October 3, 2009

THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE: LOGO EDITION

Obviously, when you are talking about selling books (in this instance, comic books, or, oh, let's be snobby, eh? Graphic Novels!) these days, you are going to to deal with three fractions, all three of which come with massive delusions. The author. The artist. The publisher. All three of them, and of course they would never admit to it publicly, think privately that if something does become sucessful at the Battle of the Book Stores, it's all because of...

... me! me! me!

The author will claim that it was the unique storytelling technique, the depth of the book's characters, the complexity or simplicity of the plot, the overall awesomeness that makes him or her a writer... must surely be the reason why somebody picked up this graphic novel! How could it be any different? After all, didn't he or she slave two years over this masterpiece? In a small room, sustained only by diet coke and hope? That somebody somewhere, somewhere out there will ultimately recognise the greatness?


The artist will claim that it was his beautifully rendered art that made people perk up, pick up, buy up the book that the audience have been handed by some kind of tall, dark and handsome stranger in a back alley, kind of like that creepy doll in Sesame Street, hey, kid, want to read a book? A BOOK?! Psssssst, not so loud, yes, a book. It's a dirty book. With pictures! Want it? A BOOK?! Pssssssst...

The publisher will claim that it was the branding of the publisher, yes, they do actually believe that, that people walk into a book store or a comic book store and go, hey, it's the new title published by XYZ, it must be awesome, because it is published by XYZ, because they look at that tiny little logo somewhere that spells TOR or DEL REY or RANDOM HOUSE or (insert your own name here)... and that is enough to weigh the potential buyer's interest in their favour.

Like I said, delusional all around.

To the author, if you think that? Congratulations! Your name must be Dan Brown, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Dean Koontz. But here's the catch. All these people have names, all these people are brands, and that means, I'm sorry, that readers walk into a book store to specifically buy your new book, they are looking for you... and if you have reached that level of brand awareness, good for you, but if you haven't? Shut up and listen.

To the artist, if you think that? You're either Clamp, Uderzo or Enki Bilal! And again, people walk into the book store knowing that they want to buy your latest work. And if you aren't? Then in order for the potential buyer to know that you are any good? To be swayed to buy the book? They first have to actually have the book in their hands, open it and flip through the book to assess if this is something they would fork over the $ 9.99 or $ 12.99 that your book will cost them the moment they walk up to the cashier's register. Now, granted, I have said prior that the artist's quality is a much higher selling point (sorry to the author) than the actual writing, if both names are unknown quantities to the potential buyer. Why? Because in order to assess the level of quality for an artist you take less than ten seconds as a potential buyer. You don't need to read. You just need to look. Is this unfair to the author? Of course it is, but them's the breaks, kid. Accept it. Deal with it. Move on.

To the publisher, if you think that? In the graphic novel/comic book world? You must be DC's Vertigo in the Neil Gaiman/Grant Morrison/Alan Moore era (so, sometime in the early to Mid-1990s), which was the only time in the history of US comic book publishers when a line of books was so focused on certain conceptual parameters: (We are weird! Buy us! You know what you're getting! A good dose of Weird!) that – if you wanted to get a certain kind of story, with a certain kind of art, you could at least pick up the first issue of any given new Vertigo comic book series and have a decent chance of being entertained... if you were into that Weird Stuff (c). Any other branding? That only exists in the delusional brain of a publisher sitting in an office, and yes, it is delusions of grandeur, or let me ask you something. Did anybody ever go out and say, this is a Tokyopop or Seven Seas or Del Rey book, hell yes, I know what I'm getting? I trust that company so much, I will buy their new books blind?

Like I said, delusional.

