Trisha L. Sebastian Interviews Plan 9 Publishing's David Allen
For eight years, David Allen and the gang at Plan 9 Publishing have been bringing the best and brightest of the webcomics world to readers' bookshelves, releasing collections of such popular titles as Sluggy Freelance and Kevin & Kell. Now, the North Carolina-based company is branching out into prose and non-fiction by tickling our funny bone, and even tackling national political issues. Trisha Sebastian sat down with publisher and owner David Allen at Ubercon in New Jersey to get the full scoop.
What were the books you came out with this year?
Recent books were Sluggy Freelance vol. 8 ("Fire and Rain"), which is very, very popular, Kevin & Kell: Carrot & Sticks, the first book of the Sea Urchins series, Greystone Inn vol. 3 ("The Show Must Go On [and On]"). We also had On the Fastrack, the sixth in that series ("My Big Fat Geek Wedding") and Safe Havens vol. 6 ("Party Animal").
What can we look forward to this year?
Mary Jo Pehl's book is coming out at the end of March, I Lived with my Parents and Other Tales of Terror. Mary Jo was, of course, a writer for Mystery Science Theater 3000 for seven or eight years; she was Pearl Forrester for the last three years. It's a collection of essays and such, her various experiences and travels. Later in the mid-April, we should have the second Jane's World collection out... Oh! And at the end of March we'll be looking at Maritza Campos' College Roomies From Hell, the first collection of her series.
For summer, we are working with Thomas K. Ryan of Tumbleweeds fame, who's been a syndicated cartoonist since the early 1960s, and we're doing a series of his books starting from the very beginning. We're currently working with Tribune Media Services to do Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet in late spring or early summer. We're reissuing the Sluggy Freelance books starting with "Is it Not Nifty?" in the new larger 9 x 8-inch size, in color. We'll be working with the next Kevin & Kell color book which will be "Straight Outta Computers" and more from On the Fastrack ("Brain Cramp") and Safe Havens ("Meet Safe Havens"). Most of what we're going to be working though through the summer into the early fall is reissuing the older versions of Sluggy Freelance... to "When Holidays Attack." That's all we'll probably get through moving into the holidays. "Is it Not Nifty?" should be out early summer.
Other than the fact that most of the Plan Nine books are drawn from webcomics, what would you say characterizes the Plan Nine line of books?
We view ourselves as documenting a new chapter in cartoon history, the transition of comics from the traditional newspapers to being online. One of the things that we really work hard at is making sure that we have the complete body of work. The problems that we see with a lot of collections of comics strips that have been done in the past is that there's no consistency. They'll pick and choose selections of comics that won't necessarily be in chronological order, or there'll be big gaps in the storylines, whereas we want to be able to document the comics from start to finish. For example, with the Tom Ryan stuff, there have been a number of Tumbleweeds books out over the years and that's grand, but again they're very haphazard. We want to start from the very beginning and work our way forward.
The other thing that differentiates us is that we haven't gone through the normal distribution channel. We try to sell direct to the fans, direct to the people who are the most interested in the books and allows us to offer a more greater royalty to the creators of the work than is normally afforded, usually two to three times what the standard royalty is.
How did Plan 9 Publishing get started?
It got started in the mid-'90s when I was freelance writing, doing a weekly computer column for the local paper and occasional articles for computer magazines. I was looking around for topics to write on and happened to stumble across Kevin & Kell which was on CompuServe. Somebody had mentioned it and sent me a sample and I was fascinated. This was back in the day when CompuServe was like $6 an hour to get onto, so you would be reading it with a 2,400 baud modem and graphics could load very, very slowly. And I was reading some of the stuff [creator] Bill Hollbrook had; he had designed this comic specifically for the Internet as an online project. I read it, and I thought it was real funny, really unique, it was not a derivative work, and I asked him, "By the way, do you by any chance have a collection I could read?" And he'd explained [that there wasn't].
He'd also explained that there had been some publishers that he'd had some dealings with who said that since it had been on the Internet, it had no commercial value. I thought that was the silliest thing I'd ever heard. I kept reading [the strip], but I kept thinking about it and finally I got the idea in my head, "You know, I could put together a collection of these." It's really funny, and it really deserves to be read by a wider audience. Because at the time, at this point, the number of people on the web was a relatively small fraction of the general population.
So I sent Bill an email and I asked him if he'd be interested in doing one and sat down and wrote up a contract which no lawyers were involved, so therefore it was only three pages long and written in plain English, and I put together the first book, we went to Dragon Con, which is where it debuted. We were thrilled and excited, and I was showing Bill the book and Bill was excited and he was looking at it, and the thing I remember the most about it is Jim Groat walking up to us and we thrust the book at Jim and said, "Look! Kevin & Kell in print!" Jim takes the book, opens it up and looks at it and goes, "You've got a duplicate strip." At which point Bill and I could have killed him. Other than that, it went pretty well.
I started looking around and seeing that there were other cartoons on the web that were doing stuff and I approached them about doing a book, but the real break for Plan 9 came when we did Sluggy Freelance in November 1998. We did the first collection and Pete Abrams is as much responsible for our success in that realm as anything is [because] he had a rabid following [that] readily embraced the book. It gave us the capital to bring in other titles. I kept at it as a part-time venture (I was a systems engineer for a software company), and I finally got fed up with my day job and in January 2000, I went into it full-time.
How do you decide now what books you'd like to publish as collections?
Now I get a lot of stuff "over the transom" [unsolicited manuscripts] and submissions. Fans write to me and say, "You oughta check this out" or I find things myself. Pretty much it's a matter of what's funny. The first thing [we're looking for] is "Is it something funny that we'd like to print?" And then it's a matter of what resources we have. We have a finite amount of money [that we can use] to go for new titles.
How many titles do you publish now?
