Creating Both Comics & a Supportive Community – An Interview with CHARLIE STICKNEY of SCOUT COMICS
With a variety of titles and genres, along with different ways to get books into reader’s hands, Scout Comics is recognizable as a publisher of indie creator-owned comics and entertainment. Comic Book Yeti invites Charlie Stickney, writer of WHITE ASH and GLARIEN and also Scout Comics Co-Publisher, to talk about Scout Comics and pull back the curtain for us to peek in on the business of making comic books.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Your role with Scout Comics is Co-Publisher. Can you tell us what that is?
CHARLIE STICKNEY: I’d be happy to. As Co-Publisher at Scout, I wear many hats that I share with my Co-Publishing partner, David Byrne (thankfully, neither of us has lice).
Some of my/our duties include reviewing submissions, putting together a publishing schedule/strategy that will hopefully maximize the release of each of our titles, and coming up with branding ideas to help get the word out about Scout. We also oversee and implement a lot of practical day-to-day operations including setting print runs, getting books to the printers on time, and hopefully getting the books from the printer to our various distributors (also on time). I also spend a good deal of time calling up retailers around the country to find out what’s selling and how Scout can be a better partner in their stores. But my favorite part of the job is getting to interact with our creators, to help them get their books out into the world and hopefully bring as many eyes to them as possible.
CBY: Do you feel Scout Comics is a competitor in a competitive market? Or are you trying to stand out from under the weight that expectation has by focusing on consistent quality work?
CS: I think Scout is quickly becoming known as a brand and a company to watch. Our sales have tripled in the last 18 months on the strength of the books we’re putting out and the creators we get to work with. I don’t know if we feel the weight of any external expectations, but we put a lot of internal pressure on ourselves to do the best we possibly can for the amazingly talented creators we partner with.
CBY: In a business filled with indie publishers and crowdfunding, what compelled you to jump in? What makes Scout Comics stand out above the rest?
CS: So, I won’t speak for the company, rather I’ll answer the question for myself. I come from a crowdfunding background. I adore Kickstarter and wouldn’t have had nearly the success in comics if Kickstarter hadn’t, well, kickstarted my comics career.
But as wonderful as that audience is, it’s more limited and a completely different one than the direct market. A very successful (and lucrative) Kickstarter comic might approach a thousand backers. If a comic only did a thousand sales in the direct market, it would likely be headed to cancellation. By coming to Scout, I was able to bring my stories to a whole new (and larger) audience. After experiencing that for myself, I knew I wanted to share that with other creators. And by taking the role of Co-Publisher, I’ve been able to do just that.
As for what makes Scout stand out, there are a lot of things, but I want to highlight one that I’m particularly proud of. Like in crowdfunding where there’s a community that supports each other when a book launches, Scout Creators are constantly on social media promoting each other’s work. We cultivate a team atmosphere and seek out creators who want to be part of it, where they’re all rooting for each other to succeed. And I think that also had a lot to do with the company’s recent growth as each new creator coming into the fold brings in new readers.
CBY: That is a good foundation to build on. With publishers failing and others failing their creative clients/partners, it is good to see one promote an environment of trust and encouragement. (Is Scout the Ted Lasso of comic publishers?) Or does Scout Comics approach successful crowdfunding projects with an opportunity of publishing them?
CS: I think Ted Lasso is a pretty high bar to reach for. That said, even Ted has better days and worse ones. I think in general creators enjoy working with Scout and know that we’re doing our best for them. Obviously, there are times when a creator and Scout don’t click, but I feel like that’s the exception rather than the rule.
And to answer your second question, Scout absolutely looks at Kickstarter for new comics to publish. Some of the best new talent is being grown there. We also look at conventions, webcomics, zines…the cartoons packaged with bubblegum. If it’s a good book being done by a creator who fits the team environment we’re looking to build, we don’t discriminate based on where we find that talent.
CBY: Scout Comics offers books both digitally and physically. But you also offer more with a monthly subscription box and your Title Box Tuesdays, which I understand is a limited collection of issues and gifts centered on one of your titles. How has that been received?
CS: Our Subscription Box is incredibly popular and is a great way for readers new to Scout to jump into our world. It’s also a fabulous way for readers who don’t have a Local Comic Shop to make sure they don’t miss any issues of their favorite Scout series. Plus it’s one of the best deals in comics.
As for our Title Boxes, they’re a way for us to highlight some of our older series to new readers and provide the entire run for collectors. It’s a pretty new initiative, so check back with me in six months and I can tell you how it turned out.
In general, the company philosophy is to try new things, find new forms of distribution and ways to get our content into the hands of the readers. The comic book industry has been run a certain way for over forty years. It’s time for some innovation. Not everything we’ve tried has worked out, but we’re going to keep trying and pushing the bar because our creators and fans deserve better than just “the way it’s always been done.”
CBY: It’s an interesting time for comic books and publishers. I think the ones that combine several business models are going to succeed. But some local comic book stores have suffered many setbacks and hardships from distributors, sales of singles, maybe even crowdfunding. Has Scout Comics run into difficulties with distributing or getting direct market stores on board? How does Scout Comics work with the LCS?
CS: We actually have a really good relationship with the direct market. A big part of that comes from our philosophy of being additive on distribution vs. being reductive and exclusive. What I mean by that is Scout tries to be in as many places as possible to make it easier for retailers to order our books. We distribute through Diamond, Lunar AND directly to retailers. We also make sure anything we put out through our webstore is also available to retailers at a discounted cost. We understand that this is an ecosystem; the better the shops do, the better Scout does.
CBY: Scout Comics has a good variety of genres that appeal to different readers. Is that a very conscious decision or have you just got that good of a variety of stories submitted? Does Scout Comics secretly have a favorite genre?
