Thursday, December 18, 2014

EU VAT and the VATMESS

I have sent the following email to my MP, MEPs and several Commissioners in the European Parliament. If you have a small business or are a sole trader affected by the new EU VAT and VAT-MOSS rules, you can make your voice heard by doing the same - ideally use your own language and describe your own situation in your email.

You can find who your MP and MEPs are here (google their names to find their email addresses once you've identified them): https://www.writetothem.com/
And the following Commissioners should be copied in:
Pierre Moscovici: pierre.moscovici@ec.europa.eu
David Gauke: gauked@parliament.uk

You can find more information on who to include in your email here: http://euvataction.org/
Dear Representatives, MPs, MEPs & Commissioners,
I am writing to you concerning the unconsidered impact of the new EU VAT rules on digital micro businesses and sole traders. 
I am a freelance illustrator, and part of my income is generated by distributing, advertising and selling my illustrations online. As with most self-employed people, my income has never approached the UK VAT threshold, and the scale of my activities means that registering for VAT voluntarily represents an increased administrative burden for myself, and unattractively inflated prices for my customers and clients. 
As with many other digital sole traders, I work in a field with little to no professional support, and so it is only due the website http://www.euvataction.org/ and their work on twitter that I have been made aware of these new rules, long after they have been deliberated, agreed upon, and are about to be enacted. 
Since news of these rules has reached the online community, many affected individuals have dedicated their time to researching the unconsidered impacts, and their findings include the following conclusions:
  • Most of the smallest businesses cannot comply with the legislation because they can’t collect the required 3 pieces of location evidence. 90% are using basic PayPal buttons and the most they will be able to get is the customer’s account address.
  • Most can’t display the correct price on their sales pages because they don’t know where the customer is until after they have purchased, so have no way of applying the correct VAT rate during the purchase process.
  • Even if they could code the VAT rates into their payment solution, most platforms offer just one rate of VAT per country. It is very likely that some transactions will require two rates, for different kinds of products. This is not possible for the smallest businesses to manage during the checkout.
  • These businesses don’t get any of the data until after the transaction, so it creates a massive administrative burden of manually checking each transaction and then going back to a customer if the data looks incorrect, then analysing and storing the data to complete their VAT-MOSS return.
  • Case studies show that each EU Member State’s interpretation of what is a ‘digitally-delivered service’ is different. Even if you comply with your own Member State’s interpretation, you could still be prosecuted by another Member State if the interpretations differ.
  • Whilst the rules nominally target large businesses like Amazon, in an attempt to force them into paying their fair share of VAT, they will have the corollary effect of forcing self-sufficient micro-businesses to start trading through 3rd party platforms that companies like Amazon run.
  • The office of national statistics reports that there are 4.6 million self-employed and sole traders in the UK. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_374941.pdf The proportion of these sole traders dealing in digital products has not been properly researched.
  • The ICO will be inundated with new applications from sole traders who will need to register as data processors and controllers in order to comply with international law. The results of the extra burden upon an already-stretched organisation have not been considered or researched officially. 
As a sole trader with years of experience selling online, it has been clear from the outset that my business will be profoundly affected by these rules, and that the findings of others in my situation support my personal conclusions. 
Since September this year, I have been redeveloping my website with the goal of expanding the scope of my business by including the sale of digital downloads, and opening certain pages to advertisers. However, these new rules mean that such a venture could completely cripple my ability to trade effectively, and as such I may be unable to capitalise on months of hard work. I have also heard that this rule could apply to physical products as early as 2016, which would force me to cease trading altogether. 
These rules represent a crushing barrier to the growth and diversification of small digital businesses. Micro businesses looking to expand will be forced to pass through a period of growth during which they are disproportionately affected by the unrealistic administrative burden represented by compliance with the new EU VAT rules – a situation directly at odds with the EU’s goal of innovation within the digital sector. 
On behalf of all sole traders and businesses affected by these rules, I support the following actions:
  1. In the short term, an emergency exception to allow the implementation to be suspended for micro businesses and sole traders for 1 year, whilst workable solutions are found.
  1. If this cannot be agreed before January 1st, then an emergency exemption to allow acceptance of the customer’s self-declared address as proof of place of supply for micro businesses and sole traders who don’t have access to the required 3 pieces of evidence (the 3rd being needed for the cases where the first two conflict).
  1. In the medium term, an income threshold to be applied to the rules in order to protect the growth of small digital businesses.
  1. In the long term, a complete review of the rules, and an alternative solution that effectively targets large businesses who dodge VAT, without unduly burdening micro businesses and sole traders, or forcing them to trade through platforms provided by those same large businesses.
Yours sincerely,
Paul Duffield

Friday, August 15, 2014

Comics and The Value of Language (Part 1)

At the heart of storytelling for comics lies the relationship between language and image. A comic is defined by that particular mix of the two that makes it a comic. But when you try to pin that relationship down, it gets slippery! Comics can morph from Posy Simmonds' prose-hybrid Gemma Bovery to "silent" stories like Jiro Taniguchi's The Walking Man without anyone batting an eyelid.



