Monkeybrain Weekly: Talking the Story So Far with Chris Roberson [Interview]

This week on Monkeybrain Weekly, we have a special treat for you all. We have a chat with Monkeybrain Comics co-founder Chris Roberson, half the team who put together this endeavor, and the writer behind one of their biggest hits in “Edison Rex.” I talked to Roberson about how Monkeybrain came together, how it fits into the world of comics, the appeal of Monkeybrain to the average creator, Portland as a comic book mecca, and much, much more.

Thanks to Chris for chatting with me, and by all means, please visit ComiXology and check out some of their work. I personally recommend The Stars Below, High Crimes, Edison Rex and Bandette if you’re looking for a good place to start.

Monkeybrain Comics has existed for a little over 7 months now, and so far, you’re darlings of the industry. Creators and fans have responded really positively to what you’re doing, but for those don’t know, how did Monkeybrain come to be and what was it the two of you were looking to create with it?

Chris Roberson: The short version of the story is that we love comics and wanted to find a way to make comics, and so we did! The slightly longer version is that my wife Allison Baker and I have run a small-press publishing company for the last decade or so, called Monkeybrain Books. (If comics readers are familiar with the name, it’s probably because of Jess Nevins’s companions to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that we’ve published over the years.) We’ve talked for years about the possibilities of publishing comics as well, but couldn’t get the money end of things to work, primarily because of the capital involved in getting physical copies printed and distributed. With the rise of digital distribution, and in particular Comixology’s emergence as the market leader, we saw a way of publishing comics without losing our shirts, and Monkeybrain Comics was the result. We spent a long time figuring out what the publishing model would be, how we would market and promote the titles, and how best to go about getting it off the ground, and then at the beginning of last year we started approaching creators whose work we admire (and who we like as people, which helps!) and invited them to publish through us. It took the next seven months to get everything lined up, but we launched in July with five new titles, and haven’t looked back since.

That’s one of the things I’m most interested about with Monkeybrain. I spoke with Brandon Seifert a while back, and he told me that Monkeybrain was effectively looking for creators whose work you like and who you like as people, and then you effectively give them carte blanche to tell the stories they want to. Unsurprisingly, he said it was a pretty freeing experience. Both as someone who releases comics on your own platform (Edison Rex, is great by the way) and as the person publishing them, what do you feel the Monkeybrain experience gives to creators that they can’t find elsewhere?

CR: I think creative freedom is something that Monkeybrain offers our creators, but I’d hesitate to say they can’t get that anywhere else. Image is equally hands-off, for example. But there’s something about the immediacy of what we’re doing with digital, and the fact that these books are given the chance to grow audiences organically, that wouldn’t be possible in quite the same way in print. The standard model in the Direct Market is that a new title starts out with a certain number of sales, and those sales fall off by some percentage every month. There are some notable exceptions, of course, titles that grow their readership gradually over time, but by and large it’s a war of attrition. And with print costs being what they are, the hope is that the sales trend levels off before the monthly sales drop below the point where it’s worth anyone’s time to create, publish, or sell that comic. With digital, though, titles are always “on sale,” and the sales are tied to the month of release. If a reader finds out about one of our titles months after it launched, they can just download the first issue and start from there. And so we find that this gives books a little more breathing room, a little time to find an audience out there before the creators reach a “make or break” point. And that means that the creators can take risks on projects that would be a very tough sell in the print Direct Market, and also means that readers have a greater variety of titles to choose from.

I’ve noticed that variety in your lineup, for sure. For example, I have to say my two favorite Monkeybrain comics I’ve read so far are The Stars Below from Zack Smith and Rich Ellis and High Crimes from Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa. Both of those books are completely unlike anything I’ve read in comics, really, and they couldn’t be further apart from each other in terms of plotting/concept/feel. You said that creators with Monkeybrain take more risks, but are you and Allison looking to bring a more diverse mix of genres and ideas, or is that just a natural turn from the way Monkeybrain works?

CR: It’s probably a little bit of both, actually. Our philosophy from the beginning was that we should offer as many different kinds of comics as we could. But we didn’t start with a checklist, looking for one comic from each column. Instead, we found that it happened on its own, pretty organically, just by letting the creators do whatever kinds of projects they wanted to do. We’re all individuals with different tastes, experiences, and interests, and it’s only natural that we would tend to gravitate towards different kinds of material, both as readers and as creators.

