Comics, FYI

By Graeme McMillan

It's Zestworld, and The Rest of Us Just Live In It

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Comics, FYI
It's Zestworld, and The Rest of Us Just Live In It
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #23 • View online
It’s just received over $9 million in funding, but what actually is new digital comics platform Zestworld?

Monday saw the announcement that Zestworld – the upcoming digital comics platform originally unveiled late November last year – has raised an impressive $9.37 million in capital via series A funding* ahead of its official launch later this year. 
Zestworld is something that I’ve been keeping an eye on since that initial New York Times story last year; there’s something about the creators involved with its launch properties – among them, Alex Segura, Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner, Eric Canete, and Phil Jimenez – that caught my eye, not least of all because, even though they were all industry veterans with good reputations both in- and outside of their work-for-hire work**, they weren’t splashy marquee name choices who’d been headlining the biggest superhero franchises in the last year. They felt like a group selected by someone who’d been reading and paying attention to comics for awhile.
One of the frustrating things about that first New York Times story, though, was that it was astonishingly light on details – to the point where it wasn’t even entirely clear what the “subscriber-based platform,” as it was described, actually was, even after multiple re-reads. Monday’s press release about the funding figure was, at least, a little more descriptive: the platform, it explained, will combine “business, community management, digital publishing, NFTs, metaverse events and IP rights management” into something that is, apparently, “tailored to the idiosyncrasies of the comics format and industry.”
Okay, I did say a little more descriptive. Thankfully, elsewhere, the release clarifies some more, noting that creators will be able to interact with fans through “comic-optimized digital newsletters,” but there’s obviously more to it than just a second Substack; the mention of “metaverse events” and rights management at the very least make that clear. There’s clearly an ambition behind the project — as the platform’s admittedly still sparse website puts it, “publishing is just the beginning at Zestworld. Our tools will encompass collectibles and events to achieve a next-level fan engagement experience” — even if the full scale of that ambition feels as if it’s being kept under wraps even after two rounds of publicity.
I get holding the full scope of what Zestworld actually is back until the full roll-out of the platform. I also, bluntly, find myself expecting that there’s definitely a there there just because of the people involved: Palmiotti, Conner, Segura et al have been around the block at enough publishers that I don’t think they’d sign up if this wasn’t potentially the real deal. But, at the same time, it still felt as if I couldn’t get a handle on what Zestworld was actually planning.
In other words, I had questions. So I did the obvious thing, and emailed co-founder and CEO of the company, Chris Giliberti, for some clarification. Here’s what he sent in response:
There’s a couple of things in the press release that feel worth unpacking more. Firstly, it feels as if there’s an emphasis being put on IP rights management, which I think speaks to Zestworld’s awareness of what’s actually important to creators on an individual (and independent) level. There’s mention in the release of an “IP management tool.” Can you break that down a little? What does that tool actually do?
Creators on Zestworld own 100% of their IP. There are many ways to monetize IP rights, but it’s a confusing process. We want to help. I can’t get more concrete than that at this time, but I’m glad I got you curious, and we promise more is coming soon!
Similarly, NFTs are mentioned a couple of times; what is Zestworld doing with NFTs, and does it anticipate criticism from an admittedly skeptical comics community for doing so?
We want to equip creators with as many monetization tools as possible to build a robust independent business. Publishing is the start for us, but the comic creator’s business extends into the realms of collectibles, events, and TV & Film.
Collectibles are a huge part of the comics world, both spiritually and financially. While traditional publishers earn reams off of collectibles, there’s not currently a good solution for independent writers and artists to create their own collectibles for fans.
We do anticipate some skepticism here, and frankly it’s justified. There are legitimate environmental, financial, and even cultural concerns associated with crypto. 
I can say a few things about our experience. We are building on an environmentally low impact blockchain, Polygon***. And we are not building anything in the world of tokens, DAOs, or NFT projects where artificial scarcity is imposed. (We agree there is a lot of BS happening there!) 
Our experience leverages Polygon’s ability to publicly record provenance and program creator royalties into the assets, so we feel it’s a better solution than, say, warehousing these assets through Amazon Web Services.
The PR mentioned that the funding “allow[ed] Zestworld to launch the ultimate platform.” What does that platform look like, and is there a timeline for launching it?
