How Does Your Reader Buy Books? (and other things you should already know)

“Know thy audience,” could be the first rule (and only one that matters) in any class on the business of publishing. It usually means, “Understand who will be reading your book,” meaning the person who likes to read your kind of book. If it’s a hard science-fiction book, think of all your hard sci-fi-reading friends, create an ideal amalgamation of them all (with or without beards), and now make sure your book reads like those that person usually enjoys. This is great advice, if a little obvious, meant for a writer who has a publisher to take care of the business details. It’s about writing a book, not selling it. For those who self-publish, the maxim has to mean something else: “Understand how your ideal reader shops.”

All smart publishers ask themselves this question periodically, and it seems to be top-of-mind for DC Comics these days as they relaunch their entire line. The internet is abuzz with analysis (some say DC is alienating its core fan base, others think they are hurting brick-and-mortar stores with their digital strategy, others think it’s brilliant, others think Superman’s t-shirt makes him look silly.). None of it (as far as I’ve seen) comes from the perspective of that fundamental question, but the move and the reaction to it has become a great illustration of how important it is to ask, especially for self-publishers, who must ask it of themselves every day.

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Do We Really Need Guided View?

Digital comics; what’s not to love? The colors are beautiful, the price (usually) can’t be beat, you can shove a stack of mid-’80s Justice League Internationals weightlessly into your tablet and bring them with you on the bus, and you can re-download everything later when you lose your tablet on that bus. But what’s up with guided view?

Reading a comic in guided view is like watching a flip book; each panel is essentially cut out of the page and pasted into its own page of a scrapbook. One has the option of ordering the “camera” to pull back at the end of a page so the entire thing can be viewed as it was meant to before jumping back in to the out-of-context single panel reading. Comixology’s version of the trick is particularly advanced (and apparently trademarked), occasionally allowing the panel to pan left or right so as to read multiple actions in a single panel in the proper order. I sometimes double-click into guided view because it makes a perfectly sized zoom for me when I want to inspect a Geof Darrow background for a couple hours. Otherwise, it renders pointless all the hard work that went in to designing the comic book page.

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Aren’t Push-Button Magazines Long Overdue?

Peggy O'Connor in the newsstand glory days. © Time Inc.

Thomas Paine reached 100,000 American colonists with his Common Sense, a number that would today mean 20,000,000 in terms of population reach. And it never would have existed without a print shop and movable type. A failed corset-maker like T. Paine certainly wouldn’t have had the means (and probably not the will) to reproduce them all by hand.

Print technology keeps getting better as it evolves, and by better I mean easier for more people to read more things. The tract lived on through ‘zines for a few centuries and now seems to have mostly transmuted into the insta-published blog. Books — that walled City of Troy of publishing — stayed exclusive for a while but digital printing battered through the gate and e-books plum brought down the wall. But wither the magazine? A young politico can post her treatises for the entire world to find (should they choose to look). A novelist can do the same, and largely within the same format he would have 20 years ago. But today’s crusading magazine moguls don’t seem to have anywhere to turn for help overcoming the obstacles.

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You’re Not Special Enough to Have Writer’s Block

Slovenly, hopeless Eddie Morra tries to overcome his indecision and fear over his novel with medicine. The pill will instead cause him to get a haircut.

I sometimes wonder if Writer’s Block (the capitalized version, the chronic condition) was invented by pop culture. If your main character is The Writer (the capitalized archetypical version, not the human being) then all he does all day is sit and look at things. To give him a dramatic purpose that looks interesting he needs a conflict, and what’s worse than – by God – not being able to perform the very function you’ve been put in the story to perform?

Writer’s Block as portrayed in pop culture is perfectly embodied by Bradley Cooper’s character Eddie Morra in Limitless – unkempt, dirty, drunk, inevitably bouncing a ball off the walls, staring uselessly at a waiting computer, and lying to strangers in bars about the book’s progress (the anonymous confession making the lie all the more pathetic). In other words, those who suffer Writer’s Block are simply waiting, but nothing is arriving. The writer who is not blocked is also waiting but something does arrive: inspiration, usually a bolt of artistic fire right from the gods above. For Eddie Morra, the external intervention comes in the form of a pill. For Jack Torrance in The Shining, it comes as a malevolent ghostly hijack, actualizing the Writer’s worst fear that the otherworldy lightning may be evil instead of productive. In all cases the Writer’s Block condition is relieved by something other than the Writer.

