The End is not Nigh: Arts and Arts Industries Aren’t Dying

Orion Nebula,

Look up. That’s the Orion Nebula, a site of massive star formation. It’s certainly dramatic. Some bright points of light. Huge clouds of dust colliding. Who knows what will come out of it? Well, we do know. Stars are what’s coming, big and small. Imagine that’s an arts industry. Pick one, any will do. Ok, we’ll go with publishing. What was once stable and sedate is all upset. What’s coming is exciting and scary. But something is coming.

The culture industries, post-90s music bubble, post-Harry Potter publishing boom, are still working through the slow transformation from relatively centralized industries dominated by a few power players, to more complex industries where big publishers and production companies share space with self-publishers and social curators who may have as much or more legitimacy than they do.

In the boom times, publishers, distributors, and traditional mass media had comfortable positions as gatekeepers who couldn’t be knocked off their posts. These days, they’re on the wall with “new media,” trying to keep those gates up and their income secure, and fighting off the barbarian hoards of social media. They’re driven by the enemy (Amazon, iTunes, et al.) to form bigger and bigger mercenary bands, even as the people they’re protecting start to doubt their relevancy.

Tech companies have seen opportunity in the sweet spot between art and commerce—I mean, Amazon is the big fish here, but there are innumerable startups and publishing and distribution platforms looking for new ways to deliver art-products to avid consumers.

We are in danger of the old power players being wholly supplanted by new, Silicon Valley power players.

Hawking radiation,
Imagine Amazon is the black hole at the centre of American book publishing. The good news is the corona and beyond: the long tail is vibrant. Bee the bee, this is actually an illustration of the gravitational lensing effect, which produces warped images of everything around the black hole. That’s not an apt metaphor for how Amazon’s market dominance muddies the water, or something. Not at all. (via Wikipedia.)

If you’re keeping your gaze locked on blockbuster publishing and distribution, that may already seem to be the case, but there are so many countervailing trends—as usual, it’s more complicated than that.

All this transformation means that the old modes of production and distribution are on the wane, not in danger of imminent death, but no longer so financially secure. Thanks to the logic of capitalism, that pain gets passed on to creators.

Recently the Writer’s Union of Canada estimated that published Canadian authors could expect to make an average of $12,000 a year from their writing. This figure isn’t limited to first time novelists (ha ha, they’re still getting those sweet advances—sometimes) or to aging relics clinging to the last wisps of their readership. That $12,000 is a median, the amount a mid-list author, smack in the middle of her career, should set her sights on. That’s the good money for anyone who isn’t a superstar.

In Britain too, things are looking grim for authors. The Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society estimates that the median income of British authors from their writing is a meagre £11,000. That’s not far off from the Canadian figure, when you adjust for the exchange rate. It’s also a 29% drop from the previous year.

These are poverty wages. British and Canadian novelists alike could qualify for social assistance if they weren’t supplementing their income with other work. Or, scratch that, if they weren’t supplementing their primary income with writing.

There is no comics professional association that produces such tidy figures, which sucks. There is no good data on the direct market’s sell-through to customers, either. (I’ll expand on why another time, but this is due to outdated inventory practices that are slowly changing. There is some POS inventory data, and Diamond subsidies its Comics Suite system, but not yet enough.) But there is good data from booksellers and we can make certain assumptions based on market trends. We can assume that traditionally published cartoonists, i.e., those who build an audience through mini-comics and then publish graphic novels and art books at mid-size houses, have seen similar dramatic declines in book royalties.

Those figures, though, don’t account for the whole of the book publishing world: namely, they don’t account for self-published authors, or for the myriad ways that novelists supplement their incomes with other forms of writing and other work—sometimes creative, sometimes not. They also don’t account for crowdfunding. This is not to say that self-publishers are, on average, making more than mid-list, traditionally published authors in the prime of their career. Most aren’t. Nor is it to say that crowdfunded authors are living it up in luxury. What we need to recognize is simply that they aren’t accounted for in these reckonings. The data is incomplete.

How do the Black Keys make money? Not through iTunes or Spotify, but through licensing and touring. How has Spike Trotman built her still-growing publishing company? Not through traditional publishing or on the back of ComiXology, but through Kickstarter. (Her books ARE on ComiXology, though—multiple channels!) Garth Brooks has finally embraced digital downloads? Oh, he went ahead and started his own digital music company with terms more favourable to artists. E.L. James became, somehow, a best-seller. She turned her fanfic into an original story and sold sold sold it until she attracted a publishing company.

Reminder: e-books, digital comics, and digital music are still very new. We are still experimenting with distribution and with modes of consumption. The role of hard copy art is not yet determined. The role of the artist and her wages has not yet been eliminated. These are market trends in motion. There is still time.

What the examples above have in common is experimentation and perseverance in the face of industry old-guard doomsaying and gatekeeping.

Remember the Thurber/Strum whirlpool of panic and despair the other day? It seems like so long ago. (If only.)

Thurber describes social sharing as a “like economy,” one where cartoonists trade likes of each other’s work and credulous readers cleave to the most commercial among them. These likes come in lieu of payment for work and only Big Social is reaping monetary rewards. How does this economy actually function, then? If Thurber is right, social media has hollowed out our actual economy, and left us with a surface reputation economy that rests atop a real economy in which our identities are peddled to the highest bidder. (That doesn’t sound like the art world at all . . .)

And that’s true—to an extent. Big Social, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and pals, make their money selling audience, access, and data. Their business model is the explicit commodification of your social networking persona and of all the work you share on your social outposts. Everything you post on Facebook ultimately benefits Zucks, even if you’re posting kickass anti-Facebook protest art. Everything you post on Tumblr is to the financial good of the site’s bumblrs in chief. (Seriously guys, the UX is a goddamn nightmare.) Meanwhile, online retailers have disrupted some brick-and-mortar businesses into extinction and Amazon is locked in gladiatorial combat with traditional publishing.

