the fabler prepares to roll out their new POD features for San Diego, and takes a moment to clarify they plans.
An in-depth interview with Bruno Steppuhn about the fabler, their policies on creators rights, and business plans.
By Salgood Sam
I feel obliged to warn that in places this is very comics business heavy, but worth while i think. Particularly if your interested in what they are offering. In thier sites’ words,
“The Fabler is a new breed of web comics portal. We love comics as much as you do and we want to see them flourish for many years to come. We are putting the best of online social networking tools in one place so comic lovers everywhere can find the best of visual storytelling from talented writers, artists, and creators from around the globe. We are not just another social network for comics or a web comic portal. Understanding the challenges and barriers that creators face in bringing their art to you, we offer cost effective tools and resources to help creators, and retailers bring their products to you the fans. Join the worlds fastest growing indie and small press ecosystem!”
Over the last year or so we’ve posted several links to some of the great interviews published by the Fabler Blog, and for our last issue of Sequential Pulp [TCAF 2010] they shared some of their content with us for the print edition. So it’s safe to assume I have a pretty friendly relationship with the site. I say this to be transparent about my own bias on the following interview, originally a string of messages in email and on social networks. It’s meant as mostly informational, with a heavy slant on creators rights and contracts.
If you’re a regular here you’ll know The Fabler is holding a contest now to entice people to post their comics on their beta comics site, and get people to visit the site in time to hear about the upcoming roll out of their printing and distribution and retailer network services. When i first posted links about the contest and expressed my own interest in entering, some good questions were raised by other creators about their contracts, polices and intentions. So I took those to The Fabler’s founder, Bruno Steppuhn. Encouraged by his responses myself I decided to take a chance on them and entered their contest myself, and I thought I’d follow up my previous posts here about it with my conversation with Bruno for anyone wondering about it as well.
I first met Bruno in person last summer when we had a long conversation about the comics business, copyright, creators rights, and what someone would like me would want in a site like his. Honestly i think the ideas he has about the site are cool in principle. It remains a question if they will be embraced by retailers and creators, or be able to pull off all their plans, not to mention attract readers. But the game is afoot. What follows is mostly about what creators can expect from them and copyright issues. You should read the fine print yourself, but i attempted to help clarify their hart and intentions for the reader, if not the words as well.
Max: Hey Bruno, so tell us a bit about the origins of your site. How did this project start for you?
Bruno: It boils down to the fact that I love to read stories in the comic medium. I’ve always read comics as a kid.
Somehow my parents stumbled on an old archive of Hot Stuff, Richie Rich and Casper comics and from then on I was hooked. I was never a big super hero fan and always tried to find comics and stories that weren’t about Superman.
I had a vision of making some sort of website relating to some sort of comic business a few years back but really had no idea what it would be about or how to approach it. We started working on some ideas and prototypes in early 2008, and when we heard about Diamond’s numerous quota increases, looking at possibly publishing our own stuff, all of the pieces kind of fell into place.
Max: You guys just received an award for the project from Digital Alberta, that must have been a boost.
Bruno: Yeah, the award was to recognize the best use of Social Media. Competition was pretty stiff as we were competing against a few big companies in the local tech industry.
When they announced The Fabler, I was so surprised that we had won! I suppose it helped add credibility to my vision and motivated myself and the team to continue forging ahead.
Max: Ok, geaky question. Tell us, just to get a feel for what sort of comics fan you are personally, what are you 5 favorite graphic novels or comic books?
Bruno: My top 5?
1. Ghost in the Shell was the first graphic novel I bought. I picked it up in Utah on a backpacking trip with my Dad.
2. Proof, by Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo, I’m a huge fan of.
3. The Tick, is a definite classic. J. Korim, our artist on The Sundry Seven and Red 5’s Neo Zoic, bought me a copy of The Complete Edlund.
4. My favorite webcomic right now is Kukuburi, by Ramone Perez, and
5. I just started getting into SCUD, The Disposable Assassin.
However my favorite of all time has got to be Calvin and Hobbes. I love the Spaceman Spiff bits.
Max: We’ve had a few conversations about creators rights and I personally think I know how you feel – seems like you’re a part of or friendly to the post internet creative commons mindset personally – but what’s your official position on the subject as a publisher? You mentioned wanting to have some Fabler owned and published books, but you also offer independent publishers services as well. Do you feel at all like that’s a conflict and what would you say to someone who might perceive it as one?
