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Tilting at Windmills #228 is live

Brian Hibbs

Fantagraphics’ kickstarter, and how OGNs are a terrible terrible business model.

Read it on CBR, and you may comment here if you like.


18 Responses to “ Tilting at Windmills #228 is live ”

  1. Good column. At my store, “Avengers: Endless War” sold 2 copies, despite it being Warren Ellis, similar to the Marvel films, self-contained, and an okay read. We’d have sold more had it started as a miniseries and then been collected.

    The OGNs that do hit for us tend to be connected to non-comics events, like “Blue is the Warmest Color” (a film people are talking about and as of last week is playing at a theatre two miles away), or that get written up in the news. “The Fifth Beatle” will sputter along unless NPR or the local paper talks about it this coming week.

  2. good to hear you weigh in on this, been following spurgeon as he follows this campaign. I wonder what this means for all of the other publishers putting out content of the same genre/aesthetic. has D&Q resorted to crowdfunding at all? what about a smaller publisher like sparkplug trying to keep above water in the same market? Dash Shaw strikes me as one of those recent cartoonists that’s mostly known for his OGNs (or long format comics as I like to think of them) but now that I think of it, even he started out serialized in those meathaus books. again, it was a good read, hope this isn’t a bad sign for alternative comics and the cartooning culture in the future.

  3. I really enjoyed this latest column. You brought up a lot of points that other coverage has failed to, especially the lack of serialization at Fanta.

    It does make me wonder at what point does Fantagraphics Books Inc. transform from a corporation, with a responsibility to a bottom line that’s black and not red, into a book club or a non-profit publisher or some other model. They are just bad at capitalism and may have to find another way.

    It seems the most successful OGN’s are a) considered literature fit for precious bookstore and library shelf-space beyond specialty stores, worthy of awards and columns in magazines, or b) Marvel/DC popular character books. Fanta books are somehow books that don’t fly off the shelves in stores but make it to the shelves in the library. If selling OGN’s was a horse race, the best horse’s odds would be 1/1000. Though I love many of their offerings, Fanta doesn’t seem to bet on commercial winners, and they don’t care until the money runs out.

    Only thing I don’t understand from the column is how losing money in serialization can get you closer to profit. Perhaps piquing interest in the eventual collection can justify a small loss, but that still leaves you further in debt than you started when it comes time to print the collections, and at that point should you?

    If Fanta gets into serialization, how many works will be cancelled before they finish their runs? How many Fanta creators prefer writing complete works? I guess the key word is diversify, in the business sense, not the diverse fall catalogue sense.

  4. Yeah, it does seem like Brian is making an assumption that sales of the periodical and sales of the eventual trade collection have no overlap. The people who buy Love and Rockets as a yearly OGN are likely made up of people who would buy L&R monthly (or bimonthly.) Thus cutting into the sales of the collected edition. It is possible that publishing an OGN might make a small amount of profit, and that printing a serialized periodical that loses some money would eat into the numbers of people who would buy the collection, causing that to also lose money.
    That might not be the case for every Fantagraphics project, but I don’t think that publishing as a serial then a collection is the financial slam dunk that Brian says it is.

  5. Actually, the assumption goes the other way as well — a certain percentage of people who buy a work periodically will ALSO buy that book a second time in collected form, if they like it enough.

    This is not merely an assumption. I sell comics for a living. I look people in the eye and talk to them and take their money, so I’d like to believe that I have a fairly sober handle on how commerce works in this industry.

    Finally, I do not think (AT ALL!) that I said it was a “financial slam dunk” — I believe you will see that I clearly said that it was not the right fit for each and every project.

    I just believe that it is more often than it is not.


  6. Weirdly, sometimes I don’t feel like buying a GN or collection, unless I’ve bought the comics. This pointless redundancy explains half of my collection of hatchbacks..

  7. It is interesting that Joe Quesada used to make the same point, but now Alonso is running Marvel they have started doing OGNs again (possibly in reaction to DC’s success with Superman- Earth One a few years back). The biggest one so far was that Ellis “Avengers – Endless War” thing, which seemed to make a splash but was quickly forgotten about. I think it would definitely had a more lasting impact as a series (and the same is true incidentally for Superman Earth One – once a big deal but now fading in importance fast – its success pales in comparison to the similar-in-concept Ultimate Spider-Man series).

