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June 22, 2023
By Milan Gagnon
A multifaceted creator finds community on Kickstarter.

When Charlie Stickney was preparing to graduate Vassar College in upstate New York in the late 1990s, he foresaw two futures. "It was one of those Sliding Doors moments: am I going to go down to New York and work in comic books or am I going to go to L.A. and work in film?" Stickney says. "Then I got a phone call, and I had a job offer in Los Angeles—so that took me down that path for a long time."

For nearly two decades, Stickney wrote, produced, and developed for screens big and small, including an animated adaptation of the Horrible Histories series of British children's books, and the 2012 ragtime documentary, The Entertainers, which he edited and executive produced. But Stickney felt called to come back to a different kind of creating.

"I was reaching a point in the things I was doing in Los Angeles where I didn't feel quite as fulfilled," Stickney says. "I was looking to return to comics," he adds, "which was my first love."

"Crowdfunding offers people a way to get your work out there as fast as possible and see if people are interested in it in a very direct fashion."
Stickney had conceived of White Ash, a Midwestern mining town with a supernatural subterrain, but he needed an artist and he needed an outlet. He found the former in Conor Hughes, an illustrator he met through an online ad offering rare guaranteed pay. And then he set to trying to figure out the latter.

"Without enough of a name in the comic book industry, if I wanted to do something that would sustain itself, it was going to be nigh on impossible to find a place, to find a home—It didn't matter what publisher I went to—where they were going to probably publish more than four to six issues of a series I was putting out," Stickney says. "That was just basically based on numbers, watching the attrition in the market and how sales fall off, and thinking about the potential revenue that was going to be coming in."

Stickney was envisioning a universe rather than a miniseries, and he understood that he would need to be as creative in his business approach as he was with his concept in order to bring it to fruition—and bring the fans to his project. "I needed to find an alternative source for revenue and ways of connecting directly with the fans—and that's what led me to initially self-publish through Kickstarter," Stickney says.

The Kickstarter campaign for White Ash #1, "52 pages of fantasy, horror and romance," went live in April 2017 with a 30-day goal of $8,875. Stickney offered premiums at levels from $2 for a name in the comic's credits (11 backers) to $500 to have a business of the funder's choice drawn onto the Main Street of White Ash, Penn. (four backers). The campaign ended up bringing in $12,386 from 327 backers, which Stickney had pledged to spend on Kickstarter fees (10%), rewards and shipping (25%), and production of the comic book (65%). "I started having a lot of success there," Stickney says, "and my fan base was building and the revenue was more than sustaining the creation of the content." The campaign for White Ash #2 in February 2018 brought in $14,865 from 443 backers, and Stickney and Hughes were no longer creating a universe: they were carving their niche on Kickstarter.

"Crowdfunding offers people a way to get your work out there as fast as possible and see if people are interested in it in a very direct fashion," says Hughes, who has now collaborated with Stickney on 13 Kickstarter projects, including a separate series called The Game. "If you can create a groundswell of support, if people generally see the earnestness of your work, people will like that."

Scout Comics, which specializes in series by emerging creators, approached Stickney about publishing and distributing White Ash. "It was a calculus of: 'If you want to put out what I have already created, it's a way of expanding my audience and maybe making a bit of additional revenue,'" Stickney says. The arrangement ultimately led to a job for Stickney. "I was looking more for exposure there, so I started working there and helping them grow the company, which led to them asking me to step in and become copublisher there," Stickney says. "So then I was splitting my time between self-publishing my own things that I would then in turn publish though Scout into the direct market, into the bookstore market." In 2021, Scout and Simon & Schuster released a 192-page trade paperback edition compiling the first six installments of White Ash.

The exposure, shelf space in bookstores, support in making major decisions about promotion and distribution, and opportunity to work with up-and-coming creators, "which is kind of why I took that position," were certainly perks, Stickney says. But his experience as a published author who also published other authors heavily influenced his decision to leave Scout in late 2022 to return to self-publishing.

With crowdfunding, "I can probably devote about 30% of the year to actually writing, which will fuel the content creation for the other 70% of the year," says Stickney, who gives back, as well, and is classified as a "superbacker" on Kickstarter, having contributed to 790 projects so far. "And then I can spend the other 70% of the year on brand building, on sales, on networking—all the other aspects that you need to do to grow a business."

Stickney's latest project—an eight-story hardbound White Ash spinoff highlighting Glarien, an assassin from the series—brought in $77,773 from 1,684 backers from February to March, his best haul yet. Still, Stickney says, it's up to each creator to determine what approach to putting their art out works best for them.

"I think, if we're speaking generally to creators looking to do this, you need to understand what your own personal skillset is—and some people are great at creation and they're not great at the business side," Stickney says. "So, if you're going to embark on a self-publishing career or empire or whatever you want to call it, you need to understand if you can do the business. If you can't, then you need to bring someone in who you trust who you feel can help you on that side of things."

As a writer who has been both self-published and traditionally published and has helped other writers find their way through the process, as well, Stickney can handle the business of it himself. But he does it with the support of a growing community.

Milan Gagnon is a freelance writer and copyeditor based in San Diego.