Bruno: Our publishing business for our own properties and our self publishing services that we are launching along with future services, are separate really.
It sounds like we’re enabling our own competition but I don’t see it that way. If most people are like me, they will read what they enjoy. The two sides of the business in our company are handled and treated a bit differently with little crossover.
The properties that we publish on our own are created or chosen, and funded by us. The properties that are published through our services remain creator owned at all times.
That being said through the self publishing side, creators can opt to have us publish product for them using our ISBN/ISSN.
By choosing this option the creators will continue to own their IP but we will own the physical product that has our ISBN/ISSN numbers attached.
Max: So just those ‘self published’ units you print with your numbers on them? They could print later editions with their own, or someone else?
Bruno: Those products will also go through an approval process as we are responsible for the content within the products that we sell under our brand. Yes, just the self published units that have our numbers on them. Information regarding these details will be clearly outlined in the “about” section of the site. There are 3 other options that allow them to use their own ISBN/ISSN publishing information if they wish. Thefabler.com is also a non-exclusive service, so creators can choose to sell their products through a variety of channels. Though our goal is to be the best of those channels for indy creators.
Every unit sold using this option will maintain the same payment structure as if they were to publish using their own ISBN/ISSN but have the added benefit of being under a hopefully long established brand similar to Image or IDW.
Max: Ok, tell us about your contest, what your offering, and what you
hope it will do for the site?
Bruno: Well we`re a very new site. After we got our feet grounded with the official site beta launch, we were bouncing ideas to help increase traffic and use of the site. Since we launched the contest, we’ve had a lot of new users to the site and the content is just starting to show up in earnest.
The barriers to entry are a) it takes time and effort to create a comic – it`s not like youtube, where you can just hit record and upload; And b) there is currently – prePOD roll-out – no value added aside from the social mechanics of the site which are embryonic as well.
So we understand that the adoption rate would be a lot slower. The contest is designed to gauge the current exposure and level of interest if we gave some incentive to use the site. It’s a test to see what we should do, how we should run things in the future and so on. We’re also determining the cost and viability of different marketing options, and how we might be able to enable some of these options for our creators as well.
What we’re offering in exchange for creator participation is simple, a chance to win either individually or for a small team of max 3, Wacom Cintiq’s, Tablets, and PS3 Packages. We gave away some PS3’s at the Calgary Comics and Entertainment Expo this year.
Max: Is the submission agreement for the contest indicative of the general contract you’ll be offering for indy creators?
Bruno: For this contest, pretty much. We want to enable creators and not hamper them. It just boils down to the simple question of who owns what, who gets paid when and is it fair for everyone. Official rules may very depending on the type of contest and how they evolve, but again creators will always own their IP.
Basically, creators always own their own IP. Which means you get to decide what happens to your stuff. If at any point in time we’d like to use it to help promote and enable the site that enables the creators, we ensure that we take every precaution that we can think of so that we don’t bite the hand that feeds us.
We’d like to continue offering these type of contests as a small part of the site and we’d like to offer more services and programs in the future to help maintain creative feasibility for creators.
We all need to eat right? There’s always going to be some skepticism and we won’t be able to please everyone, but so long as I have a hand at Fabler Comics I’m going to do my best to ensure that this site remains creator friendly. It’s the origin of the business after all. In the end it’s really our actions that will tell the true story.
Max: So something about this contest that made it possible for me to enter is that you’ve left it open to existing content. Ie: If I have something that I have full rights to and is already done and published elsewhere, online or something, I can use that.
Bruno: Yes, as long as it’s original work and doesn’t conflict with any current agreements or copyright infringement it’s fair game for this contest. Though we encourage new original material we know that for this contest it can be a lot to ask. So yes you are correct. Future contests may only include new work but we’ll figure that out for next time.
Max: And does it have to be the full page count right off, or can it be there by September? build up rather than all at once?
Bruno: As long as your submission meets all requirements by the contest deadline your fine.
It can be more than 24 pages + cover if you so desire. The Fabler submission functionality allows creators to manage by adding and swapping pages while a comic is live.
Changes to comics are flagged and require approval by the admins so there isn’t any approvals then swapping pages for shaking babies type content.
We’re still working out details on comic content approvals. So bare with us and if you have suggestions please let us know!
Max: A concern that came up when I first posted about the contest, was how exactly will the judging work? is it just based on votes they get on the site? If there is a jury how will that work? There are pretty mixed feelings out there about contest driven sites, as varying chatter about the cancellation of Zuda tends to reflect i think.
