The Challenges Of Publishing And Crowdfunding
I've wanted to start my own publishing company for a long time. I've been thinking about it off and on for at least five years. When I finally decided to pull the trigger at the end of 2014, I had no real idea just how much work was in front of me. And then, to make matters more challenging, I decided to do a Kickstarter as well. While also working here at ComicsAlliance and doing some freelance editing for other folks. It's occurred to me that there are a lot of folks who want to do similar things, so I wanted to lay out how this all happened and what I learned. Learn from my mistakes, oh internet.
At the end of March, I launched a Kickstarter to fund the first project, a comics magazine called Fresh Romance, from my new publishing company, Rosy Press. It had never occurred to me to do this when I first got into comics, but it ended up being a pretty reasonable evolution of my career.
When I was in grad school to get my Masters in Publishing, I spent a lot of time setting up fake companies for class projects. I wrote my thesis about increasing sales of comics to women. I started to think more and more about how to change the comics industry for the better, and continuously came to the realization that working within the established companies may not necessarily be for me, especially not at a large corporation. When I got laid off from Disney in 2013, I decided that was a sign for me to really make it happen and start my own company.
You're now doing the math and realizing that it's been almost two years since I decided to "really make it happen." Yeah. So, it turns out that starting a business is a lot of work. I spent a lot of time reading about business — from both a broad, theoretical level, and from a nitty-gritty, "here's how you fill out this paperwork" level. I took a job. I realized that trying to start a company while working full time would be nearly impossible — one of the best things I realized. Certainly it's challenging to pay the bills without working full time, but the lack of energy that comes with a full-time job, particularly if it's one you don't love, is often not worth the trade off. So I went freelance. And then at the end of 2014, I told my husband I was finally pulling the trigger.
I started with the assumption that I'd launch in March. I wish now that I'd given myself at least another month or two. The hiring of freelancers and getting everyone moving on their individual projects was right on schedule, but all the set-up took longer than I anticipated. I hired a lawyer to draft my contracts, and that process was not something you can rush. I had to file to register my company name. I had to get my web designer on board and get him started with the design. I had to get my graphic designer and production person working on both my company and magazine logos. All this takes time and is very important to a business. And finding these people was something I'd done ahead of time in the year that I mostly just researched and planned. I can't understate how important it is to spend time researching who you want to work with and establishing a relationship with them before you embark on a project together.
One thing that I did before reaching out to anyone, though, was that I worked through many different iterations of numbers in a Profit & Loss statement. You can check out a template here. This is one of the most important things you will do when setting up your business — and if you create a business plan, which you should, it's one of the most important parts of the business plan. People in comics don't talk about numbers a lot, which can make it hard for people trying to break in to figure out how much a book sells and how much money they can make from it. Jim Zub regularly offers a lot of great advice on his blog, which I'd recommend folks check out. This post on the economics of creator-owned publishing may be of particular interest.
Even folks who are self-publishing a book will find P&Ls helpful. You can use it to both project and track numbers — see how you've done in the past and try to anticipate how sales will go in the future. Plus, if you are paying a collaborator or other freelancers, you'll want to have some concept of how much money is coming in versus how much is going out. It will also help you figure out how much money you want from a Kickstarter.
I had a lot of work done before the Kickstarter ever launched, which I highly recommend other folks do as well. I wish I'd had even more work under way. I don't think you can be too prepared for a Kickstarter. You're not going to get as much support from a couple of sketches and a rough outline of a plot as you would from actual sequential art and a polished cover. Plus, it's going to take you longer to deliver if you haven't even started on the project.
Working on crowdfunding is time-intensive and a job in its own right. There's a reason there are now people who will run crowdfunding campaigns for money. In doing my planning, I found this blog post from the Oh Joy Sex Toy folks to be super helpful. Every campaign is its own weird animal and every project will have a different amount of people involved and different financial needs. It's up to you, if you're running a Kickstarter, to know what you need and how you're going to approach getting it.
I took a risk and hired a publicist for my campaign for a few different reasons. One of those reasons is that I am a comics journalist, and so for me to reach out to other journalists about getting coverage seemed like it could be a potential conflict. Our industry is small and I wanted to avoid any possible weird situations. Having a publicist be the go-between seemed like a good idea. Plus, since he was able to focus on drumming up coverage, I was able to focus primarily on doing interviews, running the campaign, answering messages, keeping the magazine running, and of course doing all my other work. Interviews are a great way for you to be able to talk about your project and get folks interested in it, but each one takes time and energy.
One huge mistake I made in terms of the Kickstarter campaign is that I really wanted to launch before Emerald City Comicon. I wish I'd launched when I had no cons to attend. Going to a convention takes so much energy out of you, and the return I got for attending in terms of actual support for the Kickstarter was pretty minimal. It was great to see my friends, and I'm really really glad I went to ECCC, but I wish I hadn't also had to deal with a Kickstarter at the same time. Having WonderCon the weekend after that didn't help either. Timing is really important with Kickstarters, and making sure you're focused and ready to go when you're the one in charge of a crowdfunding campaign is pretty important too. It would probably be most helpful to attend a convention after a crowdfunding campaign, rather than during.
One of the best things I did was focusing on a digital project, which is far easier to deliver than physical rewards, and doesn't ever cost you more money to deliver additional copies. We're offering physical rewards too, obviously, but our core product is digital. I also had more than one person tell me that I was asking for too much money as the total goal for the campaign, but I stuck to my guns because I knew what I needed to actually fund the three issues I was running the campaign for. I also knew that since I was planning a monthly product, I needed as much as I could get to keep things going beyond just those three issues. When you're launching a campaign, you know what you need best. Asking for less than that could mean you're not able to fulfill what you've promised. No one wants that.
Hopefully what I've been through in the last 26ish days will be of some value to folks who want to run their own publishing company and/or Kickstarter campaign. I've also interviewed folks like Kel McDonald and Spike Trotman in the past about their crowdfunding experiences. It's not the easiest thing in the world, but it certainly is rewarding. I think the existence of crowdfunding has also evened the playing field a lot, allowing women, LGBTQ people, and people of color to produce comics that they may have struggled finding funding for in the past. This is by no means all the information you'll need, but hopefully it's a start.