Thought-Provoking LinkBlogging

Tim Leong, professional magazine designer (and competitor as Editor-in-Chief of Comic Foundry), looks at Comics Now! (which I reviewed last week) and has some harsh criticism. Based on the reactions I’ve seen from the CN crew, they’re taking feedback to heart and reacting well by making the changes that make sense to them. I appreciate reading articles like Tim’s because he clearly knows his stuff, and it’s an education.

Also on the magazine front, Comics Journal contributor Noah Berlatsky discusses the magazine’s lack of manga coverage. (Please note that I’d change “is going” in his first sentence to “is”.)

the next generation of comics fans is going to be younger, more female and a lot more interested in manga than the current one. If you were one of those folks, would you look at TCJ and say, “This magazine really has something interesting to say to me?” Or would you say, this place feels like all those direct market stores I hate, and I’m not going anywhere near it?

Not that I want the Journal to abandon its mission or interests or personality. On the contrary, it seems like the Journal’s mission has always been, at least in part, to react to and think about what’s going on in the world of contemporary comics. In some ways, I’d be happier if the Journal was taking a hard-line “manga sucks!” stand. At least that’s engagement, of a sort. But instead there’s a kind of benign, somewhat bemused neglect.

I was honored to participate in the Journal’s issue #269, the super manga focus issue, but since the editors changed, I haven’t been asked to contribute and I don’t know how to pursue the subject. I’d be happy to write about manga for them, though. The point about limited budget is a significant one, since if I’m remembering and estimating correctly, one manga/anime/culture mag I’m familiar with pays three to six times the per-word rate the Journal does. And the audiences just may not have much overlap, and everyone might be fine with that. But that leads to the bigger question of how much relevance the Journal has and whether it’s still possible to cover all of comics given the fractures among manga/American comics, graphic novels/serialization, direct market/bookstores.

Speaking of which, Tom Spurgeon uses the recent discussion about how valid BookScan graphic novel sales figures are and whether they can be compared to direct market estimations as grounds for considering how the two markets relate. He touches on how notable alternative comic publishers sell more through bookstores than the comic-focused direct market and how “which market is better?” debates miss the point. I found this section particularly significant:

I suspect what’s deeply frustrating to many publishers and their advocates is that they now see comic shops through the lens of their recent experiences with bookstores. Despite the lack of saturation in the bookstore market and the fact they’re competing with so much product and it’s tough there and all the many, never-denied problems with book sales, over the last decade they’ve been made to feel much more welcome in that market than they have ever felt in the comics market. Their bookstore distributor probably hasn’t signed massively unfair and restrictive contracts with their other clients that puts them at a structural disadvantage. They’re treated with respect and enthusiasm at BEA compared to the disdain or begrudging acceptance that greets them at comics conventions. …

There is no framework by which the idea that anyone owes anyone anything is ever floated. No one from Amazon.com has ever to my knowledge publicly ripped into a comic book publisher for allowing a comic shop to take one of their sales. Can you blame many publishers for simply making room for a market that has in the last decade moved so many books, treated them professionally in doing so, has been the avenue for their biggest hits, and whom their records now indicate serves more than 50 percent of their bottom line?

In other words, it’s the sales without the hassle. The direct market, due to a combination of varied and unusual historical factors, tends to place value on reputation and feelings and intangible qualities (like possession — “they’re trying to take MY customer” — and relationship — “DC’s always been good to us”) instead of putting the money first. Which can make them tricky to deal with. When they’re demanding they be cosseted and given special treatment that their purchasing habits don’t justify, well, of course publishers would rather deal with a more established market that provides profit without the boobytraps. But I’m sinking into that Them vs. Them thinking that Spurgeon decries.

However, look again at his first sentence in that excerpt. When someone sees how easy and profitable it can be to deal with a mature system, then “that’s the way it’s always been” may be reconsidered. To sink into overused metaphor, it’s like having your first adult relationship after years of putting up with needy teenage obsession and drama. Spurgeon goes on to list problems that might arise in both markets:

[In bookstores:] Competition for bookshelf space continues to be fierce and will only get worse. … It takes more money to operate within the realm of book publishing than it ever has to enter and thrive in comics, which may have a drastic impact on who enters the field. …

[In the direct market:] there is nothing in the way the market operates that makes an incentive of acting in a manner that facilitates slow, overall growth and general health. Manipulating the market and cynical publishing ploys that burn away goodwill are consistently rewarded; unprofessional behavior is almost never punished.

Very insightful analysis from someone who knows his stuff.


12 Responses to “Thought-Provoking LinkBlogging”

  1. Peter Says:

    “I appreciate reading articles like Tim’s because he clearly knows his stuff, and it’s an education.”

    Except he doesn’t know that Nova is being published by Marvel right now and is one of their critical darlings. Makes you go hmmmm… no? :)

  2. Laura Hudson Says:

    “Based on the reactions I’ve seen from the CN crew, they’re taking feedback to heart and reacting well by making the changes that make sense to them. ”

    Based on the comment above and even more so the other comment Peter left on the CF blog, I’m gonna go with not so much.

