From have-a-go heroes of the DIY culture arena to one of the UK’s most respected indie comics publishers, Avery Hill Publishing have come a long way since I first reviewed their output at Broken Frontier a number of years back. Since then they’ve published books by a number of rising stars and established creators – including Simon Moreton, EdieOP, Gill Hatcher, Rachael Smith, Donya Todd and Tim Bird – and received critical acclaim for a comics catalogue that revels in diversity and eclecticism.
At the end of every year I find myself in the position of saying that this has been their most impressive twelve months to date, as AHP never fail to surprise and delight with astute publishing choices that highlight the depth of possibilities to the form. I last interviewed Avery Hill around 18 months ago in a two-part piece here and here. Since then founders Ricky Miller and Dave White have been joined on team by Katriona Chapman (Katzine) as Head of Marketing and New Business Development.
Given this has been a year that has seen one British Comic Award (for Tim Bird’s Grey Area: From the City to the Sea) and two nominations (for Rachael Smith’s The Rabbit and EdieOP’s Maleficium), a Broken Frontier Award nomination for ‘Best Publisher’, a distribution partnership in the States with esteemed micropublisher Retrofit and, of course, that stunning debut graphic novel (and follow-up!) from the phenomenon that is Tillie Walden, this seemed the ideal moment to catch up with the AHP crew ahead of the upcoming Avery Hill retrospective exhibition at London’s Orbital Comics, opening this weekend…
ANDY OLIVER: You may be two-time Broken Frontier Best Publisher Award nominees – and have had multiple projects up for British Comic Awards this year – but for those of our audience yet to discover your books could you tell us a little about the AHP story to date?
DAVE WHITE: We started AHP about four years ago now – we’d been working together on a self-published ‘zine called Tiny Dancing – collecting together our own work and that from some of our friends – and out of the blue I got an email from a guy calling himself Tim Bird, asking if we wanted to include his comics in future issues. That led to more people submitting work, a lot of it comics, which we split out into an anthology title called Reads, the second volume of which will be completed at the start of 2016.
And at about the same time we realised with more than one title we needed to call ourselves something as well, which is when AHP started in earnest. Then this Tim Bird guy got in touch with us again saying he had a twenty-four page comic completed, and would we like to do anything with it – that was the first issue of Grey Area, and we haven’t looked back since!
Some of Avery Hill’s 2015 releases – Abe Christie’s Swear Jar, anthology Reads #3 (cover by Eleni Kalorkoti), and Tillie Walden’s I Like this Part
Since I first covered you some years back you’ve gone from a small DIY culture operation to one of the UK’s foremost comics micropublishing forces. How would all three of you describe the continuing evolution of Avery Hill Publishing in 2015?
RICKY MILLER: I was talking about this with Mike Medaglia the other day actually; trying to summarise the year we’ve had and where we currently stand. I feel like it’s difficult to separate this year from the last two and I suspect when we look back we’ll always see these first three years as having been AHP Phase 1, ending with Tim’s BCA win and the Orbital exhibition.
Structurally we put some very important things in place around distribution, marketing and a digital offering. All of that still needs a lot of work, but we’ve got the basics now. From a profile point of view, we’ve definitely noticed a change there, at least within the industry. It all comes down to the output though and looking back on what we’ve put out this year, it’s obvious that it’s perhaps our most definitive year in terms of what we want the AHP brand to look like. Each of the titles feels like one we’d have put out in any year in the past and also every year looking forward.
WHITE: It feels pretty organic for me, as a lot of what we try to do is put into motion weeks, if not months, before they come about. Whether that’s the projects we’re working on, distribution plans, shows, exhibitions – a lot of what we’ve done in 2015 started life in 2014! So not only is it massively exciting, but I’d also describe it as a bit of a relief, because it means the things we’re trying to do are working! The ones we show people, anyway!
KAT CHAPMAN: Distribution is I think quite a big challenge for a lot of smaller companies (and speaking as a creator – for individuals who self-publish too!). There are a relatively small number of shops which stock comics in the UK (and an ever smaller number of dedicated comic shops) and even among those there can be some that are less keen on stocking indie/alternative type comics.
