Interview: Mike Kennedy and Wes Harris Talk Magnetic Press!

In early December, we broke the news that comic book industry vets Mike Kennedy and Wes Harris had teamed-up and formed the comic book publishing company Magnetic Press. The publisher’s focus is “premium graphic novels by talent from around the world.”

MagneticPress-bannerPublisher Mike Kennedy previously served as Publisher of Archaia Entertainment, Creative Director and Senior Producer in the video game industry, and an avid writer. CEO Wes Harris is the former VP of Publishing for BOOM! Studios, and has held senior roles at top entertainment companies such as Viz Media, White Wolf Publishing, and Meteor Entertainment.

Magnetic’s two founders came together around a shared desire to create a compassionate home for innovative creators and projects that have been underrepresented in the current comic and graphic novel marketplace, including new talent deserving a debut and established talent looking to establish a solid presence in the North American and English language audience.

We got to chat with the two about how the company came about and what we can expect!

Graphic Policy: So how’d Magnetic Press come about?

Mike Kennedy, Publisher: We share a life-long love of the medium.  I started writing comics back in the 90s, on the side from a day-job in the video game industry, and over the decades came to see how much of the publishing industry works, how it has evolved over time. While at Archaia, we got to see a lot of new ideas and channels sprout up in the field, a lot of core principles started changing, and a lot of unique opportunities became available to creators and companies looking to share creative ownership of original brands. Wes and I met while working on Hawken, and through many conversations it seemed we shared not only similar interests title-wise, but similar aspirations to build something personal and service-oriented, a place where creators are celebrated as much as the titles themselves. When the opportunity to build something new from the ground up presented itself, the prospect and challenge seemed achievable.

Wes Harris, CEO: As with most recently formed comics companies, our origin story also includes San Diego. Mike and I started sharing notes – “what would YOU do if you were starting a publishing company…?” It quickly became obvious that we had shared goals, and even wanted to publish many of the same titles and creators. Luckily, the venn diagram of Mike and Wes is very complementary and a team-up began.

MK: There were numerous French titles that captured our interest over the years, as well as original projects by talented friends that we really wanted to help out, and after so many years of servicing other people’s corporate agenda, it felt like the right time to start developing one of our own, one focused on helping talented creators we believe in achieve their potential. Between the two of us, we had the business knowledge and creative network to put a plan together, so here we are, a few months later, ready for take-off!

GP: You’ve both worked for and with other publishers like Viz Media, Archaia and BOOM! among others, what lessons have you taken with you about how to create a successful publisher? And what lessons have you learned of things to avoid?

MK: It’s astonishing how much the industry has changed in just the past few years alone.  When I started at Archaia, digital comics were little more than a gimmicky blip on the radar. Tablets hadn’t yet hit the marketplace. The term “crowdfunding” didn’t even exist, and a creator’s best avenue for selling a book online was through eBay. All of those elements have now come together to form a perfect storm of opportunity for independent creators. And we think that, because of it, the concept of “publisher” needs to be re-defined.

It used to be that creators fed the publisher, handing over their hard work to the only machine capable of turning it into something tangible and marketable. They would toil the fields, then give half of everything sown to The Baron, because that was the only option. Nowadays, however, the tables are turning – the modern publisher needs to feed the creator, offering services as an enticing bundle to bring the creator to the table. Printing, distribution, marketing, representation – those are all independently-accessible services that a creator can pursue on their own these days, so a publisher needs to offer them at a palatable price, one the creator can not only afford to live on but, ultimately, profit from. We’ve seen too many amazingly talented individuals – with considerable fanbases, no less — living hand-to-mouth because their work is treated as disposable media, and purchased wholesale by their publishing partners. Not that there is large revenue on the publishing side either, but the overall retail pyramid is upside down, with the creator getting the smallest slice of a book’s cover price.Often times barely 15%, and only after production costs are recovered. That just feels wrong. Treating talent fairly, and with priority, so that they receive the most equity possible for their sweat and effort — that’s lesson number one. A publisher needs to earn their cut, in our opinion, as much as they need to earn the creator’s trust. Transparency and compassion should be mandatory. It should be an understanding and supportive partnership in both directions.  We’re all in this adventure together.

