We’re back with a lovely long interview with cult comics publisher, maker and general poetry aficionado Ken Eppstein.
I’ve known about Nix Comics since its first being mentioned on The Comics Reporter and been intrigued by how grass roots and open it seems as a publisher.
Then I saw a blog post where Ken went into details on sales and breakeven and knew I had to dig into this. Ken was incredibly helpful and polite throughout this whole process and comes across as a genuine and honest person – it made it great fun to be in touch and sort this out.
ZL – I’m going to start all sensible and check my facts out first. My understanding is that Nix Comics started around 2008 as a publisher, is that right?
KE – More like 2010 for Nix proper. I started doing some cartoons and submitting them to Roctober Magazine around 2008, though. They were adaptations of interviews that I had conducted a few years before that as part of a newsletter for Evil Empire Records’ regular customers. I couldn’t mentally have gotten to “Nix Comics” without Roctober. Advice/help from Jake Austen was pretty instrumental to me, though, so I wouldn’t quibble if you called 2008 the start in that sense.
ZL – I’ve read that you had decided to end your record shop and find new adventures. That went with coming back to comics and finding there weren’t many comics that suited your tastes, so you thought you’d make your own. Does that sound about right?
KE – Hahaha…. “Decided” is a generous way to put it. The brick and mortar Evil Empire Records was a flop. Not enough people in Columbus who want to buy Billy Childish records, I guess. (Town full of fuckin’ heathens.)
By the time I was starting to do comics stuff, my retail efforts were limited to on-line sales, which didn’t bring me the same joy: the only part of running a retail operation that I really enjoy is meeting people and making recommendations. I was at a point where I needed more personally. I can’t tell you why all the pieces of Nix Comics snapped into place specifically at that point in time, but long stifled creative urges were finally bubbling over in my brain.
And yep… My perception was that there weren’t a lot of comics to my taste when I started making my own. And there hadn’t been for many years. I felt that way and said as much at the time, but I do feel like qualifying that opinion nowadays. I hadn’t had my ear to the ground for a while and the only experience I was going from was my knowledge of what was coming to stores that only sell Diamond distributed products. If I had bothered to actually go looking instead of shooting my mouth off, I would have found stuff. What I should have said is “there is never enough” stuff that I personally want to read.
ZL – When you started, did you expect that you’d be able to make a good living – well, as good as selling records – from doing comics, or do you have an additional set of income, so it’s more of a moot point?
KE – A good friend of mine once ribbed me by saying it was “awesome” that I based the Nix Comics business model on the tiny, mostly defunct, independent records that I loved. I had to laugh, because it was definitely true… My plans had a lot in common with how outfits like Estrus Records and Get Hip Records operated. Those labels were distribution efforts created to be vehicles for the Mono-Men and the Cynics, respectively, but they grew to include other acts that fit into that 90s garage punk scene. Anyways, I figured it would be a way to make a little extra side cash with the potential of it becoming a fulltime thing if all the streams converged properly.
I also was aware of the worst-case scenario, that maybe Nix would never would catch and I would blow a lot of money on something that only a handful of people appreciated. I mean… How much mass appeal can there be for a comic whose main distinctive feature is that the lead writer likes to include oblique references to Kasenetz & Katz Super Circus songs? I was (and am) cool with that in the sense that I don’t really have any other vices these days. Don’t drink or smoke or gamble outside of the occasional lottery ticket. Making comics keeps me out of trouble.
I should add for the record, Get Hip = NOT defunct! (Record pun intended.)
ZL – Is that lack of commercial need aided by you living somewhere cheap or do you just have low expectations for cost and lifestyle?
KE – Ah… you know… My expectations are always butting up against my pragmatism. Expectations are my Mr. Hyde: furious, sad and confused that I can’t sell a couple thousand of the comics and zines that I feel are good and different. That’s what? 50 copies per state in the US? Even accounting for the relative paucity of people in Montana, that’s not an unreasonable goal, right?
My pragmatic Jekyll knows all too well that it’s never been easy or likely for artists to make a living. My guess is that it’s harder than ever because thanks to things like crowdfunding and print on demand services, the bar for entry into the field is lower than ever. That’s great in the sense that I believe that all artists should have access to means for creation, but it’s a drag in terms of an overcrowded field.
The funny thing is I sometimes feel like I’m by default Hyde and I need to take the potion to turn into Jekyll.
ZL – Yeah, I know what you mean. I’ve got to a point where I feel like I’m so likely to fail it just doesn’t even matter anymore, not sure what that counts as but I’m going to coin the phrase ‘entropic pragmatism’ I’m so despondent it seems like it doesn’t actually matter so I can justify giving it a go. That sounds quite messed up when I say it out loud! Moving quickly back to you then…
When you first started up Nix comics what did you think you’d be able to achieve, in what timescale?