These two examples lie on opposite ends of a huge storytelling spectrum that sometimes feels too broad for one medium to contain comfortably. When we say “comics”, it really encompasses a lot! Despite this amazing diversity of expression, the idea that comics lack cultural or literary merit is still common, and the lack of public understanding about comics is still startling.

In this article, I want to explore the idea that comics are, and always have been, held back by a very pervasive cultural condition. This condition is responsible for the lack of merit that our culture assigns to comics, and at its heart lies the same relationship between language and image that defines comics themselves!

As with all cultural states, it’s not something that we think about consciously unless we study it carefully. It’s a shared experience that we're immersed in from the moment we start learning about the world, and it’s so ingrained that I’ve been constantly flustered by the limitations of the English language in my efforts to describe it. To begin to get an insight into it, consider these words as they apply to comics:

Artist. Writer. Reader.

The word artist doesn’t imply “storyteller”, yet there are comic artists that write their own stories without using a single word. The word writer doesn’t suggest drawing, but comic writers often describe drawings using text. Then there’s the word reader, which we use for “comics readers”, but so heavily implies the reading of text.

We quite literally don’t have the vocabulary to frame a proper discussion about creating comics, let alone dig into our own cultural assumptions about art and writing! So, in order to continue, I want to spend a little time dealing with exactly how words and images both excel at telling stories.

When it comes to images, a massive amount of information can be compressed into one frame without using a single word: atmosphere, weather, time of day, the attitudes of characters towards each other and their environment, personality and costume to name a few! Images can be symbolic, metaphorical, or generally representative in a number of ways.

Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud,
Blow Up - Shintaro Kago,
Nijigahara Holograph - Inio Asano

If used in sequence, images create the illusion of passing time, but a sequence of images is a pretty unwieldy thing. The smaller they are, the less information they can clearly contain, and even though you can superimpose images or use panels-within-panels, you can’t just put them on top of one another indefinitely! Text on the other hand is much more efficient at dealing with this kind of thing:

"She was on her regular morning walk, when the bank that she'd passed every day for ten years suddenly blew up! Instinctually using powers she'd possessed all her life, she leapt clear of the blast, but she knew that it was her nemesis behind the attack, and it was only a matter of time before he finally took her life…"

Not the most elegantly written passage perhaps, but these 60 words give you a range of information about passing time in a very small space. I could communicate the same things using a sequence of images, but it would be a long one! However, if I did use images to “say” the same thing, I’d be able to include many other details which images are much better at conveying quickly. What did she look like, how big was the bank, how did it explode, does her appearance change when she uses her powers, what does her nemesis look like…? And so on.

I’d sum it up like this: roughly speaking, images and text compress differently. Images compress spatial information well, and words compress temporal information well. Both are capable of telling a story, and neither is more of less effective at it, they're just better suited to different storytelling tasks.

There's also a subtler issue with words and images... one that I'm battling with whilst writing this. Words create visual expectations. I used the word “she” in the passage above, and with that word comes a host of associations. If I want to avoid those, it takes a lot of effort to untangle them using language alone, but a drawing could remain ambiguous with no effort at all. The same goes for many other words… like, oooh, writer or artist!

So, why does our culture frown upon comics in the way it does? Surely such a potent mixture of text and image, each with perfectly complimentary advantages, should be the most versatile and well respected storytelling medium there is?


If I was to say that the thing I've been working up to, the reason for the English disdain of comics, and the gap in our language’s ability to talk about comic storytelling is that we’re a nation of visual illiterates, I’m sure most people would disagree... in fact, I say it a lot and most people do disagree!


These obvious objections stem from the clumsy nature of the co-opted phrase. Literacy is a word that applies to language, and so all the expectations and associations that surround it undermine its application to images. I’ll approach it from another direction… by the time we get out of education, most people can write proficiently, and although they may not know how to string a plot together, most of them could attempt a blog entry or a short essay. On the flip-side, most people leaving education still can’t draw any better than the average 10 year old!

