J.T. Yost on 'Bottoms Up' anthology and indie publishing

J.T. Yost of Birdcage Bottom Books is issuing an open call for his latest anthology, Bottoms Up — and if you submit a story, he promises he won't tell anyone who you are.

Why the anonymity? The theme of Bottoms Up is hitting rock bottom, that moment when you realize things are out of control, right before you get clean and sober and take control of your life again. Because he's looking for gut-wrenching honesty about something most folks aren't proud of, Yost has put out a call for entries that allows writers to submit stories anonymously. The stories will be passed along to a pool of artists, who can choose which ones they want to illustrate; the artists will be credited.

Birdcage Bottom Books is both a publisher and a distributor of small-press comics, and I thought it would be interesting to talk with Yost about Bottoms Up!, his previous anthologies and how the small-press business works.

ROBOT 6: Can you explain for our readers what exactly Birdcage Bottom Books is, and what your mission is?

J.T. Yost: I set up Birdcage Bottom Books to self-publish my first book of comics after receiving a Xeric Award (a grant to support self-publishing). After going through the trouble to get the proper licenses, learn pre-press and research printing methods/costs, I figured I may as well continue to publish under that name. The first several publications were my own work, but then I started publishing the work of artists I admire. Within a few years, I was also helping distribute other self-published and small-press comics. Eight years later, BBB now represents nearly a hundred artists and publishers under its distribution wing (pun intended) and over 25 publications.

Our mission is to get more great comics into more hands. By collecting lots of self-publishers and small presses under one umbrella, we make it much easier for retailers (and web customers) to order comics that might otherwise be difficult to obtain. We're especially interested in limited-edition comics and unusual printing methods like risograph, silkscreen, block printing, etc.

How does publishing anthologies further your goals?

I've always been partial to anthologies. I know a lot of people complain that the quality or tone is too unpredictable in collections, but that's one of the reasons I like them. Sometimes I'm drawn to an artist for their drawing style and sometimes for their writing or storytelling ability. I might not pick up a whole book by someone whose style I don't find immediately compelling, but if I run across a shorter work in an anthology I'll definitely give it a chance. I've discovered some artists whose work I end up loving that I may not otherwise have read if not for an anthology.

One of my goals is to expose people to cartoonists they might not be familiar with, but whose work deserves recognition. Anthologies serve this goal well since I can have lesser-known (but equally talented) artists like Jamie Vayda or Sara Lautman alongside old pros like James Kochalka and Alex Robinson. People may pick the book up to read, say, Box Brown's comic but end up becoming a fan of Cha.

You have done two anthologies already — Digestate, which is about food, and Cringe, which is about embarrassing situations. What have you learned from those experiences in terms of assembling, editing and producing an anthology?

I've learned a great deal from those two anthologies. I edited and produced Digestate by myself, and I may have bitten off more than I could chew on that one. I think the scope may have been too wide. At first, my idea was to have a book of food-themed comics half by vegans and half by omnivores, but in my haste to not exclude anyone that fell between those extremes the project swelled to a 288-page phone book-sized book with over 55 artists. I allowed anything even tangentially related to food or eating as well as previously published work. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of Digestate, but it was definitely a learning experience.

The Cringe anthology was edited by Peter S. Conrad (who, incidentally, edited Swell, an anthology packed with artists I loved that I chanced upon in the '90s). Peter came up with the concept, and at first I was just going to contribute a comic to the book. But, after offering to help out with production, we ended up teaming up. He included quite a few West Coast artists that I'd been unfamiliar with, and I was able to rally some folks with which he didn't have previous contact. I think the collaboration was mostly successful, although there was one artist that did not respond well to our collaborative input.

I've taken away a lot of knowledge from both experiences, and hope to utilize it to make the next anthology the best yet.

Can we talk about the prickly topic of money for a minute? Do you consider it part of your mission to help artists make a living? Do you pay contributors to the anthologies, either up front or on the back end?

Being a cartoonist and illustrator myself, I can definitely sympathize with the struggle to make a living. For that reason, I do try to compensate contributors as fairly as possible. I struggle to keep Birdcage Bottom Books afloat, so I don't have much to spare. However, I really do my best to make the artists happy and willing to work with me again in the future.

I generally offer two options when I publish a comic by someone: They can either take a portion of the printing (usually one-sixth of the total) for themselves to do with as they wish (sell at comic conventions or online or give away), OR a royalty deal of 30 percent SRP on anything sold through our web store and 10 percent of wholesale orders. Almost invariably everyone chooses the first option.

For Digestate, I gave each contributor three copies of the book. For Cringe, we used Kickstarter to raise the printing cost. The goal was surpassed by over $2,000, so I divvied that up between all the contributors according to page count (that seemed the fairest way to do it).

The distribution wing of BBB operates solely in the interest of the artists and publishers. I don't take a fee beyond what I need to keep the distro running (website fees, Paypal fees, shipping supplies, etc.) since I know profit margins on minicomics are razor-thin.

With your latest anthology, you have artists already lined up and you are looking for writers. Why do it this way, rather than having people submit as artist/writer teams?

Bottoms Up is a different beast than the previous anthologies I've published. I want the stories to be honest, and since the stories may contain very sensitive information that could be damaging to both the writer and others involved I've chosen to keep all writers anonymous (although the artists will all be credited). This also allows for cartoonists to illustrate their own stories anonymously, should they have one.

Is there a deadline for submissions?

I keep pushing the deadline back because I don't yet have enough stories to accommodate the amount of artists interested in participating. I would, however, like to get production rolling, so I think the end of this summer will be the final deadline.

When do you anticipate the anthology will come out, and how will people be able to get it?

I'm going to go all out on this book, because I think it's an important theme that could possibly prove beneficial to some readers. I plan on having it distributed through Diamond Distribution, which requires a listing in Previews three months in advance of publication. I've been applying for grants to cover the printing cost with Kickstarter as a back-up plan, in which case I'd need at least a month for the campaign. I'm hoping to have Bottoms Up debut at SPX 2017, so the sooner I have enough stories for artists to choose from, the better!

Ideally, the anthology will be available through Diamond, our own distro, and the BBB website.

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