AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE Postmortem: Lessons Learned from ComixTribe’s Most Successful Direct Market Series Yet
I’m kicking off a new year of Comix Counsel with a postmortem on AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE, the horror mini-series by John Lees and Iain Laurie that took the indie world by storm and became ComixTribe’s most successful series to date. Postmortem articles are very common in the video game industry (in which I am also employed), but I don’t see as many for comic books. The term itself means “after death”, and while the EMILY buzz is far from dead, with the trade available on Comixology now and out in stores February 11, and AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE #0 coming in May for Free Comic Book Day, the mini-series itself is complete. Now is a good time to talk about the many things we did that contributed to the book’s success, as well as the missteps we made publishing AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE in the direct market, in hopes that some of you might be able to apply these lessons to your comic book mini-series launches in the future.
(If you haven’t read any of AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE, you might want to grab a copy of #1 so you know what we’re talking about! We’re making it available for FREE for a limited time. Click here to get a FREE copy of AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE #1!)
Lesson 1: Treat your next project (and every project) like it’s your dream project.
A lot of what’s to come is tactical… the nuts and bolts of executing a direct market release. But before we get into the “blocking and tackling” of it all, it’s important to acknowledge that comic books are first a piece of art. Creating truly great art requires passion, which is an intangible that can’t be measured or quantified, but when it’s missing one can tell, and when it’s there… one can taste it.
AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE reads and feels like a passion project… because it IS one.
John and Iain have crafted a book that only John and Iain could create, and this book exists because of the mutual admiration this Scottish duo has for each other. Here’s how John talks about Iain in a recent CBR interview with Alex Dueben:
“I’ve been a fan of Iain’s since 2011… He immediately stood out as someone with a distinctive artistic voice, and with the more work of his I sought out — “Powwkipsie,” “Mothwicke” with writer Fraser Campbell, “Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain” — the more he grew to become one of my favorite artists. He just has a real gift for zoning right in on that emotional gag reflex, crafting images that can make you recoil and feel ill at ease. Iain can craft raw, visceral horror on the page. I knew I had to find a way to work with him.”
And here’s Iain on John:
“I saw “The Standard” and I was amazed that someone from the Scottish scene made it, so I sought John out and I’m glad I did. I don’t think there are many small press writers of his stripe out there.”
These guys are huge FANS of each others work. And that matters. Think about that the next time you’re looking for collaborators. Neither John or Iain are household names (yet), but they both got on each others radars, and cooked up something special together. Here’s Lees again on how the story came to be:
“I asked Iain what kind of story he’d want to draw, and he sent me three ideas — one about a man called Hellinger who has visions that help him solve crimes, one about an affable hitman, one about the search for a missing girl on a remote Scottish island — and I merged it all together into And Then Emily Was Gone, a story I hoped would simultaneously be the most mainstream narrative Iain had ever drawn and the weirdest, most out-there thing I had ever written!”
Let’s be honest, this is a different approach to story and projects than most of us take. Usually it’s a writer with a story to tell, looking for an (affordable) artist to bring it to life. Think about what might happen if you flipped that for your next project?
Lesson 2: Offer the market something different, and the market will respond.
Guys, it’s come clean time. I almost blew it with EMILY. If John had followed my advice, given after getting a first look at EMILY, who knows if the series would have ever come out. Back in March of 2013, John sent me an excited email with the first batch of inked, uncolored, unlettered pages of EMILY. My response was less than enthusiastic. Here’s some of what I wrote John:
“The Glasgow focus is going to limit the publisher interest. There’s a reason all Mark Millar books start in the US and not his native Scotland. (It’s because he likes money, and wants them to sell.) The art isn’t professional caliber. Laurie has a VERY unique, quirky indie vibe… that has to be a serious acquired taste. He draws ugly. Now, as long as he’s consistent…that’s something that can grow on folks, but it usually isn’t something people are ready to plunk money down for without an existing attachment. As you know, as a writer, your words will be judged by the art they are paired with. You may find a local publisher that wants to publish this stuff, and there the Glasgow hooks could be a strength not a weakness. But in terms of a wider market… I don’t think this will be a step forward from THE STANDARD, in either concept, execution, or sales.”
