INTERVIEW: Allison Baker on Year One of Monkeybrain Comics
2012 was the year we saw Marvel relaunch, DC reboot, Image rise, and Valiant return. And yet perhaps one of the biggest success stories of the year was the founding of Monkeybrain Comics by Allison Baker and Chris Roberson.
A digital comics initiative, the cornerstone of Monkeybrain was the idea that they would promote creator-owned books, where writers and artists could do whatever they wanted, for as many pages at a time they wanted, on a schedule of their own making. Launching earlier this year, Monkeybrain has so far seen releases from creators like Kevin Church, Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover, Rich Ellis, Joshua Williamson, and Roberson himself.
It’s been an extremely successful year for the company, I’d say, and that success can only mean good things for creator owned comics in 2013. I spoke with Allison, the ‘brain’ half of Monkeybrain, about how 2012 has gone for the company, and what we might see in 2013…
Steve: What was the impetus for launching Monkeybrain Comics earlier this year?
Allison Baker: It was a lot of things actually. Creating a space for Chris to put out more creator-owned material, trying to create a model in which creators could control their rights but sill monetize their work online, the desire to reach an audience who didn’t have access to a good local comic shop and create a model that is beneficial to the reader, other publishers, and creators all at the same time. I really like puzzles and problem solving and once the last few pieces fell together, Monkeybrain Comics was born.
Steve: You’ve said in interviews that you decided to launch Monkeybrain as a response to the current state of the comics market. Could you expand on that, at all? How do you think Monkeybrain fits into the market?
Allison: We are another option. We are a different way to go about it. If creator ownership is important to you as a reader, we are even more awesome. If it doesn’t matter, we have great content at a low price point that doesn’t go out of stock. You can buy our titles whenever you want, in your PJs, on the train, on a plane, in boat…Okay now I’m just being silly. Sorry, couldn’t help myself.
Steve: How has the response been to Monkeybrain? Not just from readers, but from fellow publishers and creatives?
Allison: Amazing. I thought before the launch it could be a big deal but I had now idea how positive the response would be.
Steve: Have you seen a sustained support from readers, after the initial surge of interest around the first releases?
Allison: I honestly only have a couple of months of data to look at so I can’t really answer that in an informed capacity. I will say our sales numbers have been consistently above expectations and sales of previous issues seem to jump up when a new issue is released.
The anecdotal evidence online, whether it’s blog reviews or on twitter, are very positive. So positive it’s kind of shocking.
Steve: Is there a worry about sustaining readership amongst fans? How does a digital only company choose to market itself to fans?
Allison: How to market to consumers is always the big question. The answer is constantly evolving and is difficult to nail down. For us, social media and earned media play a huge part in the marketing, which is why I am adamant about sending every issue we publish out for review, sending preview pages prior to publication as well as direct links to purchase.
I think you have to look to the future and the bigger picture, if you hope to build a larger audience. Create a brand that engenders deeper feelings of goodwill as well as offering a quality product for a reasonable price
The reality is we are currently operating within a subset of the direct market audience. However, I think it is only a matter of time before we reach more people. For example, I think a strong case can be made that the gaming community is primed and ready to be digital comics junkies. In the coming years, my goal is to reach outside the traditional comics market and try to reach any and all readers looking for good content. But I can’t do it alone. It’s going to take a bunch of us making a concerted effort to bring comics back to the mass market. If we can work together, creators, readers, and publishers will all benefit.
These are all factors I think about constantly and develop as we build and grow this company. I want Monkeybrain to contribute to the health of the comics market in general.
Steve: Monkeybrain announced itself at a time when a number of high-profile writers and artists have started to move away from ‘mainstream’ big-two titles and back to creator-owner titles. Image have had a stellar year. Do you think independent comics have now claimed the spotlight from the big two?
Allison: I think technology is playing a large part in opening up new paths to creators. I also have a lot of opinions about how the comics landscape might look in five years but I probably shouldn’t go too deep into that.
