Journal of the

"Ontology on the go!"

An Interview with David Allen

Founder and publisher of Plan 9 Publishing.

David Allen founded Plan 9 Publishing on an "Ed Wood budget" (i.e. shoestring) in 1996 so he could read the webcomic "Kevin and Kell" in book form. More than seven years and 88 titles later Plan Nine is still going strong and, with the publication in paper and pdf of Bev Harris' Black Box Voting, now has an important non-fiction title on its list. Mr. Allen very kindly gave editors Bauerle, Sutton and Mayerson this interview in January 2004.

Ellen Bauerle: Do you feel that your location -- not in New York, i.e. -- has had any effect on your editorial direction and interests? Are there aspects of your work that are made harder, or easier, by not being in "the center of the universe"? (or so my Manhattan-born spouse calls it).

David Allen: Well, the rent's a LOT cheaper, which certainly helps. Actually, I would go insane in New York, so it is good I am where I am. We're in the country. If things get too tense, I can go for a walk with the dog or watch the rabbits playing in the field.

As to an effect on my editorial views or interests, I can't say since I just wouldn't work in New York for any amount of money.

Laurel Sutton: As a small, independent publisher, do you feel more free to publish work well outside the mainstream? Is there anything you wouldn't publish in print that currently exists on the web? In general, do you feel that there are different constraints on content published on the web vs. on in books?

DA: Well, yeah, I get to decide what I publish, which is nice. I have one main criterion: Does it make me laugh? If it fails that test, it doesn't get a second look. The only restriction on what gets published is how many money-making titles I currently have. Like it or not, I have to have a certainly number of titles that pay the bills or its back to working for a soulless mega-corp.

There're plenty of things I wouldn't print that's on the web, but mostly because it's not my cup of tea or it doesn't "fit". Most of my titles are G/PG rated, not because I disapprove of "racier" stuff, but because I haven't found that much that is actually funny. There are a few exceptions, like Partially Clips, but it's rare.

As far as constraints are concerned, there are fewer restrictions on what appears on the Web than what appears in print, but that's mostly a matter of the production cost and the absence of the "third-party" between creator and reader. If you want to publish on the web you don't need a print shop, or an editor, or a publisher. You can just slap it up yourself and wait for traffic.

EB: I know other publishers, especially in specialty academic areas, who've made your model work -- print to fill the pre-orders and then some percentage on top for later orders. What other business advantages do you see that this gives you, in addition to solvency?

DA: Am I solvent? I better ask my accountant. Actually the main advantages are cash-flow and flexibility. If I don't know how a title will sell, I do a small run and scale up quickly if demand appears. Because I can now print as few as 100 books and turn a small profit I tend to keep all my titles in print.

LS: Are you making any money out of all this?

DA: I am paying the mortgage and drawing the occasional paycheck. This year there were a lot fewer paychecks due to the economy, but things are looking up a bit for 2004. As long as I can keep a roof over my head I'll stay in the biz.

EB: Have you had many dealings with "regular" publishers and their associations -- BEA, Publishers Weekly, etc. -- and if so, what are the things they don't understand about your list of titles and your publishing model?

DA: The greatest fun is dealing with the syndicates whose lawyers are mystified by my royalty structure. I have a two-tiered royalty: If we sell the book wholesale, we pay x, if we sell the book retail, we pay 2x. This concept seems to short-circuit the brains of syndicate lawyers. As to "regular publishers", I really don't run into them.

EB: If you run your materials on presses during slack time, what does that do your delivery schedules?

DA: It makes me plan carefully. Though I have lately begun expanding the number of printers I work with in order to have greater flexibility. The hardest printers to work with are my color printers in Hong Kong, since it can mean a 3-4 month production cycle.

EB: Why do you think people buy what they can get for free?

DA: Because balancing a laptop in the bathroom is tricky. Seriously, people still like the feel and smell of a book. It doesn't need batteries, cables, and you never get spammed. Also, there is a big difference between a comic at 72 dpi and a printed page at 600 dpi. A lot of on-line comics have very involved storylines, and even though the archive is online, it is faster to flip open a book and read than plow through an electronic archive.

LS: Do you think that web comix are just another extension of traditional (i.e., printed) comix? Or are they something else entirely?

DA: Both actually. All the strips started out mimicking newspaper strips, but as the artists learn more about the medium, they are able to do more with the art form. Sound, animation, color, crossovers, etc. are things that can be implemented on-line cheaply. Also, real-world events can be reflected in a strip more easily since there is no long production process between the creation of the strip and its delivery to the reader. An artists can change his mind about the direction of the story right up to the point of publication.

