Minx has just kicked the bucket. Tokyopop has certainly displayed its first (hundred or so) throes of death. And the future of girls' comics is left hanging upon a few rare (though deliciously wonderful) titles from Scholastic and Aladdin.
Not only do we have an economic crisis on our hands, we have a comics crisis! Except for a few select titles, comics sales have continued a slow but steady drop throughout the year, and none of this has been helped by the bankruptcy of top investors in our economy, coupled with the slashing of Borders staff and titles way back in June (was it only June) that has seriously affected at least one major sector of the market. (ie: returns)
Now, this isn't the Apocalypse. And it isn't the end of the world. But this is a serious threat to the wonderful spread of diversity in comics we have all been witness to over the last ten years. We've seen this industry bud and grow to include, if not a wealth, at least a significant cache of diverse and talented creators given decent-paying jobs that wouldn't have been available to them in previous years. At least, not since the 1920's. Maybe these new jobs weren't the BEST paying jobs, but they offered opportunities that promised growth and expansion and eventually . . . better pay. A decent living doing something we all love.
But that may all come to a screeching halt. With the demise of the two main outlets for homegrown girls' comics in the US, there comes the stinging question of, "What next?" Women like myself and many of those who worked for Tokyopop and Minx are now left jobless in an increasingly hostile market that just doesn't seem to want to publish girl-oriented comics, and when it does, we get pushed into filling a certain style or niche that is then marketed to a general audience where it just doesn't fit . . . or simply not marketed at all.
What worries me is how this trend is destined to continue. Will other publishers manage to pick up the slack were Tokyopop and Minx have failed, or will girl-oriented comics fall once again by the wayside, having been sloughed off as a statistic somehow "proving" that girls either a) don't read comics or that b) girls only read manga?
In 2004, when I first dove into this industry as a professional (ie: getting paid to do what I love best), it was alive and vibrant with the color of so many inspired voices, young and old alike. The veterans in the group knew not to get our hopes too high, but the optimism and hope of youth and naiveté were infectious; new companies began publishing manga, and original titles directed at girls started popping up all over the place, in bookstores and comic stores alike. There were the two obvious, Tokyopop and Minx, but there were also Seven Seas (Amazing Agent Luna), Del Rey (the Avril Lavigne GNs), Scholastic (The Babysitter's Club and Breaking Up), Aladdin (Chiggers), and rumors amongst big publishers like Penguin, Puffin, Simon & Schuster, of more to come.
But what has come? The only dedicated line to girls' comics (Minx) dropped beneath the surface without so much as a warning splash, and the remaining publishers publish girls' comics now so sporadically, that you'd wonder if they're really publishing anything at all anymore. You have to hunt for what DOES get published and cross your fingers that eventually something new will come out. All that's left for those who need our comic fix in the months (or years) in between is manga, but for those of us who have developed a craving for homegrown fare (with stories about local girls and local issues), this is little conciliation.
With the downturn of the economy and the lack of new investments, I am deeply worried that the death knoll of the American girls' comics industry may be sounding. Who has the money to invest in a genre that remains yet unproven to have a strong, stable (paying) base? Back when Minx was getting started up, Shelly Bond stated directly that it was the girls reading manga she wanted to get to read Minx titles. This was a proven market. This was the market they were going to forcefully extract from companies like Tokyopop and Viz and win over to their side. Not once do I recall anybody mentioning creating new markets and building an audience from scratch.
If there's something we can give Tokyopop real credit for is hiring creators who offered something wildly different from everything else that was available that appealed to a wildly different audience. Unfortunately, the pay was pale in comparison to the rising cost of living expenses (for those of us not at home) and the editorial oversight considerably lacking along with a million promises that left many creators feeling bitter and reluctant to finish their series (myself included). And as like begets like, Tokyopop's sporadic treatment of creators created a sporadic product that was oftentimes riddled with errors and lack of editorial oversight. "Steady Beat" 1 had over 150 errors, including missing dialog, wrong characters speaking, and two chapters shunted to the next book. You can't tell me that something like that doesn't affect sales. Yet, somehow, it was still nominated for the ALA's Great Graphic Novels For Teens list along with other noteables like "Dramacon", "Queen Bee", "Sorcerer's and Secretaries", and "The Babysitter's Club: Kristy's Great Idea". I wonder sometimes how Tokyopop would have done if they had not only paid better but given their books more development time to go over with a fine-toothed comb. Prose novels get a year for promotion. Tokyopop books received three months.
Minx, at least, made the effort to promote their books. It may have been the wrong audience, but nobody can say that DC didn't at least try. And perhaps this is why Minx failing will send far greater ripples across the industry than Tokyopop's flailing ever did. Future investors will look at Minx and say, "They made comics specifically directed at teen girls. They MARKETED them to teen girls. They hired promo people who seemed to know what they were doing. And they still failed." And these investors will tuck tail and run, run, run in the other direction, seeing the girls' comics market as a great black hole of investments never returned, never asking the fundamental question, "Was it done right?"