KE – Ack. You ask hard questions. Tough to answer because the immediate goal has always been the next book or next few books, whatever they may be. Everything else was (and is) pretty experimental.
I had a good day job at the time I started and spent year one throwing money at Nix, hoping it would jumpstart things. My goals were pretty standard, I think, for wannabe publishers: I wanted to make sure all the artists got paid and to print enough copies that I could make some money if they all sold. I thought I would pick up distribution and get to the point where it was at least self-sustaining. I was also hoping to get a core group of artists locked down… Like, so they could plan on having X amount of work every year from me.
It was pretty clear to me by the end of the year that things just weren’t going to work out that way.
Second year I tried to just do titles where I paid artists a percentage of sales. Only two titles in 2012, Nix Western Comics and Nix Comics for Kids. It worked OK… Nix Western actually made both me and Bob Starker a little money. (Sad story: the little bit of money Bob made was by his account more money than he had made in his entire three-decade musical career.) Nix for Kids was a bomb and I went into the red for it and only paid Brian Kraft a pittance for a 20-page full color comic.
Kind of hated the extra work for not a lot of money involved in that whole process and, with the exception of the Belligerent Kitties minis, haven’t done anything but a flat rate for a maximum number of printings since. Like if I give somebody $150 for a Bus Stop Ned, that’s good for printing 2000 copies of that comic. Any other publications or merchandising would require a new deal. There’s potentially a lot more money on the back end for me than the artist gets up front, but I think that’s fair.
I also changed my plans for reach. After being rejected by Diamond and a brief relationship with Ubiquity Magazine distributors I adopted a “Columbus first, then the world” mentality. I’ve really tried to concentrate on being a notable publisher here in town in hopes that I can spring off of that into something more broadly notable. I have NO IDEA how to get that done, so no timeline on that goal.
For a long time, my focus was just on getting books out. I was pretty resigned to them not making money, but I really wanted them to get made! A couple of years ago I was forced to leave that “good job” and since have had sporadic employment. This has led to more of a focus on the books making money, or at least all of my side hustles making money. I miss the days when I could do whatever-the-fuck I wanted.
ZL – It seems like many creators have to flit about, scraping pennies together, more so than ever. I can’t really say why that is, I’m not sure anyone can, really. It seems like society is moving more and more to the job and side hustle and the hustle to the hustle. It’s like everything is just too much for even the basics to be affordable.
ZL – I skipped this in my fact check, sorry for going back but, for those who don’t know anything about you, could you give a brief history of Nix comics; where you’re based, and the kind of titles and creators you publish? Am I right in saying your based in Columbus, where CXC and the Billy Ireland started up in the last few years?
KE – Yep, I’ve lived in Columbus for the past 30 years, minus a brief stay in Boston in the early 90s and a brief stay in San Francisco in the early 00s. I think this is the 5th year for CXC coming up and the 7th for the current Billy Ireland digs. (Those numbers should be right within a year or so.)
The Billy Ireland had been around as a library and archive for many years prior to that: divided up between a warehouse and a tiny library in an Ohio State University basement… I think one of the great shames OSU should feel is that they kept such a great resource buried in a basement for fuckin’ decades. I’m glad now that it is starting to get the space and recognition it deserves.
Wait… This question was about me and Nix Comics. Like we said, I started working on Nix in 2010. My idea was to make the kind of comics that would sell well in record stores in addition to comic shops. The old saw is true: you write and publish about the stuff you know. There was also a certain amount of math to it, too: There were, I think, 3 comic shops in town at the time and 8 record shops. I knew the people at record shops but didn’t really know the comic shop folks at the time.
Digging down on that a little, I’ve always focused on music themed comics…. Whether that connection is something obvious like stories about bands and record stores, doing biographical material or just based on the artist also being a musician. That has led to a lot of different genres, artistic styles and book formats, so I don’t know how successful I’ve been in communicating that to readers. Sometimes I feel like no one else gets it and sometimes I feel like people get it and are just quietly nodding until I shut the fuck up.
ZL – I was doing a bit of research on you and was very impressed by your commitment from the very start to have open books, particularly for the sake of the artists working with you, so they understood what had been achieved. As well as ensuring everyone was paid as fairly as you could.
Has that worked out positively for you, or not made any real kind of impact?
