On March 11, 2022, Kids Comics Unite became a public benefit corporation!
Why did we decide to incorporate as a “PBC”? Three big reasons:
- Being a public benefit corporation means that our organizational mission is baked into our articles of incorporation. This means that, as a company, our aim is not just to produce financial profit, but equally to make a positive impact on the world.
- As a public benefit corporation, we are required to produce an annual report reviewing how we did on this. In other words, we have to be transparent – and transparency is one of our core principles.
- The publishing/media/entertainment landscape is dominated by companies whose profits go disproportionately to corporate owners and professional investors, not the workers and creators who create the content they rely on. We want to change that.
Interestingly, though, our mission has evolved organically. KCU’s origins were very modest, and only gradually have we started to embrace more radical aims!
KCU began as a 15-person meetup in a cafe in NYC – just a get-together of creators, editors, agents, and other people passionate about the field of kids comics for shop talk. When the pandemic happened, everything shifted online, and I started hosting a free office hour in our Mighty Networks community. Then, in May 2020, I launched a course for kids comics creators.
Suddenly, two things happened: a) I earned money from the course; and b) people started spreading the word, and more and more creators started joining the community. This made me realize, “Hey, KCU is actually a business! And wow, people really love it!”
So I changed my focus from “this is a fun thing I can do with cool people once a month or so,” to “this is a real business where we can make a difference in people’s lives.”
As the community grew and shifted from being a one-person show to a team effort, my vision for KCU’s transformative potential became bigger and bigger.
What do I mean by “transformative potential”?
Most people would agree that we are living in fraught times. The United States has been experiencing more political violence than in decades, and has one political party that is devoted more to power, propaganda, suppression of dissent, fearmongering and intolerance than doing anything that serves the greater good of the country. Inflation is hurting families everywhere, especially in the developing world, while corporations use stock buybacks, insider information, market domination, and political influence to enrich a tiny class of senior executives, financiers, and venture capitalists. Russia has invaded its large, peaceful, democratic neighbor. A major social media channel has been taken over by a billionaire who doesn’t see any problem in amplifying hate speech. A young, idealistic generation in Iran – led by teen girls and women – challenges their subjugative regime and is paying with their lives.
There is so much pain in the world right now that it can feel paralyzing. Part of the reason it feels so paralyzing is that, as individuals, we can feel helpless against such massive forces.
What power do we as individuals have against national governments with armies, or corporations with billions of dollars in revenue?
If history teaches us anything, though, it is that THERE IS POWER IN COLLECTIVE ACTION.
As individuals, we are small, weak, and vulnerable. As a group – especially as a growing, energized group with a shared vision – we have power.
We can’t reverse the war in Ukraine, save protesters in Iran, stop violent rhetoric on Twitter, prevent voter intimidation, or end corporate self-dealing. Our own professional community is the children’s book industry, which feels like a microscopic speck in the face of these global forces.
But just like KCU started as a 15 person meetup with no special agenda, and has now grown into a 1700-person, structured community with members from all over the world, I think our little kids graphic novel business has the potential to help chart a path toward a more balanced economic future.
What humanity needs right now is constructive action to counter destructive forces. Each of us has the ability, within our own communities, to creatively, constructively build the future. What humanity needs is organizational creativity, democratic and transparent decision making, and more equitable distribution of resources.
This is something that we can build, in our own little corner of the world! By building this in an open way, I think we can have a positive impact on our own industry and inspire others, as well.
The “big picture” vision for KCU is admittedly ambitious. But KCU’s purpose is straightforward and achievable:
The purpose of Kids Comics Unite is to build community and help creators improve their work, build an audience, and become more financially secure.
There are immediate, significant, obvious problems our members face that we can address. By tackling these problems, we provide value that some of our members will pay for. Each time we tackle a problem, we add a little more value, and as we add more value, we’ll gain more members and more of our members will pay us to help them. This gives us the resources to continue addressing problems and building solutions.
What are the problems our members face? Here’s an off-the-cuff laundry list:
- A hyper-competitive market for getting published
- Lack of clear promotion channels for reaching the kids graphic novel target audience
- Chronic underpay for writers and artists
- Opaque and inaccessible industry data
- Extreme imbalance in leverage among industry participants (ie, publishers and platforms have lots of leverage; most creators have almost none)
- Difficulty in accessing professional feedback and training for this specific art form
- Fragmentation and isolation of individual creators
- Collapse of traditionally effective marketing and distribution methods for books, with a single monopolistic retailer replacing them
- Gatekeepers choosing what gets published and promoted, with end-users (the readers/kids!) having almost no voice in the process
Right now, the way we address these problems is through education, providing resources, offering networking opportunities, and hosting a platform where creators can connect with each other.
