In the Scope: Speakeasy Shakes Things Up

[This post was retrieved via the Wayback Machine and archived here on 11/4/15. No edits were made beyond the removal of images that were no longer accessible.]

Diamond’s stricter policy on pre-orders causing ripples throughout the industry

Back in September, Diamond Comics Distributors made some waves with their announcement of a stricter policy regarding minimum thresholds for comic books they distribute, reserving the right to cancel retailer orders for titles that didn’t meet said thresholds – reportedly $600 wholesale, $1500 retail, which translates to approximately 500 copies of a $3.00 comic book. Message boards and comics blogs were atwitter with alarmist reactions, some decrying Diamond’s de facto monopoly of comics distribution, others sounding the death knell for independent publishing. Buzzscope’s “Industry Buzz” solicited some of the more levelheaded reactions across the industry at the time, and noted retailer Joe Field, proprietor of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, CA, offered perhaps the most sobering thought:

“Small press creators need to find better ways to market their books, better ways to promote what they have created. In essence, besides being marketable comics’ creators, they also need to have more ingenuity when it comes to finding the potential audience for their comics. If this move by Diamond actually lights a fire under those with the passion and talent to make it in comics, it could eventually be a good thing.”

In the two months since that fire started burning, there have been scattered reports of a few casualties, either directly related to or in anticipation of the new policy, the most notable of which was perhaps venerable publisher, Claypool Comics, whose S.O.S. to fans was met with a bit of criticism over their antiquated approach to marketing in a hyper-competitive marketplace. Old-fashioned covers that failed to promote high-profile creators, like Peter David on SoulSearchers; a dearth of trade paperback collections representing their three impressively long-running series; and an inefficient e-commerce solution to order individual copies of their many back issues. Some have argued, convincingly at times, that Claypool was little more than a victim of their own complacency, not keeping up with the evolution of the marketplace.

Reflecting on that evolution, and the potential reasons for and effects of Diamond’s changed policy, The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon mused:

“Does any entertainment industry have a lower threshold of participation or a more refined sense of entitlement? With the direct market slightly moribund for a while now, and with growth in other market areas, it’s difficult to automatically fault Diamond for a move or two that could potentially shake up all that’s logy, even if the moves end up being terribly misguided or if they conveniently apply that principle to the end of a market that can’t fight back.”

Fast-forward to this week, as fledgling independent publisher Speakeasy Comics sent another ripple throughout the industry with their “announcement” of their own internal cutoff policy, raising the bar more than three-and-a-half times Diamond’s 500-copy threshold to 1,750 copies, and, judging from recent sales figures as reported by ICv2, placing the futures of several of their titles in doubt. One of the oddest aspects of the “announcement” was that, as of Wednesday evening, the only official report of it was via Rich Johnston’s rumor column, “Lying in the Gutters”, published Monday evening, wherein Speakeasy publisher, Adam Fortier, confirms the new policy and Johnston (who also has a graphic novella being published by Speakeasy early next year), puts a positive spin on it, going so far as to say that “it’s evidence that Fortier is living up to his Smartest Man In Comics TM tag by twisting in new and unpredictable manners.”

Johnston explained the new policy this way:

“First, [Fortier] has set a sales minimum on the book, Speakeasy’s break even number of 1750 copies. Those that don’t reach it can either pay upfront for printing costs if they wish and are able to. For others, the book is cancelled, but can be put online at the about-to-be-revamped Speakeasy website.”

When asked by Buzzscope to elaborate, Fortier explained: “[I]t’s as cut and dry as Rich made it sound. There were a number of factors involved in making this decision, of course; one was the Diamond policy. Just as important, though, was offering creators alternative methods of getting their product out there (and we’re still looking into additional methods), but ones that wouldn’t hit the checkbook quite so hard.”

“The independent comic books are just not selling well right now (look at many peoples’ sales),” Fortier conceded. “Printers are changing their policies, Diamond is changing their policies; it means we have to think outside the box and offer alternatives.”

The primary alternative, the option to publish canceled issues electronically, in their entirety, via Speakeasy’s web site, raises other questions, though, not the least of which is the status of creators’ contracts with Speakeasy should they opt for another solution, perhaps self-publishing or moving to another publisher.

“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.”

Speakeasy – which operates similar to Image Comics’ business model, offering a range of production, marketing and management services for a fee, but unlike Image, should a title not break even, the creator is responsible for repaying the difference to Speakeasy – had a relatively successful launch in the Spring, releasing a handful of titles with a decent amount of promotion to solid critical response before shifting gears over the summer and expanding their publishing slate exponentially, and subsequently seeing a dramatic dip in sales. Their web site currently lists 32 different projects on their roster, one of which, the critically acclaimed Rocketo, is moving to Image after its initial run is complete.

