Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Pubs Biz

Print wonks and friends curious about how publishing works: this article, "No One Buys Books," summarizes good and interesting information that emerged from Penguin Random House's recent attempt to buy Simon & Schuster. Among the bullet points:

--In one year, out of 58,000 titles published, 90% sold fewer than 2000 copies.

--In the same year, 50% sold fewer than 12 copies. Read that again: Half of all books sold less than a dozen. 

[EDITED: In comments on Facebook, author Rebecca Solnit questioned this number. Surely just the author's relatives alone would account for a dozen sales! The figure came from the Department of Justice as part of its antitrust action but nobody knows how they arrived at it. One industry expert says the percentage of books that sold fewer than a dozen copies is more like 15%. Either way, it's a big, sad number.]

--Out of every 100 books published, 35 are profitable. 

--Most books don't earn back their advance against royalties, meaning that the money an author receives at the beginning of a project is probably all they'll ever get. 

--Publishers are very hit-driven, looking for the million-selling unicorn. The problem is, it's very hard to tell in advance which those will be, so they place a lot of bets on books and authors that turn out to be duds. Penguin Random House said that the top 4% of titles drive 60% of their profitability.

--The closest thing to a sure bet are big names like John Grisham and James Patterson, as well as celebrities, musicians, and sports stars, but even they can surprisingly tank. Singer Billie Eilish's book sold 64,000 copies in its first eight months, which would be a fantastic number for me or most authors but a big disappointment if you're a publisher expecting Eilish's 97 million Instagram followers to pick up a copy.

--A publisher's backlist of old books can be a gold mine. Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar has been on the bestseller list for 19 years. 

MY TWO CENTS: All of this matches my observations and experience, and none of it surprises me. If anything, I'd say the situation is more dire in my graphic novel niche.

I won't discuss my sales numbers, I figure that's between me and my publisher, but I am happy to report that each of my books has sold more than 2000 copies, so I'm in the top tenth percentile already. Yay me?

Most of my books have earned out their advances, such that I get a modest royalty check a couple times a year. One of my books never will, so I'll never see another dime from it. Yay me again?

It's certainly possible to be an enormously successful graphic novelist. Dav Pilkey and Raina Telgemeier do very well for themselves. My publisher, Abrams, puts out my friend Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and I have no doubt that his 300 million copies sold make it possible for Abrams to take risks on books they might not otherwise, including maybe mine.

Don't write books thinking you're going to get rich; don't write books thinking you'll support even a lower-middle-class lifestyle. I began Mom's Cancer as a webcomic 20 years ago, and Abrams published it in 2006. If you divide the money I made from four books, plus random short comics for anthologies and such, over the past 18 to 20 years of what I'd call professional authorship, I earned WAY less than minimum wage. During much of that time, I had a day job; during that ENTIRE time I had a supportive spouse who had a good job with benefits. That's the dirty little secret of how most writers survive.

The numbers are discouraging. As they say about most people in most arts, the best reason to do it is because it's simply something you must do to have a happy, fulfilling life whether the money follows or not.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Fred Weisel

Here's a good article from our local newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, about a friend of mine. I worked with Fred Weisel (or as I know him better, "Jonas," because he's a fancy writer with different pen names he uses for different purposes) in a small science-writing firm, where he was my boss and editor. 

He was one of the best editors I've ever had, one who could not only instantly spot the problem in something you'd written but knew exactly how to fix it. Since that company went out of business--gosh, more than 20 years ago!--our careers have followed similar arcs as freelance science writers and then as book authors. We still get together for lunch every couple of months to compare notes and gripe about our publishers (kidding, Charlie!). There aren't many people I can talk shop with and he's my favorite.

The hook of the article is that Jonas, who writes mysteries set in our local Wine Country, recently won the prestigious Nero Award for Best American Mystery Novel of the Year! He beat bestselling authors with big publishers who actually have marketing budgets. For an obscure author with a small independent publisher, it's an astonishing accomplishment. If there's any justice, he won't be obscure for long.

Jonas told me one of my very favorite stories about being a writer. I'll give the short version but his is better. In his first book, Jonas had one character kill another with a grape knife, a short curved blade used in vineyards to harvest wine grapes. But he wasn't sure if that would actually work, so he went to the hardware store to buy one. 

"Odd time of year to buy a grape knife," said the clerk, making conversation. "Oh, I'm not harvesting grapes," said Jonas. "I just want to see if you could use it to kill someone." The clerk's face went ashen as he slowly backed away, and Jonas was in the parking lot before he realized why. 


Friday, April 19, 2024

Enterprise Ahoy!

The 3-foot studio model of the starship Enterprise today, as discovered in an abandoned storage unit, a little worse for wear.