EB: Given that technical abilities among the young (younger than 21 years old) are growing, and that server speeds and net connections are growing faster, what do you think of the future of *printed* strips? Will they always be here in some form, or 50 years from now will they be a quaint artifact?

DA: I know it's fashionable in some circles to predict that all strips will be animated in the future, thanks to massive CPU power, wide pipes and powerful animation software, but I don't see it. At that point you stop being an artists and start being a writer. Director, producer, cinematographer, Foley guy, Best Boy and actor. Pretty soon, you have to start sleeping with yourself just to get a part in your own strip. Comic strips are pretty complicated and time consuming to produce now. You have to come up with a different gag every day and that can be grueling. There just isn't enough time in the day for one person to rise to that level of complexity. With that said, I think you will see some strips like that, but it will be a group effort. Of course, once you bring other people into the creative process, it is no longer one-person's vision.

Ginger Mayerson: Missed you at Comic-con in 2003. Are you doing any cons or have you given up on them?

DA: I like going, but con's like Comic-Con are very expensive. It costs thousands for booths, thousands to ship books across the country and back; and more money for hotel, air fare, food, truck rental etc. Once you get there, you have to compete with Hollywood studios and comic companies owned by conglomerate who can buy acres of space and trot out the talent to draw people into the booths. Kind of hard to make an impression when you are competing against companies with a half-million dollars to spend on one event. Going to cons is almost always a money-losing affair. You do it to meet your readers and show the flag with a hope of attracting new readers. Since this past year was abysmal as far as sales went, I couldn't justify going and concentrated instead on cons closer to home, or at least within driving distance.

GM: How did you, a webcomic book publisher, end up publishing Bev Harris' Black Box Voting?

DA: I met Bev when I was looking for someone to do PR for Plan Nine. While I was looking at her site I read all these articles she had written about the curious ownership of voting machine companies and how a US senator was a stockholder and former board member of one company that made voting machines in his state. Bev and I got to talking about this and I asked her if she planned a book. She said she had approached a few publishers, but most didn't understand the problem. Having been a systems engineer before I was a publisher and having written on these types of issues myself, I told her I'd do it, provided she didn't mind a comic company.

GM: What kind of response - sales, kudos, slanders, etc. - are you getting on this title?

DA: Lord, we have been called heroes by some folks and a threat to democracy by the voting officials. My favorite disparagement was by a Diebold spokesman who called us "Luddites". In my office I am within twenty feet of a dozen computers and make my living on the Web, so I am an unusual Luddite.

GM: You're the only guy I've ever seen make money selling in the real world what's in cyberspace for free, which is no mean feat. How does the free pdf (and refunding money to anyone who prepaid the book if they want their money back) of Ms. Harris' book fit into all this?

DA: Well, the refund part was easy, as we had not charged for the book yet. BBV was a different animal from my comics collections in that I will put it out even if I lose money on it. The information in the book is just too important to our democracy. I know that sounds a bit melodramatic, but if we can't trust our votes to be counted accurately, the game is pretty much over.

If I make money on BBV, great, if not, so be it. I didn't set out to make money on the book, I set out to educate people.

LS: You founded Plan Nine as a personal project. What is the future of Plan Nine? Do you plan to expand into more non-fiction?

DA: Yeah, I'd like to do that. I'd love top branch out into other genres as well. But first, I want to make sure Plan Nine is running smoothly.

GM: What's been your best seller so far?

DA: Gosh, that would be "Sluggy Freelance". If you can imagine the TV show Friends being written by Monty Python, you get a taste of what Sluggy is about.

GM: What Plan 9 titles are coming soon?

DA: Ooooh, lots. We are negotiating for "Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet" and have signed classics "Kudzu" and "Tumbleweeds". Also in the pipeline is MST3K actress and writer Mary Jo Pehl's book "I Live with My Parents and Other Tales of Terror". Sluggy Freelance is being re-issued in a new, larger format (with color). All this plus new editions of our regulars, "Kevin & Kell", "GPF", "Ozy & Millie" and many more,

Last Question

LS: Is "Plan Nine from Outer Space" really the worst movie ever made?

DA: Actually, anyone who has watched Mystery Science Theatre 3000 knows that there are much, much worse movies than Plan Nine. For my money, "Manos the Hands of Fate" makes Ed Wood look like Fellini.

EB, LS, and GM: Thank you, Mr. Allen.

***

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Updated: January 14, 2004