Russell Nohelty, owner, publisher, writer, and creator, is a diverse and productive individual. To that point, in order to discuss all of Russell’s accomplishments I’d need to write a second article. What you’ll find in this Q&A is: an interesting correction of assumptions, a discussion of how an indie publisher works with artists, and a portrait of an entrepreneur taking root in the shifting landscape of publishing – all of which produced a thought provoking article that brings to light the creative vision and ethic of Russell Nohelty.
When I started this interview with Russell, I had assumed that Russell was singularly a publisher of indie comic books; I even own a copy of Katrina Hates the Dead (which I recommend to you). While he is a publisher of indie comic books, this article shows that he is much more. We didn’t cover that ground as thoroughly in order to maintain our focus on art and artists.
At some point, you’ll see me blunder through once or twice seemingly repeating the same question, or something close enough. This has not been edited out, nor have Russell’s responses. The only editing performed is a rearrangement of the chronology of the questions and only when I felt it wouldn’t remove the context of Russell’s answers to other questions. This shifting of questions was used to group together like questions.
To our delight, Russell was very thorough and detailed in his responses. This midset is also reflected in the quality of his publishing work: thorough and detailed.
Barring tragedy, I expect Russell Nohelty, and Wannabe Press (his imprint), will continue to garner ever greater success. Why? Because he plays the long game.
– Andrew Britton
Let’s Get Introduced
Q&C: Why did you get in the business of publishing graphic novels? You’d already met success in other forms of retail; art seems like a risky business with extremely thin profit margins.
RN: Wow, you are going for the jugular right off the bat, huh? While it’s true that I was doing well in communications, I was selling other brands. I wanted to build the brand. I wanted to be the brand. It’s very hard to sell other brands b/c you don’t have control over the product or its quality.
I have always been creative, and I wanted to have a business where I could combine my love of art with my love of business.
Q&C: I’d like to get to the bottom of the high regard you carry for comic books. Have they been a lifelong love, a recent joy, meaningful to an important person, or provided access to the otherwise voiceless?
RN: Honestly I read comics when I was a kid and a teenager, but I abandoned them in high school because they became really campy and predictable. I abandoned them until my old manager showed me what new stuff was going on in indie comics.
That really opened my eyes to what comics could do, because I want to tell weird stories. I didn’t think comics could be weird, but when I got into comics again I found that they were just as weird as me, if not weirder. I suddenly felt at home like I hadn’t before maybe in my entire life.
Q&C: You’ve chosen a very specific area of creativity on which to build a business, and have undertaken an aspect of that business (publishing) that is facing extreme difficulty due to changing economic and technological forces (where technology is rewriting the fundamentals of publication, production and distribution), as well as the already present market competition from the Big 5 houses in NYC. With that in mind, why did you choose comic books?
RN: I didn’t choose comics. I chose to be a storyteller and comics were the best way for me to tell the stories I wanted to tell when I first started out. That isn’t always the case now. I write and publish in all sorts of formats.
I have written several novels and children’s books, along with movies and TV. When the story calls for it, I move mediums into whatever works for that story. I kind of hate the idea that I am a comic book writer or comic book publisher, because I’m really a writer.
I would hate to be called just a novelist either, or just a screenwriter. At the end of the day I’m a storyteller and I love to use all the mediums to get the most out of my stories. I am format agnostic.
In the beginning it helped to have comics because they were a visual medium like movies. However, as my mind expanded with my skills, so did my desire to just create cool stories regardless of the format.
As for the competition, I don’t think the Big 5 are competition. They are helping expand the total audience. There will always be people looking for good stories that get bored with the mainstream and want indie books. The more people that read books, the more people will be looking for indie books. I think we are working in tandem.
Q&C: Follow up, as a publisher, what do you bring your clients (the artists and authors you work with) that the two major branches of publishing can’t (traditional Big 5 publishers, and self-publishing via Amazon)?
RN: Nothing. I don’t want to publish your book. I don’t want to publish anybody’s book. I want to show you how to make money publishing your own book. That’s not always possible, so I default to publisher sometimes because otherwise awesome content will never make its way into the world.
What I bring is the ability to show you how to publish a book and how to make money on it, but honestly I don’t think I bring anything as a publisher I couldn’t show you how to do as a self-published author.
My publishing contracts are not polite. I take a LOT in order to publish your book. As a rule, I take 90% of your book sales off the top, and own 50% of rights in perpetuity for ancillary media. That’s a huge chunk to pay for me to handle distribution and shipping of your book.
Yes, I do have an audience. That’s true. Yes, I go to lots of shows. Yes, I really care about the books we publish, but I only publish as a last resort. I try to convince everybody to publish books themselves. Only when I know that won’t happen, or I know they won’t do justice to their books because they refuse to sell, will I step in and agree to publish their books.
I will say that the big 5 don’t care about you. They care about the product. I care about you and your success. If I have to define one thing I bring that other people don’t, it’s that I want YOU to succeed. Your book’s success is a byproduct of my desire for you to succeed.
