I just checked my calendar, and it told me that it's Tuesday, so I guess it's time for me to regale all of you with another installment of Bolts & Nuts!
The topic this week is about looking into the future. There's been a lot of that happening over the past few weeks, part of it caused by me, the larger of it caused by Diamond, so I figured it was only fair to talk about it myself.
Right now, we're creating history. Think about that for a moment. We're creating history. At no other time in the history of our medium do we have such an immediate and vociferous response to our work. While nice, the days of the fanmail page are gone. Why wait literally months to see the pleasure or dislike of someone else when you can just go to the creator or comic's site/forum and discuss it there? Right now, we can effect immediate change. No that's wrong. We have effected change, immediate and lasting.
And it's only going to continue.
As a creator, your job is becoming harder every month. If you've been paying attention, you've noticed that the distribution model is broken, there are numerous barriers to getting your comic in front of people, ranging from your level of talent and commitment, to the companies you're submitting ,to Diamond itself. You have to know the past, live in the present, and predict the future.
Let me tell you, the future looks bleak for us. (Dammit, Steven! When are you going to give us some good news?!) Sorry. I'm not here to hold your hand and tell you everything's going to be fine. I'm here to help you be the best you can be, and part of that is to prepare you for what's coming. With that in mind, let's look at the present with an eye toward the future.
Right now, you have a proliferation of webcomics. Marvel has also gotten into the game with digital distribution [and because it's really new, I still consider that in beta], and don't think DC is far behind. [Well, they are, but they'll catch up. DC is always slow to do things, but tend to do them well when they do it.] That's what is going on now, digitally. This doesn't include boards/forums of discussion, either by fans [sound familiar] or by professionals, or other things like blogs and news sites and such. Right now, the web is where it's at, and with more and more access to digital content, you'd be a fool not to cast an eye to the future.
First, some predictions:
Let's talk about news. If we're going to talk news, we're going to talk Wizard, because they were the ones to beat in print. Notice the past tense? As I write this, Wizard has canceled their Texas show, and has supposedly postponed their LA show. I'm guessing that's going to be canceled before long. Not only that, but the magazine itself is going to do one of two things before too much longer. It's already converted itself from a comic magazine to a media magazine with an emphasis on comics, but it's either going to go full media, or it's going to go back to its roots, but completely on the web.
If it does the latter, it should be free, and have a lot of advertising. If you have to pay for a subscription, it's not going to last. However, any way you put it, Wizard's days are numbered.
The death of Wizard will give rise to Newsarama and CBG. It doesn't get much simpler than that. Unless Newsarama makes some serious missteps [and some would say they're making a couple], they're going to be the ruler of the online news roost. There may be a site that comes up to threaten them, but it's going to take a long time. Comics are a mix of flash in the pan and longevity. So, you need a long flash in the pan.
You're also going to see more and more devices that are connecting to the internet. Right now, the Iphone rules, as does the Apple store with Itunes. You're going to see more and more comics in the Apple store, as well as different “stores” when other companies get their heads out of their butts. Look to Verizon for the first company to give Apple a run for it's money. Leave Microsoft out of your thoughts. They've lost too much ground, and the only way to recover it is to do something phenomenal. Microsoft made a killing because Windows was extremely user friendly. However, Apple has come up in recent years and slapped Windows around. Look for that trend to continue.
Marvel is going to continue to increase the price of books without increasing the page count. When I say page count, I'm talking story pages. In five short years, look for comics to be five bucks a pop. Five dollars, twenty-two pages an issue, and they'll still say that their comics are aimed at kids. If that were true, then comics would be cheaper. However, since Marvel is publicly held, they have a responsibility to their shareholders to sell their wares at the highest price possible. I don't blame them for it—you can't blame a company for wanting to make money—but at least tell the truth about it.
Continuity is going to go out the window in favor of consistency. Spider-Man will have witty banter, and he'll be as internally guilty as any non-Catholic can be, but he's going to be able to be in several places at once, just like Wolverine.
The way to have this combated is to up the page count. This is going to sound horrible, but the prices are going to go up, as is the page count, but frequency is going to go down. If artists are having trouble keeping up with a huge lead time, what makes you think they'll be able to keep up with a 36 page monthly book? (Steven, you just added 14 pages!) And? You want to get your money's worth? Either that, or they're going to start putting multiple comics in a single package. They're already experimenting with this. If successful, that may be a way for them to go.
