Tuesday, December 13, 2005

On Speakeasy

I did a first gloss on this issue in today's linkblog, but wanted to come back to it in more detail. There are a lot of dots to connect here, and what's happening at Speakeasy could be developing into a major story. I make no claims to being a journalist, but I thanks to the wonders of hypertext you can follow along.

Rich Johnston has built a reputation for being aggressive, and exposing hidden issues in the industry - just ask Dreamwave or Alias. If there's dirt to be found, he tends to find it and broadcast it. So a positive piece on a new policy at Speakeasy didn't set off many alarm bells. Knowing that Rich is writing about the company that is publishing his Flying Fryar, I should have read more carefully. It took a few posts and some dots to connect in my head before things became clear.

Speakeasy's setup seems simple and direct: they will publish creator-owned material for a fee, and if the book does not sell well enough to recoup that fee then the creators have to pony up the difference. Ideally, this exposes Speakeasy to little risk (while allowing it to explore Hollywood partnerships) and provides creators with benefits they would not see from self-publishing.

My biggest question would be what exactly Speakeasy is providing. With a contract that passes any financial risk along to the creators (in fact, burdening them further with a Speakeasy fee), one would assume that Speakeasy must be offering something in return. If Speakeasy's overaggressive expansion, poor marketing, and late shipping impact the sales of Elk's Run .... someone else will foot the bill. So what does Speakeasy bring to the table?

Does Speakeasy offer tentpole titles that bring retailers to their corner of Previews, and hopefully lend their light to other books? Two Speakeasy titles with high visibility, Atomika and Rocketo, have jumped ship.

Does Speakeasy offer a strong brand identity that will driver readers to pick up a book sight unseen? As I consume the steady stream of the WeboComicsBlogoNet, I have no sense of a Speakeasy "brand". I am familiar with some titles under the Speakeasy umbrella, but that primarily comes from the creators themselves doing tireless internet promotion. The only press I see about Speakeasy itself is when it acquires a new title, or another one leaves the fold.

Does Speakeasy offer a controlled environment where books aren't drowning in a sea of solicitations? Far from the boutique publisher that could spotlight a limited stable of books, Speakeasy has aggressively expanded it's line from four titles this past June to fourteen this December - a 250% increase over six months, with more new titles on the way. Instead of drowning in the sea of Previews, books are now drowning in the smaller sea of Speakeasy solicitations ... but drowning is still drowning, regardless of the size of sea. Since the creators need to buy their own Previews ads, they end up assuming even more of the cost of business decisions they don't make.

Does Speakeasy enable creators to focus on creating, safe in the assurance that the details and delays of publishing will be taken care of? Elk's Run #4 is late, through no fault of the creators. The Bumper Edition, designed to get readers up-to-date and interested enough to pre-order issue #4 came out late, missing the solicitation window. Right now, orders are closing for #6 ... and nothing has made it out of Speakeasy since that Bumper Edition in October. And Elk's Run is far from the only book being affected ...

The "good news" that Rich Johnston wanted to spread was that Speakeasy has offered to host any creator-owned title that is cancelled on their website. I fail to see how this benefits the creators at all. They have already assumed the financial risk for their printed comics, now if that gamble does not pay off Speakeasy will host some files, and reap the benefits of the traffic? Creators will labor for free to produce comics in order to drive traffic to the Speakeasy site? Speakeasy's plan was low-risk enough to start with, this gilds the lily. If Speakeasy wants to usher in the Age Of Digital Comics, they souldn't be doing it with volunteer labor.

I don't get the impression there's anything malicious going on. But what I do see is a smart businessman who has found a way to have others assume the financial risk for his decisions. I hope that creators who have tied their cart to Speakeasy don't get crushed both financially and in reputation due to decisions over which they have no control.

Here are some links to further discussion of this story:



Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

I'm actually working on a story about this for Buzzscope. If everyone I've contacted participates, it should be interesting. If not, I may just go the opinion route on the old blog. Nice job on the overview here.

Mark Fossen said...

I will look forward to reading that, Guy. Between Speakeasy and Claypool ... there's a story here, but I'm sure not good enough to put it all together.

Matt said...

Good work on the piece, Mark. Caught up with it via Jog and am glad I did. You can read a bit more about it over at my blog (linked at Jog's).

And hey, another ELK'S RUN fan. I thought they were rarer than hen's teeth.

Mark Fossen said...

Matt -

Sorry to see another creator run under the wheels here. Sorry to hear (on your blog) about Strangeways delays - I've been keeping an eye out for it, and will continue to do so.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Between Speakeasy and Claypool ... there's a story here, but I'm sure not good enough to put it all together.

There is indeed a story there, and I did my best to pull it together quickly. Hopefully not too quickly, though! Let me know what you think.

Anonymous said...

Speakeasy provide a home. Negotiated printing, storage and distribution costs. They're a publisher. Flying Friar could not have existed without Speakeasy. It's a place for an otherwise unattached creator to up their game slightly.