Sunday, 29 December 2013

Borderline Press Blog #11 - Time to Get Wise

What a year!

If you'd said to me ten months ago I would be back in comics, I think I would have thought you quite mad.

One of the important things about running a business is being able to separate it from your life and for far too long, especially during the late 1980s and 1990s, work was my life; comics and everything related was my world.

Now I have a sign stuck to my year planner, it reads: Forget the 'business', just concentrate on the business

In 2001, when Borderline Magazine was at its height, I began to upset people because I pretty much didn't have time for all of the prattling about. A person who has praised comics for being one of the most gregarious of occupations to be involved in had become a misanthropic old git. I even considered slipping into the background and never showing my head above the pulpit again, but one of my old friends said, "It's a tiny, tiny, part of British comics. For every twat like that you 'upset' there are 20 people who wouldn't know you from a hole in the ground and frankly don't give a shit."

We do get bogged down in individualistic 'obsessions' and we think mole hills are really mountains and if you can't develop a sense of scale then the only route is madness.

I still upset people, but I don't panic - it's not worth it. But, I tend to upset people who deserve it - I will not suffer fools or fuckwits, especially if it is to the detriment of my clients and my books (and I will suffer them for exactly the same reason).

Sales, especially on Zombre, have been far better than we can expect with little or no PR machine and even less retail penetration. In fact, once we get our act together and we start producing more titles, I'm inclined to think we have a fighting chance of making this work - it seems, for all my faults, my name is synonymous with 'quality' (heh).

2014 is going to be an interesting year. It's going to start late. There won't be any new books out in January and the only way February will see a new title is if we get something black and white that has so far eluded us and is ready to print. But March, April and May will see a lot of money go out and a lot more product on the shelves. By this time next year, I hope to be talking to you about the dozen books we have out and the new ones we have planned for 2015... and 2016...

You've had an idea what to expect in 2014 - well, you would have if you'd been paying attention - and it feels odd thinking about 2015, but it's only just a year and a bit away. I would like to think 2015 could be a year featuring pirates, some fantasy, some horror and humour... even more perfectly formed European gems and 2015 is also going to be the year of... The Rift...

Yes, we're doing a comic about a valley in Africa! It'll be The Lion King meets Friends; Madagascar versus Iron Man... Megasharkosaur versus Quantum Pig... it... won't be that at all. What it is is top secret and the people who know about it already have silent assassins watching their every move, listening to every thing they say, reading everything they write...

We're planning to do something awesome!

So, I need to get back to the final edits of Hunger House, check the print PDF for City of Crocodiles, lurk in the background while Will polishes his Beasts. I also need to plan for a busy January and February; it's not easy trying to please you all and not involve sex or drugs!

Have a fabulous 2014 and remember us when you get your wallets out!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Borderline Press Blog #10 - Sealed With A ...

Convention Season is now over and it's been replaced by Christmas - an important time for Borderline Press, but, if I'm realistic, it'll be far more important next year when we have more product available. But we made an impression and next year, hopefully, we'll make a splash!

SWALC IX - a fantastically-realised 'after con' con was extremely enjoyable, allowed the Zombre 'team' to meet more of its creators and we helped our profile yet again. Si Spencer's little gig is a big day out and you should try and get down for the next one - and it's free!

We're in a bit of a transitional period. I'm editing Hunger House  while waiting on print-ready PDFs for our other forthcoming release City of Crocodiles; Will is getting excited about Beasts and that isn't due until May and I have been toying with some ideas with  Borderline Press's enigmatic and anonymous benefactor... But, the current period of creative inactivity (all I seem to be doing is going to the post office, which in itself is a great thing, but now there's two books out there, I want more!) has got me thinking about the future and what else I want to do.

Spoko is a Polish word that, I believe, has become a commonly used bit of slang in many other European countries: it essentially means 'cool' and it is also the 'working' title of my latest idea. My dear old friend, Martin Shipp (who I have been rather horrid to recently) said many months ago that I don't want to be labelled 'the bloke wot does Polish comics' because, if you'll excuse the pun, it's likely to get us ghettoised, especially in the eyes of the rest of the comics world. The irony is I'm more likely to be called 'the bloke wot does Swedish comics', but I think we've touched on this before. The point is there is so much utterly brilliant stuff in Europe that I don't care if I get labelled as 'the bloke wot does European stuff', in fact, that would be ... Spoko.

Then at Thought Bubble, both Will and I had similar thoughts - what about a comic?

