How We Can Build a Better Comic Industry

I'm a hypocrite.

  • Readers are locked into their comfortable consumption habits.

  • The Press doesn't live up to the weight of their responsibility, and aren't doing enough to be champions of our industry.

  • Most Creators focus solely on making comics and shun the business side, limiting the scope of what they can do to move the industry forward.

  • Publishers often profit off of books that, in turn, provide little for their creators, and they do little to drive comics consumption outside the traditional market, targeting only the lowest-hanging fruit: Wednesday Warriors.

  • Distributors keep the industry stagnant, pushing only what's popular, rather than what's great.

  • Retailers, are stuck on an outdated model of retail and are hesitant to change their business and take the perceived risks that hold the key to their survival.

I really believe all of this is true. So much of what I write about on this site comes from how important I think it is that we get to work on addressing these issues, rather than just complaining about them.

But in some ways, I could understand why some people would feel that all I do on this site is complain. Complain about everything I listed above, and about things like how creators aren't doing enough to grow their audiences, or how the industry has no organized efforts to break out of the box its confined itself to.

In my mind, this site is one way I'm trying to do, rather than just talk. The hope is that by writing about the ways in which creators can build independent careers we can make the industry a better place.

Whether you believe me depends largely on where you fall on the Hobbes & Locke debate. Maybe you think I'm just acting out of self-interest, rather than trying to actually bring about positive change. Maybe I'm a hypocrite. Maybe I'm not.

Or maybe it's just not clear what I mean when I talk about...

A Better Comic Industry

Building a better comic industry goes beyond just improving the lot of creators.

While we're definitely part of the equation, there are other integral pieces, too - the readers, the press, creators, publishers, distributors, retailers, and even the comics themselves. Each of these pieces needs to be addressed. They all need improvement.

A better industry is an industry that's better for everyone.

It might seem like a lofty goal, but I believe it's all achievable. This is how we get there.

The Readers

There are two things we need from readers: patience and willingness.

Change takes time, especially at this scale, and we need the support of readers along the way to make it all happen.

As for willingness, the industry has changed dramatically over the last few years and is continuing to change. As new distribution models evolve we need readers to be willing to give them a shot. We need readers to try "that one comic" from an unknown creator or buy something completely out of their wheelhouse.

This willingness will validate and protect our efforts to grow the industry. The protection is particularly important because growth only ever comes from failure, and to deeply change & challenge the industry we need to be ready to accept a lot of failure. If we do, eventually, one experiment will work.

But if the readers who give life to these crazy projects lose their mettle and return to the comfort of their established consumption habits, then there will be little incentive left for others to experiment. Change will continue, but it will be much slower, and we will be worse off for it.

Readers are the foundation of change for our industry. They're our first line of defense. If you are a reader, then your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to patient and willing to try new things. And when you find something good, share it with others who you think might enjoy it, too. But that's not all. On top of all this, you also need to be flexible.

The advent of digital widely grew comics readership. But if you look today, you'll find a divided landscape. The webcomic readerships and traditional readerships are largely separate. They're distant cousins who know each other exist, have maybe visited once or gotten together at a family reunion, but have done no more.

And it's understandable. They live different lives and participate in different communities online. But if we want to strengthen our industry, we need to bridge the gap between these two audiences, and readers need to be flexible enough to put one foot on each side as we draw them closer together.

Even if they're barely across the line, any amount of help from readers is more than we can really ask for. After all, they're our customer.

If we want to be successful, we need to give them a positive experience and we can only ask them to be patient & willing for so long.

Today, the entertainment landscape is completely different and comics are competing with much more than they used to. We need to adapt to this new pace and give readers an experience they'll passionately want to keep around. Better comics, better systems. A better experience of being a comic book fan.

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The Press

Then there's press. Now, I'm not press, and I have no intention of digressing into the same conversation about the comics press that can be easily found.

Instead, I want to focus on the role of the press. While some may vary on the way they approach what they do, at the core, the press provides a lens into the industry - and the comics being produced - for readers.

They play a critical role of leveling the playing field, so that readers can have a better understanding of the industry. To do that, the press' own understanding needs to be stellar.

To go above and beyond, though, and help build that better industry, the press can help motivate readers and keep them willing, patient, and flexible. They're positioned to do this already. In curating for readers it's up to them to decide what they want to draw reader's attention to. If they can draw attention to experiments with quality results, then we'll greatly extend the amount of time we, as an industry, can afford to experiment.

