Selecting a Publisher

Any publisher of graphic narrative can be an interesting object of gatekeeping research, but it all depends on what one wants to know about the comics publishing industry. In countries with a well-developed comics industry (such as Japan, the USA, South Korea, the UK, France, Belgium, Spain, and Italy), there are many publishers of graphic narrative, often specializing in particular genres, types, or readers. Depending upon the publisher’s profile and catalog, the organization may use quite different criteria in the gatekeeping process and in how they deal with authors. It might be interesting to analyze more than one firm in the same field of publishing—for example in my own research, where I chose to study the two most important Francophone publishers in Belgium, both of which were largely targeting at the same young audience with quite similar publication formats.

The Ideal Situation

In an ideal world, the researcher would be allowed access to all the projects that enter a publishing house and to all the phases of the selection process (for instance, being allowed to directly observe how gatekeepers decide upon or discuss submissions). This ideal situation is, however, very unlikely to happen because, if there is one aspect that a publisher does not really like to share with the rest of the world, and especially with their competitors, it is the way they organize and conduct their selections. The selection is indeed crucial for the survival of the whole organization. Finding the best talents that fit within the objectives of the company and helping talent to develop is, by and large, considered to be a company secret. As usual, creativity is a rather scarce commodity and certainly not one that you as a publisher, and therefore an investor, want to share with your competitors. Furthermore, publishers will also try to commit talents that they have found and fostered to their own company; however, as in any relationship, sometimes the relationships become troubled and artists may venture into adventures with other publishers.

Second, contrary to the gatekeeping process of news items by mass media, a comics project is a much more personal project, one that generally demands a much greater investment from the creator than a news item does of a reporter. In Francophone culture, a comics artist is generally able to complete an album of 46 pages in eight to ten months (five pages a week). So, if a project is accepted, it means that an author has to spend at least eight months at work. Since the creation of comics is a sensitive subject (it is not only a personal creation, but also a matter of income), it is thus understandable that neither comics publishers nor the artists themselves are generally very welcoming to a researcher wishing to scrutinize the process. Also, in my own gatekeeping research, I was not allowed to attend the meetings where editors discussed and decided on the projects.

All of these reasons make it rather implausible that a publisher will allow a researcher to have complete access to all the phases of the gatekeeping process. Nevertheless, while the input phase may remain quite secret to outsiders, the output (what is published) is quite easily accessible to the researcher because it is completely public. But even in this final stage, various aspects are generally not shared willingly—such as contract details between publisher and author or circulation figures—except when the comic is a bestseller, in which case publishers generally like to boast about its enormous success.

For an ideal gatekeeping study, data concerning these aspects are important:

  • • number of submissions received, number of titles published, circulation figures, and the various times a work is republished and/or adapted to other media
  • • an organizational chart of the gatekeeping process
  • • the criteria that the organization claims to be using, as well the criteria that are used in practice

The number of submissions, in the case of large publishers, can be quite large. For instance, in the field of US newspaper strips, one of the main syndicates, King Features, state on their website (as of July 19, 2015) that they receive thousands of submissions each year but only a few of those are eventually chosen for syndication. The organizational chart of a publishing company is equally important. Not all publishing divisions and departments are significant, as the focus will be, quite evidently, on the editorial teams and related colleagues or superiors. There is an enormous variety of companies, ranging from companies run by one person to globalized conglomerates with numerous divisions. The size of the company will obviously influence the gatekeeping process, and one can expect that the bigger the firm, the more people will be involved in this process. So, it is important to figure out the levels at which the gatekeeping process is conducted, which members of staff are relevant to the process, and how they are interconnected. This will very likely influence the modes in which such a publishing house operates and performs. Furthermore, in addition to the formal organization, there is always a degree of informal organization, the interlocking social structure that governs how people work together in practice. The informal organization can blend with the formal one, but it might also carry potential disadvantages and problems, such as role conflicts or resistance to change. Finally, there may be differences between the criteria that gatekeepers believe or pretend that they are using and the criteria that they actually use.

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