When I first was out raising money for Graphicly, I got to meet comic book publishers.
At each meeting, I asked the same question, “What do you think of digital?”
And each one answered the same.
“There are more people pirating my comic books than there are buying them. Perhaps as high as 5 to 10 times.”
The comic book industry, which saw its heyday in the 1990s, when highly successful books would sell in the hundreds of thousands, is now ecstatic if a book sells even fifty thousand.
Online piracy has absolutely decimated the industry.
How bad is it?
Comic books come out every Wednesday. By the time I wake up in California, I can already download most of the books that came out earlier that day on the East Coast.
Its not the big guys, Marvel and DC that get squeezed. It not even the little guys–although most will never see a publisher print their book–that are getting smashed, its the publishers in the middle like Image Comics and Archaia that are feeling the vast weight of piracy the most.
Piracy, on many levels, is helping to drive more market share to the top guys, Marvel and DC (both backed my billion dollar companies that aren’t as sensitive to the success of individual books or creative teams), and eliminating the necessary diversity required to ensure a healthy industry.
As Graphicly has grown, we have seen it time and time again. Small and mid-sized publishers struggling for consumer awareness and acceptance in a world dominated by Spiderman and Batman. As diversity dies, so does the ability for the industry to sustain growth.
Every once in awhile a great story like The Walking Dead will break out, but thats not the norm. Interestingly enough, I would say that the pressure piracy places on the mid-tier publisher has actually driven them to become more creative in order to rise out of the shadows of the big guys, but its not easy.
There is no other way to say it, but that piracy is probably the biggest single digital issue facing the comic book industry.
But SOPA and PIPA are not the saviors that “old media” companies hope it will be.
Giving the government carte blanche to censor sites and control the flow of information will cause more damage, deeper damage, long lasting damage to the industry that I have grown to love. The publishers and creators that Graphicly works to support will be hurt in ways that I personally, cannot be a part of.
There are better ways to end piracy. We can improve access. We can develop a platform that allows publishers and creators to be as creative with the distribution, pricing and promotion of their work as they are with the stories themselves. We can help fans discover great stories easily, simply — no more difficult than clicking on a link — removing the burden of surfacing great content.
We can help connect publishers and creators directly to their fans — and believe you me, pirates are some of the biggest fans in existence, as crazy as that might sound — so that those fans can show their support directly to the stories and creators they love.
On January 18, my blog will be censored. I personally am standing next to many of my friends, mentors and colleagues by doing this.
I have also decided to not blackout Graphicly.com.
I made this decision, because we have thousands of creators and publishers that are making real money distributing their stories in a “new media” style, that it would be wrong to deny that. And, more importantly, the access and discovery it provides to great stories are paramount in the fight against piracy, even if “old media” doesn’t understand it.
I am ardently apolitical, yet stopping SOPA and PIPA is exceedingly important, so important, that I have written about politics for the first time ever in the several years this blog has existed.
I want piracy to end.
I want all the story-tellers that should be discovered to be found. I want them to get paid, and I want their fans to get unending enjoyment out of supporting their work.
But, I won’t stand for censorship.
Today I heard that a friend got a term sheet. “Whew.” he sighed.
“Excited to turn the Doomsday Clock back a minute?”
The Doomsday Clock was invented in 1947 during the Cold War. Set at seven minutes to midnight, it represented how close the world was to global thermonuclear war.
Seven minutes in 1943. A high of 5 minutes in 1984. A low of 17 minutes in 1991. Currently, as of 2010, we are at 6 minutes.
A cold, numeric, non-emotional reminder that as a world we are always that close to complete and total destruction.
(whew. thats pretty emo.)
So many of the founders that I work with and speak to see the financing event as the penultimate indication of success. Its nothing more than the purchase of a lottery ticket (perhaps with a bit of inside knowledge).
Investment lets us turn that Doomsday Clock back a minute. It gives us the time needed to build a business.
The truth is that all startups are dying the moment they are birthed, and its our responsibility to do whatever in our power we can to keep them alive for just another day.
If I have learned anything in the decades I have been involved with startups is that you should apply a Doomsday Clock to everything. Products, people, partners, business plans. Everything. Nothing should be spared; everything should move that Doomsday Clock back a minute.
Imagine if before you signed a partnership deal; started building a product; hired a person, you simply said: “The Doomsday Clock hits midnight if X happens. As long as this partner, person, product doesn’t do that, its a benefit to the company. Push the minute in the wrong direction, and make a change.
Is that evil? Kinda mean? Maybe, but your world, your startup is hurtling towards total global thermonuclear destruction. Perhaps you should do everything you can to stop that. Maybe.
Even on the grandest stage, time is the greatest gift you can give.
Six minutes to midnight.
Perhaps you should stop caring about raising money, and find new ways to turn that hand back. Understanding and treating fund raising as a distraction as to what is important is the first step.
Build a sustainable business. Or…
My grandmother was a storyteller. She wrote 10 or 11 books, mostly of children’s stories, and always had a story to tell. (As she got older, the stories got more fantastical. She worked as a simultaneous translator in the 1950s, and was a spy. Well, not really a spy, but she had to take documents to some shady people.)
Storytelling resonates with me more strongly than any other single sociological/community building concept.
Think about it. The first written communication was a story.
Pictures of deers and hunters with oversized spears (even then, we men exaggerated), running through trees and mountains.
We learn about our world through stories.
Stories are told each night on the news, and people make trillions and trillions of dollars, if the stories are told in just the right way.
I saw the movie Hugo this afternoon, and it was really a story about telling stories. It was about the heartbreak felt by a man, who no longer felt his stories were being heard, yet they were captured in the dreams of a young boy who struggled to find his place in a world that didn’t want him.
Story telling is an art. Its an amazing talent when its coupled with the desire to provide value, real value through the tale itself.
Yet, stories have a dark side, and not just around the campfire, but when we believe that the story is more important than the truth.
The world has been lying to us about what its like to be an entrepreneur.
What do you mean that Zuckerberg and friends worked 24 hours a day for months and months in a smelly small space filled with nothing but nerds? Where was JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE DAMMIT!
We have decoupled the story teller from the story, and apply value to each separately.
I see it happen all the time with entrepreneurs, who believe in “what a founder is” and how “an entrepreneur should act,” that they forget their primary purpose is to build a company and make decisions regardless of the prettiness of the action (or reaction), but based in the righteousness of the conclusion.
Raising money is not the story. It is a step.
Getting press is not the story. It is a step.
You are not the story. You are the shoulders on which your startup should stand for all to see.
Take a moment and think to yourself, what is the story you are telling? What do your employees, investors, customers think of your story?
If your story is not telling the world that your company is 1) adding enormous value; or 2) that it has a deep belief in its mission, then perhaps you are telling the wrong story.
And, most importantly, if you are letting others (including the tech press) dictate what your story should be, you are fucked.
The story of your company should capture the dreams of your users, employees and investors, and I can guarantee that none of them are dreaming about you.