KE – Well, I think that the answer to that has more to do with anecdotal experiences leading up to my deciding to pay artists. I guess first up, I am a recovering Stan Lee True Believer. I bit hard on the Stan mythos as a kid and it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I really read up on him as a subject and was forced to examine the reality of the person behind the myth. I still idolize the mythic figure in ways, but I want to be a better person as an actual collaborator, editor, and publisher. Same goes for Bill Gaines and Jim Warren…. I’d like to take the good from their careers and improve on the bad.
Along those lines, right before I started Nix Comics I had read Eric Davidson’s “We Never Learn” about 90s punk and garage. There’s a great part where Danny Kroha from the Gories relates about he had the most respect for Tim Warren from Crypt Records of all the record label folks because Warren always sent a sales report with a check every year. Kroha admitted that he sometimes doubted the accuracy of the numbers, but that Warren was the only label/distro that even bothered with regular reporting.
For more musical context, Nix Comics was also formed right on the heels of the Dead Kennedys’ royalty lawsuit. Not that I was ever a huge fan of the band, but I ended up losing a lot of respect for everyone involved in that mess. Like, how on earth do these self-identified leftists end up fighting about royalties? It didn’t help that in addition to actual court, they tried the matter in the court of public opinion in the opening days of social media connectivity.
All that said, the experience that most fixed my point of view on all that was a personal one. Bear with me, because I’m going to tell a story without mentioning any names because it involves people I like on all ends and I don’t know the whole actual truth… But there’s a guy I know who worked at a local record store and is in a garage rock band of note. Not like Mudhoney level famous or anything, but beloved by a lot of people who are into such things. This fella and I were talking record store business when a specific distro came up, and my friend melted down. Like a full-on fist waving and red-faced vein-popping out of his forehead screaming meltdown.
He ranted on about how the distro in question was a bunch of crooks who owe his band money. I know the distro folks in question, and while I don’t doubt that they may have owed my friend money, I don’t think they are nefarious. I do think they are capable of fucking up and not communicating well about it. I think all parties concerned are capable of blowing up and ending an argument before its resolved, creating a feud. Anyways, I hated suddenly being in the middle of a fight like that and can only imagine how much I’d hate being actually a participant in the fight. Pretty much I want to avoid ever having somebody blast me like that, and the only way I can think of is to be as transparent and forthcoming as possible.
So… you know… Some altruism and some being chicken-shit was involved in setting those policies.
Has it had an impact? Maybe, but I think that’s not the right word for it. It’s bought me a lot of leeway with artists as they always know where I’m coming from. Maybe a little too much leeway as I still owe Rick Brooks a couple hundred bucks for his work in Nix Western #4. Similar, I feel like I owe Andy Bennett some extra money for Jenny Mae ‘N Jerry Wick because the page count went up on him between start and finish of the project. I don’t think and wouldn’t expect those guys to give me any leeway on all if I didn’t have open books and a history of making good. I feel like I’m in a little bit of abuse of that goodwill at the moment and am working on making it right.
ZL – This interview came about partly because of I follow you thanx to the mentions on Comics Reporter, but specifically because I picked up on your post about breaking even, and I wondered if you’d met with any increased interest because of that post? Has there been any kind of feedback at all really, or just some tumble weed and me going, ‘Oo, oo, that’s really interesting!’ because I’m nosy like that?
KE – I do that kind of essay periodically and do get feedback and interest on them, mostly from people who are interested in the nuts and bolts of the industry. You’d have to ask him to be sure, but I think that kind of material is part of why Tom posts about me on Comics Reporter.
I guess the column I did for the Outhouse for a year or two had some fans. I look back on those writings, though, and kind of hate their tone… They read like I’m trying to “establish myself as an expert.” Maybe I was trying to do that, but nowadays I don’t like the idea of trying to turn experience into social currency.
I do keep beating head up against the notion that sharing information about my finances and how much money I pay to artists is a “big” selling point. It’s not. There are a few people for who that is true, but by in large, hardly anyone cares.
I also get a lot of fellow creator-types saying, “wow that’s really brave of you,” which is weird to me. I don’t understand what’s so scary about it. Like is it a big secret that making small press comics isn’t a moneymaking effort? Is money so personal that I’m breaking taboo by talking about it? Like revealing how the magic trick is done or wrestling match is choreographed or something? I dunno.
ZL – In my experience, money is always a risk area of conversation, I don’t tend to care about it, but then in my first few weeks at current job, I mentioned my pay rate around a colleague who’d been there longer, was more experienced and more senior and earning, it turns out, thousands less than me. They got quite personally upset and that shook me. I mean if they’d just been mad at work, I’d have felt vindicated, but that was personal for them, so it was really ‘urgh, why didn’t I shut up!’
