Monday, 15 September 2014

Borderline Press blog #25 - NICE work

Despite meteorological summer being over, I can't help feeling that the weather doesn't know it yet. I'm of the opinion that summer is not a good time for British comics. That opinion has been proven since the 1950s - traditionally the Brits go on holiday. It used to be the time - August specifically - when factories had their 'fortnights'. It is still a time of the year when we see a high proportion of repeats on TV. I'm not arguing with people; it might not be quiet in the USA, but in the UK, it is.

Borderline Press has had a pretty woeful summer, as detailed in the last blog, but things have pretty much been back on track since the end of August. There have been unavoidable problems; like switching printer's at a point when I thought they were doing the job, they were sending me an email saying they did not want to do it because of the problems they had with the previous jobs. So we lost 2 weeks because of that fiasco and it left me thinking and wondering how and why business ever gets done anywhere, but then I remembered how life got in the way of my summer.

It was good to put the summer behind us and go the 15 or so miles down the road to Bedford (in Bedfordshire) for the 3rd annual (or is it 4th? I'm old now, I can't always remember who you are) NORTHAMPTON Intercontinental Custard Experiment or whatever the meaning of the acronym NICE means - possibly something to do with 'comics' and 'international', I would like to hazard a guess what the E stands for but knowing Jeff Chahal as well as I do it could equally stand for 'erection' as 'expo' or 'exhibition'.

I posed a very interesting hypothetical hypothesis on Sunday to artist extraordinary (a keen fan of both Godzilla and Tony Stark) Simon Coleby (he was unofficial celebrity artist in residence at my shop), had I opened Squonk!! in Northampton as I had initially planned, the retail comics landscape of the area might be drastically different and there might never have been a NICE con. It's a thankless task, organising a comics convention (especially when I'm going to be there, with my track record of being scathing about certain events, recently). I'm not sure I'd do one, even if I could do one the way I'd want; I'm beginning to think it takes a special kind of madmen to do this shit.

The man with the pony tail could
have been a cosplay Terry Wiley!
I went to NICE last year, for a few hours on the Sunday; I was setting up the company, gearing up for 566 Frames's launch and was there to basically talk to potential creators. I thought there were more people there last year on the Sunday than this and that's pretty much as far as my criticism of NICE 2014 goes.

My expectations have been lowered enormously over the last few months. There have been pretty clear reasons, other than the expected ones; mainly to do with the fact that we're still relatively unknown; we still don't have that much product out, and comics conventions - a large percentage of them - are attended by people more inclined to what we like to call 'mainstream' or spandex.

I've mentioned how I think Borderline Press is a female-friendly publisher, well over 75% of all of our sales, at all conventions, have been to women and that was reinforced at NICE. I wasn't expecting to take a lot of money; I was expecting to talk to people, give more free comics away, do a bit more schmoozing and generally improve the brand name. The reality of the weekend is that is exactly what happened and three quarters of our sales were to people of a female gender.

The view from behind the table on Sunday
In terms of takings, I'm happy to admit we took £5 more than we did at Bristol - the big difference being the overheads were considerably lessoned. In real terms that isn't particularly spectacular amount and we'll only probably cover our costs, but many people today were looking for the new books (more of which later) and knew the company name. It made me feel as though we're known now, so it's just a matter of time before Marvel is quaking in its Disney shaped boots!

The Sunday was, as I said, in my opinion, quieter than last year (contrary to what I was told by several of the 'staff') and I'm of the opinion that I could easily have not bothered going. I would have missed out on just five sales, but I'm of the opinion that the five recipients will be happy we did turn up and I reckon they'll come back for more.

I heard several complaints from people. A number of artists took barely any money; people weren't spending a lot on original artwork, sketches were popular, but I saw many people sat twiddling their thumbs at times. One of the dealers suggested the event was too similar to last year's and it needed a lot of different guests - I can't pass judgement on this or even comment on it because I don't do these things for the guests specifically. It was suggested to me that NICE is just an excuse to invite Jeff Chahal's friends - well, if it is then what's to criticise?