WH: Mike touches on the important elements. I would add that it’s key to feed the fan experience as much as possible. I had the great fortune at SDCC many years ago to drop into a panel featuring both Masamune Shirow and Frank Miller. They were discussing each other’s work and their approach to the creative process. Shirow had the mic and that’s the first time most of us in the room heard the term Fan Service. Of course, that has a lot of connotations, but to me it’s the literal form of “give the fans what they want.” As a publisher, this means giving readers a closer connection to the creators. Magnetic Press wants to be known as a home for top creators as much as recognized titles. Give as much spotlight to the creator as the book we’re trying to sell.  Dark Horse and Viz do a great job of this. If you’re a fan of Mike Mignola or Tite Kubo, you know who publishes their works.

We also have to deliver to fans on the book side. We’ve seen print sales decline steeply over the last few years. To me, this means we have to step up our game with higher, not lower, book production values. We’re publishing high quality graphic novels with attention to cover treatment, paper feel, binding, with a goal of enhancing the reading experience. Books that people will be proud to display on their coffee table or bookshelf.

MK: Another important lesson would be not to out-pace your cashflow. That can be frighteningly easy to do, but we aim to be fiscally responsible from the get-go, offering creators the best payment terms possible. If we can pay royalties monthly instead of quarterly, we will. If we can process a contractor’s invoice within the week, we will. That might be an aggressive promise, but we want to pace ourselves accordingly so that we can be that aggressive.

GP: Digital has become a vital component in the comic publishing world, what are your plans for that?

MK: Digital is not only a ubiquitous element of any modern publishing plan, but we think it’s an exciting opportunity to do some new things with visual narrative. My time producing video games had been primarily centered on IP development and narrative game design, and I loved building non-linear, branching plot-paths with interchangeable characters and dynamic elements. These new and emerging platforms for digital comics offer an exciting opportunity to continue that exploration and experimentation. I’d love to dive into that uncharted territory between “comic book” and “video game”, make something that is aesthetically familiar and engaging to comic readers while making the reading experience interactive, thought provoking, and immersive. I’m a huge fan of Telltale Games, and would love to develop episodic comics with that degree of flexible narrative destiny for the reader to explore.

WH: We’ve also seen a lot of evidence that digital sales increase physical sales. This is especially important to us, as we are primarily a publisher of graphic novels rather than single issues. Combine this with the high-quality print production values we aim for on the graphic novels, and we think we have a great formula. Try Naja on Comixology, then make sure to pre-order the graphic novel. We also intend to offer first edition enhancements and collector material to many of our print runs, to further encourage fans to buy the book.

GP: Speaking of technology, social media is a key component as well. Thoughts as to how that’ll fit in your promotions?

MK: There is a mysterious science to effectively using social media, that’s for sure. It’s more than just having a Facebook page and Twitter account (and Tumblr, and LinkedIn, and Google+, and Pinterest, Flickr, Deviantart, etc, etc, etc). The trick seems to be turning that presence into a popular destination – bringing people to each of those social sites in the first place — and that can be a full-time job. That said, however, social media will be the lion’s share of our focus and strategy in the first year – we do want to become an online destination. Ideally, our plans will include interactive forums for fans and creators to exchange information and ideas, activities and contests to encourage return participation, and to whatever extent makes sense, a degree of “gamification” built into the site to reward fan loyalty. We’re just getting off the ground, however, so some of those things might take time to implement.

WH: Social, as with most marketing, should be about content. We’re looking to add value through social media through previews, creator Q&As, exclusive offers, that sort of thing. We want to create content that fans want, not just to re-post press releases.

GP: You have an impressive line-up announced for 2014 so far. How’d you come about these series to start with?

MK: The currently-announced titles are projects we were already a fan of or, in a few cases, already involved in developing.  Several of the original projects were created for debut on Sequentialink.com, a website I curate that features new pages of various ongoing series posted every weekday. It began as an outlet for what some fun projects by talented friends and creators who just wanted an audience. It continues to run daily, and just celebrated its first year of uninterrupted new material, with some new stories and creators getting ready to debut there in the months ahead. And though it will remain independent of Magnetic Press as a free webcomic forum, it is a wonderful “farm” for submission. Aside from those original titles, we’re also discussing a number of new titles with some great established talent that we’re hoping to announce soon.  That network, plus our existing relationships with several European publishers, has afforded us access to some great material deserving of a wider worldwide audience.