I think it’s the same in most fields. Maybe, in the arts, it’s almost like having to admit you’re not a REAL artist if you can’t pay your way, you’re a hobbyist or something? I’m going off track and casting wild aspersions here.
Back to tack, I mentioned the reasons for why I follow you, because I’m always intrigued to know the causality of relationships, what led to what led to what etc. I wonder if part of what you’re trying to do is to create a space where work you can admire can start to flourish, where people can see it has a place to exist? Essentially, trying to create a place that suits you and then attract others to it. Or are you making stuff because you can’t stop yourself?
KE – Yes to both.
ZL – What are your feelings about the lack of honesty about numbers in comics in general – were you surprised by your numbers when they started coming in, or were you clued in early to sales and sales barriers within comics?
KE – Is there dishonesty or just a deafening silence amongst the people involved? I guess that would be lies of omission, but I don’t feel like anyone out there is being particularly deceptive about the financial realities of making comics.
Going back to an earlier answer, an expectant Hyde was surprised and dismayed by sales numbers and the ever-pragmatic Jekyll wasn’t.
ZL – You make a fair point there, that’s a mis-characterisation, maybe it’s more accurate to say what are your feelings about the lack of a wider discussion about financial realities.
I’m guessing there will be many that haven’t read your article, so could you briefly describe where your sales are in terms of break even, just a sort of, ‘this many titles made money, this many titles are within 1-20 of making money, this many have a loooong way to go’?
KE – Sorry for a bad interview answer here: They should just go read the essay! Or at least lookit the graph that answers your question!
ZL – That’s more than fair I think. It’s a good article, I enjoyed it very much.
Getting back to the start of Nix Comics, I’m interested to know how you decided on your initial numbers, was it based on a marketplace assessment, segmented by a target audience, more of a finger in the air, or the more hopeful, well if I sell this amount it’ll cover all the costs and it doesn’t seem that unreasonable to expect these sales figures?
KE – For the first couple of years a lot of it was pretty much dictated by where the price breaks were on print runs. Since I had aspirations of getting distribution in year one, I had to print quantities that would get me to the point where selling at 40% of cover price made sense. While I was working hard to get my books in stores sans-distributor I was shooting for whatever print run quantity made sense to sell at 50% of cover. I guess I’m still at that point, but I have cut back my wholesale activities a lot because it’s a lot of work with crappy margins. I’d rather make the sale myself at cover price than sell a copy for half that only to see it slaving away on a forgotten shelf in some store. That shit is debilitating.
In terms of artist pay the quarterly has maintained a store rate as opposed to a page rate. It started as $150 for a short (1-3 pages) and $300 for a feature (4-8 pages). I offer a little more for features now. This kept things in the range where I could look at wholesale distribution as a viable option. I also wanted it to incentivize shorter submissions, which was a punk rock thing; viewing each issue as a compilation record, I wanted lots of short rippers and fewer drippy ballads. I don’t remember how I arrived at those specific rates.
ZL – It sounds like you were considering breaking even on sales. Would you say that’s what drove you at the start, were you considering this in terms of your own ongoing business concerns or were you aimed more at driving sales or attention to the creator(s) and their published work?
KE – Clearly breaking even isn’t a prerequisite for me moving on to something else! I mean, ideally one project would pay for the next, but that’s just not the reality. Almost all of my decision drivers in that sense are whether or not I want to see the thing happen. More often than not the motivation for wanting the thing to happen is that I think the creators involved deserve an audience or that their work deserves “life.”
ZL – I also wonder after what expectations you set yourself at first and how realistic those sales or rather, your measures for sales, were in the end. I just wonder how much energy over time has been linked to your expectations not being met by reality and what emotional effect that had upon you?
KE – Shit. I’m always disappointed by sales. I’m in love with what I put out and don’t understand why it’s so damn hard to sell. There might be a step on the ladder where I’m satisfied with sales, but I ain’t hit it yet.
I don’t stress about it like some artists and publishers, because it’s not life or death for me, but I definitely feel it.
ZL – This is a tricky one to slip in, but, I wonder after how much emotion and anxiety you expected to be involved in the process and whether you were prepared for how much there actually was?
I particularly wonder after the amount of guilt involved in publishing, around having your own expectations for success and having to reconcile that with reality and having to deal with other creators’ own sense of worth and expectations of what makes that work worthwhile?