To answer your question, a big giant YES! One day we won’t refer to them as “Independent” comics, they will just be comics.
Steve: Similarly, how important is it to give rights back to the creators? Novels have always been operated as a creator-owned property, isn’t it strange how comics have traditionally been company-owned?
Allison: I could go on about copyright law and its history for hours but I don’t want everyone to fall asleep here. So I’ll boil it down to what we’ve learned by studying it.
Chris and I have lived on both sides of the fence for over ten years now. I’ve seen every contract there is; movies, music, prose novels, anthologies, and all the major comics publisher’s. We know what is fair and right from a publisher’s perspective and from a creator’s perspective. We also understand publishing is a VERY small profit margin business and a VERY long game.
I didn’t build this model to make a ton of money for Monkeybrain. I made it so in the long term, everyone comes out with something and no one loses their shirt.
Steve: Did your role as a book publisher inform the way you approached this new project?
Allison: Absolutely! Chris and I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do as a publisher. Without that experience, I would’ve never been able to build Monkeybrain Comics.
Steve: Do you see a comparison between the movement of novels to digital and the movement now of comics to digital?
Allison: I do. I still have many friends in the ‘prose world’ and between intel from them and the digital sales info from Chris’s latest novel, I know digital is a huge part of that business. Not only has it helped publishing become more profitable for publishers, it’s allowing them to put out books that they would have never published before. They can do a digital only release for books that wouldn’t have earned out in the traditional print model.
Just like us.
Comics is simply behind in the digital marketplace because technology had to catch up.
Steve: Monkeybrain titles don’t have to hold to a specific release schedule, instead launching as and when a particular issue is ready. Is there a worry that this might lead to periods where Monkeybrain won’t have any comics to release?
Allison: I’m not really worried about that at all. We have so many titles in the pipeline no one has any idea about. Art takes a lot of time and most of our creators are doing their MB books on the side while still doing work for other publishers. Most of the creators really want to put things out on a fairly regular basis regardless. That’s why some of them are holding stuff back in order to build a cushion for a fairly regular release schedule.
Steve: Kurt Busiek’s ‘Thoughts on a Winter Morning’, a republishing of a story already put out before, was very well received. Do you have plans to republish any other works, at all?
Allison: We’ve talked to a few people about doing that, actually. In a lot of cases, though, gathering the original art and sorting out rights reversion isn’t always super straight forward. We would love nothing more than to get some great stuff currently out of print back in the hands of readers. It’s been a main goal of ours and we are always open to looking at introducing a whole new audience to great books.
Steve: Now that the company has fully established itself, what are the next steps for Monkeybrain? Can you imagine opening yourselves up to outside pitches, for example?
Allison: Next steps? World domination of course!
Seriously, we just want to make great comics at an affordable price so more people can read comics, and creators can make some money and do projects they love. I like win-win scenarios, in case you couldn’t tell.
Unfortunately, this company is really only Chris and myself and we both have other jobs that take up a considerable amount of time. That being said, MB is a completely expandable model and the only limitation we currently have is the time it takes to give each book the appropriate attention.
Steve: How do you see Monkeybrain expanding in future? What can we look forward to over the next year?
Allison: In the next year we have a ton of new books coming out and I’m super excited about ALL of them. No spoilers though. I’m a firm believer in holding publicity on books until release.
I will spill a little. Soon you’ll be hearing about a number of our digital darlings crossing over into the print market. It’s the other piece of my model and the theory I made up over a year ago. I couldn’t be more pleased!
Many thanks to Allison for her time! So, what’s new for Monkeybrain this Christmas? Thank you for asking – issue #3 of Bandette is now out, along with issue #5 of Amelia Cole and the Christmas issue of Masks and Mobsters, issue #5. And if you’re bored on Boxing Day, good news! Issue #6 of Edison Rex comes out on the 26th.
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