    I know this is slightly off-topic but I think this has lots of parallels with Netflix’s current policy of releasing all its original series season’s episodes together. They really lose out on building up an audience with all the free publicity, analysis and excitement that can come from each episode’s release. Also- like in your example of the low cost of sampling an individual comic – I think psychologically it can be intimidating and off-putting to dive in to a series with loads of episodes rather than just hearing about the latest one and checking it out.

    Marvel’s Netflix deal seems pretty sweet and well -suited – given their financing model and the type of serial storytelling they encourage but this aspect seems to be a particular handicap. How exciting and special is a crossover episode, say between Cage and Iron fist, if you get it immediately with the rest of a series?

    Anyway – apologies for the irrelevant rant – thanks for another great thought-provoking column Brian.

  8. Yeah… even as a confirmed trade-waiter (shiver), I find I’m much more likely to pick up the TPB if I’ve bought and liked at least one issue. Often my decision to trade-wait is based on my reaction to the first few issues of the monthly series… if I find the book to be too frustratingly decompressed or confusing to read as monthly installments, I’ll tend to trade-wait (when the per-issue cost of story content will probably be less, anyway).

    I’m much more inclined to pick up the monthly book AND maybe eventually get the TPB if the individual issues are well-crafted artifacts in and of themselves. Perversely, Fantagraphics used to be a paragon of this — the individual issues of EIGHTBALL and LOVE & ROCKETS used to be perennial sellers IN SPITE of also being that most dreaded of formats, bane of the comics-seller, the anthology books. In part that was because each issue was so lovingly packaged and satisfying as a monthly / bimonthly / whenever the hell we get around to it dose.

    Hugh: Great point about Netflix and it makes me wonder how the binge-format releasing strategy will play out in the long term… the explosive success of BREAKING BAD’s final season / finale makes it clear how important a slow burn and building word-of-mouth can be to a serialized story.

  9. I’m not sure that Fantagraphics and like-publishers have so much abandoned serialization as serialization (or, more precisely, the primary market for print serialization) abandoned them first. Serialization works for DC/Marvel. It works for other-media licensed comics from the mid-level publishers. In the case of the top tier of recent launches for Image, it works for books where the writers made their bones working at DC/Marvel. But it doesn’t work well for creators new to the market, and definitely not enough to justify the demands of the format.

  10. Not only does serialization – by which we have to specify, serialization in 30-page pamphlets containing maybe 22 pages of story priced at four or five dollars and sold in specialty shops, which you may or may not be able to find in your town – not work for publishers like Fantagraphics, it’s working less and less well for “mainstream” publishers. Look at sales over the last decade or so: the direct market has been in a downward spiral for years now. Marvel and DC are in the peculiar position of still relying on the direct market as a distribution system, while desperately seeking a way to replace it (through trades and digital) – even as their non-comics output has become the driving force behind both companies, to the point where the production of actual physical comic books begins to look like somewhat vestigial.

    There are a host of reasons why it’s always going to be hard to be a company like Fantagraphics: publishing in general is a shitshow right now, to say nothing of publishing comics, to say nothing of publishing art comics. That’s true in the best of circumstances – and these are not the best of circumstances; the loss of Kim Thompson was a material blow to the company. To wave all of that aside and basically say, “they should go back to putting out lots of floppies – after all, it worked in the early nineties!” is a bit like saying that the reason so many indie bands have trouble finding success is that they don’t put out their albums on wax cylinder anymore.

  11. “Look at sales over the last decade or so: the direct market has been in a downward spiral for years now.”

    I don’t think this is a correct statement whatsoever.


  12. I think there were a lot of good points made in both the article and the comments. I don’t agree with the point made by both Mr. Brian and Brandon (explicitly by Brandon, implied by Mr. Brian) that Fanta is bad at capitalism. I’d say if they can successfully go out and get donations 5 times, they’re pretty good at capitalism! (Just a joke…I’m not trying to make fun of either Brandon or Mr. Brian.)

    I’m not in a position to go over the sales because I don’t make my living selling comics the way Mr. Brian does, but I can speak on the content of the books. The OGNs of Love & Rockets and Palookaville aren’t like a collection of individial issues. They contain some long form stories and some short stories and addendum that wouldn’t break out to individual issues organically. If that’s the way those artists choose to produce their art, so be it. It might not be commercially viable and no one has a right to make money at what they love, but it’s not quite the same as saying those books used to be serial and now they should go back. They’re different entities now.

