Thursday, 15 May 2014

Borderline Press Blog #20 - the FCBD Rant

While I'm on one...

Anyone who read my serialised autobiographical expose of comics - My Monthly Curse - will know that I have little time for specific areas of the comics industry. One of the frustrating things about getting Borderline Press into comic shops has been lack of knowledge about our product and another reason is the fact we're not being carried by a distributor (my choice). As an ex-retailer, I find most comics publishers do not support retailers and distributors are like certain kinds of politicians, they are not interested in the future, so the 'help' they offer is not really help at all, it is just a devious way of ensuring they get paid.

Growth, for the people who make and deliver the comics that makes their world tick, needs to be immediate, you can't nurture things - it's too slow. Therefore not only did distributors become unpopular with retailers, they were also deliberately responsible for the loss of hundreds of comic shops between 1993 and 2000. They wanted to supply megastores and the small guys could go and be anatomically impossible with themselves. That retail devastation also angered many fans shorn of their Local Comic Shops, and where subsequently left to the vagaries and peculiarities of mail order.

The problem was that most didn't know or weren't aware that it was the people producing and delivering the comics, they loved, who were also responsible for Fat Larry's Comics and Porn in Wibley, West Virginia, closing down and every other store ran by an enthusiastic amateur (who might one day become an astute retailer - because, it does happen, I know quite a few of them).

It has always galled me that the retailer - the lifeblood of publishing - is and was abused in such a way by the people earning a living from them. It sat uneasily with me at how these distribution businesses could just so brazenly discard money making opportunities and now after ten years of avoiding comics like the plague, I'm back and it's still pretty much the same as it was before.

The 1990s have become an almost forgotten decade in popular culture (compared to the '60s, '70s and '80s), but for comics it was the decade when comics publishers discovered big business, commerce and commercialism and how to make more money than they believed was possible. Comics discovered Mammon.

In 2014, there are predominantly big, but there are small, 'comic' shops - there are the chains and the small guys (and gals) who have been striving away, despite the best efforts of publishers and distributors trying to kill them off. You still pay for Point of Sale items; you still pay for any kind of retailer support that is physically produced (they might even charge you for virtual stuff too) and there is even this thing called Free Comic Book Day, which actually isn't free but involves the giving away of comics.

I got behind FCBD because I thought it was something to help spotlight comics to the uninitiated... Bloody hell, how out of touch was I? It is actually organised by the leading distributor and if you are a retailer and you want to give away free comics - they'll cost you. Actually, if you want to give away free comics and you're not a big publisher it will cost you.

Retailers have to buy the comics they're giving away and they have to pay the distributor for delivering them and then they have to ensure they have paid up and registered to be able to use the logo, designed by the distribution company, who have a vested interest in the future of comics, or you can't be part of their (lucrative) FCBD. Once all these have been met and only then, can they give these comics to possible customers who will actually put more money into the accounts of the people supplying than the people selling!

You might need to read that again - it is correct.

Most comics shop spend between £250 and £1000 on FREE COMIC BOOK DAY! Most publishers produce a bunch of stuff for FREE COMIC BOOK DAY! But the distributor; the organisation that depends on the publisher and the punter being happy - will screw you to the floor with narrow-minded short-termism. FREE COMIC BOOK DAY my arse!

Can you image what would happen if farmers charged Tesco £3 for a 5kg bag of potatoes (instead of the 30p Tesco really pays for them)? The exact opposite applies in comics - it's an industry where the supplier and the courier are better rewarded than the person selling. I know, I'm bloody obsessed about it... But I can't think of another retail industry where that would happen - if you know of one, put me out of my misery!

So, I decided to do the free comic for FCBD; I was going to distribute it on May 3rd; I was going to send it out to retailers for free and with a note asking them to please give this to the people you think might like our books... and I got asked not to...