Examples of adults drawing themselves from
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain - Betty Edwards

Let’s add to this the fact that people who do know how to draw are often self-taught, or have received an education that amounts to 90% mysticism, 10% instruction. Anyone who has been through UK education for a vocational art and come out the other side as a practicing professional will know what I mean!

I’ll use the “visual illiteracy” analogy again in lieu of a better one that doesn't exist yet, and point out that it works in a general sense if you consider the following:

Illiterate people can understand language and speak it, but they can’t write or read it. Visually illiterate people can understand drawings, but they can’t draw them. The analogy compares understanding a drawing you see to understanding a language you hear (both instinctual skills if you do them from birth). It compares drawing a drawing to writing a language (both skills that have to be taught).

With this in mind, we can write out a few conclusions quite plainly:

  • Most of us are taught to write.
  • Only a few of us are taught to draw.
  • Being able to draw is not an indicator of being able to draw stories.
  • Being able to write is not an indicator of being able to write stories.
  • Both drawing stories and writing stories require a particular set of skills that can be taught.
  • These two skill-sets overlap, but only partially.
  • Skills unique to writing stories can be practised by anyone who can write (meaning most people).
  • Skills unique to drawing stories can be practised by anyone who can draw (meaning barely anyone).

If you think about the comics industry from the perspective that these conclusions provide, the way we do things suddenly makes sense. Writers don't draw (most of them can't) and artists don't write (I suppose they could, but they tend not to).

We've turned the
limitations of our language
into a actual state of being.

And because writing skills are more easily accessible, there are lots of people who aspire to be writers, but as a result writing comics is over-saturated and hard to break into. These writers mostly require artists to draw for them, so there’s a demand for skilled artists who can draw stories. There aren't many people who are proficient at that task, so those that are will easily be able to find a writer who needs them (although a writer who is able to pay them is another matter). This chain of supply and demand quite literally makes up the economic structure of our industry, and ultimately it’s created by the lack of instruction we receive in drawing as a culture, which in turn is because of our lack of visual literacy, which in turn is so deep that it's embedded in our language. Quite the vicious cycle.

How can we fully understand the potential within comics when creating them requires a skill most of us can only appreciate as an obscure talent we wish we had?

This is a powerful cultural imbalance, but in comics it would be easy to see ourselves as outside its reach. After all, we all read and write pictures in a way that the rest of our culture doesn't... aren't we visually literate? I’d argue that the answer is actually no. We’re all shaped by the cultural condition, and we rarely consider its full implications, or the way that it shapes our own attitudes.

In a following article I want to use this concept to take a closer look at exactly how visual literacy affects comics creators and readers, and the kinds of comics we create and value. That's a much thornier subject though...

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Future of an Industry

Recently, UK comics seem to be changing – there's a fresh breeze in the air, a shift in perceptions, an expanding market, regular comics reviews in the broadsheets and a growing and more diverse stable of creators. Perhaps most significantly, Jonathan Cape and SelfMadeHero, along with other companies, have developed a great catalogue of original works by British creators. This growing range of original comics is mostly aimed at thoughtful adults, and is a massive triumph.

These successes are both backed up and boosted by a growing number of UK conventions, and just one trip to Thought Bubble shows a vibrant indie scene full of creators just waiting to be discovered. Almost every table boasts comics of excellent quality, and it's nigh on impossible to pick up every book that deserves attention.

I think everyone in UK comics can feel this happening, and it's exciting - there's a real sense of growing opportunity about the industry. But the reason I'm writing this article in the new year is not to self-congratulate, but to bring up a very sober question...
...what is our potential for growth?

It's easy to look back at the history of comics in the UK and see a pattern. The steady decline of sales in children's comics, the closure of comic shops, the sudden boom and bust of manga. Comics seem unable to put down strong roots here, and looking at that fact causes me great worry.
Seen from the interior of the industry, our collection of original comics are fresh shoots in a warm greenhouse. Seen from the greater context of publishing in Britain, fragile saplings in winter might be a more appropriate image.

The thing that worries me is that underneath this new growth, British comics still seems to rely on a specialist audience – one that is familiar with geek culture in general, and comfortable with comics because of long familiarity or even fandom. Chat to someone else who reads comics, and the chances are you'll find yourself with at least one fandom in common. To put it bluntly, we are a mostly-male sub-culture of adult fans, augmented only slightly by the growing mainstream relevance of geek culture, and a budding acceptance that comics are an art-form.

