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B&N Week 79: Decisions

| June 26, 2012

It’s another glorious Tuesday out there! I’m looking at iTunes, and looking at all the Prince I own. Hard decisions abound. Do I play Musicology, or do I play 3121? I haven’t listened to Planet Earth in a very long time, or maybe I’ll get reacquainted with Lotusflow3r. [I think it’ll be Lotuflow3r. Some good music on MPLSound.]

Okay, so that wasn’t a hard decision, but it was a decision nonetheless. And that’s what I want to talk about this week. Decisions. The biggest, hardest, most important decision is what story are you going to produce? Let’s get into the Bolts & Nuts of it, shall we?

There are certain things that every creator has to understand about the comic book market. I often think that creators either don’t know these things, or conveniently forget them, and then walk around scratching their heads when their book doesn’t sell.

The first thing to understand is that the comic book market is openly hostile to anything that is not produced by Marvel/DC. (NO! That’s not true, Steven! Image, IDW, Dark Horse—all these companies do well!) Yes, but they’re doing well off the house that Marvel and DC built. Remember, your first sales aren’t going to be the readers. Your first sales are going to be the retailers, and you have to convince them to give up precious shelf space in order to put up Pen-Man, a book they aren’t sure will sell. And if you aren’t being distributed through Diamond, most current shops will not stock your book. That’s the first half of it, and is a direct result of the other half.

Even though you have to sell the book to retailers first, it’s the readers whom you’re trying to entice to buy your book, and readers are extremely fickle. If it isn’t old, they don’t want to read it, unless it’s “underground.” Then, when it makes it to the big screen [read: Hellboy], they can then look down their noses at the unwashed masses and say they were reading the book long before it made it to the screen.

The next thing to understand is this is not a movie. Just because you made it does not mean they will come. Even in letting people know about it, they may not come. Most won’t.

The last thing to understand, and I mean understand it in a truly intimate way, is that you have to have a rock solid creative team working on a rock solid project. If you don’t have a solid team working on a solid project, you’re doomed, plain and simple.

But the hard decision is this: what to work on?

As creators, we probably have dozens of stories in some sort of development at any one time. Out of those dozens of stories, you have to figure out which ones are the most commercial, and of those that are, which one stands out amongst the rest, and will do you the most good in the market. Which one you keep coming back to time and again, because it just won’t leave you alone.

(Steven, it sounds to me like you want me to sell out.)

Yes. That’s exactly what I want you to do. I want you to sell out of your print run, because when that happens, you’ll be able to say you’re on people’s lips. You’ll have created a bit of mindshare for yourself, which means you’ll get to sell more books.

You have to sell out in order to sell at all. No one [read: very few people] wants to read about your personal brushes with the semicolon, or how you saved that raccoon from being run over. You have to go commercial. You have to make the biggest splash in order to sell the most books, in order make a name for yourself, in order to tell the tales you want to. One leads to the other that leads to the other that…

Making these decisions is not always an easy thing. There are many things to weigh. You can toil away for years, not making much headway and getting frustrated and then quitting, or you can tell short stories in order to hone your craft and get comfortable [mainly in anthologies] before branching out and telling something of a larger tale, such as a miniseries or graphic novel.

If you don’t have anything that is more commercial than the story of an electric zombie sheep, then you’ll have to come up with one. You’ll have plenty of time to tell that story. What’s important is getting your story out in front of as many people as possible. That means being as commercial as possible, while still trying to stick close to your core beliefs.

Here’s the thing, folks: you can tell a story about a screwed up clown that goes on a homicidal rampage before killing himself, all because he found his wife having sex with a guy and his dog, all three of whom were covered in peanut butter and marshmallows while dressed in civil war garb and howling. That’s fine. Know what it isn’t? It isn’t going to sell. It isn’t going to be of interest except to an extremely small niche of people, and most would only look at it [not read it, but look at it] out of curiosity.

But that’s creator-owned, self-published comics. What about stories that you sell to a publisher? What happens then?

Well, it depends on the publisher. Some publishers are hand-off, some are hands on. When it comes to the hands-on publishers, you have to decide which battles are important.

The publisher is there to make money. If they like the idea of a zombie robot sheep, but thinks it will work better as just a zombie sheep or just a robot sheep, then you’ll have to decide if the change is fundamental and will wreck your story. You’ll also have to see what latitude you have in the contract. But this is what is important for you to remember: the change is being made/requested in order to make the book more salable. That’s it. It isn’t personal, and they aren’t out to get you. They’re just looking to make the best, most salable book they can. If the publisher can’t move units because of the story, then they’ll go another way, finding another story [and creator] that will.

Your decisions, while fueled by passion, need to be made with the rationality of a businessperson. Keep that in mind as you go through your comics career.

That’s all I have. Homework: Look through all of your projects, and determine which ones are the most commercial. Then start whittling down to the single most commercial concept you have, that you believe in, and start planning to invest time, energy, and money into it.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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