This is the feel-good story of the decade for me and what I imagine is a very small subset of my friends.

When the pilot episode for the original Star Trek series was shot in 1965, the starship Enterprise was a 3-foot-long model. The better-known 11-foot model, which is now on display at the Smithsonian, was built later, when the series was picked up for production.

The 3-foot Enterprise was used some in the early days, including the title "Swoosh" shots shown throughout the series, but was eventually retired and ended up on Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's desk, where it remained until 1979, when Roddenberry loaned it to the studio making "Star Trek The Motion Picture" and it vanished.

After its days as a working prop, the model graced the desk of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry until it disappeared in 1979. One way the modern experts authenticated the rediscovered model was matching the wood grain of the display base seen in this photo.

Nobody knew where it was for 45 years. Had it been stolen, lost, destroyed? One rumor was that Roddenberry's son, Gene Jr., nicknamed "Rod," had thrown it into a swimming pool. It was a cosmic mystery: Where was the original Enterprise?

I don't want to brag, but I always had a pretty good idea what had happened to it, and I knew how it would eventually turn up. I figured it would surface as soon as the guy who in 1979 said, "Hey, this is cool, I'll take it home!" died, and his survivors had no idea what to do with it. 

I think I was pretty close. Several weeks ago, under circumstances that remain murky, the model turned up in an abandoned storage unit. Someone bought the contents, innocently listed the model on eBay, and Trekkies went nuts. A crack team of Star Trek model experts, people who'd worked on the TV shows and movies, authenticated it. It was the real deal. 

The model with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in early publicity photos for Star Trek.

It had also taken some wear and damage; one of the experts speculated that it had been dropped at some point. The two long cylindrical engines have a noticeable sag, which brought a smile to the face of everyone who'd built the Enterprise plastic model kit as a child, because it was nearly impossible to keep those things straight. Turns out it was pretty tricky on the real one, too!

The 3-foot model also had a cameo in the Star Trek episode "Requiem for Methuselah," in which Leonardo daVinci (yes, that one) shrank the ship and everyone in it down to a handy desktop size. Not one of the better episodes.

In recent days, all the parties have worked out a deal to return the model to Rod, who remembered seeing it around the house as a child. Rod has vowed to have it repaired, restored, and displayed for the public to appreciate it. Maybe at the Smithsonian next to its larger sibling?

For fans of the original Star Trek and its creators, particularly the brilliant Matt Jefferies who designed the Enterprise and established the look and feel of 60 years of Treks that followed, it's a happy day. Kill the fatted tribble! The prodigal starship was lost and is found! The Enterprise has come home.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Surveyor 3

Pete Conrad at Surveyor 3, with Apollo 12's lunar module in the background. That part sticking up next to Conrad is the video camera, which he and Bean unbolted from the lander and took back home with them...

Today is the anniversary of one of my favorite Space Age events. On April 17, 1967, the unmanned Surveyor 3 successfully landed on the Moon, captured some images, and did some science. Although it was a scientific and engineering triumph, that's not what makes it one of my favorites.

Two and a half years later, Apollo 12 landed about 600 feet (200ish meters) from Surveyor 3, and astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean ambled over for a look. That was not a coincidence. 

With Apollo 11, NASA would have been happy to land anywhere flat, smooth, and on the Moon. Neil Armstrong piloted his lunar module some distance from the planned landing spot, but since that spot was littered with boulders nobody had any problem with it. With Apollo 12, they wanted to see how close they could get to a pinpoint target: Surveyor 3. Pretty close, it turned out. 

As part of their mission, Bean and Conrad detached Surveyor 3's video camera and brought it back to Earth so NASA could study the effects of 2.5 years of lunar exposure on metal, electronic components, etc. That camera is now in the National Air and Space Museum, where I paid my respects last month. If you look closely, you'll see small chunks cut out of the metal housing where NASA took samples to analyze.

...Where it resides in the National Air and Space Museum so I could take this photo of it! Notice the rectangular bites taken out of it--by NASA, not metal-eating Moon monsters.

I just find something very human and romantic about casting a note in a bottle into the ocean and then tracking it down years later to see how it's doing. I think it's one of the coolest things people have done in space.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Horses Lie

On a main road a few miles from my house sits a horse stable and riding arena, where I was delighted to see this sign appear several months ago. Finally had the opportunity to take a photo tonight.

There are many stories contained in this sign: The concerned citizens who think they're seeing a veterinary emergency. The 911 operators tired of taking calls about dead horses. The stable hands tired of having sheriff’s deputies roll up to check on the dead horses. The old equestrians rolling their eyes at city slickers who think horses only sleep standing up. A lot had to happen before the stable decided to pay for and put up a sign. 

