Friday, 12 May 2017

Dave Sim: Thoughts On D&Q

In 2004 the Comics Journal #260 ran a particularly mean-spirited article by Michael Dean about the longer-term prospects of Toronto-based indie-comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly ("Can Drawn & Quarterly Expand Without Expiring?"), citing the example of the 2003 D&Q book "Waiting For Food: More Restaurant Placemat Drawing Vol 3" by Robert Crumb, "one of its biggest gambles and subsequently biggest flops". In the letter below, Dave Sim offers D&Q cartoonist Chester Brown his thoughts on Chris Oliveros' publishing company.

4 September 04

Dear Chet:

I don't know if you were more than usually forthcoming on the subject of your relationship with Drawn & Quarterly when I was down there on Wednesday because of the recent exchange of unpleasantries between Michael Dean and Chris Oliveros in the Comics Journal...

(I hadn’t seen it yet -- yes, the Official Dave Sim Lynching takes place in 263, the issue after this one, so they might be on schedule for October)

...but it certainly does seem to bode ill. My own view is that what purported to be an exchange of viewpoints was mostly a ruthless exertion of peer pressure (on Dean's part) disproportionate to how big FBI actually is and a great deal is going to hinge on how Chris reacts to it. It seems obvious to me that Gary [Groth, Fantagraphics publisher] now sees Drawn & Quarterly as a threat in the same way that he saw Denis Kitchen as a threat. When he calls Fantagraphics "Publisher of the World’s Greatest Cartoonists", he tends to mean "exclusively" and is not a happy camper when Bob Crumb does a major project with Kitchen Sink or Chris Ware does a project with D&Q. I'm not sure how much the magazine is still listened to in these "conflict of interest" areas, but the arrogant tone was pretty astonishing even for someone used to being astonished by the Journal's arrogant tone.

Relative to your situation and Seth's, I would be concerned that Chris takes this to heart and decides that he has to imitate Fantagraphics' exponential expansion now that they think of themselves as a mainstream book publisher -- it's entirely true that you have to have a large seasonal output to stay in that particular game: the distributors' summer, fall, winter and spring catalogues. To me, the net effect of that is that individual attention goes by the wayside as the shark-like forward momentum takes hold: the key thing is to fill up the schedule -- “with whom” becomes secondary -- the people creating under contract are just urged to be productive at all costs. If you help plug the hole in the fall catalogue, you are expected to do the same thing next fall. This was one of the reasons that I gave you our dialogue on disk. If that’s the way Chris chooses to go, you’re going to need material on a regular basis to remain a high-profile Drawn & Quarterly player. The only other option for Chris, as far as I can see, is just to find what the Fantagraphics artists have in inventory that they’d be willing to have published, which is really more what D&Q looks like right now, to me: Fantagraphics Light.

If, on the other hand, Chris chooses to “stay the course” and be a small prestige publishing house, I suspect that things will begin to roll his way the bigger Fantagraphics gets. I suspect that things are already rolling his way, albeit slower and less noticeably than he wants them to (that’s just the way things are in that end of the market: the creators and audience are mostly graduated slackers, but when they turn on you, they turn on you. A large, mainstream, arrogant Fantagraphics is going to rub that whole group the wrong way and make Drawn & Quarterly No. 1, at least in terms of perception). I am suspicious of all of the efforts being made in the mainstream world at mainstream prices. Those Book Expos are not inexpensive. San Diego {Comic Con} is not inexpensive. I’m sure Peggy Burns [D&Q publicist] is not inexpensive. It’s certainly true that you and Seth are being discussed in real-world circles these days and I’m sure Peggy Burns is responsible for that in a lot of ways if not that she’s entirely responsible for that. I guess my question is: how important is that to you? It doesn’t seem to me that you have much interest in the mainstream world in the sense of being able to walk straight into a Toronto Film Fest screening or to get invited to glittery parties. But -- depending on what Peggy Burns is getting paid in salary, in the sense that you’re paying a large part of her salary -- that’s the area of reality your money is going to.