Eventually, we hope to address some of these issues in more direct ways. The tech industry terminology might be that we are trying to “create a flywheel” – but another way to look at it is that we want to nurture a mutually reinforcing and supportive ecosystem.
The Short Term Goal
We currently fulfill our purpose – building community and helping creators improve – primarily in four ways, via:
- Our annual Intensive course, a three-month class that teaches the fundamentals of kids comics storytelling and how to break into the industry
- Our Studio membership program, an ongoing paid community that offers an accountability group, office hours, live critique sessions, biweekly workshops on craft and business, and an archive of past workshops
- Our free Mighty Network community, where creators can ask questions, get feedback, share resources, and connect with and support each other
- The annual KCU Pitchfest competition that we just hosted for the first time, where industry pros review pitches submitted by creators, and their work is promoted in an online gallery for public viewing
This year we plan to keep the focus on those four initiatives, improving each of them by:
- Fostering an even more highly engaged community
- Create a better onboarding process for new members
- Create an Annual Calendar so we have a birds eye view of the plan
- Get more consistent in sending our email newsletter
- Tweak our Community Policies and be more intentional in fostering a positive, supportive community culture
- Relaunching Studio
- Acquire at least 100 new Studio members during 2023
- Develop a better process for promoting and disseminating the learnings from the events we host
- Add workshops as a new feature within Studio, and also offer a la carte access to these workshops and other Studio events
- Launching Pitchfest 2.0
- Develop into a 1-2 month event that includes more time and structure to help creators refine and get feedback on their pitches
- Get at least 150% more submissions than we received last year
- Grow industry awareness, so that more editors, agents, and art directors seek out talent from Pitchfest submissions
The Long Term Goal
It’s important to say a few words about my long-term vision. In other words, my hopes and dreams for what KCU might accomplish within the next decade.
My long-term, “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” is to launch a webcomics platform for kids that:
- Is owned by the creators (ie, the “platform coop” model)
- Is monetized via subscriptions (like Substack) and as a marketplace (like Etsy) controlled by creators
- Offers both free and affordably priced, high quality comics for kids around the world (just as YouTube offers them free videos, or Khan Academy offers free lessons – or, back in the day, Sesame Street offered amazing, free preschool TV)
We could monetize by following the “freemium” model: ie, plenty of ungated material for kids to browse and enjoy, but creators could earn money by offering extra content/merch/classes, etc.. There could be some sort of a subscription element, too, but hopefully we can figure out a way to make that a premium feature that doesn’t prevent kids from being able to read great content even if they can’t afford to pay.
The challenge with content for kids is that it MUST be curated, and you can’t market directly to your end-user; you have to go through gatekeepers like their parents or teachers. These challenges raise the questions:
- How do you curate content at scale?
- How do you build an audience when you can’t easily market to the end user?
My gut instinct is that we can successfully tackle both these challenges. Regarding the first question about scalable curation, we could set up a crowdsourced, tech-enabled internal vetting system whereby creators vet and suggest improvements to each other’s stories.
Regarding the second question about building an audience, I think we could approach it in several ways:
- By offering free kid-oriented, comics related content on YouTube (YouTube is the 6-10 year old market’s favorite social media channel by a long shot!)
- By targeting the school and library market via appearances and workshops at educational conferences
- By launching a national festival celebrating kids graphic novels, which would attract parents and educators who are already fans of this form of storytelling, whom we could work with as “ambassadors” to spread the word
We’re not anywhere close to being able to launch any of this yet, though!
In order to get there, we need to accomplish several things:
- Earn enough money to invest in more ambitious future initiatives
- Enlist like-minded advisors, partners, sponsors, and investors to help us
- Build enough brand awareness to seed a growing audience
- Develop a transparent, democratic, flexible, scalable decision-making and profit-sharing process
Review of 2022
2022 was a big year. It’s hard to believe now, but at the beginning of 2022, Kids Comics Unite had no website! It solely existed as a Mighty Networks community.
