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Talking To Image's Eric Stephenson About Lateness, Variants, Diversity, Star Wars, The Beatles And Nathan Edmonson

ericI have an awful lot of time for Eric Stephenson. Entering the comic industry during one of its most creative bankrupt periods and places (hell, he wrote the Spider-Man Unlimited 1/2 Wizard Magazine giveaway), he rose in prominence at Image Comics, taking the Publisher position. And took about transforming what was seen at the time as a fading from early prominence, into the creative industry powerhouse it is today. He stole Vertigo's clothes and became the premier choice for creator owned projects in the industry. From Walking Dead to Saga to Chew to Wytches to Pretty Deadly to Descender to Sex Criminals, Image Comics brought more comic book concepts from nowhere to huge prominence, faster than anywhere else since the sixties. It has pushed back against the censorship and content acceptability in the industry, is the quickest place for a talent to become a star, and all without owning any of the IP. He even has his own comics, Nowhere Men and They're Not Like Us.

There's a lot of stuff going on in comics right now. Eric took time to address a few of them with me. I hope this can be an ongoing thing…

Rich Johnston: I notice that just as Image stops doing the retailer variant covers for monthly titles, DC Comics starts. How has that change gone down with retailers – and creators? I noticed that Diamond Retail Summit got one for Toyko Ghost – are there certain exceptions?

Eric Stephenson: Well, just to clarify, when we do variants for things like the Diamond Retail Summit or for ComicsPRO, those are promotional giveaways, not retailer exclusives. They're given to retailers attending those events, and aren't specific to any one account. Earlier this year we made the decision to stop doing retailer exclusives — by which I mean variants done for individual retail accounts at varying quantities — because the fact of the matter is they don't grow sales. When Corey Murphy came on as Director of Sales, she took a hard look at the numbers for these exclusives and how they affected long-term sales on the series they were associated with, and one of the most surprising things we learned was there were numerous instances of accounts ordering 1,000 copies or more of an exclusive cover, then never ordering a single copy of the series past the first issue.

Even when that wasn't the case, there was no long-term benefit to doing these covers, and really they just perpetuate the notion that first issues are all anyone should pay attention to. Corey suggested an alternative — that we offer variant covers on trades to retailers — and the difference there is that a trade is more of an evergreen item, because they have a longer lifespan in terms of sales. Also, the buy-in for retailers is much lower, and since there's already some sales history on a series before it goes to trade, there's less chance for retailers to get stuck with unwanted inventory when they order an exclusive cover. So far, we've had a pretty enthusiastic response to the trade exclusives as they've hit the market. DCBS did variants for Wytches and for the East of West hardcoverForbidden Planet has done Chrononauts, Big Bang in Ireland did one for Injection, and Crossover Comics has a Descender variant, and we're building a backlog of orders on both upcoming trades and reprints of key first volumes. There have been a few accounts that were a little taken aback by the shift in policy, but generally speaking, response has been good.

BitchPlanetHC_CoverRJ: We reported the Bitch Planet hardcover coming for Local Comic Shop Day. What is it about this multiple store promotion that appeals to Image?

ES: It's something being offered in limited quantities to stores participating in Local Comic Shop Day, not something exclusive to a single store.

RJ: What about reaction from creators? It may just be a one off bump, but sometimes one off bumps can help the cashflow. Justin Jordan recently wrote extensively about how Image Comics dates of payment incentivise creators to issue work at certain dates, which might not maximise the appeal of their books at certain times of the year, but would mean they'll get paid sooner. It seems like the tail wagging the dog, do you see Justin's concerns?

ES: Creators have wanted an explanation for the change, and those who have asked have been satisfied with the reasoning, especially since the "one off bump" you're referring to is literally a few hundred dollars. It costs money to print multiple covers — every additional cover is a plate change. Regarding Justin's comments, I think that's an oversimplification of things, really, and by Justin's own admission, shipping books late contributes to the problem. The fewer issues of a book that get shipped, the longer it takes for that book to be collected, and so on.

