In this week’s episode, we chat with John Baltisberger: author, game designer, and owner of Madness Heart Press. I learn a lot about the value of representation, when to show loyalty to entities, and how to present yourself to your audience.
- Music by Old Romans: https://www.instagram.com/old_romans
You can listen to the episode here (or wherever you listen to podcasts) or read the transcript below:
In this fourth episode, we get in the weeds with John Baltisberger, who is an amazing creator that I met, working on a project for Mork Borg. Now, in our podcast, we do talk quite a bit about Mork Borg, but I realized as I was editing it, I never explained to the audience what that is. So Mork Borg is a small independent role-playing game, much like Dungeons & Dragons, but from a much smaller company. And also similar to Dungeons and Dragons, a lot of role-playing games have what is referred to as a third-party license. Basically, it is a set of stipulations that are printed in the book or on the website that says, if you want to create anything using these rules, this world, this scenario, you can do so, provided you follow these specific things, such as saying, we are not liable, this was made as part of the third-party license, etc.
As a result, this allows a lot of creators to create their own things that become supplemental materials for that initial product. And it also then drives the sales of that initial product. I know, for example, when I first discovered the core book of Mork Borg, I was so obsessed with it that I bought tons of different third-party things that were a result of it. And so it kind of does that rising tides, raise all boats type of situation.
I have a role playing game I'm working on called Lies by Omission that I'm adding a third-party license to so so that other people can create worlds using that same rule set. So that third-party license and IP is kind of the definition of that conversation that I have with John.
Aside from that, another thing you'll notice in this episode is my audio is a lot better. I have switched to a Blue Yeti Pro X microphone which I have used for the intros of the last few episodes. But the initial episodes I was recording with my, albeit high quality, Bluetooth headset and Bluetooth earbuds, which are not really designed for more than a phone call. So it was nice to switch to this microphone, which was about $140 on Amazon. This Yeti Blue X mic is very sensitive. As I was editing this first episode, I realized how much noise my chair makes, so I had to edit a lot of that squeaking out. I know for subsequent episodes, I will be switching to a more steady chair. But that being said, let's go ahead and now move into our interview and conversation with John Baltisberger of Madness Heart Press.
A Conversation with John Baltisberger
Chain Assembly: Today I am joined by John Baltisberger who is an author, game designer, and publisher working under the name Madness Heart Publishing. There are a lot of things in the writer's world that I'm curious about that I'm sure we're going to have a lot of learning we can share with each other. Starting off, John, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
John Baltisberger: Yeah, thanks for having me. It's nice to be here. It's an interesting format that I haven't, you know, I do a lot of writing podcasts and haven't done a lot just talking about business. So it's fun to be here.
CA: Well that's kind of also the same thing that I was thinking with art-specific things. Like yeah you could talk to artists about art but it's not really going to help anyone grow their own career as an artist. So that's why I want to talk about the things that artists either don't want to talk about or just don't tend to talk about. Cause you know, everyone's at different stages of success and kind of helps us find out where you are on that stage and what the next level would look like.
JB: Right, yeah.
CA: So how did we meet?
JB: I think it was through Zac? Yep, Zac Goins. You were doing a Kickstarter for an art project.
CA: Pilgrimage of the Penitent, yeah.
JB: Yes. Zack is...At this point, I think it's fair to say Zach is almost my agent for RPG writing. He helps me spread my mercenary seed over the land, like some sort of deranged Johnny Apple seed.
CA: Well, I think we actually met before that because the first time I worked with Zac was he was managing a Kickstarter project for me for the first volume of my Ready Play Games card games. And before that launch, he was doing a couple, he was also managing a couple other Kickstarter projects and he put all of us creators in a Zoom meeting together to just chat.
JB: Oh, I remember that, yeah.
CA: Or Discord meeting.
JB: Yeah. Yes, I do remember that.
CA: Yeah, so I did pledge to your project. I have Morkabeans.
JB: I think it was Morkabeans.
CA: Morkabeans. Sorry. Yes. Such a fun idea. You and like Jewish mythology as a role-playing game.
JB: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I want to do more. I know people want more. I just have to do it, which is often the hardest part is actually getting up and getting shit done. Hopefully profanity is allowed on your show.
JB: Right, I'm not terribly great at keeping a filter on. Kickstarter has been an interesting journey. I did my first Kickstarter last year and I've done three total now and it's extremely stressful and I'm not entirely convinced of its financial benefit just yet. A couple of these kickstarters have ended up costing me money as opposed to making me money. So-
CA: Oh, interesting.
JB: Yeah, it's- you need to be really on the ball if you're going to go the crowdfunding route. You need to know exactly what everything is going to cost before you hit that launch button and absolutely before you name any stretch goals. So, you know, lessons learned. We keep forging forward and trying new things and that's... that's probably the biggest... the biggest thing is not giving up.
CA: So do you want to talk specifically about what unexpected costs there were that came up?
JB: Yeah, I can a little bit. So for Whispers of the Dead Saint, the Mork Borg novel I wrote, and we did that through Kickstarter, I really wanted to include a book ribbon as a stretch goal because I love book ribbons. I think they're gorgeous. I think they're fun. But I didn't check on the cost or I checked on the cost. But what I didn't notice is that by adding a book ribbon, I was changing the location of the printing from local, from, you know, American domestic rather, to it had to print in the UK. So not only did it add a cost to putting in the book ribbon, it added the cost of shipping, it added the time of shipping, and it exponentially raise the cost of the product. I think it didn't like that book ribbon alone ended up costing me $2000, which, you know, on the indie stage is not a little amount of money.
