Monday, February 12, 2007

Book 'em, Spidey!: The Peter Parker Book Tour

ASM #304My blog should be filed under Comics; general interest. While it's one of the rare few that seem to focus a little more on Marvel than DC, there is, besides being a little stuffed blogger, little to specifically distinguish myself from the rest of the comics blogogloby-thing. I'm certainly not complainin' 'bout that, but it's true I don't have a specialty or a recurring focused theme like Laura posting about Golden Age Aquaman comics or Blockade Boy's unerring and fabulous fashion sense. I don't have the real-world skillz that will pay the billz to allow me to comment on or give reality check to, say, legal matters in comics (like Loren) or medicine in comics (like Scott) or even archery in comics (like MacQuarrie). I know a heckuva lot about book publishing, sales, distribution and publicity, but I can't see where that has any connection to comics...

Wait a minute.

(diving into the Bully long boxes and emerging several minutes later clutching a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #304 in my hooves...)

Ah, here we go. There's at least two storylines concerning book publishing that I can think of in comics and both of them take place in Spider-Man books. One of them is the recent Deb Whitman tell-all exposé of Peter Parker within the pages of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, which was actually a pretty accurate representation of how book signings work (well, aside from the super-villain crashing the event). Peter David oughta know; he's done a bucketload of those things. But I'm not entirely certain David Michelinie, who wrote this issue of ASM, has done quite as many. Let's page through the early Todd McFarlane art and examine this storyline from the POV of a little stuffed somebody who works in the book industry (yours truly) and see if it holds up to reality, shall we?

ASM #304 panel
All panels in this post are from Amazing Spider-Man #304 (early September 1988);
written by David Michelinie, art by Todd McFarlane (pencils),
Joe Rubinstein (inks), and Bob Sharen (colors)

Book design reality check: thumbs down.

As explained on the next page, Peter Parker is holding in his grubby little hand a mock-up of a soon-to-be-published book of Spider-Man photos. That suggests he's possibly holding what technically is known in the publishing world as a "bulking dummy," a blank book wrapped with a dust jacket mock-up for publicity and marketing photography purposes where a 3D book is needed instead of a 2D cover image. Bulking dummies are also used at trade shows to show off a book to be published in the upcoming season on which design is not yet finished, or are sometimes carried by publishers' sales reps to show the size and trim of the book to major chain, non-book or wholesale accounts—usually warehouse clubs or chain non-book stores (like the wholesaler book distributors who buy books for Target or Kmart). These accounts need to know the "look" of the look will fit in with their monthly "planograms." A very small number of bulking dummies are usually produced—they're not exceptionally expensive to produce (just wrap a jacket around another book the same trim size), but they are generally useless for the vast majority of advance book sales: the chain and independent bookstores that are serviced by and sold books in advance of publication by the fine sales staff or commission groups for that publisher. For those accounts publishing houses will generally print an advance reading copy (sometimes known as a galley) which is a not-for-sale advance paperback with cheap paper covers to be given to book buyers at stores and chains. For a photography and art book, however, it's even more common that the publisher will print a "blad" (an acronym for "book layout and design"): a glossy brochure of usually eight or more pages in the same trim size as the final book, showing off sample interior pages within the blad spreads. Blads are generally produced in larger numbers and are easier for reps to carry around than finished books: few publishers' sales reps carry around finished books, with the possible exception of children's books or small gift books. There simply isn't enough room in a sales rep's sample case for finished books! This illustration looks like a paperback (note the lack of definition to the cover, suggesting it's not a hardcover) which hints it may actually be an advance reading copy.

More to the point...that's an awful cover design, and any company that thinks it's good is heading down a trail of boring, uninspiring look-alike covers that do not suggest the salability or interest within the book itself...oh wait, that's absolutely right, isn't it? We're talking about Marvel. But this is a dull, drab jacket design: it looks like the book designer took one of Peter's photos and airbrushed out the background. It's an image that's got to be unrepresentative of the Spidey in Manhattan photos the book contains. You could make a case that the white on the jacket is matte finish and the Spider is spot laminated, making it glossy...but that's seldom effective in photography focusing on a single figure. I'm not denying its can indeed create an iconic cover with a figure on a white background...but it's an odd and uninteresting choice for a photography book.

