Thursday, December 13, 2007

Two Newspaper Stories

Tim Kane of the Albany Times Union in Albany, N.Y., wrote a nice piece on the "LitGraphic" exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum, of which several original pages of Mom's Cancer are the least interesting part. The article quotes curator Martin Mahoney (hey, I know him!) and provides a nice historical perspective on graphic novels/comics, tracing them from their 19th-century roots through the underground sixties, Will Eisner, R. Crumb, and the modern move into mainstream films such as Sin City, 300, and V for Vendetta. An excerpt:

Adjacent to the permanent collection of traditional Rockwell illustrations, the bold irreverence and iconoclastic spirit of "LitGraphic" is only magnified. they can be dark and political or mystical and outright humorous; a number of artists have used the form for bracing works of social commentary.... Nothing is out of bounds: Sexual orientation, racism, feminism, fascism, violence, war, famine and health care fuel intricate narratives and stirring graphics.

Guess I'm the "health care."

For yesterday's New York Times, Motoko Rich wrote an interesting story titled "Crossover Dreams: Turning Free Web Work into Real Book Sales," which looks at exactly that. The article features the best-selling children's book Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney (hey, I know him!), quotes Abrams editor Charlie Kochman (hey, I know him!), and cites the recent publication of Shooting War, a new webcomic-to-book success story, by Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman (hey, never met 'em!).

I'm not mentioned. Charlie said he told Ms. Rich all about Mom's Cancer and its status as the first webcomic to cross over to mainstream publishing (we think; if anyone has a counter-example, let me know, I'm happy to give credit where due). She didn't take the bait and that's cool. I've been a newspaper reporter and know you can only cram so much into a story, especially a little 1200-word feature. No harm no foul.

Nevertheless, the article touches on a topic of great interest to me: the decision to publish stuff in book form that readers can already get free online. The article offers two examples of different approaches and I offer a third.

Wimpy Kid was first posted to the Website and is in fact still there--all 1300 pages of it. For the book and its sequels, Jeff and Charlie are breaking it up into 200-page bites and, I think, doing significant rewriting and editing. Still, if someone wanted, they could read the entire Wimpy Kid saga right now. And yet the print version has spent 33 weeks on the NYT best-seller list. What's up with that? The article quotes Abrams CEO Michael Jacobs (hey, I've met him! and that's the last of those, I promise): "I think books are still things, thank goodness, that people want to own. The package of the book and the way it feels is something apart and separate from being able to read it online." I think that's right and at least part of the answer.

The authors of Shooting War used the Web as a tease, posting the first 11 chapters in a Web magazine while hoping and intending them to lead to a book deal. They rewrote some parts, added 110 pages, and ended up with a book very different from the introduction that's still available online. That strategy worked for them.

I serialized Mom's Cancer online because I didn't know what else to do with it. I never thought of it as a webcomic per se, but as a comic that happened to end up on the Web. It would be disingenuous to claim I wasn't thinking about print; in fact, I hoped it might become a book from the start. I just had no idea how to do that, and in the meantime I wanted to get my story out.

I stumbled into a good synergy. The many people who read it free online caught the attention of the Eisner Award folks, which probably would have opened some publishing doors regardless. However, in fact, the Eisner nomination hadn't yet happened and Editor Charlie wasn't aware of the webcomic when he accepted my proposal. Still, the fact that I could say "Umpity-thousand people have read this story in the past few months and my readership continues to grow" helped Charlie and me make our case to the publishing-house bean-counters that printing my story was a risk worth taking.

He Who Steals My IP Steals What Exactly...?
So why did I take it offline? One reason is that my publisher Abrams requested--not demanded, but requested--that I do. But I'll step up and say I honestly had no qualms about doing it. The way I looked at it, my publisher and I were entering a business partnership to publish and sell a book. It was in our common interest to make the best book possible and sell as many of them as we could. My partner was making a big financial investment and shouldering considerable risk; my personal risk was negligible. Worst case, if we didn't sell a single book, I wouldn't lose a dime. So it seemed to me the very least I could do to minimize my partner's disproportionate risk was not offer a directly competing product--my Web version--free of charge. I thought it was the professional and right thing to do. One of my proudest days as a writer was when my editor told me the book had broken even. That's when I felt I'd fulfilled my obligation.