The company behind FCBD said:

It had an unauthorised use of their logo (fair enough).
We had not registered to be part of it (huh?)
We do not have an account (no and we're not likely to have one at this rate)
We have not had their approval for the contents of our free comic (and they were never going to get it as long as I have a hole in my anus)
It is not available outside of the UK in physical form (huh, again?)
It is forbidden to depict minors as Cthulhu children with octopus tentacles (okay, that was a lie)
There were a couple more, mainly to do with my sarcasm probably...

The point is - they were not making any money from me. They had no control over the content. They really did not like the idea that we were not only giving it away - FREE - but also shipping it ourselves - FREE. Our little FREE comic book in many ways proves what a misnomer FCBD really is  and was - another way for the suppliers and their delivery boys to rape the retailer while making the retailer think that it has been a success.

Surely the idea of a FCBD is to be given free comics, freely distributed, for comic shops to give away in an attempt to attract new (and old) readers into comic shops to buy comics which ultimately lines the pockets of all links in the chain. Where is the economic sense of what is currently happening unless the retailers haven't got any power at all over it and can't stop it, because they're all independent...

Wow, that's really truly stupid business practice; not by the shops or fans, but by everyone else associated with comics.

Anyhow, we took the logo off (as 3000 of you are aware) and I think they did us a BIG favour. I'd like my publishing company to be associated with such a great idea, but this is a great idea that hides a multitude of business sins and is just a new way of looking the gift horse in the mouth and extracting another tooth. Borderline Press will produce free comics, when it is economically viable, and do you know what? We'll continue to give them away and ship them to comic shops, at our cost. We may never be a big company, but I want retailers to know that someone is really on their side.

So, please be aware that this is actually a rant at the mechanism not the machine - I've worked in comics at a time of boom and also bust - when you had to speculate to try, almost forlornly, to accumulate the money lost from the last speculation. I was vaguely aware of FCBD when it started, but at the time I was in a place so far away from comics that only the barest remained. The idea of free comics is great - free things make audiences; free things work.

Remember Comics International? First six issues - Free. Then a nominal price that many shops didn't charge; because even giving away 30p was something the customers appreciated and it was a good intro to comics for the uninitiated. Having seen that work, I have a soup├žon of admiration for the hierarchy of comics because since the advent of the Direct Market, the you-don't-get-anything-for-nothing policy is still working - so what do I know? I know it's like an extra tax for retailers and the ones who manage to overcome this spiteful practice are bloody good at what they do; they have to be.

The Borderline Press free comic cost a fair bit to produce (but nowhere near what that Mouse Guard hard back cost), to give as many people as possible a chance to see our brilliant books and then buy them so I make money, the retailer makes money and the creator of the book makes money. Goddamn it, I know that's ridiculously altruistic and I sound like some pinko liberal 18 year old with a penchant for manga and squeezing spots, but it's what me and my accountant came up with when we did the business plan.

I'd happily tell retailers how much I pay the same printer several top US publishers use (and those US publishers are getting prices heaps cheaper than me) and how between them, they're using retailers to fund their yachts, holiday mansions, cocaine and prostitute habits. I would like retailers to support my books, either through the 50% discount scheme we offer (that's 15% more than you-know-who will ever give you and our terms are more generous), or because they see me putting my money where my mouth is and delivering the quality I'm banging on about.

Borderline Press - supporting retailers; doing what's right for creators; trying to make everyone happy (some of the time).

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Borderline Press Blog #19: Sturm und Drang

I'm not forming a German arts movement (although sometimes I think it might mean less work). What I am trying to do is think up a new raison d'etre for Borderline Press; well, not really a reason, more a 'catchphrase' or encapsulating sentence that tells people unfamiliar with the product what they need to know about Borderline Press.

This, almost pointless, discussion was one of many we had at Bristol Comics Expo on Sunday afternoon. We had to do something because it was either that or violently attack the organisers...

Let's look at the weekend in general: the weather at times was horrendous meaning the people known as the '501 Troop' had to battle more than just ridicule for looking like pantomime refugees from a bad George Lucas dream. No, let's be fair to these poor sods - they braved howling wind, lashing rain, falling masonry and some of Bristol's less deserving twats to promote a comics festival that essentially didn't need promoting because if you weren't registered, you weren't coming in!