Q&C: What, if anything, would you want to bring to the world of art, and how will your business go about addressing that goal?
RN: I want to show a very distinct point of view. I want to speak to the weirdos. I want to build a community of oddballs who want to think deeply about stuff; that want to laugh at death and other uncomfortable situations.
Those are my people. I want to speak for people that are as weird and neurotic as me, while showing them it can be done. You are not alone.
I really want to be a voice for creators too. That’s who I’m doing this all for, at the end of the day. That’s why I’m doing this interview. That’s why I have a blog (www.wannabepress.com/wpblog), and a podcast (www.thebusinessofart.us).
The stuff I talk about isn’t pretty. It’s not easy to swallow. It’s not commercial most of the time. Most people just want to believe they can create and magic bunnies will bring them sales. That’s not how it is. You HAVE to learn to sell it.
Nobody wants to hear the business stuff, but it’s really, really important. Nobody as a creative wants to learn the business. They want to create. Screaming at them to learn business is futile, but I’ll keep doing it as long as I’m able because I care, because I love them and want them to succeed. I would rather be poor and screaming at people to learn business than rich telling them magic bunnies will bring them sales if they create a good enough product.
The Business of Publishing Creativity
Q&C: How thin are the profit margins and does it keep you up at night?
RN: Lots of things keep me up at night, profit margin being one of them. It really depends on the bulk at which you print though. The real thing that keeps me up at night is inventory. I spend thousands of dollars getting books printed and hoping they sell.
The truth is the less books you print the worse the profit margins, but that’s true with any product. You also can’t expect to sell 10,000 copies of your first book. It’s always a balance between inventory and profit.
I can do alright with the profit margin at quantity. You could, for instance, go straight to a printer and get hardcover books for $2-$3 per and sell them for $30. That’s a 10x profit margin, which is a nice little margin. You have to work at high quantity though, and high volume.
Q&C: Once you decided you wanted to start, you’re still a long way from actually starting. So, HOW did you get started?
RN: I wrote. I knew that I needed 10,000 hours to master a skill. So I started writing. I wrote everything. I wrote short movies, and movies, and TV shows, and then graphic novels, and now novels. I wrote stuff I loved and stuff I hated. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Most of it was complete garbage, but some I still quite like. My second novel, My Father Didn’t Kill Himself, came out of all that garbage writing. BTW that book is available on my site and Amazon.
When I wanted to publish I decided to start with my own stuff b/c at least I wouldn’t be failing anybody else if I messed up. So I started by writing until I wasn’t complete rubbish. Then I found an artist. And then I did a Kickstarter. Then I published my own stuff Now I publish other stuff too.
Q&C: In your publications, art and story are very well tended factors in the creation of each piece. Does Wannabe Press prioritize story over art, vice versa, or are they equally accountable in creating quality content? Does each project create it’s own priorities in terms of art and story?
RN: Well not all our books have art, but even if they did I would say story first every time. People come for the art in a book and stay for the story. You can trick them once with art, but they aren’t going to read all your stuff if you don’t have a great story. They aren’t going to keep buying your stuff over and over again.
We are definitely story first at Wannabe Press, but the art has to work too. I see so often writers who hire crappy artists to draw their amazing story. I’m not even going to start a story if it doesn’t have great art, I don’t care who you are.
Q&C: Promotion and Marketing are a huge aspect of your business. You have a tenacity regarding promotion that is unparalleled by most. How do you approach marketing and promotion and how do you keep it going? Quite honestly, it’s impressive to see the machinery you’ve built for promotion and marketing.
RN: Thank you!
I know that I need to find 10k-20k people who are rabid fans to make my business work. Out of a world of 7.4 billion that’s not much. It means hustling all day every day to knock people off my list that don’t love my stuff and nurture the people that do.
I also know that the stuff I’m doing can change lives, edify people, and make them at least slightly better people at the end of my stories, or at least more well-rounded people. I believe I am morally obligated to change as many lives as possible as I can, and since my book can change lives I’m obligated to tell as many people as possible.
When you come from that place, marketing if [sic] a chore. It’s something you want to do. It’s a moral imperative.
Q&C: Have you ever been in a situation where your two clients are at odds, ie. buyers versus creators?
RN: No, because I won’t publish something unless I know my buyers will love it. That’s a big issue with creators. They want to publish with ANYBODY. I could find 40 books tomorrow if I wanted, even if they didn’t fit my market, because creators want the validation of publication.
That’s a stupid reason to sign with a publisher. Guess what? I’m not a wet nurse. I’m not there to validate your life. I’m here to make money. So if I take on your book it’s not to validate you. It’s to make money because I think my audience will dig your book.
Validate your own ideas.
Finding Creative Talent
Q&C: How do you find artists to work with?