  13. Brian, with due respect, that chart looks like a story of one bubble bursting and another being inflated. And notably, it’s a chart of dollars – not a chart of, say, issues sold (which would show a decline), or a chart of the direct market as a percentage of overall comic distribution (which would absolutely show a decline). The notion that the direct market is in hale and robust health in 2013 is a tad delusional. If people are still going to be buying newly-produced comics in ten, fifteen, twenty years, it’s going to be because the industry has shifted away from a model of selling overpriced and easily pirated monthly pamphlets to an aging consumer base.

  14. “The notion that the direct market is in hale and robust health in 2013 is a tad delusional.”

    My cash register ENTIRELY disagrees with you.

    This is as healthy as a market as I have EVER seen as a retailer (so many NEW readers enthusiastically buying in!), and in my side job as a consultant to publishers, I can tell you that the DM is firmly the core of the business, and is steadily growing for most participants that I have contact with.


  15. No one enjoys doom-saying the comic biz more than me, but it’s hard to argue with numbers. I think you can reasonably speculate on the fragility of the industry. The DM is still reliant on a serialized format that has almost shifted to 4 bucks a pop as the standard price for a product that, while perhaps not as decompressed as it once was, offers a fairly bad cost-to-entertainment ratio.

    Or to put it another way, comic sales will see a downturn at some point and THAT’S when we’ll find out the true health of the system.


  16. Brian, when you mention “serialization” are you referring to serialization within the DM framework or serialization in general? Serialization is a broad category that comes in many sizes and shapes.

    As a follow-up question, how would you classify the following in the context of the Direct Market: Pogo, Uncle Scrooge, The End of the Fucking World, Megahex and Amelia Cole? All of them are collections of serialized material, but because they were all serialized outside of the DM, they are potentially new to DM customers – making them OGNs from that point of view.

    Also, how do you feel about series of OGNs like Scott Pilgrim and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?

  17. “Brian, when you mention “serialization” are you referring to serialization within the DM framework or serialization in general? ”

    From the publisher’s (and / or cartoonist) POV, anything that is generating positive cash flow; therefore, as a general matter, this would discount most (but not all) web comics.

    “As a follow-up question, how would you classify the following in the context of the Direct Market: Pogo, Uncle Scrooge, The End of the Fucking World, Megahex and Amelia Cole? All of them are collections of serialized material, but because they were all serialized outside of the DM, they are potentially new to DM customers – making them OGNs from that point of view.”

    Everything is new to a person the first time they encounter it, regardless of format, regardless of venue. The point I was trying to make in terms of publishing isn’t so much the nomenclature, but the multiple revenue streams!

    Having said that, I’d have a hard time calling Pogo an “OGN”, because it was wider read in serialization than the $50 collections; Scrooge was absolutely a comic originally; TEOTFW was most certainly available to comic shops serialized — I sold more copies of some issues than I do of the average Marvel/DC book; Megahex is a webcomic without, I think, any prior revenue stream; and Amelia was digital-first serialized.

    “Also, how do you feel about series of OGNs like Scott Pilgrim and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?”

    In the former case I believe we would have sold more copies to more people in a shorter time frame had it been serialized; in the latter case I KNOW that is the case — I can look very clearly at my LOEG sales in various permutations, and the serialized-cheaply (v1 & 2) version sold significantly better than the Black Dossier OGN, the serialized-expensively version (Century, the single volume seems overdue to me at this point) sold worse than v1 & 2, but significantly better than Nemo (Man, do I have a TON of copies of Nemo still in the back room)

    You probably couldn’t pick a better illustration of my point than LOEG, actually — thanks!


  18. But serialization isn’t just important in terms of revenue streams… it’s also hugely helpful in terms of marketing and promotion.

    With pop culture, especially of the geeky/nerdy variety, a huge selling point can be the desire to be part of the conversation about an ongoing work. Serialization allows for word-of-mouth to spread and awareness to build while setting up jumping-on points for new readers.

    SCOTT PILGRIM is a great example as it built up from a small but dedicated and vocal fanbase to a much wider audience as each subsequent volume came out, and new readers piled on to find out what the hell people were talking about. (Also, its Manga-like format helped make it clear that it was an alternate format of serialization.)

    And I’m guessing that TPB collections of digital serials or webcomics like AMELIA COLE or FREAKANGELS probably do much, much better than comparable OGNs because there’s existing awareness encouraging stores to carry the title and customers to ask for it.

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