No, it wasn't so busy that promoting it would have caused problems. You needed to have already bought your ticket to get through the door. If you were a member of the public, curious to see why all these brightly coloured (and black or white) costumes were descending onto a slightly dodgy modern hotel in the centre of Bristol, you were shit out of luck. If you were a local comics fan or had maybe heard about the event and travelled up to buy Borderline Press books or get Michael Golden's autograph, you were also shit out of luck.

Some bright spark in the Bristol Comics Expo organisation committee decided that making it an all-ticket affair would be a great idea. I'm wondering if the Future Inn had put a limit on how many people were allowed in, because I cannot believe even the most earnest of convention organisers would have willingly turned people away while the people financing their event, up on the SIXTH floor, were struggling to cover their costs.

Here's an example of a conversation I heard between an incredibly disgruntled stall holder and an utterly-out-of-her-depth organiser/helper:
"Why are you turning people away?"
"They don't have tickets."
"Let them pay at the door."
"We haven't got the facilities to do that."
"I have. Let me give you a box with a float, you can charge people to come in and maybe some of them will spend some money rather than just walk around posing in their manga costumes."
"We can't do that."
"There's about 50 people upstairs. I've barely taken enough money to cover my table costs and you're turning people away?"
This was Sunday about 2pm and because of the cramped space the dealers were forced into, 50 people was probably an exaggeration on the dealer's part.

Considering the massive success we had the week before at the book launch at Close Encounters in Northampton; we went to Bristol with a mixture of confidence and (for me) trepidation. I set my expectations low, to offset any disappointments - my low expectations were not even met...

It had nothing to do with us. I spoke to about 50% of the dealers and exhibitors and I heard two bits of positive feedback in terms of monetary gains; everyone else thought the weekend was a massive disaster. One of the three back issue dealers there, packing up at 4pm on the Sunday, said to me and Chris: "We took over £2000 last year; we've done less than £800 this year and that has paid for the tables and our weekend costs - we have made no profit at all, this just isn't a profitable convention!" This man was extremely pissed off.

One of the 'star' guests admitted to me that he'd had more people ask him who he was than requests for signed books or sketches; Arthur Suydam (the Zombie King and for me man behind the brilliant 70s strip Cholly & Flytrap) was telling me how he's still a student even after all these years and showed me all the sketches he'd been doing in between the lack in interest most of the attendees had for his (or anyone else's) stuff. While another of the guests made me wonder who he'd slept with the actually get a job in comics, because with one exception his stuff was rank amateur; this was a guy who would have benefited with practising a little as well...

The 6' by 2' tables weren't. The aircon was never on. There were no windows to open. There was enough room behind the tables for one person, most tables had two, with the next aisles also having to share the same space. If you'd have wanted to swing a cat behind the tables, you would have first struggled to fit a cat in there. Only two of the three lifts were working and therefore the queues for them - because only the fittest of humans fancied doing the six floor hike - was horrendous. To be fair, if I really wanted to be horrid about this event, I could list pages of things that were done incredibly badly, but I suppose the one thing that really struck home to me was how it was a comics convention with the only emphasis on comics kept to a minimum in favour of making a huge deal about the people who had braved Bristol's foul weather dressed like nothing on Earth...

We covered our convention costs, but probably lost a fair bit of money on the weekend. We did give away over 300 free comics and we talked to some good people and some excellent people were tempted to buy our books. Ben Dickson (Santa Claus v the Nazis writer) was with us all weekend and his help was invaluable and we learnt so much about what we might be doing wrong (in the presentation area) - because we're still new and lightweight and learning about stuff like this now. We might have a tentative deal for a book written by Cardiff-based Sam Roads (who was very concerned about my much-publicised on Twitter toothache) and I made several new friends who had varying different talents from artists to letterers to people who I just liked because they were good people.