What we are going to do now, you and me (well, I am going to do it, and you may want to listen... or not), we are going to do a pars pro toto analysis. If you don't know what that is, it's what economists do all the time, and it's somewhat of a cheat in that area, since pars pro toto means an anylsis in which you are only allowed to change one parameter in any given scenario, with all parameters staying static. Now, since life isn't static, economics even less so, what you get in those type of studies is usually a lot of bullshit, like chewing gum will lead to a likelihood of five times higher than the average that your life will be longer by x years! Or, a glass of red wine increases the likelihood of getting cancer by five times! Or, a glass of red wine a day will decrease the likelihood of getting a heart attack by ten times! Or, a glass of red wine will ... (insert your own stupid study result that is contradicting any other stupid pars prop toto study here)!

Every now and then, though, a pars pro toto look at a given subject may be of use, and we will take a look through that particular prism when it comes to the sales possibilities of a book like It Takes A Wizard in a book store, because it is somewhat unique as a subject matter. since it brings together an unknown author with an equally unknown artist and a publisher that – if not completely unknown – has pretty much fucked up potential buyer relations with manga fans a long time before said unknown artist and unknown artist even entered the stage on the right (give us a wave, will you?) by defrauding the buyers of most of their OEL series into buying a first volume, then never publishing a second one.

In other words, the publisher's reputation itself in this case is already one strike against the book, or any book that they might publish, but for the sake of argument we will pretend that the publisher has a credibility ranking of zero on a scale from -5 to +5. And I'm being nice here, remember that.

Now, as a reader, god, aren't book stores the greatest? No disrespect to Amazon, which allows me to get English and American books at a click's notice, and I dearly love them for that, but I'm old enough to have grown up with real brick and mortar book stores, from the small one that was just down the street from where I grew up (not many books, a Mom & Pop store) to the big ones in Essen and Düsseldorf, where my parents dropped me off while they went shopping for the Christmas presents, knowing that their son would be lost in a good way, wandering rows and rows of shelves, looking at the spines, looking at the covers, every now and then discovering something that was worthwhile, something that was surely to have been overlooked by most customers, something that was a treasure, mine, mine, mine! I discovered a lot of my favourite authors this way, in a time when marketing? PR? Internet? None of that truly existed. A book was a book. It had to live and die by the same rules as any other book that was stacked in the store, at the mercy of the potential customer and the store's well-read staff, who – if you gave them an inclination what you liked – would be able to lead you to another author, another book, another book series that you might like. Brilliant!

As an author today? If If you don't have PR, if you don't have marketing, if you don't have Oprah in your corner (whose tastes in books are mightily questionable, I may add), the book store is a battlefield. A bloody one. For you are now one of those books, with its spine out, if you are lucky, very lucky, somebody may have put your cover out for people to see, so every weapon in your arsenal is on that little piece of cardboard, spine and cover.

And what do people look at when the author is unknown, the artist is unknown, and the publisher's name will make you want to run screaming in the other direction?

Yes, the logo. It's that thing that none of the three ever even think about, because, let's face it, aren't we all grand already? Aren't we already awesome enough? A logo? Really? A buying decision comes down to a logo? Are you kidding me, Sir?

No, I am not kidding, I am very serious. And no, I didn't say a logo will lead to a decision to buy. That is not its purpose. It's purpose is to make you pick up the book. To make the book look interestingly enough, amidst the gluttony of all the other books on the shelves that whisper to the potential buyer, Pick me! Pick me! You know you want to! I'm good! I'm cheap! Hey, kiddo, don't tell your mother, but I gots nekkid ladies in me! Pick me up! Hold me in your hands! Pick me!

In Germany, where most magazines and books are still sold at newsstands and book stores (some of them in comic book stores, but a German comic book store has always been a book store, it's usually light and bright and little kids are not frightened by scary, unwashed people behind a counter), the value of a logo is culturally much more understood than in the United States, since in the US most magazines are subscription-based, and most comic books are, well, this is not the time or place to discuss the horrors of the Diamond pre-order system...

Because, in Germany, the fight to get your customer's attention in print is still fought at the newsstands, and the way to identify your magazine, your brand, yes, it's a marketing term and I hate marketing terms with a passion, because they usually don't mean fuck all, but in this case, it's as good a term as any... your brand has to be immediately identifiable by the potential buyer at quite a distance, roughly 2 to 3 metres away from the rack or shelf.

