Monday, 28 July 2014

Borderline Blog #23 - Past Genius: Future Dilemma?

The trials and tribulations of publishing has ground me to a halt... Printer problems have meant the inevitable delay of Verity Fair and Spoko and while I have Jamie Lewis's Seth & Ghost book to play design games with, July has been something of a doldrums month. Last year it was all about getting stuff done, this year it's more businesslike and stress-intensive.

I'd said to Christian, our commercial manager, the other Monday, sitting in the local pub, planning a sales strategy (we don't just swan about, you know!) that my Social Network presence had dwindled in recent weeks purely and simply down to the fact that I a) don't want to just repeat myself and b) I still believe in the principle of 'quality not quantity' when it comes to the Internet (I mean, I have to have some standards with my reputation...).

Bombarding the Internet was something of a no-no when I were a younger man, nowadays it means nothing. Self-spamming is as acceptable as bum cleavage (some people like it, some are ambivalent and others thinks it's disgusting). Self-promotion (whether it's you or your company) on social networking sites is pretty much the largest part of any promotion now. Why throw good money after bad on advertising?

'Existence' has been the biggest hurdle for us. Gone are the days when there were just a couple of magazines clamouring for news stories and previews of forthcoming books. At least these 'old-fashioned news print' magazines had a dedicated fan base, a guaranteed audience (to be aware of your product even if they don't buy it); even if you get covered by the 'biggest' web sites, you have no way of knowing what the reach of your PR is. Plus there are so many. For every site I know about, someone tells me about two others. To use a SHIELD/Hydra analogy, cut one head off and two appear in its place.

The irony for me, an old magazine producer, is that despite the reluctance of the general public to want to buy a dedicated comics magazine, they were the most inclusive products for the promotion and dissemination of news and information. 

Take Comics International. It began in 1989, when comics were having one of their boom periods, started off as a freebie, went up to 30p, then 50p, but all the time giving coverage to what was a burgeoning market place then and considerably less flooded with product than it seems to be now. At its height, CI had a print run of 24,000 - that kind of print run today would constitute a success story for a niche magazine. Forget the design and production values; they really are irrelevant, because it's the information that was, pre-internet days, important.

The prompt for this article/blog post was the axing of Comic Heroes, the Future Publishing magazine, felt by many to be the last proper comics magazine (I count Multiverse or whatever it's called as an irrelevance) or at least the last breath of comics in a UK mainstream environment (other than cinema). I might be showing my lack of knowledge by saying this - there might be others out there I'm unaware of - but the point is the lack of focused publications could end up having a detrimental effect on comics publishing.

The problem is print magazines - news and information dissemination products - haven't just died, the ghost gave it up ages ago.

So how do you solve the conundrum of getting the maximum exposure from what's left out there?

The beauty of the internet is that it (should be) is all-encompassing and the freedom of expression it allows means that there are big, small, bespoke and clever websites out there either talking about comics, promoting their own comics or just trying to be a Comicbook Resources or a clever, on-line CI or Wizard and corner part of that all-important 'hit' market. The biggest problem and yes it actually is a problem is ... we are spoilt for choice.

For those of us who have been here forever, we will remember that comic fans in the '60s and '70s were either Marvel or DC fans (Charlton fans were looked upon as freaks of nature and underground comix fans weren't applicable). Then diversity arrived - a good thing - and as comics exploded, the Marvel v DC barrier became Marvel v DC v Indie and then that fragmented more and more until you had a situation where comics were literally more diverse than films (and then films cottoned onto comics).

One of the things Dez Skinn did at Comics International was mix the news up; by categorising news you are marginalising it. If you have Dark Horse news under a Dark Horse section then people who aren't interested in that publisher will skip that page - mix it up and people pour over every page looking for what interests them and, who knows, they might see something else that interests them that they might never have given house room to.

I talked about many aspects of working at Comics International over the years, but one I think I never touched on was how I felt used and abused... by comics publishers.

Not in the same way as I documented, but in the fact that we were something of the black sheep in the comics family. Dez had a reputation that literally put marketing executives at the big companies in a tizz. We got away with a lot of stuff that would have been sanctioned and frowned upon, but we were also the major source of promotion for them in what was effectively the 51st State in terms of revenue for US comics. DC's Bob Wayne and Patty Jerez used to admonish us regularly, but, you know, they were never nasty about it, because we served a purpose and we saved them money. In all the time I worked at CI, the advertising from the big four US comics publishers was less than I spent on advertising in CI when I had my comics shop. And this peed me off.

Being the more outwardly emotive of the two of us; I used to rail against the injustice of it all, while Dez, who had been around more blocks than me at the time, was more resigned. We were an extension of the big publishers; we were beholden to their unhappy words and yet we helped their sales and they gave us nothing. One company even asked for us to retract a story - a true story - or there might be repercussions for the artist, who they believed leaked the story. There was a lot of talk and some action in the late 1990s with DC taking the lead in legal actions against websites infringing upon their copyright. I don't think they realised that this was homage to and free promotion for them. But, the internet was still in its infancy and people didn't know what they were doing; DC had never really known what they had been doing, but...

The comics magazine did something that the Internet doesn't and possibly doesn't want to do - offered balance. Now the comics community is so fragmented that it straddles many areas and has created thousands of micro-communities. It creates localised success stories and more importantly, because of the fragmentation, it is now choosy. We prioritised news stories at CI based on a number of factors; but if something was dropped, we'd find a home for it in the In Brief column, or find a way to work a story up somewhere else - we did, in an unbelievably altruistic way for the people involved, everything we could to promote as much as we could. Dez didn't want to alienate anyone (apart from the small press) and that meant creative ways of promotion for people who probably didn't know or if they did rarely appreciated it.

