“We Have to Be Sustainable”: Publisher Avi Ehrlich on Building the Comic Shop and Publisher, Silver Sprocket

For comic fans of some varieties, Silver Sprocket might be a new name to you, as they exist in a space that might be outside of your norm. That said, if you’re a fan of comics, they should be a draw for you, and that’s because of what they represent to those who are aware of what they’re all about. For those folks, Silver Sprocket isn’t just a San Francisco-based comic publisher and comic shop, but one of the most exciting names in comics and a true tastemaker in the space.

Silver Sprocket is, as they describe themselves on their website, “an independent publisher championing socially conscious and independently produced comic books, graphic novels, and related arts.” What that means is they work with incredible creators like Rosemary Valero O’Connell, Nicole Goux, Benji Nate, and an assortment of others to publish comics crafted with care, including top picks from 2023’s slate like H.A.’s The Chromatic Fantasy and Leo Fox’s Prokaryote Season. Even better, they do so in an extraordinarily creator friendly that’s focused on building a more sustainable model for all involved, all while selling their wares alongside releases by a wide variety of publishers like ShortBox, Fantagraphics, and First Second at their storefront in San Francisco.

They’re doing incredibly interesting things, all while staying true to an identity that’s entirely their own. I’ve long had my eye on them, even if I haven’t had the chance to dig into them much. So when Avi Ehrlich, the publisher and founder of Silver Sprocket, reached out to see if I’d be interested in putting something together about this rising publisher and shop, I was thrilled to do so. Shortly thereafter, Ehrlich joined me on Zoom recently to discuss their recent trip to France for the Angoulême International Comics Festival, how inspiring that trip was, what Silver Sprocket really is, the story behind it, building a lineup and curating a store, the power of community, and a whole lot more. It’s a lovely chat with a thoughtful person intent on building something different and special with Silver Sprocket, and one I believe you’ll enjoy.

You can read it in full below, with it being edited for length and clarity. Additionally, it’s open to non-subscribers. If you enjoy this conversation and want to read more comics coverage like it, consider subscribing to SKTCHD to do just that — and to support the work that I do on the site.

You’ve just returned from a big trip to France. So, how was Angoulême?

Avi Ehrlich: It was incredible. The comic scene over there is just night and day compared to over here in the States. Everyone was so nice, and it was so inspirational. It was amazing to see a massive comic fest that takes over a whole city that’s completely about comics and the breadth of what that means over there. It was like taking mushrooms for the first time. I highly recommend it.

Do you mean in a sense that it just opened up your mind as to what could be possible?

Ehrlich: Yeah, I thought I knew what could be possible, and I didn’t.

I was just in France last April. You can read things like a stat that says something like, “One in every four books sold in France is a comic,” which is true, but to see how there are comics everywhere…in the Relay Train Station stores, in convenience stores, in massive retail stores, and how somebody like Emil Ferris or manga creators are held in equal regard as some like Hergé…they just love everything. Unlike the United States, people in France don’t think about superheroes first. They think of the art form and all its possibilities, which is really incredible.

Ehrlich: Everything you just said is absolutely accurate. I’ve heard everything from one in 12 books as a comic to one in 10 most recently, but one in four, I’ll take it. We’ve got a lot to learn as a society about how to enjoy literature and art and storytelling. And what was also a little bit jarring is we’ve got our own comic book shop here in San Francisco focused on rad, weird, indie comics and creator-owned works, and so many of our favorite books from our own store that we hand sell all the time that we don’t really see as prominently displayed in other American stores were on massive display over there.

They’re big rockstar titles with way better production quality. Larger books with cover art that made way more sense for what the book was. It’s really inspiring, but also frustrating. “Why don’t we get to have it this good?”

What’s an example of a book that was on prominent display that you were really impressed by?

Ehrlich: Yeah. Well, there were a couple examples.  There were some books that we published here that were published, I would dare say, nicer in France, which for us is like, “Okay, we got to take notes and improve our game.” We’ve had an approach for graphic design like, “What would Peow (Studio, the comic publisher) do?” But now, we’re like, “What would France do?” But for other people’s books though, there’s a publisher called Bliss Editions that…bad examples would be The Tea Dragon Society and Cosmoknights because those actually do have really nice production value in the States.

