Publishing During A Pandemic: Daniel Elkin interviews Kelly Sheehan from Earth’s End Publishing

How do you publish and distribute comics during a pandemic? It seems like a Herculean task, to say the least. And yet, there are plenty of small press publishers out there doing just that, right now. One of these publishers is Earth’s End Publishing. Earth’s End Publishing is a boutique publishing house that prints comics and graphic novels by some of New Zealand’s best cartoonists. Their desire is to produce beautiful, exceptionally designed comics, and to make them available throughout New Zealand and the world.

The Earth’s End Publishing Team consists of Co-Publisher, Editorial Director Adrian Kinnaird, a cartoonist, founder of the From Earths End Blog and writer of From Earths End: The Best New Zealand Comics; Co-Publisher, Design & Art Director Damon Keen, a cartoonist, designer, and co-founder editor of Faction: New Zealand Comic Anthology: and Co-Publisher, PR & Sales Director Kelly Sheehan, an experienced bookseller, library worker, and the writing half of the Sheehan Bros, comic creators of The Inhabitants and the Into the Dark Woods series.

You can find out more about Earth’s End Publishing by visiting their website or by following them on Twitter or Facebook.

I thought I’d send Kelly Sheehan some questions about what publishing is like in these strange times, and he was kind enough to answer. ​

The Earth’s End Comics Team (from left to right): Damon Keen, Ross Murray, Kelly Sheehan, and Adrian Kinnaird

Out of all the things you could possibly be doing with your time, you all decided to publish comics. Why is that? 

It’s a calling, isn’t it? 

The three partners in Earth’s End, Adrian Kinnaird, Damon Keen, and myself, have a strong desire to produce and promote local comics. We all have experience of making comics and know how difficult it is to take the next step after finishing the work. Often there is no energy or focus left, and there is something to be said for someone else taking over and handling that heavy lifting. 

We have varying degrees of experience in different areas which makes the process of producing, marketing, and distributing a comic easier than it is for less experienced cartoonists. Personally, I’ve worked in bookshops, comic shops, a book distribution agency, and, presently, a public library. I think that provides an overview of how to get something in front of readers and not lose money. We all have different skills and it adds up to something of a whole. 

How has the world of comics publishing been impacted by the pandemic?

Hard to say from down here at the bottom of the world. We are currently having a completely different experience of the pandemic than many of the people reading this article. We are out and about, shops are open, there is some sense of “normality”, positive testing tends to only appear in isolation units (where people quarantine for two weeks after returning from overseas). 

That said, Earth’s End is a publishing entity that exists almost purely in the context of a local economy and retail environment. Our country is one that is hugely affected by the international tides of commerce. At the moment, I don’t think we have seen the full extent of the economic hit that will be delivered by COVID-19, but there are signs. Yesterday I spoke with a friend who, along with his wife, will have no job at the start of next year. In the last quarter, ending September, unemployment rose by 30,000. There are more and more empty shops. It’s a small country. These things can’t help but have an impact on Earth’s End and our future plans.

What would you say is the ethos of Earth’s End? Are there particular types of books you look to publish?  

Our goal is to publish New Zealand cartoonists. 

There has not really been a consistent theme or type of comic that we have released. The first book was YA/General readership, The Dharma Punks, the next two were kid’s titles, Terry Teo and the Gunrunners and then Moa, and the latest one, Rufus Marigold, was definitely adult (it dealt with the debilitating effects of social anxiety). The next few books we have lined up are all adult titles. As different as they are, all our titles share….something. It is hard to explain what. It’s a particular feel, a gut instinct that a title will resonate locally. A few years ago we received a submission which was wonderful — great art, wonderful story, it was funny, strange, enticing — and yet I knew it would not spark with local booksellers. They would hear the pitch and it would not capture them. It makes you sad to turn down such a submission, but it needs to be done if you want to carry on publishing. The last book pays for the next book. The previous cartoonist pays it forward, allowing someone else to develop and expand and express themselves to a new audience.     

In terms of the basic physical fundamentals, the model we have worked with, to date, are comics with a spine (also known as ‘books’). While more expensive to produce. they can be sold across a wider variety of outlets and are just generally more accessible to a broader range of people. My publisher crushes are on imprints like Shortbox, Koyama Press, and Youth In Decline who release a range of formats, but I don’t think that would work well in New Zealand. There are a limited number of comic shops and relatively few conventions. Our bread and butter comes from bookshops and libraries.  

What is it like working on major projects during the COVID-19 pandemic? Has anything changed about your process or your planning? 

Not really. Or, maybe, not yet. Our first couple of titles were reprints of existing, but unavailable, comics. The work around that was for the most part budgeting, collating, design, and promotion. The various creators participated to a greater or lesser extent. That changed with Rufus Marigold where we worked very closely with Ross Murray to develop the book almost from scratch. Not so much in having a direct say in the creation but more in terms of acting as a sounding board and advocate for making the best book possible.

I have a feeling that our role as a publisher will change as the pandemic continues to unroll. Finding funding sources, developing audiences in anticipation of a release, and providing opportunities for books to shine in a context other than in shops will become more important as resources, outlets, and finances dry up. It is important to see this as an exciting opportunity to reassess what works and what does not. 

What do you think the world of small press comics looks like when this pandemic is all said and done? What role do you think small presses like yours have in the aftermath of all of this?

In some ways, I imagine it will be the same. Committed individuals and collectives, pushing forward, driven by faith and a desire to see new things in the world. How we do this is the question. We might have to develop new ways of doing business. We might have to question everything we know and start again.  

How do you all find the people you work with? Do you offer mentoring or other services to those people? 

As I mentioned, the first few books we published had a life in the world before we came along. Since then we have approached creators with unfinished projects that could be developed or supported. We have discovered these at gallery shows and conventions and online. Ross Murray even came back to us with a new proposal after Rufus Marigold. Go figure.

I don’t think we provide mentorship as much as show interest and provide encouragement to continue. We all know how hard it is to progress when you are creating in a void. Our cartoonists have all been making comics for years and years, they have their own practice, and they know what is best for them and their work — they don’t need Earth’s End telling them how to do their job.

Any guidance is really only in the area of finding and applying for funding from arts organizations. Earth’s End has built up some knowledge around this over the last few years and have a few things to share. We also write letters of support for applications and are happy to work with creators in putting together the paperwork and filling out the forms.   

Are you considering inequities or other historical considerations (for example, working with cartoonists of color and LGBTQ+ cartoonists) as you determine your publishing slate? tent?

We’re open to everyone. We’re looking for comics we believe in and people we can work with. We don’t have any preconceptions other than that. 

Thanks so much for your time and your words. Any last thoughts you’d like to leave with?

I love our work. There is a real sense of accomplishment and meaning that comes with it. A few years ago working on new Earth’s End comics kept me sane over the course of a grueling work restructure. The work keeps me sane and relatively grounded in a world where that is increasingly difficult. I have not earned a cent doing this, but the reward is immense.   

Oh, and anyone interested in great comics should check out Tim Kidd’s Western Park blogspot. It’s a mix of diverse, seemingly divergent, strips that have had various iterations over the years. The best place to start is May 2020 with the strip titled Nick 1. Things start off slow, but Tim’s got a long game planned. I can’t think of a comic that I have been more pleased to see emerge into the world. 

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