CS: We have seven people on the submission board. If you asked them individually what their favorite genres are, I think you’d likely get seven different answers. That said, I can tell you that right now, horror is selling really well for us, followed by fantasy. I think in the non-cape comics space, that’s probably the answer you’d get from most publishers and retailers. But we don’t want to be known for just one thing. We’re looking to find as many different voices and types of stories as possible. I love that we’re the company that puts out the critically acclaimed Yasmeen and the hysterically raunchy Murder Hobo.
CBY: I think the Scout Comic book stable is full of creative books for everyone. I have my favorites and would encourage everyone reading this to go to Scout’s website and take a look and chance on a book.
I was wondering if Scout Comics can continue its great work with transparency and trust and take us behind the curtain to show us how creator and publisher work together by answering a few questions.
CS: Sure. I’ll do my best. If a creator [is] looking to sign a deal with Scout, they can also always reach out. I pride myself on being as transparent as possible.
CBY: Most creators understand that making comics is more a passion than a stable financial choice. Is that the same for publishers? We know indie comic creators are lucky to break even, how about an indie comics publisher?
CS: The margins in comics are very, very small. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at a book from the big two or one from a smaller publisher. At the end of the day, at MOST, a publisher is making in revenue $1.50 off a $3.99 issue. When you factor in printing and shipping costs, there’s not a lot left over.
Scout tries to be incredibly frugal with our print runs and where we spend money to make sure that there’s revenue left over to make sure the creators get paid. With that in mind and with all the different revenue streams we have to pull from, we’re fortunate that pretty much everything we’re putting out right now is breaking even.
CBY: Your submissions page states you do not pay creator rates upfront. Does that include no advance as well? When would the creators start seeing the fruits of their labor? What is the payment schedule; monthly, quarterly or yearly?
CS: The short answer is yes, we don’t offer advances. The more nuanced answer is that I think it’s incredibly important for creators to read the full contract and see not just what’s being offered, but what you’re being asked to give up in exchange. With page rates and advances usually comes the trade-off where you give up a piece of ownership (likely a controlling one). The books at Scout are 100% creator-owned. When the term of the publishing contract is up, you can walk away. So if that freedom is worth self-financing first (out of pocket or via Kickstarter), then Scout may be a good fit for you. As to when creators get paid, I believe the contract stipulates payments are quarterly. But that’s the quarter after the release of the issue/ book.
CBY: What contractually is everyone responsible for? Who owns what? How do royalties work? What does Scout get and what do the creatives get?
CS: The contract is pretty simple: the creators own everything. They bring the completed issues to Scout and we print, promote and distribute the comics. Once all the costs of printing and production are paid for, we have a straight royalty split of the profits with the creators.
Now, depending on the publisher, those printing costs can balloon. At Scout, we try to print mostly to order with a little buffer. We’d rather the book sells out and goes back for a second printing rather than the creator (and Scout) be stuck with an enormous printing bill that will leave the book in the red indefinitely.
Expected print runs are a question creators should discuss with potential publishers before signing any contracts.
CBY: What does Scout Comics expect from a creator? Are there expectations on creators to produce the work within a window? Say I pitched a 4-issue series, do you expect one issue within every quarter of the year minimum, or is it discussed? Has Scout had to let a book go because of problems?
CS: Our current policy is not to solicit a series until all issues are completed. This ensures that there are no production delays that can destroy a potential fanbase or retailer confidence in a book. The time frame to complete that series is entirely up to the creators. We have creators who have signed contracts and had a series ready to go immediately. We have others who are still working on getting their books ready for print a year after signing. Once your book is ready to be solicited, we need to find a spot for it on our production calendar. Right now, we’re scheduling for the end of 2022. So likely any new submissions we received at this point would be for 2023 and beyond.
CBY: Let's imagine I have come to Scout Comics with a successful 4-issue pitch and it was moderately successful. What, roughly, have Scout Comics and myself and team made financially from it?
CS: So, this is a very hard question to answer. There are so many factors that come into play when determining how successful a series is. Does the creator have a name in comics? Who did the covers for the book? Does the speculator market decide your title is the hot one?
But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that you’re a new creator who maybe came from Kickstarter and the art team on the book is fabulous, but also relatively unknown. We’ll also assume the book is killer (because we decided to put it out). Under those circumstances, you’re likely as a creator to make between $1000-$7500 for the first issue. And then progressively less for each issue after that (as the direct market subsequently orders less).
Are there cases where you’ll make more? Sure, but those are outliers usually driven by the speculator market. We’ve had books that are much more successful, but I want to provide creators with a realistic window into what they can expect. What I can promise is we’ll do the best within our means to help you maximize the revenue for the book.
The other thing to remember is some books do better as single issues and some do better as trades. With us having a deal with Simon and Schuster, we’re finding that some titles that did fine in the direct market are killing it in the bookstore one. And those that perhaps caught a bit of the speculator wave and did really well in the direct market might be the ones doing “just fine” in the bookstore. I haven’t factored trade sales in the numbers above that I listed. As we just started releasing the first of our trades in that market, I can’t speak to how that will affect a creator's bottom line. If you want to have this conversation again in another year, I’ll be able to give an informed answer.
CBY: Thank you, Charlie and Scout Comics, for providing the Yeti readers with an honest look into indie publishing. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t love comics, and this insight will help future creators become stronger. Knowledge is important and combining it with passion makes all work better.
I encourage everyone reading this interview to read it again. Learn what it takes and what is expected in making comics. Then go take a look at Scout Comics online or in-store and pick up some issues to see their principles put into practice. They have something for everyone.