Our relationship with Retrofit is a big step towards expanding our audience and I hope this continues to develop. I think we also found this year that having some big successes (for example Tillie Walden’s books) can really help publicise our name and are a huge help in allowing us to continue to take risks supporting the work of new creators which is a big part of Avery Hill’s ethos.
Sample pages from Rachael Smith’s British Comic Award-nominated The Rabbit
It’s been a huge twelve months for you in terms of both your burgeoning catalogue and growing critical acclaim, but we shouldn’t overlook the structural changes you’ve undergone this year as well. Let’s start by discussing the appointment of Katzine creator Katriona Chapman as Head of Marketing and New Business Development. What does Kat’s role entail and what were the reasons behind this staffing expansion?
WHITE: For at least 12 months before Kat came on board it was just the two of us keeping AHP going around our day jobs, which at varying times can be more time-consuming than we’d like them to be. We’d meet and realise that the list of things we wanted to do was getting longer and longer and longer, and that was threatening to derail all the good progress we’d been making. And of all the things we weren’t doing as effectively as we wanted, marketing and new business was top of the list – you can work with amazing creators, and put out beautiful books, but if no-one buys them we’re not only failing the creators, but as a business we weren’t going to last much longer either.
Once we’d made the decision to bring someone else on board, Kat was our standout first choice – we’d both met Kat previously and were big fans of her work – and we just felt we could work together. Fortunately Kat said yes, and we’re incredibly glad she did – it’s proven to be a very important decision for us.
Sample art showcasing Donya Todd’s Buttertubs, Elizabeth Querstret’s Walks with LuLu and Abe Christie’s Swear Jar
CHAPMAN: My role entails developing relationships with press/reviewers, expanding our list of stockists and also finding the best printer for each project. I’ve also started getting involved with checking print proofs and helping adjust print files to try to optimise print results. I also do a good chunk of Avery Hill’s social media work and just generally try to raise our profile and get our name out!
MILLER: I was nominally responsible for a lot of the things Kat mentions that she does now and I couldn’t give anything like the required time to them. When you’re this small a company and this busy, you spend half the time firefighting and most of even the essentials become things you can put off. I pretty much spent most of the time wracked with guilt about what I wasn’t doing…so Kat is both good for the business and for our mental health.
EdieOP’s British Comic Awards-nominated Maleficium
You’ve also formed a distribution partnership with US micropublisher Retrofit Comics this year. What are the mechanics of that relationship, how did it come about, and what opportunities has it afforded both parties?
WHITE: Our relationship was borne out of the frustrations we were feeling with getting our books distributed effectively in the US – and they came from a combination of the traditional distribution options not working for us a business, and our inability to directly offer American retailers deals that worked for them, solely due to high shipping costs at low volumes. Ricky came up with the idea of partnering with a publisher in the US, and Retrofit was the obvious choice for us to approach – not only are Box and Jared great people, but they publish books we’d be proud to put out ourselves.
It took some correspondence backwards and forwards to work out how we could do it, but they were as up for it as we were, so it was more about making sure it worked for everyone involved in the best way possible. The US is an important market for us, so we were delighted to get the partnership in place. On the mechanics of it, we send Jared and Box at Retrofit a load of our books, they send us a load of theirs, and we use each others distribution networks in our home countries to try and increase sales and awareness of who we are, the creators we work with, and the books we’ve put out.
CHAPMAN: The time involved in approaching individual stockists and following up with them is huge… and one nice aspect of this partnership is that I can simultaneously promote Retrofit titles alongside ours to UK shops (and them ours in the US). It takes me no extra time to promote the two together whereas it would take me a lot of extra time if I were to start researching and approaching individual US shops. Plus of course sending one large shipment of books is much more economical than multiple small ones. Also it’s just fun to promote a bunch of new US comics/creators to UK buyers who may not have come across them before!
Can you give us an overview, then, of some of the Retrofit books you’re bringing to a wider British audience?
