Ten Years of Shakespeare Comic Books
Happy birthday! Shakespeare Comic Books are ten years old. The series was created out of a love of Shakespeare and a desire to make money. He would have approved, since he wrote to get rich and almost every record we have of him concerns money or business transactions of one kind or another. He died an immensely wealthy man - something rare for genius. Both Rembrandt and Mozart ended in poverty, which just goes to show that being dazzlingly brilliant isn't sufficient. You also need a good business brain.
When I started Shakespeare comic books, I lacked both dazzling brilliance and a good business brain. The former can be excused. Rembrandt, Mozart and Shakespeare are treasured rarities. The latter I have attempted to acquire. Over time, these are some of the things I have learnt about business:
Competition is healthy Capitalism thrives on competition, which speeds innovation. When I first produced the Shakespeare comic books, they were almost the only books in the UK offering Shakespeare in cartoon format. Needing to restrict production costs and produce titles at high speed, the illustrations were sometimes a little rushed and lacking polish.
This didn’t matter initially, but over time, more and more competing books arrived on the market. Almost all were highly illustrated and full colour. Most were rubbish, but attractively packaged. Producing full colour versions of the plays became imperative. Two have been published so far, both in collaboration with digital colourist Phill Evans. His gifts are immense. Colour has transformed the comic books. Our next work together, Macbeth, will hit new heights. Thanks, capitalism.
Marketing is guesswork Over the decade I have wasted an enormous amount of money on marketing and publicity. I am not alone. Mega corporations spend billions on advertising campaigns through which people fast forward, screen out or otherwise ignore. What advertising agencies sell best is the notion that advertising works. Clearly some campaigns succeed fabulously, but many fail - when was the last time you bought a Rolex, changed your shampoo or tried a different beer based on an advert? Marketing is essential, but it’s mostly trial and error. Over the years I’ve learnt to be better targeted, but it’s not an exact science - and I still haven’t bought a Rolex.
Diversify markets and products The Shakespeare Comic Books were originally created for students sitting Key Stage 3 SATs exams in Year 9. When these were abolished without warning in 2008, sales collapsed.
Timing is always everything. Pulled by competition and pushed by a need to diversify and find new markets I had already decided to produce the books in full colour, in order to reach a wider audience. Another few years of sales growth would have made the necessary investment in colour possible.
Yet with our key market lost and income slashed, production has been slow. The business is being re-built, new markets established. In the meantime, I have diversified into work on a range of non-Shakespeare projects. The Bard hasn’t been abandoned, however, and the next few years will see a new selection of titles that should include King Lear, Hamlet, As You Like It and Julius Caesar – all in full colour.
Appearance matters Steve Jobs liked to present himself as an LSD inspired ex-hippie who just happened to head up the most powerful corporation in the world. When unveiling his latest product, he would do so in jeans and T shirt. His gift was for marketing. He knew the importance of presentation and that everything from your logo and website to your stationery or choice of footwear says something about your company. You can bet that before making a presentation he didn’t just get up and throw on the clothes he had lying in the corner. His style may have looked casual, but it’s message was calculated.
I work on the assumption that when your company is globally dominant with an income greater than that of many moderately sized nations, you can wear what you like. Until then, I think it probably best to smarten up.
Watch the bottom line When The Tempest was printed in 2007 before the crash, I ordered a print run of 10,000 copies at 50p per unit. WhenRomeo and Juliet was published in 2010, it had a print run of 1,000 at £1.50 per unit. The margin per book was thus dramatically cut. Borrowing to pay for a larger print run was an option, but I prefer not to incur debt. This might seem unadventurous, but I don’t really care.
Right now, almost all developed nations are busy cutting vital public services in order to pay off debts acquired in fat years, when credit was cheap and bankers considered themselves masters of the universe. Canada is a rare exception. Canada is also ridiculed as dull. When it comes to finance, I would rather be dull and solvent than exciting and bankrupt.
Always read the small print and beware sharksThe commercial world isn’t greatly different to the world outside work. Most people are decent and trustworthy and just want to go about their business without fuss. Occasionally you meet someone with whom you get on particularly well. If you’re unlucky you may also meet somebody who would strip you of your wife, children, house, soft furnishings and cat if it enabled them to make money. These people are to be avoided. Unfortunately, they often appear as if they are decent and trustworthy and just want to go about their business without fuss. If you’re very unlucky, they may also appear to be somebody with whom you get on particularly well. Good luck if you meet one. And always read the small print.
Keep up with technology When I went to work for book designers DP Press in 1981, manuscripts were generally presented in illegible longhand and were typeset on IBMs and ACMs before going to a drunken proof reader to be checked for grammar, punctuation and spelling. Proofs were returned to the typesetters for corrections to be reset, and finished galleys then printed and sent to the studio where they were pasted into page by designers using scalpel and light box.
When I began publishing the comic books in 2003, I had a website and email, but most marketing was done through direct mail shots, advertising in journals and at education shows. Much of it is now social media. I make efforts to keep up, aware that tomorrow texts, tweets and blogs will be obsolete, superseded by a brief new technology. Change is here to stay. I’d just be grateful if it could slow down a bit so I could catch up.
Teamwork is everything Like most artists and writers, I spend almost every day alone in my studio. But although I edit the Shakespeare, write the modern English translation and produce illustrations in isolation, the comic books are far from a solitary work. Hundreds of people are involved one way or another, but there is a core on whom I depend.
These include Jane Hadlow who puts the comic books together on her Mac, manages the accounts, designs whatever needs designing along with her husband Ray and offers advice and guidance. Phill Evans provides the brilliant digital colouring. My brother, Andrew Greaves, has offered constant support and encouragement from the outset and has spent hours helping with the modern English translations, as have Victoria Gemmell, Ian Evans and Mo Olivero. Kathy Benzinski proof read several of the books, so thanks to her.
The books are warehoused and distributed by NRG Direct Mail in Shrewsbury. NRG is led by Nick Chavasse who seems to have unlimited energy and a great team. Claire Lawrence is currently responsible for the comic book side of his operation, but before her were Debbie Taylor-Williams and Carol Shuker and all have been equally wonderful.
Business adviser Tony Barrow gave invaluable help when I was starting the company and still phones to check how things are going. Esther Heasman is doing much to establish overseas markets for the books, hampered by a lack of colour titles, but Macbeth is on the way.
Steve Anderson has given significant help with IT and Rick and Julia Burne helped out with a succession of education shows in London. There are numerous other suppliers, printers, proof-readers, accountants, website builders and software engineers who have been part of the story, but particular thanks should go to Stella Robinson, late of DP Press who did so much to help when the company was founded, Sim Hadlow who was principal designer at the outset and of course to Sarah, Ellen, Harry, Rob and Jude who have been patient long enough.
Thanks too, to Mike Jensen. Mike is an American academic who writes on Shakespeare and popular media. We’ve never met, but he took an early interest in the comic books and has provided his own insight and encouragement over the years. He has capacious knowledge of Shakespeare and a network of friends in the US whose understanding of the Bard makes ours in the UK look amateurish.
Finally, massive thanks to William Shakespeare, without whom none of this would have been possible. Where there’s a Will, there’s a way…