Two years ago, fan-favorite novelist/comic book writer Greg Rucka decided to try something new. He embarked on a webcomic with artist Rick Burchett entitled Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether. It's a sublime title to go along with the high-adventure steampunk nature of the webcomic. Recently, with the webcomic still running, Rucka, Burchett, and editor Eric Newsom took to crowdfunding site Kickstarter in order to raise funds for a printed hardcover collection the first five chapters of Lady Sabre. The campaign needed $27,500 in thirty days to succeed; it reached that goal within several hours, and has raised over $100,000 with one week left to go. Rucka has also been busy working on a new creator-owned comic called Lazarus, which reunites him with former Gotham Central collaborator Michael Lark. A look at a future dystopia and the class struggles therein, Lazarus is due out June 26 from Image Comics. Rucka recently took a seat in The Outhouse to talk about his current work, crowdfunding comics, and why going out to dinner has been so important for his career.
The Outhouse (OH): We should start at the Kickstarter. At last check, you were well over 300% funded.
Greg Rucka (GR): Yeah, we're doing far better than our wildest dreams. It's kind of stunning.
The Outhouse: To what have you been attributing the response?
GR: There's me, there's Rick, then there's our editor/webmaster/social media guru Eric. We spent a lot of time on this campaign. If you go back on the site and look, we're asking readers if they thought we should go to a publisher or if we should go to Kickstarter about a year ago. We took a lot of time on the campaign; we really tried to understand what we were going to get ourselves into as well as we could, we really wanted to make sure that we knew going in financially what we needed to achieve our goal. We wanted very clearly for the Kickstarter to state "this is what we are doing, this is what you get, this is how much we are asking, this is where that money will go." I've only got anecdotal evidence, but I'd like to think that that was a huge factor, that we were very straightforward. A couple of people have called us "transparent," and I don't know what I think of that word, it always strikes me as a little buzzword-y, but we wanted to make sure that we were honest and we also understood what we were asking, which was "hi, we would like you please to pledge money to this goal. You don't know us, and the economy's not great, and we recognize that a lot of Kickstarters fail to deliver, even if they fund, and we do not intend to be one of those, and here is the best evidence we can give you to show our intentions are true and we're not a fly-by-night bunch of idiots."
So that I think was a part of it, and I also think we benefitted from the community nature not only of Kickstarter, which is crowdfunding, so obviously there is a community there, but also a relatively small but passionate webcomics community. We've got some dedicated followers, and they...it's great when Warren Ellis says "hey, Greg Rucka's doing a Kickstarter, go take a look," and it's great when Brian Bendis does that, or even Felicia Day for god's sakes, but we've got a couple dozen people who actually went out there and banged on the metaphorical doors of Facebook or Tumblr, and I feel like a lot of what we've done was made possible by them.
It's a long answer because I've been thinking about it a lot.
OH: How much time did you guys spend on looking at other Kickstarters to figure out "this is the way we want to do this?" What were some standouts to you?
GR: We looked at a lot of different Kickstarters, ones that had succeeded and ones that had failed. We also had the benefit of George Rohac, who used to be at Oni, and is now sort of...I'm not sure what you'd describe him as professionally, but he's done a lot of actual academic study on webcomics and fundraising and so on, and we consulted with him. He's very busy, we didn't get to talk to him a lot. There are certain Kicstarters you look at and you're like "there's no way in a million years they're going to hit that," like Dresden Codak, for instance. You're like "yeah, that ain't ever gonna happen." We honestly – and this isn't false modestly – when we entered the campaign, at least Rick and I, I'm not sure what Eric thought, but Rick and I were like "well, if we make it, it'll probably be in the last week." [laughs] We didn't think we'd make it in the first seven hours. We thought it would take three or more weeks to reach our fundraising goal. It's one of the reasons why we kinda freaked out about our stretch goals. All of our stretch goals had been fantasies. I had actually gone so far as to call a printer and quote them because, again, we wanted to be responsible. I actually ran the numbers, but I was like "maybe we'll be able to do two of these." Now we're on our fifth. I'm reluctant to name names, but I will say that there were certain things we saw in successful ones that we thought were very good examples. Communication was one. Clarity is really important. There are a lot of Kickstarters out there where you hit that page and...most people "tl;dr" it. There are a lot of pages out there when you look at people's campaigns and they are difficult to read, they're cluttered pages, they throw a lot of graphics at you, and it is not clear visually what the goal is, and what you get. There is an element of "what do I get?" that needs to be acknowledged, beyond "you get to feel good about helping us accomplish this thing."
