Two and a half years ago, a rogue group of screenwriters and filmmakers inspired by the creative freedom they saw in the comics medium founded Emet Comics. With their first publishing effort–a wildly successful Kickstarter for the beloved Finding Molly: An Adventure In Catsitting–the company and its founder, Maytal Gilboa, made a clear statement: they might be outsiders in the world of comics, but they’re here to make some damn good books! Bringing a fresh set of eyes to an industry that is arguably stagnant, Emet were already building a strong following before their recent acquisition of Rosy Press, followed by the announcement that they would be kickstarting and publishing the second volume of Fresh Romance.
Fresh Romance was the brainchild of Janelle Asselin, an all digital anthology of romance comics which raised just over $50,000 from its original Kickstarter. With high profile creators, a focus on fair rates, and creator ownership, as well as Oni picking up a print collection of the book, Fresh Romance was a runaway hit. But behind the scenes, things were a lot more complicated. Asselin’s publishing house, Rosy Press, was in trouble, and in 2016, Asselin announced that she was closing the company for good. Since then, there have been rumors of unpaid creators, disputes over rights, and other stories that seem inconsistent with the original mission statement and idea of Fresh Romance.
When it was announced earlier this year that Emet Comics had acquired Rosy Press and would be kickstarting and publishing Fresh Romance Volume 2, it gave hope to fans of the original book and pause to those who may not have heard of the relatively new company. Founder Maytal Gilboa’s choice to take on the beloved-yet-troubled Fresh Romance brand was a calculated risk that came from a strong sense of female solidarity and a passion for unusual woman-centered stories that cater to an inclusive female audience.
As a part of our series on the publication of Fresh Romance Volume 1, I sat down and spoke with Maytal Gilboa about the past, present, and future of Emet Comics, the struggles of starting an independent publishing company in the age of Diamond, and how to ensure safe spaces and fair rates for creators in the world of crowdfunded comics.
What’s your mission statement?
So, I am the collector of broken things. My mission statement is to tell stories that the media would find non commercial or unproven. So when you’re looking at the space of animated adult content, you won’t find any series put there focused on a female heroines, so that would be an unproven model or an unproven type of storytelling. We want to take risks in those spaces to dispel those myths and change the way people think about content, primarily the way that they think about content for women or young girls and my personal mission statement is to empower as many female creators and female voices as I can.
There are the obvious limitations, the financial limitations of the world of media and creation that have to be taken into account. I wish that money flowed on trees and I could greenlight everything and tell everybody to make all of the things, make all of the things all of the time. But there is a business element to it, so I’ve tried to form some sort of a business model, so that this can be viable in the long term. When I started the company two and a half years ago, I was like, “How do I build a ten year plan to longevity and success?” and also accomplish my vision, my social values, as a social entrepreneur which is very much what I consider myself. That’s not to discount the fact that there is money to be made in women, everybody should know that, but for now as I work out this models this is very much a social venture.
You’ve been around for two and a half years now, so what comics have you put out, and if people want to look you up and read some of your books, what can they find?
We’ve made quite a few books. Our first book was Finding Molly An Adventure In Catsitting which we kickstarted last year. That was my first experiment with Kickstarter, so what we did was we launched Finding Molly as a six month webcomic that updated daily, and by the end of it we had 8,000 people reading it a day and that gave me the confidence to try a Kickstarter and those people showed up. We had a very successful Kickstarter, and it made us very happy. And it opened my eyes to the amazing world of Kickstarter and the way that fans are supporting creators they love. Even now, in women’s history month, I go on Kickstarter and there are as we speak five or six projects that I find exciting, that I’m supporting and that is the only place I can get that product right now. I think that’s really special.
In terms of the other books we’ve finished we finished a book called the Wendy Project, but this was in the beginning of the company when I was still trying to sell the books to other publishers, and we sold that book to Papercutz and it will be out in July. That book will be distributed from Macmillan. Finding Molly is out right now, and we just finished Verona, which is also a really fun action packed, Mr. and Mrs. Smith style romance based on Romeo and Juliet, and we’re very close to finishing Zana, which will be our fourth book. Then we have three other books we’ll be finishing this year Inside The Loop, Spoiler Land, and Fresh Romance Volume 2. So eight books in two years, that’s not bad.
It sounds like your original business model was based around the idea of selling books to publishers, whereas it’s now evolved into a more crowdfunded type model. Can you tell me more about that?
