There really ought to be a magic formula for this.
Continuing my Preparing for a Big Convention series of posts, today I want to discuss one of the most vexing challenges facing indie and small press publishers when approaching conventions: How many books should I print for the show? There’s definitely a “Goldylocks” phenomenon in play here…you want to get the number “just right.” Print too many books and you’ve spent too much capital, have to take it all home with you, and run the risk of being stuck with excess inventory of books you can’t sell. Print too few, and you leave money on the table. While I don’t profess to have the magic formula, what I do have is a set of questions the indie creator should ask his or herself prior to the show that, when taken all together, should help you better right size your con print runs.
How Much Money Do You Have?
Let’s get the completely obvious out of the way. In most cases, you will be funding your print run for conventions in advance of the show. Therefore, you can only print what you can afford. Sure, there are credit cards, but I’m not a big believer in debt to fund your print runs. So, if your calculations say print 1,000, but you can barely afford 10, tread carefully.
How Big is the Show?
As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the convention (both total attendance and number of days it will run) the more books you will sell. I’ve been to cons of all sizes, and it’s just a simple fact that most people who walk into a convention ARE NOT there to buy your book. That’s not to say it’s not lovely, or they wouldn’t enjoy it, but they didn’t put on their sneaks and X-Men T-shirt and come out to pick up your indie book. The percentage of folks coming out to shows specifically looking for new, independent comics isn’t as big as any of us would like. So, it’s a numbers game, and the bigger the gate, the bigger potential for sales.
That’s not to say this is an absolute given, however. The bigger the show, the stiffer the competition with other vendors. But looking over my past sales records, my best shows have been the ones that span multiple days, with large numbers of attendees. New York Comic Con does present an interesting challenge, because it is several times bigger than the largest show I’ve done previously. Attendance wise, NYCC might be as much as 10x’s bigger than the Baltimore Comic Con, and runs twice as long. If my previous convention high sales was 50 books for a single title, does that mean I have a shot at selling 10x’s that many at NYCC? (Would be lovely.) Twice as many? (Might be more realistic.) It’s a good question, one I can’t yet answer. Still there are other factors to consider…
Have You Been to the Show Before?
Returning to a show REALLY matters. I’d say a good 20% of my business done at shows is repeat business. Be nice, put good books in people’s hands, do good work for them, and they’ll come back year after year and support what you do. It’s one of the best things about comic conventions. Take the Boston Comic Con for example. I’ve more than doubled total sales at that show each year I’ve been there for the past four years, to the point where that one show represents a solid 25% of my yearly comics income. Assuming the convention is either stable or growing (unlike some shows in the Mid-west which appear to be in decline), I’d anticipate book sales to increase 10-20% each year you return.
Is This Book REALLY Done?
We all know the disadvantages of small, print-on-demand print runs. Most challenging, the per book cost is high, often too high to allow us to profit from sales anywhere but conventions. However, one of the advantages of a small run is that, when you find that inevitable mistake (typo, misprint, color glitch, page reversal, missing balloon tail, etc.) you won’t have a garage full of bad copies you’re stuck with.
Clearly, you want to do as good a job proof reading your books before you ever go to print. It’ll save you SO much aggravation. But sometimes these mistakes get through. Or, sometimes, a convention will come up, and you’ll print a book for it that you know isn’t the final version of the book, but between having something or nothing on your table, you choose something. In this case, it’s advisable to be very conservative with your print runs. If it’s not a book you plan on being able to sell forever, and is rather a “preview” or “early, limited run” edition, then treat it as such. Limit the size of the run.
How Good Is It?
Really? How good is your book? Would you buy it? How good is your pitch? At conventions, a good pitch can be as effective as having a really good book. (However, that repeat business doesn’t happen when you sell something as gold and it turns out to be crap.) This is one of the hardest questions to answer and we’re usually not the best judges of our own work. But as a general rule, the more confident you are that the book you’ve produced represents your best work and is something you feel every comic fan’s collection should contain, the higher the print run.
How Much of a Market Is There for the Title at the Con?
A separate question from “How good is it?” is how aligned is your book with the tastes of the con attendees. Different shows have different personalities. You may have just created the best new superhero book in the world, a book better than anything DC or Marvel is putting out. But good luck trying to sell it at a show like MOCA or Small Press Expo, whose crowds are looking for alternative comics. You want to do as much research as possible about cons to determine what kind of market there is for your stuff. Some stuff is just easier to sell than others.
Pro-Tip: The more niche or obscure your book, the more polished your pitch should be.
Is it a “Show Exclusive?”
Show exclusives, or print runs done specifically for a convention, are a double edge sword. On the one hand, the word “exclusive” triggers a “gotta have it” desire in the heads of diehard collectors. Many times, attendees have shelled out good money and traveled long distance to attend shows, so picking up a con-only book to commemorate the trip is a no-brainer for them.
On the other hand, plastering a big “NYCC 2011 Exclusive” on your book means you’re going to have a tougher time selling that book anywhere other than NYCC 2011. While there is a market for show exclusives in mainstream comics (some books go for major dollars on Ebay), that’s not quite the case in the indie community.
My recommendation: Consider doing show exclusives, but don’t date them. For example, I’ll create an EPIC #1 NYCC Exclusive. But I won’t put 2011 on it. This way, if I’m left with books, I can always move them at next year’s show.
How Much Pre-Show Promotion Are You Doing?
What are you doing to drive folks to your table in advance of the show? Nothing? Then print small, because you probably won’t need to worry about much demand for you book. The shows that I’ve moved the most books have also been the shows where I’ve been most aggressive about getting the word out about my appearance. The bigger the promo, the bigger the corresponding print run.
How Many Different Titles Will You Be Selling?
When you’re only selling one book, you only have one print run calculation to make. But when you produce multiple titles, in different genres, you need to run this print run calculation for EVERY book. And sometimes, when selling at a show, attendees will have a choice to make, and that choice will be which one of your books they want to pick up. Now, I have noticed that the more books you have, the more you can tend to sell in total. But for each book you have on the table, the total number of sales of any one book may be negatively impacted.
Are Your Estimates Getting You Near a “Discount Threshold”?
Is there a price point break at a certain quantity with your printer that makes it worth increasing your order size to hit that rate? For example, Ka-Blam POD service has price breaks (~5%) at quantities of 25 and again at 100 copies for graphic novels. At CreateSpace, once you exceed ~30 copies, it always makes financial sense to upgrade to their “Pro Plan,” which is a flat fee of $39, but significantly reduces the cost of each book. And most offset printers offer discounts at thresholds of 500 copies or so.
Now, it doesn’t make sense to print 1000 copies of a book you could only reasonably sell 50 copies of at a show, no matter how big the discount. But, if it’s close, it’s always worth considering hitting one of those discount thresholds to lower the price point on each book.
Can You Sell This Book After the Convention?
As long as you can sell through a print run eventually, an overprint isn’t a bad thing. But you need to decide if a stockpile of books is the best use of your capital.
So, there you have it. Hardly a magic formula, but if you have clear answers to the questions above, you should be able to ballpark your print runs.
Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, and educator residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and Tears of the Dragon, a swords and sorcery fantasy, and writer of the upcoming superhero murder mystery mini-series THE RED TEN. His past work includes OVER, a romantic comedy graphic novel, and Super Seed, the story of the world’s first super powered fertility clinic. His work has been published by DC and Arcana comics.
Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, a new website empowering creators to help each other make better comics.
Category: Comix Counsel