I’ve been friends with Tom Akel for a while so when we had a conversation last year I was surprised to find out he had a publishing company I’d never heard of, Rocketship Entertainment. He promised to give me all the details later and in late January we finally connected to talk about this webcomics to Kickstarter print publishing model for such hugely popular strips as Let’s Play and Lars the Awkward Yeti.
Akel’s resume includes running MTV’s comics site, MTV Geek, Head of Content for Webtoon and consulting on many other digital platforms, so he knows the digital space well. In the second half of the interview he talks about how print publishers can adapt to the hugely popular webcomics platforms.
Rocketship’s launch was slowed by the pandemic but in 2021 it’s ramping up, moving into tabletop gaming and lots more – so let’s jump in!
[This interview was editor for clarity and length.]
MACDONALD: So, Tom you’ve been running Rocketship for a while, but it’s been on the launch pad, right? Tell me what the heck is Rocketship Entertainment?
AKEL: We’re a print publisher for graphic novels primarily adapting web comics into print and collected editions or premium collected editions. I started the company in early 2019 with an old friend of mine, Rob Feldman. He was a Ringo nominated creator himself, the CTO of Fangoria, an animation producer. He’s kind of a Jack of all trades. We go back way back to my Comedy Central days. I honestly can’t remember how we first started working together, but he’s a fantastic animator on top of all that. We started [Rocketship] in 2019 and the general thesis of the company was there are a lot of webcomics with scale audiences that don’t have the ability to get books made, but there’s a market there.
[We realized] some creators don’t understand how to do it themselves or don’t have the time. There are formatting issues with a lot of the material and that’s extraordinarily time consuming and requires at least some knowledge of pre-press. Most existing publishers were not looking at these books or taking them seriously enough to bring them to print, even though webcomics is such a booming industry. And the last piece is that the direct market doesn’t generally carry many indie books to begin with. Despite some of these books having millions of readers, in their minds it’s still niche.
So when we started the company, the first book we published was Let’s Play, which has nearly 4 million subscribers online. Obviously that was a big hit and it just kind of continued from that. We published about five titles in our first year, all via Kickstarter at first.
The second major piece of the company is that we’re going to treat every book as crowdfunded first. We’re not the first publisher to use crowdfunding, but we are, I believe, probably the first to do it as a business model on the kind of scale we’re talking about, to say we’re going to Kickstarter first for every single product we do.
MACDONALD: You had no existing business model to work from on this?
AKEL: Most of the books we publish have scale readership online. The easiest thing to do is to connect to those readers directly, to purchase the product and support the creator, not to try to get them to find out when it’s going to be released and solicited three months out and physically find their local score. And I know some of the stuff I’m saying is not the way people like to think about the direct market and the support it needs in order to stay healthy. But for the kinds of titles we publish, we don’t feel support from direct market would have been there. Now, some of these books have such scale, they’ll make it in there. And some of the creators we work with are creators who have resumes at Marvel, DC and Image. So I suspect those books will be carried, but not everything we do is going to be carried or even have the audience who go into those stores. Some of these books are just going to do better at Barnes and Noble.
MACDONALD: Man, I have so many questions, but they’re tumbling through my mind, you know, trying to see who gets out first. So okay, when you crowdfund them now, could you still buy them through Diamond? Are you with Diamond or is it all self distributed?
AKEL: So we were going to with Diamond, and then the pandemic hit.
MACDONALD: Right. [laughter] Oh dear, Diamond.
AKEL: Right. I had attended ComicsPro in Portland just before the pandemic to really wrap our arms around what we’re going to do in terms of the direct market. And of course, a month later there was a pandemic. So as we’re prepping all of our materials for solicitation, Diamond shut down for a while, DC left Diamond, there were multiple reports of payment problems. It felt risky for a brand new startup publisher to just jump right in there at a time when the direct market was so volatile. So for us and our creators, it just felt smarter to sit back on that. But books are online in our shop, we have some books up on Amazon that are releasing on the regular schedule. Those will be available directly from us through a fulfillment company or through Amazon. We launched our own online store, so we have more direct to consumer reach. And then we are talking to a major distributor for bookstores, in the very, very near future.
