MATT CHATS: Tyler James on the Cthulhu Magic and Temptation to Move Away from Comic Book Kickstarters

Tyler James is easily one of the hardest working people in comics. Over the past several years, while continuing his role as the publisher of ComixTribe, he’s taken a keen interest in crowdfunding. He went from finding early success with comic projects on Kickstarter in 2012 quickly to the massive success of the C is for Cthulhu brand, which has made hundreds of thousands of dollars on the platform. I asked Tyler about that journey, the current Kickstarter for a Cthulhu coloring book and much more.

What originally brought ComixTribe to Kickstarter?

As big an advocate for Kickstarter as I am, people might be surprised to know that I was relatively late to the Kickstarter party. If first became aware of Kickstarter in 2010, but I sat on the sidelines for two years, watching other comic projects launch on Kickstarter to varying degrees of success. I studied what seemed to work and what didn’t for a long time before throwing my first hat in the crowdfunding ring in 2012.

I talked about it in the first session of my podcast ComixLaunch: Crowdfunding Comics & Graphic Novels on Kickstarter… and Beyond!, but it was really a mindset myth that was holding me back from launching.

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See, I saw Kickstarter as a finite resource… and was waiting to have the “perfect” project ready to go so I could play my one Kickstarter card. That project ended up being the OXYMORON Volume 1 Hardcover anthology, which raised $26,000 on an $8,500 goal.

Now, a little less than four years later, it’s hard not to look back at that first campaign as a watershed moment for ComixTribe. Those funds not only allowed us to produce a hardcover on par with any major publisher in terms of quality, but also gave us significant working capital to fund our direct market distribution, expand our convention presence, and take some chances on advertising and promotional opportunities.

And after delivering the books and fulfilling on the promises of that first Kickstarter, what surprised me was how many backers of the project asked when the next Kickstarter was going to be, and said how much fun they had supporting the campaign.

That was an “aha moment,” when I realized my Kickstarter mindset was wrong… if you deliver on your promises, Kickstarter is not a finite resource, but a renewable one.

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The fact that we’re currently running our eighth successful campaign for the C is for Cthulhu Coloring Book is proof of that.

How have you seen the market of comic book readers respond to the platform?

One of the greatest things about Kickstarter is its transparency… the numbers are all there, out in the open.

More than $45 million dollars have been raised for comics and graphic novel projects on Kickstarter to date, with 75% of those being relatively small projects, under $10K, by mostly independent creators with small fan-bases.

I sold my first comic book out of my backpack in high school and it made $9. With Kickstarter, we’re seeing even first time creators raise three, four, and even five figures on their very first comics, something unheard of and inconceivable six years ago.

And while yes, not all of those projects are truly profitable, with Kickstarter, printers, and the United States Postal Service all taking a significant piece of funds raised, the reality is, Kickstarter has still injected millions of dollars into the comic book economy.

As far as the readership goes, one of the things we hear so often that it’s almost a cliche is how we need a more diverse comic book industry. Well, if its diversity you’re looking for, look no further than Kickstarter.

Want lesbian supervillain romance? Gamer Girl & Vixen by Kristi McDowell is on Kickstarter.

Want a UK dieselpunk epic? Ray Chou’s Skies of Fire is waiting for you on Kickstarter.

Want a trippy smutty food porn graphic novel? I don’t even know what that means, but Eat Me by Megan Rose Gedris is funding on Kickstarter right now.

Now, I do know there there’s always the fear of Kickstarter fatigue, and that by now, nearly every backer has supported a few dud projects that failed to deliver. Even some from established industry veterans who you’d expect a lot more from.

But the reality is, according to the Kickstarter fulfillment report, Comic Book Kickstarter creators fail to deliver less often than the Kickstarter average, and have more successful returning creators than any other project category.

The Kickstarter platform is very much the present and the future for independent creators.

How did C is for Cthulhu end up at ComixTribe?

C is for Cthulhu started with a conversation with Jason Ciaramella (Eisner-nominated writer of The Cape, Magic the Gathering) over beers after Boston Comic Con 2013.

Jason had long been gestating the idea for a Lovecraft-themed board book full of characters and monsters inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft.

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With two boys at home, Jason was committed to exposing his kids to the weird and fantastic things that always appealed to him in an age-appropriate fashion. But he was appalled at the dearth of material in the children’s book space when his boys were younger… A is for Apple, B is for Boring!

So, the idea of a Lovecraft themed board book really appealed to him. Originally, he had our mutual friend Charles Paul Wilson, III (The Stuff of Legend) in mind for the board book. However, I was skeptical that CP would ever be able to carve out the time for twenty-six Lovecraft themed illustrations on top of his aggressive workload.

We were still trying to think of how to get CP on the project, when I stumbled across the weird and fantastic monster doodles of Greg Murphy, an artist I was working with at the time at a software company on other completely different (far less exciting) projects.