MILLER: I took up Retrofit’s subscription deal before I started working with them and so am definitely a fan. This year has been incredibly strong for them and we’re delighted to be associated with those books. My personal favourite is Ikebana by Yumi Sakugawa, which I only read a week or so ago and immediately emailed Jared to make sure he sent us copies in the next batch.
Laura Knetzger’s Sea Urchin is a lovely piece of work and a beautiful object as well, Retrofit did a great job with the production. If you’re a fan of Sam Alden then Wicked Chicken Queen is a must. Page 45 just made Drawn Onward by Matt Madden their book of the month and immediately snapped up all of the copies we had, so people should definitely check that out when we have it back in stock.
What has feedback been like in the US to the distribution of your books there so far? Is there anything that seems to have particularly caught the American imagination?
CHAPMAN: We got great reviews of A Quiet Disaster (right) and Grey Area: From the City to the Sea on the Big Planet Comics podcast… and I think that just as I enjoy Tillie Walden’s I Love This Part for its American setting and architectural details, US readers can find the UK setting of some of our comics kind of exotic and interesting!
MILLER: The End of Summer sold out very quickly, so we’ve just had to send out another box of them along with I Love This Part. US creators are just discovering Tillie and starting to talk about her, so it’s great to be able to be able to offer easy access to her books to people in her home country. I like to think of her like our very own Jimmy Hendrix, discovered in the UK and exported back to the Americans!
Yes, the publication of Tillie Walden’s debut The End of Summer certainly drew a huge amount of attention around the time of ELCAF. Tillie really is a remarkable new talent who is clearly destined for huge things in the industry. How did you discover her comics and her sprawling, diverse body of work?
MILLER: I found her work through Twitter, I think someone must have re-tweeted something she did, or I was just looking through hashtags. I was very impressed by her comics and just assumed she’d been doing them a while and had probably been published in the US. I’ve just reread the first email I sent to Tillie about her work back at the beginning of April 2014. In that I mention a short strip she did called ‘Taken’. I’ve just looked it up and it’s actually got a giant cat in it, very similar to Nemo in The End of Summer!
The front cover to Tillie Walden’s The End of Summer and an interior page plus a sample page from her most recent AHP book I Like this Part
I wrote to her asking if she’d ever been published in the UK and if she’d be interested in us doing a collection of her short stories and she got back to me a couple of days later to say she was too busy with high school. I had no idea until then that she was only 17. Her work was already at a very high level and I realised she was potentially going to be very good indeed. It wasn’t until the first pages of The End of Summer starting coming in to my inbox that I realised how just how good.
WHITE: I know this supports a message already espoused on Broken Frontier, but if we’ve got any advice for new creators, it’s make your work available. Put your website together, self-publish if you can, have an online shop if you can, get Twittering – the more ways you give people to access your work, the better.
Your output this year has been as eclectic as ever; from Elizabeth Querstret’s pensive Walks with LuLu and the character-led surrealism of Rachael Smith’s The Rabbit, through to the bizarre antics of Donya Todd’s Buttertubs, the bleak claustrophobia of Owen Pomery’s Between the Billboards and the fragmentary but emotionally resonant Swear Jar by Abe Christie. How do you approach the curation of your publishing catalogue? What are the factors involved in picking up such dissimilar but always intriguing projects? Is there an AHP philosophy that you can summarise?
WHITE: Our philosophy is to work with creators we love, to publish books we’d buy ourselves and that we think other people need to see. We share very similar tastes in the main, but they do differ quite wildly at the edges, and that’s something we hope adds diversity to what we put out. Periodically, we’ll get together and share ideas on people we’d like to work with, and projects we’d like to work on.
We’re limited to what we can publish, so the lists are always longer than we can accommodate, which means we have to reach a consensus on the ones to start developing. I can’t think of one disagreement we’ve had through that process so far, but our next new projects meeting is in January – the list to discuss is already long, so it could be an interesting one!
