Eisner Award-nominated editor, writer and publishing consultant Tim Pilcher ponders the problems getting a successful graphic comics line off the ground for British publishers…
Lately I’ve been musing on why it is that traditional British book publishers have never really launched a successful and sustained graphic novel list. I think it comes down to several factors:
Firstly, you need a graphic novel ‘champion’ within the company to fight comics’ corner.
I’ve seen many publishing consultants come and go over the years and the one consistent factor is that they primarily come from the book trade rather than the comics sector. They have very little experience – or in some cases none at all – in dealing with the “direct market” (that’s comic shops to everybody else). The comic book industry is a completely different model to the book trade, with different distribution systems, reviewers, retailers, etc.
Alternatively, I’ve seen people come from the comics world enter the book trade and be completely overwhelmed by the size, scope and scale of the industry and flummoxed by the unwieldiness of a large corporate entity. It’s vital that anyone who runs a graphic novel list within a major publisher understands these two words equally, and those sort of people are rare as hen’s teeth!
Secondly, publishers need to be in the graphic novel business for the long haul.
All too often book publishers get someone in, they dabble around for a bit and when they don’t see instant results they give up, saying “Well, there obviously isn’t a market for it.” That’s purely down to not understanding the market, not knowing how to reach readers and perhaps having a distorted view of what’s achievable. It takes time, dedication and investment to successfully build a publishing list. After all, the major publishing houses of Penguin Random House, Hachette and the like weren’t built in a day! They took tireless dedication and toil by staff who were knowledgeable and truly believed in the books they were publishing.
Thirdly, remain flexible.
The graphic novel market is mercurial and you need to be able to follow the trends. Currently, the biggest rise is in children’s graphic novels (up 20 per cent in 2017) but Fantasy, Mystery/ Detective, Occult/ Horror, Classics and General Fiction graphic novel sales are also up, so it’s worth looking at those genres as well.
But don’t put all your eggs in one basket, because when the trends shift you’ll be left high and dry!
Graphic novels aren’t cheap to produce, but if you do them on the cheap they’ll wear their impoverishment on their jacket sleeves and won’t find the readers. However, while they are initially expensive to produce, good quality graphic novels have an incredibly long tail and sales will pay back in handsome dividends over the years.
As I often say “Everything is evergreen!” Ensuring the availability of backlist is the key to success. This is not high churn non-fiction/celeb-bio publishing!
But investment also needs to be in the shape of people, not just money. I’ve spoken to many comics professionals over the years who have had to deal with editors who, while maybe be very excellent prose or non-fiction editors, simply don’t understand the dynamics and mechanics of sequential storytelling. Shockingly, I’ve heard stories of creators handing in scripts or finished art with no feedback or constructive criticism whatsoever! A quick, “That’s great, when can you get the next batch in?” and then not hearing from their editors for another month or two, or even until the deadline passes!
So publishers need to either invest in training their editorial staff correctly in dealing with sequential storytelling, or hire editors with substantial experience who can then train others up. There is a woeful lack of professional comics editors in the UK (I can think of probably less than 20 really excellent UK-based comics editors) and it does worry me where the next generation of comics editors are learning their craft?
Ironically it appears as if it’s the new media companies like Amazon, SyFy, AMC and Netflix that are embracing comics in a far more positive and professional manner than traditional publishers. SyFy commissioned Grant Morrison and Darrick Robertson’s over the top Happy! graphic novel as a successful miniseries. AMC have three major TV series based on comics The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead and Preacher, and Netflix recently made an impressive acquisition of Mark Millar’s MillarWorld properties.
They can see the benefits of these comic book properties and know how to tap into their fanbases. Something that still seems to leave book publisher’s still scratching their heads.
So, to sum up, if publishers want to avoid having their march stolen by the new media companies, and to successfully publish graphic novels they need to:
- Invest properly, both financially and in the right staff
- Remain flexible with their list
- Stick with it for the long term
And (most importantly!) get someone who knows what they are talking about and understands both the book and comic book industries inside and out.
You know where to find me.
Author, comics writer and editor Tim Pilcher has not one but two books nominated for an Eisner Awards this year – How Comics Work, co-written with comic artist and writer Dave Gibbons, which we really liked, and Deconstructing The Incal, co-edited with Alex Donoghue. It’s the first time Tim has ever been nominated for an Eisner, and he would love to attend the San Diego Comic Con in person to to pick up the award up in person if he wins. But the cost of attending the event are enormous and he needs your help to get there. You can check out the eBay auction or back him via his JustGiving appeal here
• The Spectator (2016) – The British are leaders in graphic novels so why do we not take the art form more seriously?
This gallery on the Arts & Humanties Research Council web site is a mixture of representative images and little-known texts from the history of the British graphic novel. It provides a snapshot of the many different creators, texts, and genres that constitute this vital cultural form. The graphic novel has enjoyed two boom periods – the late 1980s and the start of the 2000s – but exciting new work is coming out every year and the tradition of the British graphic novel is much older than commonly assumed
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