Indie Anthology 'Fresh Romance' Partners With Oni Press, Moves to Print (Exclusive)

Editor and publisher Janelle Asselin talks to THR about what prompted the move and what the future holds for the series.
'Fresh Romance'   |   Kevin Wada/Rosy Press
Editor and publisher Janelle Asselin talks to THR about what prompted the move and what the future holds for the series.

Almost a year after a successful crowdfunding campaign to launch its flagship digital romance anthology, Rosy Press — the imprint created by former DC Entertainment and Disney Press editor Janelle Asselin — is teaming with indie publisher Oni Press to create a print version of Fresh Romance. Asselin talked to THR about taking the next step for the property, as well as dealing with the practicalities of independent comic book publishing in general.

"The more praise and accolades we got [for the digital series], the more I would hear from people 'oh, but is this in print?'" Asselin explained when asked about the decision to move Fresh Romance into print. "In comics, while digital is a growing market — and an easily accessible one for the demographics I’m targeting — a lot of people still really love the feel of a book in their hands. I get that. I buy a lot of books in both physical and digital formats. So in order to hit a wider audience, we need to be available in both print and digital. That’s the reality of today’s comics market."

In order to create the print version, Asselin is turning back to Kickstarter, and partnering with Oregon's Oni Press, home of the original Scott Pilgrim comic books, as well as a wealth of material from supernatural western The Sixth Gun to cold war thriller The Coldest City, currently in production as a movie starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy.

"Having a print partner in Oni means that we can take risks that, as a small independent one-person publisher like Rosy Press, we otherwise couldn’t take," Asselin said, but added that "it would’ve felt weird to me to go to print without having a Kickstarter edition for people to back given the staunch support we got from our original KS backers." (The print Kickstarter campaign will offer an exclusive version of the book, in addition to other rewards. Additionally, its success will "signal to Oni that they’ve made the right investment in partnering with us and encourage them to do future editions, volumes and comics with us," according to Asselin.)

"I had a lot of offers on the table, both formal and informal, but Oni was the option that felt really right," Asselin said about her choice of partner. "Their editorial staff is pretty small, but it’s one of the most diverse in comics. And the thing is that they don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk — I couldn’t possibly partner with a company that doesn’t share my ideals and treat their staff and creators right. I’ve never heard of anyone at Oni doing anything horrible. That’s kind of a key thing for me, and more rare than one would hope in comics."

The chance to work with Oni Managing Editor Ari Yarwood was another key factor, Asselin adds. "She absolutely believes in Fresh Romance and in what Rosy Press is putting out. Now instead of one queer lady making Fresh Romance happen, you have two. And that is also a pretty key thing for me."

The new print editions of Fresh Romance won't simply be literal physical versions of the digital issues, Asselin said.

"Oni and I were in complete agreement that the collection should feel solid and unique," she explained. "Rather than serialized chunks of story in six different issues, readers will get complete stories or chapters. For instance, the 20-page Beauties [by Marguerite Bennett and Trungles] will be collected in its entirety while the 60 pages of chapter one (of three) of Ruined [by Sarah Vaughn and Sarah Winifred Searle] will also be included. It gives a different reading experience than reading the digital issues. There are over 200 pages of comics in Fresh Romance Vol. 1, and the general feel of the book will really embrace the physical format."

The announcement of the print edition is part of a month-long promotion for Fresh Romance titled "Fresh February," which also includes a price drop on the digital editions released to date, the debut of a digital collection of the strip School Spirit by Kate Leth, Arielle Jovellanos and Amanda Scurti, and the Feb. 24 release of the seventh issue of the digital series.

The series was also nominated for the 2016 Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics, capping off a busy, if complex, year for the title, and Rosy Press as a publisher.

"The initial Kickstarter was such a high point," Asselin remembered of the dual Fresh Romance/Rosy Press launch last March. "People banded together to support it so passionately and we raised 180% of our goal! Readers loved the first six issues and have been active in telling us so! There’s nothing quite like that feeling, but our monthly sales numbers are much lower than I’d hoped they’d be, which has been disappointing."

The reality is, Asselin said, that the general assumption that press attention translates into sales is sadly untrue. "We’ll see sales spikes when there’s a new review or mention of Rosy Press or something, but it’s not consistent enough or big enough to maintain the business. Sometimes I wonder if our ubiquitousness has led to people assuming we don’t need their sales. This is literally a company founded on my savings and the first Kickstarter. I promise you, we need your sales."

She continued, "Comics publishing is hard. Any publishing these days is pretty difficult, but comics is one of the toughest markets there is. Some of the big independent publishers have become big by either underpaying creators or only paying creators out of the backend sales. There’s a disconnect in the industry when the people who are making the content aren’t getting supported and rewarded financially for the hard work they put in. But at the same time, I’m not turning a profit in large part because of the page rates I pay. A lot of people would suggest I should pay people less. Nah. No thanks. I’m willing to accept not paying myself a salary for as long as it takes, but I don’t feel like my creators should have to work for less."

In spite of this, Asselin pointed to positive feedback and critical praise for the series to date as her reason for the new push. "We were put on a lot of Best of 2015 lists, and I’ve heard from a lot of readers that they support whatever we do next," she said. "There are people who want to read these comics, and I know there are more of them out there that just haven’t heard about Fresh Romance or Rosy Press yet. That’s another great reason to do this Kickstarter: we can welcome new readers into the fold."

Outreach is a large part of the purpose Fresh Romance — and, indeed, Asselin's Rosy Press imprint as a whole. "There are a lot of people in comics and outside of comics who believe the only audience for comics is men and that the length and breadth of comics is super heroes, and I say screw that," she said.

"Comics is a medium and, like all media, appeals to whatever demographic the creators want to appeal to. There’s no reason at all why comics needs to be a gendered medium. Our readers are mostly women, but it’s not as dramatic of a percentage as one might expect. We’re at about 60% women, 38% men, and 2% non-binary readers based on our latest reader survey. I love that there are men and non-binary folks reading Fresh Romance too. Just because I love to throw the color pink on everything and I’m hiring a lot of women doesn’t mean I don’t think these comics can appeal to everyone."

Looking to the future, Asselin said that she has "a lot of plans going right now for more content. I see Fresh Romance becoming almost a try-out magazine where new talent can do shorter stories, with Rosy Press producing more standalone comics going forward. To do that, of course, requires more capital. So first, Fresh Romance has to succeed. Then we can branch out into doing more."