CA: Totally understand what you're saying. Similar to that I'm in a few different groups for people who create tarot decks. And there's always someone who is joining those groups, joining the Facebook group or Discord and asking the question, where do you guys get your cards printed, preferably in the US? And one of the main recommendations that people suggest is Shuffled Ink, which is a printer in Orlando. And if you are doing... So their website lists lots of different options, but only the most standard type of printing is done in the US, anything else they're gonna farm out to China and charge you a ridiculous arm and leg for.
JB: For the shipping, right, yeah.
CA: Yeah, well not just the shipping. Like, if... So I always work directly with manufacturers in China where I can get really good prices. But anytime you see an American company that has a huge array of production techniques, it's almost always them just being the middleman for a different factory in China. That factory's making the profit, the company in America's making the profit, and the creator is paying for everybody's profit.
CA: In almost any situation, if you see a great company that looks great, try and find an alternative in China. That's typically my recommendation.
JB: You know, I. That's something we really suffer here in the States, right? Stateside is the quality of products made stateside in order to get them, you know, a good quality. You have to pay an arm and a leg. Yeah, and it's frustrating because like I want to support, you know local companies, but I Have to make money or this company falls apart; I spend a lot of time developing community with the authors I publish but at the end of the day it's like yes, you're my friend, but your book didn't sell and I can't spend any more time on that book because I have to keep this company running.
CA: Sure. Well, it's also not just that it's also just that the manufacturing equipment isn't in the United States.
CA: So that's a bit like maybe it's designed in the United States, but all of the equipment like you're hard-pressed to find a lot of places that will do 4c printing in the United States because those machines are huge. And in China, the way that their government is split up is each regional zone has like, OK, this is the one paper factory for this province and that paper factory has been designated by the government as the one to provide paper for all the surrounding manufacturers. It's all organized from the top down So that's how they're able to compete with everything in the world and that's also why they're able to have all the best equipment In China. So that does kind of want to bring me it brings me to another question I had for you since I know you work under the name Madness Heart Press. I wasn't sure if that was just your name for publishing your own things or if it is multiple people under that. So tell me about the organization.
JB: Yeah, so Madness Heart Press is my independent publishing house. I publish I did a count the other day. I want to say it's 35 different authors.
We've published a right around 90 books by various authors at this point. I do self-publish, but I publish under the name Kaiju Poet Publishing. Over on I self-publish, and when I don't self-publish, I go through other publishers, such as I have a book coming out from Death Head Press, which is an imprint of Dead Sky Publishing. I have a book coming out from Bizarro, Planet Bizarro Press. I have another book coming out next year from D&T Publishing, and another one coming up from Dimenciones Occultas in Spain. While self-publishing is not a dirty word anymore, or rather it's slowly not becoming a dirty word, I should say, the truth is that it's important to me that people know that Madness Heart Press is not a vanity project, it is not a vanity press, it is not my publishing outlet. It is an actual traditional small press. I have a book coming out from Charles Bernard on Wednesday next week. I have two books from Lucas Mangum and Ed Lee coming out the week, the month after, etc, etc. So, yeah, Madness Heart Press is a way too busy small press, but not my personal writing.
CA: Can you tell me exactly what a press does? Are you distributing, marketing, physically printing?
JB: So essentially the only thing I'm not doing is physically printing. You know, I work with several distribution partners. I work with a couple of different printers. And most so what we do is gatekeep. Essentially, right? What happens is that in February I open the doors and I say we're open for submissions. And then authors will send their pitch in- a basic synopsis of the story they wrote with all the pertinent details and we'll say yes we want to see this, no we don't, we'll get them and then we choose you. I try to limit it to six books a year. It never happens. It's never limited because there's a lot of great books out there. We take the book, we edit it, we format it, we create the cover, we do the layout, we do the full cover wrap, we set it up in distribution, we send it to reviewers, we promote it through our social media channels. We take it to events and we do our best to sell the hell out of the book and make sure it's successful.
CA: When it comes to events, what kind of events do you look for? Are you usually the one representing the press at the events? Do you have employees doing that? Just kind of explain what a typical event would look like.
JB: Right now, so right now it's me and my wife who's the co-owner of Madness Heart Press. I am, I do have some authors scattered around the country who I am working with so that we can do events in other parts of the country easier simply in the Northwest, Utah, and the Northeast. But we try to find events that are mostly either horror-centric, gaming-centric or book-centric. Those are the three things. When we first started, we did every event we could find, and we did a lot of terrible events that wasted money, wasted time, and it was really frustrating. But we found events that we think we'll do good at. We have a huge spread. As I said, we've published over 90 books at this point and then we just set up and we talk to people and try to sell books. And the best feeling in the world is when someone comes back after buying a book and wants to buy like five more, when we get those new fans, it's always an incredible feeling.
CA: So that does bring me to another question. I've been at a few events where I've seen an author corner that usually looks pretty sparsely attended. Do you usually do the author corner or do you have an official booth somewhere else in the event?
JB: Oh, we always have an official event booth. I don't go to events I can't table at. And part of the reason is I don't want my author to see me at an event and wonder why I'm not there representing their book. So we always have a big madness heart press table. And then on the very corner of our table, you know, the final foot or two feet is like books that I wrote and games. You know, it's the truth is that whenever you are at an event, the books that have an author present are going to outsell everything else. As people get excited that they can get their books signed by the author. I, yeah, no, having an author corner where it's just local authors doing their thing that isn't part of the big event is always going to fall flat, unfortunately.
