Speakeasy Shuts Its Doors: A Cautionary Tale

[Originally published by Buzzscope on 2/28/2006, the full text of this post was retrieved via the Wayback Machine and archived here on 11/14/19. No edits were made beyond the removal of images that were no longer accessible.]

Several creators still in the dark about their fates

It’s been less than 90 days since we first reported on fledgling publisher Speakeasy Comics’ making waves with their announcement of a stricter policy regarding minimum thresholds for comic books they distribute, and since then, those waves have claimed several victims, but none bigger than Speakeasy Comics itself.

Yesterday afternoon, on his blog, Elk’s Run creator/writer, Joshua Hale Fialkov, confirmed what seemed pretty inevitable to anyone paying attention over the past six months:

So, just got off the phone with Adam Fortier, President etc. of Speakeasy Comics. Speakeasy is no more. Due to some payment problems and low sales, it seems, they’ve had to lock up shop.

Within hours, this was confirmed as their self-proclaimed “unofficial public relations” representative, Vito Delsante, sent around an email to select retailers and press outlets:

“…as of 3:30 PM today, Speakeasy Comics has shut its doors and will not be publishing comics for, at the very least, the rest of the year. Most, if not all, creators have been contacted and informed. If I’m not mistaken, all books scheduled to ship in March will ship. April and May books are up in the air, while June books are cancelled.”

For anyone who’s been following this story, this latest development isn’t terribly surprising as the writing’s been on the wall since as far back as last August, when their best-selling launch title, Atomika, was pulled by its creator, Sal Abbinanti, who chose to self-publish his maxi-series through his own Mercury Comics label after releasing the first 4 issues through Speakeasy. During that same time, Speakeasy was seemingly abandoning its initial slow-and-steady approach, taking on several new properties which led some, myself included, to question their business strategy.

Things started out relatively well for the fledgling publisher, and all indications seemed to point to Fortier being able to leverage several years of experience in the industry—having worked for Dreamweave, Devil’s Due, Udon and IDW—and, in his own words, being “fortunate enough to have seen the highs and low and find the balance and success that lies in between.”

When we interviewed him last Spring, he spoke confidently about Speakeasy’s prospects:

“We’ve got our eyes firmly on the road, and aren’t looking at other options to save us. It was vital to me to be able to come up with a business model that worked for publishing and nothing else. We didn’t want to have a lost [sic] leader and hope to make it up somewhere else. There’s also a hunger here that might be missing elsewhere. We bleed ink, and this is our life, not a 9 to 5 job. When I was in the corporate world I learned that you need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to succeed… you don’t get to call in sick, give excuses for failures, or go home for dinner when there’s a crisis.”

When asked about whether Hollywood had approached him, and if he any had interest in exploring other mediums, he acknowledged that he’d been approached, but that:

“[I]t’s not our focus. We are a publishing company and work very hard to be that. Entertainment is something that’s great when it happens, but too often the publishing end of a project suffers the instant there’s interest from Hollywood, which almost always sinks the whole thing (in terms of publishing and right sales).”

And yet, it was a mere six months later when Speakeasy announced its 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. The 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.”

That alteration was a drastic one, as the aforementioned thresholds were announced shortly thereafter, a controversial move which effectively cancelled a number of their titles, resulting in a mass exodus which saw several titles released from their contracts, many of which Markosia, another fledgling indie, picked up, including The Hunger, Smoke & Mirrors, Of Bitter Souls, Twilight Men (formerly Super Crazy TNT Blast), Mutation, Lonebow, and Wargod. Others, like Elk’s Run, received assurances that Speakeasy would do everything they could to keep them going.

At that point, 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, 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, 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!”

In January, Speakeasy kicked off 2006 with the first of those announcements about its plans for the year: Rosario Dawson’s Occult Crimes Taskforce (O.C.T.)

“Rosario Dawson is an artist in the purest sense. She can act, sing, as well as write. She’s just an all around creative person. We are thrilled to collaborate with Rosario, David and Tony on this one of a kind project. The Rosario Dawson fans of the world are in for a treat and I’m sure many others will soon be captivated by this truly unique comic book project,” said Adam Fortier, Speakeasy Comics CEO.

While somewhat underwhelming in the larger context of the troubles they were facing, it did seem to offer a hint about the new direction they were heading and what effect their deal with Ardustry might have on that direction.

