $6 for a bunch of extra, original material. The price at which profitablility is achieved would, I assume, be dependant on sales, and in any case the anthology need not be profitable on it's own to be a success.

Bruce said...

Dick: Yeah, it's one of those path-dependency things economists talk about sometimes. If Marvel or DC had started seriously supporting anthologies in the '70s, I think it likely would have worked. (A good launching point would have beeen X-Men or DC's space stuff, perhaps.)

Julio Oliveira said...

You know what is funny? Here in Brazil, the only comics that aren't sold on anthology format are Vertigo comics. I never brought, say, a superman comic that didn't had at least two more stories.

Some examples:

- Liga da Justi├ža Internacional (Justice League International): 1 justice league story, one Wild Dog story, two Suicide Squad Stories. 84 pages, October 90

- Superman: 98 pages (I believe 3 or 4 stories) of Superman and Justice League story. 160 pages, February 2000.

Nowadays most issues have between 84 to a 100 pages. The smallest issues I bought used to have 52 pages at least. They almost don't have ads.

Here in Brazil, you couldn't convince a comic book fan to buy a pamphlet even if his life depended on it, since thre is pratically none published (with the exception of some speciall issues like Kingdom Come or the Marvels mini) since the seventies. They cost between 10 to 15 reais, and when we consider the difference in the cost of living here and on USA, is would be like them costing 10 to 15 dollars there.