We are thinking long term. Look for us to be in a constant mode of self-improvement. We’re building for this community, and taking our cues from independent creators. When they win, we win.
The site’s also inviting creators to join a waitlist. Does this mean fans shouldn’t expect a second round of invited creators?
There is a second cohort of unannounced creators… some really exciting ones announcing soon. The plan is to eventually open the platform to all who would like to create on it, but we’re a ways off from this goal.
What does Zestworld get out of all of this, as a company? It’s allowing creators to keep full IP rights, but is it following the Substack model and taking a cut of what readers are paying creators, or do creators pay Zestworld a fee directly when signing up? Without going into detailed figures, because of course, what’s the financial model look like here on a corporate level?
Yes, creators own their IP rights, and we take a percentage of their subscription revenue.
Comic creators drive the most franchise value in the global entertainment industry. We believe it’s the creators driving this value, not the publishers. If we provide the best set of tools for this community, there is plenty of opportunity to win alongside creators across all facets of their business.
And now, back to me:
With Zestworld coming up so quickly in the wake of Substack’s Pro program and its broad funding spree, I’m struck by the notion that, as unlikely as it seems, the comic industry could become a hub for venture capital investors looking for the next big thing. As someone who’s been around long enough to cynically assume that comics is, traditionally, a pretty quick way to lose money rather than make it, I’m genuinely curious to see what happens over the next few years on this front – especially if it turns out that there’s a workable publishing model for comics outside of not only the direct market, but print publishing altogether, that keeps creators in a stronger financial position than they’ve traditionally been over the past… well, entire history of the industry.
If nothing else, it’s fascinating that both Substack and Zestworld claim nothing in terms of intellectual property from the creators they publish — something that I think may only be true of Image Comics in terms of name publishers inside the traditional comics industry — with Zestworld seeming to focus around the idea that controlling that intellectual property and managing it smartly is key to a creator’s success. It’s a substantial shift from the industry norm, and arguably one that other publishers will have to at least contend with if not match when it comes to creator-owned publishing moving forward. Could this actually be the change that people have been looking for all along?
* The funding came from a number of investors, including a company co-founded by former CBS and Viacom vice-chairman Shari Redstone, and Kevin Lin, who founded Twitch. There’s something about seeing who invested in a company that’s always interesting to me, even though it’s always tea leaf reading; I immediately, automatically go, well, I’ve heard of Twitch so Kevin Lin must know what he’s doing, or whatever. It’s almost Pavlovian in response to seeing a name I know.
** Even though almost every creator in the first wave of Zestworld projects has a history with the Big Two publishers, it feels important that Monday’s press release specifically stated that the company intends to “fracture the Marvel and DC duopoly.” Shots have been fired, perhaps…? Elsewhere, the press release also mentioned that creators using Zestworld would be “able to directly reach their audience through comic-optimized digital newsletters on their own schedule, without having to work against everchanging algorithms or potential shadowbanning that creators often face on other platforms,” which felt like shots fired in some other directions, as well.
*** Worth noting, perhaps: Polygon is also an investor in the company, per Monday’s announcement.
Something else entirely before wrapping up.
On Tuesday, I saw a number of retailers reacting to the paper stock used on this week’s Marvel releases. Covers were “half as thick as normal (and they’re normally crazy thin), and missing the gloss coating,” while the interiors were described as “newspaper quality” with, it seemed, significant bleed through of artwork. “One book in particular looked like some school kid color copies the cover at PopCopy,” ran one tweet. Everyone seemed surprised by what they’d received, suggesting that this wasn’t a paper stock change that Marvel had advertised or announced ahead of time.
Good news for those upset by the change: it’s not permanent. According to people close to the situation, the change is purely the result of supply chain issues, and the specific paper stock retailers are complaining about is already planned to be changed at the earliest opportunity. (It’s also a change that only affects a small portion of this week’s releases, I was told.)
I’m not sure what’s more surprising about this story: that multiple retailers seemed perfectly prepared to think that Marvel would just downgrade its paper without telling anyone, or that we’ve not seen more of this already, given the paper shortages that have been happening for some months now. Let’s see if this impacts any future collected editions or omnibuses in the upcoming months…
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Graeme McMillan

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