How we choose biography subjects for our comics—
Sarah Palin? A no-brainer. Justin Bieber? I totally get that. But Betty White? Anne Rice? Olivia Newton John? So Mr. Publisher of biography comics, why did those titles get green lit? They seem out of place with the likes of Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, and George W. Bush.
And what about Joan of Arc or Jeannette Rankin or Amelia Earhart or Maya Angelou or Marie Curie, surely these are important biographies…surely more significant than Danica Patrick or the cast of the hit show “Glee.”
The cynical amongst you are going to shout, “Money, dang it!” And to a certain extent, you wouldn’t be far wrong, but also not completely right. There are hundreds of important people that are worthy of inclusion. In a perfect world, a biography on Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space) would generate equal or greater sales than one on Kristin Stewart. But it doesn’t.
Publishing, obviously, is not an altruistic business, but decisions of who to cover is not a blind sales grab either. To the contrary, there is a method behind the selection madness. And we look at a variety of input as to who we consider worthy of publication.
So first, let’s move the elephant out of the room. The featured subject has to be relevant now. Why? Because of the prospective sales. There are just more people who will buy a comic on Barack Obama than James K. Polk. As a smaller independent publisher, there is a certain threshold of sales needed to be met in pre-publication before we ever print a book. I’ve canceled books before they’ve ever see the light of day because pre-orders added up to less-than 600 copies. If that’s the case, no one wins. Not me, not my distributor, not the advertisers, not the author or artist. So yes, salability of a subject is an important concern.
Tangentially, before it clears the publishing hurdle, I have to ask does this person (featured subject) have enough crossover appeal to attract a non-traditional comic buying market. Comics target demographic is 14-30 year old males. Anything outside of that demographic is bonus gold. This was one of the reasons for the creation of the “Female Force” line of biography comics, which offers a broad examination of strong and influential women shaping modern history and culture; not exactly targeted to your 22-year old X-man fanatic. Someone like Charlaine Harris, author of the “True Blood,” books matched that criteria. She has a legion of followers. And someone like Caroline Kennedy has a storybook legacy that intrigues many others.
This brings me to the next item. Drama. Whether we are talking real life or fantastic fiction, conflict, in all of its forms, makes for a good story. What is it in this person’s life that made them extraordinary? How did they evolve into the notable personality they are today. Many of us know the early childhood troubles Oprah Winfrey overcame or how JK Rowling seemed to go from welfare to household name. Some stories obviously play out more dramatically than others, but identifying the dramatic elements is key in storyboarding a biography…or can their story be told in a unique or clever way. I especially like the Anne Rice bio where the “Interview with a Vampire” novelist is interviewed by the character Dracula.
We also look at the degree of influence they have had on their profession…we try not to focus on a flash in the moment. Someone like hero pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger has a great story in his heroic efforts to safely land Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. He has the character that makes for a great American story, but I gave his bio a pass because his notoriety revolves around a singular incident. On the other hand, Barbara Walters opened up television journalism for women and Nelson Mandela changed the African continent. Geez, but what about sparkly actor Robert Pattinson? Well, it’s not a foolproof system. But in my defense, that issue did do considerably well.
Other considerations are whether or not a featured subject will participate in the process or at least publicly acknowledge the effort. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, Olivia Newton John, a notable breast cancer survivor, not only participated, she gave me an exclusive interview regarding her experiences on which to base the comic book on. Ellen DeGeneres and Betty White got involved too. In return, we donated part of the proceeds of these books to their favorite charity.
I take input from my stable of authors on subjects they are interested in pursuing. That’s how Al Franken and Bill O’Reilly bios came to fruition. Then there is our comic book distributor. They have a keen ear and eye as to what has the possibility of succeeding in the marketplace. That’s how our Howard Stern bio came to be. Sometimes…agents seek me out and pitch me their clients. Can you imagine a Snooki or Heidi Montag book? I don’t think I can.
On the surface, it seems easy. Who is popular today? As we have become a more celebrity-obsessed and infused culture, the options are seemingly limitless. But it still comes down to does the person have an interesting story to tell. Not every book we publish is destined to be a best seller. In fact, the reason I choose some of the subjects is I know they will sell well (Bieber, Gaga, Stephenie Meyer). And those big sellers allow me to invest in riskier projects or biographies of more niche-oriented personalities.
Since we debuted our very first biography comic book in 2008, I have published more than 50 biography titles. Now there are 4 lines of biography titles, each oriented at a unique demographic. That’s 40 or so titles per year and that is a lot of personalities. So I guess, sooner or later I’ll get around to the James K. Polk bio…or that Sham-Wow guy.