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Defending Publishers (aka Several reasons self-publishing sucks)

Almost a week ago, D.J. Coffman announced that he’s putting his (really fun) Hero by Night on hiatus due to late payments by Platinum Studios. His post immediately reignited the eternal argument about the importance of creators rights in comics (see, pretty much any post from this site two weeks ago).

And while I agree with much of the sentiment behind the “hooray for self-determination” school of thought on creators rights – it does tend to overlook large areas where the current self/Internet publishing models might really suck for a lot of emerging creators.

First back to D.J. for a second, for those new to this ongoing discussion. As the inaugural winner of Platinum’s Comic Book Challenge in 2006 – he has been a lightening rod for controversy since, as that contract (even moreso than the recent TokyoPop Pilot) attracted a lot of discussion about creators rights (the fact that D.J. has a reputation as a world-class shit-disturber didn’t hurt), but since M.Coffman is directly responsible for my ukulele addiction he gets a free pass ‘round these parts – capice?

Now D.J. has since posted that he sees the issues which he’s experienced as more symptomatic of a very troubled domestic comic industry than with his specific publisher (and he seems to genuinely harbour no ill feelings for the Platinum folk whatsoever), but his announcement fed fire to the continual message that in this modern day and age there is really no need for producers/publishers/distributors and creators should embrace pursuing their projects as independently as possible.

Scott Kurtz and Kris Straub are especially vocal proponents of this viewpoint – one only has to read their recent (very solid) How to Make Webcomics
(co-authored with Dave Kellett and Brad Guigar) to see that what they are saying is, literally 100% correct. There is no technical requirement in this day and age to have to abdicate a single iota of interest in anything you do to find an audience or be successful. I don’t argue that point in the slightest.

However I immediately started to write a gargantuan multi-post epic, that I called “10 reasons you might not want to self-publish” to point out some of the uncomfortable truths of going that route… now many, many, days later I have dozens of pages of a half-finished brain-dump that’s not a lot of fun to read – and can be summed up with one macro point… so let’s do that instead:

Traditional publishing companies offer many opportunities to creators who are not interested or able to invest significant time, effort, and money into ancillary skills not directly related to creating content.

Please don’t take this as any kind of condemnation about self-publishing. Rocket Ace Moving Pictures follows the self-published webcomic model almost exclusively to a T, except with episodic video, and it wouldn’t have worked – at all – any other way. I still feel it’s disingenuous to suggest that there aren’t major obstacles to overcome if one takes that model as a template:

1. Self / Internet publishing requires you to learn (or pay for) a number of skills which have absolutely nothing to do with creating your art.

Webpage design, server management, pre-press layout, ISBN numbers, public relations, advertising sales, marketing, wholesale discounting, convention retail, fulfilment, customs declarations, contract law, business planning, screen-printing, self-promotion… just to name a few of the skills most Internet publishers have to learn to make some kind of profit from their works.

Absolutely none of these are impossible barriers to entry (and developing enterprises such as Lulu or Project Wonderful make the self-publishing route more accessible all the time) – but they remain barriers.

How many webcartoonists can you think of have missed some (or regularly miss) their regular schedules because they have to work on shipping store orders, attend conventions, re-output old strips for printed books, or the like? Or for that matter how many artists with great websites have sub-par (or out of date) material that you rather wish they’d focused on instead of the presentation and marketing? The current hybrid “merchandising” model for webcomics means that many/most cartoonists making a career in the field are actually making a living designing t-shirts, or running fulfilment centres… not actually on their webcomic output.

Again, there is nothing wrong with this – it’s just a different kind of creative patronage. My closet is full of awesome John Allison and Jonathan Rosenberg shirts (and Jeffrey Rowland, Chris Hastings, Kiko, and R Stevens shirts… ) but it’s worth noting that almost none of that is clothing related to the regular comics of those individuals, rather their distinctive shirt designs. I don’t own a single piece of clothing with a character directly from someones comic property. [Edit – I’m wrong there’s a single exception… albeit the original design of that shirt].

This isn’t a bad thing, but to make such a model work requires an individual with a passion (and aptitude) for self-instruction on a variety of both left-brain and right-brain tasks… and that’s absolutely not everyone.

The advantage of an independent publishing concern has always been an implied infrastructure to do business that creators may not want to do directly. Publishers have access to corporate resources that are just untenable to single creators, from creation through retail to licensing. I did not discover Akimatsu Ken because he was a brilliant creator. I discovered him because Kodansha had an in-house licensing and translation department which created a series of “learn how to read English” / “Learn how to read Japanese” textbooks with full UK English / Japanese dual translations of “Love Hina” (this would pre-date anyone other than Dark House trying to translate manga for North American release). For that matter any of the manga or anime which has found an Engligh-speaking audience is because of the weight of the publishing companies behind them.

2. Self / Internet Publishing Means Many Creators work without any kind of editorial input.

One of the most underrated aspects of a traditional publisher / creator relationship is that of an editor. There may be wunderkind artisans out there who can create works out of whole cloth… but I haven’t met them yet. I’ve worked with some pretty big name directors who have shelves of “lifetime achievement awards” for careers of exceptional films – and to a “T”, they have all been very good at listening to and incorporating suggestions from sources they trust. That doesn’t mean they try to please everyone (or at times put their back to the wall to fight for what they believe to be the best approach) but they do listen.

While self-published work will almost always generate a lot of feedback and input for a creator, it has two potential potholes:

  • It often does so at the end of the creative process when it’s too late to change anything
  • A lot of it is not very good.

Many self producing creators faced with seemingly insurmountable tasks would give their eye teeth for someone to break the task down into accessible chunks, give them feedback and suggestions throughout, give them an outlet to vent and rail instead of having to rely on pets and loved ones to burn off frustration, put a shield between them and outside (unwarranted) criticism to focus on the core issues (or just generally deflect fan chatter), or have some type of mentor who has seen what approaches have been successful or not in the past and who can relate their experience to the current project. A good editor can fulfil all of these roles, and more.

Now, there’s nothing stopping creators from creating their own “composite editors” out of friends, co-creators, family, and the aforementioned pets and loved ones… but that option isn’t “free” as it involves time and effort to cultivate such a network (and evaluation of whose opinions one actually trusts, and on what issues one trusts them).

The obvious counter-argument here is that there’s no guarantee that in a traditional publishing arrangement you’ll get a good editor, and bad editors can be more disastrous than their counterparts are beneficial. However, this is a argument for finding the right deal – not an argument against the system as a whole.

Self/Internet publishing offers a range of opportunities that creators from the past would have given their eye teeth for… but it’s also important not to wear too rose-tinted a pair of glasses when examining the “lifestyle.” Thinking (for example) about the self-publishing boom from the 70s, 80s, or todays webcomics I can easily think of a number of creators who could likely have been more famous, made more money, done more “commercially successful” work, and put in less effort had they worked within a traditional publishing system. Now that’s not necessarily what is the most important outcome for many people. The cases I can think of, I’m not sure any of them would have given up the creative freedom and total control they had/have, even with 20/20 hindsight – but it’s worth discussing rationally rather than treating self-publishing as a panacea for all creators of all backgrounds and abilities.

The one-man-band is wicked-cool, but there are folks out there who just want to play one instrument, even if they have to be part of a larger group to do so.