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Kickstarted: Mark Andrew Smith & ‘Sullivan’s Sluggers’, Round Two – Artist James Stokoe Breaks Silence

I talked about some of the pros and cons associated with Mark Andrew Smith’s Sullivan’s Sluggers Kickstarter in November. Since then, he’s been abusive to backers, failed to deliver comics to consumers while fulfilling orders to retailers, and has just recently launched a second Kickstarter with an extremely low goal in an attempt to raise further funds to ship books from the initial Kickstarter. I’m going to run down the Sullivan’s Sluggers status quo after the jump. Spoilers: it’s ugly, strangely personal, long, and ends with the book’s illustrator, James Stokoe, confirming his disagreement with Smith’s handling of the Kickstarter and that he wishes his name to be removed from future Sullivan’s Sluggers products.Sullivan’s Sluggers, featuring art by James Stokoe and color by Rodrigo Avilés, is a comic that trades in the same vein of comedy/horror as movies like Evil Dead 2. The plot is familiar, with a group of baseball players coming to a small town to take part in a game, and the twist is that the town is full of monsters who like to eat baseball players. Smith ran an extremely successful Kickstarter for it last year, which included the comic being announced as being in production as a film, and earned almost $100,000 for the production and distribution of the graphic novel.

In between my post in November and now, I noticed that Mark Andrew Smith had copies of Sullivan’s Sluggers for sale online — through his personal shop and Amazon both — as well as in comics stores. I thought this went against his promise that Sullivan’s was going to be “exclusive only to Kickstarter backers,” so I sent him a message asking if it was a new edition or if plans had changed. He asked if I was stalking him, despite the fact that a) I wasn’t, and am not, and b) it was the first time I ever sent him a message.

That smelled fishy to me, so I started paying more attention. The comments section on the Kickstarter are full of people who have yet to receive their books and people who are upset that comic shops have received copies of the book before backers, in addition to fulsome praise.

The most notable comment, to me, is actually one left by a friend of mine. Josh Richardson laid out his problems with the Kickstarter on January 8. Richardson included several details, explained his points without coming off angry or upset. A brief quote:

It’s not that I want to air all this out in the comments section, but I can’t help but notice these issues aren’t being addressed. As someone who champions the Kickstarter and self-published movements, I hope you understand why folks would want to have this conversation about accountability. But now you say “it’s not the same book” and “the focus really is the creation of more new and original comic book projects.” The book is exactly as you said it would be (by increasing the features as more backers pledged funds), and the focus was on printing and delivering this comic from what I read right here on Kickstarter.

Shortly after Richardson posted, Smith replied with this:

@Josh This is my first time publishing and learning on the job. A private message to me would have been appropriate. This is not. You accuse me of a lot of things here, many of which are not true. I’ve Flagged your comments as Spam and will ship your books to you next week and be done with you.

Obviously, seeing a friend get a response like this stings, but even if I remove my friendship with Richardson from the situation, this is an appalling response to a paying customer. There was nothing spam-like about his comment. In fact, he was using the comment box exactly as it was created to be used. But since it was negative, he wanted to disappear the comment. That’s not a good sign.

I wrote about the Kickstarter again, this time on my personal site, and focused on Smith’s lacking approach to communication and slippery idea of what his backers gave him money to do. My feeling back then was that Smith was being shady, but within the letter of the law when it comes to Kickstarter.

I was content to put it out of my head, but a reader let me know that Smith is running another Kickstarter. This one is intended to raise funds to facilitate the international shipping on the prior Kickstarter. There are several things wrong with this. I’m going to try and be as comprehensive as I can.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the original Kickstarter earned $97,626, though Smith initially only asked for $6,000. That’s an enormous windfall, and Smith upgraded the book to an Absolute-style slipcased hardcover as a reward for the fans. That was cool of him, and Sullivan’s Sluggers is a handsome package.

In addition, the original Kickstarter declares that “This book is exclusive only to Kickstarter backers and available here for a limited time.” If you backed the Kickstarter, the odds are overwhelmingly good that you thought you were getting something exclusive, instead of something that would be shipped to stores, sold online, and made available elsewhere. Smith is more than free to sell his book as he pleases, but there’s a bait and switch in there that I do not like at all.

In fact, I’m certain that Smith never meant it in the first place. Here’s two photos of the boxes that the book ships in. You can see the quantity per box (six books) and the total number of boxes (1000). That suggests a print run of 6000 copies. I did the math, and the number of Kickstarter backers per tier suggests that he’s only required to provide 2706 copies of the book. Even if you round it up to 3000 copies to account for lost or damaged volumes, that seems extreme. No one doubles their print run just in case something happens. That’s cartoonish.