MACDONALD: I was going to say it, can’t be too hard to find a bookstore distributor right now. It’s not a struggle.
AKEL: No. And we have proven scale on our properties.
MACDONALD: But for the general comics public, you’re still a little under the radar of discoverability. But let me back up a bit, and ask about your partnership with your creators. What kind of business model is it?
AKEL: It’s going to vary from creator to creator. We don’t have a one size fits all deal, necessarily. Most of what we’re doing are pre-existing web comics and a lot of them already have contracts in place with webcomic platforms or other publishers. So in those cases it’s creator owned. Today I think everything we publish is creator owned. We are going to extend from that this year – obviously there’s always going to be creators who only own a piece of the material, if not the majority of it, or they’ll just have some sort of participation. But we very much believe in creator owned. Other than that, we act as a normal publisher, we take care of printing the book, publishing and putting it up for sale. That’s not rocket science
MACDONALD: Things that sometimes web cartoonists don’t want or have the time to do. There’s such a huge community of web cartoonists out there, with Hiveworks, Tapas, WebToon, the platform is so wide open to creators now. Looking at your website, obviously you’re working with pretty savvy, experienced people. But do you think a lot of people go into webcomics without really thinking about the print component or it’s not a priority for them?
AKEL: I think so. I think that’s the majority of the creators. Not all of course, but I think most creators go into creating webcomics for the sake of creating webcomics. A print book is always in the back of their mind, a dream of somebody having a book of their thing, or that they’ll kickstart themselves down the road when the time’s right. We see a lot of independent webcomic creators use Kickstarter and it’s been happening for a decade. But I don’t think they generally think “I can’t wait to get my print edition out.” I think it’s a secondary thought, especially if you’re talking about many of the web platforms, WebToon, Tappytoon, Inkr, or the dozens of others that are out there now. When you’re developing for the vertical scroll format that creates real challenges in adapting something into print. That’s one of the services we provide as a company to these creators. We do that and we do it well.
MACDONALD: You know, I’ve been writing “will webcomics survive” stories for nearly 20 years, and seen the question, will people read it in print if it’s up on the web for free asked over and over. But now, it’s not even a question. But what is your audience? I imagine it’s a mix of people who love the webcomic and want something they can hold in their hands, but is it also a way to find new readers for these creators?
AKEL: It is. But not at the kind of scale they’ll get online on the web or in an app. A lot of the readers are existing fans. But we do market the books, and we’re finding new people all the time. Based on comments and how many people previously bought the Kickstarter, all that data you get on the back end, for bigger properties we can kind of track roughly whether they were somebody who were already a fan. A lot of it is people who are already fans. But we do see people discovering content for the first time, and a big part of that is that Kickstarter has its own audience. With some people, wow, this person backed 50 Kickstarters. They’re a Kickstarter fan and they want books and maybe they’ve heard of this thing. We reach a lot of people that way. I think once we hit retail people who are in physical stores looking for something will flip through it, and if they like what they see they’ll buy it.
MACDONALD: I know you’re making some big moves for 2021, which is why we finally did this interview. What’s your big news for 2021, Tom?
AKEL: We’re publishing more than ever before. We have about 15 to 20 titles on the slate for 2021, in addition to extending into tabletop gaming. Tabletop has been a passion of mine and was the focus of my master’s degree. I had intended to go into gaming!
We’re going to do at least two tabletop games this year, the first two are pretty scale projects, one of which is with a partner company that I can’t announce yet. But that’s going to be one of our larger projects for the year. We also have partnerships with other platforms that we’ll be announcing this year, to bring more webcomics into print and also expanded retail. 2019 was a let’s get this up, let’s get this out, see if it’s going to work. 2020 was okay, we’re in a pandemic. [General grim laughter]
MACDONALD: And yet, as we know Kickstarter had its biggest year for comics ever.
AKEL: Yeah, we had one of the top 20 comic Kickstarters of all time last year [Let’s Play Vol. 2].
