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B&N Week 138: Format & Frequency

| August 13, 2013

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There’s a Tuesday going on right here, a celebration, to last throughout the year. So bring your glasses, and a chair or two… We’re gonna share some Bolts & Nuts with you, come on now… [Sorry. Was having a Kool and the Gang moment.] (Glasses, Steven?) [Hey! I wear them, and some of you may, too.]

This week, I want to talk about something that should be in the forefront of all of your minds: format. Now, thanks to Marvel/DC, when we think of format, we think of the twenty-two page book/floppy. Do you know what we also think of, unconsciously, that is also wrapped up in that? Monthly comics.

I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s an open secret, but a secret nonetheless. You’re going to disagree with me until you’re blue in the face, but still, it’s there. You sitting down? You ready for this?

The overwhelming bulk of you are not ready for monthly comics. Not as a creator, and especially not as a new creator. Writers, you barely know how to tell a story, let alone a compelling one, and you’re going to run out of ideas sooner rather than later. I’ll be generous and say eight months. It’s going to be more like six. (Steven, that’s neither right nor fair! I’ve got stories that will take years to get to!) Uh huh. I know you do. And they’re sprawled out all over the place. As soon as you have a competent editor to help you streamline it, you’re going to see just how much story you have. Six to eight months.

Artists [pencilers], you’re going to do one of two things: you’re either going to crack under the pressure of deadlines, or you’re going to see what a grind it is and give up.

Inkers, you have it easier…until you have three books come in at once and have to find some way to do them all, because you’re now running late because the pencils came in late, and you’re under the gun to perform.

Colorists, you’re in the same boat as the inkers. Then the letterers have to take care of all the prepress work, after they take care of actually lettering the book itself.

In short, it’s a grind, and the majority of you trying to break in don’t truly understand it.

Look at it this way: I’ve been writing this column every week for 2.7 years, without fail, without being late [relative to my time zone]. How many of you reading this can say the same thing about your endeavors? It’s a grind, and it will wear you down.

Some of you are going to do it, though. You’re going to push through, you’re going to make it happen. There won’t be many of you. The attrition rate will be stupendous.

Frequency will be just as important as format. As a matter of fact, frequency is so important that it’s part of the solicitations process. Take a look through any issue of Previews and you’ll see what I mean.

So, now that we know that frequency is as important as format, let’s take a look at the formatting options available to you, as well as a look from a retailers perspective, and then circle back around to your own private funds. [Remember how I’m always saying to save your money? Format and frequency are the reasons.]

Here’s the first thing I want you to stop thinking about: the twenty-two page story. While still considered a standard, it no longer holds true. Marvel/DC play with the number of pages in a story all the time, and Image Comics even had a dedicated line of comics, the “Slimline,” where stories were around sixteen pages. Look at any modern comic from a decent publisher, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a twenty-two page comic. Because of the rising costs of paper [types, which basically means brightness and weight, which then get factored into the shipping price], as well as the rising production costs, publishers are doing everything they can to give you as much story as possible for the price paid. (Doesn’t feel like it at times…) [Don’t I know it!]

Once you get the fallacy of the twenty-two page story out of your head, what do you do? You fix the story to fit within your budget.

Are you telling a one-shot story? I’ll tell you this: in general, publishers aren’t looking for a one-shot, twenty-two page story. Where’s the upside in it for them? There is none. A one-shot floppy doesn’t do anyone any good. If you’re thinking about doing a one-shot, expand it out to a graphic novel of at least forty-four pages. This gives you enough space to tell a decent story and still feel like a graphic novel. [Personally, I don’t like the thought of a graphic novel to be so slim. I like the “novel” part of graphic novel, and would like to tell stories of about 80 pages or so. Remember, a trade paperback is generally a collection of six or so issues, at roughly twenty-two pages each. Do the math, both in terms of pages per book, and production cost.]

What about a limited series? Beginning, middle, and end, with the possibility of sequels, if you’ve left that opening for yourself. You know what’s good about a limited series? You can sell it at least two different ways, if not more. Let’s take a look at Tyler’s The Red Ten.

It’s a limited series of ten issues. He’s selling it as separate, single issues the first time, and he’s going to be releasing a collection of the first five issues. After that, there are going to be at least one more collection for the second set of five issues. If there’s demand, he could sell one that would collect the entire thing. That’s four different ways of selling a single limited series. [Don’t forget to read between the lines: in order to pull this off, you need to have a story long enough for a collection. Three issues aren’t going to get it.]

Then we have the monthly ongoing. Only two real ways to sell those: as singles and as collections.

So, what does the retailer think about all of these?

Retailers aren’t happy about one-shots from new creators and newly-formed companies. They won’t know how to order them, they won’t know how their customers are going to react to the books, and they generally won’t have the margins within the store to keep trying out new books. [And here’s the kicker: if you don’t have a Diamond account, most retailers aren’t going to look at you, and even if you do have a Diamond account, most retailers aren’t going to look at you.] So, from a retailer perspective, one-shots are out.

Limited series? It’s almost the same thing, but this will be wholly dependent upon how many issues the story is. Remember, solicitations are three months in advance, so if you’ve got a four-issue limited series, orders won’t really stabilize until issue five. (Steven, you just said it was four issues…) My point, exactly. The retailer won’t really know how to order the book until about five or six issues have hit their shelves.

Retailers love ongoing series, though. They’ll have data on their ordering history, they’ll be able to get back-issues if necessary [depending on the publisher and how far back they’re trying to go], and they may have some inventory they want to move. [Trying to move inventory is both the bane and boon of retailers.] For a retailer, ongoing series are their best friends.

Now, your budget.

I’m going to tell you right now, your budget hates the ongoing series. [Just to be clear: this is the budget for you to create comics, not to buy them.] Your budget absolutely loves the idea of a one-shot, and it is ambivalent to the idea of a limited series. So, basically, your budget feels the direct opposite way that retailers do about the same things.

You’re going to have to get used to that.

How do you overcome these obstacles? I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t know. Can you do business as a small publisher, hitting up as many cons as you can and hand-selling your wares? Can you eschew Diamond and try to get into alternative markets? Can you make money through digital comics, eschewing print altogether? These are all things you can try, and each comes with a list of pros and cons. You could even try them all [it won’t hurt, and no one is stopping you, but it could be extremely time consuming].

Format and frequency. You don’t think of one without the other. Your homework: look at what you want to do, and what your budget wants you to do, and pit that against the realities of publishing and what retailers want, and see what you can come up with. Don’t forget to get away from the twenty-two page fallacy. Treat it like the biblical forty-days and forty-nights thing: things took as long as they needed to take.

See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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