Well, we only sold one successfully; it’s very hard as a small company to specialize in everything. So, you can either specialize in producing and creating content or you can specialize in distributing that content. As a start up company with not a lot of reach in publishing and in distribution channels, I thought okay, I’m going to find a company like IDW or Boom or MacMillan that sees potential to work with us, that sees a way to expand in the female market. That’ll do some kind of an overall deal with us, that’ll take our books to market. We’ll invest in the content, we’ll make the content, and then they’ll sell it because that’s their specialty and then that just never panned out. We had a bunch of conversations and nobody was interested. Then I tried to go to the Diamond route, and at first, Diamond rejected us on our single issue model, but then about six months ago they accepted us for our graphic novels. So there is still the possibility of distributing through Diamond, but the financials of working with Diamond are very tough. Because you have to sell many, many more books in order to reach the same numbers. So, just to give you some perspective, if I were selling 1,000 books for $25 I would get $25,000 through Kickstarter. If I were to sell the books through Diamond I would end up getting $2.50 per book.
In my opinion, the Diamond model is very flawed and is definitely a big part of the reason that the Kickstarter model has become so prevalent.
The Kickstarter model is great. I hope that people don’t get tired of us using the Kickstarter model. Because that’s the fear right? People start to see you a not a real company because you’re a company that is basically asking for money all the time from it’s readers. Only a few people understand that that is the same as a retailer, who is asking you for money to sell you a product. You don’t want to be that company that is launching a Kickstarter every three months, it’s more advisable that you do one Kickstarter a year, and that it’s a really big bang and that you offer something special. So then the question is how are you getting your books to market, how are you expanding your audience, and how are you marketing in this very very cluttered space? How are you finding your readers? One of the hardest things is to self publish online; everyone talks about Amazon and the self publishing revolution, if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on ad-words and marketing online consistently and working tirelessly to find your audience. And simultaneously doing the convention and book fair circuit on a weekly/monthly basis you are not going to succeed.
So again it comes to the question of where do you focus your time as a young company? Do you focus your time on building your distribution chain? On being salesmen on the ground floor? Or do you focus your energy on actually making the product? Which in itself takes a ton of time and work and effort. So these are some of the challenges that you face and I’m sure that these are the same challenges that Janelle faced. Even though Oni did pick up Fresh Romance Volume 1, it was not a perfect deal. They did not finance Fresh Romance Volume 1, they did not even finance the printing of Fresh Romance Volume 1, they did not finance any marketing of Fresh Romance Volume 1. That was all on her shoulders and at the end of the day they still took their distribution cut. And they still did not pick up Fresh Romance Volume 2, I sent them a proposal and said hey guys we’d love to submit this to you and they said sorry our slate is full. It’s not because they don’t want it, it’s just that competitive. It’s just that hard. Unless you have an overall deal with a huge book distributor, with a sales force of thirty rep who are working on your behalf to get your books into stores, into specialty shops, into airports, you’re likely going to fall back on these crowdfunded models because it’s the only way for you to reach your audience.
Talking about Fresh Romance, when did you first hear about Fresh Romance Volume 1 and what were your thoughts on the project as a whole?
Funnily enough, Janelle was living in LA when she launched Fresh Romance, and we had met two months before she launched Fresh Romance Volume 1 and talked about our companies and how passionate we were about empowering women. And we both came from two very different points of view because I came from this Hollywood perspective and my position has changed over the past two and a half years because of the sheer nature of the business. I have learned so much, I have changed so much in terms of my perspective. But at the time I was like we’re going to come in there and we’re going to have all these great stories and no one is going to be able to ignore what we are doing. Let me tell you, boy, oh boy, can they ignore what you’re doing. They’re so good at it! They have hundreds of years practice at doing it! Thousands of years! But Janelle knew she wanted to do something, she wasn’t sure what, she was writing a book at the time so her focus was split. Then two months later I saw the Kickstarter launch for Fresh Romance Volume 1, and I thought wow, this is really exciting. Good for her. So I’ve known about this from the beginning, and I’ve been a supporter of Janelle’s from the beginning, and I’ve been awed by what she accomplished in such a short time because of her relationships, really this business is so much about relationships and maybe that’s probably the biggest disappointment in Fresh Romance falling apart, that those relationships were hurt. When she announced that she was going to release a single issue each month I didn’t know how she was going to do it, I looked at the money they raised in the first Kickstarter and you have to be very factual about these things; you can’t look at the numbers and say oh she raised over $50,000. Look at the expenses.
Anytime you’re looking at a Kickstarter, I have a friend who just launched a Kickstarter who just wrote a really interesting article about how his 18,000 is really like 2,000, then he breaks down all the expenses he has incurred, he’s like none of this money is going in my pocket. Nobody gets rich off comic book Kickstarters. And the more you make usually, the more you’re offering. If people are spending more money on your Kickstarter, people aren’t fools, so they’re getting more out of it. Usually, they’re getting a more expensive product or more product or product that is more expensive to make. So when I first saw those numbers I wasn’t sure how she was going to fulfill it. Luckily, from early on, she had a lot of support from press, she had a lot of press about her book, I think she worked with David Hyde who is a really great publicist, who helped her get the word out about what she was doing and she also had support from Comixology which put her on the first page, which was awesome. I remember going on to Comixology and seeing that they were supporting Fresh Romance and thinking that that was really wonderful. So there was a couple of really great things that happened at the beginning of Fresh Romance.