And the fact that it should read "lie" instead of "lay" is just the chef's-kiss cherry atop the sundae. This sign is perfect exactly as it is. 

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Talking Graphic Meds and Mom's Cancer at 20

My class. Faces are blurred because I didn't ask their permission to post a photo.

I did a talk and workshop for a small group of med students taking a course on Medical Humanities and Ethics at Stanford University today. Everybody made a comic about a health-related subject, after which--by the powers vested in me by mostly me--I dubbed them Practitioners of Graphic Medicine quod erat demonstrandum. They made some genuinely good comics.

Mom's Cancer is about 20 years old now. I did the webcomic in 2004-2005 and Abrams published the book in 2006. I am astonished and gratified that not only is my family’s story still in print but that it is taught in medical schools, and once in a while I get to talk about it and the qualities of comics that, I think, make them a unique storytelling medium. The fact that I give those talks to med students who were toddlers when I made the book is its own weird, unsettling reward. 

But seriously: if you'd told me 20 years ago that I'd be lecturing at medical schools in 2024, I would have believed you less than if you'd said I'd be living on the Moon. With a jetpack.

By the way, if you ever take a header off an electric scooter and land on the sidewalk like a sack of cement, do it at a medical school. One poor unfortunate soul did that right in front of me today. I was first on the scene, but by the time I asked, "Hey, are you all right?" we were surrounded by eight people in surgical scrubs doing a full exam. I left him in better hands, and later saw him limping along with his busted scooter. Glad I could help.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Trina Robbins

With Trina at the Cartoon Art Museum in 2023.

I'm very sorry to hear of the death of cartoonist Trina Robbins and add my condolences to the many that her partner, artist Steve Leialoha, is surely receiving now. I didn't know her well but we met and spoke a few times--including at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, where I think she and Steve made a point to show up for every special event, and once when I interrupted their breakfast at San Diego Comic Con for a lovely brief chat. 

Trina and Steve when they came to see me talk about A Fire Story at the Cartoon Art Museum in 2019.

Trina had an interesting and unusual career, successfully transitioning from Underground comix in the 1960s and 1970s to mainstream comics, notably Wonder Woman, in the 1980s until now, while keeping a foot in both worlds and remaining well-respected in both. Not many creators could pull that off. 

She was just one of those people whose personality was a beacon of light: happy to be there, happy to meet you, happy to see you again, happy to discover a comic she'd never seen before. I don't know if Trina was naturally humble or just mastered the conversational trick of asking the other person about themselves, but she always reflected the spotlight onto others. 

I've met a number of old pros who welcomed me to the comics community with open arms, treating me like a peer even when they'd never heard of me or seen my work. It's a classy quality that the most accomplished and secure creators pull off with grace. Trina will always be at the top of my list.

A gallery of just some of Trina's work. She had a huge bibliography in both fiction and historical nonfiction.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Asked and Answered

Snappy, accurate answers to actual headlines I found in newspapers and online this morning, to save you the trouble of reading the accompanying articles:

Q: "Did That Earthquake Have Anything to Do With the Solar Eclipse?"--Slate

A: No.

Q: "Were the Quakes in Santa Rosa (Calif.) and Taiwan Related?"--Santa Rosa Press Democrat

A: No. 

Q: "Why Was the New Jersey Earthquake Felt Several Hundred Miles Away?"--Washington Post

A: Because it was an earthquake. That's what they do.

Q: "Is A.I. Already Taking Jobs?"--New York Times

A: Yes.

Q: "Buy Groceries at WalMart Lately?"--Associated Press

A: No.

Q: "Want an Elephant?"--Washington Post

A: No. 

Q: "Why Is Technology Mean to Me?"--New York Times

A: It's mean to everyone, columnist David Brooks. You're not special. 

Q: "Will Animals Act Weird During the Total Solar Eclipse?"--Associated Press

A: Some. Your cat will sleep through it.

Q: "Michael Douglas as Ben Franklin?"--Washington Post

A: Sure. Why not?

Q: "How Much Would You Pay to Make Sure you Never Sawed Off a Finger?"--New York Times

A: $10.

Q: "How Well Do You Remember the Week?"--CNN

A: Frankly, much of it is a blur.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Covid Shmovid!

Covid Update, Day 5 and Final: Though still testing positive--the line was so bold this morning it almost felt sarcastic--I feel about 91% back to normal so I'm calling myself over it. Will continue to follow CDC guidelines and take extra care around vulnerable folks. Unless I take a dramatic dive, this'll be the last I have to say about my bout with the 'Vid. Thanks, everyone, for your encouragement and caring emojis!