Don't get me wrong. On the journey back, Christian and I were disappointed by the turnout and the lack of fiscal reward, but we also saw the enormous benefits from the networking and meeting and talking to people. We figured it was the best place to cut our 2014 convention teeth and make sure we don't repeat any of the mistakes we might have made. So, despite my curmudgeonly persona and (as a Spurs supporter) tendency to embrace doom and gloom, we saw enormous positives from the weekend; sadly it was despite the convention not because of it...

***

Ben Dickson's forthcoming Santa Claus versus the Nazis book got the most attention, with people taking pictures of the promo poster and talking to us about it's impending arrival. We were all of the opinion had it been released for Bristol it would have probably been the best-selling book at the convention (that award went to Porcelain and with very good reason). This raised an interesting question for me to ponder - why are some books more successful than others in different parts of the country...

At the Close Encounters book launch, we struggled to sell any Zombies Can't Swim and despite it being a lovely, self-contained little book - cheap as well - we sold just one copy at the book launch. Zombre sold very well at the book launch, yet at Bristol, ZCS sold well and Zombre sold just one??? This was why we were discussing Borderline Press's reason for existing. I've always believed that even in the UK you have regional variations; when I wrote Movers & Shakers for years, I'd sometimes get feedback from, say, Scotland suggesting that what was hot in London or Northampton wasn't necessarily in Glasgow. This gave me the altruistic ideas, at the time, to try and build a retailers back issue network, where retailers could swap and/or sell their stock to other regions: if Edinburgh needs X-Men and Swindon needs Batman and both have a surplus of what the other needs ... It's not rocket science.

However, despite retailers all being full of camaraderie, they really actually hate each other and will fight for the last penny, if necessary. Two retailers could drink at a bar, swap change and cover for each other at a convention, but if it comes down to helping the competition make money, even if it meant cutting off their own noses to spite their faces, it wouldn't happen; you would have more chance of getting the original Beatles to have a reunion.

But, when one zombie themed book sells and the other doesn't and then the exact opposite happens 115 miles away, you have to seriously wonder if there are regional variations with more eclectic books.

***

What is Spoko?

The ever-present (and prescient) Ben Dickson had a problem with the title and how to pronounce it and therefore wondered if we were alienating possible customers because of my insistence for keeping the title.

Spoko means COOL. It is a Polish word that has been adopted by a lot of European countries, the same way as some idiots in this country still say 'cool beans' when agreeing with something.

It is, as far as I know, pronounced: SPO rhymes with OH. KO rhymes with OH. SPOH-KOH = SPOKO.

The first issue of Spoko is called Birds. Therefore the first issue is really called... COOL BIRDS and a cool bird isn't an angry or flappy one...

Yes, I agree that people might look at Sebastian Skrobol's logo and think, "What the fu...?" But equally, knowing comics fans, they'll say, "What does Spoko mean?" And before you know it you have a dialogue going with a potential customer. I believe having an unusual name for something can sometimes generate more 'interest' than if I'd called it 'The Borderline Press Anthology Comic'.

The first issue is almost finished. I need to send Seb the blurb for the back cover and tidy up the inside 44 pages and it will be joining Verity Fair at the (new) printer.

***

Another book that was generating a lot of noise at Bristol was Jamie Lewis's Seth & Ghost - the inclusion of the Zombre story as a full colour free comic strip was, I believe a bit of a master stroke by moi, because it is vivid, very four-colour and was the thing that got us talking to the cosplay fans.

This is also a book that's released in the autumn - whether it's out for The Lakes or for Jamie's home town Thought Bubble, I can't accurately tell you at the moment, but whenever it comes out, I think it's going to make someone a star...

***

So what is our raison d'etre? Do we have a sentence that encapsulates Borderline Press to anyone still not fortunate enough to have heard of us?

I'd never thought about this as a sound-bite before. The website lists what we want to do and what I'd like to achieve, but the closest we've come to a catchphrase is 'quality over quantity' - which sounds like something from an expensive DIY retailer or a Heston Blumenthal restaurant.