I also think an important difference between Mom's Cancer and Wimpy Kid is simply length. My story is about 110 pages, Jeff's is 1300. You can read mine in one sitting; Jeff's takes a few days. Reading Wimpy Kid on a monitor is a significantly different experience than reading it as a paperback in bed or on the playground; mine less so. I don't know where to draw the line--200 pages? 600?--but given Wimpy Kid's size and audience, it seems to me that the risk of free competition is much smaller with Jeff's book than mine.

So I took it offline. Some people were disappointed. If anyone wrote and said, "I'm going through the same thing right now and would really like to read it," I gave them access to the Web version, especially before the book was published. Very rarely, if someone writes from a country where the book is otherwise unavailable, I still do. Otherwise, I've got no problem asking potential readers to pay $12.95 for my book. My mother's Afterword alone is worth at least $12.94.

The reaction that surprised me, and I still don't understand, was hostility. A small number of people seemed really angry, and not because they cared so passionately about my work. I think they're consumers used to getting their reading free, their music free, their games and entertainment free, and they somehow assume a profound philosophical right to get everything they want for nothing. Their rallying cry is "Information Should Be Free!" and they seem deeply offended by being asked to pay money for content or respect a creator's right to control what happens to their own work. an Information Age society--and in a country that doesn't forge steel, sew clothing, or build cars anymore--what do we produce of real value except the creative output of our minds? Indeed, why shouldn't good, creative ideas be the very things we treasure and protect the most? They're certainly rare enough. Honestly, my story is worth $12.95. It contains at least $12.95 worth of writing, drawing and ideas. I think it's worth a movie ticket and box of popcorn. If you don't, don't buy it. But don't tell me my work has no value and I have some social or moral obligation to let you take it and do what you want with it. Nope. My stuff's better than that.

And hey, you know what? If I make a few bucks and my publisher makes a few bucks, maybe we can do something else again. But neither of us can afford to do it for nothing.

Writer Harlan Ellison has had a reputation for offering strong, loud, controversial opinions on professionalism and creators' rights for about 40 years. The interview below was taken from an upcoming documentary about Ellison and captures some good thoughts much more passionately and (fair warning) profanely than I could. It's a worthwhile 3 minutes and 25 seconds. Although I have to admit I hope I'm never on the other end of a Harlan Ellison phone call.

(Note: there's no irony in my posting a free video clip from a commercial film on a free blog. This clip was released by the film's producers with, I presume, Ellison's OK.)


Mike said...

"Honestly, my book is worth $12.95. It contains at least $12.95 worth of writing, drawing and ideas."

See, THAT's the information that's free. Good information, too!

(And there is irony in the fact that, after your disclaimer about it, when I clicked on the Harlan Ellison interview, it said it was no longer available. Oh well.)

Brian Fies said...

Huh. Just cleared my cache and tried again, and the video worked for me. But thanks for your confirmation of my perceived worth, I appreciate it!

ronnie said...

An excellent article. I'm concerned that there is a generation coming of age - say, those 25 and under - who have gotten so much, for so long for free via the internet that they do seem to think that all intellectual property should be free. That is concerning for those of us who make all or part of our living creating and selling such property.

The other end of the equation is the web publishers who seem to think that because there are some people willing to offer web content for free, that any competent professional creator should be willing to do so. A good example is our daily newspapers' website. They recently put out a call for bloggers. I sent them an email with well-developed proposals for several themed blogs (they were asking for themes) - on happenings in the capital city, if they were taking a regional approach; on pet care; and on social justice issues in the province and in Canada. I also made the mistake of asking about compensation.

