The realities of the comic book market

First and foremost, if you haven’t already, go read this heartfelt and thoughtful essay by writer Brian Wood, wherein he shares his thoughts and frustrations on the topic of digital comics and the disconnect in pricing: The Digital Question Mark.

Basically it comes down to this conundrum: comic shop retailers don’t want digital comics priced lower than the print comics because they’re afraid they’ll lose customers; publishers, fearing boycotts and anger from retailers are afraid to price digital comics at the 99 cent or $1.99 price point that most consumers are comfortable with; and stuck in the middle are creators who are getting paid less, have less opportunities, and are losing out on new revenue streams from digital.

Needless to say, there are now good guys vs. bad guys in this struggle. Everyone has valid points and concerns, and I especially feel for the retailers. I love my comic book shop. Absolutely love it, and can’t bear the thought of it going out of business. But at the same time, I see the reality: all media is converging on digital. Love it, hate it, whatever, it doesn’t change the facts. Music struggled through it first. Video is now going through the revolution and uncertainty. Print is scared shitless to see where things shake out. It sucks for the established publishers and retailers. They lose money and customers while the shakeout is happening, trying to figure out how to adjust to the new business model and make a living from it. I have nothing but sympathy and empathy for them.

But again, it doesn’t change reality. You can’t put the digital genie back in the bottle. You can’t price your 20 page digital comic at $4 and blame the low sales on pirating.

But switching gears a little, the other thing about Wood’s post that really caught my eye as a creator was his gloomy outlook on his future as a writer in the comics medium:

“I’ve had series cancelled recently. I’ve had pitches rejected for financial reasons. I’ve seen my editors laid off. I’ve taken page rate cuts (a LOT of us have). My income from royalties have dropped. Most comic shops don’t carry my books. I have very good reasons to suspect my career in comics may be drastically reduced in the near future. Things just plain suck…”

As a creator finally getting some traction in the industry, and with a new series in the works, it’s quite depressing to hear an established pro with a strong following struggling like this. Makes me wonder how I’ll fare…how my book will do.

In another interview over at Comics Alliance, Wood goes on to say this about his dropping income:

“…when my DC exclusive ended, my page rate dropped back down to what it was in 2005, and I spend close to $2,000 a month for health insurance for the family now that I’m off DC’s plan. That loss of income is at least something I could anticipate and plan for. But there’s also been a steady decline over the last several years of backlist sales, and declining page rates at all companies. The result of all of this is I have to take on more work, for less money, to only take a 1/3 hit.

I’ll also state that work-for-hire doesn’t necessarily pay better than creator-owned, at least in a publishing deal where page rates are being paid. No comics job I’ve ever had has paid me better than DMZ has.”

I know it’s not an uplifting passage, but the realist in me feels that it’s worth spotlighting these types of frank reality checks. In a world of “follow your bliss” and “follow your passion and everything will work out” platitudes, I’ve often felt like the outsider. The creative type that’s also pragmatic and a realist. As much as I’d love to chuck it all and dive with abandon into writing full time, I know I don’t have it in me to live the freelance life. I know my limitations and comfort zone and financial and emotional responsibilities, and I know that I’m not built for that life. Any joy that would come from such a career move would be tempered with the stress of the uncertainty, the low pay, the feeling of helplessness as publishers and retailers struggle and clash on where the business is going. Or as Wood put it, feeling like the “innocent bystander.”

I have mad respect for the freelancers who can do it, but I know myself and I know it’s not for me. And I feel that to always gush about “the freelance dream” and treat the creative life with reverence bordering on delusion does a great disservice to aspiring creators. It sets folks up for the inevitable failure when they try to pursue their passion without stopping to survey the landscape from a realistic perspective first. I’m not saying it’s foolhardy to set off on an artistic career path, just that you should at a minimum Google map it first before hopping into your car. Do a little research, listen to folks like Brian Wood when they lay it out in a frank “this is how it is” manner for you.

Here’s another honest quote from that same CA interview:

“Every company out there is running on fumes right now.”

The parent companies of publishers like Marvel and DC are making a killing on licensing their recognizable IPs for everything from movies to underwear. But the publishing side, the branch where those valuable characters were created, fostered, and kept viable, are struggling. Just one look at sales figures will confirm it. At a time when a Batman movie can make over a billion dollars, and an expensive Batman video game can move 2-3 million copies, it’s simply depressing to note that the Batman comic book, despite having a critically acclaimed writer and the push of DC’s biggest marketing move in recent history is still barely breaking 100,000 copies.

Oh, but that big Hollywood money is waiting in the wing, or so creators like to think. Entire comic book “publishing” houses are set up as nothing more than an R&D branch to pitch concepts to movies. As a creator, it’s hard not to feel like the golden ticket is easily within reach, especially if the constant barrage of press releases announcing movie options are to be believed. Again, let’s turn to Wood, a creator with a couple of high profile series at Vertigo, not to mention numerous finite series perfect for a movie adaptation:

“I also rarely ever announce options because options are essentially meaningless in and of themselves and almost never amount to anything. Most of my books right now have options on them, some for years and years. If anything happens, I’ll let you know.”

So in the face of all this, what’s a new creator to do? Throw in the towel? Walk away?

Well, no. Speaking for myself, I’ll be forging ahead with the same passion and energy I’ve had up to this point. One tempered with a heavy dose of reality, to be sure, but not defeatist. It’s an overused term, but I’ve always liked “cautious optimism,” it has a good ring to it and captures my general approach to my creative endeavors. So yes, I’m still in the game, and still planning on creating comic books for as long as it’s still fun and emotionally rewarding.

I’m just not going to quit my day job anytime soon.