The Ballad of Ducktown: Heaven and Hell

Ducktown original cover concept

“But have you read Ducktown..?”

That’s my typical response/question to just about any question thrown at me these days. And people usually look at me with a blank stare and their mouths agape as their eyes begin to glaze over.

“Duck what..? What the hell is a duck town?”

Right.

I published Josh Divine’s Ducktown in September of 2013 and it’s been anything but smooth sailing ever since. Ducktown’s creator, Colorado artist, Josh Divine, will tell you that book is cursed. I laughed at this the first time he told me about it but after everything the book has been through, I am now a believer. I’m not sure exactly what we did to piss off the angry duck gods but whatever it was, we’re still atoning for our sins. Or maybe god really does hate ducks. 

Let me rewind.

I first became aware of Ducktown on LiveJournal. It spoke to my dark sense of humor and I was instantly a fan of Divine’s work. He was publishing Ducktown in a local Colorado newspaper and also publishing indie comics (Trashola).  The Colorado Daily eventually replaced Ducktown with Sudoku and that was it.

Trashola2

Fast forward to the recent past where I had the idea to bring Ducktown back to life, literally. It seemed to be a no-brainer: publish the entire collection and share with the world what I already knew was a killer comic from a seriously talented artist and writer.

And that’s when the many plagues of Ducktown began.

For starters, there were several production issues which delayed the book’s release. Then Amazon tried to kill the book and refused to carry it for months! Never mind that this ain’t my first rodeo as a publisher but for whatever reason, Amazon did not like the book, at all! This effectively killed the book. And as much as I hate to admit that Amazon is a must-have for indie sales, it’s true.

And people will talk shit about using Amazon for business but they are an evil but essential staple in any indie publisher’s diet. But then again, most people don’t know shit about the ridiculously cutthroat world of publishing. It ain’t pretty.

I tried everything possible to investigate why Amazon hated the book so much but never came up with any plausible answers. I asked the Independent Book Publisher’s Association, I asked my printer/distributor for advice , I sought the council of people that work inside of the Amazon machine…but everyone was stumped. It was simply chalked up to a glitch that took months to fix.

To make matters worse, some hack from Australia tried to con people into buying bootleg copies of the book (which do not exist). Then, the first book signing was rained out by a freak storm in Colorado. Sales have been dismal ever since, despite Divine’s popularity as an artist.

But why?

Josh Divine

These are the lessons you learn as an independent publisher. Sometimes even the greatest concepts for books can bomb and the reasons can be many and varied. I often tell people that the only difference between BSP and a major publisher is budget. It’s true. I know what I’m doing and create quality books. I would put up almost any of my books against a major publisher’s. You will find similar quality and I know there’s more heart and soul in my books.

The thing with Ducktown is that the artist is revered by many people online and beyond. One of his comics was posted on Reddit and to date has received nearly 400k views. Think about that for a moment – that’s major exposure. If a mere 1-percent of those people bought Ducktown I wouldn’t be writing this. But “liking” something online translating into sales is a whole other issue.

Divine is also “Tumblr famous,” which essentially means he has tons of followers on that platform and he has even received compliments on his work from people in Hollywood including Rose McGowan and comedian George Lopez who is enamored with Divine’s illustrations and overall design of  Lowriting.

So why doesn’t that translate into sales for his book? I have no earthly idea other than we screwed up on the cover! For whatever reason I think the cover rubs people the wrong way and I blame myself for that.

The original concept for the cover of Ducktown (see above) had the characters floating up to heaven with angel wings and a blue sky background. It was light and  playful and in my opinion, all wrong.

I asked Josh, after all the crazy and evil shit that the characters did, would they really end up in heaven? Of course not. And so we started on the cover depicting the characters enjoying themselves in hell.

Josh Divine's Ducktown

I sometimes forget (or underestimate) just how many people don’t find afterlife humor funny…Did depicting the characters in hell curse the book? Maybe. But that’s crazy talk, right?

Maybe not.

Not long after the book came out, Josh pitched the book to a local bookstore owner in Colorado and her first reaction after seeing the cover was to ask him if the book was X-rated.

And she was dead serious.

How anyone could imagine anything X-rated after looking at the cover is beyond me but she was not only serious but burned the book on sight and called an exorcist for Josh. 

Duck tat

Ok, not really but she never did call him back. It reminded me of a similar experience with my first book, which also had a “demonic” book cover.  That book store owner told me it was much too scary for her fragile customers.

I have to wonder if the Amazon warehouse, and possibly the world at large, is rife with religious zealots or maybe just duck bigots. Duck Dynasty this ain’t. Logical explanations for the book’s failure don’t make much sense.  

Amazon is not without its own perverse sense of humor however; someone is selling a used copy of Ducktown for $999.11.

It’s aggravating, as an indie publisher,  that stuff like Tom Neely’s Henry & Glenn Forever goes viral when Ducktown remains so underground it should be huge in Japan. Not that I didn’t enjoy Neely’s comic, because I did, but Ducktown is much funnier and smarter. And yes I’m biased but it’s true.

I naively thought that asking a legendary cartoonist to write the foreword (Thanks, Lalo!) would not only lend some credibility to the book but also draw in more readers. I was wrong. Not even cartoon badass, Lalo Alcaraz could save Ducktown.

photo (19)

I know I’m not crazy. People love Josh’s work…when they see it that is. The book has some solid reviews and it’s clear that I’m not alone when I say that the book is hilarious. I would challenge anyone to read it and not laugh their ass off.

“Ducktown is raw, it’s disturbing and it’s hilarious. Some strips made me cringe, some made me smile and most actually made me laugh out loud.”

As a publisher, that’s the kind of stuff that I aim for in a review – books that people really enjoy. So in that sense, the book is a complete success. Hell, it was a book I wanted to publish so it will always be a success for me,  I just wish I could get more people to recognize how awesome it is.

The problem, again, is marketing budget but also getting people to take a chance on something that looks weird or unfamiliar.

Look, I cannot say enough good things about Ducktown. I could sell you on it all day but that won’t really matter unless you experience the book for yourself. I questioned my sanity writing this much about it because I know that only a handful of people will read this – sad but true.

Is Ducktown heaven ?Is Ducktown hell? No, Ducktown is just a great book.

I will be going back to drawing board this year to see if I can convince the duck-hating public to give the book another chance. It’s a great book. It should be in every B&N store, coast to coast, in the humor section. It should be in your local library and most importantly, it should be on your bookshelf.

I will be speaking on a “What to Expect from Self-Publishing” panel later in the year at the 2014 Tucson Festival of Books and I will tell people about the ballad of Ducktown. And they will look at me with that blank stare and say, “What’s a duck town?”

– S|J|R