Pond Life by Martin Conaghan #12 – Putting Insomnia To Bed

No advice, examples, tutorials, anecdotes or sneak previews in this special edition of Pond Life, just a cautionary tale and some setting straight of the record.

Rich offered me the opportunity to shed some light on the recent news about the collapse of Insomnia Publications and how it affected me directly, but I feel it would be undignified to keep dragging the whole thing out in public, and the people concerned have been given as much information as possible anyway.

I won’t make any corny jokes about Insomnia losing sleep, or falling asleep at the wheel – or anything like that, but I will say this: the manner of your demise comes is not as important as to how you depart.

There’s been a lot of talk on blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other news websites about what happened to Insomnia Publications and Crawford Coutts; debates over sales of books, Crawford’s attitude to other publishers and creators – and his general business sense. Most of it is uninformed nonsense, based largely on hearsay, anecdotes and no known facts or logic. But life is like that, and I don’t personally hold it against anyone.

All I know is that I gave Insomnia Publications a script for a graphic novel about the serial killers Burke & Hare in 2008 that was subsequently illustrated by Will Pickering – and it sold. When I say “it sold”, I mean it sold well. I know this for a fact, because I have a statement of accounts for the first three months of sales from the book’s launch in October to the end of December 2010, and (thanks to a fortuitous quirk of fate) I also currently have in my possession all of the remaining stock of the first printing – so I know how many copies went out the door. It was well into profitability.

However, I received no money for any of the sales of the book in its printed format, or via digital downloads on the Sony PSP Comic Book Store – and I can’t speak for anyone else’s books published by Insomnia, but I know the figures were healthy for a start-up independent company who probably tried to run before it could walk.

I also worked as a volunteer editor on a historical imprint of books that was ticking along nicely until I stepped down due to Coutts referring to me as “unprofessional” because I had given a signed copy of my own book to the Comic Book Alliance for their fundraising auction (this was at an event that Coutts failed to attend, as scheduled). The books I was editing will hopefully see the light of day now that they’ve been released from their contractual obligation to Insomnia.

I gave advice, I pulled in contacts and publicised the company by attending numerous events and writing about it online, among other things.

A million different wrongs can bring about the demise of any small business, let alone a comic book publisher; cashflow is usually the biggest problem, or taking on too much work, in-fighting between stakeholders is another – but making poor business decisions, despite strong, helpful advice from experienced competitors will undoubtedly come back and haunt you.

All of these things happened to Insomnia Publications, and more.

Allow me to give you an example: last October, I opened talks with one of the top writers in the comic book industry regarding Insomnia reprinting one of their creator-owned projects that had not been in print since the early 1990s. When I say “top writer”, I don’t mean top 20 or top 10 – I mean top five, possibly even top two or three, depending on your tastes and the murky world of sales figures. The artist of the book was also enthusiastic about a reprint, and the whole project had a fantastic potential to sell in the thousands and put Insomnia well and truly on the map. All Insomnia needed to do was draft up a working agreement and get moving on it.

When I asked for copies of Insomnia’s current books to be sent to the prospective creative team, the response was: “We can’t afford to keep dishing out sample copies to people – but we could loan them a couple of copies of the books when we meet them – although we would have to get them back.”

I shit you not.

As a result, a deal was never agreed, and the book will probably now never see a reprint, due to lack of interest from the creative team. It’s a real pity, as I personally want to see the story reprinted.

I spoke to another publisher recently about the project, and his answer was: “I would have bitten the hand of you for that book – I would have even produced it at a loss just for the publicity”.

I could go on and on, but it wouldn’t fulfil any practical purpose, other than to serve as a bad example.

I can’t help but think if Coutts has just turned up at Bristol and honestly held his hands up, spelling out his business troubles, financial woes and pledging to do his best to get things back on track – albeit in a smaller form – then people would have been both forgiving and understanding. Hell, he would have probably survived on the goodwill that exists in this very small community alone. Failing that, a graceful resolution at the end – with a magnanimous gesture of giving people back the publishing rights to their work – would have sufficed.

Instead, what we have is a lesson in bad practice, disrespect, childish feet-stamping and the personal reputation of one Crawford Coutts completely in tatters. To trundle out a well-worn entertainment industry phrase: he’ll never work in this town again.

And that, as they say, is that.

One final thing: if you’re in any way interested, the creators who were left in Crawford’s wake have created an anthology title of short stories entitled ‘The Sleepless Phoenix’. You can pledge funds to it via KickStarter and all profits will go to the Comic Book Alliance, who provided helpful advice during the dark weeks when all seemed lost.

Martin Conaghan is a journalist and broadcaster at the BBC and a freelance comic book writer. The views expressed here are his own. He is also the writer of Burke & Hare.

Are you a small press publisher, writer or artist? Do you have something you think might be worthy of mention on Pond Life? If so, tell Martin about it at pondlife@copydesk.co.uk

You can request to follow Martin at Facebook or Twitter.

About Rich Johnston

Chief writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. Father of two. Comic book clairvoyant. Political cartoonist.

twitter   facebook square   globe