When did you first become aware of the first volume having issues?
Not until she made her announcement, Janelle and I didn’t speak for the past two years really because I was so busy with my company and she was so busy with hers, plus she had health issues and then she moved to the midwest, so I was not actually keeping up with Fresh Romance because I had a company to run. So there was actually a young woman who worked for me called Maria, who forwarded me the announcement and said, “Oh my god Janelle is closing Fresh Romance.” So at that point I emailed Janelle and I was like what’s going on, what happened, and how can I help? At that point I didn’t know about anything else, I hadn’t heard about any of the noise, I’m notoriously horrible at social media and forums and that stuff, I do not keep up, I barely keep up with my emails. I had not heard anything else prior to that point. So Janelle and I had many conversations, she explained to me what was going on, she explained to me the debt in the company, the money that was owed, the things that people were upset about and we started, we tried to make people happy.
So I said to Janelle, let me acquire Rosy Press from you and let me try to salvage this. I emailed all the creators, and I paid all of the debts, and I think there are only a couple of outstanding debts, and that’s because artists on the other end have not gotten back to me in regards to the paperwork that I need. But we have done all of that outreach, there was one story that wanted to leave the anthology, Janelle had given her her rights back I made sure that that happened. And even Ruined, the creators have told me that they might not want to continue the series, so we’re now working on a deal where they can have their rights back. I’m really really trying to honor everybody’s hard work and to make the creators as happy as they can be at this point, and to figure back how to move this forward in a sustainable way. For example, the 12 single issues a year is not going to happen, but maybe six months out of the year, so what we did was in our Kickstarter page we posted a schedule, an infographic so it’s clear to people exactly what dates the issues are coming out. Starting in April there will be one single issue on the last Thursday of each month. We’re going to make it a summer series, so that we have six months of runway to make content and so the content is done so we can then deliver it without the insanity of having to deliver 30 pages each month.
What was the process that led to you deciding to acquire Rosy Press? Was it organic? Were these stories you really wanted to tell?
Fresh Romance? First of all it was a gorgeous book; nobody who read that book didn’t say that it was of the utmost professionalism and polish and quality. So that was the first thing. The second thing is I’m all about girl power. I cannot in good conscious be in this space and not doing everything in my power to fight for the things that make girls feel powerful. So if Fresh Romance made women feel strong and powerful, then we have to continue it, we cannot expect anyone else too. So we have to work out how to do it. We have to figure out the way it makes sense. Can we bring the production costs a little bit? Can we do fewer single issues a year? Can we find other ways to make money off these products? Maybe make a t-shirt or maybe make this.
How many conventions do we need to do a year? So we have to go into the detail of how we’re actually monetising this and be really serious about the business of how you make your money back cos if you don’t make your money back you don’t get to make the next book. So one of the big things that we’ve done with the next volume is brought on two creative teams that have a vision for a three chapter story. So, Suzana Harcum and Owen White you’ll get the first 60 pages of their story in volume two and the second in volume three and the third in volume four. Then guess what? I have an 180-page original graphic novel that I can market to a much broader audience that is not so excited by the anthology format.
So you clearly envision Fresh Romance as an ongoing series, and it seems like you have a great idea for a business model. Can you tell me more about that?
Well, we’re learning, right? Such a big part of this is experimenting. So, for example Finding Molly did really well as a webcomic and a Kickstarter, and we were approached by Tapastic who wanted to distribute it on their mobile app Tapas. They’ve made good money in the past month on Finding Molly, so they came back and said we want to co-finance volume two of Finding Molly with you. So who would have thought, that Tapastic would come and say we wanna co-finance a book in a way that no other publisher has come to the table and said we wanna co-finance anything with you. So there’s an opportunity that I never would have thought of that’s presented itself. For Finding Molly, I’m experimenting in another language, so Molly is a Latina character, her family is Latino and a lot of the humor comes from Latino culture. She’s a huge fan of Frida Kahlo, and in future volumes, Frida Kahlo actually becomes a character in the story. We sat with the creators and we said why don’t we try translating the book into Spanish, so we’ve just finished translating it and Finding Molly will also be available in Spanish. We’ll see if that opens up a new market for us a little bit. So original graphic novels, novels in multiple languages, trying to find the right sales partners–whether it’s a mobile sales company like Tapas, a book distributor like Ingram or Diamond, a foreign sales company in Europe who helps us sell these books in those territories–these are the things that I have to be thinking about constantly, that are beyond the scope of traditional comics. Traditional comics are single issues, to trade in Diamond, and unfortunately, that model is just too hard. It’s too hard to make a product that over 5/10,000 people buy and look for on a monthly basis.