Bruno:. The judging works mechanically to select the top 3 finalists. So based on the number of hits to your comic – with the number of total votes in each category and your average rating – can run you into the
Once the top 3 finalists have been determined by the site mechanics, the judges – Fabler Comics editors and associated contest sponsors will judge first, second and third prize winners.
The judging will be based on artwork style and presentation, panel design, writing, pace and story mechanics, etc.
We`re not sure how well the star system will work, hence the human factor at the last stage. This was the fastest way to get this contest launched so we’ll see how it goes. The contest idea spawned from some of the staff and sponsors about 2 weeks before we launched it.
One thing I’d like to add in regards to Zuda. In my personal feeling the idea to help promote independent work was great. One thing we’ve learned through all of this is that the popularity contest doesn’t work. The Fabler.com isn’t and won’t be a contest driven site at all. Though we may offer contest, and other programs to encourage creators, and readers to use our site, the current contest is just an incentive. Fabler Comics as a company is here to stay which means we offer and plan to offer much more than a couple of chances to win some nifty prizes.
Max: As I mentioned at the start, part of your site plan is the roll out of a POD (product on demand) service.
Another question that come from a fellow pro was, if we give you unlimited rights to use our work for marketing, one would assume part of the marketing could be a demonstration of the POD tie in at some point?
IE: If we upload a story, the concern was have we given you the right to print your comic as much as you want and as often as needed? The hypothetical brought up was the fear that you could list the entries as free downloads as a part of the marketing plan. Charging for their print
and delivery service ensuring that you make money, while creators
potentially get nothing.
Pretty scary scenario, though charging customers for marketing material does not seem like the best marketing promo – this came from a pretty conservative and cautious creator. But what protects creators from that kind of situation? Are there words in the agreement that counter that, or is this a loophole possibly? How would you address that?
Bruno: There are two questions that need to be addressed.
For this contest that’s what the “Official Contest Rules” legal says. I refer to my earlier statement about not biting the hand that feeds us. The point is to allow us to promote the contest with the option of using some of that submitted work to help make the contest successful.
This includes banner ad campaigns, posters etc. What I’d like to state for the record is that Fabler Comics’ thefabler.com was created to enable independent creators in an industry that’s forcing them in most cases to conform to the way of life of being ruled by monopolies. The real question is will we offer your comics as free downloaded PDF’s? No, or print x number of copies and peddle them for free in San Diego this year or next to show off our quality of print? Definitely not.
As we not only respect the hard work and effort that creators put into creating the stories and products that put us in business, but also look forward to the future growth of the indie comics industry.
The second is submitting your comic for print or web hosted.
It doesn’t make sense for us to mass produce a product of your comic where there’s no guarantee of sale which is currently how the comics industry works. Print 100k units sell them to retailers, then retailers pray that they can liquidate the inventory. That business isn’t sustainable for long and it’s a guessing game on how much to invest in manufacturing units. Though I will add, and this is another conversation on how we address the collectability of the comics we manufacture, that the current industry model does allow for high consumer sale. I mean, look at how much money exchanges hands when 130k people come to San Diego, 40k in Toronto, or 18k in Calgary for comic conventions. Yesterday, I spent about $150 USD on out of print Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass and Nemesis series.
For each product that is sold, manufactured and shipped to buyers through our direct to market services by retailers and fans, you as the creators get paid. We also will limit the number of total orders available in each print run to a product, rather than flood the market with potential overstock inventory. So that there isn’t a flood of your product on the market, which is why many retailers are in the current state that they are in due to over stock they can’t liquidate.
And it’s better for our business that way, it helps us track where products are located in the market place (future functionality of the platform).
Max: So that means customers on the site, and retailers, can only order X numbers of books at a time? What sort of X are we talking about? And what happens if a book is really successful and people want more than X?
Bruno: No no. If a retailer feels that they can sell 1000 of the same product at their location, than let them take that risk. Our system works with them to track that inventory. Let me explain. Every product available for print on the site is limited to a max of 2500 units per printing.
When a product goes live, all 2500 units are considered virtual inventory as they don’t currently exist but can be manufactured on demand directly to comic fans should they order.
Now, let’s say 1000 of these virtual units get ordered by retailers. That leaves 1500 units left available for online POD. Retailers registered on thefabler.com can track all inventory purchased and stocked in their stores.
