Talking Comics with Tim: Indy Comic Book Week Planners

As you may have heard, Diamond's not shipping comics this week. Hopefully you may have also heard that some independent creators banded together to help fill the void this week with Indy Comic Book Week (ICBW). As defined at the website: "Diamond Comic Distributors announced they will not ship any new comics for the last week of December. This company is the primary distributor of comic books in North America. What some would call a sad week without our favorite mainstream titles, we are calling an opportunity. This vacancy allows independent and small press comic book creators to claim this week as their own.

We challenge writers and artists to self publish new material for this week, and offer it to their local stores. We ask for retailers to take this as an opportunity to showcase local independent talent on the new release shelves. We encourage fans to break from their buying habits and try something new."

I contacted the planners of the effort and did an email interview with all of them.

Prior to the discussion, here is a brief bio for each planner.

Jake Ekiss is a comic book writer/artist as well as a founding member of both Space-Gun Studios and Indy Comic Book Week.His first full length, full color comic book is a sci-fi epic called Solomon Azua and it will be released on Dec 30th as part of Indy Comic Book Week.

Vinh-Luan Luu is a designer artist with a degree in Communication Design from the University of North Texas. He is a founding member of Indy Comic Book Week and Space-Gun Studios.

Paul Milligan is an illustrator/graphic designer, founding member of Stumblebum Studios, Indy Comic Book Week and brand-spanking new member of Space-Gun Studios. Currently he is the artist for D Magazine’s full-page comic, Souvenir of Dallas, written by David Hopkins and is working on his first graphic novel, How To Lose Big, also written by David Hopkins.

Matthew Warlick is a comic book artist, illustrator & art director living in the suburbs of Dallas. He is the proprietor of Soulcore.net and co-founder of Space-Gun Studios and Indy Comic Book Week. His first full length comic Senryu will debut December 30th for Indy Comic Book Week.

Tim O'Shea: What's been the biggest challenge to planning the Indy Comic Book Week?

Jake Ekiss: The biggest challenge for me has been time and management of recourses. The whole event had to be turned around so fast that there wasn't much room to plan. Many times we were flying by the seats of our pants and making things up as we went. We tried to make the process as streamlined and straightforward as possible, but going from a local, small scale idea to a national movement was quite a feat. I'm still not entirely sure how we managed it.

Vinh-Luan Luu: Though time was a huge challenge, the biggest challenge to me was streamlining the message and mission of ICBW. Due to the time we had to launch the idea to the web, we quickly had to come up with all the copy as we went along. Jake may call it "flying by the seat of our pants" but I call it a "mad scramble". We did our very best to be as succinct as possible on the websites, blogs, twitters, etc. but we weren't always successful. Because ICBW launched so quickly, we were getting slammed with emails every day with questions that we thought we had answered on the website/blog. People were confused as to what the event was calling for, what we were expecting from creators, why we were not focusing on digital content and distrubution, and thought we were trying to pick a fight with the mainstream audience and industry. Luckily we were able to massage the copy with every email until we got to something that would address those questions right away but it was a big undertaking.

Paul Milligan: One of the main things I did for the event was the logo and that was a pretty big challenge. I wanted to come up with something cool and unique but at the same time do something that instantly conveyed the message of Indy Comic Book Week. A lot of my original ideas were pretty cliché and I got pretty frustrated. But in the end I came up with something I was pretty happy with and I think the rest of the guys were too. And Matt built an amazing looking site around it.

Matthew Warlick: I’ll agree with Luan here and say getting everybody on the same page and setting expectations for creators. Making a comic is one thing, but selling it directly to retailers is an entirely different animal. I’ve personally learned a lot, and was pleasantly surprised by how quickly retailers took to the idea.

O'Shea: To date, what about the level of response (from creators and retailers) has pleased you the most?

Ekiss: I think it's been most gratifying seeing the response from fans. I knew there would be plenty of indy creators willing to jump on, and after the first few weeks it was apparent that retailers were in for the long haul as well. The fans though were the great unknown. Comics tend to be dominated by the mainstream, but we've seen that there's a real hunger out there for independent work. I think people want to be shown more than what they see on the new racks every week. They like being introduced to things new and interesting.