Except for some generally positive buzz for The Flying Friar one-shot—much of which is due to writer Rich Johnston’s admirable, if relentless, self-promotion—things have been pretty quiet on the Speakeasy front since that announcement. Then, last week, seemingly out of the blue, came what was perhaps the killing blow, from Image Comics:

Rosario Dawson, David Atchison and Tony Shasteen announced today that their new comic book miniseries, the OCCULT CRIMES TASKFORCE, will now be published through Image Comics, starting this July! “We are very excited about our new home. Image Comics and the guys at 12 Gauge are helping us make the book the best it can possibly be. The interest Speakeasy Comics showed in publishing the ‘O.C.T.’ was greatly appreciated. However, due to recent changes in their direction, we didn’t feel our book fit with them at this time,” said Shasteen.

Changes, indeed!

While there was no immediate response from Speakeasy about this particular change, rumors were beginning to pick up steam, and Fortier’s last-minute withdrawal from this past weekend’s NY Comic-Con, where he was scheduled to appear on at least one panel—ironically, “Is the Pamphlet Doomed?”—fueled the fire.

In light of the other shoe finally dropping, I checked in on Speakeasy’s still-under-re-construction web site to see what their current slate looked like, and contacted several of the listed creators for comments.

Ben Lichius, Co-Creator/Co-Writer of The Black Coat, the first issue of which Diamond currently shows as shipping next week, was caught somewhat off-guard:

“I don’t have much to comment on since I haven’t actually talked to Adam or Chris at Speakeasy yet. I just heard the news tonight via Newsarama and got no prior notice from anyone at SE. Like I mentioned at [NY Comic-Con], communication has not been what it should be. I’m not entirely surprised but I am very disappointed—for our team and for our fans. After all, issue 1 was supposed to ship this week. The Black Coat is not dead though. We’re looking at what our options are, but I want to talk with Speakeasy before we start that process. If people want to keep up with The Black Coat they can do so on our website (the-black-coat.com).”

Writer Marc Bryant, who had two projects with Speakeasy, the already launched The Gatesville Company, and the upcoming Shotgun Wedding, was also caught off-guard by the announcement:

“I think the fact that I first got the ‘official’ word on this in an email, linking to a blog speaks volumes. I wish everyone involved with Speakeasy the best, creators AND staff. I hope we, and the industry as a whole have learned at least a couple lessons here. I know I have. As far as Shotgun Wedding goes, the plan is to complete the book then shop it around as a graphic novel. The Gatesville Company is going on indefinite hiatus. The kind of art Patrick did for that book is so time intensive, its just not feasible for him to shoot for even a bi-monthly schedule, especially for no upfront payment. I’m proud of the work we did though, and grateful to everyone who showed us love on those two issues. Patrick and I are talking over a project or two that would features his pencils, either in black and white or colored by another collaborator.”

Bryant’s collaborator on The Gatesville CompanyPatrick McEvoy was pragmatic about the situation, noting they’d already taken pre-emptive measures, and pointing out lessons learned:

“Writer Marc Bryant and I made the decision to have Gatesville Company part ways with Speakeasy in January. We’ve postponed production of issue Number 3 until such time as we can find a new publisher—if ever. We would love to continue the series in the future, but if you’ve seen it you’ll agree that Gatesville is a VERY labor-intensive effort, so until the time comes when we can be assured of actually making even a token amount of money from it, we’ll have to keep it on the back burner, unfortunately. On a personal level, it’s a sad day when any comics publisher goes out of business, especially one that was committed to producing quality books that weren’t in the comics ‘mainstream’. Hopefully there will be more publishers in the future with the courage and commitment to creative alternative comics that Speakeasy showed. I think the most important lesson to be learned by startups down the line is to grow at a slow, measured pace rather than trying to take over the whole world in the space of a year.”

Writer Andrew Foley, whose Parting Ways OGN was released last year, faces an awkward situation thanks to Fortier’s longer-term vision for OGN/TPBs: he now owes Speakeasy approx. $3,000 for unsold inventory in order to cover printing expenses and other costs for which Speakeasy’s can’t-miss, pay-to-play business model rests squarely on its creators’ shoulders.