Finally, the trim size appears to be about 8½ by 11. That's a very non-traditional size for a photo book, depending on the focus of the book itself. I'm assuming this is mostly Peter's journalism photography of Spidey, which would most likely be 35 millimeter film in the landscape format. Like most photo books, I'd expect Webs to be in the landscape format, wider than it is tall, to allow full-page repros of Pete's photos.

And don't even get me started on that typography. The title is hard to read. That box with the author line is extremely poor design. Yeah, this thing's got "instant remainder" all over it. The publisher's got a dud in the making here. But at least Peter's gonna get some money from the deal, right?
ASM #304 panel
ASM #304 panel

"A few weeks until publication" reality check: no way.

Uh-uh. That's absolutely wrong for a couple reasons, one from the publishing world and one from the Marvel world. With very few exceptions like monster potential bestsellers usually based on breaking news items, a book is published on a longggggg lead time. The publishing house needs time to sign up the book (just getting it approved by the editorial board can take several weeks) and work out the contracts, edit and legally clear the manuscript or photos, design the interior layout and the outer jacket. More to the point, the book needs to be sold to bookstores in advance, so it must be listed as forthcoming in a company catalogue and then sold by sales reps to chains and indies around the country beginning as early as 6-8 months before publication date, so the publishing company's sales department can judge the number of books needed and advise production on how many to print (enough to fill advance orders plus a few week's reorders if the book takes off). In other words, unless this is a crash-pubbed or secret book based on a monster news story, the fact that it's going to be published is public knowledge almost a year before the book actually comes out.

But...since we'll see in a minute why Peter was left out of the loop...isn't it possible that since he doesn't travel in book circles and is married to a fabulous leggy super-model rather than a spunky and cute bookstore clerk (which, is, I'll tell ya, Petey's loss), he simply didn't hear anything about it? That might be possible only if it wasn't a book with the words Daily Bugle plastered all over the front of it. This is a book of Pete's Bugle photos, and J. Jonah Jameson is too smart a promoter not to have had multiple pieces in his newspaper announcing, gossiping, promoting and all-out hawking the new book. At the very least Robbie woulda told Pete. Or Betty. Was she working at the Bugle then? Oh wait, Robbie's in the hospital during this period, right? Well, Ben Urich woulda told Pete. Somebody.

ASM #304 panel

Pete gets shafted reality check: Uh, yeah, probably.

This doesn't come as a surprise, does it? JJJ's prob'bly on completely legal if not moral ground here: Peter has always been manipulated by Jonah into taking the short-term profit of his journalism photography (haggling for a hundred bucks at a time to pay for Aunt May's deus ex machina medicine is not a good way to build up a pension) that he's signed away the rights to get compensated for reprints. Holy cow, is that an intentional work-for-hire satire in a 1980s Marvel comic book? Uh, prob'bly not.

ASM #304 panel

Pete's gonna get rich off the royalties reality check: Dream on, Mister P.

Where do we start with this one? "A book that size will probably have a cover price higher than that [one hundred dollars]!" Nope. Not a chance. Although it's hard to tell from a drawing of what might be an ARC or bulking dummy, Webs looks to bulk out at about 128 or 144 pages. Even if it's full-color (highly unlikely for news photography, but it's true a lot of Peter's Spidey photos we've seen in the past have been color rather than black-and-white), we're looking at no more than a $35.00 price point, probably closer to $29.95 during the late eighties. Any higher you risk hurting yours advance sales into the stores and your store sales to customers immensely, especially if the book is published during the summer (as a later panel suggests) rather than at Christmastime. But hey, that's Peter's uneducated guess, so we can forgive that. See what you'd know more about if you were married to the cute bookstore clerk rather than the swimsuit bikini model, Mister P?