I connected Greg and Jason, and we all talked vision and strategy for the book, and decided to embark on a joint venture that would evolve into the C is for Cthulhu brand.

Since then, C is for Cthulhu has generated well over $100,000 in sales, the board book has gone to print twice and we’ve over 4,300 copies.  We’ve also expanded into plush toy co-developed with Skelton Crew (BPRD, Hellboy, Mouse Guard), t-shirts, and more.

And now, we’re back for our third C is for Cthulhu-related Kickstarter, this time for the Coloring Book, which was funded in a little over four days.

How did you approach the marketing differently for Cthulhu than for your other campaigns?

I thought launching C is for Cthulhu was going to be a real challenge back in 2014. After all, I spent the last decade building a comic book focused following… but had virtually know knowledge or understanding of the children’s book space, and to be honest, didn’t know much about H.P. Lovecraft, either.

What we did have was Jason, who had a deep knowledge and passion for the work of Lovecraft, as well as strong personal connections with some authors in the horror space, guys like Joe Hill (Locke & Key), who he was confident would give us a signal boost when it came time to launch. (They did.)

We also had Greg Murphy, whose art is unique and instantly engaging, and just the right mix of creepy and cuddly for the brand we were trying to build… strong art, anyway you slice it, is an asset.

But, I knew that we were building an audience from scratch, and I also knew that we’d need at least some audience prior to launching the Kickstarter if we wanted to be successful. So, we just rolled up our sleeves and started to build one.

  • We started a brand new email list, dedicated to C is for Cthulhu.
  • Started a Facebook Fanpage, where we started sharing work-in-progress pieces on Facebook regularly.

Another big aha for me was that the pieces that got the most engagement were pieces that asked for audience participation. Greg, a true illustrator with strong character design methodology, would generate multiple options for each letter for Jay and I to review.

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Rather than keeping those private, we’d share on FB, and get incredible engagement and response from the community… which started to build our fanbase on Facebook even more.

This is a super important and under-utilized strategy in comics… the power of co-creation with your audience.  Too many creators spend all their creation time in a vacuum, keeping their “super secret” projects underwraps, and then are surprised when they launch to the sound of crickets chirping and not much else.

When you’re trying to launch something new, wherever possible, include your audience… at least a little bit.

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You can see us bringing this over to the comics side of things, as a bit of co-creation we’ve done with our audience was invite them to submit “six word surf noir” stories for possible inclusion in the pages of CHUM by Ryan K Lindsay and Sami Kivela, a new ComixTribe series that’s coming out later this year.

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Getting our audience involved in the book, even superficially with a six word story contest, builds interest and engagement, and ideally helps up launch with more support than we’d have otherwise.

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Joe Mulvey has also been employing the power of co-creation in the pre-launch marketing of his first children’s book, Mummy’s Always Right, which is launching in May.

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All your Kickstarter projects have reached and surpassed their goals, but what do you think the Cthulhu projects have that make them so successful?

No question, part of our success has to do with the fact that we picked a popular product genre. For whatever reason, Cthulhu projects on Kickstarter have a long track record of success. I don’t entirely understand it, but the Lovecraft fandom is intense and they buy. So, there’s a certain amount of built in support that C is for Cthulhu was going to get that C is for [Some other monster no one has ever heard of] wouldn’t get.

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While people say they want new stuff, the reality is, what people tend to buy is usually the same as things they’ve bought before, or the same with a little twist. It’s why there are so many sequels, and why most of Hollywood values franchises over a fresh story well told.

That said, we’ve continued to grow the C is for Cthulhu brand because we’ve consistently delivered quality products, and we consistently and aggressively (for an indie publisher) market our products to our ideal audience. It’s not a simple or innovative formula:

Quality Niche Product + Solid Niche Marketing = Sales Success

However, I do think the simple fact that we actually do advertise, which so many independent creators fail to do or do well, is one thing that’s let us grow as fast as we’ve been able to.

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Facebook advertising is the most sophisticated audience building tool ever created. We can literally put our book in front of males and females who are into H.P. Lovecraft living in the United States between the ages of 24 and 40 who have a toddler and have bought a book in the last year. (Turns out there are over 100,000 people on FB that fit that description.)

Do you think a few of them are going to be interested in buying our book?

Another thing that sets us apart is that we listen to our C is for Cthulhu community, which is about 10,000 strong on Facebook right now. We survey them, share early designs, solicit feedback… again, we’re not creating products in a vacuum.

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In fact, we started giving out free, printable coloring pages to them months ago. When they started sharing their colored pages back with us on our FB page, and saying how much their little monsters loved them, green-lighting a coloring book as the next product was a no brainer.

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And that’s really another aha: Once you have an audience, you can remove the guesswork out of what projects or products you should be working on… you just ask them what they want.

