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Thread: Comics Cultures, Part 5: Commerciality

  1. LeeNordling Guest

    Comics Cultures, Part 5: Commerciality

    Before we start, once again, I want to remind you that Ronald Montgomery started up a Comics Pro Prep group on Facebook. You can check it out at:

    WEEK 4:

    It’s dj vu all over again.

    I was prepared to move away from the Comics Cultures series, and then the discussion shifted, reasonably, to the nature of commerciality.

    I responded with the following thoughts:

    There's a fascinating gut-check that creators have to the concept of commerciality, as though it only means jumping on the current conceptual gravy train, when that is just not the case.

    We can dance around this term a lot, but all it really means is that there is an editorial reason a project is perceived as being potentially salable to enough people to warrant financially backing it.

    That's at the heart of commerciality, not whether the creator is willing to become a hack and produce something he/she doesn't really care about.

    Asking somebody to be "commercial" doesn't necessarily mean they need to change what they do, though sometimes, honestly, it does.

    I remember hearing a mid-list author recount a decision she was faced with. Her last book had been successful, and her agent was telling her that she was on the verge of becoming a "best-selling" author, but to get there she was going to have to tailor her project decisions accordingly. The author opted to continue doing what she was doing, and was comfortable with that.

    But, to be clear, she was being asked to only focus on those projects that would appeal to that larger readership.

    So, to be commercial, folks can do it by accident or on purpose. Some couldn't do it on purpose if they tried, as their choices of material are too personal.

    But selecting from all the ideas you have for stories is different than selling out.

    For those who can do it, it's about making market decisions; it's about ascertaining the best use of time and resources.

    This is another one of those myths about being "commercial" that folks need to consider seriously.


    Because to say, "I'm not going to sell out and do what everybody else is doing to be successful" is a great excuse for not having to make the hard, professional decisions.

    It's perfectly okay to follow trends.

    It's perfectly okay to cull your editorial choices to increase chances for salability.

    It's perfectly okay to do only what's most personal to you at any given time, whether you or anybody else thinks it's commercial or not.

    As long as you know what you're doing, and why.


    Those are some of my thoughts about what commerciality isn’t, but we haven’t really delved into what it is.

    Or what it is in the different sequential art comics cultures.

    So, let’s go exploring.

    A hand goes up.

    “Yes?” I say.

    “Can’t we just say that something is commercial if it’s produced by a branded creator?” you ask.

    “You can, but you wouldn’t necessarily be right,” I reply. “Is a project commercial if the branded creator can’t bring in enough buyers to make the book profitable?”

    “I guess not,” you say.

    “And you’d be guessing correctly,” I respond. “With that in mind, is a project commercial if it’s based on a branded property and can’t bring in enough buyers to make the book profitable?”

    “I venture not,” you venture.

    “And you’d be venturing correctly,” I respond.

    “So, let’s take branding off the table in our search for what is or isn’t perceptively commercial, even though we acknowledge that Neil Gaiman’s attachment to a book of verse called Ode La Mode would make it commercial.”

    “Would it be fair to say that the attachment of a branded creator to a project’s commercial prospects is the icing on the cake?” you ask.

    “It would. Nicely thought through,” I reply, “So let’s discuss the cake, with the understanding that branding attachment, either by creator or property, helps its commercial prospects.”

    “How could Ode La Mode be a branded property?” you ask, puzzled, because you imagine it is what it is.

    “What if Ode La Mode is a Star Wars book on intergalactic baking? Does the Star Wars attachment help make it commercial?”

    “That may be the only thing, besides being written by a Neil Gaiman, that helps make it commercial,” you say.

    “Or it being recently discovered manuscript by Miss Julia Childs,” I say.

    “Okay, I get it,” you say. “And, since the purpose of this is discussion is to sort out the nature of commerciality, attaching brands, specifically brands that would make practically anything commercial, distorts all the other possible answers.”

    “Just so,” I say.

    So, we’re not discussing brands of any kind. Not Batman, Spider-Man, DC Comics, or Marvel Comics. We’re not discussing your favorite creators, or any creators.

    We’re looking to identify, as well as this week will allow us, why a project might be perceived as being potentially salable to enough people to warrant financially backing it.

    And not just in direct market comics.

    A hand goes up again.

    “Yes?” I ask.

    “Does that mean if something is potentially commercial in direct market comics it isn’t necessarily commercial in trade book publishing or comic strips or manga?”

    “What do you think?” I ask.

    “I think Zombie Angels from Outer Space would be cool in any of those categories,” you say. “It’s got the horror reader, the Christian evangelical crowd, and the sci-fi junkies.”