But even mainstream stuff like Lore Olympus had way better cover art that actually was reflective of the queer, weird nature of what that book was about, which was way more engaging and interesting than what the American covers did. And then a publisher we work with called Kinaye has way better cover art for books that we published, like Grog the Frog: Book of Taurus and Puppy Knight. So, we were like, “What the fuck, man?”

Everything besides manga is a hardcover there so it’s just going to have crazy production value. They’re going for maximum value because that’s what people respond to there.

Ehrlich: People really care about the art, and they’re not as afraid to spend a few more Euros on a beautiful object. Here Stateside, a couple of the major young adult publishers did some data analysis and found, “Oh, we don’t need to do special cover treatments because it has no impact on sales.” And over there they’re like, “We’re going to make this thing fucking beautiful for you.”

Did you find the trip to be inspiring? Like it’s the comics future you want and are trying to build in your own way at Silver Sprocket?

Ehrlich: How dare you take the words out of my brain? Yeah, completely. I’ve already been pouring over photos of comic shops in Europe. For both our store and our publishing house, we’re trying to think of comics as a medium, not a genre, obviously. And as a medium, there’s such a breadth of content and audiences that it can really be relevant to. Especially in the States, we’re at this generational shift where so many people read comics who didn’t grow up on superhero books but grew up on a Tumblr or Instagram and webtoons and manga. Spider-Man is not a mainstream comic. I go to parties and people that I don’t know hear that I work in a comic book shop and they get excited to talk to me about One Piece or some comic that they read on Vice back in the day all the time. Nobody ever brings up what Spider-Man is up to.

I think it truly is a mainstream art form over there. Over here there’s still this baggage as a result of what the comics market has been recently and I think just how people see comics. But it’s changing quick. The work Scholastic (Graphix) has done with Bone and Raina Telgemeier. We’ve got a whole generation coming into adulthood now who grew up reading comics and still wants to keep doing it. And this is a victory being handed to the American comic book market. That’s our choice to throw in the trash or not.

Yeah, I totally agree. That transition from the people who are reading Raina and Dav Pilkey or coming up on Webtoon and reading Lore Olympus and everything, which is a weird thing to think about, but Lore Olympus has been around for, what, six years or something like that.

Ehrlich: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s literally the only book that we have in the store that I haven’t read. There are plenty of books I haven’t read, but that’s just the one that I’m not familiar with, but our staff members are. We don’t carry anything that someone’s not excited about.

Right, but that’s a massive audience that is going to want something next. So, what is that going to be?

Inside the Silver Sprocket shop

Alright, it’s time to talk about Silver Sprocket. For people who are maybe not familiar with Silver Sprocket, how would you describe Silver Sprocket to someone who isn’t aware of what you’re doing there?

Ehrlich: We describe ourselves as a radical indie comic publisher. Radical, both in the Ninja Turtles sense of like, “Cowabunga, dude,” but also in trying to hold our political and social values front and center. Making space for important voices and stories that are often underrepresented but are really engaging and fun and exciting. So it’s not like you’re doing your homework, but a treat. We started out as a punk rock record label a million years ago and then started working with the visual artists who had been doing our album covers and merchandise designs and who also had important, engaging things to say.

And then we found that was a lot more rewarding and fun and it was an area that nobody else was really existing in at the time to the degree that we wanted to try to do it. So everything we do is artist-owned and artist-led. We only work with artists who have experience with self-publishing, so they could really be our partners and call the shots in a meaningful way to collaborate on how to do the best work for what their needs are. And we’ve got the most transparency we can figure out how to have…sharing all the accounting details, sales details, expenses, everything. And yeah, we just try to have fun creating the comic scene that we wish existed when we were coming up in it.

I read that you weren’t just a punk music label, you were also a bicycle club that started in your basement, basically.

Ehrlich: I had a different record label called Springman Records from when I was 12 years old until I’m not really sure when.

That’s amazing.

Ehrlich: I got really burnt out and shut that down. And then Silver Sprocket was initially this bicycle crew in Sacramento and we were involved with a volunteer-ran bicycle shop and some other projects and then it very accidentally turned into a record label again, which I regret. I mean, it was fucking amazing and I’m so proud of everything we did, but I’m also like, “That’s a lot of work and a lot of stress.” I’m really glad that tools like Bandcamp and other things exist now to provide the utility that we were really focused on. But then it turned into comics publishing and I feel like we’ve really hit our stride in this current incarnation.

