I was going to start this piece by observing that the present troubles of Claypool Comics are the first significant sign of trouble from Diamond's recent policy change. As you probably know, Diamond have announced that they will no longer fulfil orders for comics that sell less than $600. And now, they've told Claypool that they'll stop carrying two of their key titles, DEADBEATS and SOULSEARCHERS AND COMPANY, unless Claypool can push up sales by April.
But, as is so often the case, there seems to be a bit of confusion here. Claypool's second press release makes an explicit connection to Diamond's controversial policy change. However, the policy change was about not fulfilling orders on books already solicited. This is Diamond threatening to stop soliciting books in the first place. That would be a different policy, the benchmark, which has been around for a while. It's a higher target, $1,500 - but let's face it, still not exactly a blockbuster sum of money.
It's hard not to feel sorry for Claypool. They've been around for years, plugging away dutifully. They have a solid track record for dealing professionally with their creators. They publish Peter David's creator-owned SOULSEARCHERS AND COMPANY, which certainly sounds like it ought to be a decent book. Their reputation, so far as it goes, is for producing good comics. It would be nice to think that we lived in a world where there was a place for Claypool, and depressing to think that we did not.
'Diamond will drop two key Claypool titles unless they can push up sales by April.' But the profit margins on this company - or, perhaps more realistically, the scale of their losses - must be terrifying. I searched the charts dutifully for evidence of Claypool's sales rate. As near as I can make out, they haven't even made the Top 300 since January 2005, when ELVIRA #141 sold an estimated 780 copies. I can't track the last time DEADBEATS or SOULSEARCHERS actually charted. (The cut-off point at the bottom of the charts has risen a bit since January, largely due to re-orders on top-selling books. The number 300 book in October, the most recent chart at time of writing, sold 1,658 copies.)
One would think that the books must be selling a few thousand outside the direct market, in order to justify continuing the operation at all. But Claypool's press release insists that Diamond's cancellation would "wipe out much of Claypool's line". At the very least, this isn't a case of a company that is doing massive business outside the direct market.
It may well be true, as Claypool say, that their sales are consistent - but consistency at that level is not a good thing. They claim that their 'Jump In' issues last year "sold very well", but this can only have been a relative concept. Frankly, given the talent involved with the company, one of the most mystifying things about Claypool is how their comics can possibly be selling so badly.
The lack of awareness of Claypool's output is astonishing. Of course, most indie publishers face this problem to some degree or other. It's hard to get attention when everyone's looking at the big guys. But Claypool have at least got a creator-owned Peter David book, and he's a name creator. How do you publish a Peter David book for seventy issues without attracting anyone's attention?
'Sales may be consistent - but at that level that's not a good thing.' The secret seems to be promotion, or rather the lack thereof. We all know that the comics news sites will run any old crap as long as it fills the space. If Peter David wanted to do promotional interviews for his book, I find it hard to believe he'd be turned down. (Frankly, some major sites would probably run a feature on anything from Claypool - or indeed anything, period - as long as it was spoonfed to them clearly enough.)
In fact, despite extensive Googling, I haven't been able to find any such interviews. A few interviews about other books where SOULSEARCHERS was mentioned in passing, but nothing actually about SOULSEARCHERS. Over five years ago, in one interview, Peter David was asked about the lack of attention given to the title, and gave this answer:
"Claypool Press doesn't exactly have a huge promotional budget. Look at your own questions. Dark Horse has been promoting the heck out of SPYBOY, and you say it gets no publicity. So here's Claypool which doesn't even have Dark Horse's resources, even though ads run for them regularly in CBG. Trying to get the attention of fans and retailers is a full time job. In terms of the book itself, we're getting up to issue #40. It really kills me: Fans say to me, 'Write a humorous book for a small indy publisher, something you have total control of.' And I say, 'SOULSEARCHERS AND COMPANY. Been doing it for about seven years now.' And they say, 'What's that?' Retailers swear we don't exist.
And back in the grim, distant days before the Internet really took off, this was fair enough. But how much does it cost to plug the book at Newsarama and its ilk, especially if you have a name writer? It's easier than ever for a reasonably prominent creator to get attention for any project they care to promote. It certainly doesn't look as though these channels of free publicity have been vigorously pursued over recent years. In fact, until posting Claypool's press release in his blog, David apparently hadn't even mentioned the book on his own website since September.
Claypool's own website isn't exactly a masterpiece either. The front page doesn't mention their current crisis at all. Instead, it's based around the logos of their four comics, and some favourable review quotes. Each book has its own page, which simply consists of a cover and some favourable reviews. The news link is right at the bottom of the page and takes you to something called the Claypool Clarion, which hasn't been updated since January 2005 (and you have to scroll down even to find that, because it starts off with material from August 2004).
'It doesn't look as though the channels of free publicity have been vigorously pursued.' At the top of that page there's a link to a more recent news page, although only if you're psychic and guess that that's what 'Clamor' means. The actual news page isn't linked from the front page of the site at all, and until recent events, it hadn't been updated since May.
It has been (somewhat indignantly) pointed out that it's easy to jump on to Claypool's books because you can buy all the back issues from the site. This is somewhat true. Clicking on 'Comics Warehouse' takes you to this page, which lists the products available for order. It doesn't actually tell us what the current issue number is, but assures us that we can get that information from the Clarion page. (We can't.)
And yes, you can indeed order online - by cutting and pasting the order form into a text file, filling it in, pasting it into an e-mail, and e-mailing it with your credit card details to Cat Yronwode. Really. See for yourself. Encryption? Online ordering? Pshaw! Claypool has no use for such modern innovations! (Actually, Cat Yronwode does take Paypal, at least for some of her activities - but there's no mention of that on the comics order page.)
I don't take any particular pleasure in kicking Claypool when they're down. But it's important to recognise that their problems are, to some extent, of their own making. It has never been easier to run a safe online store at minimal cost; to have an effective promotional website, also at minimal cost; and to obtain coverage on widely read websites at absolutely zero cost. Claypool have not taken those opportunities.
And this is, by all accounts, a genuine shame. Those who have actually read the comics seem to think they're very good. I've never read them - I haven't even seen them on sale in several years.
It may well be true that retailers don't know Claypool's books exist. But whose fault is that, really?
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