    “And that’s exactly the notion we’re going to work to dispel,” I reply. “Thanks for bringing that up.”

    “You’re welcome,” you say, pleased to have contributed.

    I was surprised to discover that a perception of commerciality simply meant placating to Twilight readers, though I imagine that conceit carried over to anything that’s massively popular.

    So, to avert other potential misconceptions, we’re going to begin with a question:

    In your mind, what constitutes potential commerciality in direct market comics, excepting all branding aspects?

    And what constitutes potential commerciality in trade book publishing, excepting all branding aspects?

    Be specific in clarifying the different markets, because I can promise you that what is true for one, will most likely not be true for the other.

    BIG HINT: to accomplish our goal, we’re going to need to delve into buyer demographics.

    “Ow!” you say, “My head just exploded.”

    “I like to think of it as ‘expanded,’” I reply.

    Our goal this week is to develop a rudimentary understanding of the concept of commerciality in any comics culture. This will help you learn to make your own project potential determinations. It won’t give you a crystal ball, but it will give you some realistic tools.

    Let’s get to work.


    Lee Nordling is the owner and founding partner of The Pack (, a comics-related content provider for the publishing industry. He is also author of “Your Career In the Comics,” an overview of the newspaper comics syndication profession and industry.

    If you wish to contact Lee separately from Comics Pro Prep, please write to him at lee@projectfanboy.
    Last edited by LeeNordling; Tuesday, March 09, 2010 at 04:32 PM.

  2. ohteej Guest

    In your mind, what constitutes potential commerciality in direct market comics, excepting all branding aspects?

    And what constitutes potential commerciality in trade book publishing, excepting all branding aspects?
    i don't understand the questions.. like what makes some characters/stories more marketable/easy to sell than others? :confused:

  3. LeeNordling Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by ohteej View Post
    i don't understand the questions.. like what makes some characters/stories more marketable/easy to sell than others? :confused:
    We're going to be discussing a wide range of facets that get into the nature of what is and isn't commercial.

    We've previously discussed, in very broad strokes, what three things make a project more commercial than other projects.

    One of them, the one that creators can control, is the "high concept," the think that will make an editor or publisher feel the project could do well (make money) simply based on the idea, presuming it's professionally well executed.

    Let's not lose track of "professionally well executed," because as Stephen King notes in his book on writing, at the end of the day, it's all about the writing, and in our case, that the execution delivers on the promise of the characters, the story, whatever it is that makee the project perceptively commercial.

    So what are those things.

    Somebody's bound to say, "In the direct market, zombies are commercial."

    He or she might be right, but then we need to do the heavy lifting and figure out why somebody producing a zombie comic is commercial now, but not twenty years ago.

    Believe it or not, there's one of those simple answers to this question that will get to the heart of the answer, one that also applies to why doing a Twilight variation might also be commercial.

    But to get to these deeper truths, we need to poke through the obvious realities, like "teen vampires" are commercial.

    So, it's time to put on your thinking caps, and offer your perceptions of anything you believe will help make a project commercial.

    Then we'll poke through those perceptions and get to the heart of the matter.

    Hope this clarifies what we need to do.


  4. arseneau77 Guest

    Well, my perception of 'commerciality' and buyer demographics is that certain core topics seem to go in 'waves' or cycles of popularity (I guess 'ebbs and flows' would be more accurate). And these seem to relate to certain fundamental and/or archetypal stories, themes or characters that have been popular in one form or another since humans were sitting around the campfire listening to the clan storyteller.

    So I would posit that these fundamentally popular themes/stories/whatever are essentially always 'popular', though a given market might be 'hotter' towards a particular topic over another at a given time.

    So beyond simply saying 'teen vampires are popular', I would suggest that they are popular (again...remember the Anne Rice boom?) because of certain fundamental characteristics of the idea of a vampire that is embedded in the human experience. For one, they cheat death, something that is about as universal a theme as it gets when discussing mythic structure. Secondly, they have massive sex appeal in that they are (in the modern incarnation) shown to generally be beautiful, sophisticated humans by all outward appearances, who then feed on our life force through the biting of the neck. Very intimate. So it's not that copying Twilight is's that what Twilight happens to be about (vampires) is enjoying one of its cyclical upswells in current popularity.

    That said, a book about vampires would probably find a more willing market right now than a few years back in the post-Anne Rice bust of the early 2000's. So, what would have been more 'commercial' in, say, 2003 or so? I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that something about a wizard in training might have found an audience.

    So, to my mind, striving for commerciality in your writing is the farthest thing from 'selling out'. It's just smart business sense to play the hand you're dealt and feed into the current hungers of the market. That's not saying that if you've written westerns your whole life you should suddenly switch to writing about teen vampires. What I am saying is that I don't believe there's anything wrong with identifying market tends, examining your own body of work, and then selectively pitching/working those that are closest to what's currently commercially 'hot'.