What was the appeal of starting your own zine and indie comics house? Was that just a natural progression of the sensibilities you already had and just representing them in a different way? What led you to make that conversion? Because it seems like a natural evolution in a lot ways.

Ehrlich: It was very natural because our existence in punk rock as a record label was very…our values were DIY 1 and self-reliance, but also community building, which is the opposite of DIY. I think when people say DIY, they really mean without corporate overlords, but DIY isn’t really possible. You need community to really do anything. And we came from zine making and empowerment and anybody can tell a story. Even as a record label, one of our strongest distribution methods was trading records with other bands. And then whenever any one band would play a show, they’d have a box of their friends’ records as part of their merchandise table.

So even if the mainstream network of record stores didn’t understand the value of our work or didn’t have a direct line on that audience, we were able to make our own alternative distribution network just by existing and sharing and working together. So, it was a very direct organic switch. Not even a switch, but expansion to handling other kinds of art in the same way, by supporting each other and doing what made sense for the projects. Not looking at Marvel Comics as a case study of what we were trying to do, but just looking at what our community was and what our needs were, and both where the people were who would care about what we’re doing and also where we thought that it would have the most value, even if it’s not a traditional comic shop at all.

For example, we sell directly today to over 300 different accounts and a lot of them are not comic book stores. They’re coffee shops that have a little zine rack or a plant store or a sex toy store or various kinds of radical spaces. And that’s really important to me. So, I think that people are going to really connect to the comics we’re publishing in so many places beyond comic book stores.

I like that you actually feature some of the bookstores that carry your stuff on your site. For example, an obvious one is Quimby’s in Chicago. Quimby’s is a legend in that space.

In a lot of ways comics are this isolationist activity where you sit at a desk and you make comics all day by yourself, but one story I really liked about Silver Sprocket is how you published a printing of a comic that someone initially just brought into your shop to sell on consignment. You sold five copies instantly, and next thing you know, you were asking them, “Do you want to do a new printing through Silver Sprocket?”

Ehrlich: It’s quite common. Yeah.

It seems what is or isn’t a Silver Sprocket comic can be very fluid, because it’s you can act in an instant and you can act on an instinct and you can find connections in places that a lot of publishers just wouldn’t.

Ehrlich: Yeah, and you’re speaking to a few different things there. I think we’ve really leveled up our game as a publisher since getting the store because we’re able to directly see how people respond to different books and different cover artwork. We got a masterclass in what makes a good cover or what people’s process is of making those decisions. But also, I think it’s important to provide utility to your community with whatever it is that you’re doing. If you’re an art gallery, let your community use your fax machine to help your buds who are incarcerated.

I think a lot of mainstream comic shops have a big, missed opportunity in being so top down-oriented of, “We buy the comics from the publishers and then we sell them to our audience,” and it’s a one-way flow. And I have a lot of respect for the comic shops like us and Floating World or Forbidden Planet that actually do publishing as well. Anybody who has a comic shop has an opportunity to be a hub for their local comic scene, for people who appreciate comics but are also interested in making their own. We host a monthly zine making night where people come in and draw and we have tons of people come through, including some really big name comic artists that just come and hang out.

And as you said, making comics is such a solitary activity where you’re all by yourself drawing and then your readers are all by themselves reading. It’s not like a rock and roll band where you get to be up on stage and on a pedestal in a very social activity with other people doing the same thing. And I think that community-building element is so important and it’s also good business because you’re bringing people into your store and they’re talking to each other about what they’re excited about. They’re sharing tips, sharing recommendations, and there’s just so much value to actually building community beyond just being a storefront.

Inside the Silver Sprocket shop

That’s one of the interesting things about Silver Sprocket. In case it’s not abundantly clear in this conversation, Silver Sprocket isn’t just a publisher, but also a shop and a gallery. So in your shop, you don’t just sell Silver Sprocket comics, you sell everything from ShortBox and Peow to legendary names like Top Shelf and Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, but also as big of publisher as First Second, which is a Macmillan imprint, and one that publishes great comics. It seems like you’re offering a curated experience both from a publishing standpoint and from a comic shop one where you’re not trying to be everything for everyone, but you’re trying to be something that people can really find themselves represented in. Is that your ethos to some degree?

