Robot 6

Mark Andrew Smith on Sullivan’s Sluggers, Kickstarter and the future of print distribution

Mark Andrew Smith certainly isn’t heeding the advice on this sign from Sullivan’s Sluggers, his upcoming baseball-horror graphic novel with James Stokoe. As we noticed last week, the writer is moving forward and scouting out new territory in comics distribution through Kickstarter.

After that post appeared, I was reminded that Sullivan’s Sluggers was originally solicited a couple of years ago by Image Comics, so I asked Smith about that as well as his extremely successful use of Kickstarter. As I’m writing this, Smith and Stokoe’s book has raised more than $40,000 in pledges. Their original goal was $6,000, and there are still 24 days to go.

Michael May: Sullivan’s Sluggers was originally solicited through Image. What can you say about why it’s not being published there now?

Mark Andrew Smith: We know how many copies of Sullivan’s Sluggers retailers ordered. We were going to end up working for four years to make the book (working for free) and end up losing a lot of money to do it. Sullivan’s Sluggers through Kickstarter made more business sense, and selling direct from the creators to the readers. So it was a matter of stay put and don’t rock the boat or take a risk for once and change everything.

We chose the second option and I wouldn’t go back, not in a million years.

I absolutely love Image as a publisher. They are the best publisher in the world. I love the people that work there and they’re the best at what they do, which is putting out great books. I believe strongly in the principles of their founders. So this was about comic shops ordering too conservatively because Diamond has a no-returns policy (if retailers order books that don’t sell, they’re stuck with the bill).

The Kickstarter model has room for publishers and also room for retailers. Comics are small right now and this is growth, and it helps the creators ,who should be at the top of the pyramid but are actually almost under it, to actually benefit and be rewarded for their labors.

Kickstarter books need to be published and printed by people who know what they’re doing and have a lot of experience with that. So I could see publishers charging a fee for production and publishing in the future for Kickstarter creators to streamline things for publishing so that book quality stays high and has consistency.

Sullivan's Sluggers

I think in the future this will be a normal thing. Kickstarter will be there to fund projects but also to be a creator-centered distribution system.

I’d like to see a summit of creator-owned publishers get together in a room and sign a deal that they’ll stand strong to so they can do business with creators using Kickstarter and that it’s not Diamond-exclusive.

Sullivan’s may be published at Image at some point. I need to talk with them. I hope I don’t cause them any trouble, and I believe in my heart that what I’m doing here is right. We have to take care of ourselves financially, and we shouldn’t take the financial hit for retailers not ordering enough for us to at least break even and do the book for four years for free (which is as horrible as it sounds to do everything for free).

I think that needs to be in the creator bill of rights that the creators should betaken care of first instead of last like it is in this distribution system. The creator to has the right to be the (or at least a) retailer and we’ll see more and more of that in the next few years.

The Sullivan’s Sluggers campaign has obviously been very successful. What does that mean for your plans? Since all of the pledge amounts were going towards copies of the books, is it as simple as just increasing the print run? Or will you have to find other ways to use the extra money? Does that just translate into a larger payday for you and James (not that there’s anything wrong with that)?

The more books people buy the cheaper it is to print because higher print runs cost less money. Our goal is to get Sullivan’s into the hands of as many readers as we can. This isn’t really a fundraiser to meet a goal as it is a creator centered distribution model direct from the creator to the reader.

The sky is the limit.

There should be money to be made at the end of everything. That’s how businesses work and it should be the standard in comics that we make art and we make money. But, the sad thing is that most folks these days throw their hands up and go “Hey, it’s comics!” like we’re supposed to work for free (because we’re artists and artists aren’t supposed to make money). They act like we’re supposed to give everything away for free without getting anything for it and that if you make money you don’t love the art side of it.

Marvel and DC are businesses and their entire point is to make money, so why shouldn’t people in the creator-owned world be able to benefit and make art and money? I think this is hilarious, one-dimensional thinking. I wouldn’t ask my worst enemy to work their job without pay.

Sullivan's Sluggers

Extra money will help us out and also go towards new projects and speeding things up. I personally would like to hit 100K so I could do comics full time for the year, which I think I deserve after nine years of making comic books for free and just giving it away. I cannot drive this home enough: it’s okay if your creators make money and enjoy a better quality of life so that you don’t have to donate to a health fund for them when they’re older because they’re so poor. You should take care of them now. It should be that way and I think with new distribution methods it will become that way.

Are you comfortable disclosing how many pledges were for digital copies vs. printed copies?

Two days in we have 74 backers for only the digital copies. But book backers get digital copies as well. We have 721 print-copy backers as of now, two days in. We have 27 days left, so those numbers will increase more and more.

Obviously, what happened with Sullivan’s Sluggers isn’t automatically repeatable by every other creative team, but what do you think this says about the future of Kickstarter as a distribution tool for independent creators?

Kickstarter is growing, and there’s a community right now that retweets and Facebook-shares and helps and promotes other people doing their comics. It’s beautiful. I have a fan base, but I don’t have a book out all the time to promote, so it makes sense throughout the year to help other people by promoting their work. Then when it’s my turn those people come through and are supportive of my endeavors. This year I’m going to take $300 and just make a point to only buy comics on Kickstarter because the projects are interesting and I want to support them.