Luu: Everyone has been very supportive from the very beginning. A lot of creators jumped on board right away but I was mostly concerned with getting the retailers involved. I believe that having the support of the retailers meant we would get the support of the fans. Retailers come at comics from a slightly different angle than the rest of us. Of course they are fans of the medium, but they also see it as a business. So when some retailers didn't even let us finish our spiel before saying they were on board, it told me that meant they not only loved the idea as fans but also as business minded people.

Milligan: I was really happy with the way the retailers responded to the idea. I was pretty amazed to be honest, I didn’t expect such a huge, nationwide response and the level of enthusiasm was inspiring. The retailers involved have shown a tremendous amount of faith in ICBW and I can’t wait to see how it pays off, for them and for us, when the 30th rolls around.

Warlick: I’ve just been blown away by the retailers response, by them getting involved, spreading the word and generally supporting the idea.. They really are the backbone of this industry and without them “new comic Wednesdays” wouldn’t exist; it’s awesome of them to take a risk and put the spotlight on smaller creators for a week.

O'Shea: Are each of you participating by releasing your own work during the week?

Ekiss: Indeed we are. All of the ICBW founders are either involved in, or are fully producing comic book works for the event. Several of us have full books, and everyone has at least contributed to various projects (like David Hopkins One Night Stand Anthology). We've been right there in the trenches.

Luu: Unfortunately I was just starting a freelance gig when the idea of CBW began so I was not able to come to the table with my own book. I was available to help with a page for David Hopkin's One Night Stand book and lettered/designed Jake's book though.

Milligan: Definitely! That’s how the whole thing started really, with us hearing about the skip week and the idea of indie creators taking over that week and saying “We really ought to put something together for this.” Like the other Space-Gun crew, I’ve got a page in David Hopkins’ One Night Stand comic and I put together a collection of my 24-Hour comic trilogy, The God of Rock.

Warlick: We’re all involved is some way or another; Luan is a design guru, Paul put together God of Rock and the slick ICBW logo. Personally I’ve been responsible for the website proper and will also be releasing my first full length book Senryu for the event.

O'Shea: Has any of you heard from Diamond about this at all--in a positive or negative manner?

Ekiss: We have an unsubstantiated report that they put ICBW as number five on their top ten suggestions to retailers for what to do during the skip week. Presuming that's accurate (we can't see the retailers forum so we don't know for sure) I'd say that's pretty positive response.

We never really intended to pick a fight with Diamond. In fact they were some of the first people we informed about the event. The skip week, contrary to a lot of rumor, has much more to do with shipping holidays than anything else. Diamond made a savvy business decision to keep costs down and you can't fault a company for that. Though some folks might be up in arms about it, I sincerely doubt there was any conspiracy to deprive fans of new comics.

Luu: Diamond was one of the first people we contacted about ICBW; we never intended to pick a fight with them or mainstream fans. There is no ill will towards them for the skip week, which is mostly a holiday shipping fiasco anyway. They made a business decision, one that I can't fault them for; and we are just taking advantage of that decision.

Milligan: Like Jake said, if we’re really on their Top 10 list of things to do during skip week then it sounds like Diamond supports the idea. Which is awesome of them.

Warlick: I think more importantly the retailers have gotten behind the event 100%. New and independent talent gets to take the stage for a week, and we’re helping fill a void in a busy shopping season on a day when retailers nationwide will have little “new” product to display.

O'Shea: What are the lessons being learned so far in the process, given that each creator has to handle the complicated logistics of shipping?

Ekiss: Oh, the lessons are myriad and invaluable. We've learned a great deal about pricing books for wholesale, shipping, how to deal with retailers and how to make the event work for them as much as ourselves. We've been trying to put a lot of that on the blog and website too, to help inform as we go along. Printing your own books is tricky, and distributing them as well is downright terrifying to most creators. It's a skill set that any self respecting independent professional needs to develop, though. Having a solid deadline and event to work around gives a sense of urgency, and I do believe that some of the best learning occurs under pressure. Or at least, some of the most memorable learning.