Another dealer, who had a reasonable weekend, told me that at most 'provincial' conventions they expect to take considerably less than they do at something like LFCC or MCM; he urged me to try and book into one of these mega-shows with 20,000+ through the door, where taking can be 10 times as much. The problem with these are the percentage of comics fans who attend who would want to read Borderline Press's eclectic line; if 20,000 come through the door and 17,000 don't do comics and of those remaining 3000, 85% don't do or buy indie comics or books... and those that do might be looking for someone else... when you factor in all the variables and probabilities, my projected best-case-scenario take would be commensurate with what I took this weekend, which would mean the only reason worth doing these massive shows would be PR. I'm not convinced, still, that these big cons would equate to much more than a hot, sweaty and exhausting weekend (but with no orgasm at the end).

Bedford at night (photo by Simon Coleby)
However, let's get back to Bedford because it really is a bit of a tiny jewel on the landscape. Bedford feels much bigger than it really is - this has a lot to do with the one-way system that was introduced about 40 years go and still confuses the locals. It has a bit of a 'you can't get there from here' feel to it, but because of the architecture and olde-worldy feel to the town centre, you don't mind going two miles to get to something 100 yards away. Seriously, my home town - the much-mythologised Northampton - could learn a thing or two about utilising its town centre the way Bedford does. Like the Leicester Comic Con, the location of the Bedford Corn Exchange put it smack dab in the middle of this nice little town, therefore there was the feeling the convention was taking place in a bustling place and that statement brings me to my gripe - not a complaint, barely a criticism (because I understand why).

I don't want to think of myself as Dan Mallier's muse, but the organiser of the forthcoming Leamington Spa comic con - an event where the two most famous people attending are Al Davison and some big-nosed has-been called Phil Hall - had many of my ideas for conventions already in place and he took on board the one thing I now believe is imperative for all conventions, if they are going to continue to be colloquial events - you have to allow the general public in - for nothing - after the paying customers have done a couple of hours of exclusive access.

The organisers of Leicester Comic Con did it; allowed Joe Public in for free a couple of hours after the show opened and the upshot was simple... At Bristol and most obviously with Birmingham, once the paying punters have done what they want the dealer/exhibitor rooms become graveyards with just the 'deal hunters' doing any business. My belief is if you have a room with people in it, there is the potential to do some business - maybe even persuade a new visitor as to why comics are a good hobby - and even if you take no money, there are potential customers that are in the room - if they're not in the room then you don't stand any chance.

Leam Con's Dan intends to open the doors to the general public from 3pm; that's two hours that are usually dead air at cons that will have new eyes looking at things, asking questions, being inquisitive and maybe spending some cash and surely while the creators and guests and paying customers deserve respect; they are not the people who pay for tables and contribute a large percentage of the cost covering. Too often in the last year (and not ironically during my last period of convention going) I've seen or heard about the last hours of any convention being one tinged with anger and acrimony about the poor day had and the lack of attendees.

Jeff Chahal did this when NICE was held in a tent at Wickstead Park in Kettering, but dropped the idea when it moved to Bedford Corn Exchange - costs and fear of reprisals from paying punters were his main reasons. I think it might also have a lot to do with health and safety, but that's based on a gut feeling more than anything else. I harped on at Jeff a lot about making his convention open to the hoards, but he resisted. I wonder if he might reconsider the idea after seeing what the main hall was like at 2pm on Sunday afternoon.

I will, however, declare NICE 2014 a success. I had a great time and the Chahal brothers know how to organise a great event, almost... It probably does deserve a bigger platform, because while Bedford isn't hard to get to, it reminds me a little of the ultimate reason why I opened Squonk!! in Wellingborough rather than waiting for the right property to come along in Northampton - convenience. I figured on that line from Field of Dreams - 'build it and they will come' and they do, but do all of them? If I'd opened in Northampton ... and hence the question to Simon Coleby.

I also appreciate that the Chahal brothers invest a lot of time, effort and their own money in this event, but is it worth investigating venues in Milton Keynes or, heaven forbid, Northampton?