Companies such as Yen Press and Viz have been tentatively opening their doors to men and women such as myself who'd been proving themselves, working on dedicated series, men and women whom had been forgotten and abandoned, bundled and packaged and thrown out with supposedly excess trash. And while some of us have been picked up and dusted off a bit to be put to work on something else, I don't believe it's enough to sustain something that should be its own industry. Not if we're going to build an industry not just for ourselves, but for our daughters and our daughters' daughters.
So what can we do to revitalize and bring back hope to the girls' comics industry? Well, here's a list:
1) There needs to be at least one dedicated publishing line of girls' comics (or imprint). The industry is still small, and so that these titles don't get lost in the haystack, they need a flag for girls to rally under, something we can immediately recognize as publishing a particular genre and that we can make a beeline to in the book or comic store when we're out to buy more.
2) Loud but consistent branding. This is something Viz has down pat. Their shoujo titles fall under the "Shoujo Beat" imprint with a specific logo on the spine, a dedicated webpage, and even a dedicated magazine introducing readers to their titles. If I see the "Shoujo Beat" logo on the spine, I know immediately what to expect. As for consistency . . . Tokyopop tried branding the genres on titles, but the methods and styles were so inconsistent, that you didn't know what you would get from one month to the next. On one hand, the logos they used on the spine all looked so alike, that it was almost pointless to have them there in the first place. On the other hand, the lack of consistency of spine font titles made it impossible to do in real branding in the first place. which leads us to:
3) Don't underestimate the importance of the spine. When I was designing book covers for my publishing company five years ago, was it the front I gave priority? No. It was the spine. Consider it a miracle if you get your book to face outwards for more than a week . . . if at all. It's the spine that you have the .08 seconds to grab the attention of your readers. It should be at the very least, readable, at the very most give a reader a clear idea of the style and content of the book itself while lending some sort of appeal for them to pick it up. Which leads into . . .
4) Book length. The wider the spine, the longer it takes for a browser's eye to pass over it, the longer you have to convince them to pick it off the shelf. Now, I will never say books should be longer for length's sake, but something I believe the Minx titles (and even the Scholastic, Aladdin, and Oni titles) have yet to pick up on is that the current lengths of their books hurt their chances of getting picked up by the casual browser. "Breaking Up" is woefully short, especially for what is a YA title. Books like "Chiggers" and "The Babysitter's Club" are midgrade books and therefore allowance for shorter length can be made considering most of the books in that genre have a tendency towards shorter lengths, but I still believe that even slightly lengthier books would help their casual impulse sales. EVERY sale counts!
5) Organization. As creators, we should be compelled already to seek one another out, not just to pass on potential job information, but to discuss and compare issues like pay, benefits, the ups and downs of exclusivity, current story ideas, events, offer encouragement and advice, etc. And publishers should encourage this free flow of information, not hinder it, because it creates a community that feels empowered and enlightened. Again, Tokyopop attempted some of this . . . but quickly let the ball drop, which was almost worst than if they had done nothing at all. However, a close-knit community means that when one falls, there are those to help each other back up again. Like any union, these are issues we must all work on together and let of any ideas of jealousy and competition . . . something many publishers encourage in the hopes of driving down pay and cowing creators into submission. If publishers knew better, they'd realize this hurts not only creators and themselves, but the quality and quantity of work as well. A well-treated creator creates good work. A poorly-treated created creates mediocre or poor work. Encourage community.
6) Create more self-contained stories. I know, I know, the manga industry thrives off of the series model. Get someone hooked and they'll follow that series forever. Or so we're told. But the Americas just don't have the infrastructure for this kind thinking for homegrown titles. Creators don't have the capacity (at this time) to create an infinitely lasting series published in monthly or bi-weekly installment. That takes a crew. Inkers. Toners/colorers. Layout. An outstandingly efficient editorial staff. These kinds of serialized titles come out every three to four months, whereas the current homegrown 160-page graphic novel comes out once, maybe twice a year (but usually once). That's an awefully long wait for the next installment! Published books need to be complete stories, not partials. Otherwise, you've already lost at least half of your audience by the time the next book rolls around.
(edit: addition) Also, self-contained stories help to bring in new readers to comics because of the issues many of these new readers find offputting about starting a serialized comic in the first place: where to start, what's the background behind these characters, what if there's a volume missing, etc. The ratio of series comics/gns to self-contained ones are drastically weighted towards series, and offering more alternatives will help to draw in more readers unfamiliar with the medium itself. It's a bit like offering more movies to balance against all the television. Some people watch more of one than the other and many like to see both. But if you are offering all television and no movies, there's a whole crowd you're still missing out on.
7) PAY BETTER!!! And I don't mean a 10% increase. I'm talking 300% to 500%. When I signed on with Tokyopop four years ago, the average contract was $10,000 (I made just slightly more, but not much), but the average book was taking 9 months to a year. Many of these artists were living with parents or relatives at the time of signing their contract (myself included), but the majority of us have moved out by now and have a living, breathing human being to shelter, clothe, and feed. Eventually, we will have families of our own. $10,000 or even $15,000 isn't enough to live off of in most American cities. Tell me $20,000, I'll think about it. Give me $35,000, and we'll start talkin'. $55,000 plus, and I'm just about yours, plus I can hire a small staff to get this book out fast and efficiently, and I'll guarantee you a quality that will blow your brains out and will sweep art-inclined readers off their feet.