It turns out they wanted people to do it "for the exposure". (A musician friend of mine likes to respond to such requests that, "Hey, man, you can die of exposure.") The result? They have several amateurs writing not very good blogs for free, including my favourite, "Being Steve", who wrote a post about catching a glimpse of a nipple on when he freeze-framed his wife's CSI DVD. Now, that's quality content, and this on the home site of all of the province's major mainstream newspapers.

Free content is not always worth the money you paid. Some outstanding free content is available online; but people - even the generation who grew up with free games, free music, free magazines, free stuff - need to respect that that doesn't mean everything online - or off - should be free.


Sherwood Harrington said...

If Mom's Cancer is only worth $12.95, then I'm only 22 years old and gas is only worth 33 cents a gallon.

More seriously, Mom's Cancer has been invaluable to me and to my family. What do you want it to be worth, Brian? That's what it is worth, to you. I literally cannot tell you what it has been worth to the rest of us.

And "free" ain't anyplace within the observable horizon.

In a marginally related arena, it has been a source of disappointment and puzzlement to multiple sets of in-laws and various new family members over four decades that this astronomer seldom talks about astronomy in family situations. "Don't you have a passion for that stuff?" is probably an adequate synopsis of the puzzlement in general.

Yes, of course I have a passion for it.

But it's also what I do for a living, and, like paid assassins, I'm not likely to ply my trade over the punch bowl.

I choose carefully those to whom I give away my expertise. Some of the readers of this "comment" actually fall into that category. But I don't feel in any way that I "owe" anyone free access to my expertise.

And that is why I treasure, more than I can say, Brian's dead cow.

Mike said...

The summer after my freshman year in college, I came home to discover there was a writers' conference going on at a woodland retreat in the area. Some of the writers came down to the bar one night, including the instructors, and I said that I was published in the campus humor magazine.

"Does it pay?" one of the pros asked.

"No, but I get to see my name in print," I said.

"When I want to see my name in print," he responded, "I look in the phone book."

Joseph Brudlos said...

Wow! That video was something else ;D Although I don't agree with it in conjunction to webcomics - If you plan on publishing your webcomic, your comic is basically advertising for your book. I think its particularly important if you have a long from webcomic with a large fanbase to leave it on the web as you move to publishing.

Part of the benefit of having your comic up on the web as a webcomic is that it is a great way to build a following. People will come back day to day to see your latest updates and will feel connected to the process as you produce your work. They will vote for your comic, nominate it for awards, tell others and even donate money. So many webcomic fans feel a sense of ownership. When you publish your work many of them will purchase your books, those that don't now will continue to read your story as it progresses and buy your book later. When you take it down after they have invested their time and effort into your work they either loose interest of get hostile. If you keep your work up they continue to be invested in your story for as long as you update.

Jeff is doing the right thing by leaving his work up - particularly since the online version is different from the book version.

That's not to say that you can't take completed stories down, particularly if you can replace it with something new. Then you can migrate your fan base to your new work. But once you gain a fan base it is important to keep and grow them.

Brian Fies said...

Joseph, I appreciate you bringing your experience and insight to the conversation. Ellison's a ball o' fire, no doubt about it. And I disagree with him to the extent I don't mind doing free work for people--friends, worthy causes, stuff that just looks like it'd be fun. Especially when you're building a career, I do think just getting your work out there is important. That's not the same as undervaluing it.

I appreciate your Web business model, which I presume is working for you. I'm particularly impressed with your sensitivity to serving your readers. One of the interesting aspects of this whole subject is that very few creators have found a way to succeed on the Internet, or even defined what "success" means. Are you a success if you have 100,000 readers but still have to work the night shift at McDonald's? Very few people make a living at it and there don't seem to be many clear models to emulate. It's the lawless Wild West.

I also think the solution depends on whether you see a Webcomic as a means to an end or an end unto itself. And, as you suggest, the nature of the work itself. I never intended "Mom's Cancer" to continue indefinitely, nor did I have any particular interest in continuing to draw new Web content when it was done. It was a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end, and when it was done so was my Webcartooning career as far as I was concerned (not to say I might not take it up again, although I've got other pans in the fire for the foreseeable future).

Thanks again, good food for thought.