That said, the arguments for attempting to hold a comics convention in Northampton are extremely strong and one wonders why Alan Moore can get a reported £100,000 from Northampton Borough Council to ensure that his Electricomics promote the town and someone wanting to promote comics and the town in general can't even speak to the right people?

Northamptonshire has an enormous percentage of comics professionals; it has a rich vein of ex-professionals or pros who have moved to sunnier or different locations and, of course, it is the home of the aforementioned Mr Moore. Not that he would come to a comic convention again, not even one that would have to dedicate part of its brief to the promotion of comics as a medium, an aid for dyslexics, an entry point for people who struggle to read books and as a platform to express their own creativity.

The problem now is that everything from the huge MCM conventions to these regional mega-marts is geared solely towards the fan; it's like we've never learned anything. Comics are still suffering from the law of diminishing returns, despite the influx of new readers, there is no sign and there probably won't be any increase in the actual numbers of fans (hey, lots of fans are old and die), so why is no one doing anything at all about trying to broaden the customer base?

If I was the Chahal brothers, I would be asking myself where the next generation of customers are coming from; how are we going to persuade the kid who thinks comics are okay to thinking they're cool and they want part of this rich tapestry of alternative worlds and styles?

But it's easy for me to sit here and suggest things; I'm not doing them.

I have enough on my plate as you will now find out...

So Santa Claus versus the Nazis and Seth & Ghost will be printed this week - unless we have any more problems - and will arrive at the end of October...

But... That's after the Lakes?

Here's an example of the hurly-burly world of comics publishing. My new printer can't meet the deadline; hell, my old printer is struggling to deliver our two latest books on time; and I've got no one to do The Lakes convention for me because I have to do Leamington Spa because of ... life getting in the way again (at least 'good' life rather than nasty, funereal life). I'm also donating 50 free copies of one of our books to them and suddenly everything is, if you'll pardon my rather brash Anglo-Saxon, f*ck*d and shrouded in uncertainty and tension.

You know that expression 'squeaky-bum time'? People from the UK, who follow football (soccer) and various other sports know it well. Well, here's how this schedule is going to work:

  • As far as I know Verity Fair and Spoko both set sail on September 9. The delivery date, provided the voyage is trouble free is October 10 (unless HMRC hold the container in customs for inspection then another 7 days can be added to that). However, that will mean the books arrive after we need them - after their launch.
  • I heard back from the new printer on Monday 8th regarding Santa Claus and S&G; provided everything has been okayed, the job will take between 5 and 7 days to complete and pack. It will then go on the next available Tuesday boat and will take a maximum of 35 days (unless HMRC hold the container in customs for inspection then another 7 days can be added to that) and as any fool knows, that is way after The Lakes and I've been telling people and Ben Dickson and Gavin Mitchell have been telling people that it'll be out for the Lakes (S&G's official launch is at Thought Bubble) and it clearly won't. 
  • Except it will. If everything goes according to plan. Once the books have been finished, a quantity of Santa Claus will be sent by air mail - 100 of them: 70 going to the Lakes and 30 coming with me to Leam Con.
  • Hang on, you can't do the Lakes, you said so? No, but Terry Wiley is going to man the battlements for me all weekend (unless Verity Fair is stuck in customs, in which case I fully expect Terry will not go to Kendal, but will venture south to a place near Warwick, where he will commit murder...) as well as signing copies of the book he's selling, etc etc. Terry flies in from Chicago 23 hours before The Lakes begins. His home is in Newcastle, mine in Northampton. Despite my home sounding further north than his, mine is actually 300 miles south of his and provided the book isn't held in customs (along with Spoko #1 I hasten to add), I have to take delivery of them, put probably three boxes of VF and a box of Spoko in the boot of my car - along with three further boxes of our existing stock; drive up to Leicester (about 28 miles) and drop them off with Jay Eales and Selina Lock, who are going to The Lakes, and are going to take them up and protect them until Terry can take control of them. They will then bring back whatever isn't sold.
  • This is all dependant on everything happening at the right time with little margin for error.

Keep your fingers crossed.