It seems to me that the only reason for a small publisher to go to these obscenely-expensive Expos is to drive up the price he’s eventually going to sell his company for, or to find a larger partner to merge with, neither of which strike me as being what Chris has been “about” all along. He’s got his distributor partnership (which I assume he found in the Expo environment somewhere), so now there doesn’t seem to be much point, apart from demonstrating to the distributor that you are out there aggressively pushing your authors. I thought it was really cheesy of Michael Dean to suggest that the reason D&Q wasn’t represented at Book Expo America was because of financial hardship.

Unfortunately, that one might stick in the way of perception and that would be a financial nutcracker to have to keep showing up at Expos that don’t do much good just to keep people from thinking that you can’t afford to go. Obviously Fantagraphics has bought into that perception as reality. As long as Gilbert and Jaime are getting paid, more power to them. But if that’s where Gilbert and Jaime’s money is going, instead of to Gilbert and Jaime, pardon me if I don’t stand up and applaud.

I don’t really have any suggestions apart from what I told you when I was down there visiting. You don’t really have enough information to know how your team is doing, the D&Q team that you’ve thrown your lot in with completely. I wouldn’t put myself in that situation, personally, which is a big reason I have no real world presence. I’m not part of any network. I’m just Dave. Cerebus is just Cerebus. If a mainstream book distributor called me up tomorrow and wanted 4,000 copies of each trade, I’d laugh in their faces. {Mainstream book distributors insist on very favorable returns policies. Very favorable to them.} That’s just way-too overextended in any one direction if I don’t have the company’s spreadsheet sitting in front of me (and even if I do).

Every Monday we find out how many books Diamond wants. Sometimes it’s $800 worth of books and sometimes its $6,000 worth of books. But I know that Diamond is going to pay for them and I know that Diamond is only going to order what [it thinks it] can sell based on the pace they’ve been selling at. I have no idea how Diamond is actually doing, but what I do know is that [it has] a solid track record of paying [its] bills. That’s all I really have to be concerned about.

I thought that was how Chris was running Drawn & Quarterly. In which case, as a Drawn & Quarterly artist, all you had to worry about was whether Chris paid on time. It was just one step removed from the self-reliance of self-publishing. What concerns me about the mainstream book-distribution trade is that these people make their money from moving books around, not from the books selling. So, they’re always pushing for more volume—pushing stores to take more books than they can sell and pushing publishers to publish more books than they can pay for—which (reading between the lines) is what I’m getting from Gary Groth, via the Journal, via Michael Dean’s reply. But the question remains the same: is Gary getting paid by his distributor? Are his contributors getting paid? My SPACE article/review in the Journal came out in May and I just got paid for it. 83 bucks. That doesn’t sound like someone bouncing happily along on a cash-flow cushion. I’m not sure how much Michael Dean’s answer was a “misery loves company” gig. “We have to pump out all of these titles to keep our distributor happy, so, Chris, you should too.”

I mean, if you really trust Chris to the extent that you seem to, and you think that that grant next year is really the thing that’s going to take care of all of his problems, and he can’t get the grant until all of his artists are paid off, there is an easy solution: [take] shares in the company in lieu of cash and sign an affidavit saying that this clears the slate. But the question then becomes, do you have that kind of trust and confidence in Chris that means you’ll take x number of shares in D&Q with the firm conviction that he will turn things around and the shares will ultimately be worth more than the cash value you traded for them? Conversely, you could just take a percentage of the money -- say 25 cents on the dollar and agree that you’ve been compensated equitably as long as Chris agrees to keep D&Q the small-scale operation that you signed onto. Essentially you would be forgiving a percentage of his debt in order to give him breathing room, but not to give him breathing room just so he can cut Bob Crumb or Chris Ware a cheque out of the money that you’ve forgiven him.

