Speakeasy the Next CrossGen?

I used to call Alias the next CrossGen, because their combined late books, overloaded slate, and tendency to flood retailers made them look like they weren’t long for the world. Now, they’ve got a competitor for the title: Speakeasy.

The publisher seems to have decided that it doesn’t need to do anything in order to make a profit. It doesn’t need to promote titles (press mailings have declined greatly, based on my own experience). It doesn’t need to risk taking a loss, billing creators if their books don’t sell to a pre-determined level (a level that few independent titles reach, especially given a lack of promotion). It doesn’t need to communicate with either its creators or fans. It doesn’t need to worry about alienating retailers to the extent that its sales drop at the same time it’s publishing more and more titles.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s the proof.

First, Rich Johnston, who’s got a book coming out from Speakeasy (which perhaps affected the offhand way he presented this rather radical idea) revealed in his weekly rumor column:

Creators who bring books to Speakeasy own those books 100%. When publishing, Speakeasy takes a fixed fee, as well as negotiated printing and advertising costs. Whatever is left, goes to the creators. The big difference is that with Image, if your balance ends up negative, you don’t owe anything. You just get no money. With Speakeasy, you owe that difference. A business model which makes Speakeasy’s the only publisher in comics guaranteed not to lose money – its own that is.

(As an aside, this may explain why I prefer Image’s books. Even when I don’t agree with it, they have an editorial filter. They don’t want to lose money, so they are selective in what they’ll agree to publish. They turned down, for example, Rich’s book.)

Warren Ellis added, in a thread at his forum (link no longer available), that Image also gives a free Previews ad, while Speakeasy makes the creator pay for space. (Usually wasted. As I said in my November Previews comments, “Speakeasy bought seven ad pages that say the exact same thing as the solicits that follow them, only with double-size pictures. And out of 14 ads, I counted 3 misspellings of the titles themselves.”) Rich continues:

The pattern goes as follows, according to Fortier. A book’s first issue sells okay, makes money, the second breaks even, the third and fourth lose money. So rather than cancel the book outright, just cancel it in print and put the last two issues online for free. With no printing or handling fee for the creator from Speakeasy. Those readers following the book get a great deal, are guaranteed to be able to finish the series with no comics left hanging, and a completed mini series can then be represented for foreign of mass media rights – which might then lead to the book becoming financially viable again, finishing the series in print or as a graphic novel. Fortier acknowledges that some retailers may be put out by this, especially those who have sold the book’s previous issues and have ordered subsequent issues, with waiting customers.

Interesting that Rich doesn’t point out that this maintains Speakeasy’s interest in the property, whether or not it’s a good deal for the creator. He or she could as easily do this themselves without the burden of being saddled with a publisher who’s quickly becoming something to avoid. If the creator’s expected to do their own promotion and wind up in debt and publish half their work for free, then what benefit, exactly, do they get from the Speakeasy slug on their title?

Especially given that Rich and the publisher are both fatally underplaying what a kiss of death this is for Speakeasy books. Retailers have been told that Speakeasy is willing to solicit titles, not publish or ship them, and then give them away to readers for free. Why would any retailer order any Speakeasy title beyond committed reader preorders at this point? No retailer (or reader) wants to get stuck with a 2 (of 4) that will never conclude, or only conclude in a collected edition where the reader has to rebuy half the material.

Speakeasy has just cut the knees out from under all of their titles. I wouldn’t be surprised if creators found this justification for immediately severing all ties with the doomed publisher.

At their forums, customers are complaining about the ever-growing list of late titles from the publisher with no revised ship dates forthcoming. Some sort of company rep responds “I can give you the information, but I’d rather the creators of the late books do it themselves. If possible, can you post your requests in the individual forums?”