Ehrlich: Yeah, definitely. There are definitely good, important comics being published by the major publishers, ones published by Marvel and DC and Image and Dark Horse and all that. I’m not saying, “Fuck those guys.” Well, I’m saying, “Fuck some of those guys.” But those books are easy to find everywhere, and that exists and is fairly well served, whereas what we’re trying to do is unfortunately not as well served. So it was really just something that was missing, but also something that we’re really excited about. And this is the most fun job I’ve ever had, where I literally get to be a cheerleader for my favorite comic books.

What could be better?

I wanted to bring up something that kept hitting my brain the more I read interviews with you. You talked about how Silver Sprocket is a radical comics publisher but also how you have punk, DIY and anarchist values. And I think people, when they hear that probably think that, “This is just a person who produces stuff that represents them and isn’t really thinking, ‘I’m going to focus on the business.'” But it seems clear that you have a lot of interest in the business side of comics and in learning more about finding the right approach to that world.

For example, one chat that I thought was illuminating was a The Comics Journal interview you did with RJ Casey from TCJ, Jason Leivian from Floating World, Tom Kaczynski from Uncivilized Books, and Christina Merkler from Lunar. It was about why the three of you decided to be distributed by Lunar, and the insight you and Jason offered for why it made sense for you to do that was amazing. So, it seems like you have this perspective where you want to represent a side that’s unrepresented, but you also want to come at it in a very smart and thoughtful way from the business side. Where does that all come from? Is that you just containing multitudes, or is it just a natural expansion of Silver Sprocket’s growth?

Ehrlich: I definitely contain multitudes, but I want it to be sustainable. I think the messages in our books are important and they do need to get out there. And it would be foolish to not try to get them out there as far as we can within the realms of what is ethical and right to do.

So, for example, our books are on Amazon. Fuck Amazon. We will never give them any money to promote anything or any special discounts or anything. But if that’s the only place that a customer knows to look for a book, I would rather that they get exposed to our ideas than not get exposed to our ideas. And it’s hard enough to survive as an independent artist, and we really need to be serving our roster of creators as best we can, which includes giving them empowered, informed options of how to best distribute and represent their work out in the world.

And at the end of the day, this is a business. We try to do it as ethically as possible through transparency and very artist-friendly revenue splits. We have the most artist-friendly agreement I’ve seen of any publisher. But we are a business. We need to pay the bills, we need to pay the artist, and we need to be sustainable. And these points are not in contrast with each other. You can have a successful business that is run ethically in a transparent way, that holds space for criticism and is constantly trying to improve. That’s really what we’re trying to do.

But to that end though, we do things that are not good business, but we do it deliberately. Like The Trans Guide to Self-Defense, we’ve given away thousands of copies for free to queer teen centers and different community-based organizations. We’re very direct, saying, “Hey, we can do a wholesale pricing of whatever you need. This is what’s recommended. Also, if you just need some for free, just ask us. We’ll do a very minor level of due diligence to make sure that you’re not some right-wing shitbags trying to rip us off and then we’ll just send them.” And that’s not helping our bottom line at all, but it’s very important to why we’re here and I know we can make it sustainable by just paying attention to what we’re doing.

One of the things I think is impressive about Silver Sprocket is just looking through what you do and seeing all the different ways that you represent how you view the world. You’re talking about giving out all those zines and having all these different events where you’re trying to foster a community. And it seems like you’re not just looking at what is the right answer for Silver Sprocket rather than everyone else, because that’s all you can do. It’s all you can represent: your publisher and your business.

Ehrlich: Yeah, I guess so. But there’s a bigger can of worms here about the comics industry in general and what it is and what it could be and what low-hanging fruit we’re ignoring.


Ehrlich: Because I don’t think we’re God’s gift to the world. I know that the moves we make are not for everybody, but my experience from…as a record label, we had our indie-niche distribution and our direct fulfillment, but we also had a major distribution deal through Sony RED, and we learned so much from every aspect of that that’s been very directly relevant to the comics world. And I’m so frustrated at the things that took such minimal effort as a record label that could carry over to comics with no effort at all that we’re just not doing.