Because I’m sure you’re tracking it: how does the audience for those differ from your audience for comics-based Kickstarters?

Well, there definitely is some crossover. Many of our comic fans also have little kids at home, and will support the ‘Tribe by picking up the board book, even if they’re not Lovecraft Fans or even know how to pronounce Cthulhu. (It’s kuh-thoo-loo, FYI.)

The C is for Cthulhu stuff has also done very well at the ComixTribe comic convention tables at Boston and New York Comic Con, so the crossover appeal is certainly there.

But, as I said, we can be a lot more focused in our targeting for the Cthulhu brand than we have been with our comics, which have less of a line-wide focus. And that’s another a-ha, and I’d go so far as to call it a mistake that ComixTribe has made, one so many other upstart new publishers make, as well…

Too many publishers come out of the gate and want to be like Image. They resist narrowing a focus to a genre. They don’t want to be “typecast” or “put in a box.”  They want to compete with the big boys by having a line of books that appeal to the broadest range of readers possible.

They want their brand to stand for “quality” alone.

But “quality” is shitty differentiator from a branding differentiation standpoint, because no publisher in their right mind would ever compete on the opposite of quality.

The reality is, for the scrappy, little publisher, and even some well-financed mid-tier publishers, that’s cast a wide net, try to be the next Image strategy is a surefire recipe for disaster… or at least irrelevance.

If I could go back five years and give myself some advice as a publisher, I’d tell myself this:

First, understand that different is better than better. Be aggressively different in what you’re offering the market.

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Our most successful direct market book was And Then Emily Was Gone, a uniquely drawn book psychological horror mystery about a made-up Scottish boogeyman. In a comic market that is all too homogenous, Emily stood out, and the market responded.

Second, when choosing a niche, niche down far enough until you can become the obvious choice in the market.

One of the many core principles of his must-read book The Dip, Seth Godin talks about the disproportionate benefits of being the best in the world at what you do. As a corollary, being the best in the world in a small market is usually far more lucrative than being middle-of-the-pack in a big one.  

But most creators and publishers, even smart, talented ones, refuse to niche down. They want to appeal to every reader, and thus appeal to none. They only want to make books like the ones that are already out there, they only want to do their take on Superman, Batman, Spiderman…

The problem is, until you’re a somebody, no one cares about your take on superheroes.

Marvel and DC are already double-shipping more superhero takes each month than any human being could possibly consume.

How can ComixTribe or anyone small publisher compete with them in a niche that they dominate, with a distribution system they largely dictate terms to?

Short answer: We can’t.

But go to Amazon right now and search “Lovecraft Children’s Books” and you’re going to see C is for Cthulhu at the top of the page with 110 positive reviews.

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We can dominate the Lovecraft children’s book niche. We can win there.

And while, I don’t have much else in common with Donald Trump, I do like winning. : )

So, my goal for the comics side of ComixTribe over the next few years is to pick some niches that we not only can compete in, but we can win in… niches we can dominate.

We’ll do that by continuing to put out quality books and tell stories that we ourselves want to read… but with increased clarity about who the market or reader is that we’re serving, and how we can be aggressively different in serving them.

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For an example of a relatively new publishers who embraced the niche down far enough until you’re the obvious choice approach is Rosy Press, who publishes the Fresh Romance anthology, which has had a lot of success on Kickstarter as well.

The fact that the stereotypical Wednesday warrior wouldn’t touch a Rosy Press book with a lightsaber is exactly the point.

Rosy Press isn’t going after that over-saturated part of the market Marvel and DC have been battling over and winning for decades… they’re pursuing smaller, but greener pastures, where, with grit, and determination, than can become the Wolverine of romance comics.

It’s the smart play.

And for resource strapped publishers, it’s the only play.

Does the success of a non-comics project like Cthulhu tempt you to do more of those and less comics projects?

There’s the rub, right? Do you stick with what you absolutely love or do you pursue what’s working far better than you ever imagined?

And do you have to sacrifice one for the other?

This is something I’m certainly struggling with internally to some extent, because I’m a comics guy. As I said, I’ve been creating comics since I was a kid and it’s my preferred medium.

But I’m also trying to run a publishing business, and in business, numbers don’t lie… and at the end of the day, you need to sell what the people want to buy.

And the honest truth is, we get more engagement and impassioned feedback, and love on our C is for Cthulhu Facebook page in a month than we do in a year on our ComixTribe page. That hurts to say a little bit, but it’s the truth.

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Of course, the fact that I’m at the age and time in my life when all of my friends are cranking out kids left and right, so it’s certainly nice to have a book I can give them.

Then there’s also the reality that children’s book market is a lot more friendly to the small publisher than comics is, for a number of reasons.