One thing I love about Monkeybrain is the pricing structure. How did you originally decide on $0.99 and $1.99 as the price points, and what decides which book falls into what price segment? The reason I ask the latter part is almost entirely directed at High Crimes #1, which was a pretty considerable read for just $0.99. Do the creators help decide the price point?

CR: Well, our goal was always to keep the price point as low as possible. And anything sold through the iTunes store has to end in a denomination of 99 cents ($.99, $1.99, $2.99, etc). We largely leave it up to the creators to determine what the price on their titles should be, and we’ve done a fair amount of experimenting with different lengths and different prices. We’ve had the most success with shorter lengths priced at $.99, which seems to sit right at many readers’ “impulse buy” threshold. Not so short that they don’t feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth, and not so long that the creators’ aren’t getting fairly compensated for the work they’re producing.

Obviously Monkeybrain has been a creative and critical success, but one aspect that we don’t have much insight into is how it’s done from a sales standpoint. I know you can’t share actual results, but I was curious as to whether or not this endeavor has met your expectations so far from that angle, and what you were hoping for in your first year doing this?

CR: To be honest, we had no idea the reaction would be as positive or immediate as it was. We fully expected that we’d spend the first six months to a year simply getting the word out, and trying to let readers know that our titles existed. Instead, the outpouring of support and positive feedback just in the first weeks was simply overwhelming, and by the end of the year we had Monkeybrain Comics titles appearing on critics’ “best of the year” lists, readers talking about our new releases every week on Twitter and their own websites, and reviewers covering all of our new launches. As far as sales go, we always knew that it was going to be a long game. And, as I said, the model is different in digital than in print, as the sales for an individual issue aren’t all lumped into the month of its release but are spread out over weeks, months, even years. We’ve still got a ways to go yet, but I think we’re off to a solid start.

It definitely seems like the response has been really strong, and I think it’s really interesting how I’ve seen some people respond really strongly to things like Amelia Cole or Wander, while others are all over Edison Rex or Phabula. It speaks volumes about the diversity of the lineup, once again.

One of the things that I really loved was in November, you and Allison donated your proceeds from the sales of Monkeybrain comics to the Hero Initiative as a way of giving back and supporting creators in need. How did that come together, and how did you feel the response was to it? It seemed like every day I was seeing new glowing tweets and posts about that.

CR: I think that the shameful plight of so many veteran creators is a stain on our industry, and something that we as a community—readers, creators, retailers, and publishers alike—should work together to rectify. It’s not enough simply to list a veteran creator’s name in the credits of a Hollywood blockbuster movie while they waste away in a hospice, or to wait until after they die penniless and uninsured to run a “tribute” to them in the pages of a comic they helped create. These are real men and women who were not well served by the industry that they helped build, and we owe them better than that.

Your departure from DC Comics was pretty highly publicized, and was tied to very similar things to what you were just talking about in regards to the treatment of veteran creators. To you, do you think there is enough awareness amongst creators, readers and retailers to help avoid these types of situations in the future? Also, besides just contributing to organizations like the Hero Initiative and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, what can people do to help rectify this issue?

CR: Well, it would be nice to think that this kind of unpleasantness is all in the past, and those kinds of problems are entirely behind us. But the unfortunate reality is that there are far too many examples of similar issues in recent years, and that the long-fought struggle for creator-rights is still far from over. I think creators would do well to familiarize themselves with the kinds of problems encountered by those that came before them, if nothing else, so that at the very least we’re not simply repeating the mistakes of the past. As for readers and retailers, I think that the most important thing to remember is that publishing companies are businesses, first and foremost, and that if the public would prefer anything about these companies to change, that they should vote with their dollars. All of the online outcry and petitions in the world won’t mean a thing if profits are unaffected.

Couldn’t agree more on the last point especially. Consumers vote with their dollars, and that’s something people often forget.

Going back to the creators who work with Monkeybrain, I can’t help but mention your current home: Portland. A lot of the creators featured at Monkeybrain are Portlanders, including Allison and yourself. What does having Monkeybrain based out of a community that is so supportive of comics and the arts do for you as a publisher? To me, it seems like it can’t help but be an advantage, especially given what you’re trying to do with it.