To do so, though, the press needs to be as informed as possible. Both about the way the industry works and in how to competently analyze the merit of a comic, and not necessarily its quality. If you are part of the press and want to make a better industry, this is your responsibility.

If the press just decries experimentation and calls for angry mobs when something fails or goes wrong, we won't get anywhere. At its very best - or worst - the press sets the example for readers to follow.

Creators

So far, we've covered the receiving end of the industry. The press, who analyze & contextualize, and the readers, who consume & champion their favorite comics. After this section, we'll look at the infrastructure of the industry: publishers, distributors, and retailers.

But before we get to that, we need to talk about creators. Most of you reading this are probably creators. And you should understand where we fit into the industry.

We're the go-between that links the two sides. We're the cogs in the machine that create the product - the comics - that people publish, distribute, sell, review, and read. And though the creation is largely a weight on our shoulders we play another role.

Surrounded by giants, trying to engage the industry in ways most beneficial to them, we are the David to their Goliath. We are the vanguard of the industry and it's our responsibility to find ways to experiment & innovate.

Some of us might do so by working with the giants, while others of us might go about it independently. But in both cases, we are in a unique position - operating where the comic industry intersects the comic medium. Where business meets art. And at that critical juncture, it's our job to embrace both sides so we can navigate with ease and identify interesting opportunities that will push both the medium & industry forward.

Growth in only one side is a fine place to start, but both need to work together for real progress to be made. A new format without a platform or business model to support it, will fail. Innovations that only have business upside, but do little to impact the creative product, will be stale.

Creator-owned, for example, was a new approach with very positive business implications for creators, that led to a new wave of creativity within the comics themselves.

Digital comics branched out into an entirely separate side of the industry until Comixology showed the strength of digital by consolidating material on their platform.

And now with mobile, we'll see how Stela fares as they embrace a mobile-native format, with a model specifically intended to sustain it.

Creators who proactively build their understanding of the industry and develop their business skills can be at the forefront of other developments like this, rather than just observing them.

Successful or not, it's the effort that should be commended. And a failed experiment may inspire a later effort that goes on to dramatically change the industry.

Publishers

Now though publishers are giants and often not part of the independent career-building I advocate here, they are a critical part of the industry and can be a very powerful force for good.

In the relationship between independent creators and publishers, the greatest disparity lies in the resources the two have. Publishers often have multiple employees and capital they can use to push particular projects.

However, where most publishers are failing is in widening their view beyond the Direct Market. Within the market, they do a great job of dominating. They have established practices, honed over years, that they use to reach fans and interact with retailers.

But by only playing within this market, they're fighting for a small fortune - they're sharks competing for fish in a small pond, when they should be trying to reach the ocean. To do so in an organized way takes the kind of resources only publishers have. But it's still difficult - and it's likely that any effort to reach a non-traditional market for comics will encounter its share of obstacles.

Publishers need to accept this responsibility as their own. It's up to them to try to reach the many readers who aren't reading comics, not because they're decided against it, but because they were never really presented with an enticing case for it - or never considered reading comics to begin with.

If successful, the upside - a much wider audience with greater buying power than the entire Direct Market - will more than redeem any difficulties along the way. But it will also be a huge boon for the entire industry - making it a win-win.

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Distributors

Of all the different pieces of the comic industry I think distribution is the piece that's most vilified - at least by creators.

And I understand why. In comics, when we think of distribution, we usually think of Diamond's monopoly. But Comixology is a distributor, too. The fact that it's primarily a platform, doesn't make that untrue - the two aren't mutually exclusive.

And there are other sites now, serving the same role. What was once distribution is now just curation. Sure, with Diamond in particular, there's the added matter of the infrastructure to actually reach those comic stores. But while that's an obstacle to an independent creator, it's an obstacle that can be overcome. Micro-distribution networks, where creators and smaller companies independently set up relationships with retailers, are difficult to establish & manage, but can be very effective.

That effectivity is largely due to the fact that many retailers aren't currently buying independent comics. So if you can set up a strong micro-distribution network, you might not have a huge hit in performance from what you'd get if you worked via Diamond, at least theoretically.

If the industry were better, though, this wouldn't be the case, because distributors would be living up to their end of the bargain and using their access to distribute not just what's good.

It's in their best interest for great comics to find and maintain an audience, and by putting their weight behind the comics that have the legs to go the distance, rather than just the comics with proven past success, they'll keep the industry moving forward.