MILLER: We’re starting to include Kat in those discussions this time as well, so it’ll be interesting to see if that takes us in a slightly different direction. She’s already suggested a few people we weren’t aware of, who we’re now busy checking out.
The AHArts output has been a little quieter of late but you did publish Daria Hlazatova’s A is For Amos (above) for Record Store Day earlier this year. Are there any plans to expand that line again in the near future?
WHITE: AHArts is our place where we can put the projects that fall outside our comics titles, so whilst it’s a bit less defined, it’s there and ready when we find the right projects to work on. We’ve got a couple of titles in the works for next year, and I’m pleased to say they’re going to be just as incredible as Daria’s book, which was one of the highlights of our year for me.
MILLER: As well as Daria’s book, we consider Walks With Lulu by Elizabeth Querstret to fit in there as well. We’ve had a couple of other AHArts projects bubbling under, one of which was close to coming out this year but ended up getting delayed to next year. We’ll be announcing details soon, but one is by someone who has done some small pieces of work for us previously and who we’ve admired for a very long time and have been dying to do something substantial with.
We’re hoping to arrange an exhibition around that one. Then there’s a book of illustrations from an artist who we’ve never worked with before. We’re experimenting quite a bit with the format and paper stock on that one, so we’re quite excited about how it’s going to look. It’s actually finished so will probably be the first thing we put out next year.
Your end of year bonanza is the Avery Hill Publishing exhibition at Orbital Comics this month. There’s a gorgeous poster for the event by Tillie Walden (see top of this interview) that recaptures both your bigger successes and some of your more, shall we say, obscure characters from the past. Can attendees expect a nostalgic walk down an AHP-themed memory lane?
WHITE: Oh, most certainly – we’ve been lucky enough to get original art from across our catalogue, back to the very start. Although it would only be fair to mention in advance that we haven’t been able to get our hands on any of the original fever drawings which became Offensive Derek – it’s almost like they never really existed…
MILLER: We’ve been finalising the lineup for it this week and it’s going to be great. From a personal point of view it’s going to be really amazing to see all of this work framed and up on the wall in that lovely gallery space at Orbital. It’ll be a little sequential walk around most of our output from the last few years. I suspect it’ll be quite moving in a way, a really nice End of Part One type moment. If we were to retire at the end of this year I think we could look at this exhibition, realise what we’ve achieved and feel pretty proud of ourselves.
We can’t finish a discussion of Avery Hill’s 2015 without mentioning Tim Bird’s triumph in the British Comic Awards, recently announced at the BCA ceremony at Thought Bubble. How much of a boost to you all is Grey Area’s win in the Best Comic category?
WHITE: For me personally, with Tim being with us since the start of AHP, I was absolutely thrilled for him – he doesn’t shout the loudest about his work, so to see him get that so richly deserved recognition was a wonderful moment, especially as the shortlist for the award was so incredibly strong – I’d urge readers to check them all out.
MILLER: Tim is a lovely man and an excellent artist; it was hugely satisfying to us that he won that award. Grey Area: From the City to the Sea is one of the true landmarks of our output, a book where we both immediately realised that it was going to be one of the best things we ever put out. Also, his acceptance speech was brilliant, we’ve put it up on our website for everyone to have a read.
CHAPMAN: I love Tim’s work and I was really happy to see him win… I think it’s a huge boost for us all personally and also hopefully a big step in getting more recognition for the AHP name!
Interior pages from Grey Area: From the City to the Sea
And as 2016 is nearly upon us are there any hints you are able to provide about next year’s potential comics line-up?
WHITE: We’ll be announcing our plans for 2016 in the not too distant future, but for now let’s just say our comics next year will feature the return of a lot of our favourite creators we’ve worked with to date, but just as many exciting new people – and no doubt one or two surprises might work their way into our schedule as we go…
The Avery Hill Publishing Exhibition opens at London’s Orbital Comics this Saturday December 12th. Details on the Orbital site here. For more on Avery Hill Publishing visit their website here, their online store here and follow them on Twitter here.
For regular updates on all things small press follow Andy Oliver on Twitter here.