“As sad as the situation is, I was terribly relieved to learn that Speakeasy is not going into bankruptcy; the publishing and multimedia rights for Parting Ways will be returned to me and my co-creator, Scott Mooney. I was less relieved to realize this means I owe the company three thousand dollars, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small price to pay to retain control of a property that could easily have been tied up in lengthy and probably costly bankruptcy proceedings (ask Matt Wagner if you don’t believe me.) That said, if anyone’s got $3k lying around, feel free to drop me a line, because I certainly don’t. It’s funny ‘coz it’s true!

(In the admittedly unlikely circumstance that your readers *don’t* have $3,000 lying around–in which case you should really cultivate a better class of readers {said Andrew, hoping and praying nobody was taking him seriously}–I’d appreciate it if they’d consider shelling out $12.99 at their local retailer, online comic supplier, or Amazon.com for a copy of Parting Ways, or, if they’re *really* destitute, $3.50 for the first issue of my and Fiona Staples’ five issue Satirical Vampire Epic, Done to Death, coming this July from Markosia Entertainment.)”

When asked to elaborate on his debt, and the details of his contract, Foley was surprisingly forthcoming:

“This is actually sort of up in the air at the moment—if I understand things correctly, Adam’s spending this week talking to creators and getting things in order, and then next week we should be talking about dispensing with the remaining stock of books, payment schedules, and that sort of thing. But the way I’m understanding things at this moment, it plays out like this: It’s important to note, again, that the company hasn’t gone into bankruptcy. I’ve been assured that Adam plans to fulfill Speakeasy’s contractual obligations and pay the money the company owes to various parties. By the same token, I assume (and this IS an assumption, we haven’t talked about it at any length) he expects those of us whose projects failed to perform to expectations to fulfill our contractual obligations—which, unfortunately for some of us, includes what I think of as the ‘Rich Johnston Smartest Man in Comics’ clause that makes it the creators’ responsibility to pay for expenses not recouped by sales.

I’m a worst-case scenario kind of guy (as Adam once put it, I’ve ‘got a New York thing going on’). I’m assuming ‘shutting down operations’ means Speakeasy will no longer be supplying books to Diamond or other suppliers. That leaves us with more than half our print run unsold. The last statement I got from the company had Parting Ways something like $3,200 in the hole for printing costs and the PREVIEWS ad. If another 750 books got sold at the 40% off Diamond gets, we’d be in a position to start making money—but I’m not seeing that happening any time soon (it’d be realllly nice if I was wrong…).

As I said, under the Speakeasy contract, creators are liable for expenses the company paid that aren’t made up in sales. That wasn’t a problem as long as Speakeasy was still going—Adam took a long view towards the selling of GNs and trade paperbacks (I believe it’s actually his preferred format, which might explain why a lot of floppy material wasn’t reprinted—but that’s pure speculation on my part). Now, the dynamic has obviously changed, and I don’t honestly know exactly what’s going to happen, though my natural tendency is to expect the worst, ensuring that at worst I was right and prepared, and at best I’m pleasantly surprised. Adam’s made it clear he doesn’t want this to be devastating for Speakeasy creators, and I get the impression that whatever money I’m ultimately expected to pay the company (if any) will be on a schedule that’s not going to wipe me out (or maybe I should say ‘wipe almost anyone else out’—things are pretty hand-to-mouth here at the moment, thanks to an unexpectedly high property tax bill and a roof in dire need of repair. Woe is Andrew, woe, woe) (OK, I’m done whining about my lot in life now.) (Til you ask the next question).”

Even in the face of some rather unfortunate circumstances, Foley remains impressively charitable, bearing Fortier no ill will:

“I’ll always be grateful to Adam Fortier for publishing my first major comics work. At the end of the day, I can honestly say I believe Adam and Co. went into this with the best intentions (though probably not the best business plan.) I’m sure some will criticize the company’s willingness to publish more books than the market would bear, but I can’t fault it—they published Parting Ways when nobody else would. It’s depressing to think the decision to do so might have, in some small way, contributed to the company’s current situation—in spite of overwhelmingly positive reviews, Adam’s faith in Parting Ways was not repaid with sales. The question for me becomes, should Speakeasy have agreed to publish Parting Ways, or Elk’s Run, or Shotgun Wedding, or any number of other interesting, idiosyncratic projects, when the mainstream comic-buying public, or at least the majority of retailers, just doesn’t seem interested in supporting such material? From a strictly commercial point of view, the answer would seem to be ‘no.’ Speakeasy put those books out anyway, hoping quality would win the day. It didn’t, and that’s a shame.

