For decades, the Seattle-based company Fantagraphics Books has been synonymous with groundbreaking works, from original graphic novels and collections by the likes of Peter Bagge, Chris Ware, and more to reprints of classic comic strips and creators, and of course the long-form interviews and commentary of The Comics Journal.
But recently, the company hit a major bump in the road – and turned to their fans to see them through.
In June of this year, long-time Fantagraphics editor Kim Thompson passed away, leading a number of European titles he was translating to be reprinted through the company up in the air. The resulting financial gap from these books leaving the schedule put a serious gap in the company’s income, and made it difficult for them to produce their 2014 “Season” of books, featuring material from a who’s who of comic greats including Dan Clowes, Joe Sacco, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Charles Schultz, Jamie Hernandez, and more names than we can list here.
So, they turned to a source that has helped many new and established creators put their books out – Kickstarter.
With a projected goal of $150,000, Fantagraphics’ campaign, which you can see here, startled everyone by reaching full funding within a few days of its announcement. Now at its halfway point, it’s accumulated more than $183,000 as of Nov.20.
But what does this success mean for the company – and how can continued support of the campaign help Fantagraphics further?
To understand this, we talked with Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds for a quick discussion about the campaign and its effect on the company. We found out what went into putting this campaign together, their “stretch” goals for the additional funding – and if they see themselves doing this again.
Newsarama: Eric, first – the Kickstarter has had a huge response. What's your reaction been to this – did you anticipate funding so quickly?
EricReynolds: I honestly believed it would get funded. I had faith on that front, but I had no idea how long it would take. I probably would have taken the over on seven days if forced to bet the over/under.
Nrama: Crowdfunding has become an increasingly popular resource for comic book, but in jumping into this arena, what measures did you want to take with regard to use of funds, a realistic goal, fulfilling backer rewards, shipping, etc.?
I assume there are many more challenges, but what's interesting to me is what sort of research you had to do to plan this out, as that's something a lot of these campaigns face.
Reynolds: Well, the first step, before we even settled on Kickstarter or crowdsourcing our season, was recognizing and coming to terms with where we were at this summer, financially.
This is hard to explain, and it's only with the benefit of hindsight that I can even attempt to, but when Kim (Thompson) was diagnosed late last winter, we were in a state of collective shock for the next several months, well past his death on June 19th.
On the one hand, everyone at Fantagraphics has worked harder than ever this year — I think most of us funneled our grief into our work because that's what he would have done — but on the other hand I think we were also in a state of shock and just trying to cope with this fucked-up situation as best we could.
We knew our schedule would take a hit just due to the sheer number of foreign books Kim had on his plate and talked about that early on, but we frankly underestimated on how much removing a third of a season's worth of books would disrupt our ability to function properly as the year progressed. Not that we could have prevented it.
Once this came more clearly into view this summer, we immediately began brainstorming ways to overcome it and Gary (Groth, Fantagraphics co-founder) was the one who really believed crowdsourcing could not only help us in the short term, but in a way that could be honorable and healthy for everyone involved -- including the people who buy our books.
We calculated what the initial goal should be, based on a realistic look at our situation currently and into next season, and from there it was a combination of brainstorming to create worthwhile premiums (fun) and creating massive spreadsheets and projections (less fun, as Jen Vaughn can tell you).
But it was Gary who motivated us to see how this could really be something special for us. It's been rewarding in ways I certainly never imagined.
Nrama: As an established company, do you think it was easier or more complicated for Fantagraphics to put this campaign together? What made it more/less complicated?
Reynolds: On a very practical/logistical level, easier. We have brand recognition and — if I may be so bold — a genuine place in the culture that I think benefits the art form (possibly more than it benefits Fantagraphics, frankly). And we have a staff that can execute the nuts and bolts of the campaign.
So that's all an advantage. I thought the more complicated part would be on a public opinion level, knowing that very few “corporations” (I use that term extremely loosely, but it's technically accurate) have ever utilized crowdsourcing in this way, at least in comics. But I've been humbled by how many people simply seem to get it and have thrown in their support.
Nrama: In the Kickstarter, you talk about how 13 projects that Kim Thompson was working on had to be postponed or canceled. Would the results of the Kickstarter allow Fantagraphics to continue working on these books or resume the canceled projects, and if so, what resources would the funds allow.
Reynolds: Yes! See question 6…
Nrama: Also given how long you've been in business and your understanding of the intricacies of comics publishing, I'm most curious what you feel are the biggest benefits/potential pitfalls of crowdfunding campaigns, and what they could mean to the industry.
Reynolds: I honestly had never given it more than a fleeting thought up until a couple months ago. I'm not sure I have a broad perspective on this. Everyone's needs and circumstances are different. We did what we felt was right for us.
Nrama: All right, you've surpassed your $150k goal and there's still time left in this campaign. If you were to achieve higher levels of funding -- say, up to $250k or $300k by the campaign's end, what would this allow Fantagraphics to do over the course of 2014? Would it mean more books, the ability to hire more employees, plan ahead more, what?
Again, this is based in not having a full understanding of how the business side of publishing works, but I do want our readers to understand how additional funding could benefit the company.
Reynolds: There's a $200K stretch goal specifically to fund and publish those 13 books of Kim's that were scheduled, and more broadly, to continue his mission to bring the best bande dessinee to English audiences.
We have a couple of other stretch goals in mind, mostly to finance certain projects we need to do but can't afford, such as a new and updated website infrastructure.
Nrama: What are some of the biggest changes the comics industry has faced over the past decade that Fantagraphics has had to adapt to, and what are some of the ways that the company has adapted?
Reynolds: Oh, man, this is a crazy broad question spanning all facets of the business and production ends. I'm not sure where to start. Internet?
Nrama: Of the books you have planned for the coming season, which mean the most to you personally and why?
Reynolds: That's a great question, thank you. Probably Joe Sacco's BUMF and Dan Clowes's Complete Eightball. I could name others, but those guys are not only two of my best pals in comics, but they're also two of the guys who kept me interested in comics (the late-1980s) at a time when I could have easily never looked back and drew me to seek out Fantagraphics in the early 1990s.
Working on these two will be a real pleasure for me.
Nrama: Now, no one knows where things are going to be a year from now, but given the success of this campaign, do you foresee the company possibly trying something like this again in the future, either to help fund a “season” of books or to possibly underwrite the costs of a book whose audience you're not sure about -- i.e., “preselling” the volume?
That's been a major focus of many crowdfunding campaigns based around comics, funding the production costs while also giving the books a great deal of advance publicity.
Reynolds: As far as something as broad as this, I don't know. That's the simplest way to put it. We have no plans to, but I would be foolish to rule it out. But I do have a much more focused and specific pipe dream in mind that I think would lend itself perfectly to crowdsourcing. We'll see what happens...
Nrama: What's the biggest thing you've learned from this campaign?
Reynolds: I don't know what I've learned but I've been really humbled by the support. It's been a very satisfying project in a way I never expected. Not just financially.