    That is, of course, unless your goal is 'art for art's sake' and not to make a career of your art, which is just as viable and legitimate a position to take as those of us trying to do this for a living.

    To 'sell out' you have to have already achieved a certain degree of commercial success on your own terms and then switch to the current 'flavor of the month' (vastly different from the style you made your name with) just to increase sales. You can never be a sell out if you believe in what you're doing and have artistic integrity, despite what accusation others might throw your way.

  5. LeeNordling Guest

    Since this topic doesn't cross paths with "art for art's sake," except as I addressed in the initial post as being a perfectly acceptable perspective, let's keep it off the discussion menu.

    I think Glenn got quickly to the point: a commercial project feeds the market.

    So, in the direct market and trade book publishing, what is the market?

    Or the divisions of the markets?


  6. arseneau77 Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by LeeNordling View Post

    So, in the direct market and trade book publishing, what is the market?
    This is my working definition:

    The 'market' is the current cumulative appetites of the book-buying populace.

    Taken as a whole, recurring themes and patterns emerge as part of current 'popular culture'. Broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks (i.e. genres), one can gauge the potential of an idea/project both against others of similar theme and against the market as a whole.

    Or maybe I'm way off

  7. LeeNordling Guest

    Not way off--actually good that you've noted that there are different perceptions of commerciality in different trade book publishing categories--but we need to clarify this better.

    When somebody asks, "What's commercial?", I often say, "You need to research the market to see what's selling."

    If manga is selling, and it still does, if I create a new manga series, is it automatically commercial?

    If so, why?

    If not, what does it need to be to become commercial (remembering that branding can't be applied to the answer)?


  8. WilliamStormeSmith Guest

    I believe demographics will always be the key. Therefore characters and settings are more important than genres. Characters connect with folks; Unforgiven as a western, Hurt Locker as a war movie, and Avatar as sci-fi fantasy. It's not like we had a lack of these genres. Twilight for example vampire stories have never gone out of style and are always being published. Yet Seymour was able to create a male lead character that truly appealed to the vast female readership it received. A powerful charming good looking immortal man who knows everything but is still a bad boy, who might bite them on the neck. Anne Rice hit with the erotic side, Twilight hit with the romantic side. I believe commercial will always be character based. Harry Potter was bigger than Vertigo's Books of Magic could have ever dreamed mainly because of the character's and the setting. It tapped into the childhood dreams of the loner orphan with unlimited potential in a setting with unlimited potential. It grabbed more than just fantasy fans, Books of Magic didn't claim a huge new audience for a consistently produced genre, it was more for adults.

    The Walking Dead hit because of the characters. They really allowed the reader to walk around in the setting of a zombified world. Even though it was nothing groundbreaking it hit a vein, like Harry Potter it had the ability to transport the reader comfortably into those situations thanks to the characters. It grabbed more than just the zombie fans.

    I picked up Sin City the first day it came out as a comic, because of Frank Miller's name. But "Martha Washington" was not exactly a huge commercial success and neither was "Rusty and The Big Guy". Sin City was because it was a different take on b&w crime noir than I'd ever seen before in my life. The setting pulled me in and the characters dragged me along on the ride. A crime noir fan could recommend Sin City to about anyone safely and expand the audience to action fans, super hero fans, on, and on.
    Last edited by WilliamStormeSmith; Tuesday, March 09, 2010 at 06:22 PM.

  9. Rain Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by LeeNordling View Post
    In your mind, what constitutes potential commerciality in direct market comics, excepting all branding aspects?

    And what constitutes potential commerciality in trade book publishing, excepting all branding aspects?[/I]
    Direct market: A project that will appeal to a firmly established demographic, with a fervent following for their genre of choice, and an emphasis on "action"; i.e., super heroes, sword and sorcery, giant robots.

    Trade: A project that will appeal to a firmly established, more "mature" and "scholarly" demographic than the direct market, with a fervent following for their subject matter of choice; i.e., conspiracy theorists, historical fiction, geopolitical commentary, the occult.

  10. arseneau77 Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by WilliamStormeSmith View Post
    I believe demographics will always be the key. Therefore characters and settings are more important than genres.
    I'd have to agree with you, but I'd push it deeper and say that the reason why certain characters and settings resonate is because of some unique combination of attributes that feeds one or more of the market's appetites, while simultaneously making the reader feel a connection to that character.

    IMO, you need to give them just enough of what they've seen before to make it familiar, with enough of a spin that it's perceived as unique and, thus, compelling.

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