I feel like the world of record stores and independent record stores, maybe not as much anymore, are very analogous to bookstores, independent bookstores, and comic shops. And I think it’s fascinating that the direct market, the comic shops that carry Marvel and DC, there’s 2,000 of them in the United States and they’re generally independent operations with a couple regional chains, but it’s incredible to have thousands of stores that are all independently run but are still following a very similar structure.

Up until recently, they all ordered from Diamond (Comic Distributors). So there was a single distributor doing the overwhelming bulk of the distribution, and there’s barely any shared data to know about what works in one store. Barnes & Noble was able to pick up a book to carry, a weird indie, niche title, and carry it in the artist’s hometown. And then if their analytics show that it’s blowing up or its sales correlate to some other book that they have, they’re able to share that data very easily across their organization and then stock that book in other places and just use algorithms and insight to expand that success across their chain.

And all these independently run comic shops have nothing like that, so we have to fight tooth and nail for shelf space at every individual store across the country. And I think there’s a lot that could be done there to make it better. But it’s a lot.

I completely agree. That is one of the interesting things about a lot of comic shops. You mentioned Floating World. Floating World’s a good example of another way you can do it. But there’s some that just have an approach that is from the comic shop starter kit, and finding a way to differentiate yourself is a good way to separate and make yourself stand out. Is that part of the reason why you’ve decided to play around with distribution to some degree? You self-distribute to a variety of shops, somewhere around 300. You sell directly through your online store. You sell directly through your shop itself, but you also distribute through Diamond and Lunar.

Ehrlich: And more. We also sell in the book trade, which is like Ingram and SCB…like Baker and Taylor. And then we also have the indie distributors like Birdcage Bottom Books and Radiator and then even weird niche ones, like AK Press carries most of our more political stuff. We really want to make our books as accessible as possible. So anywhere that somebody might be interested in buying our books, we want to have them available. We’re not trying to close off. We want people to read our books.

That’s the nice thing is having all those different places you’re at expands the accessibility because that means more shops can order them. But also, you were talking about datapoints. It helps you understand a better idea of what people respond to and you can use that data to your advantage, I imagine.

Ehrlich: Yeah. I have a whole long-winded spiel about marketing that we as an industry should be collaborating on and I’ll save you from that at this minute. But yeah, datapoints…I’m a big nerd. I love data so much and I have dreams in Excel and InDesign and I’m such a fan of both programs because they let you be very data driven in everything, and they’re fantastic and people will fight me on that.

I am a big supporter of that. I did want to say I’m also a supporter of the fact you work with Amber Garza from Full Bleed Rights. I met Amber at New York Comic Con and Amber absolutely rocks. So, surrounding yourself with good people is also a good thing.

Ehrlich: Amber’s the real deal. Yeah, Amber rules. Actually, we were rooming with Amber in Angoulême. Amber and our friends at Drawn & Quarterly really held our hands to go be at Angoulême, and that was very sweet of all of them to take such good care of us.

I wanted to ask about something you had posted about on X. You shared the past two years in sales data in terms of, I don’t know if it was the shop or if it was the publisher or if it was both.

Ehrlich: Oh, today we just shared on Comics Beat our past three years of in-store comic sales data.

Dang it. This is why I get from having too many calls that I couldn’t update my information. But anyways, you had shared that from October 2023 to October 2022, you were down 22% month over month. And it was interesting seeing that. You mentioned transparency being a big focus for you, but I don’t normally see publishers talk about that sort of thing so publicly. What led to that post? Was it just trying to help people understand what a shop like yours was going through during that time?

Ehrlich: I think transparency is cool for a lot of reasons. We’re not trying to project this monolith image of … We’re not a sneaker hypebeast company of, “We’re the coolest shit. We’re crypto,” or whatever. We’re real people trying to do something we care about, and there are ups and downs with that. A little bit of it was desperation. That was a little bit more about the shop than publishing. We’re in San Francisco and a big part of our sales has been tourism, which has taken a real battering this past year with economic conditions and the Fox News narrative that this is a depraved murderous hell pit.