MACDONALD: And comics sales for most publishers were up. So we actually did just fine. It actually turned out to be a pretty fascinating “learning experience.”
AKEL: We had planned on hitting the convention circuit and starting to do some retail distribution last year. Obviously all that got punted. We did several very successful campaigns last year, all the way through the end of the year with Lars The Awkward Yeti by Nick Seluk. 2021 is going to be printing all the stuff that we Kickstarted last year.
MACDONALD: Right. That was the first pandemic problem we saw, the printing slowdown from China.
AKEL: Our fulfillment all got delayed because of that and it snowballed a little bit. And of course, dealing with fulfillment in the pandemic was you can’t have more than two people in a room while you’re trying to stuff boxes of books. But since then we’ve expanded our operations. We have a partner company, Crown Studios, in Portland and they handle all of our fulfillment. It’s been fantastic to work with them. They really help keep the wheels going and allow us to focus on what we really need to focus on. So 2021 is going to be getting all these books printed – it’s a year of organization for us, getting our catalog set, rebuilding the website, with a new retailer portal for shops to buy directly from us. It’s a very simple form to fill out for any retailer who wants to carry our books. We just reach out to us to give them a code and they can buy it wholesale from us. That’s kind of the fastest, easiest way to do it for the shops that are interested. And then, we prep for 2022, and hopefully the return of the convention season and more normalcy.
MACDONALD: Listening to you talk, I think I kind of understand the answer to this question, but we’ve seen so many new publishers come out and, obviously before the pandemic hit, 2020 was going to be a gold rush for publishers. And quite rightly so because the kids categories are booming, webcomics are booming. Comics had their best year ever in 2019. Yet you stayed under the radar as opposed to coming out, you know, wielding a big Twitter stick. Was that to have proof of concept before you could really launch?
AKEL: One reason was to make sure that this was something that had its legs under it and was going to be successful before we were screaming from the mountain tops. A lot of companies – and I’ve done that myself in the past – make lots of big announcements around projects, companies, platforms, and sometimes it’s just better to say let’s make this real first and then talk about it. The past few companies I’ve been with have always been a lot of noise out of the gate. So for me personally, I wanted to take a step back, focus on it, before we start talking about it in any kind of big way. Obviously we were marketing books, we wanted to wait for the right time with some of the products we have coming up that are a little bit bigger and will require some PR behind them, that it’s the right time to talk about the company.
MACDONALD: Given your background, I wanted to ask you about companies like AWA and Archie moving to scrolling sites. Obviously DC is doing their experiment into digital first. What do you think of some of these efforts from traditional publishers?
AKEL: Okay. I have this conversation frequently with people. And I would say that the publisher/platform relationship is always interesting. Because it’s different from platform to platform. There’s a lot of talk about a Netflix for comics, or a YouTube of comics, and all these different directions with platforms going up.
There is a Netflix of comics and that’s Comixology.
MACDONALD: [laughter] Right.
AKEL: You can subscribe for six or seven bucks a month, whatever it is. And it’s an all you can eat from almost every single vertical you can think of. Big publishers are on there, the kids’ publishers are on there. And they have a UGC (user generated content) component too, but that’s not really what they’re known for. That’s the Tapas and WebToons of the world. So those are more the YouTube of comics.
When asked by publishers for my opinion, I say, understand, it’s like pitching to a network. Understand there’s a brand you’re talking to, and before you go down that road really do your research. So are you trying to pitch Gilmore Girls to the SyFy channel. Are you trying to pitch Breaking Bad to Nickelodeon?
I was at Viacom for a decade. It’s the first thing they would say on an animation panel at Comic-Con – we all create content for generally the same audience, but we’re all very different brands. So make sure you understand what we are before you come to us with a show.
So that’s important to understand. If you’re going to try and take a portfolio, have a specific audience and try and funnel them through a platform that already is its own brand, understand what that brand is and ask yourself, is this even worth the effort? Is this a fit? And then, because it seems the pandemic has heightened this, everyone’s hungry for eyeballs. You see all these digital platforms with eyeballs, whether they announce numbers or not. Comixology is massively successful. WebToon and Tapas announces numbers frequently. But it’s obviously a scale. There are a dozen of these sites out there now. [There’s Europe Comics] and Izneo in France
MACDONALD: They were actually on a panel this morning on comics on the web at the Virtual Angoulême. Izneo was showing some graphs and charts. And they had a big year in 2020 surprise, surprise.