KE – Well, I’m here to tell you that the anxiety of no-one-buying-my comic is NOWHERE near the anxiety level of starting and failing at a brick and mortar retail business. I would spend days alone in a shop sweating over how I was going to pay two rents, two electric bills, two phone bills, etc. There were days when I was hoping just one comic or record would sell so I could go buy some eggs for the week. I think that experience for me definitely tamps down any angst I might feel about comics. If a Nix Comic flops, I’m out some dough and I have to decide what to do with the boxes of unsold material, but I’m not sitting alone in a room sweating about how will I be able to pay for one of my two rents. Or worse, hoping for just one sale so I can buy some beans and rice on the way home.
I do struggle with my expectations versus the reality of things, but I find guilt to be one of those angsty emotions. Frustration that I can’t reach more people? Yes, definitely. Anguish that even in a group of noted weirdos, I’m still the weird kid out? Yeah, that too. I guess that on occasion I feel envy of peers who have some success. That in turn leads to guilt over having such shitty thoughts… But that’s not guilt about my lack of success.
ZL – Did you even consider emotions and their impact on you going into the process and did it rear itself as an issue more as you went on?
KE – Yeah, I suppose I did. I’ve always hung out with artist types and was vicariously familiar with the ups and downs of an artistic career. Thanks to that I feel like I can avoid most of the emotional pitfalls of the process.
ZL – Moving away from commercial matters to more community related things, you’re now in something of a comics heartland I believe. I certainly know that I first heard of you from The Comic Reporter site and Tom Spurgeon mentioning you when he’d moved to Columbus and started working on CXC.
Have you seen anything of a change in the area relating to the new festival and the Billy Ireland library opening?
KE – Well, they are big public resources and as such they are what people in the comics community make of them. Some members of the community embrace the Billy and CXC, making the most of their presence, and others don’t.
The Billy Ireland doesn’t have any specifically local bent to its programs, so I have a hard time saying that the institution has made changes to the local comics community. It’s just not part of their mission. The Billy did hire Caitlin McGurk who has been a tremendous friend and supporter of local artists since her first day on the job, so that’s pretty impactful.
I know that CXC has the desire to enhance the local community, but it’s not really their main focus. It’s a cool show: having a cool show in town is good for the community and they’ve been really good to me personally. I think there are some little things they could do here and there to help the local community, like hire a local artist to do a promo poster.
ZL – Is there a sense of change within your comics community, or does it feel like that’s a million miles away from where you are?
KE – I don’t know. I can’t speak for the Columbus comics community. It’s a pretty eclectic group with different needs and points of view. I’ll say this: It’s grown a lot. When I started it was pretty easy to go out and meet everybody who makes comics in Columbus. Now I only know a fraction of the crowd and more kids are starting up every day.
ZL – Thinking about the wider community, are you finding that the nature of the area itself is changing, are rents increasing for example? Does this make you concerned about how viable the lifestyle you can currently achieve is going to remain?
KE – Yeah, like everywhere, rents are going up. Both residential and commercial. It’s driving out both a diversity of people and a diversity of businesses. That means fewer places to sell DIY type products combined with less money in everyone’s pockets. I am constantly ruminating over the increasing difficulty of day to day survival and what that means for art. This city right now is a lot different than the one I moved to 30 years ago and the changes are not “artistic lifestyle friendly.”
ZL – I seem to be hitting with some pretty heavy questions, sorry! I guess, particularly for someone based in the UK, the whole financial situation and publishing situation in America seems hard all round, especially when you’re having to think about medical bills or insurance as well!!
I’m going to lighten up a bit in a minute, I promise!
But not just yet!!!!
Tell us about your experience with running Kickstarter campaigns. You seem to have had your ups and downs with some failing to meet their target, but your most recent was pretty ambitious and ended up successfully. Have you picked that apart for yourself as to what may have made the difference?
KE – If you’ll permit me to continue to beat the metaphor to death, the two campaigns that failed were run by Hyde and the others were Jekyll operations.
For the 2013 “Big Ask” I was asking for $25K and figured I could get around 300 people to subscribe. There were plenty of people who I considered my peers getting that kind of action at the time. Turns out that they were my artistic peers, but in terms of having an active network of fans I wasn’t even close to them. I don’t remember if I thought I could actually make it or if I was just swinging for the fences. Either way, I whiffed.
The mistake I made for the 2014 campaign was that I knew I was asking for a fairly large chunk, but I figured people would step up for the two artists I was focusing on. Darren Merinuk has done posters and record sleeves on the cheap for literally 100s of bands. Bob Ray Starker has played a million live shows with and contributed on dozens of records for local bands without ever getting paid. I mentally multiplied those “100s” and ”dozens” of bands by number of band members and figured that there were more than enough people out there who owed Darren and Bob a little something and that I would make goal easy. Turns out all of those fuckers are ingrates. Still mad. Fuckin’ fuckface fuckers.