RJ: You once called Star Wars Comics not 'real' comics. As Image Comics has increased their market share over recent years, it has also been noted that, for single monthly comics at least, Marvel's Star Wars series alone – written by Image Comics creators, looks like they're close to matching Image on comic store sales. Does this kind of thing worry you?

ES: If our overall sales weren't continuing to grow, I would be concerned, but the thing is, we're having a fantastic year, and the fact that Star Wars is having a great year, too, doesn't really change that. It's not an either / or thing — more than one thing can be successful at the same time, and there are different levels of success. It's all relative. Something I do think about, though — and this ties into your earlier question about the retailer exclusives — is that it often feels like the 1990s have become too distant a memory for some people in this business. Variant covers are one thing, but some of the incentive requirements for current comics border on ridiculous. They put a lot of undue pressure on retailers, and as with the retailer exclusive covers, they don't actually grow sales. There's always going to be a certain amount of speculation, that's just the nature of the marketplace, but feeding into that with things like 1-in-5,000 sketch covers or incentives that require stores to increase their orders by as much as 150% to get variants borders on taking advantage of retailers and collectors alike and again, it doesn't actually grow sales in the long run. By contrast, we've been talking to retailers over the last few years and figuring out what works for them, what helps them sell more copies of our titles without forcing them to make decisions that could harm their business.

Some things work, some things don't, but we do listen, and the more we understand our retail partners, the better it is for everyone. The end result is, as you say, considerable year-over-year growth for seven years running, and a greatly improved standing in the industry overall. The year I took over as publisher, we ended the year with under 4% of the market in both dollars and units, but we've grown year by year, and for 2014, we were just under 10% in dollars and over 10% in units. We're on currently on track to beat both those numbers, and not by making all of our books $3.99 or $4.99 or ramping up on store exclusives or Loot Crate deals, but by focusing on what we do best and what we can do better. In the simplest terms, we're succeeding by continuing to support new creativity. We don't do licenses, we're not in the movie business — we make comics. And I don't say that to disparage what anyone else is doing, but merely to underscore the difference between Image and the lion's share of our competitors. Marvel and DC are gigantic companies with a lot more going on than comics, and that's fine for them, perfect even, but that's not what we do.

In a lot of ways, Image is to comics what The Beatles wanted Apple Records to become, and thankfully, without the interference of an Allen Klein type, the original model for the company has been able to thrive, and whereas Apple just looks after The Beatles' catalogue nowadays, Image has grown beyond the founders' wildest expectations thanks to the sustained influx of new creators and new ideas. Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon and for people who love Star Wars, they're getting some great comics by some truly amazing creators, but at Image, our goal is to help creators like Kieron Gillen and Jason Aaron bring their own ideas to life and make those ideas as big as they can be. When you look at the success of their books — of The Wicked + The Divine, of Southern Bastards, of Saga, Sex Criminals, The Walking Dead, Descender, Wytches, Black Science, Lazarus, and all the others, that's proof positive that chasing your own dreams pays off.

RJ: I share many of your opinions in this, but I can't deny that Marvel basically pressganging retailers into ordering incredibly high numbers of Star Wars seems to have paid off, the ongoing titles seem to sell so well in a way I believe they wouldn't have, if retailers hadn't been encouraged to test the market so. Now, I agree, it is harder to make a similar case for Yet Another Volume Of Uncanny Avengers #1, but once might be able to do so for, say, Paper Girls #1. I know some stores that have ordered hundreds, and others that have ordered 2. Am I really wrong to believe that a promotion that might have encouraged the latter stores to order 30 wouldn't have paid off almost immediately? Something Image Comics does do, is the delayed variant cover, issued in the week of FOC, it seems to encourage retailers to take another look at their numbers when ordering a shiny shiny new variant cover. Does that have more value to you?