Earlier this year, they also lost their high profile, and best-selling, launch title, Atomika, when creator Sal Abbinanti decided, in the middle of his maxi-series’ run with Speakeasy, to move it back under his own self-publishing imprint, Mercury Comics.

How does Fortier feel these defections reflect on Speakeasy?

“Both Frank [Espinosa] and Sal left for different reasons,” he explained. “For Sal, I still help him out now and then, and will continue to do so. For Frank, I was the one that suggested Image to him. People will leave us, just like people will leave all the other publishers… As for how it reflects on us, I don’t really think it does. As some leave us, others join, thus is the circle of life.”

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.”

One of his “outside of the box” ideas was apparently the recently announced “long-term partnership” with Ardustry Industries, an independent movie and television company, and worldwide licensor and distributor, who produce, acquire, sell and license feature films and Television content. A Speakeasy press release dated November 29, 2005, noted: “The move will alter the company’s business model, allowing for the publisher to pursue a mix of licensed, company-owned and creator-owned projects.”

In a bit of foreshadowing, perhaps, in an interview about the Ardustry partnership with Comic Book Resources a day earlier, Fortier noted that, “as a result we’ll be subtracting from the creator owned [properties]. We’ll probably end up with a 1/4 to a 1/3 creator owned, 1/4 to 1/3-book properties that we own with the rest being licensed properties.” When asked to clarify that point in light of the newly announced cutoff policy, Fortier backtracked a bit, clarifying himself: “I stated it doesn’t affect our creator owned publishing business. It will mean that for new projects we’ll be pickier, but that’s about it! For Speakeasy publishing, it will mean a lot. We’ll have more projects that we control, and that will be exciting.”

Not everyone is excited, though, as a few Speakeasy creators and others offered their, mostly negative, takes on the situation over on the Bendis Board, in a thread entitled: “Something really sucky happened today in independent comics.” Buzzscope contacted three Speakeasy creators – Jose L. Torres (The Hunger), Joshua Hale Fialkov (Elk’s Run), and Matt Maxwell (Strangeways) – as well as outspoken independent publisher, Saul Colt (SSS Comics), to get their reactions to the announcement, and their thoughts on what it meant for their own projects, and the company in general.

Torres, writer and creator of one Speakeasy’s first series, The Hunger, was concerned by the September sales figures that showed The Hunger #4 coming in precariously close to Speakeasy’s cutoff figure, with only 1,887 copies sold into the direct market. “It is a little scary to think of ourselves as so dangerously close to the cutoff,” he said, “but at this point it’s out of our hands and in the hands of the fan and retailer communities. We will promote the book to the best of our abilities, but actually putting out a solid book and having it out on time is really the best thing we can do for ourselves right now.”

Timeliness has been a major stumbling block for Speakeasy recently, one of the major reasons being Lamp Post Publications’ kneecapping them with their sudden decision last month to stop printing comic books (well, other than Alias Comics’ books, for whom Lamp Post’s owner, Brett Burner also serves as Publisher…but that’s a whole ‘nother story!), forcing Speakeasy to delay several titles while they scrambled to place them elsewhere. The delays have been particularly rough for both Fialkov and Maxwell, the former who moved his self-published Elk’s Run to Speakeasy over the summer and has yet to see a new issue released, while the latter had his debut issue delayed.

Fialkov made the move to Speakeasy for two major reasons: “to control costs and up our numbers.” How has that worked out for him?

“Honestly? Not well. The numbers didn’t move much at all. Had we continued self-publishing, our numbers would probably be at about the same plateau. The constant delays and miscommunications between Speakeasy and the printers have in fact probably hurt us in the long run, because when we self-published, we had every issue out not just on time, but usually early, and now issue 4 is two months late, issue 5 will be two months late, and hopefully, we’ll be caught up by issue 6.

As to how it’s going to affect us… Well, despite any animosity that comes out of my big stupid mouth, Adam’s been doing his best to be a stand up guy. He assured me that Elk’s Run will see print and that together we’re finding a way to make it happen. I announced over on my blog a few of those steps. First, we’re raising the price on issue 7 and 8 up to $3.99. This sucks. This kills me, because I’ve spent years criticising the pricing of comics, but, at the end of the day, I have a responsibility to my co-creators and to my business partner to lose as little money as possible, and that extra dollar means that we can actually afford to pay our letterist and colorist without having to take it out of my already quite depleted grocery money.

As to Diamond, we’re well above their cutoff, and they’ve been huge supporters of the book from day one, so, for the time being, that’s not a concern. Where all this stuff really affects us is in marketing and promotion. We can’t afford Previews ads anymore; we’re drastically cutting back on our convention appearances this year; and, we’re switching all of our comp list over to digital copies of the books. Right now, all we care about is getting the book out, and come hell or high water we’re going to do it.”

