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Published 20 April 2023
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7 minutes

Entrepreneur Spotlight: Ricky Miller of Avery Hill Publishing

As part of NerdWallet’s Entrepreneur Spotlight series, we asked Ricky Miller, co-founder of acclaimed comic book publisher Avery Hill Publishing, about the origins of the business and what has surprised him most about running his own company.

From graphic novelist Tillie Walden to comic creator Zoe Thorogood, Avery Hill Publishing is responsible for bringing attention to some of the brightest names in the comic book industry. Based in South London, the publisher has been operating since 2012, growing from photocopied zines to award-winning graphic novels. 

But what is it like to run a publishing business? We spoke to Ricky Miller, one of Avery Hill’s co-founders, about its origins, the difficulties of post-Brexit postage, and how to capitalise on success. 

Why did you start your own business?

Avery Hill grew out of a creative restlessness that Ricky has had all his life. “I’m the person who always needs a creative side-hustle going on,” says Ricky. “I’ve done writing in the past, was in bands, that kind of thing.” 

It makes sense, then, that the publisher’s origins stem from this creative itch. Ricky was approached by his future business partner, Dave White, to contribute a comic to a zine – a type of magazine usually produced on the cheap by one person or a small group of people. But as they searched for other artists, their thinking changed.

“We found quite a lot of people around London who were much more talented than us, and we thought: ‘Why don’t we put out something by them instead?’” explains Ricky. 

Fortunately, Ricky had some business experience already, freelancing as a business analyst for financial services firms – a career he has maintained alongside Avery Hill’s rise. So Ricky, Dave and their friend Michael Gosden (who is no longer with the business) formed a limited company, each contributing £1,000 for start-up costs. 

“Partly the reason we set it up was as a hobby,” admits Ricky. “It’s a side thing that got a bit bigger than I expected.”  The company now has four other contractors, who work alongside Ricky and Dave, covering bookkeeping, sales and marketing.

How did you fund your business?

While at times the co-founders have had to inject capital into the business to cover short-term cash-flow issues, Ricky says Avery Hill is now profitable and self-sufficient.

Ricky has taken a pragmatic approach to funding the business. “There have been large amounts [of capital injected] as we go where I’ve felt, ‘if I don’t get that back, I won’t be happy about it’. But I would never get into debt over [Avery Hill]. I’m fairly sensible about what to do.” 

It’s where the benefits of Avery Hill being a (very acclaimed) side-hustle come in. “The good thing is, if you want to, you can pull back a bit,” explains Ricky. “There’s no overriding drive to expand. We try and go for natural growth.”

Through this approach, Avery Hill was, until recently, doubling in size each year. Now that level of growth is proving more difficult. “We’ve hit a level where we would need to either invest or really develop certain markets to get bigger in that kind of way.”

» MORE: How to grow your business

What was your biggest challenge when you first started?

Although Ricky had made comics in the past, that’s very different to running your own publishing business.

“We had a lack of knowledge of the industry we were going into,” recalls Ricky. “You’re reinventing the wheel with everything you do, making solutions to things that people have probably solved many, many times already.” 

Yet, for Ricky, this is a big part of why he enjoys running his own business. “You make a lot of mistakes and hope you are clever enough to learn from them, which is a lot of the fun. Figuring out how to do everything is a really good intellectual challenge.”

What has most surprised you about running your business?

For any creative person turning passion into business, the nuts and bolts of running a company may feel like a burden. Not so for Ricky.

“I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy the actual business side of it,” he reflects. “When I first went into it, it was about working with comics’ creators. But more and more, as we got a little bit of success and started hitting barriers, I found what I enjoyed most was the challenge of building it and making it better.”

And this has only been to Avery Hill’s benefit. “In the comics industry, there are a lot of people involved in it who don’t come at it from that angle – so to care about and be able to do that stuff yourself is a big advantage. And it’s why we have been around so long.”  

What are your running costs?

“Publishing is a really expensive business,” Ricky says. “Your cost-to-income ratio is not great. Staff, distribution, and print costs are increasingly a very big deal, as costs are going up across the board.”

A major headache has been dealing with European VAT costs post-Brexit. “Each European country has a different VAT arrangement when importing books,” explains Ricky. And unless you are big enough to pay for a service from Royal Mail to deal with these challenges, it is unmanageable. “It has massively reduced the amount we can sell into Europe.”

The number of charges and duties added to the cost of importing a book has put a lot of Europeans off buying books from the UK. It has also led to a lot of books being returned undelivered.

“For a while, we entirely stopped sending to the EU,” says Ricky. “We’re doing it again, but in all honesty we are still having loads of issues with it. There isn’t really a good solution to it at the moment.”

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from running your business?

Ricky stresses the importance of capitalising on whatever success you have as a business, and maximising its impact. “There have been various points where we’ve had a bit of success and we’ve had to explode that to take us to the next level,” he explains.

Arguably the most notable of those was discovering US artist and writer Tillie Walden when she was just 17-years-old. Avery Hill published Walden’s first three books, collected as Alone in Space in 2021, and later secured the UK rights to her graphic novel On a Sunbeam, which remains the publisher’s bestseller. Through Walden, Avery Hill was exposed to previously untapped markets.

“The people who have been buying Tillie’s books were not the kind of people who would buy our indie, arty, London-based books,” says Ricky. “But the key was capitalising on that: maintaining that relationship and knowing how to publicise it.” 

It was through this creative relationship with Walden that Avery Hill secured distribution in the UK and US. And this helped take the publisher to the next stage in its journey.

Avery Hill has since gone on to publish a number of acclaimed titles from illustrators and writers, including George Wylesol, Zoe Thorogood, Owen Pomery and Lizzy Stewart. “It helps to have a follow-up. We could’ve gone to our graves saying we discovered Tillie Walden. But it wasn’t a fluke. This is what we do – we’ll find your next favourite creator for you.”

What advice would you give to would-be entrepreneurs?

“The main thing is to make sure that the industry you are going to be working in is one you will enjoy,” recommends Ricky. 

Running a business can be all-consuming, he explains. “It will take over parts of your life, it will get out of control, and what you think you can compartmentalise you won’t be able to. It’s too hard, and the rewards are too low at the beginning, for you to be doing something that you won’t enjoy.”

» MORE: How to start a business

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