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Bringing Business into the Picture: Round Table Companies’ Graphic Novels

from THE LONG TALE, illus. Shane Clester

from THE LONG TALE, illustrated by Shane Clester

If you’ve read Rachel Stark’s first post about the closure of Tokyopop in May 2011, (and are looking forward to her next installment), then you know we’ve been thinking a lot about the state of Graphic/Comic publishing business in the US and around the world. A large part of Rachel’s investigation is into whether we’re currently at a turning point with graphic novels, and if so, from where we’re turning.

Others in my age bracket might remember both the manga boom of the early 2000’s and the US publication of Persepolis in 2000 as being seminal events of their formative relationships with books. My brother was solidly a manga kid…all the way to his current Japanese minor in college. I, in turn, remember how the emotional impact Persepolis had on my high school best friend drove me to pick up (and purchase) the first “comic” I’d ever touched in my life. Both are examples of a generation growing up with a new conception of the emotional and intellectual weight a “comic” could carry. Definitions were expanding for what a graphic story could be even as we watched.

A decade later seems a reasonable time to check in on the art form. Rachel’s looking at the macro-view, and doing a great job of exploring things both globally and chronologically. But when a publisher of  “business and leadership graphic novels” contacted me, the chance for a more detailed “case study” seemed to be presenting itself. At BEA, I got a bit of

Corey Michael Blake (left) and David Cohen (right) with their debut list at BEA 2011

coaching from Rachel over a criminally expensive lunch, (thanks for that, Javits) and later that afternoon sat down to talk with Corey Michael Blake, President, and David Cohen, Chief Strategist,  about the work they’re doing at Round Table Companies (RTC).

 

The first question I asked Blake and Cohen was how they knew they could push the graphic novel envelope into the realm of professional and business development books. What made them think people seeking professional guidance would pick up a comic book? Or that a graphic connoisseur would touch an illustrated version of The Long Tail? The overlap in readerships doesn’t exactly appear dramatic.

“It wasn’t that we set out to make graphic novels,” says Blake. “It was more that we had been working with clients on creating story-driven business books for a long time, and graphic adaptations seemed like the next narrative step.” RTC were packaging story/character-driven titles on business and professional topics, but after difficulty convincing potential partners that the projects had value—“there’s no precident for demonstrating whether this will sell,” chorused the publishers and agents—RTC founded and began publishing as Writers of the Round Table Press.

Since 2009, RTC’s creative director, whose background is in comics and graphic novels, had been pushing Blake and Cohen to take their business/leadership narratives into the realm of graphic novels. Both men have backgrounds in acting, and specifically in film—forms of narrative that depend heavily on the visuals. Whatever it was that finally brought their business narratives “into the picture,” the first titles from SmarterComics were released and on a not-too-shabby number of shelves in April 2011 (they’re distributed by National Book Network). As of the end of May 2011, they had shipped 20,000 copies, with the largest orders going into Hudson News stores. Hudson captures impulse, non-categorized-yet-with-an-interesting-slant, special market cohort of book buyers. Barnes & Noble hasn’t been so eager—Blake hypothesizes because they don’t know where to shelve comic books for high-flying executives. Whether or not that’s B&N’s real concern, it points to the strength that genre-busting books—such as How to Master the Art of Selling: The Graphic Novel—have when the print book market is undergoing such tectonic shifts. (But say “Wild West,” and you may just be banned from this blog).

It’s not just that bookstores need more special merchandise; it’s that print books acting like merch are more likely to succeed right now, too. Rather than risking straddling audiences and ending up face down with a face full of no-audience-at-all, perhaps SmarterComics’ genre-muddle is more likely to get physically picked up because it’s so weird.

With “unexpected” as their guiding star, RTC reports blazing a trail ahead toward lists full of more daring art (possibly in color); a middle school curriculum based on Mi Barrio, their graphic novel version of From the Barrio to the Boardroom, coordinated by literacy-via-graphic-novel expert Dr. Katie Monnin; and, also from Mi Barrio, a reality TV pilot currently in production (no, I don’t quite understand how that works). Oh, and they’re selling sub-rights like gangbusters in such countries as Turkey, Indonesia, and Thailand…and any other places that just can’t seem to get enough of professional development in comic-book form.

And!!!

If you share Turkey, Indonesia, and Thailand’s enthusiasm, then you’re in luck. We have 3 of RTC’s first titles to give away to one lucky winner at the end of the month. Send an email with the subject “RTC” to [email protected], and we’ll draw one name at the end of the month. Exactly what amount of “POW!”, “BLAM-o!” and “kaZAM!” these comics will add to your career trajectory, though, only you can determine for sure.

 

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