However, they're also going to move more and more to the web. This is inevitable, so you might as well get used to the thought. When the e-reader gets a standard and able to reproduce in color for a decent price, look for the great migration to begin. [When that happens, that e-reader will be less e-reader and more e-everything. It will do video and music and everything else. Apple is working on a tablet pc. With it, there will be no real reason for an e-reader at all.] Amazon is selling their Kindle, which is connected to the web and able to download books directly to it. I wouldn't call it a standard yet, but it has an Oprah backing, so they're moving units. It's still black and white, though.
(Steven, what does any of this have to do with me as a writer?)
You haven't been paying attention. It has everything to do with you as a writer.
First, you have to start writing for the different formats. For a Zuda submission, you have to cut down on your words something fierce in order to fit in the parameters of the screen. As a matter of fact, I suggest you write a few stories just for Zuda, but don't submit them. [Submit them if you wish, but this is an exercise for a different purpose.] Think of the Zuda format as the standard for mobile web comics. I'm talking iPhone, iPod touch, and other mobile devices [cell phones, pda's, netbooks] that are connected to the web. By limiting yourself to what can fit on the screen, you're doing yourself a great favor by getting ready for the future.
Webcomics are a different beast altogether. That's a column in itself, really, and we'll talk about them in depth later. However, you have two ways to go with a webcomic: daily, and not. The more often you write in a webcomic format, the easier it will become. (That's true of anything, Steven.) Exactly. Are you writing every day ? (…) Live and learn. Live and learn.
Start writing longer stories. (Steven, that's just the opposite of what you just said. Want me to go back? I can prove it.) I know you can. I'm going to back up what I just said. [Don't I always?]
The reason you want to write longer stories is simply because the standard format of twenty-two pages is an arbitrary number. Oh, don't get me wrong, it was researched by the big boys so that they can get the most amount of story for the least amount of money, but with the price of everything going up, something has to give. How many of you are willing to pay five dollars month in and month out for twenty-two pages of story? Something has to give, and comic companies aren't going to give up publishing if they can help it. Prices aren't going to go down, either. They've already proved that they can sell their product to us at the exorbitant price. If they're not going to stop publishing and they're not going to lower the price, that leaves a page increase.
(Steven, way back in the mists of time, you told us to write twenty-two page stories. You said it!) I know. And now, looking toward the future, I'm telling you to add at least ten pages to your stories, if not more. (Won't that lead to padding?) Yes, and no.
To start with, yes, there may be a lot of padded comics. Hell, there are a lot of padded comics out now. However, once the transition has been made, look for more and more writers to get the hang of the longer story format, and to cut out the padding and pack in more story because they have more chance to breathe. I wouldn't go beyond 36 pages of story, though. Basically, you want to stay below the graphic novel threshold, and there are a lot of stories being put out as graphic novels that are about 50 pages in length. [General numbers, folks!]
Yes, the transition is going to be a messy one. It's not going to be funny how messy it's going to be. It might even be called a failed experiment, but believe me, when the expansion comes, it's going to stay.
With the longer stories, I wouldn't expect a monthly format anymore. Six weeks would probably do it. That's if you're trying to keep the same creative team for a while. There aren't many artists that can keep to a grueling monthly schedule [especially newbies], so you want to help them and yourself as much as possible. Six weeks does that nicely.
None of that touches the book trade market, though. I'm talking about going outside the direct market and truly reaching the masses. More and more publishing houses are getting into graphic novels. I'm going to tell you right now, if you're not trying to break into that market, you're stupid. (Ste-) No, I don't want to hear it. If you're not trying to expand out of the direct market and reach the masses, then you're stupid. I just call it like I see it.
Let's look at it like this. The X-Men average 100k in sales, if not more or a little less. That's per issue. I'm not going to talk about individual people—we just don't have those numbers, and probably never will. So instead of people, we talk units moved. Because it's the direct market, we know that these are generally issues sold, and non-returnable. This is what makes the direct market so great—you're not going to be bitten in the ass with returned books sometime down the road. The retailers have to eat whatever doesn't sell. So, 100k units moved in less than two thousand stores. Two thousand niche shops.
How many bookstores are there? How many stores make up the Barnes & Noble chain? How many make up the Borders chain? How many Waldenbooks are left? Now, think of all the books in those bookstores, and think about how many people go into them on a daily basis. Comic shops get most of their traffic on Wednesday through Saturday. Depending on who the shop caters to, they may be closed on Sunday and Monday. I've known a few that were like that. Why? Because there wasn't enough traffic to offset the operating cost. But bookstores are open seven days a week. Hell, Barnes & Noble closes at eleven pm! How do you capitalize on that?
First, and I had to learn this the hard way, get your head out of the trade paperback section. Get out of the manga section. Look at the entire store. THE ENTIRE STORE. (Is there an echo in here?) Yes. THE ENTIRE STORE. And then think of some of those books as graphic novels, for lack of a better term.