Expensive shipping costs happen. I more than understand that. But it seems strange to blame shipping costs for the reason why many of your backers have yet to receive their books, especially books that were initially promised to arrive in September of 2012. I also understand that international shipping charges are, frankly, absurd.

What I don’t understand is Smith’s rationale for the new Kickstarter. A quote:

This is an extension Kickstarter for the original Sullivan’s Sluggers Kickstarter because I goofed and hugely underestimating international shipping costs for international backers. By doing this Kickstarter I can adjust and get books out for international backers at just $10 a book for shipping and handling and send the books out at the original price.

There are times when your reach exceeds your grasp and you’re left holding the bag, to mix two extremely relevant metaphors. My problem with this is that it’s very much not cool to pass those costs onto the consumer when they weren’t responsible for the mistake, the price increase, or the revamped plans. No one asked for them.

The responsibility for calculating international shipping costs and producing the books sits on Smith’s shoulders. There are tools to ease that calculation, ways to get a loose, if not firm, idea of what’s required to ship books to domestic and international locations. Making that mistake on an expensive and incredibly important part of the production process is fishy. But if my suspicion about the size of the print run is correct, that and the fact that the Kickstarter was wildly successful makes the whole affair feel shady and suspicious.

This week, comics creator Dustin Harbin asked Smith about the problems with the Kickstarter on Facebook. Smith responded with vitriol first, saying that Harbin was a “HUGE bully” and decrying a “nonstop orchestrated online bullying campaign.” Harbin defends himself well in the thread, and Smith’s response is another thing that makes me question his behavior and motivations. He’s extremely defensive and paranoid every time someone asks him anything but a soft question, and that’s not good.

Finally, Kickstarter is not a store. It’s not meant to help someone sell backstock of pre-produced material. It’s meant to fund a project that will result in the production of a thing. Mark Andrew Smith has set the goal for this new Kickstarter at $1. That goal means that he has gamed the system and ensured that no matter what happens, he’s guaranteed to make money off the project.

That’s not how Kickstarter is supposed to work. You come to Kickstarter with a project and a firm goal in mind. Smith claims that he made a fifteen thousand dollar mistake by screwing up the shipping. Why isn’t the goal for this project $15,000, or $15,000 plus whatever is required for the shipping of the books that he’s selling on Kickstarter? Again: shady.

I’ve received and seen several messages from backers of the original Kickstarter who still don’t have their books, including people who live in America and aren’t subject to international shipping charges. I saw a few booths at Emerald City Comicon last weekend that had copies of the book, even. To top it all off, Smith is currently pushing to sell more copies of the book by advertising on Pirate Bay. In any other situation, this would be a great example of lateral thinking. In this situation, though? It tastes sour.

Smith has utterly failed to deliver on his promises as a project creator on Kickstarter, engaged in abusive and untrustworthy behavior against his backers, and is now abusing Kickstarter to make up for his own mistakes. As a fan, I’m annoyed that I ever gave him my money. As a writer, I’m incredibly frustrated that just talking about this in public is going to make people lose faith in Kickstarter, a service that I think has very real value for the comics industry and has led to the production of some incredible work. As someone who pays attention to the comics industry, I’m angry that Smith is engaging in the same abusive and exploitative behavior that we’ve spent years battling big companies and slimy creators for doing. Even if I’m wrong about the print run — it’s an educated guess based on evidence provided to me, not fact — there’s still everything else to take into account.

I e-mailed Smith and requested an interview on this subject to clear the air. He hasn’t responded as of press time, but he has released a tumblr post about the situation. I spoke to Stokoe, artist of Sullivan’s Sluggers, and he expressed a desire to be kept out of the whole ordeal. He’s since released a statement on his personal blog. It’s remarkable, and definitely must-reading if you’re curious about the Sullivan’s Sluggers situation. Stokoe confirms he was uninvolved with Sullivan Sluggers Kickstarter from the beginning, citing disagreements with Smith. Here’s a quote that I believe says quite a bit about the project:

Lastly, I’ve asked The Writer to remove my name from any future Sullivan’s Sluggers related product. It’s not a book that I feel good about endorsing, and I’d prefer not to be associated with it any longer.

I can’t tell you whether or not to back Smith’s Kickstarter. But I can point all of this out to you and let you decide on your own whether this is a project that is worth supporting.

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