How To Start An Indie Comics Publisher, with The Wassel Brothers

Vault Comics logo

Running a business and running a comics business are not often themes that go hand in hand. On rare occasions, the two paths meet and a truly interesting discussion can be had that begs the question: how does one run a comics publisher that isn’t one of the Big Two? Is there room in the market and in comics readership for a different kind of comic book? The answer is always yes, and though there has been an explosion of fun new independent comics all over the globe, there are still many gaps to fill on the hunt for excellent stories.

To find answers on indie publishing, making comics so popular they go to a second printing to fulfill orders, and learning from the past, I chatted with Damian and Adrian Wassel, who have been learning all about comics publishing for several years. The Wassel brothers’ most recent venture, Vault Comics, is a popular science fiction and fantasy publisher that has a new series coming out nearly every month.

We went in-depth about how Vault runs their business, from the great moments to the not-so-hot ones, such as when their art director, Nathan Gooden, stated that men should “try harder” when a woman says no, rather than respecting her space. Let’s take a look at the many different ways Vault Comics addresses running their business.

Damian: Before we move on to your questions, Adrian and I would like to take a moment to discuss Nathan Gooden’s Twitter comments from May 20th, which WWAC wrote about in passing on the 28th. We were not aware of what was going on while it was unfolding. It was taking place in the middle of the night when Adrian and I were fast asleep. We were deeply surprised, and taken aback, and unsure of how to proceed when we discovered things the next day. Once we became aware of what happened, we reached out to apologize to everybody with whom we have direct lines of communication.

His comments were unequivocally ill-considered, insensitive, and above all else, wrong. This is the content of the apology that we communicated to the people with whom we communicated directly. I don’t really understand why he thought he needed to add his voice to that conversation, and given that we’re speaking now, I want to say that we apologize unequivocally to everyone who was affected by his comments.

Adrian: And if I could jump in for a second, we didn’t feel that this was a conversation to which we, two more men, should add our voices either. So we wanted to be sure that we contacted as many individuals directly as we could, which Damian already said. We wanted to refrain from making a public statement on a matter and a subject where our voices did not need to be heard, and Nathan’s voice did not need to be heard. It was an incident of poor public communication, so just wanted to say that as well.

Thanks for addressing that. Now it’s time to talk about the fun stuff! When were you able to move to Vault Comics as your full time job and break out the champagne?

Damian: So, Vault was sort of cooked up as an idea in the middle of 2016, during which time I was still in graduate school finishing a PhD, teaching, and working on this part-time. Adrian was working part-time at a number of other jobs. We didn’t come into working full-time at Vault until the beginning of 2017, around February. We’ve been at this full-time as a day job for a little over a year now, and it’s been a heck of a grind to say the least.

Adrian: I think we didn’t even really get a chance to sit down and pop the champagne (not that either of us drink very much) because it was sort of necessitated by the success of our initial books. Of course we hoped, but we didn’t expect things to take off so quickly. For a number of our first launches, there was demand for second prints. I think that’s been sort of the trajectory for everything, is we have all these great successes and everyone’s like “look guys! It’s so cool!” and it’s like, yeah, if only we had a second to slow down and actually feel that, instead of the continual grind trying to keep moving forward. But it is nice every once in a while to sit and do this, and have a conversation about it, and it gives us a chance to reflect back and see it positively.

Several of Vault’s latest titles in their sci-fi and fantasy focused line up

How long did you dream of creating a comics publisher together? Had it been since you were kids, or can you think of a specific conversation that inspired it?

Adrian: It was at once a dream always, since we were kids, and something we never really said until like, “Oh, I guess this is how we’ll do it.” Beyond comics specifically, Damian and I have always adored books above everything else. I love people, but I might like books more. So ever since we were kids, we’ve gravitated towards making books, making comic books, putting those together, even if it was just bad drawings on printer paper. It didn’t really become a real conversation until I was in undergraduate and Damian was in graduate school, and I was studying creative writing and literature. I thought, “Hey we should take a crack at making some comics, that would be fun.” We don’t really have the time, but when does anyone have the time?

“…Through those friendships we learned that there were so many stories by so many incredible creators that weren’t seeing the light of day. And that sparked the interest.” —Adrian Wassel

That grew pretty rapidly and pretty naturally into wanting to publish other creators’ works because we became friends with so many other creators. We met a lot of really wonderful people at conventions when we were self-publishing, and through those friendships we learned that there were so many stories by so many incredible creators that weren’t seeing the light of day. And that sparked the interest.

I think the kind of last domino to fall was this realization we’ve both always loved publishers like Tor and Daw in the prose world that focus on sci-fi and fantasy, because we’re enormous nerds, and realize that there was that space open in the comics market. And so many of the stories we were hearing about from our friends who were creators fell into that space of science fiction and fantasy. So the conversations all sort of naturally led us to that moment, where we’re like, “oh, let’s make a plan, let’s try to make this a reality.” And then we did.

Was Vault your first attempt at publishing comics?

Damian: No, it was not at all our first attempt at publishing comics. We’d previously self-published some graphic novels that we created under a different imprint. Though they were very well received critically, we were beset with some marketing challenges for those books that we weren’t equipped or experienced enough to handle at the time. We learned a lot from that venture, and launched Vault on the heels thereof to, I think, much greater success, and a much more effective strategy.

“Think about how to position a brand that can effectively communicate those things to readers and retailers.” —Adrian Wassel

Along those same lines, was there anything specific you feel like you learned about creating a stronger, more successful independent publisher?