8) Longer lead times. I can't speak for Minx, but I can speak for Tokyopop: the comic industry simply does not currently allow enough promotion time for graphic novels. Little floppies produced once a month are one thing. A big, honkin' GN is another. The lead time for promotion in the prose industry is six months to a year-and-a-half. The average lead time for promotion in comics is three months. Heck, that's hardly enough time to get listed in Diamond's Previews, nonetheless get sufficient reviews and distribution and develop potential PR outlets. There are tons and tons and tones of free promotional outlets out there and I can tell you the comics industry doesn't utilize even 1% of them, neither do they push enough at those that do.
9) Stronger editorial oversight. When I turned in the scripts for books 1 and 2 of "Steady Beat", did I get an copy back of my script marked up with red ink? Did I get an email of tweaks and changes? Did I ever get a phone call from my editor saying he had certain part of the book he wanted me to clean up or change? I received nothing. Script in. Thumbnails. Pencils. Inks. Final pages. My book was not edited until two weeks before press (with three months lost time begging my editor for edits after I turned in the original script). Not only should editors be responsible for making sure the content of the book is an appealing, smooth story with strong, consistent dialog, they need to be capable of being responsible by not being burdened down by too many titles with too short of a lead time. The biggest complaint with many of (at least) Tokyopop's series was a perceived lack of editorial oversight. Scripts and layouts should bleed edits.
(edit: addition) As Chris Butcher points out over at comics212 as well: ". . . editing and producing books for a young adult audience is a very specific skill, and one that is coveted by some of the biggest publishers in the industry." Not only should these books have strong editorial oversight, every genre needs to be edited by the right people. Meaning editors who read and love the kinds of stories they edit and whom have immersed themselves in a dedication towards improving their genre.
10) Publishers shouldn't give up just because a few titles fail. A lot of people were disappointed that Minx rolled over after not even two years in the market. And right as there seemed to be a marked improvement in the quality and consistency of their titles. If a line is failing, a publisher should ask, "Why is this failing and how can fix this?" instead of declaring, "We give up!" Remember, you can sell anything (just ask the dirt industry) and most fixes are easy, simple, cost-effective solutions. DC could have pulled allocated marketing resources and instead focused on pushing the Minx titles in direct market stores (where they were being read by more than their intended audience and doing quite well) instead of book stores (where they were failing miserably). They could have focused on making thicker books that stood out more on the YA shelves. They could have focused on making more appealing spines and covers (I'm sorry, but they were really horrible covers). Tokyopop could have done something similar: focused on discovering EXACTLY who the niche audience is for each book (heck, we filled out questionnaires doing exactly that) and focused their attention on many small efforts aimed at building a stable base instead of a few single broad efforts that were doomed to failure from the beginning by missing the intended audience completely. There were all sorts of easy fixes that were neglected due to both companies greed and desire to find the perfect "hit" instead of realizing what most publishing houses already have: that building a dedicated YA audience takes patience, time, and effort.
There are many things I believe the industry could do to build and improve the girls' comics industry, but these are just the top ten things I believe would make the greatest of a difference in building a stable industry with a strong, devoted readership, otherwise we're under threat of the industry disappearing completely. That's talented, capable creators out of work. That's potential revenue lost. That's a downsizing of the entire comics industry and a shrinking of diversity and in the pool of available talent. And lest talent is a bad, bad, bad thing for the general health of this industry. Less talent means less competition. Less competition means an ever downward spiral of quality in anything but the dominant genres of superhero and edge comics.
I am not privy to all of what's going on behind the scenes at the major publishers right now, but I consider myself pretty well-connected, and there hasn't been so much as a whisper of available work for girls' comics creators except a few open doors at Yen press and a glimmer of light at Scholastic and Aladdin for those who are willing to cast aside the majority of their manga influence--an influence that is so deeply ingrained and embedded in the psyche of so many of us as to against all grain to do away with completely.
Even Viz's current open call to creators specifies 18+ stories only.
The solutions are obvious: at least one publisher needs to step forth and make a dedicated effort to rally these artists and writers beneath an imprint with a strong sense of focus on girls' comics with a diverse line of girls' titles, or we creators need to pursue the only alternate routes left to us: give up and sell our souls as a work-for-hired pen or keep those souls and dive into the rough and tumble market of self publishing. The local markets are ripe, so this isn't the worst alternative (and one I've been contemplating as possibly being even profitable), but it cuts out the national market until such a day as shipping costs decline and the amount of spending money in the pockets of book-loving Americans once again goes on the rise.
Unfortunately, that may be a long way off. A strong publisher needs to take the reigns, learning from the rights and wrongs of previous attempts from other publishers, and start a dedicated line of girls' comics on their own.
I dare them.