ZL – Are you finding it easier to get purchases now that Kickstarter has become something more central to the comics production cycle? Or has this hurt you, with the money and attention getting spread thinner now?
KE – For me personally? Kickstarter has been nothing but good. It’s a tool I understand, and my results have steadily gotten better over time. For the comic community as a whole, I do worry that it leads to overcrowding in the field since anyone who wants to make a comic book now can. That relationship between supply and demand is a real tricky thing.
ZL – Do you feel like this is a good way to sell and market your comics, along with convention attendance, or are you yearning, actively searching even, for a better way to get comics out there and making you money and getting you eyes on the work?
KE – Ideally people would just go to my mail order site and I could skip the third parties and middle men. It really annoys me that that doesn’t seem to be a viable thing.
ZL – Yeah, I wonder if site like Kickstarter have had an effect on audience expectation, maybe now they expect to find everything in one place, at their convenience. I remember being in love with the idea of subscriptions as a (lazy) kid and as an adult, I sort of feel like a subscription model should be able to work, but, anecdotally, I’ve got the feeling that it’s dead on the vine now as an approach. Unless you’re big enough to get a Patreon running…
I’m veering off subject again! I’ll lighten up on the heavy finance stuff and try for some controversy instead!!
This is probably a horrible question, but not too bad as you write most of your stories yourself, so I’m going to ask it anyway!
What title that you published is:
Your personal favorite?
The work you’re most proud to have published?
More commercially, what was the greatest income made for a creator?
KE – Funny story: I’m horrible at picking favorite anythings. I know I have them, but they don’t often bubble up when people ask me. Like recently someone asked me who my favorite actor is, and I couldn’t come up with a specific one. I went home and told my wife Kate about it and she just shook her head and told me that Vincent Price is clearly my favorite actor. She’s right of course. Unfortunately, for the purpose of this interview, I’m going to avoid embarrassing myself by asking her what my favorite Nix Comic is.
Right now, the book I’m most proud of releasing is Kent Grosswiler’s Beauty Found in Darkness. An illustrated book of urban haiku is about as far as I could push the envelope of “rock n roll comic” as I can imagine.
It was definitely a return to form of using artists peripheral to comics… Kent is an artistic polymath (Poet, painter, drummer) but not a comics guy. The illustrators on the book, Rob W. Jones and Alli MacGregor are fine artists, but also aren’t comic book people. It was really rewarding to work with all of them. Before that I think I was most proud of Nix Comics Quarterly #2. It’s not my “best” by far, but it was proof to myself that comics wasn’t just a one off for me. With issue #2 I knew that I could spend the rest of my life making comics if I want.
I don’t know for sure which artist I’ve paid the most money to. That’s a good question and probably worthy of some research and a personal blog post! It’s almost gotta be Andy Bennett since he has done two full lengths, a zine and a couple of features for Nix Comics Quarterly.
ZL – What is it you feel being published by Nix comics has brought to the creators that worked with you that they couldn’t have found for themselves?
KE – Forgive me, but I’m not going to project on my collaborators that way. It’s got to be different for every one of them. If I can make more work for you, I’d be interested in hearing their answers if you are willing to ask them! (Hah!)
I know that there a few people who had never had their comics published by someone else before Nix. It’s a pretty cool feeling to have done that for someone.
ZL – What is the best outcome you’ve seen for a creator or work that you published?
KE – Three of the contributors to Nix Comics Quarterly #8 ended up winning Eisners last year! (John Jennings, Tillie Walden and Gideon Kendall) I can take exactly zero credit for that, but I’m so proud of them and happy that the world recognizes their talent and hard work as much as I do.
ZL – What do you think your company’s legacy has been in the market place and in creators lives so far?
That’s a slightly loaded question I know! But, I think this is one of those issues of appreciation.
If you sit back and reflect upon that, how does it make you feel about your efforts? Do you sit back and think about that?
KE – Y’know, I always joke about selling the rights to my epitaph. “For $1000 bucks you can write whatever you want on my tombstone.” Or whatever. The joke comes from an honest, if somewhat morbid, place: I’m not going to care what’s scrawled on a rock after I’m dead. In a lot of ways, I feel the same way about my comics legacy. Such a thing is always written by other people and I don’t have a lot of control over it, so let it be what it will be.
That’s not to say I don’t celebrate my successes or ruminate over my failures as they happen. Each comic I put out is its own triumph. I’m not sure that I care that much about who or how much they are celebrated after I’ve stopped. Recognition for my efforts now would be nice. Same for being called out on my failings, I suppose, in the spirit of letting me know what I’m doing wrong so I can feel bad now and course correct.