Yay for customer service, a lost art. “Here, you go do lots of extra work to get information we should be communicating but won’t.” The next message is a Speakeasy creator stating that his “Ellium: Principles of Chaos OGN will not be coming out. As I was worried about, not enough people went to their retailers and asked for it to be carried and being a $15 OGN, the price was too much for retailers to take a chance on.” I don’t really blame customers wanting to browse before they buy, with an unknown creator. He’s going to put the book online for free, which should address that problem, and switch back to 22-story-page issues. At Ellis’ forum, he adds

Speaking only for my self, Speakeasy has never done anything overtly malicious, but there is a bit of the “thrown to the wolves” feeling going on. My OGN Ellium: Principles Of Chaos didn’t receive help in the form of advertising and in fact through a number of various miscommunications from the publisher all advertising I had done on my own was undermined (most serious of which was solicitation an entire month earlier then planned without notice). I’m looking into all my options for continuing the series but this was a serious blow to my credibility considering I had solicited several OGNs as a self publisher and delivered all of them as promised. Now it’s been an entire year with nothing to show for it.

Don’t underestimate how damaging to the reputation it can be to be associated with a company with the stink of failure surrounding it.

Mark Fossen is asking some of the same questions I am, ticking off how two of Speakeasy’s well-known titles have left, the lack of a recognizable brand, their rapid increase in title counts, and how their lateness is also negatively affecting creators’ titles, through no fault of their own. He concludes with the wish that “creators who have tied their cart to Speakeasy don’t get crushed both financially and in reputation due to decisions over which they have no control.”

I found it interesting that the comments thread there, at the time of this writing, concludes with Rich Johnston again chiming in to talk up the publisher, ignoring all of the tough questions and cogent points in favor of plugging Speakeasy as “a place for an otherwise unattached creator to up their game slightly.”

Matt Maxwell, another Speakeasy creator (Strangeways), has some thoughts to add, making this clever point about sales:

Granted, if I knew that a book had a strong following on the internet (and that could be backed up), perhaps that would encourage folks to order strong on the print version, but there’s a hundred arguments against that, primarly the whole “just because they like it for free doesn’t mean they’ll pay real money for it”, which is pretty strong these days.

He elaborates in a later post:

My problem with this plan is it’s basically leading readers out of the DM, which is where Speakeasy is supposed to be making its money currently. No, the DM isn’t a perfect thing. However, the folks who are operating in the DM aren’t going to embrace migration with open arms. Particularly when they’re the ones selling the books in the first place. My problem with this plan (as it appears, right now) is that serialized books from Speakeasy will receive diminishing support *in their primary market.* … Sometimes the singles lead to customers buying the trades, and even if that’s the case, the DM retailer gets to keep the customer. But if the note in the back of issue #2 reads “Go read the thrilling conclusion online for free”, then that trail doesn’t lead back to the DM at all. In fact, there’s no money in it, unless you’re selling banner ads. Not yet, anyways. And who knows, maybe there’s a brilliant plan to make it work. But right now, that’s not evident to me.

Again, Rich Johnston pops up, sounding peeved, “It’s not leading readers out of the DM in the long term. It’s providing a place for the books to be finished, and then printed in collected or other forms. It extends the print life of a project rather than cuts it off at the knees, which is the current model.” Seems like Rich either has information others don’t, in which case he should share it, or he’s just determined to be contradictory without supporting evidence.

The ultimate necessary reading on Speakeasy, though (I know, I should have started with this instead of ending with it) comes from Guy LeCharles Gonzalez at Buzzscope (link no longer available). He interviews Adam Fortier, eliciting comments that have just the tinge of threat about them:

“If we are looking at publishing the book online,” Fortier explained, “we agree to waive our publishing fee for that issue. Should a creator choose to take their book elsewhere, we would have to discuss the canceling of the contract, and I can’t really get into specifics of what that would entail to each creator.”

Fortier doesn’t seem to get how damaging his new policies and rapid growth have been.

When asked whether the rapid expansion had affected their sales figures, which have dropped across the board as their line has increased, Fortier didn’t seem to think so. “If we were the only company that was experiencing lower than normal sales, I could see that,” he said, “but look around the industry, and talk to all the independent publishers out there, you’ll hear the same thing. I think that as an industry, we’ll be able to get back to previous sales numbers, but it’s going to take thinking outside of the box, a lot of hard work, and some pretty darn cool properties to get there.”

