Two from Warren Ellis

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warren ellis Two from Warren EllisA couple of quotes from Warren Ellis were making the Twitter rounds this weekend. This one, from 2000 (!), is from Ellis’ column for CBR, and concerns the fine art of writing a comic book pitch:

So that’s what you’re doing; boiling it down, distilling the idea into a reduced form. No, it won’t have the completeness of what you really want to show them, and it won’t indicate the richness and complexity of what you’re doing. Frankly, you have to live with it. Hook them with this and show them the good stuff later. Because if you don’t do it in a way that at least looks like their way, they won’t even look at it to begin with.

More recently, writing in this month’s Wired, he has some rather sanguine numbers for the comic book industry:

>Compared to cinema attendance, comic book sales look small. But I just pulled up North America’s estimated comics-sales figures for May, and the top comic sold 163,000 issues that month. That’s a regular US-style comic single, costing $4 that goes directly to specialist comic-book shops. The top ten comics for that month sold a combined number in excess of a million units. The top 20? Somewhere over 1.6 million. And these estimates are usually lower than the real sales figures. Plus, of course, all these single issues will eventually be reprinted as trade-paperback collections. Tell a book publisher those numbers and see what colour they turn.


>strong>Stuart Moore pointed out some similar things recently in the comments here.

And just to jump back willy-nilly to making comics again, Marvel editor Nathan Cosby is always tweeting good advice on how to make it in comics, and here are some words on working with editors:

But just because you’re starting out, just cuz your editor got the ability to fire you & hire another writer… …doesn’t mean you’ve gotta completely roll over and change every aspect the editor’s requesting. Editors aren’t gods… …Editors are people that read TONS of scripts & sometimes unsuccessfully attempt to translate their problems with a story to a writer…

Comments

  1. Wraith says:

    I think both Moore and Ellis, like many of today’s pros, are in denial and can’t accept that the comic book industry is in trouble. God forbid that they admit that they’re “more mature” stories are sales flops.

  2. Synsidar says:

    Ellis must know that book publishers sell to much broader audiences than Marvel and DC do. Sales of a best-selling novel are in the millions. Most books aren’t bestsellers, of course, but the potential for an author to produce a best-selling book constantly exists, while Marvel and DC have had great trouble expanding beyond their base readerships.

    Novels are also standalone reading experiences. Even an entry in a series can sustain a reader for a year or more. If Ellis were to try to implement the comics serialization system at a book publisher, he couldn’t.

    SRS

  3. >> Sales of a best-selling novel are in the millions. >>

    Not true.

    Sales of _some_ bestsellers are in the millions, but it’s possible to make the bestseller lists with much, much, much smaller sales.

    Bookstores may sell to a broader audience, but the books they sell reach smaller fractions of that audience. And a book publisher would be quite happy with the kind of numbers Warren reports.

    http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/bestlist.htm

    kdb

  4. Watchmen is a sales flop? The Sandman?

    Wraith, I suspect you are suffering with a very common problem in comics today, which is that anytime you see the world “mature”, your mind indicates to you that this should be read as “sophisticated”, which is lamentably an affliction caused by the morons in charge of marketing. The terms are not interchangable, and the attempt to conflate them as such is much to the lament of people who appreciate when language is used correctly.

    “Mature” these days is thrown around every time a character is ripped in half or raped, which means it is to comics what “all natural” is to food – it means nothing. It has no basis in actually informing the reader that what they hold in their hands is sound, concise storytelling with strong character development and resonance to the higher spheres of human experience – as is the case when you read “sophisticated” stories like The Sandman, Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Waltz with Bashir, DMZ, WE3, Transmetropolitan, and on and on and on.

    Those stories are mature, but they are also sophisticated. I too would expect “mature” titles to flop, but I cannot think of a non-used book shop I have gone into within the last 5 or 6 years which didn’t have trades of any of those titles above. Watchmen has been reprinted how many times now in the last 20 years? Dark Knight Returns? The thought that The Sandman trades will ever go out of print is equivalent in my mind to saying A Christmas Carol will be out of print within the decade. The audience for great content, for amazing stories, is ever expanding.

  5. Synsidar says:

    Not true.

    I’ll admit to treating numbers casually. I had “name” authors in mind, such as those found on a list of bestselling fiction authors. Their numbers are impressive and, more importantly, they own their work. Someone who’s appeared on a NYT bestseller list once might refer to himself as a bestselling author, but that’s not how the public would think of him.

    SRS

  6. But you weren’t talking about how the general public views someone. You were challenging Warren’s assertion that book publishers would be happy with those numbers.

    And they wouldn’t be comparing how many copies a comic book sold in a month with how many copies Clive Cussler has sold over a span of decades, or how many copies a long-dead author like Charles Dickens has sold in over a century; they’d compare it to sales velocity of new releases. And on that score, comic book sales numbers are pretty impressive. This is one of the reasons comics writers like me keep getting inquiries from book editors as to whether we’ve got a novel to offer; they look at the size of our audience and the steadiness of our backlist sales and figure that if we could bring even a decent portion of that audience over, we’d be well worth a look.

    Every ASTRO CITY paperback, for instance, sells enough copies every year to be a very good seller for a book publisher, and it does so at cover prices comparable to hardcover books. I’m not close to competing with Stephen King, but I’m getting numbers way better than a midlist prose author, and any book publisher would be delighted with that kind of performance. One can quibble with Warren on ancillary points — comics have higher production costs, and the periodical prices are lower than paperbacks — but on what he actually said, he’s correct.