Last time I counted a couple of months ago, it was 65. We just came out with six, so we're over 70 now. We publish about 30 individual strips [over those 70 titles].
The weird thing about comics and the weird thing about webcomics is that they're very different beasts. Do you see yourself as more of a book publisher or a comics publisher? Because you publish books... but they're books of comics.
Yeah... and actually, we've kinda blurred that line slightly with a book we've just published which was an exposÃ© on the voting machine industry; it's our only non-comic work at the moment. We do have the Bastard Operator from Hell series which is humorous prose. Black Box Voting is our only non-humor publication and it's grown way out of proportion than we originally thought it was going to be. A year ago, the discussions of electronic voting machines was esoteric and you'd only find it on computer forums and things like this; now it's a national discussion that's being covered in national newspapers and becoming a big issue in a number of states.
I happened to stumble across a lady named Bev Harris. She was a public relations person and I was looking for her to do some PR work for Plan 9, but I happened to read through her website where she'd done some kind of amateur investigative reporting on a [voting machine manufacturer] called ES & S and discovered a lot of conflicts of interest. For example, the U.S. senator from Nebraska, a guy named Chuck Hagel, his election was counted using ESS voting machines, about 80% of the state used these machines. The problem was that he had been chairman of the board for that company and had been a major stockholder in the company.
That's where we got started and [her original book idea] was originally going to be about ES & S and the curious ownership of voting machine companies and in January 2003, Bev calls me on the phone and says she'd found this strange website and didn't know what to make of it. So she gives me the URL and it turns out it's an FTP site for Diebold [a different voting machine manufacturer] software, an open FTP site with over 40,000 files including source code for voting machines, specifications, certifications, user manuals, tech manuals, everything you could possibly need if you were to hack these machines. The more that we dug into the background of the voting machine companies, the more dead bodies kept turning up. Finally in July, Avi Ruben with Johns Hopkins University and Rice University did an analysis of the software we had found and confirmed our unprofessional opinion professionally that the software was junk. It was totally insecure, certainly shouldn't be trusted for anything, especially our votes. Diebold denied that this was the case, they said that the people who were authoring the report didn't know what they were talking about, they insisted that while they might know something, about computer programming, they didn't know anything about elections...which is kinda like a hospital secretary saying, "While you may know medicine, but you don't know anything about hospital administration" and the topic in question is diagnosing an illness.
A month after the Ruben report, the SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation) report came out and although they kinda criticized the Ruben report, they documented again that there were 326 fundamental security errors, 28 of them critical. The state of Ohio who had bought Diebold machines, they commissioned two other companies to go through and analyze the software of not just Diebold but the other voting machines and they found the same thing and in December, the state of Maryland who had initially commissioned the SAIC report, brought in Raba Technologies, to actually turn them loose on the equipment to see what they could do. They were able to hack into the systems in minutes. As a matter of fact, they discovered that the lock that was protecting the innards of the machines (all of the locks were identical), they were able to pick the locks in 10 seconds, and gain access to where they could plug in a keyboard and immediately they were able to total control over the machines. They've pretty much documented that these machines cannot be trusted in any way shape or form and it's an ongoing problem.
Originally, I was just going to publish the book, then pretty soon I was answering questions because of my background as a computer systems engineer and the fact that my previous job I spent eight years working for a company writing bank software. I wound up getting involved in the book; I wrote a couple of chapters and on top of that, I also sat in on a "secret meeting," a telephone conference when the various voting machine companies (ES & S, Diebold, Hart Intercivic and etcetera) were looking to hire a lobbying firm, and specifically they were looking to hire ITAA (Information Technology Association of America) which is a big, high-tech lobbying firm. I got to sit in a listen to what they were discussing and report on it and it was not flattering to either the lobbyist or the voting machine industry. I got a lot more involved in that than I originally intended to and now the book is out and it's causing a stir. There's a 10,000 word investigative report in next month's Vanity Fair and it will be focusing on the book, so the book's getting national coverage. We're pretty happy about that.
So, getting back to the original question, yeah, I saw myself as a comic company, but something came along and I said, "This is important," it involves the security and sacredness of our vote and it's very important that people become aware of the problem. We have started doing some political cartoons; Doug Marlette who's a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, we just released his book in the fall, What Would Marlette Drive? Khalil Bendib, who is a Muslim of French Algerian extraction, he's also the editorial cartoonist for BlackCommentator.com...we did a collection of his cartoons ("It Became Necessary to Destroy the Planet in Order to Save It") and they've been fairly well-received. So we've delved a little into the politics and non-fiction, but our core is still webcomics. We're also working with the syndicates, doing some of the syndicated comics; On the Fastrack and Safe Havens are our King Features ones, Buckles is syndicated. Between Friends (another one we did recently) by Sandra Bell-Lundy called "Hello, Daughter", which was a collection of her comics on infertility, pregnancy and adoption.
Other than Sluggy Freelance, what are your best-selling titles?
Kevin & Kell, Ozy and Millie [by David Simpson] â€“ we seem to have a lot of titles that are "X & Y." Ozy and Millie is a very wonderful strip. If you like Calvin & Hobbes, another X & Y strip, you would probably like Ozy and Millie [because] it has that same kind of feel to it at times, it looks at the world from a child's point of view.
What cons will you be going to next?
The only one I will say I definitely will be at are AnthroCon in July in Philadelphia. After that, Dragon Con in Atlanta, usually over Labor Day weekend, and the Midwest Fur Fest which is in Chicago. Those are the only ones we definitely know we'll be at.
Trisha L. Sebastian is a freelance writer from New York. The managing editor and press liaison for the minicomics anthology known as Smut Peddler, she regularly writes for Sequential Tart and has contributed to The Pulse as well as Wizard: Anime Insider.