Yes, sales are down in many places, but that doesn’t absolve his bad policies. Typical of most publishers, there are no concrete figures provided, so we can’t do definitive analysis, but it’s entirely conceivable that while small publishers are down, his sales are dropping by some greater factor.

And just what is so “out of the box” about putting comics online after Girl Genius and Finder and any number of webcomics are already there?

Gonzalez also tells the story of Joshua Hale Fialkov (Elk’s Run), who was successfully self-publishing prior to moving his book to Speakeasy. Since moving, no new issues of his comics have come out, and his sales numbers didn’t increase. Now his books are late, he’s having to raise prices on the last two issues of his eight-issue series, and he can’t afford to continue promoting the book at the same level he was. His final thoughts?

“Our core directive for the deal was to control costs and up our numbers. Unfortunately, the deal hasn’t accomplished either of them. Now it’s time for Speakeasy to step up to the plate and finally hit one out of the park.”


17 Responses to “Speakeasy the Next CrossGen?”

  1. Kevin Melrose Says:

    In related news: It’s rapidly approaching a year since I pre-ordered Yoshitaka Amano’s Hero, Vol. 1, and it still hasn’t seen the light of day.

  2. Sarah Says:

    …so the difference between Speakeasy and a vanity publisher is what, exactly?

  3. Why Read Comics? Says:

    […] Great post about speak easy on Comics Worth Reading. […]

  4. markus Says:

    Thanks for calling bullshit where necessary.

  5. Mark Fossen Says:

    And just what is so “out of the box” about putting comics online after Girl Genius and Finder and any number of webcomics are already there?
    Those are creator-owned, and published by their creators, right?

    It’s “out of the box” to solicit someone else’s work with little to no intention of publishing it, and then move it to your own website.

  6. Johanna Says:

    Sarah, the question of how “vanity publisher” maps to comics is a complicated one. On one hand, most comic publishers are; on the other, it doesn’t have nearly the connotation it does for book publishing.

    Mark, oooh, snap!

  7. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Says:

    …on the other, it doesn’t have nearly the connotation it does for book publishing.

    Which, honestly, baffles me. In poetry, vanity presses are anathema to any poet who wants to be taken seriously, and you’re better off self-publishing chapbooks until you’re able to break in with a reputable small press. In comics, vanity-style publishers seem to be the norm.

    As much as people often want to blame Diamond’s de facto monopoly for enabling the Big Two’s stranglehold on the marketplace, I’d argue that the real problem is their willingness to effectively embrace/encourage the vanity publishing model.

  8. Kurt Says:

    I agree with your general assessment about the self-inflicted damage Speakeasy is causing itself, but I propose a slightly different motivation. I think their aim is to divest themselves of the independent talent in favor of building up in-house properties. I suspect the Ardustry deal is playing a much bigger role in this than Fortier has let on, with a bigger emphasis on owning the IP. He hints at this direction in the CBR interview.

    If that’s their direction one could see how they might arrive at these new policies as some sort of halfway mechanism that has the appearance of continuing to support the independent creators while simultaneously purging the existing ranks. If that’s true (and it’s purely speculation on my part) the question then becomes can Speakeasy overcome the harm they’ve done to their name and become viable as a publisher of their own properties. I’m not offering any odds on that one.

  9. Johanna Says:

    Guy, I think in order to continue to discuss this, I need to know how you define (or determine) “vanity publishing”. Are we talking any self-published work? Does Image qualify as a vanity publisher? Are there any reputable small comic publishers who aren’t self-publishing?

    I’m just not sure we’re thinking of similar thing when we use that term.

    Kurt, hmmmm. Owning properties is key to Hollywood development, it’s true.

  10. Sarah Says:

    I would say that a vanity publisher is one that requires the author to bear all or essentially all the costs of publication (and often charges on top of that). Any setup in which the publisher could lose meaningful money if the books don’t sell isn’t quite vanity publishing, because the publisher actually has a significant interest in generating sales (and thus promotion, etc.). I don’t think in the regular publishing world, there’s quite the same spectrum between vanity and “regular” publishing that there seems to be in the comics world (i.e., contracts where the author bears at least part of the cost of publication seem to be much more common in the latter, whereas most print authors with any aspirations at all get at least some payment up-front for their work instead).

