Tom Akel, cofounder, CEO and publisher of Rocketship Entertainment, knows more than a thing or two about webcomics. He became Webtoon’s first American hire in 2015, after overseeing mobile and digital content for MTV and Comedy Central at Viacom. At Webtoon, he was charged with developing content, recruiting creators, building out staff, and developing partnerships.

But Akel’s heart belonged to print—something Webtoon had no interest in and was, in fact, adamantly opposed to. “I just couldn’t get them to believe in it,” he told PW.

This was a point of frustration for Akel—not just because he has a soft spot for hardcovers but because he saw a hole in the print publishing market that needed to be filled. “Most of the print publishers out there in 2018 didn’t think there was anything to these webcomics titles, even though you could see the online readership numbers,” he said, adding that often the creators didn’t have the time or resources to take on print.

So in 2019, Akel left Webtoon and, along with Rob Feldman, cofounded Rocketship, which is now a 10-person operation entirely devoted to turning mobile webcomics into print books. Based in Doylestown, Pa., and distributed globally through Simon & Schuster, the publisher released 19 titles in 2022 and has 24 projects lined up for 2023. All Rocketship titles are graphic novels, with the exceptions of its first art book and first prose novel, both coming this year.

Rocketship publishes both paperback and hardcover (though Akel said hardcover tends to outperform paperback), with print runs ranging from 4,000 to 40,000 copies, but usually in the 5,000–10,000 range. All of Rocketship’s books are supported by crowdfunding campaigns on Backerkit, Kickstarter, or Zoop. Last November, Rocketship launched Bottlerocket, a new imprint for young readers. This year, Rocketship will add to that line and also start a horror imprint, to be expanded on later in 2023 and in 2024.

“We crowdfund because we wanted to replicate the relationship that webcomic creators have with their audiences as much as possible in the publishing experience,” Akel said. “As a fan, you have direct access to a creator, whether it’s through a comment section on an app or through social media. That is very difficult to do in a traditional publishing model, but with crowdfunding, you can make the fans part of the experience.”

And from a business perspective, “the margins are much better in crowdfunding,” Akel said. “The crowdfunding platforms take 5% of the funds raised, while the margins in traditional publishing are that products go to retailers generally at 50% off the MSRP [manufacturer suggested retail price]. So you’re talking about a below 50% margin instead of 95%. That makes a big difference. It puts a lot more money in our creators’ pockets.”

Rocketship strives to be as fair as possible to creators. This means not taking a single percentage point from the IP and splitting net profits 50-50 with the creator. “Everybody gets the same deal,” Akel said. “This is important. It’s not common, and it’s becoming less so.”

Rocketship works directly with many platforms, such as Tapas Media, because the platforms own their creators’ print rights. Otherwise it works directly with creators, such as those who use Webtoon, where creators retain their print rights. Though Akel declined to provide specific revenue figures, he said titles and revenue are “growing year over year.” Foreign rights sales are handled by the JABberwocky Agency, and the company is represented by the Gotham Group for TV and film media rights.

Rocketship’s biggest hit to date is the Eisner-nominated Let’s Play It, a romance drama by Leeanne Krecic. Other top titles include The Croaking by Megan Gray and Lars the Awkward Yeti by Nick Seluk. “The majority of what we publish is targeted more toward women,” Akel said. “Our largest and strongest category is romance. Our second largest is what you’d consider action-adventure, more traditional comics stuff. Third is humor. Fourth is all ages.”

The company is also moving into tabletop gaming, an area that has long been one of Akel’s passions. Its tabletop debut is a board game called Stan Lee’s Genesis, made in partnership with Stan Lee’s Pow Entertainment, with a crowdfunding campaign set for this summer and a planned fall 2023 release. Akel is designing the game and cocreating its 200 characters with Ryan Benjamin, an Eisner-nominated artist perhaps best known for his DC and Marvel work.

“There should be more crossover between tabletops and comics,” Akel said. “There are a lot of similarities between the two, and tabletop is growing at such a great rate. Crowdfunding with tabletop is a first window for many of the top-tier games that are out now, and we’re so entrenched in that space that it felt just really organic for us to be in both.”