If you’ve never been to this sit before, a quick introduction.
My name is Colleen Doran, and I am a cartoonist and illustrator. I’ve also worked as a creator rights advocate, and have written many articles about the publishing business, primarily focused on the comics industry. I’ve illustrated the work of Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Warren Ellis, J Michael Straczynski, and Anne Rice, and am currently working on several original graphic novels for DC Comics’ Vertigo division and Houghton Mifflin.
This series of articles, written nearly ten years ago on my old message board, starts off a little slow. But stick with it for contract tips, insider info, and guest appearances from comics notables such as Frank Miller. And more than a few laughs, because at the end, it goes from supremely awful to sublimely ridiculous. The posts have been updated with more commentary about bad agents, bad book packagers, and, of course, other Very Bad Publishers.
The publisher I wrote about in the original series was the long defunct Starblaze. Initially, I avoided naming the company. However, some folks quickly recognized the culprit, and all is a matter of public record anyway, as you will see when you get to the legal papers, a suit which made state case law.
No matter how bad this series gets, keep in mind it’s the SECOND worst publisher I ever worked for. After these two disasters, every other publisher I have ever encountered seemed like a breeze, a fragrant lawn, and a tall glass of something cool.
I’ve also had no contact with either company since 1989, except for…well, keep reading.
THE COMPLETE VERY BAD PUBLISHERS, now in one handy linkpalooza HERE.
So, here’s one thing I learned from my unhappy experiences with a woman in publishing (no longer in publishing, as far as I know) who shall be known only as The Woman. An editor and a fledgling writer, she had approached me about not only publishing A Distant Soil, but illustrating her GN project as well:
Small presses are very, very concerned about size issues, in the same way that some guys can get insecure about size when they are exposed to the big guys in the bathroom.
They would rather not appear small and vulnerable, even though that is what they actually are. They sometimes try to exploit their little guy status by passing themselves off as friendly mom and pop companies who will embrace you with their warmth and serve you cookies besides. But in the end, most small presses have one very important thing in common with most big publishers:
They are out to make a buck.
If they can’t woo you with the big money that big companies can provide, then they will try to compensate by giving you a better contract than you might be able to wrangle at a major publishing house.
Of course, if you are a newbie or you don’t have a particularly good sales track record on previously published projects, you will still get a crappy contract.
When wooing you away from a project at another publisher, they will often try to inflate their sales records and ability to promote your project. If there is any chance that you have something that might make them really good money, the sales record and promises for promotion may stray into the realm of fiction.
When I was a tot working in the 1980′s, the great unknown realm of publishing for comics was in the bookstore market, also known as the retail trade. If you were not doing superhero comics, you were probably getting a lukewarm response to your work by retailers and fans in the direct market, which is where most comics and graphic novels were sold.
The retail trade allows for returns of unsold product. It is a risky thing to accept returns on unsold product, but it’s a venue everyone in comics wanted to crack because there were tens of thousands of potential outlets for graphic novels that the comic book industry could not reach. The growth potential was unlimited, but no one could really seem to break out of the direct market paradigm.
The direct market allowed for comics and graphic novels to be sold in comic and gaming specialty shops to a very limited market that was, at the time, about 3,000 outlets. Later, it inflated to 10,000 outlets, but is now back down to about 3,000 outlets.
If a direct market retailer does not sell a book, too bad. He cannot return it for credit. However, the discount at which he orders the book from the distributor would be significantly higher then the discount a retail trade bookstore might get to order the same product – to reflect the greater risk of carrying a book he could not return if it went unsold.
OK. So, back in the day, I was pretty certain that my audience for A Distant Soil was somewhere out there in the retail trade, and the comics shops would always find my work to have limited appeal. I was anxious to find an outlet that would get me into retail bookstores after I left my first publisher.
I had several publishers approach me about picking up A Distant Soil including Marvel’s Epic division, and the fledgling Dark Horse.
But there was one publisher willing to promise me what the others would not: retail trade sales.
In fact, they promoted their company as being the biggest seller of graphic novels in the world, and the first to do it besides.
This was a blatant falsehood.