Borderline Press wants to publish the best Europe has for the creators who aren't as recognised or recognisable as their over-inflated US counterparts? Nah, that's typically inflammatory from me; but it is correct in its suggestion - we do want to publish great books, predominantly from unknown creators, to give them an audience and help us continue the work (which I started back in Borderline Magazine's Drawing Board features). I'm looking at Europe because there is a wealth of untapped talent out there; but equally, I'm getting interest from great - unknown - people in the UK and USA.

Christian, my new assistant, was reading this monster opus from a US creator and could not get over just how brilliant and quick it was to draw him in. "Are we doing ### #######?"
"Dunno, it's through an agent and agents haven't got the same ethics we hope people will see we've got."
"That's a real shame, this is really good and deserves an audience."
"Then it will, even if it's with someone else."

Then why did we do some zombie books?

Because, having been out of comics for 10 years, the idea of producing a zombie anthology seemed to be a no-brainer. It was a no-brainer - the wrong way round...

Don't get me wrong. Zombre is our current best-selling book. The problem was Kim Herbst's lovely, funny and very female-friendly Zombies Can't Swim came out hot on Zombre's heels and suddenly people thought we were a zombie publisher and the baby Dennis Wojda on the cover of 566 Frames was really something utterly horrific. From a business POV, I wince at this bad scheduling on my part. Kim was more than happy for me to publish her, I could have waited a few months and barely anyone would have thought we were just trying to jump on TWD's coat tails. Which to a certain degree we were and that will teach me to try and jump bandwagons.

So that's why I think Borderline Press needs a blunt and pithy mission statement.

***

My final observation from the weekend was thanks to a (I'm not being sexist, Ben) gorgeous young (blonde and attractive, in case she's reading this) lady who came back to the table on Saturday afternoon and bought 566 Frames using the last £12.56 she had in her pocket. She had returned three times to look at it and tentatively talk to the dull looking middle-aged men trying to sell them. I finally realised that she wanted the book but didn't have the cash, so did a deal with her.

"I'd love to buy this [Hunger House] and this [ZCS] because it's clear that you're a female-friendly publisher." And, do you know, I could have taken £12.56 all weekend and that would have pleased me more than being given the opportunity to have no-questions-asked-sweaty-sex with Karen Gillen (which, incidentally, I haven't ever had the opportunity... yet).

We are, essentially, a female friendly publisher! We publish women and we mainly want to publish books that will appeal to women as much as they will for men.

I said to Christian, driving back yesterday, that we can't really go round saying or claiming we're a female friendly publisher because it's really something a female has to say. Two men with the combined age of 96 are probably going to struggle to convince people that they're not superhero fans, but, a woman said this to me and by the end of the year we'll have published: Loka Kanarp, Kim Herbst, Joanna Sanecka, Sylwia Restecka, Agata Bara, Chrissy Derbyshire, Joanna Karpowicz, and a couple more that I can't talk about, so not to jinx anything. Also, I've agreed in principal to publish one of Leonie O'Moore's projects in 2015 and the majority of the books we have out or have coming out will appeal to women as much as men.

Verity Fair is created by a man, but is all about women. Seamonster is very much the kind of thing women would be happy to have on their book shelves. And, do you know something, I don't think this fact hinders us at all. You could say that I'm alienating my own gender, to this I say, you can't alienate quality and if they can't see that they can stick with their superheroes a spandex.

So... In conclusion: Bristol Comics Expo was a bit of a load of shite. They shouldn't do one again for a few years, or let someone who has a clue run it. In terms of Borderline Press getting out there, we gave away 300 free comics, talked to many people and our name is becoming far wider known; so as a PR exercise we can't really complain. As a worst case scenario, we were pleased it was the first con of the year, because we will not make the same mistakes again and will go to Leicester in June with a new look and topless dancing girls and a selection of Chippendales dressed as Deadpool...

...