CA: That's an interesting thing you bring up because something I've always envisioned when I do pop-up markets. Well, first off, I never have an assistant. It's always me at a pop-up market. But I'm always happy to engage with all the customers and things like that, but I wonder if I did have an assistant, would it help sales if I tried to present myself as the quote-unquote talent?
CA: Like if someone is buying a tarot deck, I could just be like, hi, let me shake your hand. Let me sign that for you. Rather than trying to be the salesperson promoting the product. Do you notice kind of anything like that?
JB: Yes, it will. It will. My when we do events, right? My wife will do like, oh yeah, we're Madness Heart Press, we published all these books. These are extreme horror, spider-punk, bizarro, weird sci-fi, Jewish books. And then over here is the stuff that he wrote. And so I am—even though I am, you know, a major part of the operations of Madness Heart Press, I am the face of the publishing arm, so to speak. At events, Desiree becomes, my wife, is the publisher and I'm the author just because that helps people understand who we are a little better. And it sets up, oh, they have talent with them. They have an artist with they have an author with them. And that that that makes people happy.
CA: I've seen a lot of evidence of that, too, at events I've attended, because just an anecdote I tell all the time was I did an event that was over 100 vendors and it was about six hours long. You're really competing for the attention of every attendee at an event.
CA: Especially if they have a hundred booths they want to look at in a four-hour time frame. If they can't instantly tell what you are, then they're not going to give you the chance to figure out if they want to buy anything from you.
CA: So I did an event like that and terrible sales. The next year I did the same event but just added a banner to the top of my tent that said Chain Assembly: Art, Tarot, Games and I saw dozens of people reading that sign at a distance and making a beeline towards my tent. So you really need people to identify what you do in one instant and then once you have them there, then you can try and promote yourself. So an extension of that, which is just something I've been imagining but haven't actually done in practice is I don't have any type of like name card or lanyard that says I'm the artist because I feel while that would be a good thing to kind of maybe make people be like, oh, that guy's the artist. It does take away my ability to introduce myself to somebody.
JB: People aren't going to read it. I wouldn't waste my time with it.
CA: OK, OK. Good to know. Thank you for agreeing with what I was thinking.
JB: Yeah, people like people just aren't going to read it. People don't people don't read, which is what I've discovered as an author and a publisher. Yeah, so my you know, my I have a banner.
JB: We haven't brought it to the last few events because our stand is kind of busted, but we have a banner. People don't tend to read it because people don't read. But we have two tables with, you know, 400 books spread across two tables. It's pretty obvious what we do. It should be pretty obvious what we do. Fortunately, what we get sometimes is people say things like, oh, where do you get your books? Do you have are these resale? We were doing a Stephen King themed event and someone walks up to our table, talks to us about trying to publish their book for a minute and then says, well, I've read all of these. It's like, I bet you haven't. Oh, I thought these were Stephen King books. He didn't even take the time to glance at a book before saying he had read them all. But events- I think that events are critically important for beginning creatives of any stripe. My wife and I do one to two events a month when we're able to. Because I think they are the most important way for you to grow exposure and makes it like you know when someone says do this for exposure you tell that person to go fuck themselves and rightfully so as artists get paid don't do work for free. The other hand, at events, you're paying them money to get a table. And but you're getting exposure and you're getting sales and you also get feedback- so that snorting is not me. It's my pug that I just pulled into my lap.
CA: Let the let the record show that a pug has entered the frame.
JB: And it's glorious
CA: To agree with what you're saying. That is the approach I take to Kickstarter. I've done 18 successful kickstarters now and sales are always good for me. But the real value I get out of Kickstarter is it grows my brand way faster, way more internationally than I ever could do on my own as just one person.
JB: Yeah. No, I mean, that's the thing about Kickstarter, right? Is that yes, it's a way for so I I'm an artist or sorry, I'm an author and a game designer, but I can't do art. Right. So for me, Kickstarter is a way for me to hire artists before so I can get that money, pay the artist, and hopefully there's a little bit left over for John. But, so let's talk about, I mentioned Whispers of the Dead Saint and how that one was margins real slim on that one. That's true. But I did a survey and 98% of the people who bought that book on Kickstarter had never heard of me or read anything I've written before. That is something like 600 new readers in one project. And that's incredible. You can't, like you, like I can't buy that kind of advertising. You know what I mean? That's the most successful ad I've ever run is a Kickstarter campaign. So that to me, that's the value of Kickstarter is it is a promotional tool. You get pre-orders and that does help with overhead. But at the end of the day, as a promotional tool, it's incredible.
CA: Well, to add to that, too, an earlier conversation I had with another artist, too, is a lot of the tools out there, a lot of the avenues for selling online, they're not the best for promoting your brand as an entity. Like selling on Etsy, for example. People consider what you're making a product of Etsy. But I feel like Kickstarter, because you have the ability to follow creators and you often look at a creator's history to see if they are likely to follow through, it does help promote you as a brand and as an entity. No one says, I got this on Kickstarter. Well, I guess they do say that, but they're gonna say, I got this on Kickstarter.
JB: I say it so often. Right? I say that almost every day.
CA: Yeah, that's a good point.
JB: But to your point though, for instance, I would all say is yeah, I got those in Kickstarter and anytime Adam Vass drops a new project I back it.
CA: Yeah, and that's definitely not the case say with Etsy as an example.