Much as I hate to say it, (and much as I hated to say it when we started discussing the whole thing with the degree of frankness you were willing to bring to it) I think you have to have a greater working knowledge of what it is that Chris thinks that he’s doing and some input on his decision-making. Obviously the Hernandez Bros. can’t take issue with Gary printing his {Bernard} Krigstein volumes, even though they might be a colossal mistake and money that would be going to Gilbert and Jaime is instead going to the printer of the volumes. The operation is just too big. But you and Seth and Joe are the ones who got Chris to where he is today and it was your money -- money that you were owed -- that went into the ill-fated Crumb book. If Chris had alternative sources of money to draw on, drew on them and paid you guys, then no, you wouldn’t have any cause for complaint. It would still be Chris’ solo play. But, since that doesn’t seem to be the case (there’s an understatement), I think you justifiably have a voice in the future of the company.

It’s a little uncomfortable offering these suggestions, but you did express interest in my opinion. Coming up on your phone call/discussion with Chris, these are the best suggestions I can make. I also have no problem if you want to fax this to Seth. Or Seth and Joe. Or Chris. Three more people hating my guts is no big whoop to me, Chet, you know that. It’s always been more important to me that actual issues be discussed than that I have a billion friends who can’t wait to buy me a beer.

To repeat, one of the reasons that I gave you the "Getting Riel" on disk was that I thought that if Chris was looking to seriously expand, it would help to have a Chester book (of some kind) on the schedule at any given moment, however large the schedule turns out to be, thus increasing the chances of whatever amount of money going through D&Q at any point, some of it would be coming to you. Likewise offering the jam story we did for reprinting. Likewise offering to do a dialogue on Ed the Happy Clown. If Chris is thinking of a large ambitious schedule, these are the kinds of things that can help flesh it out and keep you as a significant player at D&Q instead of just someone Chris can take for granted. Because you have the level of confidence you do in Chris and this might be the direction Chris is going, I thought I would make sure you knew that I consider this your material to do with as you choose.

But, to give you an example of how I view the situation, I wouldn’t offer Chris the Cerebus covers to do as a colour volume. Even though there is a market for it and Milo George (Fantagraphics no less) suggested that he thought it would be a great book. I don’t trust Chris to that extent as a publisher, even though I really want Drawn & Quarterly to be a success. The fact that it took me over a month and several phone calls to give the guy a free back cover ad -- well, that just didn’t sound like an on-the-ball publisher to me.

I also get resentful on your behalf that Crumb cost Chris all of this money (however indirectly) and you generated all this money (and attention!) and there still doesn’t seem to be any great outpouring of anything in your direction.


From "Dave Sim's Collected Letters 2004", a Cerebus Archive Kickstarter reward.


Glen said...

I've always thought that we are publishing more books than people are actuality reading. This article partly proves my point.

Dave mentions that book distributers don't care whether these books are sold or not because they have already been paid so are constantly pushing books on stores or pressuring publishers to make more. The market is also skewed with government grant programs provided to publishers and authors in advanced democracies to produce books that many people don't even read.

The largest book store in Canada (Chapters Indigo) has started to wisem up with more of their sales relying less on books and magazines and more on gift items like candles, scarves, picture frames, and coffee mugs.

Tony Dunlop said...

I really see Fantagraphics and D&Q as, not just apples and oranges, but more like apples and some rare but delicious exotic fruit. Not in the same class. Even more so having just read about Fanta. trashing D&Q in their own, ostensibly "journalistic," publication. Really, really tacky, guys.

Plus, D&Q never tried to keep its cash flow going by glutting the market with porn. Ewwww. (I've never read, and never will read, "Paying For It," but even if it's explicit, it counts as neither "porn" nor "glutting.")

A fascinating glimpse behind the scenes; thanks, Tim.

Tony again said...

Oh, and I'm pretty sure D&Q is Montreal-based, not Toronto.