GP: Was there something important to you as to why you’re starting with such an international line-up of creators instead of maybe focusing on one country’s style or some niche not being catered to?

WH: There really isn’t a set strategy to it — it’s more about having an affinity with the creators we’re working with, not the regional styles or the countries they’re from. With Naja and Meka, for example, JD Morvan and Bengal have a creative voice that’s a great mix of eastern and western. Mike and I have always been surprised that a publisher didn’t step up to bring these guys to an English audience sooner. And there are many other overseas creators we’re eager to share with the US as well, all folks we’re just personal fans of.  We have announcements coming up that will balance out the international approach. More news soon!

MagneticPress_ContactSheet001GP: When it comes to comics you’re looking to publish, how would you sum them up?

MK: As we are quite small and independent, it will be mandatory that we absolutely love every book we do.  Not just like and can appreciate, but absolutely love enough to invest ourselves into the development, production, and personalized marketing of each title. Quality over quantity. It takes lot of time and effort to produce, promote, and distribute a book with minimal overhead costs, so we need to be huge fans of every book we take on, be it sci-fi, noire, comedy, drama, mature, or all-ages. If a book excites either one of us personally enough to champion, we’ll publish it. That’s not to say that if we pass on a project or submission it isn’t good or commercially excellent; we just need to keep ourselves in check so that we can apply the proper passion to everything we put the Magnetic Press logo on.

WH: Mainly, we’re looking at books with a strong creator voice, with a look and feel that’s recognizable when you know the creative team. We want to deliver comics that work well as books first, without really considering whether they’d make a good movie or TV pitch.

GP: Some of the series have been seen on Kickstarter. How does the crowd-funding platform factor in to the company? How do you think it’s changed the publishing landscape?

MK: Kickstarter is the 800lb gorilla in the room eating everyone’s lunch. And it is AWESOME.  We’re excited that there is a means to help motivated creators complete their projects. It takes a ton of passion to produce something out of interest alone, and getting a publisher to pay an advance for something unseen can be pretty close to impossible for most of the hopeful creators out there. But that’s where Kickstarter is magical: it gives the creator the means of achieving that dream with confidence and support. To that end, it is a Godsend for publishers – they don’t have to front a risky investment on projects they’re uncertain will succeed. On the other hand, however, it is also a creator’s first steps into the larger world of independent self-publishing. It is really going to make the dynamic of publisher-creator relations much more cut-and-dry.

We will definitely support Kickstarted projects, such as Super-Ego, and may in some cases even sponsor campaigns with the promise of publication or distribution if they are successful. If a project that needs funding to complete excites us, we might even get involved with the campaign itself. We will certainly encourage a creator to look into it, if we can’t help directly, and assist if we can. And if we do participate in any capacity, we will be sure that everything is handled above-board and to the satisfaction of those individuals who were generous enough to back the project.

GP: You mention “premium graphic novels” in your release, any thoughts on monthly comics either in print or digital?

WH: We would like to get to monthly comics, and other publishing formats, eventually. The main thing is that we look at the content of the work and choose the best format for that work. Some books just don’t work when they’re broken into monthly chapters.

MK: We are currently planning to offer monthly digital releases to support a number of our printed collections. The digital chapters can act as a preview, and help build excellent awareness of an upcoming title, with the printed collection offering that satisfying, high-quality physical artifact of the story experience. While we don’t have any immediate plans for monthly floppies in the first year, they aren’t out of the question down the road. We would like to focus on high-quality hard-cover and soft-cover volumes first, and get our pistons firing at a good clip before we shift into the next gear.

GP: Here’s a chance to pitch why folks should check out Magnetic Press in 2014.

WH: Unique creator voices, diversity of titles, and high attention to production values. If you’re a comic fan, we’re going to publish something you’ll want in 2014. Follow us so you don’t miss it!

MK: Magnetic Press books are never not awesome!

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