And then also there were some changing demographics in our neighborhood, with a tech exodus and work-from-home and all that stuff. So, we actually ended the year up by 1%, which is wild. But also, our expenses went up so much. Everyone got raises. On January 1st, we gave healthcare to all of our full-timers and rent goes up every year. So even though we went up by 1%, that’s still a net loss. We’re not in danger of going belly up or anything, but we do have some challenges that we’ve got a weather, which I think is true of anybody in the retail or publishing space right now. We’re still affected by larger economic conditions and social conditions.

I just ran a 2023 in Review retailer piece on my site, and one of the shops, OK Comics in Leeds in the UK talked about how the abandonment of the city center has resulted in lower foot traffic, which created a situation where fewer people are spending money because there’s just fewer people in the shop. And things like that and people tightening their belt because the economy can have a greater impact on whether people think that your comics are good. It’s not as always black and white like, “It’s a comics problem.” Sometimes it’s larger societal or economic issues that are affecting you more than anything.

Ehrlich: Oh, yeah, we’re doing better than all our neighbors are. And a big part of that is we’re both a neighborhood shop, but also a destination shop where people do make a point of searching us out when they’re in town. A lot of people come to our shop as their last stop before going to the airport to fill their bags up with all the cool, weird indie shit they can’t get back home.

I stopped at Floating World right before I left Portland with a recent trip and it’s a really good thing to do.

Also, San Francisco has a lot of shops. For example, Mission: Comics & Art in the Mission neighborhood, they aren’t necessarily competition for you because you’re offering different products. Does anybody else order ShortBox in the San Francisco area?

Ehrlich: I think that we might be the only one ordering ShortBox, though it’s possible that Sour Cherry Comics might carry them as well. But yeah, we’re all friends. We all support each other. We actually got our start-start with a physical location in the gallery space in the back of the old Mission: Comics location.

Oh, really?

Ehrlich: We did a three-month curation of their gallery and that was so much fun. When we got our first proper storefront location, was supposed to be a holiday popup at a vacant storefront in The Haight, but we did that after the success of what we did previously at Mission: Comics. But yeah, we send people around between our shops. We’ve got postcards at the register with a little map of all the comic shops in the neighborhood.

That’s awesome.

Ehrlich: We’re not competition. A rising tide lifts all boats, and if we can give people a joyous comics reading experience that makes them want more, then they’re someone who’s into reading comics. And that helps everybody.

That’s the thing…you can send someone over to Mission for the things that you don’t have, and Mission can send people over to you for the things that they don’t have. And a collaborative environment is probably a better environment for all of you.

Ehrlich: Yeah, I’m told there’s a reason people go to the mall, and I know gas stations cluster at corners because that’s where you go to get your comics or your gas or whatever. And yeah, we’re like a rad comic neighborhood and it helps everybody for sure, but also Leef (Smith, the owner of San Francisco’s Mission: Comics and Art) and I were talking about how there’s certain books he doesn’t really carry as much anymore because we cover that niche so much better.

That’s smart.

Ehrlich: Well, it pains me a little bit because I don’t want to be eating into another shop sales. I want them to succeed and thrive. But I also get it that we do have our specializations and focuses, and hopefully, in an ideal world, it’s not a zero-sum game, but we can actually do even better at the things that we care the most about and are best suited for and just do the best at what we’re doing.

You had your 2024 publishing slate announced back in November. It includes Blue Delliquanti’s ShortBox Comics Fair release from 2022, Adversary, a new printing of Emily Carroll’s Koyama Press release When I Arrived at the Castle, and more. What guides you as you put those slates together?

Ehrlich: At a very core level, I’m not going to publish a book unless it is so frigging rad that if I were to see it in some other store, I wouldn’t immediately buy it and also immediately buy a copy for a friend that I know would be really excited to read it, which is something I do all the time, is I get multiple copies of things that are amazing because I’m just so excited to gift it to someone I care about. But also, it’s thinking something’s important in that it really adds to the conversation. And representation really matters and the media we consume has such an impact on how we see the world and interact with it.