Wow, did I get that one wrong. Like, painfully, totally, and completely wrong.
Like the gentleman he is, John took my notes with grace, and then he and Iain went out and PROVED me wrong. And they did that by sticking to their vision and making the book that they believed in. They printed up a small print-on-demand run of AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE #1 for the Scottish indie comic scene, and they sold well. The response was positive, not just from fans and readers, but fellow creators. This early feedback resulted in endorsements from a formidable roster of pros, which we’d later use liberally in the marketing for the direct market release:
“Fantastic…” – Frank Quitely (All Star Superman, Jupiter’s Legacy)
“Super creepy, super good…” – Nick Pitarra (The Manhattan Projects)
“This book is amazing…” – Riley Rossmo (Drumhellar, Bedlam)
“A unique and bold vision…” – Michael Moreci (Hoax Hunters, Cursed)
“A wonderful, twisted little surprise…” – Owen Michael Johnson (Raygun Roads)
“A masterclass in comics…a movie for the mind…”- Shaky Kane (The Bulletproof Coffin)
After reading a lettered, black and white copy of EMILY #1, I completely changed my mind on Iain’s art. Yeah, he draws ugly…but John was writing an ugly story, and by the end of the issue, Iain’s grotesque style was a strength, not a weakness of the book. No one on the planet draws quite like Iain Laurie, and that makes the book worth talking about. AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE #1 drawn by Jim Lee would not be a better book. (It’d sell more, sure, but the phone book drawn by Jim Lee would as well.) I already knew John to be a great writer, but the script he produced leaned into Iain’s strengths. That’s what a great comics collaboration looks like.
I quickly recognized that all of the things I initially feared a weakness, like the obscure setting of a Scottish island nobody has ever heard of, were strengths of this book. While the Wednesday warrior and typical fanboy are creatures of habit and reluctant to get out of their spandex-clad comfort zone, many people who love the comics medium, including retailers, reviewers, and especially creators themselves, the push #ComicsForward crowd to use the hashtag du jour, are hungry for books that are new, and weird, and different…but well-executed.
In indie comics, the most common pitches I see are, in order, are twists on Batman, twists on zombies, and twists on Superman. There is nothing wrong with these comics, and some of them, are quite good. (John’s own THE STANDARD falls into the “twists on Superman” category, and is exceptional.) But in a crowded marketplace, marketing those books and getting people to read YOUR twist on these market-saturated stories instead of the real thing is actually a lot harder than coming out with a book unlike anything else on the shelves.
Weird is good. (Caveat being the book itself is also top notch. Weird simply for the sake of being weird is still a tough sell.)
But even after I was certain that John and Iain had a great little title, it wasn’t until New York Comic Con 2013 that I got excited about the prospect of publishing it. John brought along a stack of the Glasgow black and white EMILY #1 to give away to some pros. We had extra room at our booth, so I told John to put a few out for sale alongside THE STANDARD and the rest of the ComixTribe offerings. And wouldn’t you know it, we sold out. Easily. More importantly, I personally enjoyed pitching this book to customers…and saw them respond enthusiastically to the concept. That unplanned NYCC market test gave me all the confidence in the world that we could sell EMILY to the direct market.
And ten months later, when EMILY #1 debuted, it sold 3xs as many copies of THE STANDARD #1, and became our biggest direct market seller in our short history.
Lesson 3: You can never print too many #1s.
Well, actually you CAN… and that’s the problem. But in this case, one of the mistakes we made was not printing enough EMILY #1s, despite setting our print run at 140% of our initial Diamond purchase order.