Adrian: Yes, absolutely. I think the most important lesson we learned was to build a brand. To build a brand with a clear voice and a cohesive catalog that entered the market saying, “This is what we want to do, these are the kinds of books we want to make, they will be this genre.” And then follow up those words with the action of publishing those books. We did all of those things. One the lessons we learned previously came from publishing and creating books that were myriad in genre, form, and format under a loose identity of a brand, leaning very heavily on each individual title as a brand. We recognized the trouble with that in a market that’s filled with a lot of incredible content where retailers only have so much shelf space.

It’s so important for them to be able to communicate to the actual readers what a book is and why they bothered to stock it. It’s important that we communicate that to those readers as well past the retailers too. It’s done with a logo, it’s done with a synopsis, and it’s done overall with a curated catalogue. I think the advice I can offer is to think beyond just creatively what you enjoy and hope to see in the market, and think about how to position a brand that can effectively communicate those things to readers and retailers.

What advice would you give to publishers or creators in the comics business? What worked for you with Vault?

Damian: As a publisher, a vendor of books, you have a two-tier market. You sell to third-party retailers who sell to consumers, so you need messaging and branding that is clear and focused enough that you can capture the hearts, minds, and shelf space of third-party retailers who are able to then deliver that message to their customers in order to sell your books. I think that’s something we’ve had really great success with as Vault that we did not previously do successfully. That’s the single piece of advice I would give to anybody trying to break into this business or to content creation more broadly in any channel where they’re selling through third-party retailers.

Adrian: Previously we had done a good job communicating with readers, but not with retailers, because that’s where we sort of sharpened our steel so to speak was on the convention tour, talking to people who are readers. But we had very little understanding of how to communicate to retailers. I think once we learned that, it made all the difference.

You guys are ahead of the next question already! It sounds like branding truly was the catalyst for Vault’s success, versus the previous publisher.

Adrian: I think the catalyst on the business side was branding. On the creative side, I would say it was recognizing the space we wanted to fill. The niche that was open, and working creatively to curate a cohesive line of books that aimed at that target. That doesn’t mean every book is always going to hit, and it doesn’t mean that the catalog will turn out to be balanced the way you had hoped. Having that aim gives you direction and allows you to steer your ship towards something rather than just kind of aimlessly floating around in the doldrums thinking about what sounds good to you as a creator and reader. Instead, we think about what’s going to work from a marketing standpoint, and work creatively to uphold the brand, that banner of science fiction and fantasy.

So who funded your venture, while you guys were grinding on the creative, networking, and marketing sides, and learning those key business lessons?

Damian: I don’t want to speak in too much detail on this for a number of reasons, but suffice to say we had some funding partners from whom we have continued support. They were business contacts of family members who we had good relationships with, we pitched this company to them and they were very excited about it. They’ve been steadfast partners for us ever since. You’ll forgive me if I’m being reticent, but I think that’s the most it’s prudent to say.

Absolutely! Thanks for sharing what you did. So, we’ve seen a company called Wassel Media online, a company who has produced some other products, like an iOS app. Is that a company you’re affiliated with? Will you be expanding into other business fields?

Damian: To answer that question, the stake that we hold in Vault is owned through Wassel Media, and we explored some other ventures with that. Right now Vault is the flagship holding of that entity and the area on which we focus all of our attention. There are some other irons in the fire that don’t get a lot of hammer blows these days.

Adrian: I think it’s a way logistically for us to leave the door open to exploring some places we would like to move into eventually though our focus right now is obviously locked in on Vault.

Damian (left) and Adrian (right) with their younger brothers, from a Twitter post by Adrian in June 2018

Again, sort of along the same line of questions, do you ever think you’ll ever do interactive comic apps? There are a few on the market now, as it is a burgeoning technology, but is it something you think you’d ever be interested in doing?

Damian: We’re currently exploring partners in the interactive and gaming space to work with what AR/VR gaming people call 2.5D technology to deliver comics that way, so that’s 2D stuff enhanced with augmented reality or VR layers, or motion that might not otherwise ordinarily be there. With that said, and I am in no way taking a potshot at anyone, we haven’t seen the right platform for motion or interactive comics to deliver our content. I mean, it has been successfully done with other people’s content, but we tend to have art that’s pretty heavy on the page. It’s got elaborate colors, elaborate inks, and these don’t lend themselves to motion effects as well as art that’s done in a cleaner, more animation-like style.

“…Finding people that share your vision and challenge your vision, and by way of that bolster your vision is the most important thing.” —Adrian Wassel

Is there anything you’d like to add about being a young publisher, solidifying your brand, and compiling a great catalog?

Adrian: The most encouraging words I can give people are, recognize your strengths individually and surround yourself with people that have complementary strengths. Understand that comics is—even if you’re creating, writing, drawing, illustrating, lettering your book all by yourself—collaborative in nature. At some point, almost all forms of entertainment—but comics specifically—involves communicating with other people and collaborating with other people.

Recognizing that and finding people that share your vision and challenge your vision, and by way of that bolster your vision is the most important thing. You asked before, the sort of catalyst that changed us from our previous imprint to Vault and allowed Vault to be the success it is, and beyond just brand and creating a catalog, was recognizing that we couldn’t do this alone, nor did we want to. We wanted to work with people that, as I said, would share and challenge our vision at every turn.

Vault Comics and the Wassel brothers have been on a long journey of learning how to run a comics publishing business. As Vault enters its second year of publishing, they continue to sell out for pre-orders of almost every new science fiction and fantasy series they introduce. You’re welcome to join us in July for the return of the Vault Comics Pubwatch.

Corissa Haury

Corissa Haury

I am an avid fiction, fantasy and science fiction nerd who loves visual media. I love to read books in any form, be it comics, graphic novels, zines, anthologies, or traditional print. Let's talk about fun comic stuff together!