The U.K.-based ShortBox is a one-of-a-kind small press that publishes a carefully curated collection of minicomics and sends them out into the world as part of a mail-order box.
Each ShortBox box contains five minicomics, a limited-edition print, and candy. The comics are commissioned, published, and sent out by Zainab Akhtar, the writer behind the Eisner Award-nominated comics blog Comics and Cola whose writing has also been published in Publishers Weekly, The Guardian, The Beat, and The Comics Journal.
So far, ShortBox has published 11 boxes, and completed a Kickstarter campaign for the 12th in late May. The box raised £36,651 (the goal was £17,000) and was funded in 24 hours. This is the first time Akhtar has used Kickstarter; for the others, she simply took preorders for a two-week period, “averaging about 500 orders per box—fewer in the beginning, but the recent boxes sell more than that," she said. The individual comics are available separately via the ShortBox webstore, and in fact, sales are higher there because there is no time limit, but the boxes serve an important function.
“The advantage with the box is that you get all the books first,” Akhtar said. “It works out cheaper than if you were to buy them all individually. In addition, there’s always something in the box that’s exclusive to the box only- this time around, for example, it’s a Jillian Tamaki fabric screenprint.”
As for the candy, Akhtar says, it’s just a nice addition. “It makes the box feel more cohesive as a package, I think, and a small extra feels thoughtful,” she said
Akhtar’s keen eye for talent is an important selling point for the ShortBox comics. Two ShortBox comics, Lisa Trieman’s Minotäar and James Stokoe’s Sobek, have each been nominated for two Eisner Awards this year, and Stokoe has also been nominated for Best Writer/Artist. The current box includes a comic by Aminder Dhaliwal, who recently won praise for her graphic novel Woman World (Drawn and Quarterly, 2018), as well as the print by Tamaki, an acclaimed cartoonist, whose This One Summer (written by her cousin Mariko Tamaki) was the first graphic novel to be named a Caldecott Honor Book.
“The box likely represents our core readership: as a concept, the box is about trust, it feels like more of a commitment,” Akhtar said. “When it began, ShortBox readers were people who followed my writing and had a sense of my taste, and then people who tried one box and returned again for the next and next. What I’m learning is that our area of growth is individual book sales, but the box is our foundation and what allows us to function.”
ShortBox comics are also available in comic shops, who order the comics they want through the webshop with a wholesale discount. “We’re incredibly proud to be stocked in over 25 shops around the world, from China, to Germany, the U.S., and at home in places like Gosh!” Akhtar said.
When she started out, Akhtar envisioned ShortBox as a way to distribute minicomics more widely. “Instead of writing about which comics I’d recommend, ShortBox would curate a selection of existing minicomics from various artists and present that selection directly as a physical bundle of recommended work,” she said.
With her first box, which included comics from five countries, she realized that wasn’t going to work. “The shipping costs alone were crippling,” Akhtar said. “The only solution was really to print all the books myself, and if you’re printing books yourself, it makes little sense to print editions of comics that already exist.” So she became a publisher. She has developed a strong relationship with a local printer, which allows her to have more control over quality and also shortens the turnaround time.
Asked about her first Kickstarter: “The idea was to try and reach a wider audience, perhaps beyond our known indie comics circle,” she said. “We have a very loyal community of readers, but of course we want our books to be read as widely as possible. Kickstarter is a huge platform and often you’re reaching new audiences simply by virtue of having a project on there, and for small businesses like ShortBox that almost-inbuilt marketing can be really useful.”
Currently, ShortBox operates entirely out of Akhtar’s home, which precludes her hiring a staff: Her home is too small, and it doesn’t make sense to rent an office for two days a week. She is planning a move to a larger house that will have a separate building she can use as office space, but as with so many things, the Covid-19 pandemic has stalled the move.
The pandemic has also affected sales. “Conventions—which would be a significant portion of our annual income—have been canceled, and there's a lot of uncertainty about when those will be a viable possibility again,” she said. “I'm not going to pretend I'm not worried, particularly as the combination of investing in a dedicated office space, reducing our output, and fulfilling contracts for 2021/22 books, has coincided with this outbreak and made things very tight,” she said,
“We've always been an online-based, mail-order business and publisher—it means we don't have to make many changes to what we do at all. We're seeing orders regain stability and even increase as I imagine people are stuck at home and looking for new comics to discover—and we have a catalogue full of them! Overall, I'm hopeful of ShortBox coming through this, and for us to be able to continue publishing brilliant, innovative comics, and help push the medium forward.”
Correction: The number of orders per box was inaccurately stated in an earlier version of this story.