More to the point is the promise of "as much as $25,000" in "partial" royalties that Pete will earn in promise for doing a book tour promotion. Whoa there, Parker, rein in those startled lines glowing over your head. Standard royalty scale is 10%. Partial royalties...well, I got no idea exactly what figure Mister Publisher Guy here is talking about, but "partial" < 10%. If that were true, the book would have to profit out more than a quarter million dollars. Here's some real rough math: a $35.00 book sells to booksellers at a discount (at the time) of probably between 40% and 50%. Let's say 45% just to even it out. That means the publisher sells each book for over nineteen bucks. You'd then have to subtract costs of production, publicity, promotion and other P-words. And unlike the comic book world, trade books are sold into bookstores as returnable, which means they are allowed to be returned for credit to the publish if unsold. All of that is going to cut into the profit the royalties are based on. That's...okay, there's too many unknowns here to calculate the exact number, but I'm guesstimating the publishing company would have to sell well over 20,000 copies of this book. We'll see later on that based on what I know about the book industry that's unlikely to happen: the book's oddly laid out and poorly designed, they have no clear strong publicity program, and (as we'll see in future issues of this storyline) it's a book with a regional focus that has much lesser appeal outside Manhattan.

On the other hand...does that invalidate this panel? Absolutely not! Let's just assume the publisher is lying. If Pete can't see his way past the manipulations of blustery JJJ, he's gonna fall hook, spider-line, and sinker for a couple vague promises from a shady publisher who for some reason brings a legal rep along to a meeting rather than a publicity or sales person.

So, let's tally that up: so far the only accurate representation of the book publishing world in ASM #304 is the cold hard fact that an author don't make much money. Still, Mary Jane and Aunt May are likely to slap some sense into him about falling into the deadly dangerous world of book publishing, right? (We'll find out tomorrow.)


Siskoid said...

Great idea for a recurring feature! Loved every word.

It's crazy how quickly things can happen in a comic book universe, considering that the characters age very very slowly.

Character's situation: Slow
World around them: Fast

That's how you can stay in college for 15 years, but celebrate Christmas every 10 weeks.

SallyP said...

Fabulous, Bully. Just fabulous.

David C said...

The thing that struck me at the time I read this storyline way back when was different:

Y'know, all things considered, Peter Parker's Spider-Man photos are probably pretty awful photographs!

They're all taken with this webbed-up camera set on automatic, and I figure even if Peter very carefully "choreographs" his fights for the camera, most shots are going to be out of focus, poorly composed, etc.

Which, admittedly, since they're timely photos no one else can get, might be OK for newspaper sales. But for a big glossy "coffee table" photography book? You'd probably be better off using the pix Phil Sheldon and other professional photographers happened to get when they were in the right place at the right time.

I bet Marvels sold a heck of a lot better than Webs, in other words....

Nik said...

Awesome. More!

And man, McFarlane's art on Spidey hasn't aged well AT ALL, or it is just me?

Buck Ripsnort said...

Wouldn't Peter's (notoriously unreliable)SpiderSense tell him the publisher is lying? Poor schmuck shoulda stuck w/ "Horse-sense."

Bully said...

I would so buy The Amazing Horse-Man.

"Hey Parker! Why the long face?"

1000Words said...

re: Your niche

I've only been reading your blog for a month or so, but I think your niche seems to be cheerfulness, for lack of a better word.

I'm sick of all of the nags, scolds and ironic commentary elsewhere.

I get enough crap in the real world. That's why I choose comics - comics oughta be fun.

(and I would so pick the cute bookstore clerk over the leggy supermodel any day of the week)

Mike Haseloff said...

1000words makes a good point.
Likewise, I enjoy seeing the periodical 'ten of a kind' and 'seperated at birth' features.

Even if comics aren't always fun, this blog is. Yay!