ZL – Do you have plans to do anything differently in the future? I’m thinking, for example, of whether large magazines and large crowdfunding campaigns are going to remain viable, have you considered the success of companies like Oily comics and how they published comics through a subscription model, with regular publications and small page counts to keep it cheap and build momentum. Let’s face it, The End Of The Fucking World was published monthly with only eight photocopied pages and it’s done pretty well for itself. There are other publishers adopting this model, skip out on the big social media platforms. Have you considered that as an option?
KE – I do have plans to do some things differently.
For one thing, I am going to make some format changes, which are a response to being sick of those break-even numbers. I’m sick of trying to get “there” five bucks at a time. I need to make more stuff in the $10+ cover price range. One Idea I’m seriously toying with is doing my horror anthology comic as a 12×12 book with an optional LP compilation “de-luxe” version. It’s a pretty natural step, given that in my mind the comic anthology format is a clear parallel to compilation albums.
I’m thinking of doing a quarterly zine that is available for download as well as in print. Ideally It would be more ad revenue driven than sales revenue driven. I need to get on the hog with looking for sponsors for that.
Oily comics mini-comics was a really cool service, but I suspect the reason it’s no longer a thing is that it was a lot to keep in line. I love the idea of taking a classic zine club swap format and turning it into distribution, but there are so many moving parts involved in that and I don’t know if that machine bears up under the pressure of having paying third parties. (I also attribute the success of The End of the Fucking World more to Chuck’s talent and hard work than I do to the format it was released in.)
ZL – Yeah, I should have been clearer in saying that it did no harm to it putting it out in small chunks, but it seems to have made it easier in terms of ‘getting it done and getting it out there’.
ZL – Another question I’m wondering is whether digital would, in your opinion, have a place within your sales plans now, and what platforms would you consider if it does?
KE – I am down for some digital zines, but not super keen on doing digital comics. I don’t personally consume comics that way and that prevents me from wrapping my head around how to make them. I’m not even happy with the way my books look in PDF form when I send them out for reviews… The page turns don’t work the same way!
ZL – What are your sales venues in general?
KE – Crowd funding, shows/events, my website, ebay and discogs. There are a few comic, record and bookstores that carry Nix Comics.
ZL – What are your most successful route to sales?
KE – Crowfunding. Hands down. Lowest cost to entry and the biggest gains. It’s become the default marketplace for self-publishers and micro-presses.
ZL – Do you deal with any distributors for your work and do you have any insights on managing those relationships?
KE – Not right now. Well… Bela Koe-Krompecher distributes his contributor copies of his books as part of the Anyway Records catalog with Revolver and sometimes Matador, so I suppose I do have distribution through his efforts.
I’m not sure that distribution is worth seeking out unless I can sell a few thousand copies. For that I would have to up my marketing budget significantly and the margins are so shitty even at that economy of scale to begin with. Maybe down the road if things grow, I’ll feel different.
ZL – What is an average sales lifetime for a work, as in, are all sales front loaded up to publication date or do you continuing making sales over an extended period of months or even years and how do you manage to generate those sales?
KE – Average lifetime? I don’t know. Another good idea for a blog post! If we’re talking “lifetime” I guess that I would have declare some of them “dead” and I’m not sure that I’m willing to do that while the boxes are still sitting in my basement. They’re just comatose and may comeback, right? RIGHT!!??
The usual lifetime is that there’s a big burst of sales upon release and then a pretty dramatic drop off. Sales at that next level down tend to be steady for a year or so and then drop off again to almost nothing after that year. The only exceptions to that to date have been Nix Comics Quarterly #1, because when you meet new customers they normally want to start at the beginning and Jim Shephard: Negotiate Nothing which kept selling OK for a couple years thanks to Jim’s cult hero status. It has since settled down to the levels of other backstock.
I usually try to push backstock when something new is coming out, because it’s when I’m most likely to have fresh eyes on Nix as a whole. That’s my main strategy. I also try to bring copies of everything-but-everything with me when I’m at shows, because you never know who is going to want what. For stores that carry Nix books I try to rotate stock in and out. Chances are a book is new to someone!
I would welcome a good way to clear out backstock. I keep threatening to throw a small press/tiny record label “Box sale” where people like me vend backstock out of boxes of comics, records, CDs, et. all. at a deep discount.
ZL – Do you do that normally, engineer interest in older works with sales or packing them into bundles?
KE – Yeah! At shows I usually offer the first four issues of Nix Comics Quarterly for $10, which is basically the wholesale rate. I usually sell at least a couple of those packs per show.
ZL – On a practical level, what happens to any stock still left over, is it propping up someone’s bed or hidden away in a storage facility somewhere costing extra money to store?