Luu: As comic creators we all are pretty aware of what to do for getting books ready for say a convention. But getting them printed at a decent cost to sell and ship to retailers is a different story. Working with your local shop is a bit easier as you can just walk in with a stack a books for them to see. When dealing with shops across the nation there comes a new understanding of how much time and money you actually need to do this. On paper it seems simple but then Murphy's Law takes affect: life gets in way and you have to push back your printing date, the printer get slammed with orders and the queue is long, email misunderstandings, flare up and mix ups, shipping costs, holiday shipping, etc. It's all something that has to be taken into consideration when you set your project schedule/timeline.

Milligan: I thought it was tough putting together a book all by yourself and trying to sell it at conventions. But that’s nothing compared to trying to get a book professionally printed, figuring out how much to charge, advertising it, shipping it and on and on. I’ve learned a great deal about how to approach retailers about buying my comics and I know that I still need a lot of practice. I also learned that if you have a plan you really need to stick with it. When this whole thing started I was planning on doing a completely different book for ICBW but I let the story get away from me and it ballooned into this huge project that I was never going to finish in time. That didn’t stop me from putting something else together but it did put me under the gun. Luckily I work pretty well under pressure.

Warlick: I think a solid plan and a reasonable deadline are your best bet. Working within the advertising industry has taught me that deadlines are key, as is setting lofty yet realistic goals. Shipping hasn’t been as difficult as printing, and one of the next big steps will be finding some really competitively priced printing to get costs down for the indy creator.

O'Shea: As the planners of the event, what marketing or creative lessons/tips have you each taken away from each other?

Ekiss: I've had to eat my words a bit with this movement as prior to September I was a huge detractor of Twitter. I thought it was a vacuous waste of internet. Turns out I was wrong, so very wrong. I'd say a good 70-80% of our marketing and promotion has gone through Twitter. This is an indy creator movement, and the medium of choice seems to be Tweets. I was stunned how far and fast word spread that way, and how many folks were using the hashtags. It blew my mind. I'm now a Twitter addict. I've got Tweetdeck running in the background as I answer questions.

Luu: Comics is a great artistic medium but it is also a business. Every time you sit down to write that email or make that phone call, take off your art hat and put on your business hat. I am lucky enough to have some retail management experience so I know what it is like on the other side of the counter. Aggressively haggling with a retailer will get you nowhere, they have a bottom line to consider. The more aggressive you push, the less likely they'll work with you. It is nothing personal so don't take it as such. Though offering incentive deals can go a long way: buy 5 get 2 free, buy 10 get a bigger discount, etc. If they don't like your deal, thank them for their time and move on to the next store.

Milligan: Yeah, Twitter was definitely an amazing promotional tool. Didn’t somebody say that Geoff Johns was twittering about Indy Comic Book Week at some point?

Warlick: The most important lesson I can share is to have reliable partners in crime. Nothing will motivate you better than friendly competition, and you can help each other save money on both printing and shipping costs by going in together.

O'Shea: Other than the week itself and an elevated collective awareness of finding out other independent works, do you hope to extract any other long-term benefits from this experience? An indy comics initiative of some kind?

Ekiss: I would hope that the movement helps to instruct the indy scene as much as promote it. Speaking from my own experience, there's an embarrassing number of indy creators who've never really taken the time to court retailers and use them as a resource. The brick and mortar stores can be potent partners in crime as it were. They have access to a rather gated and oft unseen side of the industry, a side that I think many creators completely overlook. To the retailers, this is a business pure and simple. They come at every decision with that fiscal minded clarity.