Kickstarter is the other distribution outlet that’s the monopoly-buster and one that benefits creators first.

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And this is exactly what I was trying to get at in a post elsewhere. It costs money to produce these books. It’s hard to ask anyone to commit to producing a book they’re not guaranteed to get something out of. Hence why pre-orders shouldn’t be shunned and why something like Kickstarter can be a viable alternative.

Also, it seems the digital volume being ~10% of print is consistent here.

If a book isn’t profitable enough to produce then, generally speaking, that’s a sign that either there’s something wrong with your pricing/format model, OR that you haven’t done enough promotional work to get the retailer/reader excited about it.

Certainly one way to solve this is to sell direct, with no middleman, at a price of nearly twice the announced retail ($30 for a kickstarter-paid book, vs $16.99 for the solicited OGN), and I think it’s great to find patronage for that, but certainly that won’t work for every book, every creator, and logic dictates it will work less and less as more creators try to go that route.

-B

Oh, and also, it’s not correct to describe Diamond as some sort of monopoly-based roadblock for SLUGGERS — multiple book wholesalers also are willing to sell the book to interested retailers…. and to do so returnable for that matter.

Baker&Taylor’s west coast warehouse shows a total demand of 2 copies for SLUGGERS as of today.

That’s a failure of marketing… not anything to do with Diamond….

-B

Or, perhaps, a failure of the market. Comics shop buyers aren’t exactly known for their rousing support of stories not wrapped in spandex, and shop owners ordered accordingly. And yet, there is a market for books like this. So it’s up to the creators and the publishers to get the books into places where interested customers might see them. If that’s not comics shops… so be it.

Brian, the price difference is due to the Kickstarter one being a HC. I don’t believe the original solicit was HC.

And yet, Brian: over 1200 people to date have said with their wallet that they DO want that book. For double the price they could’ve paid in stores like yours.
To me that’s a damning tale

Brian, first of all, the $16.99 price was for a softcover edition, not the $30 HC version they’re offering through Kickstarter.

But I do think Smith is not addressing one aspect of this story that I think he should:

The book was solicited originally over 2 1/2 years ago. Its been sitting in the system that long, and retailers and customers have had enough ample time to figure out if they should just say eff it and cancel their orders because there’s been no sign of the book and until this Kickstarter move, no news on it.

Hell, Smith had stated on the Image message board that Stokoe was just 3 pages away from finishing the book when I asked him about it on July 23,2011. And he’s again now stating Stokoe “JUST” finished the book here in 2012.

Really? A year for 3 pages? And like I said, its STILL listed to order in Diamond’s system. Image/Diamond still haven’t cancelled it regardless of now where its coming from.

So when Smith looks at these final numbers and sees how much they weren’t going to make, I wonder how much of that is because they couldn’t bother to get the book out when originally solicited or bother to update people on the progress of the book until now.

People are willing to wait when they’re kept in the loop. But no one here was. So now those of us willing are getting the book via Kickstarter.

As some others have pointed out the $30 kickstarter ‘reward’ includes a hardcover version of the book, a digital (pdf) copy and an art print. Sure it’s not as cheap as the original $16.99 softcover solicited through Diamond but imo it’s pretty good value. From a creator’s point of view this kind of distribution could be far more lucrative if it works as well as Smith/Stokoe’s campaign has done.

Speaking personally, I backed the Sullivan’s Sluggers HC for a number of reasons:
1) I love James Stokoe’s art and can’t get enough of it, so to get a 200 page hardcover packed full of the stuff was hard to resist.
2) This book was never going to come out through Diamond (two and a half years? really?).
3) Alternative distribution methods are the future. I love my LCS and I’ll never stop buying monthly format comics through them but the Diamond/LCS system seems completely unsuitable for graphic novels like Sluggers (and highly expensive for the consumer).
4) I like Kickstarter.

Another thing in Kickstarter’s favour is things like the Occupy Comics anthology, which I also backed. It seems something like that probably wouldn’t get published if it meant one of the regular labels having to stick their neck out on the line for it and all profits beyond the print costs will go to charitable causes named by the contributors.

I’m not dense, folks, obviously HC vs SC — but if the $17 SC wasn’t profitable enough, it certainly could have been changed to a $30 HC through the system.

“And yet, Brian: over 1200 people to date have said with their wallet that they DO want that book. For double the price they could’ve paid in stores like yours.
To me that’s a damning tale”

“Damning”? How?

1200 people is (roughly) 2/3rds of a copy per Direct Market store. I alone ordered more than triple of that.

If, however, the book DOES ever get “traditional” distribution, I’ll certainly be lowering my order because my assumption is that the most motivated buyers have now got their copies.

-B

they are selling a higher quality product with cool extras for more money, and i’m sure they are pocketing more of every dollar spent. sounds like the creators will make out better with this deal than if they had sold through a more traditional outlet. pay image, diamond, and retailers, versus cutting them all out.

Brian, you yourself know that many TPBs and HCs, even those published by MArvel and DC, never reach 1200 copies. The Marvel Premiere Classics HCs have the total number printed on them, and quite a few are under 1000. This is for stuff by creators and starring characters well-known in the medium. This is an OGN by two smaller creators (no slight to the creators) without spandex, and without recognizable characters…

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