It’s a scary time to be in the business of making books and comics and this is the chief danger of the transformation cultural industries are undergoing: that tech companies with a cultural bent will assume positions of ever-increasing dominance, crushing opportunities for real innovation and change. In the publishing industry, Amazon has publishers on the run, but they’re still fighting back, and so are authors.

It’s worth exploding the central myth of Thurber’s essay: that Tumblr only likes the most commercial of art. Tumblr loves fanart, it’s true, but Tumblr also loves a wide array of seriously weird cartoonists, photographers, designers, and other artists. Tumblr is where I find all my comics these days. It’s where I met Colleen Cox (Vore Club, people, JFC) who now writes for this very site, and where I first encountered Sarah Horrocks, Marlo Meekins, and others. Maybe an analogy will make things clearer. Let’s get some distance.

Although Twitter’s reputation is dominated by two groups, teens and news hounds, it’s also home to an enormous community of jokesters and creators who have leveraged off-beat, non-commercial funnies and comics to build massive followings for their cartoons, comics, and videos, and to sell books, merchandise, and more. “Weird Twitter” is, well, weird, and that’s what makes it work both artistically and, for some, commercially. The aesthetic of “Weird Twitter” (we’re not supposed to call it that) has helped to popularize a whole host of creators not working in popular forms, and new social technologies emphasizing brevity, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine, have imposed practical limits on what can be shared. There is no lack of appetite for interesting art, whether shared for free and fun, or shared to promote other commercial products. And there are no lack of ways to monetize, some charming and others crass. Often they rely on presence alone; so much the better if you have a product.

It has always been the case that more accessible art gets the majority of attention from mass audiences. But it is now the case that audiences have the ability to encounter schools of art from other countries and underground art from their own neighborhoods, as well as the gated community of art that has been selected for the market by publishers and distributors. They can now communicate with other fans, educate themselves, and experiment with making and sharing their own art. This is what the internet offers: more. More voices, more curators, more opportunities, more dangers.

Like it or not, tech companies have found their way to the bedrock of our lives. You can reject the like economy by avoiding Big Social (well, you think you can, but even a shack in the woods will one day be clocked by Google Maps), in favour of building local communities IRL, but what have you done but cut yourself off from a potential audience and a known market? The internet is real life, and it’s where your audience is communicating.

At Multiversity, David Harper points out that even outside the world of art comix and cartooning, the comics industry is changing. Month to month sales charts of single issues in the direct market reveal that sales of Marvel and DC event comics are on the decline, while Image’s creator-owned books, and lines from other publishers that trumpet more creative control for writers and artists, are on the rise. The direct market isn’t booming, exactly, but sales are healthy, and what is selling is not what was ten years ago. While the top 100 books are still sadly dominated by Marvel and DC super books (sorry super fans, but my soul can’t survive on Avengers alone), there are more titles from more publishers, with more diverse voices, in more genres than ever before, selling at respectable numbers. Harper says,

The face of today’s comic reader is changing, and we all need to change with it. It’s not all 35+ men who read in print, but 18-year-old women who read comics digitally. It’s young girls reading Raina Telgemeier and young boys reading Kazu Kibuishi, or vice versa. It’s people of all varieties reading web comics and digital comics and Kickstarter comics. More than it has been in a long time, the audience of comic books is a moving target, and being agile in trying to find what those readers want is paramount to building readership today. It’s a lesson publishers need to pay attention to, but as I said before, not everyone is learning from it.

There is an appetite for all kinds of comics, made by more than the usual suspects. Not just on Kickstarter, where some young cartoonists do blockbuster business, but in bookstores and comic stores. That’s an opportunity.

The Large Magellenic Cloud,
This is the Large Magellenic Cloud, AKA the American comics industry. Note the red hot clusters representing Image Comics, Fantagraphics, Oni, BOOM, et al., and the white mass representing DC/Marvel. Those smaller points of light are clusters of webcomics creators and other self-published cartoonists. (via Astronomy Picture of the Day.)

They don’t publish sales figures, but I love browsing ComiXology’s Top Selling page. It goes like this: event comic, event comic, event comic, Image darling, and what’s this obscure creator-owned experimental comic? Oh, it’s on sale now and last month the first issue was free. How do you move comic book units when the comics community is online? This is one way. There are others.

Janelle Assellin: So it’s better for publishers or self-publishers to distribute their comics in multiple ways?

Todd Allen: Absolutely. It’s called distribution of risk. What happens if your vendor goes away or drastically changes their terms of service? Ask Hachette about that one.

Let’s say ComiXology was losing money (they didn’t seem to be wildly profitable) and Amazon didn’t buy them. Do they run out of money and go out of business? Is there a service interruption for a bankruptcy auction or while a last minute sale of assets is arranged? (We’ve seen at least one digital manga site go out of business and the consumers lost their files.)  Best to have an alternate vendor to point your readers to if a problem arises.

— Todd Allen and Janelle Assellin discuss the future of digital comics at Comics Alliance

Tech pundits love to declare things dead or dying and they love to declare every new thing innovative and exciting—that breathless buzz is part of the gig—but we don’t need to follow their lead on this. Comics aren’t dying. They’re different. Publishing isn’t dying. It’s responding to market needs, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. There will be cultural industries in 100 years. There will be artists making a living off their art. Not as many as we might like, but we can build a healthier and more equitable comics industry. Not through waiting, but through doing.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.