Are you an expert in something, and able to turn that into something that can be talked about? Do you have a passion about something, and can talk about it for hours on end in an interesting fashion? Do you have a lot of knowledge about something that people don't know about, or have incorrect views about, and are able to help them correct that view through education? Have you noticed that I haven't said anything about telling a story in this entire paragraph?
That's what I mean by looking at the entire store. This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way. I was told to look at the entire store, and when I went to my local Barnes & Noble, I went to the graphic novel section, and the sci-fi/fantasy section. I've already said that I'm slow. I'm trying to help you not to be like me in that respect. Look at the entire store. That big project I have waiting in the wings? It's coming closer, and it generally shouldn't be found in the graphic novel section of the store. Think outside of the regular storytelling box you're in and into new headspace, and see what you find—or what finds you.
If you have something that's worthwhile, your book has the ability to surpass X-Men numbers, because you're out of the direct market and into the mass market. [Yes, you're also open to returns, but that's a different conversation.]
I'm not saying to ignore the storytelling aspects of graphic novels. Not at all. But an easier way to do it is like this: write a non-fiction book about raising llamas, and have it sell an easy half million copies. Your publisher now loves you, and wants to know if you have anything else. You now hit them with the vampire puppy incest love story, which gets accepted and created. (But I want to tell the vampire story first. Everyone loves vampires!) Yes, everyone does, and yes, I know you want to tell the vampire story first, but you can't.
The short answer is that you haven't proven yourself yet. If Neil Gaiman wants to tell a vampire story and sell it to Random House, he can do that because he's Neil. He's a known quantity, and the publisher knows they have a great chance of selling the book and getting back what they laid out in the advance against royalties. If you come in with the vampire story the same time as Neil, you're going to lose because you're not him. The simple fact is that anyone can tell a story, and everyone wants to tell one. That door is there, but it's not there for you. You have to go in through the side door. That's why you have to do the llama book first. It's a book that only you can do, and because of that, you've found your niche. You've not only found it, but you've filled it. After that, you can look to expand it. Got it? (I think so.) Good enough. Revisit this passage as necessary, and think outside the box. You'll be happy you did.
Now while thinking of the future, don't discount animation. I'm talking about web animation, not traditional animation. [Hell, traditional animation isn't even traditional anymore. Look at a Tom & Jerry cartoon from the 50s and a current one, and you'll see exactly what I mean.] Go to MTV.com and look up Invincible. Kirkman basically sold back-issues of Invincible to MTV, who made the comic panels “move”, and added a full cast and sound effects. He did that with back issues. Now, imagine that done with new, original content. Corporate sponsorship, you create it, and it gets “animated.” Sell it as a download, collect it as a tpb and sell physical copies. Hell, you could probably sell dvd's.
And honestly, I'd like to bring back some low-tech stuff. (Doesn't get more low-tech than print, Steven.) I know, but still, I'd like to bring back radio shows. I'm betting that you could do a lot with a radio show nowadays. Internet radio, satellite radio, local radio...but the timeframe would have to change, and the shows would have to be in smaller chunks. Call it a few hours worth of programming, but stretched out during 24 hour timeframe. (You're crazy.) Maybe, but I think it could work. We go with something like twelve shows, fifteen minutes each. That gives us three hours worth of programming. Just repeat them several times a day, and there you go. Imagine the Chronicles of Pen-Man at rush hour, or doing something like a radio soap-opera, full of sex, romance, and betrayal while tugging at the heart strings and being socially relevant. And yes, you write different material for different radio stations. You always play to your audience. Anyway, that's what I'd like to do. And honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if that were to happen. It would be relatively cheap to produce, methinks [I don't know anything about radio production], and you wouldn't have to do it live. Your crew would consist of at least three people, at least one of them female [woman's voices], and someone to record, do sound effects, editing, stuff like that. Watch Haunted Honeymoon to get an idea of what I'm talking about. Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner, and Dom DeLuise. It's worth watching right there.
The main point here is to think about the future. That's all. The sooner you do that, the sooner you start preparing for it, the better off you'll be.
While waiting to post this, Diamond Distribution upped their benchmarks. Remember when I spoke about them in Expectations? You had to move $1500 wholesale in order to meet their benchmark then. Now, that is $2500 wholesale. Comic companies are being forced to do one of two things: sell more books in a deep recession, or up their cover price in order to move the same amount of books. Already, the future is coming to us.
