In an unusual move driven by the need to address serious cash flow problems, Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books, an acclaimed independent comics publisher, is turning to Kickstarter to raise $150,000 to publish its entire Spring 2014 list of 39 titles. While it’s not unusual these days to crowdfund a single book or a specific marketing effort, this outreach marks what could be the first time a conventional publisher has used Kickstarter to fund an entire publishing season.
[UPDATE: Fantagraphics reached its Kickstarter goal of $150,000 witih more than 20 days left in its campaign.]
While it may be unusual, that doesn’t mean it won’t work. At press time, and just a day after the launch of the Kickstarter campaign, Fantagraphics had raised just over $80,000. (Kickstarter campaigns last for 30 days.) Fantagraphics, a small publisher specializing in art comics and serious nonfiction, does not publish superhero comics. And the house's authors are some of the most acclaimed and respected comics artists in publishing. Among the authors on the Kickstarter sponsored Spring 2014 list are Jaime Hernandez (The Love Bunglers); Peter Bagge (Buddy Buys a Dump); Joe Sacco (BUMF 1: "I Buggered the Kaiser" ); Eleanor Davis (How to Be Happy); Simon Hanselmann (Megahex); Gilbert Hernandez (Luba and Her Family); Dan Clowes (The Complete Eightball 1-18); and Carol Swain (Gast).
Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth said the company’s financial problems stem, at least partly, from the cancellation and postponement of about 13 titles originally slated to be translated and produced by the late Kim Thompson, his co-publisher and partner, who died in June. Thompson is generally considered one of the comics industry’s finest translators, and was instrumental in not only translating Fantagraphics Eurocomics but overseeing their production. While French translations are not the most profitable titles Fantagraphics publishes, Groth said the loss of their revenue exacerbated a long brewing cash problem.
“Partly our problems stem from the constant demands around publishing alternative comics and having certain standards,” Groth said, noting that “while those [Kim Thompson] books technically were not going to be that profitable, their revenue was missed.” Groth, initially skeptical of Kickstarter—he said thought it was just for empoverished artists—found that, after studying the site, it was just an alternative way, within the free enterprise system, to raise capital.
Groth did consider other strategies, such as getting an investor, but said that Kickstarter seemed the best way to maintain Fantagraphics editorial freedom and mission. "I don’t have any personal money to use; you can try to find an investor but that means death for an independent publisher," he said. Asked what will happen if the Kickstarter campaign fails, Groth said the company would "muddle through somehow," but he expects the campaign to succeed.
This isn’t the first time Fantagraphics has faced financial shortfalls. About 10 years ago, Groth made an appeal to retailers and fans to buy more of the house's books and, miraculously, raised the necessary funds to stay in business. The company has also appealed to the public for funds in the wake of legal issues and litigation. In many ways, Groth said, Kickstarter may simply be the most efficient way to make public appeals for financial support.
So far, the public is responding. Fantagraphics has offered a dizzying array of rewards/premiums to entice donations via Kickstarter. Fans can give a $1 to be mentioned in Groth’s prayers; for $30 associate publisher Eric Reynolds will give you a 30 minute portforlio review; $35 gets you a variety of graphic novels signed by their authors; and for $800 Groth, along with a gun warden, will take you on a shooting party to blow holes in appliances and jugs. There are more than 30 different rewards for donors, including, at the price tag of $1,000, a five-minute shopping spree in the Fantagraphics warehouse where you can take away everythig you can carry with the aid of a Fantagraphics tote bag. And, topping out at $2,000, is the chance to receive every book Fantagraphics publishes for a year. Comments from backers also seem promising, with things ranging from: "Happy to Pledge;" “Thrilled to be a backer;” “Upped my pledge to three books, fingers crossed they aren't sold out!”
While Kickstarter is clearly a boon to anyone with a strong following online and some level of actual accomplishment, managing a Kickstarter campaign and delivering the premiums and rewards can be all-consuming. Is this a big distraction from publishing? Groth said no, “I have employees who can take care of fulfillment. It’s a bureaucratic problem and we’ve got the infrastructure to handle it.”
Groth also acknowledged that using Kickstarter in this manner will probably change the perception and scope of Kickstarter campaigns for publishers going forward. Why look to fund a single book when, perhaps, you can fund your entire publishing program using Kickstarter? Groth acknowledged that he’s probably unleashed a new paradigm for funding on the small publishing world.
“I’d rather just sell 500 more copies of all my books,” Groth said, “but I think this is going to work,” emphasizing that the real problem facing Fantagraphics is simple, “It’s just fucking hard to be an alternative publisher.”