Now, neither get excited or underwhelmed; being a publisher now means that production costs are all important and I'm getting wildly different quotes for the idea I have and that makes the logistics slightly more important. If I got the thing printed in Hong Kong then everything would have a minimum of 10 weeks and those 2½ months are pretty important because I'd be producing #3 and #4 before I'd even see a copy of #1. It then might be a phenomenal flop, meaning I'd have a commitment to do at least four issues without knowing how it would be received. The problem is, if I took the printing to the UK the costs would double; I'd have a four week lead in and could pull the plug by #3... But...

Why am I thinking so negatively?

Actually, I'm not. It might seem that way, but you're getting a small insight into what goes on in my head when I haven't completely decided what I'm going to do next. Essentially with a limited budget I can't afford to take that many risks. As a publisher I have to think about the consequences of something being a massive failure almost more than if it's a massive success. It's being practical and it's allowing me the freedom to supply you guys with the best we can and enough of it. I'd hate for this project to fall on its face because we took too many risks and that's because we have some pretty awesome stuff planned a year down the line and I want you to see that; if I don't plan properly it won't happen.

Costs are all important. I need to be able to afford to do at least four issues of a comic; make enough money to cover Borderline Press's costs and then make enough money to pay everyone from the profits, and we're talking considerably tighter margins with a much smaller cover price.

Now, just to over-complicate things... A lot of the stuff that I envisage 'Spoko' having is extant - it exists already, it's just never been seen by a wider or British audience. This makes the production costs far more workable; the problem is one of the 'ideas' my benefactor and I talked about was a 'long-term project' or the plan to produce our own stories; which then means the dreaded 'work for hire' scenario, the one that a small guy like me is scared stiff of (for reasons we'll come to).

We would like to do an ongoing series - whether as a comic book or a series of graphic novels. We also have ideas for producing graphic novels using our own ideas (or those in the public domain). These ideas would not necessarily involve us (me, the benefactor or Will) in the creation process. However, employing people is expensive, unless there's a way round it and I think I can do that as long as I can manage some peoples expectations...

The major expectation is indeed that thorny issue - work-for-hire - and discussions about it, I expect, will rage on for a long time, in many different places and not just about comics creators, but musicians, scientists or anything else that requires someone to do something for you that is either speculative or others do not have complete faith in.

I have always been up front with creators about what Borderline Press's 'deal' is. It's simple; we pay for the production, we promote and sell it - it is my interests to sell it, so I will work harder than some self-publishers because this is my job and not an after-work hobby. If that appeals to the owner of a comic or graphic novel, we then work out a % deal to split the profits after costs are covered; a creator's share of the profits is more than we take.

I have said all along that because we don't have the budget to pay creators up front then we will be as transparent about the process as is humanly possible. All Zombre contributors have been promised a percentage of the net profits from the books and once the book has sold enough to cover its costs, then at three incremental points after that I'll be writing cheques out! The creators all knew the score when we approached them and they also know that they retained copyright of their respective stories, can re-use them again (down the line) and I will keep them informed on the 'state of play' at any given moment. The plan is to eventually have, especially for the anthologies, an on-line database that is accessible by contributors only, so they can see how the book they're involved in is selling, etc.

The other good thing about doing this kind of deal with creators is you get 20 extra PR people, because they all have a vested interest in selling the book they're involved in. I think there's a model there that works for all involved. Admittedly, profits are sometimes not going to be realised; but even I make mistakes - not everything everyone brings out is as good as the faith shown in it by publishers.

And there's the rub. There's the issue I'm hovering over. Small publishers are not big publishers. That is an obvious statement; an almost stupid one, but the thing is small publishers are filed in the same category as big publishers, especially by inexperienced creators (what experienced creators think of small publishers is a subject for another day).

In an earlier blog, I talked about the issue of work for hire and people being asked to do work for nothing. There was a lot of confusion surrounding this subject and a lot of heated arguments between the industry's 'small guys' and most of the arguments could have been avoided if semantics had played a part.

It usually starts with a creator, (or a musician) or someone creative being asked to do some work for a company and it usually ends up with the company suggesting the work is done for free for a number of reasons ranging from not having the budget to viewing the work you do for nothing as an advertisement for your skills and sometimes the work is actually done before the commissioner informs the artist of this 'change' in the deal. I'm not suggesting for a second that small publishers try this as often as conglomerates; but I do think every businessman in the world will try and get something for nothing. But... This is comics, this is not the domain of the 'get-rich-quick' chancer; people come into comics because they want to, not to become rich.