ES: Considering Marvel did around a million copies on Star Wars #1, across muliptle covers, and the most recent issue sold around 145,000, I'd argue that the promotion paid off in terms of getting retailers to order Star Wars #1, but has lost around 80% of that initial number. How many of those million copies sold generated actual readers? There are other promotions that can drive sales without putting retailers in the position of ordering an excessive amount of titles to qualify for a single variant that they have to sell for an inflated price, and as far as your second point, about variant covers offered at FOC goes, available data indicates that's not particularly helpful, either. Variants offered at the time of initial solicitation pretty much always generate more orders than variants offered later, and as much as possible, we'd like to avoid soliciting additional covers at FOC.

RJ: Eric, lateness is something that has dogged Image Comics from its very first comic books. Since those days, the industry, retailers, publishers, have made a number of changes to reduce this, certainly reduce the impact on retailers, and Image certainly managed to bring it under control. Lately however, it seems to have been getting out of hand again. Do you see this as a problem, if so why, and what have you been doing to rectify it?

ES: I don't know if it's so much out of hand, but it's definitely an ongoing concern. There are a lot of comics coming out these days, and when a book misses it's ship date, even by a week or two, that makes it easier for readers to shift their attention to something else. It's difficult, and sometimes impossible, to get that attention back. In almost every instance, when something is late, orders drop, and if something ships late on a consistent basis, it essentially erodes faith in the book on both the retail level and the consumer level. Not everybody has the patience to just wait indefinitely for something, especially when there are so many other options. It's not rocket science: If a book isn't coming out on a regular basis, if it's not dependable, that book is going to sputter and stall and eventually fail. So with that in mind, we've been spending a lot of time looking at what can be done to decrease the chances of books shipping late, and a big part of that is requiring new series to launch with multiple issues in the can. We've also looked at the books we publish that do ship on time and what other creators can learn from the steps taken to make sure those books stay on schedule.

The best example of that is probably Saga — Brian and Fiona have been remarkably good at getting that book out on time, and to a large degree, that's because they take planned breaks between each arc so they never fall behind. Using the most recent arc as an example — issue 30 came out in July, then there was a month off, the volume five trade is out this month, and then there's another break in October before issue 31 ships in December. There are variations on that, but by and large, we're trying to shift more books over to that kind of scheduling to make sure things are coming out on time, so that retailers and readers know that when a book is solicited for a certain date, it's going to be out on that date. Every series in comics has to contend with natural attrition, but late shipping just accelerates that, so the hope is that it will help even out sales a little more by removing that factor.

RJ: I understand that creators/writers at Image have received new guidelines that request three completed scripts before a new title is solicited. Is that right? Do you find the bigger problem is with the writers than the artists?

ES: Actually, that's incorrect. It's three completed issues, not just scripts. The problem lies in not having an adequate amount of work done in advance. There are artists who complain about not getting script from writers in a timely fashion, and there are writers who complain about artists taking forever on pages. Neither of those are particularly new complaints. Having more work done prior to launching a series benefits everyone involved.

RJ: One major criticism regarding lateness I've heard from of late is timeliness from your own office. Creators, respected ones, some who have been published at Image, some wishing to be, finding it hard to get a response from Image Central. Sometimes a year or more. I'm aware of a number of people who claim they ended up having their book published elsewhere before Image got in touch asking for more details. Are you aware of any such logjams in communication? Is this some kind of test, to winnow out the unworthy and impatient? Or is it just down to some unfortunate glitches, not representative of the whole?

ES: Sure, there are always logjams in communications, and I've heard similar criticism about other publishers — and not just comics publishers. Does that make it okay? Not at all. It's frustrating. I was a freelancer once, and I'll tell you what, if I had $100 for every call that went unanswered or unreturned, I could have lived quite comfortably off that income alone. It sucks, and in some cases, there are totally rational explanations, and other times not. As far as Image goes, though, there are definitely been some growing pains here and there, but we've been actively working to alleviate frustrations like that by expanding and reorganizing our staff so that it's less and less of a concern.