JB: Yeah, right Etsy system. It's like an Amazon. I bought great things off Etsy, but I couldn't tell you the name of any of the creators Kickstarter who I can tell you like oh, hey Sandy Pug makes really cool art for RPGs and I buy their stuff cuz it's pretty. You know, to kind of change gears a little bit away from Kickstarter, one, I want to talk about beginning writers and some mistakes I see people making wanting to get into writing because I have that conversation a lot. The first thing I always tell people is the secret to becoming a writer is writing. There's going to be, there are people listening to this right now who I guess I have this great like seven-part fantasy novel like series in my head. I'm working on creating my own language for the underwater orcs and, you know, the history that stop. Fucking knock it off. I wrote I read this great essay in the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding that says all that world-building you're doing is for you. Your party, your adventuring party, your players, your readers, they don't care. They don't care what happened, they care what's happening. You only need enough world-building to set the stage for what is currently going on. And that makes a lot of writers really angry when I say that. But it's absolutely true.
CA: That's one of the reasons why I love the films of Jeremy Saulnier. For example, Green Room, he refuses to have any character say something to another character that wouldn't make sense for that character. And so many times in movies, badly written movies, you'll see a character explaining something to the main character that they already know for the benefit of the audience to catch up.
CA: And I hate that. It's so disingenuous. But then you end up with movies like Green Room by Jeremy Saulnier, where you have to watch it four or five times to actually get the full story. And I love that.
JB: I'll watch any movie where a Nazi dies.
JB: So my philosophy as a writer is always get started in media res. I want someone's head to explode on the first page within the first paragraph if possible. I have a friend who wrote this great book called Pandamom. Lucas Mangub and Ryan Harding wrote this book called Pandamomium. It's about wrestling and demons and has an incredibly high on-page kill count, but it takes like half a book to get started. And it's just like, once it gets there, it's so good. But like it tears you up because I talked to Lucas about it and I was like, yeah, it was really great. You know, I have one complaint. It's like, yeah, it got started too slow for you. Yes. Anyway, so I have I've heard this whole thing where people are like developing this whole mythology and they're planning their their their history and their kingdoms and this and that. And they're like, yeah, I have 500 pages of backstory. OK, well, that means you don't have a single page of the book you're writing. Everyone, you know, let's talk about one of the most amazing authors of all time, J.R.R. Tolkien, right? Everyone's least favorite book is The Silmirillion, which is because it's backstory, it’s backstory and world-building. And yeah, it's great because it's J.R.R. But like, so I was at a game event the other day here in Austin, Staple Independent. Tabletop game event after the event a guy came one of the people From another booth came up to me is start talking about his own writing. He's like, yeah, I have this Six part six-part fantasy series. I'm working on I've been the first one But I don't want to publish any until I already have a name for myself His idea was that he would get a name for himself somehow, maybe through making games and running them through Kickstarter so people knew who he was. And that once he did that, he would be able to release these books and that would be his living. He would make his living just doing that. And I had to tell him, you know, I have a name for myself. I'm well-known in the indie horror scene. I have won four or five awards at this point. I have published a hundred books. I have written 20 books And I have a day job. You if your Impetus to start is that you can quit your day job You're never ever going to start The only way to make this a living is by treating it like a full-time job before it is one. That sucks. It's rough and it's hard. It's a hard truth, but no one gets to do this half-ass. There are too many authors, there are too many artists, there are too, and Nick, your stuff's great. You do an incredible job.
CA: Thank you.
JB: Your art's fantastic, but you work your ass off on it.
CA: Yeah, yeah.
And and so there are.
CA: And I have a day job too.
JB: And you know, you know, there are 100000 other artists who kick just as much ass, if not more ass than you. But if they're not putting in the work, they're not going to succeed. And the work is not just drawing. It's not just writing. It's also promoting yourself. There are I have a dozen authors that I've published that don't sell because they don't do social media and I'm not publishing their next book. All right. Because they don't promote themselves.
CA: I have well, also success is a constantly moving target.
CA: So you can't say once I hit this, I'm successful and then everything will work out. Success is a... I define success every single day. Like, if I complete these three things, that's a success. If this Kickstarter makes this much money, that's a success. You always have to have immediate, midterm, and long-term success goals, and constantly adjust them every day.
JB: That is absolutely true. I have, lately, most recently… a lot of my authors have dropped off of Twitter because of the stuff going on there. And then there was a copyright argument. I can't think of the word I'm looking for. Blow up on Twitter and people were nasty to one another. And so they left Twitter and it's like, OK, that's your right. But that cuts your promotional like your ability to promote and like interact with fans by a third. And that's a problem. I try to avoid drama on all spaces as a publisher. Now as a publisher, I'm a splatterpunk publisher. I get to, I get to be a little bit punk rock, but I still have to avoid scandal. I still have to avoid throwing myself into the ring when it could be damaging to the company.
CA: And I'm the same way. I keep all of my opinions to people I've met in person. Share nothing online.
JB: Yeah. And it's a little, you know, again, as a splatterpunk person, I can I can be a little more in people's faces. I can be a little more open with my political ideas so long as they align with the splatterpunk ideology, which is, you know, speaking truth to power, rebellion, and counterculture. But I do them in broad strokes. I don't, you know, I don't get into arguments with people. I won't go into people's faces. I never make it personal because I'm, again, I'm not just representing myself. I'm representing a whole slew of people. That said, the other thing you can't do, is only promoting yourself. And this, that's really hard for people, is finding a balance between being a human and being a brand. But it's something as independent as we have to thread.
CA: I know I've connected with you on Discord. Do you have a Discord server for Madness Heart Press?
JB: Yes, we have the Mad Hearts Discord channel.
CA: OK. Do you do like author AMAs in there? Do you have like scheduled events? What does that look like?