The same holds true for a book that is either on a shelf, with its spine out, or with its cover out. The cover artwork helps, but only in conjunction with the logo. Both elements have to give the potential buyer a visual tease strong enough to walk those 2 to 3 metres, reach out and pick up the book. Nothing else matters in this particular scenario, since we have already excluded the branding of the author or the artist from our analysis as factors.

All this brings us to the logo of It Takes A Wizard.

In fall of 2007, I was informed that the book would be serialised, three pages a week, beginning in December of that year. I wasn't very happy about the way it was done, since I wrote it to be read as a whole, and having one page of it serialised every other day was the equivalent, structurally (not in terms of quality, just in terms of structure), of showing two minutes of The Lord Of The Rings, three times a week. Writing for the web and writing an actual novel, graphic or otherwise, allow for different strengths and weaknesses that are actually cancelling each other out. A story that is working as a book, with a book's pacing and length cannot, should not be broken up into its smallest fragments, at least not if you are not okay with the story being substantially weakened.

But I could understand the reasoning behind the serialisation, to build up a potential fan base which would or at least could translate into better sales of the print book. However, and that was what I immediately said to Seven Seas, the moment it is on the web, it needs to be established as a full brand. In other words, the product on the web must be immediately identifiable with the product that will hit the book stores later. With a cover image. And a logo. For this is something that then would help potential buyers to find the thing in the store. Remember, if you have an unknown author and an unknown artist, you need all the tricks in the bag you can get.

There was no cover. There was no logo. There was nothing. The publisher's reply was something I never want to hear in my entire life, never ever again, Don't worry. We have the best professionals working on it here.

And I went quiet, thinking, well, let them do their jobs, Thomas. Don't push it. You made your point. So, it launches on the web site (not that I was informed of that, but whatever), and the logo that popped up on the site was...



I looked at it. I looked at it again. And then  thought to myself, Are they shitting me? Really? This? This piece of shit that looked like the result of a six-year-old just figuring out how to click on different fonts in Microsoft Word is THE WORK OF THE BEST PROFESSIONALS THEY HAVE? ARE THEY SHITTING ME? This will be the logo that potential buyers will look at every week, for as long as the book runs on the web? Really?

I have worked with some of the best art directors in the magazine industry over the years, I have also designed quite a few logos of my own over that time, and while I wouldn't put myself into the category of, let's say Ian Miller (who runs the design school at Future Publishing and who was my art director for The Official Dreamcast Magazine and the German T3), I do consider myself quite competent as to what a logo needs to achieve as well as what type of visual quality a logo must have. In short, it must be legible from far enough away and encapsulate the market positioning of the product visually.

So, with a deep sigh I sat down and did a draft of my own. On Christmas Day. Yes, one. I did it in less than an hour, and it wasn't quite perfect, but the first draft of my logo was this...





Notice something? Well, in the meantime I had been given a cover image in ink, and so I needed to create a logo that would fill in the space (of which there was precious little), but not kill what I had been given. Considering that It Takes A Wizard is a horrible title, from the point of view of graphic design (we can argue a lot about whether it is a decent title at all, but for this argument, we will only look at the visual element of it), creating a logo, especially of the word Wizard (with a bulky "w" at the beginning and another bulky "d" at the end) is not the easiest of tasks. It's a wonky word, as we call it in Germany, without balance or symmetry. Also, the title is not one or two words, it's an entire phrase, so it must still be readable as a phrase, but still have an organic, somewhat warm graphic element that directs your eye to the most important, genre-defining word, "Wizard". It does that. It's not perfect, but it does that, especially when included into the first cover image...




I wasn't sure about the colour scheme, for I had no idea as to what colour the cover would have, so I chose red here to set it apart from the b/w of the ink artwork, mailed that to Seven Seas and said, please, drop that thing you have on your web site. Use this instead. It may not be perfect, but if one your logo designers uses this as a template, hey, that would work. also, if you have something that is BETTER than this, use that.