As creators, we tend to get caught looking at the artistic, cerebral side, the content we're providing, and neglect the notion of comics as a business. I know plenty of creators who would think it beneath themselves to even consider such a thing, but by and large those people also aren't living off their own work. At the end of the day the dream of a creator is about not only doing the work, but being able to live off the returns of it. Few people are better equipped to give insight on how that can be achieved than retailers. That's their job every day: selling the content. If they can do it, they can give you a good idea of how to do it yourself.

Luu: I hope this event will help us and other creators establish a relationship with retailers, printers, sales reps, and distributors. The industry is actually pretty small socially; there really isn't six-degrees of separation here. We're all in the trenches together here.

Milligan: I hope that people remember how awesome my comic is.

Warlick: Anything that spread the word about comics, especially independent comics is a good thing. I think a more open market akin to Japan’s is something to shoot for, where every genre, subject matter and age range can be catered to. Everyone can love comics.

Tim O'Shea: When you first getting this off the ground, was there some aspect of word of mouth--or a marketing push (say at SPX) that you found really helped elevate the profile of the initiative?

Ekiss: Oh my, there were so many instances where word of mouth was our saving grace. Steve Ahlquist offered to hand out fliers at SPX and that alone gave us a huge rush of new creators to add on. Jeremy Shorr at Titan Comics and Keith of Keith's Comics here in Dallas helped put us in touch with some valuable people retailer and distribution wise. Tony Shenton who reps a number of indy creators has likewise been invaluable in spreading the word. I dare say more of the marketing for the event has been word of mouth than anything else. Again we circle back to Twitter and the peer to peer sites. Without word of mouth this movement would be a fraction of what it is.

Luu: We did a lot of ground work in the very beginning with a huge list of emails to various online newsgroups, podcasts, printers, and publishers. Steve Ahlquist really stepped up at SPX and got the word out to a lot of people. Sales rep Tony Shenton was generous enough to help spread the word as well to his creators and retailers. Getting that word into their ears early on really helped when the Twitter and blog really started to gain momentum.

Milligan: Word of mouth was how the idea got going in the first place and it continued to be our main source of marketing all the way through. People just seemed to take the idea and run with it, telling everyone they could, it was kind of amazing to watch it spread that way.

Warlick: Steve Ahlquist’s SPX blitz helped a lot. Props to Chris at Madness Games & Comics for helping spread the word among retailers as well.

O'Shea: Of the various Internet tools at your respective disposal (Facebook, twitter, blogs, etc) which do you think has the event benefited the most from?

Ekiss: Hehe, as might be my obvious choice, Twitter, the hands down winner. Facebook and blogs have helped a great deal, but the avalanche of talent and buzz has come from Twitter.

Luu: ICBW is a real grassroots movement spread almost solely through Twitter. Using Twitter in conjunction with the blog really gave us a lot of traffic. Being able to do a short tweet with a link to the blog/website has really given us a lot of exposure and mileage. It also gives us a lot of content to show people. Plus establishing the twitter hashtag from the very beginning really helped. I used it as much as I could and retweeted it as much as i could without being annoying.

Milligan: Again, going with Jake on this one, Twitter all the way. Did I mention Geoff Johns?

Warlick: Twitter & Facebook, blogs, word of mouth and the power of numbers have served us well.

O'Shea: How many genres are represented by Indy Comic Book Week?

Ekiss: All of them. I can't think of a genre we don't have covered. There's at least a couple horror books, a few sci-fi, some comedy, some slice of life drama/romance, superheroes of course. I'm pretty sure we even have some crime noir. If you've got a flavor of comic you like, ICBW carries it.

Luu: The whole spectrum is represented in ICBW from small personal stories to big action pieces; which I think is a valuable representation of what Indy Books can do.

Milligan: Heck, I don’t even know how to classify mine. Action-adventure-mythology-rock opera? I think that’s the coolest thing about ICBW, the diversity of ideas and approaches and genres that will be stacked up on the new week rack, it’s going to be something really unique.

Warlick: Too many to count I think. Senryu is an, abstract, free-form comic based on dreams and poems of mine, and like a lot of other books I think it kind of defies to be labeled. I think Indy Comic Book Week will really have a little something for everyone.

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