This, of course, bears no resemblance whatsoever to actual writing (the lowercase version, the human action). Writers don’t wait, they do, which makes them no more special than anyone else who does things – plumbers, baristas, pet groomers, dairy farmers. Writers make decisions; to sit down and focus, to turn on the computer, to deliberately create a specific thing. Writers who can’t write are being accosted by the same things that accost anyone who can’t make a decision, things like being distracted by the fight you had with your parents the night before, or fear that the end product will be terrible, or even regular old Lazy-Sunday-I-Don’t-Want-To-Do-Nuthin’-itis. I just took an hour away from this piece to make another pot of coffee and look at some tech blogs under the false pretense that I might buy an iPad, for no reason other than that I didn’t want to finish this paragraph. How much nicer it would be to say that it wasn’t my fault! How nice it would be to blame it on a special condition that only afflicts me.

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Characters Always Drive the Story — So Say We All!

Starbuck (Katie Sackhoff) smoking a cigar in Battlestar Galactica.

Michel (Jean-Luc Belmondo) smokes a cigarette in Breathless. (Via French New Wave)

I’ve noticed that writers, when discussing the process of writing, often (maybe even always?) describe their work as “character-driven” as opposed to, I assume, “plot-driven.” I’ve made this mistake, too, without even thinking about it. I’ve caught myself telling writers, while editing, that they’re too excited about the plot twists and not excited enough about the characters experiencing the plot when in reality they should be paying equal attention to both. But I get why we’ve developed this natural antipathy to overly plotted entertainments. We’ve become somewhat beaten up by bad writing that gains wide acceptance simply because of the “gotta find out what happens next” factor at the expense of everything else. People – avid readers especially – get tired of it.

The worst offender here could be the pop serial and its necessary gimmicks. Ask any superhero comics writer for advice and they will tell you to spend 21 pages resolving the previous issue’s cliffhanger while also building towards the new cliffhanger on Page 22, leaving readers on the hook for another month in a never-ending cycle. The first job of a serialized storyteller is to get people to come back next time, which can read to literary types as an imbalanced list of priorities. Serialized action-based narratives gave birth to single-chapter versions (or fewer-chapter versions), popularized by the likes of George Lucas, Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming, and on and on, becoming widespread and extremely noticeable.

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Why Books are Better Than the Internet — That’s Right, I Said It

The Folger Library in Washington, 1938 -- Harris & Ewing Collection (Library of Congress)

The internet is overwhelming; that much is clear. The murky part comes in trying to define exactly how it fits (or should fit) in our lives. This is the subject of a recent wave of books that all take different positions and are all expertly reviewed by Adam Gopnik in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Gopnik divides these prevailing internet philosophies into three schools: the Better-Nevers (“the internet will destroy us all!”), the Ever-Wasers (“eh — this conversation happens with every new technology, everyone calm down”), and the Never-Betters (“the internet will save us all!”). Though all arguments are interesting (as is the article), what struck me most of all was Gopnik’s comparison of the internet to a library, which got me thinking — for the first time, much to my surprise — of how the internet compares to books, and how this might help us find a tree to hold on to in the information flood.

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Follow Along With Me, Unless I Totally Mess Up

When I first started lettering I made the wise decision to avidly study what other letterers do and never stop. One of the first things I noticed is that letterers make stuff up all the time. Things that certain letterers find helpful become rules and often those rules become widely accepted in a kind of natural selection process as the art form evolves. I love this. When my early collaborators would ask me why I insisted on shoving as many balloons up to the top of the panel as I could I would simply say, “Because Richard Starkings says you have to,” and that would be good enough for both parties. One of my own unilateral decisions early on was that, since most people aren’t “trained” to read comics, I should always endeavor to make sure that consecutive balloons are geographically close to each other.