CR: Well, relocating to Portland from Austin, Texas was something that we’d talked about doing for several years, and which we were actively planning as early as a couple of years ago. The formation of Monkeybrain Comics happened along the way. We moved here at the beginning of last summer, just a month before the Monkeybrain launch. And to anyone who loves comics, Portland is heaven. There are simply SO many comic creators that live here, and so many avid comic readers, and fantastic comic shops and events and on and on. One of the main reasons we decided to move here in the first place was so that we could spend more times with our friends who lived here, and to be a physical part of such an amazing comics community. And that extends to what we’re doing with Monkeybrain, too. It’s so nice to get to meet with our creators face to face, plan things out, even sign contracts in person! Even if we’d never decided to launch Monkeybrain Comics I would still think that moving to Portland was one of the best decisions we ever made, but definitely, living here makes running Monkeybrain just that much easier.

For you as a digital only comic publisher, what things have you had to learn or relearn compared to the way you handled things when you’ve previously worked in print comics? I know one thing I’ve heard from people who work on books at Monkeybrain was that its preferred to not release reviews until after the book has been released, that way people can buy direct after reading the review. I thought that was at least one thing that hugely differs from the way print comics operate.

CR: Promotion is certainly very different when dealing with digital distribution, and it’s honestly one of the aspects of digital that really appealed to us. Promoting a print title has, over the years, evolved into this multistage process where creators and publishers have to drum up interest in a project before it’s solicited, to motivate readers to tell their retailers to order it, and then again when the thing is solicited, motivating retailers to stock the title, and then again when the comic actually comes out, to remind readers to go into stores and buy it for themselves. And if any part of that process breaks down, it diminishes a title’s chance of success. With digital, we’re able to sell comics in the same way that a new phone app is sold, or a new website. That is, you wait until the thing is actually available, and THEN go out and start pushing. That way you don’t run the risk of getting someone’s attention with a solicitation, and then losing it by the time the thing actually goes on sale. Teasing things a little bit in advance is fine, but there’s no point in doing a full-court-press on promotion until it can actually do some good, otherwise that could be wasted effort.

Here’s the big overarching question I’m sure you love to be asked: do you see digital comics becoming the dominant delivery method over print comics in the foreseeable future? As a primarily print reader, part of me wishes not, but there’s a big part of me that wants at least more of an emphasis on digital because the print system seems to have more than a few flaws to it and could use something to spur change.

CR: Well, I don’t think that digital will become THE dominant delivery method, but I think it’s already quickly becoming A dominant delivery method. I see the future being made up of multiple distribution channels for readers (and multiple revenue streams for creators), in which people can read and enjoy comics in a wide variety of formats, as suits their tastes. People have talked about digital becoming the “new newsstand,” and I think that’s a pretty apt metaphor in a lot of ways. Once upon a time, comics were cheap entertainment, and largely disposable, and it was only in relatively recent decades that the individual comic itself came to be seen as a “collectible.” Digital in some ways is a return to that model, allowing readers to purchase and enjoy a comic for the sake of the reading experience, and not for the artifact to preserve and collect. Of course, the ultimate goal is to make these same comics available in print collections, as well, so we’ll ultimately be serving those needs, as well, one way or another.

Speaking of that, what is the plan for doing that? Do you already have designs on how you’ll want to roll that out, or is that still a ways away?

CR: In the immortal words of my childhood Magic 8 Ball, “Reply hazy… Try again later.” Or, to put it another way, ask me again in another couple of weeks!

That I can do!

Last questions for you until then. 2012 saw Monkeybrain launch strong with a lot of buzz, and 2013 has already seen some really exciting new releases. What are you excited to share with readers in 2013, both in a general and specific sense?

CR: Well, we’ve got a few exciting new titles that will be released in the coming weeks. THEREMIN by Curt Pires and Dalton Rose, MASK OF THE RED PANDA by Gregg Taylor and Dead Kotz, SKYBREAKER by Michael Moreci and Drew Zucker, and a surprise or two that will be announced in the next week or so. In the broader scheme, we’ve got some exciting announcements coming up in the very near future that I am VERY excited about. But in general, I’m excited about the prospect of more new readers discovering the comics we’re producing, and hopefully finding something in our lineup that resonates with them personally. So long as people keep buying them, we’ll keep making them!

About The AuthorDavid HarperDavid Harper mainly focuses on original content, interviews, co-hosting our 4 Color News and Brews video podcast, and being half of the Mignolaversity and Valiant (Re)visions team. He runs Multiversity's Twitter and Facebook pages, and personally tweets (rarely) @slicedfriedgold. By day, he works in an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, and he loves his wife, traveling and biscuits & gravy (ordered most to least, which is still a lot).

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