So, Speakeasy’s shutting down saddens me deeply. For all the company’s faults—and I’m neither blind to them nor making excuses for them—I believe its loss is a blow to the comics industry as a whole. This was a publisher willing to put out non-superhero material by unknown creators (and let them retain all the property rights, to boot), and that’s something I strongly believe the industry desperately needs (and only partly because I’m an unknown creator of non-superhero material). Unfortunately, with each smaller comic publisher’s failure, it becomes less likely the Direct Market will take a chance on such books.”

So the moral of the story is… well, twofold, really.

While I have no reason to think Fortier’s an outright con artist—and by all accounts, he’s attempting to make good where he can, though there seems to be as many creators who apparently now owe him money as there are those he owes—the fact of the matter is that he’s clearly not a very good business man.

As Foley says, many people will (and have been for awhile now; myself included), openly question the wisdom of his sudden, rapid expansion last summer, taking on properties of varied quality and dumping them onto retailers with little promotional support and ZERO corporate branding. Over at NEWSarama, Fortier makes a comment that pretty much reinforces in my mind that his heralded business savvy was little more than the usual big talk, little stick, smoke and mirror games too many small publishers like to play online:

“Even with millions, like CrossGen, it couldn’t be done. So, if the multi-millionaires don’t have money to be able to run a company like that, what hope does anybody else have?”

What “couldn’t be done”, exactly? Launching an Image clone that was going to grow from ZERO to 5% market share in less than a year, on the backs of unknown properties from mostly unknown creators, in a market that is ridiculously resistant to anything new, even when it’s published by Marvel or DC? Well, duh!

The more important moral to this story, though, is a much simpler one, and ironically, it’s one Fortier himself pointed out in his aforementioned interview with us last Spring, in response to a question about what he’d learned in his previous jobs that he was applying to Speakeasy:

“The most important thing that keeps on getting hammered into me each time is the importance of understanding who your customer is and how to reach them. Sounds simple, but it’s anything but in the current comic book industry. You can put out the best product out there, but if you’re not communicating effectively with your audience you’re sunk.”

When Atomika #1 hit the stands and Speakeasy was officially born, almost a year ago to the day, Countdown to Infinite Crisis was still four weeks away, and House of M was just being teased. One year later, the direct market has been dramatically transformed as the return of the corporate mega-crossover has eaten up market share and retailers’ budgets, and independent comics have taken a hard hit as order numbers have dropped across the board, with few exceptions. Even Marvel and DC’s mid-list titles that weren’t fortunate enough to be tied in to the big crossovers have suffered. In some cases, it’s been a deathblow.

Much like the creation of the Direct Market back in the early 80s was the beginning of the end for young readers as comics became progressively harder to find, today its continued retraction—focusing primarily on fans of long-established superheroes and licenses—is to the detriment of the kind of variety publishers like Speakeasy have admirably attempted to offer. Any independent publisher with an aggressive plan for growth that’s relying solely on the Direct Market for its survival these days is doomed to failure, and to having that failure hammered mercilessly. Too many independent publishers have no clue who their audience is, or how to reach them, so instead, they continue to target that narrow 5-10% slice of the Direct Market that’s willing to take a chance on an independent publisher and hope they can somehow stand in the sea of titles that populate the back pages of Previews every month.

And every time a CrossGen, Dreamwave or Speakeasy comes along with a bold plan that fails, it makes it that much harder for the publishers who are left behind as retailers justifiably become less and less willing to take chances on non-returnable inventory. While Speakeasy’s failure can primarily be laid at Fortier’s feet—the old “buck stops here” maxim in effect—it is but a symptom of a larger and steadily growing illness in the comics industry.

The times are a’changing, and it’s only going to get tougher out there. The publishers who find a way to break out of the superhero-driven direct market, to carve their own niches out of the much larger audience of general readers who never step foot into a comic book shop are the ones who will survive. For the rest of them, fighting over Marvel and DC’s leftovers, it’s only going to get uglier.

Adam Fortier was contacted for a comment in connection with this story but had not responded by the time this article was submitted for publication at 3:10am EST.

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