JB: We haven't. I haven't done a lot of that sort of thing in there. It's pretty small at the moment. We have a decent Twitter following. We have a decent Facebook following. The discord is pretty small and it's not super active, which is good because that can get overwhelming real fast. But it's something I'd like to grow and do things like that.
CA: Well, to add to what you're saying, like there are so many avenues for social media and they’re all valuable in their own different ways, it's really hard to decide where to put your energy. Because if you put your energy in everything, you'll get burnt out and then fall off on the whole boat. And I've heard, I forgot where I read this, but I read it's always a good social media idea to pick no more than two and focus on two. As Madness Heart Press, where do you put your focus social media wise, primarily?
JB: Well, we have a social media manager, so I don't have to worry about it too much. Yeah, like, just do that. I didn't mention that because it's not something most people can do, right? For us, you know, we put a lot of effort into Twitter and we put a lot of effort into our podcasting. We have A Wandering Monster, which is a T.T. RPG show. Then I relaunch because I'm an idiot. I'm relaunching Madness Heart Radio, which is an interview show where I talk to various authors about their books and their lives. And then hopefully I'll be starting a Jewish podcast with a guy named Jack Zients, who just talks about Jewish mythology and monsters. The goal of any social media presence should be to increase your brand awareness, how many people are aware of you, and two, to make you likable, to make people want to support you, to make people want to engage with you. I'm an extreme extrovert, so I genuinely want to be friends with nearly every person I encounter. Uh, the other day I went to the Magic the Gathering Lord of the Rings release and I took my daughter and we were eating dinner beforehand, right? And my friend comes over and sits with us and chats for a little while and as we're leaving my daughter goes, wait, was that Mitch? I was like, yeah, of course, that's Mitch. What did you think was happening? I thought you just invited someone to sit with us and became friends because you're friends with everyone now. So it's not, look, the artist's world is filled with introverts, and still, with people who don't, who like, none of us took a career path that lets us sit alone in a dark room and do our own thing because we're super into being around other people, except for me. But the only real way to grow is surround yourself with creative people, and put yourself out there. That is, I would say, going to events and making friends has been the biggest key to my success as an author and a publisher. There is. Bar none. That is 100% where my success comes from, is making friends.
CA: Sure. So let's talk a bit about the transition from you as a writer to starting Madness Heart Press.
CA: Like at what stage did you decide to do that and what was your first year like compared to where it is now?
JB: Okay, so I started, so Madness Heart Press got started as a personal blog for my writing at first. I was writing some stories, I self-published a couple of things, and I think two years into my writing I was in the restroom and my wife had bought this anthology, creepypasta anthology. So I flipped through that and it was just that the binding was cheap, the paper was cheap, the covers were shitty, the stories were bad. And I came out of the bathroom and I looked at my wife and I said, we could do better than this. We could do a better anthology than this. And so I want to say a week later, we went and we, I did all the paperwork to like trademark Madness Heart Press to set it up as a business to get its tax side, you know, all the legal shit you have to do to become a business and not just a doing the DBA. And then like the week after that, I put out a call for submissions for a new anthology. And then I wanna say four months later, maybe, we put out Creeping Corruption, our very first anthology. I think that was February of 2019.
CA: Where'd you get that printed?
JB: We got that one printed through KDP, which is Amazon's printing service, which is fine. We, I occasionally still do stuff through KDP because it's fast and it's easy. It's not the best. It's not great. At that point, we were still using the free ISBNs cause we didn't understand that part of the business.
CA: Oh, and just for the listeners. If you're curious about ISBNs, the official website to buy them is Bowker.com. B-O-W-K-E-R.
CA: ISBN stands for International Serialized Book Number. It is the barcode and number that you will put on a book you're publishing. It is required to be on the Amazon store. Or you can do UPC codes: Universal Product Codes. ISBNs are cheaper. They're supposed to just be for books, but you can put them on card games if there's a significant manual in there. You can put them in role playing games.
JB: Yep. We use them for role-playing games.
CA: Yeah. And it's always cheaper if you get them in bulk.
JB: I was going I was about to say, if you're just going to publish one self-published book, fine, just publish your one book at the ISBN and whatever. If you're publishing anything more than one book, I highly recommend it. I bought a stack of 100 ISBNs at once and I'm almost out now. Uh, because I realized how much cheaper they were. I got my tax refund and I bought a giant stack of ISBNs with it.
CA: And it also definitely makes your product feel more official, particularly if you're trying to bring it into local stores.
CA: Like if you if there's a local bookstore that has an area for local artists, local authors, if you have an ISBN already on your product, they're going to be way more receptive to putting it in the store.
JB: Yeah, because then they can also scan it and it gets into their system, it just makes sense. ISBNs also, if you use KDPs or Ingrams or any of these print on demand companies, if you use their ISBN, the publisher will be listed as Amazon or the publisher will be listed as, you know, Ingram. And again, note, look, if you just want to get your book out there, do that. It's fine. I'm not judging you. However, I'm not judging you. Other people will. When I look at a publisher and I say, do I want this publisher to carry my work? I look up their books on Amazon and I see who the publisher is listed as. Because if it's not listed as the entity I'm submitting to, it means they're not buying ISBNs, which means my work is not as protected as I want it to be.
CA: So a quick interjection about also Amazon KDP. I had made coloring books and I wanted to try the Amazon KDP for the coloring books. KDP stands for Kindle Direct Publishing. So I wanted to do the print-on-demand coloring books. And I have one which is the Golden Girls and a whole bunch of silly scenarios- just kind of like imagining what their lives were like before they decided to settle down and all move in together. They shut down my KDP account because they consider that copyright infringement to have drawings of the golden girls. So I decided to open up an Amazon KDP account on my Amazon business account for my other coloring books. And at some point they noticed that I'm the same account holder. So they shut down that account too. So not a fan of Amazon KDP.