AKEL: They have a nice platform and they have good partnerships. But the idea of just reformatting your book and throwing it up there because you see numbers – look closely at what are people reading there? Are they reading the kind of thing you’re making or not that? Are you about just getting eyeballs and trying to find readers, or are you about creating a brand? Every one of these [print] publishers has a different model. Some of them rely on the direct market, some rely on big box or maybe they have a large investment from Hollywood and they rely on creating really good properties. One out of the 10 or one out of 20 is going to make it to the screen. Like, that’s real, this is a very healthy content markets. I know people don’t like that model, and it’s frowned on by comics purist, but you get some wonderful books that way.
There will continue to be more and more digital platforms. So eventually there’ll be the one that’s the right fit for the right publisher. Tinyview, I think just launched, that’s all a lot of web comic creators. That’s worth checking out. I’m aware of it just because we publish Lars The Awkward Yeti, and Nick Seluk just launched his new property there. and he has 4 million social media followers. Macroverse, which I was unfamiliar with until a couple of days ago.
MACDONALD: Oh, I don’t even know, dude. You’re way ahead of me.
AKEL: I keep tabs on my business. I always forget Webcomics, which is the name of the platform. I don’t know much about them other than that it’s a Chinese company, but I do know a lot of creators will be there, with their series there from Tapas and Webtoon and other platforms.
MACDONALD: Do you think that that all of these launches have a way to set themselves apart from the pack? To find an audience?
AKEL: Yes. The larger platforms have kind of defined the audience they have already. So there is an audience for verticals that have not been explored yet or tapped into. There are hundreds of thousands of print buyers of certain genres of books [like romance] that do not have access to something digital. And I don’t believe that they represent the entirety of the universe of people who would read those books. As new platforms emerge, it’s going to take a little time, because it’s still a sorta green industry in a lot of ways. 10 years ago there was a kind of wave of – I can’t remember the names of all the platforms, like Iverse, and a bunch that came in the same era as Comixology, which then broke away from the pack.
MACDONALD: It was a bake-off.
AKEL: A lot of the tech didn’t work. But as tech becomes easier, it’s really not that hard to do this. You’re talking about JPEGs on a screen. You could build a WordPress site that accomplishes most of this, but obviously it’s not ideal as a true test platform, but it’s not super, super difficult to do. It’s super difficult to do at a really high level, but you can get there. To me it’s more about finding the audience, finding the content, understanding the market and how to market it. But the tolerance for what it takes to be successful, the work and time and money that goes into that is very real.
Comixology has Amazon behind it. Webtoon has Naver behind it is. Tapas has raised significant VC. It takes millions of dollars to make this successful. And it’s easy to build a platform, but it’s not as easy to build the content. If you want to build content for an untapped audience – say horror – you’ve got to find creators who want to make horror comics and make really good ones that people want to read. And if they’re making money elsewhere, you’ve got to pay what they are making elsewhere. Otherwise they’re gonna stay there. What are creators loyal to, a publisher or a platform? In some cases, they are loyal to a paycheck. They have bills to pay, mouths to feed. They need to be treated the best and feel safe about doing that.
MACDONALD: So you’re telling me, content is––
AKEL: Still king.
MACDONALD: What are some of your books you want to plug here?