  1. Illustrating a children’s book can be done in a fraction of the time it takes to create a comic. Joe Mulvey found this out drawing Mummy’s Always Right, which is essentially 24-simple splash pages, compared to the average comic which has about 100-120 panels.
  2. Children’s books have a much longer shelf-life than comics. Think about it, Dr. Seuss is still selling millions of dollars of books every year. A comic book is lucky to get six weeks on the shelf at the local comic book shop, whereas a good children’s book will sell forever on Amazon. While it’s true that trades do have more of a shelf
  3. Children’s books have a higher price point than comics. Most parents are happy to spend more money on their kids, especially on a product that they think is cool, too. And while the cost of a board book is higher than a floppy or softcover trade, it can command a much higher price point than comics, which caps out around $5. (Although Marvel and DC continue to push that.)
  4. Nerds be procreating. And just as I’ve found with my friends, the pool of new parents grows every single year. We have some C is for Cthulhu fans with no kids at all, who buy five copies at a time because it’s their go-to baby shower gift. Those are awesome customers to have.

Of course, I’m not the only comic creator to recognize this. You’re seeing other creators such as Greg Pak get wise to this with his ABC Disgusting book, and Neil Gaiman has done very well for himself in the children’s space.

ComixTribe isn’t the only comic publisher doing this, as we see publishers like Boom branching off into children’s book publishing.

We’re going to see if we can strike lightning again, sticking in the ironic children’s book with horror themes, but this time without the Lovecraft crutch, with the upcoming Mummy’s Always Right by Joe Mulvey (SCAM, CounterTERROR.)

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When you build a large audience, as we have with C is for Cthulhu, it’s stupid not to create more things that they might love.

But no, I will not abandon comics… and I firmly believe the success of C is for Cthulhu makes me a better comics publisher, because you can learn a lot from sales success in any genre.

For example, Cthulhu’s success has allowed me to:

  • Take more chances on advertising, and really learn how FB ads really work.
  • Make more connections with other publishers and creators in the market, and do co-promotions.
  • Expand into merchandising.
  • Improving understanding of how to rank and get sales on Amazon.
  • Learn more about foreign licensing.
  • Practice building a highly engaged fanbase.

Most of the lessons I’m learning transfer very well to the comics space. I just need more time in the day to execute on them all.

What made a coloring book the next logical step for the Cthulhu brand?

The board books are a lot of work. Greg’s a busy illustrator, and fully painted illustrations do take a long time. He’s working on the next board book, but we realized that might not be done until the end of the year, and we want to launch at least two new products for the brand each year.

Jason’s son Xander was actually the first to suggest we do a coloring book. So, I reached out to my go-to swiss-army artist Jules Rivera, who is coloring Joe Mulvey for Mummy’s Always Right, and asked her to digitally ink over a Greg painting.

We then shared that with the C is for Cthulhu audience and they went nuts over it.

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So, I hired Jules to convert the entire Lovecraft alphabet into colorable pages, and also brought on

Jonathan Rector to work over a number of Greg Murphy concept sketches and unused pages for the board book to add some all new pages to the coloring book.

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So, combine the fact that our audience was already excited about the project, with this adult coloring book phenomenon that’s going on, and a C is for Cthulhu Coloring Book just seemed like an absolute no brainer.

Obviously, this made sense to be a Kickstarter project… and while this would be my 8th campaign, with every new campaign, I always try some new strategies.

In this episode of the ComixLaunch podcast, I layout the 7 New Strategies I’m employing in this campaign.

How do you see the brand growing even beyond what you’ve already accomplished?

Obviously, the coloring book is the next. It’s funded, we’re now moving on to stretch goals. There’s a couple of things we might be able to do with more funding, including a black cthulhu plush toy, or possibly even a giant plush doll.

A trilogy of board books is planned, with Sweet Dreams Cthulhu: A Lovecraftian Bedtime Story being the next in the series from Greg and Jason.

Foreign language licensing is also in the works, as Lovecraft really does enjoy worldwide fandom. We’re negotiating a licensing deal for a french version now, and will be reaching out to publishers other countries shortly after.

Another thing I’ve started looking into is C is for Cthulhu AR / Digital enhanced versions, which could be very cool. I’ve had some interested parties reach out, and will be following up on that.

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And of course, all of this is really setting up the C is for Cthulhu movie.

Whenever you’re ready Pixar. Whenever you’re ready.

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Tyler James is the publisher of ComixTribe, and the host of the ComixLaunch Podcast, which teaches the mindset, strategies, and tactics creators use to crowdfund comics and graphic novels on Kickstarter… and beyond. He is the writer of The Red Ten, EPIC and more, and lives in Newburyport, MA with his wife, step-daughter and dog/ComixTribe intern Charlie. Support him and do yourself a favor by checking out the latest C is for Cthulhu Kickstarter!

Comments

  1. says

    What a great article! Fascinating to hear how they market their books, and just enough info to make it really useful for creators. Thanks!

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