Printed or online comics? Writer and publisher Jamie Bautista talks
Jamie Bautista is the creator of the long-running comic series Cast, and the National Book Award nominated and Anvil Award winning detective comic series, Private Iris.
What did happen to Cast, you ask? Jamie says that Cast was a full-color comic, not an anthology, with 90 percent of the writing done by Bautista and Elbert Or doing one issue and back-up stories, and the same art teams for 3 to 5 issue runs. It was a lot of expense for his investors, since they had gotten people to put up money for it, and a lot of work. When they got to issue 11, the sales just weren’t there to support the costs. They had problems collecting from their distributor for Visayas and Mindanao and tracking stock and returns were a nightmare. There was a readership and sales, but the costs they racked up doing publishing the traditional way was overtaking the earnings of the book.
“I have a family printing press, but that’s a separate business so the printing isn’t free, it’s just I get a good deal and a lot of credit, which allowed us to let Cast run longer than many other local colored publications could do,” Jamie says. And then at the end of 2007, Arnold Arre and Jamie got a chance to pitch a comic project to an insurance company, Pioneer insurance, who was looking to publish a comic for kids. We then created Private Iris for them. Although it was a very profitable project, it was also another reason why cast was put on hold.
Jamie reports, “Arnold got in touch with me in December 2012 about some comics related stuff, and I knew this was my opportunity to ask him if he had a window to do Cast 12. To my delight, he said he was willing to do it! So Cast 12 was back to life again. Right now, it’s still a work in progress as other paying stuff (again, paying comics trump personal comics when you have a family) and I’m also trying to still get Jhomar Soriano on board (who had finished around 70 percent of his part of Cast 12 back in 2007 before it stalled; luckily I had already paid him for those pages), but it’s looking like it’s finally going to happen as I’ve got the funds and my artists we may all have some time to get it done. It’s been a long journey, but hopefully it ends happily by the end of this year.”
Right now he has his first new online comics Date Works, Inc. (www.dateworks.ph) which is about three couples in different stages of relationships working together in a business that helps people conceptualize and organize unique and special dates. The online comics started on Feb. 13, 2013 (right before Valentine’s) and the first story arc concluded this past September. “The idea came from my own desire to examine different kinds and stages of romantic relationships, as that is a topic that has fascinated me since I was a teenager and first started writing stories,” Jamie says. The idea to have them make it a business was interesting to me in that it was something like the old sitcom Frasier where you had a psychiatrist who would often find himself having to deal with his own psychological issues while consulting others.
“I thought that would be a great set-up for examining relationships. You have the new couple, the long-time sweethearts, and the will-they-won’t-they flirting couple. Each stage of relationship and each type of dynamic allows for all sorts of hijinks while also letting me explore the idea of how to stay romantic while making your relationship mature. The idea that they set-up dates for others also allows for all kinds of opportunities for advertising and product placement in the future.”
Bautista is also the general manager at LSA Printing Press and publisher of Nautilus Comics. He was the publisher of the National Book Award winning Siglo: Freedom and Siglo: Passion. In his years of publishing, we asked how things have changed over the years. “The main thing is that most of the things publishers used to do (which entitles them to most of the profits of a book) no longer apply. Publishers used to curate and choose authors, fund the printing of the book and take on most of the financial risk, and handle distribution and marketing.
But now, with digital tools and digital media, those roles can be done already by the authors and creators themselves. Authors can crowd source (like using Kickstarter or Indie Go Go) or get pre-orders for a book to fund its printing, meaning there’s no financial risk anymore. Or they do a web comic or digital comic for an app, where there is no printing cost to shoulder. With online stores and conventions, authors can now sell directly to their readers, without needing to give middle men a cut for distribution and shelf space.
With social media, Deviantart, Tumblr, etc., creators can effectively market themselves and their work, and direct readers where to buy their goods (either digitally online, or at conventions and events). Another change is that today, there is no ‘general audience’. Some people in comics still strive to get the ‘general public’ to read comics, but if you look at other media like movies, music and prose books, things are moving towards specific markets. Publishing now is more about finding specific communities, specific audiences, and then finding authors and creators and works that appeal to them. A publisher finds writers for their readers now, not like before where they would have to find readers for their writers.”
We also asked Jamie why local publishers are reluctant to print comics. He answers, “One reason is that comics typically cost more to publishers, and seem more expensive to readers in a content-to-price ratio. For publishers who create comics internally, they have to pay several people (writer, penciler, inker, letterer) and at a per page rate, and those page rates can be relatively high since a comic page takes a lot more effort to produce. I think another reason is that most comics pitched to them all target the same audience: readers who like escapist power fantasies. And publishers know that the competition in that market is not only established local comics, but also foreign comics in full color (which local publishers find cost prohibitive, while there is no color advantage for prose books), have cross-media awareness in the form of merchandise, movies and cartoons, and perhaps years of nostalgia backing these properties up (as is the case for Western superheroes). So it’s fierce competition for a relatively small market.
It’s the reason why Adarna passed on publishing Arnold Arre’s Martial Law Babies, as they felt the subject matter which was slice-of-life, realistic and grounded couldn’t be sold to the comic market. That’s why I decided to publish Martial Law Babies for Arnold myself at my own expense. We need more comics in more genres that are marketed in more ways, to expand the comic audience by finding readers who want different types of stories or content. When publishers start seeing that there is a market for comics other than the existing one, then they’ll be more willing to take the risk. It’s going to be with creators, who can now take on the role of self-publisher more easily and who can survive with a much smaller market. Comics is going to grow with many, many small self-publishing creators catering to many small, specialized markets.”
Finally, we asked his opinion on whether printing comics can be called old fashioned compared to online comics. Jamie says, “I wouldn’t call it passé, but the act of printing comics I believe should now come at a different stage of a comic’s life. In the traditional model, you create the comic, then you print it, and then you sell it, and then you get readers who pay you money. How many readers you got would depend on how many copies you could afford to print initially at your own risk, with a few more readers coming in from borrowing copies, but you got no money from them. But I would think about 70 to 80 percent of one’s readers paid for and owned your print book, while 20 to 30 percent read it for free by having it lent to them. And many creators spend money to have their comics printed, and earn either break-even or just a little profit, with their reason for doing so being ‘just to see my story in print’ or ‘just to get people to read my comic.’”
But if the latter is true, that you only want people to read it even if you don’t make any money from it, why not then just do the comic online and spend effort instead of money to potentially reach many, many more readers for no added cost per additional reader? Why not just go digital or online and do it for free? I think the ideal way to do it is to release a comic for free online just to create an audience. If the comic becomes popular, there’s a good chance around 1 percent to 10 precent of your readership will be so passionate about it that they will buy printed versions of the book and merchandise, even at a higher cost due to small runs.
Print is now a more specialized part of the comic business, where it’s more of a souvenir or art object that can help preserve your work for posterity and provide monetary compensation from your most passionate fans. But using online first is key, because it’s about being generous first, spreading your story first, building an audience first, then thinking about print and monetizing later on. Comic artists are used to working ‘for the love of comics’ anyway. Online is the way to survive the constant experimentation the comics industry needs, giving artists and publishers a way to fail without it costing much so it’s easy to try again. So that’s where I think print is passé: as the initial form of a comic.”
Special thanks to Jamie Bautista, Sherry Baet-Zamar, and Komikon, Inc. -- Sherry Baet-Zamar