    [And it’s also not true that novelists constantly have the chance to produce a bestseller or that novels are always a self-contained experience — the automation of book ordering straitjackets prose authors severely, to the point where some have to change their names to try to get around it, and more and more, books can be partial works. The new Connie Willis is half a story, for instance, with a resolution coming in the next volume, and she’s by no means a rare example.]

    Amusingly, your link notes that comic book authors are not included in the list; presumably, they’d throw off the numbers.

    kdb

  7. Syn,

    A best-selling authors of all time list from wikipedia is not a yard-stick of any kind to be making comparisons for current markets. There is no calculation of sales over time, and the numbers Ellis is talking about do not include trade sales (which DOES help Marvel and DC reach those broader audiences via larger retail chains) and constitutes the long-tail that drives the numbers for most of your list.

    R.L. Stine is actually kind of close to a serialized author. A book a month basically. Also, with Stine, we have to consider the 430+ books in market, which means ghostwriting, which means you lose the whole “they actually own their work” argument. Clive Cussler has had many books ghostwritten for all intents and purposes, and Robert Ludlum has had 17 books published AFTER his death. He did not leave that much unpublished material laying around (and wikipedia lists all those other authors who wrote the books).

    Lets go back to Stine and take a median, 250M books sold based on that list, breaks down to about 580K per book. That is exceptionally good.

    Now lets look here: http://www.comicsbeat.com/2010/08/05/marvel-month-to-month-sales-june-2010/

    For the #1 book: about a fourth of what Stine sells, on median (but I’d LOVE to see what the month to month numbers are on his most recent books if anyone can find those). Again, this is almost a completely useless comparison, since Stine’s median (along with every other author on that wiki list) contains a giant long-tail, and the number for New Avengers is a single month.

    Let’s take Ken Follett – 30 books, median sales of 95M copies, 26 years writing = roughly 3M/year – and Uncanny X-Men. On the June report sold 962K over the previous 12 months, and that is down from almost every one of the last 5 years. So the #9 title on the comics list sells a third of the median yearly sales of one of the ALL-TIME bestselling authors. Not counting trade sales again.

    I promise you, with bows and chocolate ribbons, that if you go to any book publisher in the world and tell them your books will sell a third of what Ken Follett sells year over year, the piles of money they through at you will concuss you.

    There is a reason, after all, Disney paid $4B for the Marvel.

  8. Synsidar says:

    The vast majority of superhero comics have been WFH endeavors. Writers writing about characters they don’t own, struggling to come up with material monthly, reusing characters and plot devices again and again and losing readers on practically any given series due to turnover of the readership.

    Ellis didn’t make any relevant point by comparing numbers. To writers concerned about a reputation for creativity and originality, writing about the same characters repeatedly and repeating plot material and themes would be a type of hell.

    A fairer comparison would be comparing TV soap opera viewership stats to superhero comic book sales figures. Ellis could also compare the number of creator-owned comics in print to the number of creator-owned novels in print, but the result wouldn’t be complimentary to comics.

    Saying that Marvel is profitable is stating the obvious. Ellis’s comparison hardly means anything else.

    SRS

  9. “The vast majority of superhero comics have been WFH endeavors.”

    Yep, and we got Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, we got J H Williams pages on Batman titles in recent years, we had Jim Steranko’s covers on Nick Fury, and Matt Fraction’s Iron Fist. There was Jon Muth, there was Bill Sienkiewicz, Walt Simonson. Alan Moore did Swamp Thing WTF. Gaiman did Sandman. There was Jack Kirby.

    Who among them doesn’t have a reputation for creativity and originality?

  10. Your initial point was that books sold way better than comics, Steve. Since what you’re now arguing is that there’s no point to comparing numbers like you were doing to begin with, I’ll assume you’ve simply abandoned that point and are now trying to find things Warren didn’t say to criticize him on.

    Which is always fun, but I’ll stick to the original point: Book publishers are impressed with comics sales numbers, both in periodical form and book form. They’d like to tap into that kind of steady audience themselves, more often than they do now.

  11. What Kurt said. All of it.

    If we’re arguing about Art, let’s have a spirited discussion about the relative merits of Brian Bendis, Art Spiegelman, and Cathy Guisewite. (Or Self-Indulgent Autobio vs. Superhero Decadence, for that matter.) But if we’re talking about sales and distribution, look at the numbers — the overall numbers. I urge anyone interested in this subject to read through John Jackson Miller’s latest, excellent summary of recent comics sales, which was the source of my comment referenced in Heidi’s article.

  12. Wraith says:

    What I want to know is how are book publishers suddenly now impressed with comic book sales, when comics are currently selling at an all time low as opposed to how they were selling back in the 80’s?

  13. Because book publishers are seeing comics as a growing category in bookstore sales now. The two industries were more separate back then — though book publishers were interested in comics sales even then. The first wave of “real book publishers gonna do graphic novels” was in the mid-Eighties, as numerous publishers began graphic novel lines. Most of them collapsed early because they didn’t know what they were doing (anyone remember PINK FLAMINGOS? Didn’t think so).

    But most book editors back then saw comics as magazines, without much of a sales tail. Since then, comics have demonstrated that they can build loyal audiences with a strong and lasting sales tail, and book publishers want to find ways in on that action.

    They also see a lot more crossover in the talent pool, breaking down the assumptions that comic-book writers couldn’t be an asset to them that guys like Steve Englehart encountered in the late 1970s. Things changed, and it makes them more aware of us.

    kdb

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