Look for more and more creators to look to the internet as their way of getting their books seen and their names known, first as webcomics and then as collected editions of the webcomics. This is going to be the new norm, because Diamond has finally forced it to happen. The floodgates of crap and mediocrity are going to open up, and through them, you may find a few diamonds in the rough. Look for creators to hone their skills as they publish on the web.
This is it.
Welcome to the future.
Any specific questions, ask them in this thread, and I'll answer them. If it's something of a more delicate nature, e-mail me. I check my e-mail constantly, and will do my best to get back to you within twenty-four hours, depending on the number of you who decide to flood my inbox. I can be reached at No attachments, please. They'll be deleted without being opened. (I know, I know, but blame the virus-makers.)
"Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"
And with the new Diamond benchmark, that's basically what everyone's saying. Everyone except Haven, that is. They should be salivating right now. They're going to be the go-to company in a few short months. As long as they don't mess up horribly.
Hope they have a decent infrastructure in place to deal with it.
Enjoyed hearing you read the tea leaves, Steven.
A few points...
- One could argue that DC is actually already ahead of Marvel in terms of thinking digitally, as they are behind the whole Zuda experiment.
- I think you're smart to thinking about alternative ways of getting your work out there. Your radio show idea made me think of the growing trend of novelists releasing their books as audio podcasts for free. There are definitely some people who have released their novels in this form, built a following, and eventually got signed to multiple book deals from big name publishers. I think this trend is going to continue, considering everyone has an ipod and the average commute keeps rising. If you want to be a player in the comics industry or pretty much any entertainment industry, you're going to have to give a whole lot away for nothing and on a regular basis before anyone is going to pay you for what you do. That's just the sacrifice we are going to have to make.
- I agree with you that it is worth exploring other mediums, page counts, page layouts and sizes, etc. And I don't think we're going to know what exactly those ideal formats are going to be for a while. Zuda threw down a guantlet and said, "We're a digital distribution network first and foremost, so our comics are going to be formatted well for the the computer screen, in a 4:3 aspect ratio."
Still, I'd disagree that the Zuda format is going to be the accepted one for other media devices. Case in point, iVerse Media is one of the growing number of publishers that adapts existing, or new comic book content for delivery on the iPhone through iTunes. The size of the images they can display on the iPhone are 480 x 320 pixels. That, my friend, is tiny. Too small even for most Zuda comics to be easily readable without Zooming in.
iPhone resolution requires pages with only 1-3 panels at most, and big lettering. I've included two pages...one that would fit and work well on a standard Zuda screen viewed on your computer monitor, and one that's been reformatted for ideal viewing on an iPhone just to illustrate this point.
Page Formatted for Zuda, understanding that 99% of Zuda readers now view comic in Full-Screen Mode.
Same page, Reformatted for iPhone resolution, assuming reader will not want to zoom in and out on pages. Note: need for larger lettering, and reduced word count.
- I think it's clear that right now it's the wild west out there for creators. But I guess we can take some comfort in that fact that a story well-told is a story well told, and as long as we're producing one of those, we'll be able to find an audience.
Very fascinating reading, both in the article and in the replies!
One thing that sprung to mind, with regards to the future of visual storytelling on the internet: Have any of you checked out Infinite Canvas?
(apparently, I can't post links until I have at least 5 posts, so here's the address -- just delete the spaces )
http : // infinitecanvas . appjet . net /
It's sort of similar to the Zuda reader, but on a much larger, more organic, more adaptable scale. This really strikes me as the newest and best format for storytellers on the web. The possibilities are endless!
This is exactly the article I have been wanting you to write and have been waiting for. I knew you'd get to it, as it is indeed inevitable. You know (as do a few others) that I will be launching the ezine ROCKnROLL GraphiX this Spring. As a writer/creator and (wannabe) print magazine publisher I had been doing a lot of extensive research into the markets of both serial magazines and regular comics. In many ways I had been looking at both in very much the same way. There's a lot I could go into but it would really just be a lot of banter. Suffice it to say my decision to go completely site publication vs print was prompted by both what the trend in the market has been (and most assuredly will continue to be) and an economic choice.
