From the stumbling blocks I experienced in managing a print series, it soon became obvious that I needed a newer, more efficient way to get content to readers. The traditional print process, as it was practised in the early 2000s, was clumsy and frustrating.
First there was the cost factor – I was blowing away my savings to release each issue of Anima, and payment from sales would trickle in long after release, which meant I had problems financing subsequent issues quickly. I wanted to deliver content with no interruptions and low cost. In addition, it soon became obvious that Anima needed full-colour production badly to attract young readers. Finally, going online would mean anyone in the world could read Anima. So here was the new plan – produce Anima in full-colour, using an online portal that would also have additional content, and depend on ads for income.
This was a huge step to take, mainly because I had to learn several things from scratch. I had little knowledge of web publishing software and expertise. I picked up Flash 5 and Frontpage at the beginning, then as the years went by, graduated to Dreamweaver. As for the management aspect, I familiarized myself with web analytics, writing style, and scheduling.
Between 2004 and 2005 there were two versions of the Anima Online portal. The first was designed with frames (old html way of splitting pages), with the large middle frame as scrollable content, while the top/bottom frames stayed static display the navigation buttons. Contents from this earlier version no longer exist so I can’t provide a screenshot. The second version was more immersive in design, as you can see below. Frames were only employed at the comic reading section.
The older portals actually contained more content. There was a flash prologue and flash navigation in sections that listed all the characters and weapons of the civil war. There were desktop wallpapers, links to other interesting sites, and other fun stuff. Was the portal successful? Somewhat. During the period it was online, it won a total of three amateur web design awards. As a winner I could display the award banners:
Before discussing the next phase of Anima’s development, I want to show how colour enhances the look of a comic. As you can see from the samples below, which are from Chapter 18 of Anima, colour lets you integrate special effects which would be harder to execute for a black-and-white production (though that is still possible, just with a different inking method).
As you might be able to see, some effects I could include were: smoke from debris and explosions, glowing light from the background, ‘soft’ look for clouds, and flashes of light from gunfights and explosions.
It seemed ironic and counter-productive that I tried returning to book publishing after Anima went online, but I did. After releasing the entire story I felt I had a lengthy, full-colour product that could be released to a bigger market.
From the beginning I knew that webcomics are not an end in themselves. They are the means to something bigger and complement a title’s presence, not replace its print or other versions. When making pages for publication online, I still laid them out in book format and then cropped them for online presentation. Also, there will remain generations of readers who prefer to hold and read something in their hands, so a wholly online title wasn’t enough.
My search for a global publisher taught me a whole new world of truths in the international publishing scene. Getting a title published worldwide gives you scale, but here is the double whammy – if you’re not living in a country that has a vibrant publishing scene (North America and Western Europe for me as Anima is in English), publishers regard you as an unknown foreign author. In addition for my situation, the Singapore scene doesn’t push its books globally, so being a Singapore author will not get your work anywhere else.
I underwent the same grind I did when looking for publishers in Singapore years ago, but on a larger scale. It wasn’t as bad as I expected; despite the size of North America and Western Europe, there weren’t many publishers who handled English graphic novels for children. I could shortlist all possible names to query in a month. But naturally, the most important lessons I learned had to do with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of things.
Almost immediately, I encountered the dominance of ‘book agents’. Many top publishers would only deal with agents, not with authors directly. I find that somewhat contemptuous. Authors had to find agents who would represent them, and the agent would recommend them to good publishers for 10 per cent of all the author’s fees. To me this is ludicrous for a few reasons. The job of spotting and working with authors should always remain with editors in the publishing house. That was what happened in the old days, when REAL editors immersed themselves in literary circles, hoping to find the next Mark Twain in smoky bars, and working with them to make masterpieces. Not any more! Today’s editors loath ‘getting their hands dirty’ this way and have outsourced this aspect to agents. And it’s not the publishers that pay for this additional channel – the agents’ fees are drawn entirely from the authors!
Another lesson I learned was to avoid small outfits and relying on hope when trying to play at this level. Only a major, established publisher has the experience to manage and bring a title across borders. You’d get nowhere working with someone who has no experience doing this at a bigger stage and no knowledge of how the business works. That stuff we learned from the movies of growing and succeeding together? They never happen in real life.
Here’s my own story. I got in touch with someone living in the US who wanted to become a comic publisher. We got a deal, thinking that all would be well if we grew together and she was determined enough. That was naïve. One should not expect anything good to come out of going with a startup unless you really know the person. Because I’d never met her, I slowly found how ill-equipped she was over the course of the operation. She printed the books herself and passed them out at local conventions. Soon she was not responding to my requests for correspondence and plans, and if she did, it was with accusations of me being demanding and spoilt. I had to terminate our dealings.
I spent about a year looking for a global publisher while I was finishing off the final chapters of Anima. My efforts were in vain, but that’s not to say it was a total waste. I did get the attention of a few parties. Two major publishers expressed some interest in Anima, but could not get everyone within their editorial team to agree on taking it. One agent agreed to represent me but could not find a willing publisher. So that’s that.
One final thing I learned about editors and agents, the so-called judges excellence, was they know… not much. How can they know if something will be a hit? They don’t, most of the time. They’d look at trends in pop culture and jump on the bandwagon. If something unexpected becomes a hit, they’d scramble to release something along that line. Part of the reason for this lack of risk-taking and innovation is the penalty for making a mistake. Why take any risk and jeopardize one’s job?
On this blog I have written a couple of pieces on how ‘experts’ today are not as all-knowing as we think. In this entry I wrote about how a Nobel-prize winning writer did an experiment to prove this point. She re-wrote the abstract of her classic and sent it to publishers, only to receive lackluster responses and unfavourable reviews.
So the take-away from my experience with big publishers is – editors are uninformed, lazy, and cannot tell the next ‘bookbuster’ if it hits them in the face. I should know… I became one soon after.
To be continued…