Last Gasp Books, a San Francisco-based publisher and distributor of comics and art books, recently found itself in a precarious financial situation. But instead of taking its last gasp, it followed in the footsteps of other indie publishers and launched a Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $83,000.
Even though Last Gasp has, over the last four decades, published work by acclaimed artists such as R. Crumb, Todd Schorr, Robert Williams, and Junko Mizuno, it suffered in the sluggish economy of recent years. Colin Turner, associate publisher and son of Last Gasp founder Ron Turner, explained that the cash crunch was due, in part, to the fact that many bookstores were taking a cautious approach to buying. “A lot of our books have high retail prices, so it’s hard for them to stock. That conservative stance [on the part of bookstores] put us in a difficult position.” This, in turn, forced Last Gasp to think of alternative ways to print the high-quality books for which it is known.
Turner said the company was already considering a Kickstarter campaign when the success of fellow comics publisher Fantagraphics Books inspired it to take the leap: “When we saw that Fantagraphics’ Kickstarter was so successful, that really gave us a boost of confidence.” Fantagraphics raised $222,327 in December 2013 via the crowdfunding site, which was enough to fund the publication of its entire spring 2014 list.
Last Gasp’s Kickstarter had a more modest goal of $75,000, but it managed to exceed that amount by more than $8,000. The campaign offered high-value rewards, such as books, original artwork, and invitations to a private party at Last Gasp’s warehouse. “Kickstarters are stressful and a lot of work, but we got such great support from artists, fans, friends, and families that we kept climbing, and the momentum got us over our goal,” Turner said.
Previously, Last Gasp had survived on the strength of a hybrid business model that mixed publishing and distribution. As the years progressed, comics became a smaller and smaller part of the business, and it shifted to focus on publishing books. Turner said Last Gasp now releases between 10 and 20 books a year. The company also handles exclusive distribution for a number of overseas publishers, as well as some single-title publishers. It also offers wholesale distribution, buying from major publishers such as Hachette, Random House, and Simon & Schuster and reselling to bookstores and other retailers. The mix of publishing and distribution allows Last Gasp to be flexible. “Sometimes our publishing is strong and carries us when our distribution isn’t, and vice versa,” Turner said. “The mix helps us be nimble and adjust.”
Last Gasp has turned to Kickstarter to support a range of projects, including one-off titles and entire lists. Turner said he believes crowdfunding will become a fixture in the independent publishing scene. “Right now it’s in the back of my mind, as I’m mulling over different ideas for the future. Whether it will be a larger Kickstarter for specific titles or reprinting backlists, I don’t know, but I’m sure that we will do some sort of crowdfunding in the future—there’s no doubt about it.”
Turner also said he would love to collaborate with an indie bookstore on a Kickstarter campaign, noting that it would be the “missing link” bringing together indie publishing and independent bookselling. “If there’s a way to figure out how to bring bookstores into [our Kickstarter campaigns], so that it helps everyone, that would be the ultimate win for us.”