Now, this may be controversial (I admit I’ve never taken a poll) but I remember reading a post from Eddie Campbell somewhere along the way confirming my suspicion that people need more help following along with comics than we think they do (and the philosophies of Mr. Campbell, along with Mr. Starkings, should be adhered to, at least in my shop). People don’t naturally think, “Hmm, I’m at the end of the balloon. Maybe I should search for the next invisible ‘row’ of this panel, start at the left, and continue reading.” They will instead look for the next available block of text, the same way we all do when reading a magazine or looking at a wordy advertisement.

Lettering in this fashion means the page has to be designed as a single unit rather than a collection of individually designed panels. Artists already know this innately — most veteran comic book artists (especially Jim Steranko) will say that images in a panel must subtly lead the eye to the next panel. Letterers aren’t as keen to do this, mainly because we often have a massive challenge of fitting words and art together without deleting or changing anything within an almost impossible deadline, another 22-page job waiting right behind it. When facing a tough, wordy page, often the best a letterer can do is try to fit the words rather than design them. But when it works in our favor, when the art is already working for the story rather than against it, we can actually try to help the reader out a little.

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Good Books and Hard Work

Working for Ralph Vicinanza, as I did for a few months right out of college, was a master class in the publishing business. While at work, Ralph didn’t have much time for anything besides work, so there were none of the long philosophical happy hours and lunches and weekly check-ins that became the norm in all my following relationships with bosses. What I got instead was clear direction and brief, efficient interactions, often with quick, almost accidentally imparted insights into his many years of accumulated wisdom, if I was paying attention. The man lived books and spent his entire career making them more widely available, so it made sense that he would casually drop more book knowledge into a conversation about the broken copy machine than some industry pros can pack into a lecture. My time at that agency was barely a blink but I consciously recall more lessons from it than I do from all my following jobs combined.

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The Art of Production

One of my favorite images from 4CP's fantastic gallery of blown-up comic book panels.

I always love the Four Color Process blog but they blew my mind with their expansive appreciation of old comic book print production last week. I try not to urge people to read blog posts too often because of the information overload we all suffer but you probably should read this over your bowl of cereal tomorrow morning.

I’ve always hated the art world’s obsession with the Benday dots and Moiré patterns of old, cheap printed material. Roy Lichtenstein’s reprehensible plagiarism is the worst example but his legacy is even more insidious. My first corporate publishing job was as a comics editor at a mainstream children’s magazine. By the time I arrived their art director had already appropriated the Benday dot pattern as the major design motif of the comics section so there was no getting rid of it no matter how much nausea it caused. To that art director, dots equaled comics and that was the end of the discussion. It didn’t matter to anyone that speech balloons, thought balloons, verbal sound effects, and sequential panels themselves (not to mention the actual literary value of comics stories themselves) were the more significant and pervasive contributions of comics to the culture-at-large.  Lichtenstein’s obsession with printing limitations managed to further diminish the cultural currency of an already critically diminished art form.

People often try to take my Lichtenstein hate down a few notches and that’s fair enough. Why waste emotional energy on an intellectually bankrupt plagiarist who never had an original idea when I can instead focus on the often brilliant innovations of the real artists he ripped off? And, as 4CP has taught me, why allow that legacy to turn off my appreciation of those printing limitations, which did manage to create an art form even if Lichtenstein and his admirers weren’t intelligent enough to recognize it?

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Don’t Let Anyone Tell You No

Upton Sinclair: Self-published "The Millennium" in 1924.

It was surprising to see such a resurgence of the “Self-publishing isn’t valid” meme in 2010. We thought that particular dinosaur was extinct by now, didn’t you? In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been such a shock considering the advent of the iPad and the Kindle. It makes sense that the sudden removal of production and inventory management as obstacles to self-publishers would scare up some defensive posturing from traditional publishers. What we want to say, unequivocally, before the madness keeps stirring, is twofold:

  • Publishers, never fear! You are necessary (for certain things)
  • Self-publishers, never fear! Your process is totally legitimate (for certain things)

We’ll get more into those two ideas in a minute but first, we would love to see an immediate end to the defensive posturing. You don’t have to tear down the concept of self-publishing in order to justify the need for traditional publishing. And self-publishers don’t have to keep insisting that they are on a track to “real” publishing. The book is the thing, not the means of connecting the book to its audience. The world hasn’t ended; it has just changed. Before, authors had to wait to get noticed by someone else. Now, authors have choices to make. Here’s what we think they are.

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