The realist in me says, we're all here to be ripped off, if it happens to you, learn from it, don't let it happen again, tell your community who ripped you off, but don't expect the next guy to be the same as the last. If someone is offering you work ask what they are paying; if they aren't paying anything but 'exposure' then tell them to fornicate themselves into death; but if they're offering something that might not be realised for a while, at least look at the offer. Some of Hollywood's biggest stars didn't get mega-rich from just starring in films, many of them got rich from taking a % of a film's profits...

What about small publishing houses like my own Borderline Press? I'm not big. I have a budget and with that budget I have to produce enough books and generate sales to be able to produce more books and all the time trying to run it as a proper business. I'm already taking a huge risk, so if I spend £X,000 on printing, publishing and promoting a book I'm already showing my faith in a project. It amazes me when you offer this to creators and they also want you to pay them for something that already exists, they want to retain copyright and have the lion's share of the royalties. Isn't doing all the things they couldn't be bothered to do themselves not faith enough? Isn't business about two (or more) entities working together for the benefit of both?

However, our intention is to publish other peoples stuff that already exists in one format or another, so 'back-end' deals tend to be much easier to negotiate. In most creators' eyes it's an unexpected bonus to be published in another country and if they're European being published in English is pretty much as cool as being printed in French.

Zombre is an exception to the usual rules, because it is a profit share book with all individuals retaining copyrights: I actually think this could very much be the way forward for small press publishing; especially if the small press creators can be as flexible with their terms and expectations as big publishers often are with big names. The problems arise when you start to apply what I was talking about above - producing comics with a Borderline Press copyright - and not having a budget to pay people who do the work for you.

There isn't an argument, really. It is everything, on face value, that I agree is wrong about people getting conned into working, potentially, for nothing. How can I agree 100% that people should not do work for big publishers for the 'exposure' alone, when I'm sort edging this blog towards that idea myself?

Borderline Press wants to create lines of titles or stories (and retain the majority of the rights) yet wants people to write and draw them, be edited and get paid x number of months down the line, if and when they sell out?

I wouldn't buy into that...

Well, not at face value. It depends what is being offered down the line and whether I think the gamble is worth it.

So how would I pay people if I can't pay them up front, but I want a quality product? Plus I would like professional contributors who understand deadlines. I really am not asking for much...

Everything ends up being a 'back-end' deal with me and if you don't know what one of those is, it is simply you get paid at the back end of the deal or when you reach a point where the book has stopped selling or has sold out and then the profits are divided as agreed prior to the release.

However, when I first started this business I did a deal with a friend of mine on her book proving that I can be flexible. I am 'creatively involved' in a project we're bringing out next year, I also 'own' the company, so I'd get Borderline Press's % plus 50% of the remainder of the profit. As co-copyright holder, I chose to offer my artistic partner most of my profit on the initial print run. The company will still get its share and I am the company... Do I need to explain this further?

And that seems to be a good starting point for what I'm proposing. I'm looking at producing four 64-page prestige format 'comics' which would feature some of the absolutely stunning short-form European stuff that has utterly blown my team and I away and also feature some newly originated stuff - four stories that might introduce you to the future of Borderline Press. These 'comics' would be quarterly and be produced across 2014 and ¾ of the content will already exist; there will be a straightforward profit deal put in place which will essentially reap rewards for the contributors if the 'comics' go into 2nd or 3rd printings. So far so standard.

The artist/writer on the new stuff would be offered the company's % of the net profits - similar to the deal mentioned above. Borderline Press would take its standard % but would forfeit the rest despite retaining copyright.

Of course, there is always the 15% deal. The writer/artist gets nothing up front, but is given a 15% stake in the character's copyright and would also be entitled to 15% of the book's eventual profits and then any future profits from any potential revenue source. This is the kind of thing that producers and major stars would take on films with small budgets but high hopes.

I would be interested in feedback, especially from creators who have either never done this kind of thing before or ones that have and what experiences have they got - good or bad.

I do know that professional writer Si Spencer (mentioned above) bought into our determination and openness and I really hope that Zombre is the huge success it deserves to be, so he can be paid along with every other contributor on the book, to prove that our back-end deals are worth the paper they're printed on and give others incentive enough to take the deal. Three weeks after release and I'm as happy as I expected, perhaps a touch more.

Borderline Press has a proper reason for existence: I actually just want what's best for everyone.

Live with it.