Paper Science in review

At the start of 2011 year I decided to publish Paper Science – the comics anthology I edit – in a quarterly edition for a minimum of four issues. That fourth issue came out in February (this year, 2012), bringing Paper Science to a close for the foreseeable future as I turn my attention to, you know, being a freelance copywriter.

You can buy a collection of those four issues, wrapped in a lovely cover by Philippa Rice, for just £10 plus postage.

But that’s not what this blog post is about. I wanted to evaluate how that year went, partly for my benefit and partly because I think some of this might be worth sharing with other independent creators. As a rule we aren’t that good at sharing information about financials and process, and that’s not a rule I’m at all fond of. As a result, some of this is going to seem a bit obvious to a lot of people. I’m okay with that; I’d rather not assume any knowledge at this point.

This is a long read and not for everyone, so proceed with caution…

Why go quarterly

Before I kick into the evaluation it might be worth setting some context. Paper Science had published three issues by Thought Bubble 2010. They were well-received, and the print-runs of 500 had largely been gobbled up. But at the end of that show I felt a tension between the scale of my ambition for the publication and the likely reach of an irregular 16-page anthology.

I thought at first that I’d just quietly wind it down, but after chatting to a few illustrators (namely Adam Cadwell, Tom Humberstone, John Allison and Marc Ellerby) I was persuaded that killing a publication that was just finding its feet wasn’t a great move.

So I set myself a new challenge; scale up the print run and increase the regularity of the publication. Not to make money, but to see what kind of shape and character such a publication might take.

Getting started

I started listing creators and themes I wanted to mix together, and over one weekend emailed a few dozen to see if I could get together the backbone of (what amounts to) a sixty-four page, full-colour, oversized anthology.

None of the following twelve months proved as hard as that weekend of emails and the following week of replies. The mix of planning, rejection letters and delighted responses was quite a heady mix, but the first major success was actually doing that much work then, organising as much of it as possible way ahead of time. For sure, there were four seat-of-the-pants deadlines to burn through yet, but doing that legwork then was utterly essential.

It also forced me to think about formatting and themes very early on, which was another lifesaver. The themes of three of the four issues were fixed months before the first deadline, and I knew that each issue would boast a stonking double-page spread and some great feature-length content too. I knew I’d be printing something I wanted to buy, and when you might end up with a few thousand of these in your flat that’s the only way to stay sane.

At this point I also let a few friends and the folks at Newspaper Club know I’d be doing this. All were delighted, Newspaper Club in particular, who offered me that chance at playing with some distribution stuff they were working on. While that ultimately didn’t work out, it was great to get that kind of support.

I should also say, as a disclaimer, that a very generous friend offered to underwrite the print costs (to be repayed as Paper Science stock was sold). I never had to use that, but it was a massive confidence boost early on and it made me think acutely about the financial implications of taking the anthology to print four times in a year too. No-one wants a friend to be out of pocket, so this thing needed to support itself.

Now I want to look at three areas of producing Paper Science that made it different to other anthologies people I know are involved in: the ‘contract’ with contributors; the subscription model; my role. Price points, volume of stock and scheduling were major factors in how it all played out, but this is already a very long piece, so I’m only going to look at the things other people aren’t currently doing or trying.

The ‘contract’

First up, there was no contract. What I mean by ‘contract’ is the relationship Paper Science had with the people between its covers.

Part of the brief I set myself was to ensure that creators were recompensed in some way by being in an issue. I didn’t have the capital to pay more than one creator per issue, but what I could do was print enough copies to offer artists a page rate – a number of issues they could sell or give away. That had an overhead for me, but it was far smaller than it would be if I set a page rate in sterling.

The upside was that creators could, if they sold all of the issues, earn about £75 per page. That’s not a bad rate for an indie anthology. The downside is that it effectively cut out some of my potential market, and might make it harder to sell my stock. Also, artists working on multiple-page stories might have difficulty selling such a large number of copies.

A year on and that’s worked out okay. A lot of creators sold out of issues, a few bought extra stock off of me, but a few still have quite a lot of them left. It did eat into sales at the comic shows Paper Science had a stand at, but in turn it drove subscriptions from people who had picked up one copy and wanted the rest.

But, for me anyway, the important part was that no creator went unpaid. I don’t think ‘exposure’ is payment enough for any professional, whether an illustrator or a writer or a developer. I would far rather have paid every illustrator a wad of cash for their efforts, but I couldn’t. I think this part of the ‘contract’ worked very nicely.

But there’s another element to the ‘contract’ too. Anthologies get a lot of promotion naturally through the people in it. They drive early sales and help generate wider coverage due to the critical mass of people talking about it at any one time. For two of the four issues that didn’t happen to the extent I’d hoped.

Part of that’s down to my role in promoting it – more on that later – but I also think part of the failure to gain much traction there was that there was no single clear entry point for purchase. Early sales of each edition were distributed across at least eight people every quarter, plus retailers, and that watered ‘buzz’ down considerably.

When the fourth issue came out I explicitly asked creators to drive traffic to the Paper Science online shop. That worked. I felt guilty about it, but the result was that it attracted more attention and sales than the second and third ones combined. Were I to do this again I’d probably make that an explicit part of the agreement up front; in the end it generated more coverage, and the creators involved in that issue haven’t done any worse in terms of sales than those involved in others.

The subscription model

A few days after the first of the four issues came out the income from subscriptions had paid for the printing of two of the four issues.