AKEL: Let’s Play by Leeanne Krecic – volumes 1 and 2 are out. You can get Vol. 1 now in the shop and Vol. 2 will be there soon for pre-order. Obviously, Let’s Play is a massive success both critically with the Eisner nomination and commercially. Also in our first year we published Assassin Roommate by Monica Gallagher, #Blessed by Victoria Robado, and Adventures of God by Matteo Ferrazzi and Corey Jay, which are all available for sale now on the Rocketship shop and on Amazon. Brothers Bond by Ryan Benjamin and Kevin Grevioux, which was nominated for an Eisner. Last year we put out Darbi by Sherard Jackson, Fox Fires by Emilia Ojala, which is an all ages Finnish tale – it’s fantastic for kids. Cupid’s Arrows by Thom Zahler, and Urban Animal by Justin Jordan and John Amor – Justin just had his Image book, Luther Strode, announced for film development. And of course Lars The Awkward Yeti by Nick Seluk – his most popular series is Heart and Brain, which is published by Andrews McMeel, but Lars is his first property, where Heart and Brain started. So we’re insanely excited about being able to work with Nick on Awkward Yeti.
MACDONALD: Andrews McMeel has become really adept at finding these webcomics, and if they can adapt and be nimble, anything’s possible.
AKEL: They really have some amazing webcomics in their portfolio.
Most recently we kickstarted Live Forever by Raúl Trevino, who is another just amazing creator who isn’t on enough folk’s radar. It’s such a compelling story and because it’s completed we’re putting out the Eternal Edition – hardcover, gilded edges, foil outside and in, slipcase – all the bells and whistles, and it’s immediately available in English and Spanish. Last month we wrapped our first book that wasn’t a preexisting webcomic – Beneath an Alien Sky by Sid Kotian, who I worked with in the past at MTV, Image, and WebToon. It’s a sci-fi-horror OGN and we’re doing both a black and white artist edition and a full color oversized slip cased hardcover.
Our current project is The Croaking by Megan Grey, which was nominated last year for the Ringo Award for Best Webcomic. It just launched a few days ago and hit its goal almost immediately. There are still a few weeks left for those interested in backing the Kickstarter and getting some of the rewards that won’t be available later on.
MACDONALD: That’s one of the appeals of crowd funding. People not only want to hold something in their hands, they want to have something really nice looking on their coffee table or their bookshelf. I mean, people love the bells and whistles.
AKEL: I definitely found that the Kickstarter crowd will go for the higher end items. One of the other sort of really nice pieces about crowdfunding first is that, and I mean this with the utmost sincerity, we can give back to the fans using content that we would not be able to do if we just printed these books and put them into bookstores. There’s no way that they’re going to get a print or a signed book plate or an Apple pen set or free stretch goals of bookmarks and stickers and magnets and key chains and all that. In some cases you’d get plushies or t-shirts and hoodies, that would not exist if we did not put these through crowd funding as a first window. We love doing that.
Here’s a list of Rocketship Entertainment’s titles past, present, and future:
Let’s Play volumes 1 & 2 by Leeanne M. Krecic (2019 Eisner nominee)
Assassin Roommate by Monica Gallagher (2018 Ringo Award winner)
#Blessed by M. Victoria Robado
Adventures of God volume 1 by Matteo Ferrazzi and Corey Jay (2017 Ringo nominee)
Brothers Bond, books 1 & 2 by Ryan Benjamin and Kevin Grevioux (2018 Eisner nominee)
Darbi by Sherard Jackson
Lars the Awkward Yeti by Nick Seluk (author of Heart & Brain, NYT bestseller)
Cupid’s Arrows by Thom Zahler (Love & Capes, My Little Pony)
Urban Animal by Justin Jordan and John Amor
Fox Fires by Emilia Ojala
Live Forever: The Eternal Edition by Raul Trevino
Some upcoming titles:
Beneath an Alien Sky by Sid Kotian (The Adventures of Apocalypse Al, Dents)
The Croaking Volume 1 by Megan Grey
Faded Away by Miya Wang
1000 by Sanford Greene, Chuck Brown, Mike Chung, and Russ Wooten (2018 Ringo Award winner)
Metaphorical HER by James Maddox, David Stoll, and Jusin Birch
Wolfsbane by Ryan Cady, Morgan Beem, and David Stoll
Girls Have a Blog by Tara Kurtzhals and Sarah Bollinger
Late Bloomer by Tiffany Woodall
As well as more volumes of Let’s Play, Urban Animal, #Blessed, Brothers Bond, Fo Fires, Lars the Awkward Yeti, etc…