What Publishers Can Offer with Comicker's Sean E. Williams

There are more and more independent publishers popping up and dotting the landscape of comics every day.

Whenever a new one comes about I'm always interested in what they bring to the table for creators and how they plan on developing a sustainable business in order to be successful not just in the general sense, but also for the creators they work with.

The publisher I've been looking at most recently is Comicker. Not long ago they launched a Kickstarter to finance trade paperbacks for two of their digital-first comics.

I spoke with Sean E. Williams, one-half of the team behind Comicker, about why he felt it was important to start Comicker and what they're doing to address a lot of the problems creators and publishers alike are facing today.

So, for people just starting to get familiar with Comicker, can you tell the story of how you came to start Comicker and why you felt it was important that it exist?

Sure!  I’d been writing in comics for a few years and meeting other creators online and at conventions, and almost everyone I spoke to had a similar problem, and that’s that doing a creator-owned series is time consuming and risky. I’d seen this doing the creator-owned series I co-created ARTFUL DAGGERS. So I was trying to crack the nut of “how do you do a creator-owned series flexibly, and still make money at it?” 

Saori Adams and I knew each other for a number of years too, and had been talking about working together, and finally she came up to me at a convention and said “Webcomics,” at which point it clicked. I knew I wanted to do digital issues on comiXology, like we had with ARTFUL, and that we wanted to go to print eventually, but webcomics was the missing first step.

So at that point we formed Comicker LLC, and started talking to creators while we built the webcomics-to-digital-issue pipeline.

As far as why it was important, I’d worked with enough publishers at this point that I knew that we, as a publisher, could do better when it came to how we treated our creators. I’ve had horror stories first-hand (and talked to creators who had even worse stories) when it came to some of the publishers that are out there, and we basically started from the ground up - since we were creators, what would WE want from a publisher?

So much of this industry is driven by greed - and publishers know they can use these creators and burn the bridges, because there’s always someone next in line who wants to have their comic published.  That’s not how we approach our business. We’re not here to find a hit series, sell it to Hollywood, and cash out. We’re here to make comics.

That’s definitely admirable. I am curious about how you plan to go about doing that and I have a few questions on the subject. But first, I’d love for you to explain the logic you see behind the webcomics-to-digital-issue pipeline you talked about building.

Well, with ARTFUL DAGGERS, we had an awareness issue.  It was only available on comiXology, which is great, and has a huge (and growing) readership (as an aside, when we started, people were still scoffing at the idea of digital comics taking off), but any week (or month, for that matter) that there wasn’t a new issue, readership dropped off to nothing.  So we had the same awareness issue that paper comics had - you have to have a regular release schedule, and make sure that people didn’t forget about you.

When I was selling the trade paperback in Artist Alleys at conventions across the country the second year we were doing the comic, a vast majority of people had never heard of it, even though we were coming out almost monthly.  So awareness was the major issue that I knew needed solving from the “only digital issues” approach to creator-owned comics.

Webcomics solved this problem on three fronts - it got the comic out in front of readers for free, so the financial barrier of trying a creator-owned series was gone (something I saw selling the trades at cons).  It got the comics out on a regular schedule, so that downtime-of-awareness factor was gone.  And it fixed the “having to produce 20 pages per month” problem (or 12, in the case of ARTFUL DAGGERS), which was a huge barrier for most creators who wanted to do creator-owned series.

I can see how the webcomics model would definitely address those issues. You talked about how it was only available on Comixology and I know that a big aspect of what Comicker offers to creators is that wider distribution - like your own iPhone apps - how does the establishment of that wider distribution network fit into Comicker’s plans?

Well, being a new publisher, with relatively new creators, we knew that trying to lure readers to us was going to be an uphill battle.  So we decided to go where they already were - online, on comiXology, DriveThruComics, and eventually Kindle and their phones (and now comic shops and bookstores, with this Kickstarter campaign).  This was also something we could offer creators that they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) necessarily do themselves.  Look, there’s no better publisher deal than self-publishing.  But not every creator can (or wants to) handle all that extra legwork, promotion, and business stuff, and that’s where we knew we could be an asset to them.

I understand that completely. Though I definitely advocate for self-publishing, that’s not to say that working with a publisher doesn’t have merit. Really, I think that a good publisher does a lot more for the creator than just save them time and I think establishing the kind of infrastructure you are building does demonstrate that.

For the creators you work with, what kind of deal can they expect? 

They can expect the second best deal in the industry, when it comes to multi-platform publishers.  And that’s from the mouths of lawyers we’ve spoken with.

We take only the rights we’re going to use, so digital (and, if they’re interested, print) publishing, and we have a traditional 50/50 profit sharing model.  The key difference with our deal is that we don’t charge “production fees” or marketing costs against the book.  The creators are already spending so much time and money (ink is expensive! computers are expensive!) that it’s not a partnership if a publisher doesn’t bring anything to the table.  It’s absolutely not fair that a publisher should charge their own costs against a book when a creator can’t. So we don’t do that.

That’s great to hear. I think when choosing publishers to work with, it’s not always common that they have your best interests at heart, and it seems like for Comicker you at least know much more about what it’s like to be a creator so you can offer something, as a publisher, that you would’ve wanted. Like you mentioned.