  11. Rich Johnston Says:

    No it didn’t. I present every idea in an offhand way, surely?

  12. Rich Johnston Says:

    Johanna, Flying Friar is going through the production process. I have no other books in with Speakeasy. If I work on another project, I’m pitch it to Image first. Obviously.

    Apparently, contractually, this doesn’t extend Speakeasy’s interest in the property. The creator is able to pull the project. If they see value in the Speakeasy slug, they’ll continue with it. If not, they won’t. I’d prefer someone else to take the hosting, for example.

    The point Fortier made is that the book would not have concluded… now it will. No stuck about it.

    I’m not ignoring any cogent points. I was stating why I was at Speakeasy. Cogent point aplenty in LITG, where I can get some hits out of it.

    I shared all info I had in LITG. This came from what I printed.

    Is there a difference between a vanity publisher and a subsidy publisher?

  13. Joshua Macy Says:

    I don’t think the difference between vanity publishing and comics self-publishing is particularly baffling. It’s a simple matter of economics, in particular the cost to the consumer of determining whether a book meets the minimum standards that make it worth considering purchasing.

    For prose, it’s generally time-consuming to check and the cost of a mistake is fairly high in terms of lost time (worse if it’s non-fiction and you need it to be factually accurate), so people are willing to pay for editor/publishers to act as gate-keepers so they don’t waste their time.

    For comics, most people can tell literally at a glance whether it meets their minimum standards, further checking for polish in terms of dialog and humor is a matter of moments, and the cost in time of being wrong is fairly small. In fact, for comics that cost is so small that the distributors and retailers perform most of the gate-keeping. It’s comparatively rare to see a comic on the shelves at a comic store with art so far below par that you wonder why the retailer even ordered it (and if you do see such, it’s at least moderately likely to come from a “major” publisher and be signed “Liefeld”, for instance).

    As for poetry, that’s a different kettle of fish, because poetry is worthless, monetarily. With a handful of exceptions, you can’t even give a living poet’s work away except to other poets–and often not even then. Generally speaking, the “market” in poetry acts like a fine-arts charity: the publications are subsidized by institutions or private donors, authors are paid in author’s copies if at all, and all the copies are sold to potential authors and institutions which are interested in subsidizing the field. Authors are giving the journals first publication rights in exchange for bragging rights, so naturally everyone in the system resents and discounts any publishing that would dilute the reputational economy.

    Even though I think self-publication is perfectly respectable, in the age of instant and cheap distribution via the web, anyone who self-publishes either comics or poetry except directly to a fan-base built up by publication on the web is nuts.

  14. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Says:

    Does Image qualify as a vanity publisher?

    No, because they take a certain level of financial risk in every book they publish, and they also have an editorial filter that screens out the more obvious DOA projects that some other publishers willingly take on. (Lethal Instinct, anyone?)

    Speakeasy’s model seems to straddle the fence between that of subsidy publisher and outright vanity publisher, taking no real financial risks of their own, other than the potential creator default.

    And no, I don’t equate self-publishing to vanity publishing. The former is old school DIY, while the latter is a publisher who will put out anything for the right price, with no regards to quality or saleability.

  15. Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] Speakeasy has recently come under much criticism for … oh, a whole laundry list of things. Read my original post at the link for details. Now Rich Johnston, Speakeasy creator, has interviewed Adam Fortier, Speakeasy publisher, in an attempt to get answers to some of the concerns raised. […]

  16. LUCAS Says:

    Amazing, look what has happened to a good book Rocketo.
    Every single issue with the exception of the first has been late, how can that book ever get a following. I been buying the book catch as catch can with book four being released more than a month late. Shame on Speakeasy for letting this happen.

  17. Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] That’s what many people had speculated on, that the creator-owned properties would be going away. Kind of a weird way to have that confirmed, though, as a blog entry comment. […]

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