About six months ago (or thereabouts) a well known gaming magazine made the announcement that they were canceling their print run and would be publishing to the web on a permanent basis. Realizing that print companies (as with all companies) are motivated by fiscal concerns and the overall desire to make money, I knew then and there this is the future - here and now. Magazines, many well known magazines that are published by large companies who print and sell several titles to their company's credit, will start to go from a website that only acts as a promotional tool for their print magazine, to dropping the print magazine and retooling the site as an ezine (or possibly a new title for the medium whose phrase has yet to be "discovered"). Already this has started to happen all over the states. The European market is a little slower to act. If print magazines are big here, in Europe (and Asia) they are MASSIVE. It may take longer to see how things will turn out there but I feel certain it will happen nonetheless. Comics are going to see it too. Everywhere. I'm not sure if it will be an independent e-publisher who will come out of nowhere and set a new standard for comics publishing on the web or one of the big boys. But let me explain: What we have seen in independent e-publishing has been sub-par at best. It's not likely an independent e-publisher will spend the money it takes to create an ezine/e-comic (or whatever people want to call it ten years from now) that will stand out and pave the way of the future. That doesn't mean it can't happen. Someone may happen upon a very cool idea that everyone will take a look at and begin to imitate. Imitation, in turn, becomes the standard. On the other hand, the big boys (let's take Marvel for example) seem to want to dazzle us with a little too much showmanship, as it were. Panels jump out at you, explosions seem to "explode" and all manner of current special FX can been seen with a turn of the page, so to speak. And at the same time they seem just a wee bit timid to jump right in and set the standard. I could be wrong, but it looks as if they just want to wait and see what the market is going to do first before making any real choices. As you mentioned above, we can't blame them.
Formatting is going to play a big part in who comes out being the one credited for setting the standard. Me? I'm hoping it's an independent e-publisher somewhere with a really cool idea that no one has thought of yet. The publication is going to have to be very user friendly with site navigation your grandma who has never been on a PC before in her 90 + years can operate. It's going to have to look cool, be cool, and set apart from everything else. It's going to have to be nearly universal to everything that has the ability to access the nets. And, maybe most importantly, it's going to have to publish content readers want to read and will continue to come back for. With that in mind, a good writer will always be in demand.
Thanks for a very cool article.
Thanks, guys. I appreciate it.
Tyler: It's not really about reading the tea leaves. I just look around, see what's going on, and extrapolate from there. I do something of the same thing with my wife. I call it having equity in the Bank of Right. With my wife, I have a LOT of equity--so much, that she doesn't even fight with me anymore when I tell her to do something a certain way instead of the way she wants. Comics aren't about being right. No one's been "right" yet, not really. It's about catching the wave and being able to ride it.
I also really want to do my radio show idea. I honestly think it could work.
Joey: No, I haven't checked out the infinite canvas, but it's worth investigating. Sure, some stories can be done on it, but they have to fit the medium used. The movement of the canvas is akin to a camera wipe or a age turn. Only so much can be done with it.
Dave: glad to hear I finally made it. It only took almost six months, but I got here. Yes, I totally believe the future of print is the web--well, at least the periodical format. I don't follow magazines, really, but as soon as one switches, look for the rest to follow. (I'd like to see Omni make a comeback on the web...) Really, all it takes is one good magazine to make the switch before others follow. Imagine Cosmo as web-only.
All it takes is one.
And it's coming.
It's sort of a blank... well, canvas. You can create an extended comic strip, where the only special feature is the continuous scrolling image, sure.
BUT, if you check out the Neil Gaiman story "The Day The Saucers Came", or the story "Signs", they do much more than that. They make it so that the images can blend and fade into each other without really breaking the narrative flow. Clicking on the "next page button" actually becomes a part of that narration.
Now, imagine taking both the scrolling capability, and the page turn feature, and making them work with each other. Now you've got a visual presentation that you can take your time to explore, and when you're ready to move on to the next phase, click the button, and it flows seamlessly into another image. Almost like a three-dimensional comic.
I don't see it so much as the creator being restricted by the new format, but as the reader being set free by it.
I know it's sort of a tangental ramble, but it's definitely given me some inspiration for my own comics. And I wonder what other uses people could glean from it.
I understand what you're saying, Joey, but I'm going to tell you right now: 99% of us don't have that kind of talent. (Yes, I include myself in that number.) Not right now. Maybe after a few years of continually trying new things (and getting them published), but not right now. There are a lot of you who still have trouble with what does and doesn't fit on the page, or have a lot of trouble telling a coherent story. Believe me, I know, because I see it.
A world of possibility, sure, but most of us are still learning to crawl.
As a writer to writers I am saying keep at it. Somehow someway the formatting will eventually be played out til someone declares it standard and everyone else starts doing it that way. Until then just keep plugging away. No matter what you have written it will be a matter of clever script mechanics on your part to adapt to. Believe it or not it took me several years before I gave up a typewriter in favor of a PC. But if I wanted to be a writer (of any sort) I had to. Hard copy submissions are extinct. And if you do find a house which invites hard copy submissions they're on the endangered list. But this has more to do with fiction and novel writing than comics. Still, point is, I had to adapt. Keeping in mind, I am admitting to you I have not had GREAT success as a published writer. Ha!