    Playing gotcha games with Tim over that fact that he isn’t up to date on a marginal Marvel character is apparently more important than listening to valid criticisms from a professional about the design flaws in your mag. Geez, at least pretend to accept criticism gracefully.

  3. Derek Coward Says:

    I don’t understand one thing: Does accepting criticism gracefully include overlooking obvious errors, such as implying that the author of the podcasting column is a part of CGS even when it is mentioned that he is not?

  4. Justin Says:

    I agree with Peter’s comment made on the CF site. I also almost stopped reading the article after that Nova slip up. It is one thing to be mistaken about something in passing, it is another thing entirely when it throws a wrench in one of your early criticisms.

    Still, we will see with later issues what Comics Now will take to heart. And since I have preordered issue two, I am anxious to find out.

  5. Alan Coil Says:

    I liked both magazines, so there.

    Peter, Laura, and Derek,

    You never know when a reader is being exposed to you or your product for the first time. It might be a good idea to state for which magazine you work. Because I have too much free time, I searched for that information. Others might not. Peter and Derek work for Comic Now! and Laura for Comic Foundry.

    If anybody cares what I thought at first glance…

    http://www.comicscommunity.com/boards/tony/?frames=n;read=167418

  6. Derek Coward Says:

    Good point, Alan. I hope that I didn’t lead anyone to think that I was just some random guy coming onto Johanna’s blog to stir up trouble. In the future, if I am directly involved in the content I am commenting on, I will identify myself in the appropriate manner.

  7. Johanna Says:

    Honestly, I didn’t know there was a Nova series either. I don’t think that oversight makes Tim’s knowledge of magazine design moot, especially since the problems he mentions were noted by several others (although not in the depth he covered them).

    Did the Comics Now article even mention the series? I just recall it talking about Annihilation, but I had zoned out by the end of the article.

    The bigger question hinted at by several commenters is that of conflict of interest. I don’t recall CN explicitly mentioning anything about its guiding staff being associated with CGS, which I would expect as a standard inclusion if the mag covers the CGS podcast. (You know, the way EW says something about having the same corporate parents when they do an article about something at WB.) There are a lot of connections that are only mentioned when third parties know to look for them, as Alan did.

  8. Peter Says:

    Alan! Thanks for your review! I did link my name to the CGS website but I took for granted that I posted in Johanna’s CNow! post.

    Laura – come on – if we’re supposed to take valid criticisms from a “professional” magazine designer, surely Tim can take a valid criticism from a “professional” comics reader. Especially considering I wasn’t the only one who commented on the blunder. Ultimately, it’s a content issue, not a design issue. So it doesn’t really change my opinion.

    Johanna – the article does mention the new series. And the picture for the EIC has both Bryan and daughter wearing a CGS shirt. It’s also hard to miss the giant full page ad near the back. lol. There’s no secret that some of the hosts of CGS are behind CN. But it’s a completely separate venture. We want CN to live on its own. It’s not a glory project for the podcast to benefit from. It’s to put out the kind of magazine we want to read. And from our numbers, it seems like others agree.

  9. Johanna Says:

    Considering what t-shirt someone’s wearing isn’t a standard way to disclose business connections. (I mean, come on! There are pictures of me wearing a Blankets graphic novel shirt, but I’ve never worked for Top Shelf.) And there are also ads in the magazine for other companies — are we to assume that they’re all connected?

    There’s a big difference between saying “they’re two separate ventures” and not giving readers the information they need to know to evaluate connections and potential influences.

  10. Laura Hudson Says:

    Peter, the issue isn’t that Tim didn’t make a mistake. It’s that it had absolutely no bearing on his professional design criticism of your mag, and it was kind of ridiculous of you to try and negate those criticisms based on his (lack of) knowledge about a marginal Marvel character. As far as that reflects on CF’s content–as you suggest–Tim’s not the only person writing the mag, and some of us could certainly give you a run for your money in the Marvel trivia department.

    Also, not identifying your business connections was a beginner’s mistake. So what? Just admit it, learn from it, and stop defending yourself with t-shirts.

  11. Johanna Says:

    Laura, Peter, please, no more spatting. Both of you have exciting-looking second issues coming out, and I look forward to them both. Let’s move on to focus on those improvements.

  12. Peter Says:

    I also forgot to mention, our press releases clearly state where this magazine is coming from on all ends. So end of story there.

    My “content issue” comment was about Tim’s confusion why we chose to run that article. Not on CF’s content. So I was clearing up a content question he had for our issue. Nothing more, nothing less. If anyone is going to Pittsburgh ComicCon, stop by our trivia panel – our third year hosting!

    I do get a kick out of the suggestion that CGS is considered a business though. That’s awesome.

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