I will say one other thing that I think we've been very good about: I think it's clear that we're not being greedy. The basic thing we were offering when we started was a hardcover, 192-page book for thirty bucks, and with that you would get all the digital options. If you go into your local comic book store and you pick up a 192-page hardcover, they're charging you at least thirty dollars. At least. And probably more than that. Normally forty, or forty-five. So I think it was evident that you were going to get a value. This is a good deal. Frankly, where we are right now, because of the stretch goals, you're actually getting three books. You're getting three books for the price of one. You're getting over four hundred pages of material right now. That's pretty good! I'd take that deal.
OH: It stood out to me that you actually had a mockup of what the book would look like on your page.
GR: We saw that on a couple of pages, and I thought that was really crucial, to show people "here's the physical object," or at least "here's a rendition of what the physical object will look like." That helps. It's funny, Eric did those in Photoshop, and the first couple he did, the spine was super-thick. It looked like a six hundred page book, and I was like "that's fantastic!" And he was like "yes, it's also misleading. I will have to make that smaller." Hopefully today, we're talking on a Wednesday, and Wednesday is the day we have our regular conference call, though admittedly lately we've been talking three or four times a week, but Wednesday is our regular conference call day, and hopefully today Rick will have completed the cover mock for a new tier addition we're going to unveil. We had done a limited edition that was all the bells and whistles, like fake leather binding, and slipcase and so on. That was a limited run, and we sold through on those, and it seems kind of like cheating if you say "it's a limited run! Oh, you bought all of them? We'll make more!" Then it wasn't limited, was it? So we got sort of a mid-tier, a nicer edition of the book. Again, this is all stuff we wanted to do at the start, and had been pricing. When we were looking at printer's quotes, we were like "we won't do this," but now it looks like there's a demand for it, and if people want it, then I'm not at all adverse to offering it.
OH: So now you've had your first experience with crowdfunding a comic, though obviously you still have fulfillment ahead of you –
GR: Yeah, there is that part! The part where we need to walk the walk! [laughs]
OH: I didn't mean to gloss over such an important process there.
No, I know. Obviously, you were segueing to another question, I can tell. It's just that I do want to make it clear that it's all well and good to raise the money, but it would be beyond shameful if we could not deliver the fulfillment part of the deal. I've heard people describe this as "the easy part," and one of the things I discovered is that it ain't. I thought you could just start a Kickstarter and click "go" and just walk away [laughs] and you come back thirty days later and you'd know if it had succeeded or not. That's not the case. You click "go," and it becomes your full time job for the duration of the campaign. And that's only the first part. We're going to have to make sure everybody gets everything we promised, and not only that but they get it in the time we've promised, in the way we've promised, and when they open the packages that they're pleased with it. It would suck if we were to take this incredible good will, and lose it because we screwed up on our end.
So yes, you were going to ask a different question. [laughs]
OH: Now that you've been through that part of it, I'd like you to talk about what place crowdfunding has in comics today.
GR: I think it's doing some incredible things. I really do. We could go on for hours about comics publishing. We could go on for hours about what the Big Two do, and how that affects every other publisher out there. I think one of the things crowdfunding allows very clearly is for creators to do their books exactly the way they hope to do them, and to actually engage that process at a variety of different levels. One of the reasons we wanted to do this, aside from the fact that it was important to us to engage the community and to work with our readership and everybody else out there, is that [long pause] I've been in comics for over fifteen years, and I've been publishing novels for twenty. There are things I understand about the process, but there are things I've never known. I've never known what happens from the moment that the editor says "yes, I have the book here," and then it goes to the printer. That aspect of the process has always been one that I've been really, really vague on, and that I wanted to understand. So for us, part of this experience has been really to control the creation of the work from beginning to end. From creating the strip, from writing it to drawing it to sharing it, from creating the book in InDesign, to quoting it, to understand the differences between cover stocks, and paper stocks and printing processes and binding, to the actual running of the presses, and the proofcheck, to the shipping and the distribution. You're talking about the deep weeds for me, and I felt it was long past time I understood those aspects of the industry. And one of the things you get, to get back to your question, is that we've seen creators go to Kickstarter to source funding for the creation of work, but then they will have it distributed through a publisher, and that's perfectly valid. So it allows a more nuanced approach, and it is also potentially and theoretically a meritocracy. If you have never heard of me, but I am presenting material that is of quality, then the opportunity is there to create and campaign a backing that will allow for the creation of said property. And god knows how difficult it is, even in this digital age where you can doodle on a napkin and scan it and "ta-da! I'm doing a webcomic!" There's still an element of – I don't want to call it legitimate publishing – but there is a difference in approaching the market and that range of distribution that does allow for more of a meritocracy, while at the same time catering to a very specific niche in some cases.
