Friday, January 04, 2008

Me? Optimisitic?

I love comics. A lot. Probably more than is really healthy. But the more I know about comics, the less desire I have to work in the comics industry for a living. Everything I've ever learned about every aspect of the comics business leads me to believe that A) just about everyone in the biz -- from creators to distributors to retailers -- loves the medium, and B) you really HAVE to love it because it's a heck of a lot of work for pretty low returns. There's a handful of folks who have made a good living off comics, but they're the decided exception.

So it always surprises me when someone takes a gamble on a comic related business. Whether that's opening a new shop or trying to put out their own self-published comic or whatever, that's taking on a huge risk even for the most talented individuals. And regardless of their skill or the quality of their product/service, I wish them all the best, however foolish I might personally think they are.

There are any number of statistics floating about regarding failure rates of start-ups, but I think it's safe to say that most businesses will fail in less than five years. See, the main problem is that starting up a company of any sort requires a lot of very different skills. You need to know your product, naturally, but you also need to know how to run a business, which entails dealing with suppliers, distributors, retailers, lawyers, government officials, and -- oh, yeah -- end customers. And then you need to know something about marketing and salesmanship. Which can mean copy writing, graphic design, web programming, realty (location, location, location!) and much more. Now you can certainly hire people to take up the various tasks that you might need more assistance with, but that of course requires money. In many cases, more than taking out bank loans and maxing out your credit cards will grant you. So start-ups are, by pretty much any standard, an uphill climb.

It should come as no surprise, then, that we don't see many publishers that last a good, long while. Even many of what are now considered stalwarts of comic publishing are only ten years old. With all that said, I have some long-term optimism about one of the new kids on the block: Red 5 Comics.

Now, for those of you who've read their books, I think you'll agree that they've got the "making good comics" bit down pretty well already. I don't think I've seen a negative review of any of their books yet, and I know I've certainly enjoyed everything I've read from them thus far. Solid storytelling, both in art and writing, across the board. They've also been good at hitting deadlines and getting books out on a regular schedule -- which is, of course, more than I can say about many publishers from numbers one and two on down! But, as I noted earlier, that's only part of the battle.

The next part of the battle is getting the product to someplace the consumer is going to see it. Well, somewhat fortunately for comic publishers in general, there's really only one avenue to realistically take here: setting up Diamond as your distributor. (Oh, there's plenty of downsides to having Diamond as their only option, but in this instance, it makes things somewhat easier on publishers.) We know Red 5's got this down because, simply enough, their comics are making it into comic book shops.

Then there's marketing. I think Red 5's done pretty well on that front. Not only do they keep updating their web site at least weekly (far more often than even some larger publishers) most of the creators have web sites up and running with fairly regular updates. The trickier element they've also done pretty well at has been getting their folks interviewed by several of the "name" news outlets. We're not seeing just press releases being sent out and published more-or-less blindly, but actual back-and-forth interviews to help drum up interest.

Now the part that I can't really speak to directly, of course, is the financing. Red 5 is a private company, so they're not likely to share their money situation with outsiders. They have recruited some respectable advertisers, though not many, and it's about impossible for me to guess at their ad rates. But they're also using a nicer (read as: more expensive) grade of paper than many folks, and their print runs are small enough to almost certainly not qualify them for good volume discounts. There is a contact form on their site specifically geared towards investors, which might suggest they don't have solid and/or long-term financial backing yet, but it should be noted that marvel has a similar inquiry page and they've been fairly stable and solvent for several years now. (Side note: I'm still kicking myself for not buying any of their stock back when it was 35 cents a share!)

It does seem that Red 5 is doing reasonably well, financially, so far. Given that their initial sales numbers are respectable by indie comic standards, one has to suppose they're at least breaking even. This is supported, too, by the recent announcement of a second Atomic Robo series even before this first one is complete. Presumably, that decision was based primarily on the sales figures of the first issue. However, sales figures can be misleading (ignoring the fact that the generally accepted sales numbers we all cite are educated guesses of only a portion of the market, at best) as both CrossGen's and Gorilla's sales were four or five times what Red 5's are, and they both still ran into problems and folded.

I bring up those two defunct companies because they, too, had good quality books that received a decent amount of critical acclaim, and I had high hopes for. They both also had distinctly different financial issues and different economic models for running their businesses. There may be little or no real comparison between either of them and Red 5. But my point is that, because Red 5 is a private company and can keep their money situation as quiet as they like, there's no real gauge for anyone outside the company to know how well they may or may not be doing.

From what little I can see, however, I'm optimistic. Probably in part because I want to see more quality comics like the ones they're producing, and that hope is translating into optimism. But, from what I can see and what I do know, I don't see any reason(s) why they won't be a player in the publishing market for years to come. And, given that I'm usually pretty skeptical about these types of things, that means either Red 5 is on the right track or I'm really deluding myself on this one because I've been subconsciously looking for a comic publisher who I can really support across their entire line.

1 comment:

Avi Green said...

I'd sure like to be a comics writer myself someday, assuming the industry will survive long enough, but right now, with the way things are going at the big two for example, it's clear that things just aren't ready for me. Besides, I have all sorts of "human interest" themes that I'd like to develop that the major publishers probably wouldn't accept because of how sophisticated and meat-potatoes my ideas can be.