Myth – The success/failure of your comic in the direct market is entirely based on sales.
I’m about to dispel one of the most common misconceptions of the comic book industry…a misconception created by the comic creator.
You are not selling your comic to the reader. You are selling your comic to the retailer.
When I started working in comics retail, and we’re talking a career that started ‘round abouts the time that Superman died, things were a lot different. Comics publishing was, literally, like printing money. Variant covers, chromium covers, polybagged covers, polybagged variant chromium covers. New publishers sprung up over night. Bad girls, good girls, bad boys and badder boys. Comics, in the 90’s, were a time when if you had an idea (not necessarily good or bad, just an idea), you could find a publisher that would be willing to put it into Previews. Wizard ads were still relatively cheap because Wizard Magazine was still new (and yes, this is how far back we’re talking…Wizard was a major factor in a book’s success). At the retail end, we were looking for superheroes, or anti-heroes, or something in between. My bosses learned their lesson from the Black and White Boom and they were NOT going back. Publicity stunts meant publicity which meant a retailer would order 1,000 copies. That is not a made up number. That is a bonafide fact; 20 years ago, you could sell to one retailer what is now considered a healthy print run.
And then, the market just disappeared. Readers stopped being speculators and the worth of a comic book became less about what was used as a cover stock, and more about what was inside. When judged against something that would be worth money some day, the readers became pickier, seeking out books that actually meant something to them. It might be a stretch of logic (and take this as my opinion only, not as fact), but this shift in comic book purchasing might have swung down around the same time that the video game market started to swing up.
Today, I’m a manager at Jim Hanley’s Universe, one of the top comic book retailers in the country. I think it’s safe to say that ordering practices within the comic retailing industry have changed drastically since the 90’s. 1,000 copies of one book? Try 500, and you better wow us somehow. And 500 copies is not across the board. We’re looking at an economy that, in the past 5 years, has eliminated the idea of a disposable income from our customers, which means less money to order books…which means less chances to take. If you notice that you’re not buying the same amount of comics you used to, guess what? Neither is the retailer.
Which brings me back to my original point; you are selling your comic to the retailer, not the reader.
In and of itself, this should surprise no one, but it’s a hard nut to swallow. I know that personally, I can sell more copies of my comic(s) at a convention, where I have one-on-one mini relationships with every prospective customer, but your potential customer base is immediately only proportionate to the amount of comic conventions you personally attend. (I usually only attend two; Heroes Con and NYCC). Two shows versus every retailer in the States? Not a big potential audience at all.
When we solicited FCHS in Previews last year, we were 131 copies short of making, what was at the time, the minimum pre-order amount that Diamond set (Diamond has since changed the minimum). That’s really not that much. Keep in mind that we had plenty of exposure; a strip online, a special prequel for the book that we shared all over (Facebook, individual sites), the first 25 pages for FREE on ComiXology, AND we gave retailers the entire first chapter for free. Retailers balked, FCHS was canceled, but we went ahead and self published it and since then, it’s done well. Not quite the numbers that we had when we solicited, but not bad at all. And we have it for sale on line, but those sales have been less than impressive. We’ve even set it up for sale to retailers via ComixPress at a very competitive discount, but only two have taken the plunge. If you were in our shoes, you might give up altogether, but you have to remember your history.
It’s not your fault, just like it wasn’t ours. See, retailers the world over got really burned by that whole 90’s thing. Folks bought homes in the 90’s; now they’re trying to keep their mortgages. The world has changed. So, we’ve got to get their faith back. Somebody say, “Hallelujah!” Here are four tips to help you along the way to success in the new direct market.
First, let’s cut right to the bone. Publishing a comic book is going to cost you money. A lot of it. And if you find the cheap way, or even the free way, it’s going to cost you that other valuable commodity; time. So, no illusions here, prepare yourself. Save money and set aside the time. The more of both, the better.
Next, think in terms of the new social norm. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Tumblr…all are valuable tools to do some marketing, but 9 times out of 10, you are marketing to the reader using these. You can post all the preview pages you want, and yes, everyone will hit the “Like” button a million times, but how many of those people are your friends? Are retailers retweeting your 140 characters? Probably not. These things don’t hurt; I’ve found more than a few previews for upcoming books that I would have missed if not for Facebook and Twitter (Jay Piscopo’s Sea Ghost is a good example). But as tech savvy as some retailers are, their bread and butter will always be the CBIA Message Board. It’s very easy to register (the biggest hurdle being that you have to prove that you derive a majority of your income from the comic book industry), and if you can get on there, post links to your work AND to the rave reviews your friends and fans are giving you on the social networking sites, then you’re starting to get the idea. The proof is in the virtual pudding.
Remember I told you to save money and time? This is when you’ll need it. You’ll find that 7 out of every 10 retailers wants something to look at, something they can print out and take with them. And they don’t want 5 pages; they want the whole thing. Now, you could put the whole thing up on a website (Issuu is a great site for hosting PDFs), but if you’ve ever liked a member of the opposite sex, you know that a text message that says, “I like you,” is not going to cut it. You have to treat the retailer as if you were courting them because face facts…this is a relationship you’re getting yourself into. And just like dating, the relationship between a creator and a retailer is based on trust. “Will the comic ship? If I order, what kind of discount will you give me? Will that discount be in effect throughout the entire run of the series?” I don’t think it’s prudent to think of retailers as cheap (although they can be); think of them as cautious. So yes, be prepared to buy some envelopes, and give them all the information they need. Diamond order codes, expected day of release, page count and specs…everything. Again, this is a prospective relationship and you are the one doing the courting.
For this last piece of advice, I’m including webcomic creators. Work in a comic book store. Seriously. Just one day (New Comic Book Day/Wednesday is the best day), and for free. I’m not asking you to quit your day job and go work in a comic book shop. I’m telling you that you need to do market research at the point of sale. That is the most important lesson I’ve learned in nearly 10 years at Hanley’s. It could very well be that your book can’t be supported by the market. I’m not saying you’re not talented; I’m just saying that maybe your take on Superman is just one take on Superman too many. So, go to your local comic shop, the one where you buy your comics and you know all the clerks and managers and offer to work on New Comic Day for free. Work the floor, talk to customers, look at your competition. This goes double for you, webcomickers because hey, we can find print comics; we have to wade through an entire internet for your comic. The worst thing that can happen is the store manager will definitely order your book. The best? The sky’s the limit. Knowledge of your chosen marketplace in your chosen vocation is invaluable.
Vito Delsante is a comic book writer. He’s written for DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Image Comics, and Simon & Schuster, among others and his stories have been reprinted in other countries. His book, FCHS, can be purchased here. He lives in New York City with his wife, Michelle, and two dogs, Kasey and Kirby, and wears glasses. Feel free to email him at [email protected].