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May 11, 2015

CR Newsmaker: A Short Interview With Jon Goldwater


Archie Comics Publications, Inc. announced a kickstarter today to the tune of a hoped-for $350,000 in support of three comics already roughly on their schedule. This is a new Kevin Keller-starring series from Dan Parent and J. Bone (Life With Kevin), a new Jughead-oriented series with Chip Zdarsky writing and an artist to be named later (Jughead), and a Betty and Veronica-oriented series by the creator Adam Hughes (Betty and Veronica). They would be considered part of a group effort with the recently launched Archie Andrews-focused series by Mark Waid and Fiona Staples, Archie. The ultimate goal as I understand it is to create an involved group of overlapping narratives more reminiscent of modern comics and television continuities, part of a broader, ongoing effort to use the Archie characters and concepts in different milieux and genres.

The Kickstarter struck me as odd.

I recognize need-based crowdfunding. I also understand the argument that on a foundational level how money gets raised for a project can be viewed as a neutral thing. This argument states that the money has to come from somewhere, and barring outright malfeasance there's no significant difference between asking people to pay ahead of time in a crowdfunder and writing a check for a project derived from previous profits. I get the reasoning. I also hope to use one of these mechanisms in the near future for a project of my own.

My worry is tied up in the fact that in a traditional publishing relationship capital is provided by publishers like Archie. Moving away from that shifts some of the onus for the projects' funding away from the publishing house and onto both the creators (who are generally asked to support and promote) and the fans (who are asked to support, promote and pay). I've never heard of an owner or a publishing house shifting their percentage of profits to compensate for this new divvying up of responsibilities. Therefore I see established publishers like Archie crowdfunding in much the same light that some people view general marketing/PR creep in prose publishing over the last several years. If I'm finding my own celebrity endorsement and doing my own blog and running my own twitter account and now driving customers to pay you for incentives that I've created... what is it that the publisher is doing? Am I getting enough from the publisher for their share of the profits to be justified?

There are some answers to these questions. A publisher has a lock on certain characters. They may have a certain amount of taste and skill that they employ in setting up a project: the choice to use Staples, say, or Zdarsky. They may have expertise for how to promote and raise money, even if it involves contributions from others. They may have an audience base, a way to get at them, and a certain amount of goodwill on which to trade.

It's very much possible to imagine a wholly virtuous outcome. Yet it also seems unlikely that the relationship, in shifting, might in every case snap back to the previous levels. In fact, there's little reason to believe this probable. There are implications to such a move. Successful crowdfunders run by established companies may allow audience and creator participation in funding to become normalized in a way where companies that are much less upstanding use the same logical construct for more direct exploitation.

In this case, I also found the amount of money asked for to be strange considering the size of that request and the fact these books are to be sold into at least one significant non-returnable market. I and several CR readers writing the site also wondered if this meant there were money problems at Archie more generally, or if the company was hurting for capital. Those same readers also complained of the strategy of painting Archie -- in publishing for 75 years, and chock full of cultural icons -- as some sort of aggressive outsider comics-making entity in focusing on the size of its wallet with those available to Marvel and DC.

Archie's Alex Segura noted my discomfort and offered to take initial questions to publisher/ceo Jon Goldwater. I appreciate that courtesy and Goldwater's kindness and attention in responding.

TOM SPURGEON: So my first question is: are you guys okay? I've been hit with some e-mails that say this sounds like the end for Archie, that if you can't meet your obligations for a few comics series in a print-to-order Direct Market with a massive influx of cash, how can we know that Archie will be here two, three, five years from now?

JON GOLDWATER: We're completely fine. We've been around for 75 years and hopefully 75 more and beyond. But I get why that's the first reaction for some people. It's more about timing for these projects. Normally, we could put these books out over time. We'd just have to sprinkle them out over a few years, as opposed to fast-tracking them. The Kickstarter allows us to build on the expected success of Archie #1 in a more meaningful way while also offering some cool rewards for our fans who choose to back the Kickstarter.

The reality is this, and perhaps it's something we need to be clearer about on the KS page: Over the last six months, Archie has been expanding in a historic and unexpected way. We were fortunate enough to be invited to sell our digests in Wal-Mart and Target. Wal-Mart launched in March and Target just last week. This is a huge opportunity, but not one that comes free of cost. Frankly, it costs a small fortune and in order to do that, we've had to invest a tremendous amount of resources into making sure those books are a success and the store space is maximized. However, we don't want to miss another great opportunity -- the one presented by Archie #1, and how it can reposition the character for years to come. So, the goal of this Kickstarter is to allow us to put out these books on an accelerated timetable while also investing heavily in places like Wal-Mart and Target in a way no other comic publisher is doing.

But yes, we are OK -- thank you for asking!

SPURGEON: If this doesn't work, will the titles be canceled?

GOLDWATER: If we don't meet our funding goal I still expect us to put out these titles in some form -- probably not as quickly and not in the format we've tied to the campaign, but no, they won't be canceled. These books will happen. We want them to happen. The idea for this is to make them happen faster because we know fans want them faster.

SPURGEON: If it does work, will more titles be done this way?

GOLDWATER: I think, if it works, then the door is open to revisit using Kickstarter. We've always been open to trying new things and being innovative with how we engage with our fans or promote our material. So I don't want to definitely say yes, but the option would exist.

SPURGEON: Are there siginificant cash drains affecting the company from legal trouble or potential future legal outcomes?

GOLDWATER: No -- this comes down to us being a small publishing company looking to expand on a title that we know will be successful and has really engaged and intrigued our fan base. We want to get these books out to them faster and build a line around Archie #1, as opposed to parceling these related books out over the next five years.

SPURGEON: Are you willing to break down how the money will be spent in combination with perceived revenues on these three comics? Because the math seems odd considering past kickstarters of this size and the fact that you will also be making some money off of these titles once done the old-fashioned way.

GOLDWATER: [Mr. Goldwater declined to comment.]

SPURGEON: Are your creators making top dollar on these projects? Will Archie staff be donating time, money and resources or will they be paid their usual amount?

GOLDWATER: [Mr. Goldwater declined to comment.]

SPURGEON: How was the $350K figured arrived at?

GOLDWATER: We crunched numbers on our end and went into it asking "What would we need to get these books out faster?"

To properly market, promote, print (hopefully a lot of copies) and advertise is very expensive. We want these comics to be given the best possible chances for success. Taking the Target/Wal-Mart factor into account and knowing that we wanted an accelerated timeline to get these books out closer to the release of Archie #1.

SPURGEON: Who is administering the Kickstarter, its rewards, and so on?

GOLDWATER: In terms of conceptualizing the Kickstarter, managing the page, promoting it and fulfillment of rewards, that's all coming from Archie.

SPURGEON: Granted, Archie is not DC or Marvel -- you're not Fantagraphics or Drawn and Quarterly, either. You're surely not Youth In Decline or AdHouse. Is "scrappy" and generally in need of help to publish the best terms to describe a company that has multiple paid staffers, outside consultants, and multiple licensing deals?

GOLDWATER: I think the term is relative, to be honest. And if you don't see us that way, that's completely fine. The point we're trying to make is more about the perception of Archie, because it's been around so long, is on the same level of corporate money DC or Marvel have. We aren't on that level. We are "scrappy" in that context. That's why we used that phrase.

posted 4:00 am PST | Permalink

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