A Google search still brings up millions of pages related to comics - that's, in a way, millions of micro-comics magazines, aimed at everyone, but actually read by a range from no one to many thousands (and do you trust a website that says it has 50,000 hits any more than you trusted Dez when he told you CI was read by 40k plus people). Borderline Press gets exposure, on some sites, but others... I can only speculate as to why not, but, to repeat myself, when you have 10,000 little fanzines catering to loyal audiences, on average, in their hundreds you either have to have something universally brilliant or be Marvel Comics.

Oddly enough, just this evening I was told about a number of rock music websites in Europe and the USA that essentially say to people that are not well known, "How much are you going to give us to review your album?" And that doesn't even include a guaranteed good review, just a review - full stop. Apparently, there is no way of determining, independently, whether this process is even cost-effective or productive. That is the freaky power of a tool that 10 years ago a 1 megabyte document was too big to download without incurring potential bankruptcy and nowadays you can download things that are nearly 1000 times larger than the first computer hard drive I ever had. That was a 286 with 20mg of hard drive that had been doubled up to 40mg. Windows 3.1 worked on about 3.5 meg. I had far more rudimentary understanding of computers (and comics) then than I do now.

But, I digress. I don't see a magic wand solution to this problem. All-encompassing web sites; claims from places to 'have it all' - whatever you can think of, by whoever you can think of, will still have more people not visit their page as will; and some who do won't like it and will tell their friends, because as we all know at the moment, negative word of mouth seems to have more resonance than positive. If Fred Bloggs recommends a film he doesn't know what he's talking about, but if he hates it, he's the leading expert!

The sad truth is I have to work five times harder to get 25% of the coverage someone like me would have got in 1994. There is also more product, less readers and an exponential explosion in potential ways to become a star, but like the promise of a Nigerian Prince's money laundering needs, all just as (in)effective in selling their ideas to others.

So, no this wasn't a long-winded way saying I was going to bring Borderline Magazine back. I wouldn't be that stupid; and I couldn't find someone that stupid with that kind of money. The age of the actual physical evidence of success through available coverage is long gone. I'd encourage anyone trying to do something to unify this industry's disparate information dissemination; but that would have to be something bloody brilliant and would appeal to 98% of the fans and 100% of the important fans who influence others' choices. I always say to my mate that the idea of fixing a sport match - like football, baseball, cricket or basketball - isn't about bribing or blackmailing one person; it's about either the entire team or the majority of that team who would then have avoid ever letting slip what they had done and any good CSI viewer will testify, the more people involved in a crime that involves conspiracy, the quicker it unravels. Good ideas in the coverage of comics are like illegal practices in real life - good on paper but start to fall apart when the theory becomes practice.

Until something new comes along that can polarise comics again, I'm witnessing something odd and against the grain - more quality product from independent publishers than I've ever seen before struggling for exposure, while, in other places, truly woeful superhero stuff selling quantities that could ensure an independent comics creator could eat for a year. Watch Mike Judge's film Idiocracy and decipher the true message behind all the slapstick...

Moving on...

Revised Convention Schedule for 2014:

August 2nd - Birmingham, ICE (exhibiting)
August 30th - Melksham (visiting)

September 13/14th - Bedford, NICE (exhibiting/book launch - Spoko)

October 4th - Nottingham (hopefully exhibiting)
October 17 to 19th - Kendal, Lakes Comic Festival (exhibiting/book launch -Santa Claus versus the Nazis & Verity Fair)
October 18th - Leamington Spa Comic Con (exhibiting/book launch - Santa Claus versus the Nazis & Verity Fair)

November 15/16th - Leeds, Thought Bubble (exhibiting/book launch - Seth & Ghost, Robotz + another)

There will also be a Verity Fair signing up in the North-East shortly after it comes out. Terry will be there with actual copies of the book... 

Come over and see us at any of these, or drop us a line. I've been known to give generous discounts to people I remember or recognise! Well... maybe not that generous.


We're dispensing with using Amazon. There are people in and around our team who feel this is cutting off our noses to spite our faces, but I think if we want you guys to think we're ethical then the best way of going about it is to behave like it and not be seen to help swell the coffers of a company that does not pay Corporation Tax in the UK and keeps much of its business investments 'off-shore' to avoid paying any taxes at all, all while paying its staff minimum and Zero hour contracts and offering them no rights at all. I just hope people who might have bought our stuff off of Amazon will feel safe buying it direct from us (our World Pay facilities are pretty cast iron) or at any of the shops that stock our books - give your local comic shop the profit, not some faceless corporation who couldn't give a flying fart about you or yours.


Added to the schedules in the last few weeks for definite are: story(cycle) by Kathryn Briggs; Spoko #2 and I'm hoping to seal a deal with artist Maia Fjord for her children's comic; I've been procrastinating on sealing the deal on another Polish book - mainly because I'm worried they might say no.

I'm looking for an artist(s) to work with writer Gord Drynan on two stories for further issues of Spoko. One is a story about singing 'aliens' and the other involves a knowledge of drawing trees and undergrowth and not much else.

We have an 80-page horror script that needs a suitably dark and evocative artist...

And anything that we're looking for is still on a 'back end' deal basis. I can't afford to pay people up front, especially if they themselves are unknown quantities; but as everyone else who has come with us has found out, if we sell books out you get a damned sight more. Hollywood actors sometimes take a % of a film's profits - think of doing art for a Borderline Press project in 2015 as being like that. I'm not asking you to do anything for nothing or future exposure - I want to pay everybody, but I need to make the money on that project before that can happen. One day, maybe, but for now I just want to get as many good books out into your hands as possible.

Let's hope the second half of the summer can top the first half!