That knocked me back. It validated the whole process, proving that there was a healthy audience who would commit to a regular product of the British comics community, with little to go on but the strength of that first line-up and the roll-call of people I’d worked with before.

The subscribers proved to be better evangelists than I could have hoped for. So many friends of subscribers went on to buy copies at shows or in bundles that they probably covered the print costs of another issue.

The other thing that stunned me was that very few of those subscribers were creators. On the one hand that’s great, because it shows there’s a healthier audience-to-artist balance than we usually give the UK credit for.

On the other hand it left me wondering who I’d pissed off in the creator-community.

Looking back, I don’t think I budgeted well in terms of postal costs among the subscribers, but I still think the price-point was about right; £15 a year for something they’d be receiving every three months is about right, given the thin spine of a 16-page newspaper. Maybe £20 would have worked, but I’d certainly have lost a few impulse buyers. International shipping was gutting, but those subscribers paid a suitable premium. It all basically hit a sweet spot.

I’m a firm believer in committing to regular delivery dates. I think people with forgive brevity if they know they’ll get a regular fix of narrative and I’m astonished there aren’t more small pressers trying to do that with creator-owned print titles. Offering a subscription was the single best decision I made, financially and editorially, in this whole process.

But what about Matthew Sheret?

To no-one’s surprise, I need to learn to delegate better.

Until February last year, comics dominated a lot of my time outside of work. I then started doing talks about my day job and personal projects, which naturally ate into time I’d subconsciously bookmarked for Paper Science.

I don’t regret that decision, at all. My thought process about all kinds of work has sharpened with every talk, and I’m a far better thinker, writer and creator for it. But in relation to Paper Science it replaced time I’d have spent badgering international stockists, approaching potential advertisers and doing better marketing/critical outreach.

For the time being, I’m interested in too many things to only commit to one self-initiated project. In many ways that’s a strength, but with Paper Science I learned there’s a trade-off. I could have pulled in more people to handle marketing and distribution, but instead I made the decision to narrow the focus of the project and wrap it up with the fourth quarterly issue. I think that was truer, overall, to my personal ambitions for the anthology, but there was a definite tipping point just before the release of the second quarterly issue where I could have thrown in and really motored the whole thing. I chose not to.

If I’d started the process now then I’d be inclined to look for more people, specialists wherever possible, to help with that kind of stuff in the future. I don’t think running an anthology like Paper Science as a one-person operation is sustainable or suitable in such a widely distributed marketplace.

Also, why wouldn’t I find someone with an interest in marketing to help with marketing? I don’t ask writers like Kieron to draw (with good reason) so why not think like that across the board?

All that said, I’m incredibly proud of the anthology I curated and edited.

I’d tweak it, if I could, to sort sequencing or push artists to use slightly different colour palates, but overall I did a good job there and got better at it. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I’ve got a few hundred Post Office receipts that prove I’m not the only one who liked it.

Did it all work then?

Yes. Failings in process don’t detract from the fact that these four issues, taken together, are something I’ll be proud of for the rest of my life. I genuinely believe the collection is a wonderful cross-section of the medium and the British comics community.

Not only that, but at the end of the year I’m left with less than four hundred copies out of more than three and a half thousand total issues. By my reckoning a similar number (c. 400) are scattered among some 40 contributors. By taking into account the cost of tables and travel to conventions over the last twelve months, including TCAF, I’m only down about £400 at time of writing.

Let me repeat that: I printed almost four thousand comics, went to comics shows across the UK and in Canada, regularly sent copies of the anthology to fiteen different countries, and made sure that artists were paid to some degree, and it has cost me about the same amount as a good holiday.

Now, I’m never going to make a business out of it (nor would I want to) and, as described above, there are massive kinks in the process, but it all, basically, worked.

Also…

Every contributor deserves a gold star for taking the time to deliver work of a standard that brought a tear to my eye.

OK Comics in Leeds were consistently supportive and brilliant, as were Gosh! in London and the Travelling Man chain. The Forbidden Planet Blog were utter darlings, and covered the pre-release and launch of each issue with the same delight I had in making the things.

Edward Ross effectively became our Scottish Distribution partner after making sure Edinburgh and Glasgow shops were fully stocked, all with a baby on the way. Anne was, as ever, fabulous, acting as a second pair of eyes and brain across the project. Huge thanks too to Anne Ward and the customer support team at Newspaper Club, who were basically unflappable.

But the real hero of the process was Mister Adam Cadwell. Where I flagged in my promotional efforts he stepped up the game. His commitment to the anthology, and his four-part story that ran through it, was magnificent, and he pulled it off with a professionalism and quiet dedication that made the whole thing feel, well… legit. That he did all this while only emailing me in-character (as The King of Things, the star of his story) made it all the more impressive. I would like very much to work with him again in the future.

Would I do it again?

No. A subscription-based project running like clockwork over a year? Maybe. But it stopped me writing comics, and I simply can’t let that continue. There are significant kinks in the chain that I’d need to better delegate before I’d commit to something like this again and I’d also want to muck about with digital comics too – probably something aimed at smart phones rather than tablets.

All that plus I’m still chewing over this realisation; I genuinely don’t think quarterly is often enough.

And that’s that, really. Read it for yourself and see what you think. Comments are switched off I’m afraid, but if you want to drop me an email about any of this please do: matthew.sheret@gmail.com

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