And I think Blue’s book really…There’s a lot of intense feelings and perspectives in there that in this ongoing COVID era and just with what’s going on in the world right now, it’s an important, powerful comic that deserves a greater reach. And also it’s a much lower risk for us to publish something that’s already been self-published or published online or by someone else because we can read the whole thing and know how amazing it is. And it’s not like someone’s pitching us an idea that, “Oh, this is a great idea as a pitch, but how will it be executed?” It’s like, “We know that this is sick as hell. Let’s just give it a remastering and some bonus material and make the cover cooler and print it really good.”

Kudos to you for finding somebody through the ShortBox Comics Fair because that’s digital only and it’s only for a month, so a lot of people miss out. That’s an incredible place to find comics.

Ehrlich: Yeah, Zainab (Akhtar, the head of ShortBox and ShortBox Comics Fair) does an amazing job curating that. We spent just under $2,000 on the Sprocket card just buying books from the 2023 Comics Fair. It is a really great system. The artists keep all their rights. They get to keep all their money after the fees. It’s so cool and it speaks to how comics are such a diverse thing in terms of creators and types of stories and perspectives and all that. And yeah, we’ve published quite a few things that were initially on the ShortBox Comics Fair from a lot of different artists, not just Blue.

How do you decide what you will or won’t carry at the shop? Is it very feel based for you?

Ehrlich: We’ve got an amazing crew at the shop of folks who are very into comics. If you ask for a recommendation, everyone will give you a different set of great recs that they feel very strongly about. So we really lean heavily on our crew to get excited about what we’re all excited about and bring things in and source things. We go to a lot of indie comic fests all over the place and we’ll often ship out a pallet of books for what we’re going to sell for Sprocket, but then we’ll typically ship that pallet right back to the shop, completely refilled with stuff that we bought from other people who are exhibiting.

But first, is this rad as hell? Would we be excited to recommend it to somebody? Do we want to read it ourselves? And then do we think that it has an important perspective? Every single book in our store is displayed face out. There are no spines at all.

We don’t just get one or two copies of a book to test it. If we’re bringing in a new book, we get five or six copies to really champion it. We’re getting it because we can recommend it and we care about it and we believe in it enough to put it on display. And there are often books where we’ll get five or six copies and it won’t sell at all for two months, and then on that third month, we’ll sell 10 copies where people just needed to see it a few times or word needed to filter around about it. So yeah, I think it’s cool.

That goes back to the community aspect. One of the greatest advantages comic shops have is when you sell things, it’s often because you trust somebody that works there. There’s an evangelist or there’s the hand-selling element where I go in, like when I went to Aaapoum Bapoum in Paris, I bought a bunch of things that I never would’ve bought otherwise. I told this one clerk, “This is what I normally read. Do you have any recommendations that do not fit in that but are awesome.” And I walked out with a bunch of stuff, and you know what? All of it is awesome. I couldn’t read much of it because it’s in French, but at the same time, it looks amazing.

Ehrlich: Yeah, we’re not in competition with Amazon at all. I don’t know why we would try to be. We’re not like, “Oh, discount comics. 10% off everything. Get your Marvel.” You can get that shit anywhere. There’s a reason that you want to visit our store and not a generic, random other store or website. And if you Google search a lot of these independently produced books or even some of the Peow or ShortBox titles, our webstore is often the first result because we champion them so hard.

Are you stocking up in advance of Zainab closing up ShortBox at the end of the month?

Ehrlich: We always place massive ShortBox orders of hundreds of copies of everything. So, it’s not entirely different…but also yes.

Inside the Silver Sprocket shop

I did want to ask about a very unusual circumstance you went through. You had a Comics Journal interview go up on March 10th, 2020, where you were talking about your new shop…and then the world changed forever.

Ehrlich: Oh my God.

You moved the shop and gallery into a new space right before that pandemic hit. What was that time like?

Ehrlich: That fucking sucked because we were just revving up our publishing operation too. We were putting out the most books in a rush that we had ever done at once with a packed convention schedule. And we frontloaded all these books early in the year to really champion before going on tour around the country. And then everything shut down right before our grand opening party was supposed to happen. And then we were in wild isolated COVID world trying to do mail order and keep our shit together while everything was shut down. And it was a real bummer. Some incredible books got lost in the shuffle of what people could pay attention to and had the bandwidth for. They weren’t able to really get the proper new release push that they deserved.