For Maxwell, whose debut issue is expected to finally hit retailer’s shelves next Wednesday, the situation is a bit more dire, as he’s entering the market at a time where Speakeasy’s credibility with retailers is arguably at its nadir. Referring to the aforementioned sales figures for The Hunger #4 – which, incidentally, made it the 3rd best-selling Speakeasy title for September, out of 7 that made Diamond’s Top 300 – he wasn’t terribly optimistic.

“I don’t know how much wiggle room there is in those figures; I’ve heard differing views on that subject. But taken at face value, things are operating pretty damn close to the bone. In the immediate term, Strangeways #1 is due 12/21, and has already been printed. I haven’t heard anything conflicting with that of yet, so I’m figuring it’s going ahead. #2 is in digital form on Speakeasy’s server, due in January. I haven’t heard pre-order numbers on it, so your guess is as good as mine.

Long term? Geez, who knows? I haven’t heard enough of Speakeasy’s plan for internet printing, so I literally have no idea how it’s going to pan out. My gut response is that the primary market for these books is going to be very reluctant to support the print versions. Changing horses in midstream is never a great idea, and switching from print to internet publication in the middle of the series seems like a pretty major jump. If you’re trying to build an internet audience, then build an internet audience, don’t start in the Direct Market. (and make no mistake, if you’re publishing monthly comics, the Direct Market *is* your audience.) Use the internet to build your audience in the first place, get your name out there, spread the previews around, sure. But use that to lead back to the print editions that you have a chance of making money on (unless you’ve solved the problem of internet payments and managed to kill piracy dead, in which case, there’s several comics companies who want to talk to you).”

Colt offered a publisher’s perspective on the situation, questioning both the cutoff figure and the actual value of the internet option to the creator vs. Speakeasy:

“As someone who really studies the business side of comics, I find it a bit odd to place not only a cutoff number on your creators, but if you were to make a cutoff number, I think 1750 is very high. I say this because, going by the October Top 300 sales charts (and yes, I study these things), only three books of Speakeasy’s would meet the self-proposed minimum.

I think the online option is a generous offer to the creators, but as someone in the trenches of self-publishing, I can’t see any benefit to the creator for a few reasons: 1) He/She could just post it up on his/her own site and no longer need Speakeasy, and 2) I don’t believe people will continue to come back every two months for a new issue because in a marketplace with thousands of titles, people can’t remember every book. On the flip side, there is a HUGE benefit to Speakeasy, as I assume as long as they are still ‘publishing’ the book, albeit online, they would still retain the rights to publish a Trade Paperback. This is good for them because they will be there to collect fees if there happens to be a ‘lightning in a bottle’ groundswell of interest in a title. If I was put in this position and I had the choice of losing money and paying fees, or losing money and self-publishing, I would rather bring things back in-house and self-publish; BUT (and this is a big BUT), I happen to enjoy the business side of things as much, if not more than, the creating, so my opinion may just speak to my personality more then anything else.”

Fortier was understandably reluctant to get into specifics about contracts or which titles might be facing this choice, but he did say that, “We’ve been talking to all of the creators, and are working things out with them right now. I don’t want to surprise anyone, and it’s important to note this isn’t something we’re going to decide on our own; we’re going to talk with the creators and work out the best plan for the books.”

Knowing what they know now, would anybody do things differently?

Torres was hopeful about the situation, saying, “I want, more than anything in the world, for Speakeasy Comics to come out of this situation stronger and better prepared for the publishing game. Up until the whole Lamp Post delay thing, I’ve had very little to complain about. If we can get back to the good old days, Speakeasy will still be the only home for my books.”

Fialkov looked at the worst case scenario: “If Adam were to bill me tomorrow for Elk’s Run, the book would be cancelled, and I’d be living on the street. Literally. Thankfully, we’re working on our options instead.” Given the chance to do it all over again, though, Fialkov says he would have remained a self-publisher. “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.”

Maxwell would also choose the self-publishing route, expressing a sentiment many have suggested is the real future of independent comics in the process. “I’d probably publish it myself as an OGN, as I’d planned to when I started things out. I’d have skipped the singles entirely and made a bookstore-friendly package, that way there’s still something for the DM, but reaching beyond it as well.”

Access to the oft referenced “beyond,” the comics industry’s holy grail of mainstream acceptance, is something Speakeasy actually claims to offer in it Creators Services, as posted on their web site: “Speakeasy promises to bring an unparalleled strength, not only in the Direct Market, but in the Mass Market.”

When asked how successful Speakeasy has been in establishing a foothold in the direct market, and what mass-market presence they’ve achieved to date, Fortier offered an honest assessment of his company’s early efforts on both fronts: “We’ve done a pretty good job of getting retailers to start checking our section. We’ve spent a great deal of time calling a large list of retailers and telling them of our product (which we’ll continue to do in 2006), so I’d say pretty good [in the direct market]. I hope to make it even better in 2006, but as a first year, I’m very happy with it.”