JB: And there are plenty of other paths to self publishing than KDP.
CA: Right. So I just got them printed from a print shop and just put the, you know, the UPC, the sorry, the ISBN number on it. And I'm good to go. I just don't, you know, I have no interest really in being on Amazon. So it's not a concern for me.
JB: I appreciate that as a specific book and fiction seller. Sure. I gotta be on Amazon. Absolutely. But I mean, that's a fair point because you know, what happens is there are a lot of authors, especially in the extreme horror and splatterpunk scene, who get banned from Amazon and then their entire livelihood crumbles because they didn't know how to play within Amazon's bounds. And it's rough and it sucks. I love supporting independent- Godless.com is a great independent ebook marketplace for horror and extreme books that do audiobooks, you can avoid Amazon if you want to. I'm going to be doing a coloring book fairly soon, so we'll see how that goes. It's not like it's not I own the copyright, so it's fine. But it's still it can be really frustrating as an independent artist. It can get really frustrating to be kind of forced to deal with these giant entities that like are your lifeline to a bigger market, but at the same time are the thing that's like killing you and killing artists. So definitely that.
CA: Well, since you have so many books that you sell under the press, what is your fulfillment process look like? So if people order the books from Amazon, they get pushed directly to our printer and our printer ships them out. So I don't have to worry about that. When people order through the website, I can either. If I have the books on hand here, which I sometimes do, I will order. I will. I use a website called Pirate Ship to print shipping labels. The mailman.
CA: I've heard of them. Like I've heard of them for years. I just now got the joke. Pirate ship.
CA: Well, took me years to get that. OK.
JB: But yeah, I print labels from them. I can schedule a USPS pickup from my house. They allow me to label things as media mail, which is for books and book-shaped objects. And I ship through that and it cost me about $3, $4 to ship stuff out. Even big packages if it's all books. USPS picks it up and sends it out. I do that about once a month, twice a month, which is less than I should. But the other thing I do, and if this is for writers and maybe artists as well, is I pay royalties once a month. Most presses pay once a quarter. I do once a month, but a lot of, make sure if you're signing an agreement, make sure if you're looking at these things. Check. See how often they pay. See how they pay. See if they don't pay until a certain number has been reached. See if you get it in advance. All these things are important, and it's something that can screw people over. Read the contract carefully, and if you have any problems, make an email. List one bulleted list of the things that you are confused about that you want clarification on. Ask your questions. The second bulleted list of like, these clauses I don't like, I won't sign a contract with these things as they are right now. And send it off, and you know, it's possible the publisher will say like, look, these are to protect us, so if you're not good with them, then we're not going to do business, and that's their right. Or they might be able to work with you and say, like, hey, I see why you would say that. Let's reword this for you. It just depends on the publisher.
CA: Well, just to show that from the art side, I've sold art at a few different places through consignment. One of them is fantastic. They always pay via cash app once a month. Unfortunately, I've asked them for the last like two years to please change my cash app account to a different one. They haven't done that, but at least I'm still getting the money at a regular interval. I just have to move it from one account to the other and then deposit it. Another one was supposed to be monthly, but instead, it's every five, six months. They don't give me a list of what's sold, but I do trust that they're doing it correctly. They're just not doing it when they're supposed to be doing it. And they always paid by check, which is a little, um, old, old school. So what is your distribution method for those royalties?
JB: Um, PayPal, PayPal and Venmo mostly. I had one author demand that I send him money orders or cashier checks, but he sold two books total over two years. So I ended up sending him, I want to say an actual dollar in the mail after I ended his contract. Yeah, you know, again, I pay by I pay every month and sometimes authors make, you know, sometimes they don't make anything. And sometimes I send them, PayPal them $800. It just depends on the author and what, how much they're promoting and how well they're known. And sometimes it sucks because I don't get paid from my distribution channels for two months. Sometimes a book launch will be a little bit painful, but I find paying every month is better for my for my bookkeeping. It helps me stay, you know, stay on top of everything really well.
JB: That makes a lot of sense. So you also mentioned that in the future, you want to spend more time working with IPs. So can you explain to me how that works or what you imagine that looks like?
JB: So. You know, occasionally when I talk to a publisher, they'll look at me and say, but you're a publisher, why don't you just self-publish? And again, I don't want people to think that my publishing house is a vanity project, which is the first reason. The second reason is when I write a book, if I publish it, then I'm promoting it. Let's say D&T is publishing my book, then I'm promoting it and they're promoting it. So it doubles the emotion. And I'm working on a Vast Grimm novel right now, when I publish that, I'll promote it. Vast Grimm's creator, Brian Cullen, will publish it. And the publishing house, the guys who make Vast Grimm will also promote it. IPs are really fantastic ways of tapping into and expanding your brand as well. So, Whispers of the Dead Saint was an IP I worked in. That was Mork Borg. And I got way more readers for that book than I got for a lot of my other books because it's in an IP that more people are familiar with. There's a bigger install base. For instance, let's talk about tarot cards, right? You make a tarot card set of original art and your art rules so people like it, they buy it, and you're happy. Let's say you made a tarot card set. Let's say you got the license and you made a tarot card set, Metroid-themed tarot cards. You can't tell me that won't sell a thousand times better than the other stuff. And that may not be fair. I prefer my own world to the Mork Borg world. I prefer the things I've written that are not Mork Borg because I've created them whole cloth. But the Mork Borg stuff sells better because it has a bigger install base.
