The Future of Secret Acres

I've known Barry Matthews and Leon Avelino only a fraction of time shorter than I've known their publishing house, Secret Acres. I worked with them in my former role at Bergen Street Comics, to throw parties and make money selling their books, to get hold of what were, at the time, hard-to-find titles from Koyama Press, and I've written about the books they've published in my capacity as a comic book reviewer. They're world-class shit-talkers--funny, fearless people with a great attitude. If the only thing they had ever done in comics was to foist an inveterate gossip like Sean Ford on the world, that would be enough, but they've done that and more. 

I have known for a little while that Secret Acres was coming up on a monumental change-the departure of Barry from the company. The Journal reached out to the two of them to talk a bit about what this means for the future. 

The Comics Journal: How did Secret Acres get started? Is there a definition for a "Secret Acres" book?

Leon Avelino: Well! I'm sticking to my story: I was suffering with some serious depression and Barry suggested starting a comic company as a way to cheer me up. It worked, mostly. Secret Acres demands a lot of attention, which makes it difficult to go completely off the rails, plus, as a spiritual pursuit, comics rewards amateurs. We formed an actual corporation in 2006, launched the mini-comics distro and website in 2007, and published our first books (Fatal Faux-Pas, Wormdye and Capacity) in 2008. Secret Acres went live on September 24th, 2007, or at the beginning of time. We try to avoid, for better or worse, having a house style, or a Secret Acres book. We tend to fall for the most idiosyncratic, or uncommercial, stuff, and that works most of the time. Who wants to play by the rules, anyway?

TCJ: How are things different for a small publisher now than when you first started?

LA: I feel like there are twice as many indie publishers now as there were when we started Secret Acres. Bodega, Sparkplug, Buenaventura, Picturebox, and, of course, Highwater, were the publishers we followed into the game. Randy and Dylan held our hands and walked us through our first couple of years. The likes of you and Annie Koyama and Chris Pitzer keep me sane these days and I'm inspired by 2d Cloud, Uncivilized, Retrofit, Breakdown, Czap Books, Hic and Hoc, Peow, Kuš!, Kilgore - it's a way longer list. The landscape changed around us over the past almost-decade. If the number of publishers has doubled, keeping track of all the cartoonists is impossible. The number of readers, however, feels static to me these last couple years. We started Secret Acres during a comics explosion, and I may not be the brightest light on the tree, but I never expected that to continue forever. I believe in ups and downs.

TCJ: You've recently moved away from self-distribution to a deal with Consortium--what's happened since then?

LA: We signed up with Consortium once we'd published enough books to have an actual backlist. I miss the old ways of packing and shipping everything out on our own, that hands-on feeling. Consortium fulfills all our orders and sends an actual sales team out every season. They keep us acting like grownups, like it or not. We struggle with this a little, or at least I struggle with it, but these guys are mercifully patient while we play catchup (and learn to deal with book market returns). Getting into bookstores meant pivoting away from comic shops a bit, so our readership has changed with the move to Consortium, too. This fascinates me. Anyway, while we can't just publish stuff on the fly these days, we appreciate everything Consortium does for us, even the stuff they force us to do.

TCJ: Well Barry: what's the deal? Why are you leaving?

Barry Matthews: It wasn’t an easy decision to arrive at, but the overriding concern I have is that I’m not able to devote sufficient time to Secret Acres. When we started publishing books nine years ago, both Leon and I had radically different lives than we do now. The increase of the scope and responsibilities associated with my day job have made it impossible for me to have a career, help run Secret Acres and indulge in all of the other pursuits that make life enjoyable for me. I’ve had a few minor health concerns as well. Since we signed with Consortium back in 2015, I haven’t felt that I’ve done an effective job of leveraging the benefits and capabilities of our increased distribution. Time constraints have also made me feel like I haven’t been able to stay abreast of comics comings and goings and connect enough with friends and fans via social media. Ultimately, I felt I was doing Secret Acres, and the books and artists, a great disservice by continuing to only be partially engaged in publishing. I have every confidence that Leon will continue to publish fantastic work without me!

TCJ: Will Secret Acres continue going forward as is, or are any other major changes in the works?

LA: I like Secret Acres the way it is, but with Barry bouncing, things change a bit. Effectively, Barry's departure requires a re-launch of the company in a boring, legal-type way, but I enjoy the fantastic element here, the "What would you do if you could start it all over again?" part. Turns out the first thing I did was get an accountant. I remember doing all this before, way back when we started putting the company together, plus we made a ton of mistakes over the years. That experience gives me a good head start on being a solo act, and most of the gang, bless them, are sticking around, so the transition feels almost natural. The lack of Barry playing good cop/bad cop with me, one of my favorite games, forces me to use my friends and fellow comics publishers as a collective sounding board, which they don't seem to mind. And I might make some rules. I should know what a Secret Acres book is by now.