Look outside the warmth of the convention hall, and you still find an apathetic general public with a deep lack of understanding about comics. I'm regularly brought up short by the phrase “oh, they still make those?” when I talk with anyone but industry friends, and I frequently have to explain what my job is due to the lack of understanding that greets “comic book artist”. The reason for this is where we get the the heart of the matter.

The audience that our industry needs in order to expand has not grown up reading comics.

Despite this, it seems that almost every UK publisher is producing the same sort of content. Mature, arty comics for discerning adult readers. Whilst I'm personally very happy about this, I feel that as an industry, we're supplying our own demand, making the comics we want to read. In the larger sense of a new business trying to take root in a hostile market, this is tantamount to planting seeds on barren land.

If we, as an industry, can't maintain growth, the swelling ranks of indie creators will have nowhere to go, and everything we've gained over the last decade could be lost. What we need, more than anything else, is fertile soil to plant in.

If an entire generation of children were to grow up reading a diverse range of comics, from every genre and for every gender, before too long there'd be literally millions of young adults, demanding the most challenging original content they can find. They'd understand, produce and consume comics in ways we can't yet imagine, and their concept of mainstream would be utterly different from ours. They wouldn't even have to profess comic fandom. It would be a given.

All it would take is a children's comic with that diversity of content reaching massive levels of popularity. You can see where I'm going I hope…

The Phoenix is trying to do exactly that.

At the risk of sounding like an advert, it's stuffed full of well made comics that represent a massive range of genres and styles. It doesn't discriminate, it promotes textual and visual literacy, it pays well, credits its authors, and lets them keep their rights. It's EXACTLY WHAT WE ALL NEED TO BUILD A LASTING AND SUSTAINABLE MARKET FOR UK COMICS.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked there 3 days a week as an in-house designer and illustrator for the last year, but this isn't me toeing the company line, it's the reason I wanted to work for them in the first place.

I put a higher priority on my job at The Phoenix than I do on my own original comic, because I know that my work is going to have an uncertain future unless The Phoenix, or something very much like it, reaches huge levels of popularity first. My desire to start working at The Phoenix was driven by my desire to see UK comics grow and evolve.

I've been planning to write this blog entry ever since The Phoenix’s predecessor, The DFC, launched. Now, at the beginning of 2014, it seems like the right time. It's the start of a new year, there's a feeling of big things happening in the industry, publishers are supporting original content like never before, and The Phoenix is just starting to build up the momentum it needs to create a supply of comics readers the likes of which the UK has never seen.

I'm going to be doing my level best to make sure that momentum continues, so that in 2030, we can enjoy a UK comics industry larger and more diverse than any other.

But I'm only one voice, and it can feel very lonely supporting children's comics. We're an industry of adults, so it doesn't come naturally. If you normally feel like children's comics aren't relevant to you, just remember... these aren't the comics we deserve, they're the comics we need.

If you support children’s comics, by making them, by talking about them, by writing about them and promoting them, you’ll be supporting the future of the UK comics industry!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

List of Children's Comics

The Hilda series by Luke Pearson
DFC Library Books
Teenytinysaurs by Gary Northfield
Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi
Cucumber Quest by Gigi Digi
Cardboard Life by Philippa Rice
The Complete Rainbow Orchid by Garen Ewing
Glister Series by Andi Watson
Gum Girl Series by Andi Watson
Knight and Dragon by Matt Gibbs and Bevis Musson
Adventure Time Graphic Novels
Dinopopolous by Nick Edwards
Laika by Nick Abadzis
The Bone Series by Jeff Smith
Playing Out by Jim Medway
The Sleepwalkers by Vivian Schwarz
Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
Copper by Kazu Kibuishi
Binky the Space Cat by Ashley Spires
Polly and the Pirates by Ted Naifeh
Courtney Crumrin by Ted Naifeh
The Secret Science Alliance by Eleanor Davis
Rapunzels Revenge by Dean Hale
Giants Beware by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre
The Explorer series, edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Freddy Stories by Melissa Mendes
Anna and Froga by Anouck Ricard
The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier
Guinea PI series by Colleen AF Venables and Stepahnie Yue
The Adventures of Tooki by Jamie Courtier and Vicky Kimm

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Best Present Ever!

Some readers might have noticed that I've been doing quite a bit for the new weekly story comic, The Phoenix! Well, here's a chance to see what it's all about - The Phoenix have made a lovely gift box that contains a mini-comic, goodies, and a 5 issues subscription all in one, and you can order it straight from the website. For people living outside the UK, don't worry, The Phoenix will be going digital some time soon too ^_^ (stay tuned for more on that later).