CA: Does the, just a general question, does the Mork Borg third-party license cover novels?
JB: Yes, it does. That was how this whole thing got started- I reached out to Johan Noor, the artist from Mork Borg, and I said, hey, I wanna write a book. Will this license cover me writing a novel? And he said, absolutely, go for it. So, yeah, it does. I was just the first person to do it.
CA: So I have an idea. I'm meeting with someone later today to flesh it out for a Mork Borg hack. And for the listener, hack basically means recreating the core book, but a completely different theme. Any idea if I mean, I know the third party license would cover that hack, but would we need to create our own third-party license?
JB: I don't know. And these are probably just general thoughts that there might not be an answer for.
CA: It would be very rude to...
JB: I don't have that answer, but Vast Grimm does.
CA: Right. They have a public third-party license, I assume, because I've seen other people create stuff for it.
JB: Yeah, so I would say they would... Honestly, you probably need both. You would probably want both. If I were to create a Vast Grimm thing, I'll let Brian figure out the legal of that, but when I create a Vast Grimm thing, I would check other products and see if they had both the Vast Grimm license and the Mork Borg one. My guess is that you only need the one you're actually emulating and it would be covered by the one above and above. But I wouldn't trust my gut instinct and I would check before I actually pulled the trigger and published anything.
CA: Sure, that makes sense. I mean, no matter what, you're going to be reprinting the original Mork Borg third-party license requirements in that product and it would be rude to limit other people playing in your playground since you're basing it off someone else's playground.
JB: You know what? I, as part of writing Mork Borg stuff, I asked a few creators if I could novelize their Zines essentially and one of them, Rugo's con and I were talking and he said, you know I've been thinking about it and it would be really weird for me to charge you money to use what I created when Johan and Kelly didn't charge me money to use what they created. But at the same time, it was like, okay, but You need to honor and support the people you're using their stuff. So, you know, I hire Ruga Stewart and I make sure that he gets his pay and he gets, you know, support when I work with him on stuff as well. The Mork Borg community in particular is really supportive of, you know, cross-ideation and cross-writing. So that one is pretty good. Like I said, again, so the IP thing. The reason I can do that is because I make friends with people, right? I'm friends with Brian Collin from Vast Grimm and I can, I can message and be like, I want to do this and they can say yay or nay. I talked to Johan a few times that's why I was able to say like, Hey, I want to do this thing. Can I build relationships?
CA: I'm guessing that's another benefit too, of working with a publisher versus self-publishing is the publisher has more of an incentive to be listened to by other people you might want to play with.
JB: Right, yeah, and in this instance, for instance, Lucas Mangum, we're publishing a book by him next month called Blade Job. It's about time traveling and wrestling and blood rituals. And if he's doing it on his own, he probably publishes it and mentions it on his Facebook because he dropped out of Twitter, puts it in his newsletter, and kind of hopes for the best. But because he's publishing through me, it's up for pre-order right now. We got him an interview with a couple of people that I know. Again, we're getting him on some wrestling podcast of a friend my social media manager knows. When you publish with me, you get to take advantage of the relationships I have. I am publishing a game by a creator who has not decided if he wants to use his real name on it or not yet. Uh, it's bloody, it's a transgressive game, so he's, you know, still deciding. But when we publish it, you know, I can use my relationship with Zac Goins to help spread the word. I can use art by Don Noble, who's an artist in the horror scene that I have built a relationship with to get him a really good cover. I can use layout artist, Lordy Michelle Booth because I have a really good relationship with her. And obviously, I'm paying for all this stuff, right? As the publisher, I pay for everything. The author doesn't pay a cent. I only get paid when they get paid. That's another thing. If you're listening to the set, If you're listening to the sound of my voice, if a publisher ever asks you for money, no. Tell them to go to hell, don't work with them. So, you know, working with a publisher is great because first you get that Nintendo seal of approval. You know, it gives you an absolute, someone else thought this book is worth publishing. Someone read this and said, yes, this is good. More people need to see this. Second, they're covering the cost of all the shit to make your book readable and good. Third, they're using their relationships to get into reviewers, to get into distribution, to get more eyes on your book or your art. It's just good to have. But also you don't need to be publisher monotheistic. You know, every author I work with has other publishers they also work with. I named three publishers at the top of the show that I'm working with. So you don't need to be loyal to a publisher. You can just publish wherever you wherever likes your stuff. And actually, that's better because now instead of me just promoting myself, I have these three other publishers who are promoting me. But consumers very rarely have publisher loyalty. They have author loyalty. When my stuff is promoted by D&T, that will boost my sales in Deathhead Press. And it all goes around. I guess what I'm trying to say from a business point of view, is don't shoot yourself in the foot trying to be trying to narrow yourself into like, well, this gallery works with me or this one publisher likes me. So that's where I am from now on, because as an artist, you have that freedom to say, well, let me get this as many places as possible.
CA: I totally agree with that. I have the opposite approach when it comes to manufacturers. I'll-
CA: I'll give a manufacturer like one chance to make a good impression. If they make that good impression, I'm going to stick with them all the way through. Like I've used a Dongguan Bayaya board game manufacturer out of China for all my tarot decks, all my games, and all my card games. I haven't had a reason to look for someone else. The same goes for my enamel pins.
JB: The manufacturer is different because the manufacturer is not promoting your shit.
CA: Right, right, right.
