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Is Kickstarter A Sound Funding Strategy For Comics Publishers?

Fantagraphics KickstarterFantagraphics Books hit its $150,000 Kickstarter funding goal Tuesday, only one week into its campaign to keep the company afloat after the death of co-Publisher Kim Thompson dealt it a serious financial blow earlier this year.

That’s great news. Without that support, Fantagraphics would at the very least have had to drastically reduce its publishing schedule for 2014, and that would have left a big, gaping hole in the world of graphic novels and independent comics. But I do have to wonder if Fantagraphics set a precedent with its campaign, and whether it’s a workable one.

Quite often if someone is writing about a Kickstarter campaign in an op-ed piece, it’s to call one out for not living up to the spirit of the platform. Penny Arcade’s Kickstarter to eliminate ads springs to mind. One of the big sticking points people had with that campaign was that it sought to fund an ongoing, successful concern (then they did it again).

In a sense, that’s what Fantagraphics is doing, too, though there are a few extenuating circumstances that shield it from the blame Penny Arcade got. For one, Thompson’s death created a real financial crisis in addition to simply being tragic. This wasn’t just a “Hey, help us out because we think we deserve it” thing. And Fantagraphics really tried to tie the Kickstarter in with a project, even if that project was and is its entire spring line of books.

Plus, their rewards are basically amazing. Donors get something of value for their donations, and that goes a long way.

 

Fantagraphics Kickstarter

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. My gut says we may see other comics companies — say, Drawn and Quarterly or Avatar or Bluewater — also try the Kickstarter route if and when they find themselves in arrears. Part of me wonders if Kickstarter had been around 20 years ago if Malibu, Acclaim, Extreme Studios, Kitchen Sink, Black Bull and AiT-Planet Lar wouldn’t still be around in some form or fashion.

I’ll be curious to see if fans step up the same way if other companies go to the Kickstarter well. What if the circumstances surrounding the financial difficulties those companies are having aren’t quite so easy to grasp? What if the publisher’s output isn’t considered as valid in terms of being art as Fantagraphics’? What will be the dividing line between “OK” and “not OK” when it comes to publishing companies looking for — to use a pejorative — bailouts?

When I was initially talking to ComicsAlliance Editor Caleb Goellner about the Fantagraphics Kickstarter when the company announced it last week, I observed that this is something the company will only be able to do once. Upon first glance, that seems pretty self-evident. This is one case of a major crisis. In the past, Fantagraphics has asked fans to buy books at specific times to help them out of a jam, but it hasn’t asked directly for money until now. To do so again would be to erode the good will of the fans, right?

But then I got to thinking. There are media companies that run on exactly that model every single year: public radio and public television. While reading the Fantagraphics Kickstarter page, I saw some statements that seemed to be the company self-identifying as something akin to the PBS of comics, an entity that is more interested in the intrinsic value of art than profit.

Here’s the key sentence: “Our artistic values have always tempered our profitability.”

Certainly, there are some key differences between NPR, PBS and Fantagraphics. For one, PBS and NPR are free if you turn on your TV or radio. Some Fantagraphics graphic novels are as much as 40 or 50 bucks each. The counter-argument to that, of course, is that if you donate $50 to PBS, you get a tote bag and a DVD, maybe. Pledge that much to Fantagraphics and you get a 248-page Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck book by Don Rosa, signed. That would seem to make up the difference.

Now, this doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that Fantagraphics or any other publisher should shift to a “supported by readers like you” financial model, but I don’t think it’s totally unworkable either. What took place over the past week or so seems to have opened the door to a lot of possibilities.

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