KE – I have a decent sized house with a big basement and tiny home office, so no problem on the storage front. I do worry a little about dampness creeping in to the boxes in the basement (All issues 1-4 of the Quarterly) and would like to accelerate sales on those somehow.
ZL – Thinking about the future, what do you think is the future for idiosyncratic comics of the kind that Nix comics publish, self-publishing, web comics, digital platforms or something else?
KE – I have no idea. That’s serious crystal ball stuff, there.
The lefty in me hopes that print stays a viable option because it has the most potential for subversive use in the digital age. “They” can easily track and hack you on-line but try to hack this pamphlet I left in the men’s room of the Dubuque Greyhound station, jerk! (Not that I’ve ever been to Dubuque. You can’t prove that I have…)
Artistically speaking, I hope that short stories come back into vogue… I like my comic stories like I like my songs: Fast, loud and short! The whole sprawling epic thing that is in vogue across most genres really bores the piss outta me.
ZL – Yeah, definitely me as well, I don’t know why people like it. The whole idea of sitting down and watching some intricately plotted epic series where I have to keep everything fresh in my mind to understand what’s going on… I just want to switch off and relax, that’s harder effort than my job. How is that entertainment?
ZL – So, thinking again about community and particularly as you area publisher, so have to do some keeping your eye out for talent, which three creators would you recommend people search out if they are fans of Nix comics?
KE – Oh man. I’m gonna tap out on this question. Too many people deserving of a nod and I don’t want to apply any sort of hierarchy to them. How about this, here are my three favorite ways to find new creators that I admire:
- Follow zines, blogs and sites dedicated to uncovering new and old comics of all sorts. Some of my go tos are Almost Normal Comics, Poopsheet Foundation, anything Comics Reporter marks as OTBP, Your Chicken Enemy, Robyn Chapman’s Tiny Report, the review section of Razorcake Magazine… It doesn’t hurt to pick up old zines for their review sections, for that matter. Roctober had a great one.
- Invest in anthology reading and take the time to look up the artists you find in them. It’s the cheapest way to get exposed to a lot of artists. It absolutely perplexes me that they don’t sell better for this very reason.
- Look for publications by artists who you discover through their art in non-comics publications. (or other work like posters or record sleeves) You can kind of tell when a graphic artist has the chops to do narrative work, and chances are that if they have the skills, they’ve acted on them.
Hope that’s not too big a cop out.
ZL – Well, it’s just told anyone who wants to work with you how to get discovered by you.
ZL – How about we move onto fantasy futureland? Given unlimited time, budget and resources what 3 projects would you deliver so that you could retire proud?
KE – Wow. Unlimited time budget and resources? We’re not talking about individual comics or publications at that point!
- A Nix Comics Music festival. Put a bunch of comic/poster artists in a spotlight at the same time a bunch of the bands that inspire Nix play.
- Open a Nix Comics brick and mortar flagship store. Something like Quimbys meets Amoeba Records.
- Hire a full-time art and writing staff, giving them a salary, health insurance, vacation time and a chunk of the IP on anything they create.
ZL – Finally, what can we expect from you in the next 6 months?
KE – At the moment I’m in the last days of my kickstarter crowdfunding two publications:
“Kenttucky Pussy” is a comic book by Sexton Ming and JT Dockery. The text elements are all poems by Sexton and inspire the visual narration by JT, so I’m really excited by this. I’ve wanted to work with JT since I met him at the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo (SPACE) a buncha years back and I have been a fan of Sexton Ming ever since his role as the bionically enhanced and thoroughly evil Queen Victoria in Pervirella. (THAT movie is everything that the cyber punk genre failed to be!) “Kentucky Pussy” has everything that I would expect from a pairing of these two great artists: Lush imagery, outsider lamentations and proper use vulgarity. It’s weird to me that within two years I’ll have put out two poetry centered books. Never considered myself a “poetry guy.”
The second book is a collection of Sketchbook art by me! For the past few years I have been drawing picture sleeves for 7” records in my sketchbooks. I cut them out and pair them with the record that inspired them; selling them at comic shows and record fairs. It’s a good fun way to take a lonely 7” and turn it into a unique part of someone’s collection. People have been asking me for a book version of it for a while… Hopefully they were for real about wanting one!
I also just overspent at a local comic sale, so I expect that I’ll write a zine about comic collecting in the same vein as my “Tales from the Crate” record collecting zine. I gotta recoup that money somehow!
ZL – I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk to us and for giving such honest answers. I hope you enjoyed the process!
KE – Thanks! I did! A very in depth and unique interview.