If done correctly, this can completely change the way we look at Diamond's monopoly. While monopolies can often cause industries to become stale, due to a lack of competition, and artificially raise prices for people throughout the rest of the market, they are also extremely efficient. And that efficiency can be harnessed for good.

Imagine an industry, where we look at Diamond as a positive, rather than one of our problems. That's what a better industry can look like if Diamond, and distributors like it, make an effort to help good comics build fanbases.

Retailers

Which brings us back to the front-lines, though from a different angle.

Retailers, like press, are another point of intersection for the industry - bringing together readers & comics. Whereas the press provides a lens for readers, retailers serve as their advocates, purchasing what they think the readers - their own customers - will want to read.

It's also important to distinguish between the press and retailers according to their audience sizes. A retailer's audience is more focused, since they're just concerned with their customer base, and as a result their recommendation carries a lot more weight.

Like distributors, to improve the industry, retailers need to take on the responsibility of being more proactive in selling good comics that their audiences like. There are plenty of anecdotes about comics catching on at various stores, because the people at that store really pushed the product - hand-selling it to their customers.

The importance of this kind of work can't be understated. Networks like the LCS Valkyries, which brings together women retailers worldwide, are exactly the kind of thing the industry needs. Conscious efforts for retailers to band together and push the kind of projects that can breathe life into the industry.

However, the main problem facing stores today isn't a Comic Industry problem. It's a retail problem.

The whole retail landscape is changing completely. More people are purchasing what they want & need online, and if you walk down any urban street you'll find more service and event spaces popping up where retail outlets used to be.

To survive this change, retailers need to adapt, and shift their focus from store to community space over the next generation. Otherwise, they're unlikely to stick around. Stores, like any company, serve the needs of their customers, and in this case retailers can't be romantic about their place in the industry, and instead need to make sure they stay relevant and important to their communities, not to romantic notions about how the industry should operate.

It's a tough reality to face, but stores have already started to make this change - like Fantom Comics in Washington DC, or Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles, CA. And the truth of it is that the end result, is a positive one: a healthy store, a healthier community, and a thriving comic industry. They all go hand in hand.

The Comics

Which brings us to the last piece now. The comics. Here, the answer is simple. Make the best comics we can. As creators, it's our responsibility to do this - whether we're working independently, or with some of the very talented editors employed in publishers throughout the industry.

Great comics are the critical variable.

They drive readers to support innovation. They drive the press to expect more and raise the standards for creation. They inspire creators. They make it easier for publishers to sell and grow. They give distributors a great cause to put their weight behind. And they give retailers something that they can use to tighten the connection they have to their communities.

Fortunately, I think we're already seeing some of the best comics ever made, today. I don't think the creative landscape comics has ever been healthier.

We can largely thank the push towards Creator-Owned work for that.

That's something everyone helped make happen. Readers who care about the creators they're fans of support their books. The press is delighted by the originality and happy to champion the cause. There's a major financial upside for creators themselves. Publishers can use it to drive support. Distributors get a wider variety of content to work with. And retailers get new, original work to introduce their customers to. And the comics just get better.

So, all we really need to worry about are the other pieces. And more specifically, whichever ones we can individually have a positive impact upon.


It's not an easy road. But this post, this progress, isn't about taking the easy way - it's about taking the best way.

And there are no shortcuts here. Unless all the pieces come together, the better industry I'm hoping for will stay out of reach.

So, it's our collective responsibility - beyond the individual pieces I mentioned above - to educate ourselves on all the other elements of the industry, so we can understand the context of the work we do.

While this might seem like a lot, when I look at it all, I don't get overwhelmed. I just see a road forward. We can make it happen. We just have to work for it. All of us. A better industry is something we build together.

And when we manage to do it, everybody wins.

Creator At Large and ComixLaunch are two ways I'm trying to help right now. I've got more plans I'll hopefully be able to tackle, too.

There's a Comics Readership Project I've been planning for a while, intended to empower & incentivize readers to become champions for the cause, rather than just readers.

In 2016, I'll also be stepping more deeply into podcasting. I've dipped my toe into it with Tyler, through our work ComixLaunch, but I want to bring about the kinds of conversations I think we need to make this progress happen. I want to facilitate discourse between the different pieces of the industry, and illuminate different aspects of this world.

If you're working on something that's going to help bring about this better industry, or want to be involved let me know. I want to help out and if I can also provide opportunities for others to help out that would be a major positive.

One for all, and all for one.

That's my version of the "Better Comic Industry" motto.

Happy New Year.


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