OH: What was it that led to the decision to offer Lady Sabre in a printed edition?
GR: Part of it, like I said, was Rick and Eric and I wanted to understand the process. Another part of it was...we had talked to a couple of publishers. A couple of publishers were really interested in distributing the comic. All three of us get hot and bothered over nice books. We're book people. On some level we wanted to make the book we wanted this to be, to really run tight over the quality control. The most important factor was what I said earlier, that webcomics are a community-based medium. We do not charge, and webcomics that charge for acess do not do well, for obvious reasons. You live and die on the strength of the community with your webcomic. If people are willing to come back twice a week or once every month or once every couple of months, that community...the work exists, but if no one's seeing it, that's a problem. So it mattered to us to work with our community base, to go to the people who have been supporting us and say "what do you want? How do you want to do this?" The response was we had people almost overwhelmingly say "we would like to see a Kickstarter for this. We would like to be able to back this. We would like to see you open this up to a larger community."
It's interesting because when you're running [your Kickstarter], you have access to behind-the-curtain metrics, and one of them is a pie graph that will show you where your backers are coming from, and breaks it down from backers who have found you through Kickstarter, and backers who have found you form outside of the Kickstarter portal. That first week, it was four to one from outside vs. inside. It was almost entirely from Twitter, and our site, and other sites. As our campaign has gone on, we've hit this sort of middle period where everything settles, and we've not wanted to oversaturate. We haven't wanted to be jumping up and down and saying "we're still doing this! Look over here!" And frankly, the success of the Kickstarter makes me feel a little uncomfortable. We've so surpassed our goal that, while we now have new goals, I can't help but feel a little bit awkward to go "hey, we're still doing this thing." So now more and more, backers are coming from inside the Kickstarter portal. But like I said, that initial response was the community response, and that was, if not the deciding factor, probably one of the most powerful.
OH: At this point I have to ask: how are you guys going to top yourselves with volume 2?
GR: I suspect that we will do a Kickstarter for it simply because this seems to be, if nothing else, a wonderful method of pre-orders, of distributing the book.
I honestly don't know if we need to top ourselves. What we need to do is prove that we were good to our word on this one. If we can do that, then I think we will be comfortable with returning to the community and saying "hi, we're back, and we'd like to do volume 2, and it's going to be consistent with what you have received. So if you like what happened before, we have it here again." I think we would do certain things the same way. There will be certain tier rewards that we would definitely offer. For instance, we do a bookplate. At a certain level, you get a bookplate that you can only get when you order through Kickstarter, so I know we would do a bookplate. It would be a different bookplate, it would be volume 2 specific, so there are things like that. We will do the Rare and Royal editions again. People seemed to respond very well to the character rewards, being able to appear in the strip, or being able to work with us on things like that. But on the bells and whistles side, I don't know. Right now we have one book all locked. That was the trade. We knew what that was going to look like. We can still make minor alterations to the interior and content, but we have another two that need to be prepped and are still in the design stage. I suspect that's going to be a lot more work than I thought it was. I'm not sure that we would offer those again. [laughs]
That said, I'm one of those guys who loves props. I love prop replicas. I want Deckard's gun from Blade Runner. I like the ephemera. I like being able to hold things from the fantasy in my hand. One of the books you get if you pledge is an ephemera book. It is a book from the story. I would love to do more things like that. I would love to find a cost-effective way for instance to do the Marshall's badge that Miles Drake wears. We looked into that over and over again, but we couldn't find a way to actually manufacture it because Rick's design is so non-traditional that we'd have to do a custom die, and I wouldn't want that to be shoddy. I wouldn't want that to be some cheap plastic thing.
I figure it this way: I don't know if we need to top ourselves, but if we do, we've got at least a year before I have to have an answer to that question. [laughs]
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