Writer Chris Kipiniak and artist J.K. Woodward have both been around the comics industry for years, with marquee franchises like X-Men, Spider-Man, and Star Trek under their belts. But BEHEMOTH — a digital comic series about monstrous mutant teens fighting for their lives — is their first creator-owned project, published by Monkeybrain Comics. Wondering how these two talented dudes came together — and how it’s been going — Letter Better sat them down for an interview to discuss all things BEHEMOTH.
When everyone’s favorite e-book company purchased everyone’s favorite e-comic book company, comics finally took the giant step forward we’ve been threatened with for years.
While comiXology and its competitors have tried their best to build a new revenue stream for the comics industry ever since digital comics first became viable four years ago, it’s been tough. Digital comics simply haven’t taken hold the way enthusiasts keep predicting, or at least with nothing close to the wild success we’ve seen in mainstream prose publishing where digital now accounts for roughly a third of all book sales. The reasons for this are many, including the fact that comics sales are still fueled by collectors like myself who enjoy owning physical things. But the biggest obstacles to overall category growth are still discoverability and consumer awareness. When I tell someone that I work in comics the most common reply is, “I didn’t know they still make those.” When people aren’t exposed to comics they don’t know they want comics, which means they won’t look for them or purchase them. Last week’s Amazon/comiXology team-up aims to turn this story around for good. Comics, a niche segment of an already niche publishing market, is on the verge of going mainstream again.
Most of the instant online reaction to the acquisition seems to come from two places: either “oh look, something tech was bought by something else tech, isn’t that techy?” or “oh geez, they’re going to take my comics away!” I’d like to instead explore what the purchase might mean from a book publishing perspective, and by “explore” I mean, “make wild unsubstantiated predictions.” So without further ado, behold my 100% guaranteed accurate predictions for the future of comiXology and the world:
This is the first post in an ill-defined series on legal matters pertaining to intellectual property creation, development, and defense. Please read our intro post for back-story on why and, most importantly, some disclaimers.
This month’s resolution to the web of suits and countersuits between Marvel and Ghost Rider co-creator Gary Friedrich has brought to light some deeply rooted misunderstandings of trademark and copyright law. These were given greater voice in this week’s extra-legal conflict between artist Sean Murphy and Marvel. (I won’t recap them here, but you can follow those links for nicely succinct summaries.) Both instances involved disputes over what copyright and trademark protection affords so they serve as instructive examples of these legal intricacies, not the least of which is a pervasive confusion over the differences between the two.
Shall we do some defining? Let’s. Copyright protects creative work and its author, while trademark protects the logos, brand names, and other marks used by a business in the course of selling that material (thus the “trade” part.) The character and idea of Superman is copyrighted and, depending on which judge or lawyer you are, it contains several copyright-protected elements like the name of the planet he’s from, the newspaper he works for, and the villains he fights. The symbol on his chest, however, is a trademark, as it’s used to sell merchandise. So is the logo on the covers of his comic books. These two protections have different lifespans and rules for keeping them active, and they don’t have to exist simultaneously. For instance, if DC let their Superman trademark registrations expire but the copyright protection was still active, you or I could publish a non-Superman related book using those trademarks. (Not sure what that would be — super-gardening?) If their copyright expired but the trademark did not, the converse would be true: you or I could publish stories about Superman but without those long-established symbols and logos.
So what does this mean for you, brave author? Well, for one, it’s worth knowing that the laws governing both of these protections favor you. The law makes it difficult for a challenger to wrest control of your creative work away from you and, provided that you’ve kept up your paperwork, it’s really difficult for a challenger to wrest control of the marks you’ve used to establish a presence in the marketplace. America is great that way — we don’t want business interrupted, and we especially don’t want authors to stop creating. But there’s still some stuff you have to do and just, well, know about. Since copyright is so straightforward, we’ll start there.
If this little pocket of humanity we inhabit that we like to call “the literary creative industry” were a dinner party, the main topic of conversation right now would be intellectual property. What a boring dinner conversation! you’re probably thinking, and you would be right if the talk was limited to lawyers and their legal-ish lawyer-speak and hypothetical questions like an endless loop of the last scene of The People Vs. Larry Flynt. While “intellectual property” as a legal concept sounds stale and corporate, when you reconsider it to mean “all the things I create while I hunch over my drawing table and writing desk all weekend” it takes on new urgency.
Recent flare-ups on the subject in the comics world have brought about a raft of new ideas and “huh, I should have thought of that” moments, along with an expected raft of old-guard defensiveness and misunderstandings of the facts. I don’t think the flare-ups are evidence of any kind of centralized movement or counter-movement taking place in the field of creative property development, only a coincidental closeness of unrelated court cases and controversial IP development decisions. However, I think the result of these coincidences will be old-school consciousness-raising: the events under discussion will remain static but the future of creators’ relationships with their chosen avenues of production will be better informed, if not completely revolutionized. We’ve written here before about technology’s gift to publishing: an explosion of content and audience expansion that any other industry would envy, even as the traditional structures for introducing author to audience change. The same goes for IP ownership and development: the old way of centralizing the creative works of many into a corporate IP exploitation engine was yesterday. As it changes, those properties and their engines will remain in place while the next generation develops new multi-partner models that will give us an explosion of fun new ideas. We’re already seeing it in the projects we’re hired to work on here at Letter Better, and we can’t wait to see more.
In an effort to help out where we can, we’re going to run a series of posts on the subject of IP (again, just shorthand for “stuff you spend your time making”) with no planned schedule or frequency but across a variety of topics that seem to be of interest to creators. These are all informed by our professional experience dealing with these topics, not just things we’ve overheard in bars. We’ll devote a separate series of posts to the topic of things we’ve overheard in bars.
“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.
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.
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.