I find Diamond to be an incredibly archaic system set up in the ’70s that is now out of touch with reality and that ends up being detrimental to comics creators, fans, and retailers.
But it’s not the retailer’s fault, none of this is intentional. It’s because there is only around 1,000 comic shops in the U.S., they are very, very wary about what they order, so it’s a very very conservative business.
You mentioned that you have three more books that you’ll finish this year. Do you want to tell us about those and any other exciting projects you have coming up?
We’ll probably finish those books by the new year, then we have to work out how we are going to put them out to market. Actually, there is something really exciting that I haven’t talked about at all and could be kinda fun to launch here. We put out a survey in January to all of our subscribers, and if you’re not a subscriber please subscribe, because we give a lot of information out through our newsletter. We put out the survey, and we asked our 3,000 or 4,000 subscribers what do you want to see more of? Unanimously, people said we want more interviews with creators. Which was really cool because that means the people wanna know more about the creation process of these comics, and it also indicates to me that a lot of the people who are filling out these surveys are creators or artists themselves. Which is known in the comics base, that most people who are fans are also creating something, whether it’s a zine or it’s your own art or you’re in animation it’s people who appreciate the art form. So I got together with a friend of mine Lorien McKenna, who worked at Pixar for over ten years as a story development person and who recently left to become a writer. She actually sold her first show last year, and she’s going out with her second show this year, so she’s finally stepping into the role of a creator and not an executive. She and I talked a lot about launching some kind of show where we interview creators. She said you should talk to my friend Dara Harris who has always wanted to be a talk show host.
Derah Harris has no industry experience, she’s a psychiatrist who is also a professor at the University of Washington all the way down in Missouri. And Dara is fascinated by creativity and the behind the scenes of the creative process, because she as a child wanted to be an actor and she abandoned those dreams to become a doctor because that was the practical thing to do. So her premise is that a lot of women are operating from a place of fear, a lot of people are operating from a place of fear, under this umbrella of what is or isn’t practical in my life, what is possible or not possible. She wanted to create some kind of talk show to empower people to create and to be the tellers of their own stories and their own narratives. So the three of us have gotten together and we’re launching our first Emet comics podcast. So in May, we are going to launch a podcast called I Failed So What? And it’s a look at failure, it’s a look at that moment where you fuck up, you do something that in hindsight was a booboo and you feel the anxiety and you feel the shame, you feel the anger, you wanna just bury under your blanket on your bed for three days but you don’t. Instead, you rebound, you learn from it, you grow you try again, and eventually you go on to succeed. Some of the amazing people we’ve got on it are Brenda Chapman–the director of Brave–Meg La Fauve- the writer of Inside Out–people like Maggie Kiley who is an up and coming female director, and Karen Berger has agreed to do the podcast in the summer and we’re just starting to put our tentacles out there. We did our first recording last weekend, we’re doing our second one in May, and we’re launching in May. So it’s really really exciting, and hopefully, this is a piece of how we repair and rebuild the Fresh Romance brand and the Emet brand together.
Thank you, this has been great, and finally, I was just going to ask what do you want for comics in the next five years, and what do you want for Emet in the next five years?
I don’t dream for other companies; all my dreams are reserved for my company. In terms of what I hope to see, I cannot say this enough, we are a company that wants to make our readers happy; we want to give them what they want. That’s why we put of surveys, that’s why we respond to every single email, that’s why we respond to every single message we get through our Kickstarters. I’ve received all sorts of messages in the last week since we launched our Kickstarter, like I never got Fresh Romance Volume 1. Guess what? That book went out in the mail. I never got my commission. Guess what? I immediately contacted the artist and made that commission happen. Or I was a subscriber, and I didn’t get my subscription last year, even though I paid for it. Don’t worry, you fall under the category of people who subscribed in 2016, so you get all of our digital content for free in 2017. I cannot fix a problem if I do not know about it and ever since we bought Rosy Press last year we’ve been putting out these newsletters and these social media posts that are like tell us if we owe you something, tell us if you want us to do something differently, tell us if there is something we do that makes you unhappy, so I guess when we talk about my hope, my hope is engagement. I hope that we can continue to build our audience and that we can build real engagement, real trust with our reader and real long-term loyalty, so that we can continue to do what we do reliably.
Thank you, and where can our readers find you online if they want to look you up?
Our website emetcomics.com, our Twitter, and Facebook, and our newsletter. We send out a weekly newsletter each Friday. It’s very unobtrusive, it’s very light and fluffy and fun, and we give you all the information you need to know.