So let’s say that the remaining 1500 units are sold, and 10 more get ordered.
Between us and our retailers, if there is tangible inventory out in the market from retailers, we are setting up a program for them so that they can liquidate that inventory without having to sell it in their stores.
This way before a comic products hit’s a second printing, all units in the marketplace will be liquidated including those from retail stores.
Max: So…your going to have inventory system that lets retailers trade units to meet local need? Does that continue after a book has been ordered and is in a store? Kind of a swap/buyback/return? Or do you mean they can sell their stock via your site?
Bruno: The inventory system keeps track of all units in all stores. Stores currently will not be able to swap units back and forth. Yes, we allow the retailers the ability to track their sold and available units in their stores which allows us to maintain a constant database of what is out there on the market. If they can help us help them, than we can liquidate their inventory even if they have difficulty in their local market simply by a fan purchasing a product that is no longer virtually available, but available in a store regardless of where it or the fan is located. It’s a twist on the whole mail order thing which not all comic retail stores can afford that infrastructure. The process follows suite where the retailer is then given an email notification, slips the particular comic product in our pre-postage paid packaging, and away to the fan it goes. We then send that retailers any moneys earned this way just the same as if they were to sell it in their stores themselves.
Bruno: Getting back to your hypothetical; Regarding the legal jargon specifically for this contest, the term “unlimited” is correct.
ED: Actually i only found one use of the word unlimited in the terms, and it was not to do with rights. Maybe `irrevocable` was what was meant? -Max
Each Entrant grants to Fabler Comics Inc., an irrevocable, royalty free, fully paid, worldwide, nonexclusive license to use (for Fabler Comics Inc. marketing purposes only), review, assess, and otherwise analyze its Entered Comic in connection with the Contest.
But thefabler.com was created with (what we hope are) the best interests of creators in mind, amateur and pro alike. We may, from time to time ask to use a creators products for promotion and marketing but only at the consent of those creators. Again our mantra at Fabler Comics is and always will be to be on the side of the creators.
We do our best to listen to their needs and concerns and our intent is never to act in a way detrimental to the success that can be gained from using our services. I fully understand that we won’t be able to please everyone all the time, but we`ll do our best.
We do have big plans for the site, for the services we plan to offer independents and for our own Fabler Comics line in the future.
So we`re in it for the long haul. It’s definitely not in our interests then to burn ourselves at the stake by tossing a million copies or even 3, of a comic to the public with our logo on it just to promote ourselves for whatever reason without the creator giving us say so.
While we are asking for the right to use uploaded content for promotion, If you read the legal on the site itself, you will retain your full copyright, own your work, and our use is totally non-exclusive. That gives you a lot of say in what happens to your work. It gives us permission to work with you, not do whatever we want.
A case example: Early on when we were setting up in 2009, Ramone Perez of TX let us use some of his Kukuburi comic as a sample, a promotional and marketing tool while we were touring the east coast last year. I think I might have shown you a copy yes? That book had only 10 units printed as per our agreement with Mr. Perez. We later requested additional print rights for 500 units of which we’d sell on his behalf and he respectfully declined as he had other plans for the story. Those 10 in existence are still the only ones in production today. The scale may vary for a project we`re helping to publish proper, but essentially that`s exemplary of our promise.
So will there be a POD tie in for something you upload? Quite possibly, but anything of yours that is produced for marketing purposes will be met and handled carefully and only with your say so and willing involvement. You would be contacted, probably a personal email request by me, before your comic sees anything other than your original intent – in this instance to be entered for this contest.
That’s actually why we created The Sundry Seven (link). So we can showcase our own stories with our own services without impeding other creators. Again much of that is to be seen and actions in my opinion
speak louder than words.
As for digital distribution, I can’t comment with too much depth regarding our business plans, we have no plan to use PDF, or offer digital distribution-download any one’s product at this time.
And regarding the POD service; at no time will we ever charge a customer, retailer, cousin, dog, or anyone for your product without you as the creator being paid.
Max: I think for myself next thing I’d like to see would be a sample of one of my own books, will that be possible very soon?
Bruno: Yes. We launch this Saturday, July 24th 2010. Currently for beta Standard Comic Book format size in soft cover Saddle Stiched and Perfect Bound binding types are available only. Product materials and finish choices for the moment are limited as we are still working kinks out with our process and gauging market.
If you send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org we can send a sample package for your review and feedback upon request.