Before launching Skies of Fire on Kickstarter last year Vince and I had no idea what to expect. We were just hoping to raise enough money to make the first issue. The $3000 we had already put into the project was taking its toll on our lives. My partner Vince and I almost never went out, instead investing whatever spending money we had on the project. Subtext: we both didn't (and still don't) make a lot of money.
The first twenty four hours of the Kickstarter went by like a whirlwind. We ended up funding 25% of the project which — not going to lie — felt awesome. As momentum continued to build, we experienced for the first time in years creative vindication. People like us, they really like us! Well, they like our pitch, anyway. We finally had something to show to our noncreative friends when they asked us "what we did for a living" without sounding insecure! Woohoo!
The response to our project was overwhelming. The hype felt palpable.
Then came the long wait.
Lesson #1: Good Art Takes Time
We always envisioned Skies of Fire as a big, two hundred-million dollar summer blockbuster. We were fortunate that we found two artists, Pablo Peppino and Bryan Valenza, who felt the same way.
Pablo and Bryan's art is more detailed than almost anything I see in comics right now. The thing is, that amount of detail takes quite a bit of time to produce. We, like many a Kickstarter before us, were a bit shall we say bullish about our estimated delivery time.
Everyone on the project was working a second job on top of trying to get the comic done. Pablo was selling silicone breast implants by day while drawing by night, Bryan was a student, Vince, a waiter and I was teaching. In the end we had to readjust our timeline for completing the first issue.
That probably lost us a lot of momentum, and is one of the reasons why we decided to launch this new Kickstarter only after having all of the art completed. The last line in the sand we drew for ourselves was New York Comic-Con. We had booked our table over the summer and all agreed to pay for the flights ourselves to get there. If we didn't have the book done by then we knew we were toast.
Lesson #2: Things Always (Maybe, Hopefully) Come Together at the End
September 2014 was a stressful month. Did you know that in China there's a holiday called Golden Week where the government mandates one week of paid vacation to everyone? We didn't (and I'm Chinese)! Not until the middle of August, about six weeks out from our NYCC deadline, when the printer we decided to go with announced that all orders in September would take an additional month of turnaround. Shucks.
The reason why people decide to print in China is because it's literally 2-3x cheaper than printing domestically. I spent much of September calling known comic printers for quotes, looking for something reasonable with little to no luck. The breakthrough finally came when I stopped looking for comic printers and started looking for printers in general using their lingo. Instead of asking if people printed comic books I started asking if they printed saddle-stitched booklets with 85# glossy interiors and 105# exteriors, and so on and so forth.
The final product.
Learning the language helped us find a reasonable solution; in the end we went with a commercial mass printing service that had facilities in LA, which saved us money and time on shipping. We still paid almost twice as much as we initially estimated but at least it wasn't 3x-4x like we had feared. It was extremely nerve wracking, and an experience I never want to experience again. I picked up the books on Monday and flew out to New York on Tuesday. The convention began two days later, on Thursday..
Lesson #3: Nobody is Going to Sell Your Book For You
My New York Comic-Con experience began with me making a wrong turn and driving down the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey. My fellow compatriots Vince and Pablo had hopped out while we were stuck in traffic thirty minutes after the show had already begun. Apparently they only give you a parking spot for move-in, but not for the actual convention. Who knew.
My ferry ship looked a lot like this one. The view was nice.
After a nice boat ride back to Manhattan I zig-zagged my way across the showroom floor to our little booth in Small Press 1070, where Pablo and Vince were still scrambling to get everything up and running. By then it was already 2 o'clock, and two hours into the convention. It took another ten minutes or so to settle in but once we were in business we were in business!
From left to right: Ray, Vince, Pablo, and Nic – 4/5 of the team behind Skies of Fire.
We immediately tried to get the book into as many people's hands as possible. We all stood, said hello to the passing crowds, and asked anyone who responded if they wanted to check out our book. Once we got it into their hands it was just a matter of talking about it, which came easily. It was tiring but totally worth it. We managed to sell about 50 books a day at New York Comic Con.
I think the key is really showing people the passion we have for our art. I can see how some people might construe it as pushy, but we look at it as an opportunity to share our story with like-minded individuals who might really like it. And hey, it never hurts to ask, right?
Lesson #4: There's No Money in Comics (Yet!?)
By the end of NYCC we were exhausted. By all indication it seemed like a success; we had an active booth, made some press/industry contacts, and sold a good amount of books. When we tabulated our numbers we found that we barely – just barely – broke even. The $900 tabling fee and cross-country shipping didn't help, but even discluding those things the numbers seemed depressingly low.
At subsequent cons we've managed to do a little better, but still nothing to write home about. I'm glad we've never lost money but it's become abundantly clear that conventions are sort of a sunk cost at this point in our careers. It's grueling, grueling work standing on your feet all day hawking books to strangers for a couple hundred bucks. But hey, we do it because —
Lesson #5: It's All About the People
This was our favorite moment from the weekend. Aaron had bought the book the day before and came by again on Saturday shaking his head with a huge grin. "Duuuude," he said. "That was one of the sickest things I have ever read. F—ing awesome." Within moments we were all giving him high fives and jumping up and down. Pablo drew a sketch in his comic and we gave him a bunch of free stuff because… how could we not?
That was true vindication – knowing that someone dug what we created — enough to come back to tell us so. It felt good. Really, really good. Enough to refuel our passion, and make it happen again.
Ray Chou is a comic book writer and educator. Along with his partner Vincenzo Ferriero, he is the co-creator of the comic series Skies of Fire. The Kickstarter for issue #2 runs through the month of April. You can find it here.