RN: I used to go to Penciljack, DeviantArt, and Digital Webbing forums. Now they are a ghost town compared to what they used to be, so I use Facebook groups and Twitter. Honestly, at this point I mostly just work with people I know or referrals from friends. If I really like an artist I will befriend them and try to get to know them enough to see if we’re a good fit. Artists are usually pretty cool.
Q&C: When looking for artists to work with, what’s more important: talent, or reliability?
RN: There are three things that make an artist. You must have at least two of these: talent, reliability, and niceness. Now, when you start you don’t have much talent, so all you have is being on time and being nice. However, eventually you will grow in your talent if you practice enough, so you will be able to have all three. Then you’ll be unstoppable.
So reliability is more important, but I want somebody with all three. That’s why I’m so selective.
Q&C: What are you looking for in artists you collaborate with?
RN: Talent, reliability, and ability to get along with them. This job is so, so, so, so hard. It’s long hours. It’s late nights. It’s mostly not fun with moments of unimaginable joy sprinkled in every now and then. I want to make sure you can deliver, your work is going to sell, and I’m going to enjoy working with you.
Q&C: What’s the most important skill an artist needs when working on a project your company is going to publish?
RN: Besides those three, I will say the ability to tell a compelling story. Whether you have a writer to flush out the story or not, you have to be able to visually tell a tale that is compelling. You need to know your angles and your paneling. You need to drive the story. You need to know when to push and when to hold back. You are the key.
Q&C: If you would give three of the most important pieces of marketing and promotion guidance you could, for artists, what would they be?
RN: Most people want to help you. They want you to succeed. Those that don’t, you need to abandon them right now.
The worst thing you will hear is a no. On a good day only 98% will say no to you. Most days it will be more. You just have to talk to as many people as possible to find the yes.
Start now, even if you suck. Go to cons. Meet other creators. Find your tribe of people. Grow your network NOW. Don’t wait.
You can find more on my podcast The Business of Art (thebusinessofart.us). I also answer all my emails from Wannabe Press (www.wannabepress.com). On social you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @russellnohelty
Q&C: Name 3-10 artists, living or dead, of any genre and style, that you’d like to create books with.
RN: Alright. I’m going to say Dali, Aaron Alexovich, Walter Ostlie, Angela Fullard, Nicole Goux, and Humberto Ramos. There are hundreds of others I could name, but those are the ones I want to work with immediately. Like if they said they wanted to do something tomorrow I would drop everything. These are all friends of mine except Dali and Ramos, and I would rather work with my friends than somebody else. They are all doing or have done stuff that takes my breath away. That’s one of the keys, go find somebody you admire and work with them. Let them inspire you to be better.
Q&C: Do you ever refuse to work with an artist if their portfolio doesn’t match your business’ political, or ideological, guiding principles?
RN: Absolutely. I am really selective when it comes to who I work with. I don’t like a lot of stuff I see because my aesthetic is rather weird, but when I do find somebody I fall in love. We don’t have a house style at Wannabe Press, but I have stuff I like and if I like it then my audience will. I like weird stuff that pushed boundaries.
Q&C: If so, which political, or ideological, principles do Wannabe Press support and what type of art should an artist put in their portfolio if they were to present it to you?
RN: I’ll be honest, if you want to work with me you need to already be working in indie comics. You need to have a book that looks weird and original, yet commercial enough I can sell. That’s impossible to define I know, but I don’t care. This is my company and my rule is that I have to see you doing stuff for a long time before I even consider you. If you don’t inspire me over a long period, I’m not interested. You most likely aren’t going to work with me. Sorry. I’m looking to find artists I can help, and I want to help artists I know, like and trust.
I can’t define it more than looking at the books that are in our catalog right now. They all hit the same markers, but I refuse to work with somebody that doesn’t already have books in the market. I just don’t have time for that.
Q&C: Also, what should they avoid?
RN: They should avoid spamming without reading my guidelines. There is nothing worse than seeing an artist submit without reading our guidelines. We are very straight forward with our guidelines. We aren’t hiring artists. We are hiring storytellers. And honestly, we’re not hiring. If you want to work with us, you have to befriend us first, then put out dope content, then wait for me to find you.
Q&C: What do you look for in an artist’s portfolio?
RN: I want them to have a point of view. What I’m looking for is somebody that can tell a story with their art. I don’t think you can do that really until you’ve been beaten up by life considerably. I don’t think you can be out of school for a day and work with Wannabe Press, because we are looking for you to bear your soul. Some young artists can do that, but it takes getting kicked in the teeth for a while before you can really bear your soul in the way we look for in an artist.
Technically, we want you to be able to do action, and awesome paneling, and great graphic design. We are looking for people who can do a book without me giving it a second thought. If I hire an artist, I know they are going to deliver.
It’s a tough task, which is why we won’t work with most artists or creators. You need to be able to tell an engaging story than has a point of view. Most people will never get there with their storytelling ability because they can’t bear their soul to the world.
So if you have to work on anything besides artistic skill, which is a given, work on being completely open to the world. Be a raw nerve.
Q&C: Thank you Russell