Out of curiosity, in terms of how you translate the deal into action I know that you’re using Kickstarter - a tool I really believe in - as a foundation to help launch Comicker into print. Is that something you envision becoming integral to Comicker’s print efforts down the line? And what kind of marketing are you doing for the titles you’re taking under the Comicker label?

Using Kickstarter as an on-going tool is definitely something we’ve talked about, and seen work for other publishers.  Ideally, if only for our own peace of mind, it’d be nice to not have to do pre-orders for every book, but it’s also a great way to meet new readers, as we’re seeing already.  So we’ll have to see how this one goes, but we’re open to it.  The folks we’ve met at Kickstarter itself have all been extremely enthusiastic and super-supportive - it makes it a lot easier when you like the people you’re working with.

As for the marketing we’re doing, we promote all our titles across the social media platforms we use - Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram (currently) - as well as running ads when it’s appropriate, like with this Kickstarter, or the launch of our iOS app.  Again, it’s not something creators would necessarily do themselves if they were self-publishing - promotion is a full time job unto itself.  Once we have the books in hand, we’ll be promoting them to comic shops and bookstores, as well as at conventions throughout the year.

It’s definitely difficult to balance on a creator’s time-budget - having a publisher to help can be a massive boon. There are also certain issues that I think publishers are better suited to tackle than independent creators. For example in other interviews you’ve emphasized how Comicker is diversity-focused with more than half of your current creators being women, if I remember correctly?

So, I want to ask what do you think it takes to actually be diversity-focused, rather than just paying it lip service.

That’s a great question.  For us, it means being aware of the stories we’re telling and the creators we’re working with.  We’re not going to turn down a series because it’s created by a white guy, but we’ll definitely be looking for something that has solid representation or with a diverse creator behind it for the next project. 

Luckily, the creators who are pitching to us aren’t just white guys, and the stories we’re being pitched have a much better representation of minorities and women than series we’re seeing from other publishers.  Plus, we’re into stories that are interesting and unique, which tend to be those types of series to begin with.  We let creators do what they do best, which is create, regardless of their genitalia or the color of their skin.  And yes, creators have to be respectful of cultures that they might not know the most about, but that’s why we’re here as a publisher - to make sure that happens. 

Just the other day a project in production went too far in a direction we weren’t comfortable with, and so we had a conversation with the creators about it, and everyone agreed on a way to fix it.

In the submissions you’ve received have you experienced the same kind of lack of diversity some other publishers have reported?

Honestly, no.  Our submissions have been pretty evenly mixed.  I think part of the problem with what other publishers are facing is who their readers are - if you create series that appeal (or even pander) to white men, your readers will be primarily white men, so when you ask for submissions, guess who’s going to submit?  By being an unknown entity initially, we didn’t have any of that expectation from the creators submitting to us (which ended up being to our benefit), so we saw (and continue to see) a wider spectrum of content come our way.

I hadn’t really thought about it as a self-perpetuating cycle based on a publisher’s existing readers. I also think how you translate a desire to be inclusive to the creative component of the stories you tell is really interesting.

Is there anything in particular you look for in the titles that might distinguish you from other indie or Direct Market publishers - or something that might make a comic better suited for Comicker than anywhere else?

We were told recently, and I think I’ve said this before, that we fit squarely in between the extremes of “high concept”-driven comics (comics that are being made with an eye toward Hollywood, in particular) and “arty” comics.  There’s nothing wrong with a series being both “high concept” and “arty” - the two aren’t mutually exclusive.  Our Kickstarter is a good representation of that - LOST ANGELS and THE CASEBOOK OF RABBIT BLACK are both high concept, and they’re both arty, and we absolutely adore them both. 

Basically, for Comicker, we want a good story that we enjoy looking at.  Some folks might say that makes us a “master of none,” but honestly, so many other publishers are so specialized in their house styles that a lot of creators can’t find a home where they fit in.  We’ll gladly welcome those creators with open arms.

Well, I think that kind of open-mindedness is commendable, at the very least. I really appreciate you diving into the nitty gritty with me.

Personally, I think being willing and able to share this kind of information and have an open conversation about publishing comics is key for the independent scene to continue to grow to be more successful.

Can you shed any light on what Comicker’s plans are for the future?

Once the Kickstarter is successful, we’ll be getting LOST ANGELS and THE CASEBOOK OF RABBIT BLACK into comic shops and book stores, and out onto convention floors both through the creators and through Comicker.  From there, we have a couple different directions we’re looking into that will set us apart from other publishers, but for now we’re focusing on getting these series into print.

Before we close, is there anything more you’d like to add or ask the Creator At Large audience to check out?

It’d be great if everyone could check out our Kickstarter and help support the creators who are working so hard to bring their books to print.  And believe me, Kate, Dave, and Chris have all stepped it up and go above and beyond to help make this all happen.  We’ve got reward tiers at every level, and with every interest (digital or print) in mind.  And we’re taking submissions, so if there are any creators out there who don’t want to go it alone, we’d love to look at their stuff.  They can sign up to submit via our website (comickerdigital.com/submissions), and we’ll send them details from there.

Thanks again for your time. I’m looking forward to seeing what you continue to do.

Thank you for having me!

The Comicker Kickstarter is now in its last week. If you'd like to support the project, you can do so by clicking here

It's always interesting to see what people are trying and I'm looking forward to tracking Comicker's progress in the future.