And everyone’s mental health went to shit, and we were all doing our best to survive. It was real rough. But it was also amazing that I had something to do every day. That was leaving my house and going to this deserted storefront to just do whatever I want because there’s no customers or anyone else in there. And the two industries that did shockingly well during the pandemic were book publishers and video game makers, because everybody was stuck at home reading books and playing video games. So, we sold a shit ton of books, and that was cool. But it was the general catalog. There wasn’t as much of an oomph on the brand new things that we were excited to champion that year.

From what I understand, you were also cohabitating with a record store and then the record store actually had to bail or move to another location and then you got the whole storefront. Is that what happened?

Ehrlich: That is what happened, yes.

It just seemed like you had a series of things that were wildly unexpected, but for one reason or another, you’ve made it through. I’m sure you learned a lot in the process as to how to survive under pressure at the very least.

Ehrlich: I honestly thrive under chaos and I’m very awkwardly the most comfortable when there’s no stability. Something’s wrong with me, and I just find it really comforting that the world is chaotic, so there’s a lot of opportunities to grab the pieces you need and hold them together. And if something sucks, you know that it’s temporary and just let the pieces continue to move and then grab the things you need. So, it was very chaotic, but it wasn’t entirely that much more chaotic than usual.

We have an amazing team on the publishing side. Our managing editor, Ari Yarwood, and our administrator, Joan Dark, especially do a heroic, herculean task of keeping us organized and on top of our shit and keeping all the trains running on time. And without them, none of this would be possible at all because I’m such a chaotic demon to do anything with.

Ari used to be at Oni, right?

Ehrlich: Yeah. Ari did all of Oni’s big award-winning, beautiful books and she was the driving force behind the Limerence series, The Quick and Easy Guides as well as she acquired The Tea Dragon Society and a whole bunch of their big award-winning, beautiful books. And yeah, I’ve been trying to hire Ari for so long and getting to have her be our managing editor is such the dream.

She’s the best.

I do want to say about how you deal well with chaos…you have the perfect mindset/approach for both publishing and comics retail. So good for you.

Ehrlich: It is both my greatest strength and my fatal flaw and what frustrates my team the most. So yeah, my problem-solving approach is just run at it and start trying things and everyone else is like, “Wait, no, let’s sit down. Let’s write down our plan. Let’s measure everything.” And I’m like, “No, we have to fix this right now. Let’s try. The best way to build a boat is build a boat to throw away and then build a better one.” So luckily, I’ve got crew with different perspectives so that our tendencies will balance each other out a little bit.

Yeah, it goes back to community, right? Surround yourself with the right people and you’re going to be in a much better position going forward because you have people to balance you out.

Ehrlich: Absolutely.

Well, to close, I want to talk about the future. Silver Sprocket has grown a lot since it launched in 2016. It went from a publisher out of your home to a storefront to a widely distributed house that’s making a lot of moves, and you continue to find more ways to get your books out there. What do you want next for Silver Sprocket? Besides slowly but surely turning America into France in terms of their love of comics, is growth your focus or do you think your sweet spot is the highly curated approach you’ve been employing so far?

Ehrlich: I mean, growth is a weird word. I’m not like, “We want to double our revenue.” But I do want to be doing a better job to serve the needs of our artist and community. So I really want to improve the systems that we have. We’ve got a really amazing royalties backend of transparency, but it’s a pain in the ass. So, we’re working on a new database-driven, automated system that we’re hoping to open source so that other people who publish might be able to use it too and demystify the publishing process a bit.

It’d be nice to be able to pay people better, to have more resources, to better showcase the incredible talent that we are working with. We’re trying really hard to improve our retail outreach to really occupy a space in the public discourse with the incredible books that we’re publishing. So, I think that could be described as slow, steady growth and not exponential, unsustainable growth. We have to be sustainable or we’re fucked. We don’t have investors. We’re not an IP firm. We are having some interesting high-level conversations with Amazon and Netflix and others, so who knows what’ll happen over there?

But yeah, we’re a comic publisher first and foremost and we want to just do the best job we can at what we’re doing and be transparent about what we’re doing. And if there’s good parts to it, we hope that that can be inspirational to others, and we hope we can learn from others about where we can improve.

  1. Do it yourself, in case you don’t know.