The reaction? Oh, that's nice. Did you make it yourself? Well, duh! No, the Logo Fairies dropped it into my Christmas stocking. I did make a living doing these things a long time before I was an author, you know?

The response overall was Don't worry about it! We have the BEST professionals working on the logo for the print edition! The thing on the web site? it's just a temporary thing! Well, if you look at the Seven Seas web site, it still boasts their own MS Word bullshit logo, even now, so "temporary" must mean "for a really, really fucking long time".

In December 2008 (a whole year later, and there STILL was no logo), I get a "painted" cover version, which i quite liked, because it had an interesting colour scheme, and so I tweaked my logo a little, made it bit more solid, slotted it in and sent it off to Seven Seas, saying, well, I believe that can work...




Again, not perfect, but I thought, yeah, that could be moving into a northernly direction. One of the things I was adamant about was that I wanted author and artist to be partners, and to have that be reflected on the cover. I asked Sean Lam if he was okay with that. he was. I went to Seven Seas, they didn't like it. Did not like it at all. We don't do that. Yes, I am serious. I have the email stating that. We don't do that. Unless, of course, it is the publisher's name itself, right? Let me point this out to you. If you are an author, Seven Seas thinks you are scum. If you are an artist, you are a work slave.

But again, it was Don't worry about it! We have the BEST professionals working on the logo for the print edition!

At this point, I was too tired to argue. We were crashing deadlines left, right and centre, because – while In December 2008 the final chapter had been written already, Sean Lam would still have to draw it all, and that came up to 60+ pages, no way could we hold an April publishing date, and I had to script on top of Lam's delivered final art, because from early on he had the tendency to go Sienkiewicz on my ass, meaning that I had written a full script, he would go off and embellish scenes and do his own thing, leaving me looking at the pages and constantly going, shit, we're going to have 20 pages of silence here, since I didn't write dialogue for those embellishments, so while he was off in creative land, I was desperately trying to play catch-up, essentially re-writing the book from scratch (this went so badly in some ways that for the final chapter, I was forced to script on top of Lam's pencils, asking him to please not change any character positions in the final art)

Anyway, the logo was no longer a part of my immediate worries at this point. We are in April 2009 now, and my illness was of nobody's concern, only the deadlines counted. The cover was painted again, different version, I personally didn't like it, it was faux realism, the kind that computer artists vomit out on a far too regular basis these days, but I was too tired. I was tired all the time. You remember? Don't worry about it! We have the BEST professionals working on the logo for the print edition!

And since I am an author (look up at the beginning of the post, we do have massive egos), I now and then would click on amazon's web site to remind myself why am I doing all of this, just keep yourself together a while longer, while you... what? the? fuck?



The author's and artist's names as small as humanly possible, of course, see, because Seven Seas does not like authors. If the publisher could have kept me off the cover, he would have done so in a heartbeat. I knew that at that point. And again, I asked, I pleaded, and again i got told "We don't do that". Until I reminded them that they did do that, but only for those people whose asses the publisher wanted to crawl into. If you don't believe it, look at how big the name Christopher Rowley is on Arkham Woods, and how tiny is the name of the artist Jhomar Soriano, who is quite brilliant, deserved more and better and is now finally getting that at Top Shelf?

I couldn't change anything, I made on last draft of things myself and gave it to them, even though I knew that they would fuck it up once more, so my final draft with my logo, to at least point out that muddied shit that they put on the cover, probably done by an idiot who just figure figured out how to do transparencies in Photoshop... would not be readable from a distance, that the logo needed to be offset from the cover image...



The moral of this story? Remember? We have the BEST professionals working on the logo for the print edition? Don't worry?

I didn't know that the BEST PROFESSIONALS working on the logo... why, wait a minute, that had be to me, then, right, had to be the author forced to pick up the slack of all the other "professionals". Not that you would notice that by looking at who designed the cover... inside the book. See, strangely enough to mention that was... forgotten by Seven Seas as well.

The truth, kids... the truth shall set you free.