JB: They're not, the manufacturer isn't, the manufacturer is not there to grow you. They're there to get you something good. If you find someone who makes something good, you stick with them. Yeah, the one thing that struck me about that statement though is one chance. If a publisher, a manufacturer, if anyone screws you over, you don't have to go to them again, even if they're your friend. And you can be friends with someone and not want to work with them. It doesn't need to be ugly. I have lots of friends in the horror community, publishers, and writers that I won't work with.
CA: I have one last question for you, which is more of just your feedback on something I did. I took this kind of a 10-week course about growing small businesses last year, late last year. And one part of that was trademarking my brand Chain Assembly and I was kind of going back and forth between doing it under publishing versus printing. The problem is I create so many different products and generally, if you're trademarking stuff you have to pay a fee for every single category but luckily as I was doing that I learned that you can, you just need to pay the fee for an overall category. And within that, you can get tons of subcategories.
CA: When I approached the teacher asking about going the publishing route, as in Chain Assembly Publishing, which I don't have that in the name, it's still just Chain Assembly, he was saying that publishing as a trademark really refers to the fact that you are printing other people's products, not your own. So, uh, I ended up going with the printing category International Class 016 which luckily includes posters, art reproductions, coloring books for adults, comic books, comics, golf scorecards, because I make those too, graphic novels, greeting cards- So the printing category is huge. There's like 40 items. I got for that one fee when you trademarked your stuff I don't know how many times you've gone through the process, but like what kind of decisions decision-making was going into that?
JB: So when I got started I was just going to do books. Books from other people. So publishing worked really well for me. I mean that's what we are, we're a publisher. But we do. Even the zines we publish, and the games we publish, they're in book format. So it's, you know, other than the map, but I can argue that it's book too. I can argue anything's a book. Uh, frankly. So publishing just worked for me. I think that Madness Heart Press is unique enough and small enough. Oh, sorry, let me rephrase. Madness Heart Press is unique enough and well known enough that I'm not really worried about someone trying to steal my trademark or steal my logo or anything like that because people know, people know me in the little area that I'm in. It would be like, it'd be a little bit like catfishing and claiming you're, you know, Robert De Niro. People are like, well, no, you're not. So I don't, you know, we haven't worried about it too much. We just kind of do our thing. And here's the other thing, man. Piracy is going to happen. You don't have to be okay with it, but you have to be able to swallow it and just know it's going to happen. My books are on a dozen websites that don't pay me money that I've never talked to. There's one that's charging, I want to say like 50 bucks for one of my books. Never heard of, never sold them a book. It's gonna happen. The secret to happiness is understanding that it's not going to impact your bottom line very much as an independent. You know, once you get into the mid-range where, you know, millions of people know who you are, but you don't have millions of dollars, that's when it can start impacting your bottom line in your business. But right now, right now we can play it a little loosey-goosey. Not legally. Make sure your cover is legally paid, your taxes, get a DBA. Have a separate business account, please. Please just do those things. Keep invoices, keep a balance sheet. Know your stuff.
CA: One thing that also helped me when I first started working with a tax accountant with my art, the first stage after you get the LLC is like, you know, the really simplest way to do your taxes is with pass-through. And your account person will, or your tax person will be able to help you set that up. But basically any income I make as the business counts as my personal income until you start making so much money that you actually need to do it as a separate tax entity. But you're still going to be keeping all of your money separate and still because you want to be able to take deductions on anything you spend within the business. But the pass through tax structure makes things very simple in the end. Yeah. And it makes it easy for you to start off. I don't know if that's available in every state. I assume so. But at least that's what I'm doing here in Florida for the foreseeable future.
JB: Yeah, I think that's, I think that is, uh, yeah, get your, get your stuff straight. That is vitally important.
CA: I've heard from some people that DBAs are not helpful. I got one. I've noticed that some people recommend it. Some, the older, so your local chamber of commerce will have a mentorship program. The older the mentor, the more likely they're going to tell you to get a DBA. But if you're doing art under a name other than your own name, like I do all my art under Chain Assembly, a DBA is very helpful because then you can sign things as Chain Assembly.
JB: Yeah. Here's my thought on that, man. DBA costs like $15. Just get it. It's cheap. Just get it. Yeah. So here's what I'm going to leave off with, because this is big lesson. Don't be racist. Don't be a predator. Don't be an asshole and stick to it. If you do those four things, you will find success. It may take time, but you will find success because a lot of people can't do those four things.
CA: That is a great words of wisdom to end on. Thank you so much, John. It's been wonderful chatting with you. I wouldn't be surprised if I bring you in for another episode at some point, because there's a lot of great information in the head of yours. And I hope on a personal note, we get to work together some more in the future.
JB: Oh, absolutely. I love your stuff, man. I know I'll definitely be reaching out to you for some next things I have.
CA: Absolutely, love to. All right, thank you very much. And just to remind everyone, they can find your work at Madness Heart.press. Additionally, you are on Twitter and Instagram as kaiju poet, K-A-I-J-U-P-O-E-T. Also your podcast can be followed at Wanmoncast, W-A-N-M-O-N-C-A-S-T. You're also M-H-P underscore horror. All of those are on Twitter and your personal writing can be found at kaijupoet.com.
JB: Thank you, thank you.
CA: All right, thanks again, John.
Chain Assembly: Art for Profit’s Sake is recorded through Riverside FM, edited on Adobe Audition, and distributed through Spotify for podcasters. The music is provided by Old Romans. If you found anything helpful, interesting, or useful in this podcast, please rate and review us 5 stars. If you want to learn more about Chain Assembly, head on over to ChainAssembly.com.