“For mass-market,” he continued, “that’s one thing I hope to grow. We do have a presence, but not as big a one as I would like. With the mass-market, you have to depend upon a number of factors outside of your control, which means there’s no real way to ensure your product is getting into all of the bookstores. However, we have been good at getting each of our graphic novels in front of the buyers so that they can make an educated decision.”

Unfortunately, once a new publisher falters – whether with late-shipping titles, sub-par product, or disappointingly low sales – it can be extremely difficult to regain the confidence of retailers and fans – many of whom still have fresh memories of CrossGen and Dreamwave in their heads – never mind hope to penetrate the mass-market.

“I think what’s going on now is an acceptance that they made a mistake and they need to try and fix it, while still honoring their agreements to their creators and trying to look out for the fans. My biggest concern is how do the retailers feel about all of this,” says Fialkov.

“Most of how this turns out for us creators will be based on the market’s willingness to grant us the benefit of the doubt,” says Torres, offering a plea to retailers and fans to not abandon titles they’ve supported up to now. “I can’t think of a single comic company that hasn’t been plagued with business or scheduling problems at one point in time or the other. Speakeasy just managed to go through major upheaval in both areas at once. If retailers and readers want to see Speakeasy continue to provide them with diverse and quality titles, please continue to support the books you’ve been kind enough to try and lucky enough to enjoy.”

“You have to get your ship in order first,” says Maxwell, offering a somewhat radical, but practical, solution to the problem. “You have to start getting the books out regularly, and if that involves a hiatus and some serious housecleaning, then so be it. If your books aren’t coming out consistently, then you’ve lost half the battle, because the retailers won’t sit still for that sort of thing. And if the retailers don’t support a book by ordering it, then you’ve got real troubles.”

“When you start out fast from the gate and then stumble, you have to work twice as hard to get back to the pack, because you’ve got your previous successes working *against* you,” he continued. “You’re always being compared to how great things looked a little while ago. I don’t think there’s a magic bullet solution, but if you’re going to stay in the DM, you have respect its rules and needs, those being a high quality book on a consistent schedule.”

“Retailers are great people with a tough job, but from what I have seen, they will overlook a lot as long as your book sells,” Colt opines. “If you are offering a sub-par product and offering it late, then I don’t think you have earned the confidence of the retailer and can’t complain if they don’t push your book. Another problem with late shipping is that the customer can easily forget about you. The independent comics market is almost all driven by word of mouth. Sometimes the retailer says to a customer, ‘Give this a try!’, but it is usually the other way around, with the customer asking for a book to be ordered. If they stop asking for your book because it hasn’t come out in a long time, then the orders will suffer. This is a general answer and in no way a comment on Speakeasy’s product. There are some great books by Speakeasy but like all publishers with as many titles as they print, there are also others that are not so good.”

Given a choice between characterizing Speakeasy’s moves during its first year as “learning from mistakes” or “staying ahead of the market”, Fortier opted for the former, though with a caveat.

“It’s funny, ‘learning from your mistakes’ has such a negative connotation,” he explained, “but I think that’s wrong. It’s silly to believe that either a new company or an established company isn’t going to make any mistakes, but as long as you learn from them, you’ll be in better shape than you were before.”

“While there are some things that I would change in hindsight,” he continued, “there were also many additional factors within the industry that shaped where we are today. However, that really doesn’t matter to the fan, and what they need to see is improvement in the situation, not excuses. We hope to be making a number of announcements in the next couple of weeks about how to get each and every book, when it will come out, and our plans for 2006, which I am especially excited about!”

“Early on,” Fialkov recalled, “one of my first comments to Adam was, ‘You’re not going to do what Alias is doing are you?’ Which is to flood the market and see what sticks. He said, ‘No, we want quality over quantity.’ I think they lost that ideal. I’m sure part of it is just having bills to pay, but, instead of, say, restructuring their deal to allow them a greater cost participation (which I’m willing to bet most of us would’ve been amenable to), they instead just kept pushing forward with the current system, and that means less wheat more chaff. At the same time, they’re still here. They’re still fighting the good fight, and despite this past month’s delay of books, they’re still putting out books. So there’s a certain fortitude there that’s quite respectable. I think they’ve given some really talented young guys their first break, and hopefully, that’ll help to add value to the brand in the future.”

“Every publisher has its troubles from time to time,” concluded Torres. “Adam has always done right by me and my book. He has supported us and given us a level of personal attention that I don’t believe I would get from any other publisher. I firmly believe that Adam cares about us as creators and the story we’re telling.”


For more information on Speakeasy Comics and its titles, check out www.speakeasycomics.com

 

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Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

As in guillotine. Old/new media pragmatist. Sometimes loud, one-time poet, still opinionated. Reading, writing, running, gaming, soccer, beer.

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