Here are some of our biggest accomplishments last year:
- We launched KCU’s website (special shout-out to Jade Vaughan, our creative director; and Jill Lynn, our web developer)
- We conducted a exhaustive survey of our membership, with 126 members responding (special shout-out to Lisa Lowry, who spearheaded the survey)
- We overhauled the Studio program in the fall, adding an Accountability group and bimonthly Live Critique sessions.
- We launched the first annual Pitchfest competition. We received 90 submissions, vetted by 15 agents and editors, and got an enthusiastic response when we emailed 550 industry professionals about the final pitch gallery
- Some of our Intensive students and Studio members have gotten agents and book deals, as well as successfully launched crowdfunding campaigns and self-published
In 2022, we earned $92,257 from the above initiatives. The income breakdown was as follows:
- 64% from the Intensive course
- 27% from Studio
- 6% from Pitchfest
- 3% from Critique sessions (offered by Rivkah for Intensive students after course end)
In 2022, we spent $74,950 on expenses. The rough expenses breakdown was as follows:
- 79% spent on “People Costs” (KCU Team including Jade, Lisa, and Sarah; instructors and speakers including Rivkah and other industry pros; as well as lawyer, bookkeeper, and web developer)
- 6.3% spent on “Software and Hosting” (including Mighty Networks, WooCommerce, ActiveCampaign, etc)
- 0.4% spent on “Other” (bank fees, travel, etc)
How did we benefit our community?
- Providing both free and paid education, hands-on feedback, and networking that resulted in agency representation and book deals for some members
- Helping members connect with each other both online and in person, for critique groups, advice, and friendship!
- Taking the first steps toward building an equitable, transparent, consent-based organization, and sharing our creative journey
We have a long list of issues to deal with. We won’t be able to fix all these problems at once, but I believe we can fix them over time if we a) prioritize them and b) tackle them thoughtfully one at a time.
A starting list of the problems we need to tackle includes:
- Increasing our revenue so we have the funds to pay our team, hire more help, and invest in the future
- Tracking metrics (ie, money and data) so we have an accurate sense of how well we’re accomplishing our goals and can make better-informed decisions
- Developing and communicating workflow so that we know what our objectives are, who’s in charge of what, what we’ve agreed to do, where information is stored, and how we’re communicating with each other
- Planning ahead so we know our near and long-term objectives and can schedule our time effectively
- Making better use of automation and systems that help us reach members in more specific, targeted ways
- Becoming more intentional in managing our community, so our members feel welcome, safe, and supported
- Getting more consistent with our email marketing and social media
- Finding better ways to channel and incorporate the energy, talent, and great ideas of our community members
I started working in publishing because I love stories and art and ideas and kids and unconventional people. The children’s book industry encapsulates all those things.
But I’d only been working in the field for a few years before I started to realize that corporate publishing is also quite hierarchical and bureaucratic. I worked in traditional publishing for almost a decade at three different companies and experienced multiple massive layoffs at every single one. Each time a “reorg” happened, people I respected would be here today, gone tomorrow.
The waste of knowledge and human potential was enormously upsetting to me. I felt like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” To me, this seemed like a crazy, unproductive way of doing business, but executives would shrug glumly as if to say, “That’s just how it works.”
I kept wondering, is it really the books that are the most valuable things the publishers have to offer? Or is it the combined expertise they provide to help books succeed? In other words, the team: the team of author, illustrator, editor, art director, production manager, proofreader, marketing and sales staff, publicist, rights manager, etc. When you bring all these people together, they make magic happen: they produce stories that make kids laugh, learn, wonder, and grow.
I read a quote a while ago that encapsulates my point of view:
“In traditional accounting, the business asset is the product. But more and more, in practice, the asset is a team that is capable of delivering products. The team has a longer lifetime of generating value than the product itself.”Aaron Bjork
To me, this makes perfect sense.
How we improve our work and how we deliver stories to readers are processes that are continually evolving. If we try to “solve” the problem of creating great stories, building an audience, and earning money through a top-down approach, we’ll fail. There is no formula or one-size-fits-all solution.
But with the power of an interconnected community, it’s easy to experiment, iterate, share ideas, and remain flexible in a constantly changing world. It’s easier to play to your individual strengths and complement them with collaborators who have different strengths.
This is what we’re trying to build with Kids Comics Unite. In the end, what we want to build is not just a community, but an ever-evolving, healthy, creative ecosystem.