RJ: I'm sure you've seen that Image Comics contributor Nathan Edmonson has had certain allegations made about him online, including by Image Comics creators Lauren McCubbin and Ales Kot. Graphic Policy's Brett Schenker reported  "I have been told about an investigation by Image Comics into Edmondson's behavior by individuals who have seen the "report." I've also been told someone was fired for passing that report on to Edmondson." However I was told that Nathan's absence at Image Comics has been down to late books. Are you able to comment on Image Comics involvement in the situation, if at all? [UPDATE: Since this question was asked of Eric, Graphic Policy has removed the allegation. It can still be found here, for now.]

ES: There has never been an investigation into Nathan Edmondson's behavior, and there is no "report," and definitely, no one has ever been dismissed from Image for anything involving Nathan Edmondson. No official complaint has ever been logged, so beyond being aware of the ongoing discussion of the matter, Image has no involvement in this. Regarding the situation overall, though, it's difficult to comment without knowing all the facts, but our expectation here at Image is that the creators we work with conduct themselves as adults with respect for their industry peers.

RJ: Well, it wasn't that long ago that the creator line-up at an Image Expo was being criticised for being incredible white and male. I don't think anyone could quite make that accusation now. Image has diversified its comics further, in terms of content as well as creator, telling stories that, frankly three or four years ago, I would not have expected. Do you believe the audience you are attracting has expanded to match? Or as some publishers suddenly seem to believe, it's spreading the appeal too thin?

ES: Broader diversity in talent goes hand-in-hand with the growing diversity of the audience. I think we're still a ways off from where comics could be in terms of audience, honestly, and I think the thing that frustrates so many people is that the new readers building that audience are markedly different from the readers that used to drive comics sales. We're in the midst of a pretty major shift in terms of who comics appeal to and what type of comics readers want, and it's pretty cynical to dismiss the notion of a growing audience based solely on the fact that it's not the typical white heterosexual male audience that has characterized comics for most of its history. Ultimately, I don't think the audience is the question, but whether the direct market is prepared to support that expanding audience. To a large degree, the market is still being driven by retailers who grew up reading nothing but superhero comics, and you only have to look at the difference between the sales of material that achieves greater success in bookstores and how little they sell in the direct market to see there's a bit of a disconnect there.

RJ: Image Comics has recently joined the Hoopla library digital all-you-can-eat service. It's only a week or so in, any early indication of intake? Image has also been the biggest pusher for non-DRM digital comics in the market. Given the reticence of much of the rest of the market to join you in that, what lessons do you think you can teach?

ES: It's a little too early to really speak to the impact of Hoopla on overall sales, but in terms of DRM-free digital comics, I'm not sure I understand the resistance from other publishers. People can get everything for free now if they want — DRM isn't going to stop that. It has little to no effect in terms of reducing piracy. Allowing users more access to what they're downloading, or the ability to share what they've downloaded with family or friends or whomever isn't a bad thing — it's not really any different than sharing a printed comic with someone, and ultimately, it grows readership. I think the fact that digital sales continue to increase speaks pretty readily to that point.

RJ: I hope you don't mind, but I'd like to ask you about your own titles. They're Not Like Us has its first volume collected – I wanted to ask you how you regard the comic in this form rather than the single issues, and if it differs for you, having the narrative bound together?

ES: Generally speaking, I write for the single issues, with an eye toward the fact that each arc needs to get to a certain point, but with They're Not Like Us, I think I'm a bit more conscious of the fact the individual issues are part of a larger whole.

RJ: And can you tell us, what's the latest on the long awaited Nowhere Men? Phonogram 3 seems to have one pretty well despite the long publishing delay, do you think Nowhere Men could match it? And if so – when?

ES: Nowhere Men will be back in January. The plan was to have it out in November or December, but I'm treating it more or less like a new book — I want to have as much done as possible so we're not encountering the same kind of delays that sidetracked the series in the first place. Everyone involved is excited about the book's return, though, and we're hoping the readers who enjoyed the first six issues or came in later with the trade share that excitement.

Image Comics continues to publish comic books every week and its latest Diamond Retailer marketshare statistics saw it grab 11.81% of dollars spent and 12.07% of the comic books sold in the direct marketplace to comic book stores. And currently tops the New York Times Bestseller TPB list with Saga Vol 5.

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Rich JohnstonAbout Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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