Setting print runs for a new series is always a tough decision. With SCAM #1, our first direct market book, we made the mistake of setting our print run at:
Diamond Purchase Order + What we thought we could sell online and at cons
It seemed reasonable, sure, but what we didn’t take into account was Diamond reorders. It’s fairly common for retailers to be conservative with their orders of new titles from small publishers. But when release day rolls around, and if critical buzz is popping or customers are asking about certain titles, they’ll put in a quick re-order, and that reorder could be anywhere between 5-20% of the initial purchase order! So, when a reorder came in for SCAM #1, we didn’t have the extra books to fill it. That meant lost sales, and likely lost future sales, as retailers unable to get SCAM #1 on re-order were unlikely to order #2 or #3.
On subsequent titles, we adjusted the print run setting calculation to include a 20% re-order estimate on the first issues, and a 10% re-order estimate for subsequent issues, and that served us well for THE RED TEN and THE STANDARD series.
However, Diamond reorders for AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE #1 came it at 28% original orders, and #2 came in at 19% original orders. We left some money and readers on the table with our conservative print runs.
Some of you might be wondering, why not just do a second printing to print more books? Here’s the deal… as a quick, back of the napkin calculation, understand that the first book you print of a new print run is going to cost you about $1000, and every book after that is going to cost between $1.00 and $0.20. The more you print, the less each additional book will cost you. But that first $1000 to fire up the presses a second time… there’s no getting around it. So, when your re-order numbers are in the low to mid three digits, second printings will cost you a lot more money than what the Diamond will pay for them.
The under-printing of #2 was somewhat understandable, as that issue hit the shelves before #1 had even been released, and we weren’t sure what kind of critical or retail response the book would get. But there’s no excuse for under-printing a #1… #1 issues will sell forever, if not in the direct market, than at shows or in bundles with other books. You can bet I’ll be readjusting my print run setting calculation going forward.
Lesson 4: Power of the Variants
Variants. Whether you love ’em, hate ’em, or are indifferent, they are a big part of the industry. Marvel recently broke a million copies sold on the new Star Wars #1 by Aaron and Cassaday. Now, the book itself is a great comic, but quality alone didn’t lead to those numbers… the 70+ variants and related incentives Marvel cooked up had a lot to do with those gaudy numbers.
While ComixTribe’s variant program for EMILY was far less ambitious, it was every bit as strategic. Here’s what the thinking behind our variant plan was:
- Keep it simple – ComixTribe isn’t a big enough a player to “game” retailer orders with elaborate incentive programs like Marvel and DC. Either they’re going to stock our book or they won’t. So for our release we decided to go with the most simple variant approach. For each issue, there would be two covers. The “A” cover by Iain Laurie and a “B” cover each by a different artist. A/B covers would be printed in equal ratio, 50/50, and collated ABAB when packed and shipped by our printer. Retailers would then get an equal allocation of each cover. Simple for us, simple for our printers, simple for Diamond, and simple for retailers. And it meant twice as many cool covers for the series.
- Variants by industry star artists add legitimacy to the series – It was clear to anyone who read the series that EMILY deserved a place on the shelves. But how does the bootstrapped small-press publisher make sure retailers know that, or even get their attention at all? As I’ve written before, there are a number of keys to direct market success, and simply creating a good book isn’t at the top of the list. Retailers are most concerned with the past direct market success of the publisher and the creative team on the book. Though ComixTribe has a small and growing group of friendly retailers who have done well with our books, we are not Image. Our logo on a book isn’t going to guarantee sales. Likewise, John Lees’ only prior direct market credit was on THE STANDARD, also a ComixTribe title, and one that while critically hailed, struggled to find an audience in the direct market (more on that later). EMILY was artist Iain Laurie’s first book to be released outside of the UK. So, how do we get retailers to take a chance on a weird book by a couple of obscure Scotsman? Well, variant covers from Riley Rossmo (Bedlam, Rasputin, Cowboy Ninja Viking), Nick Pitarra (The Manhattan Projects), and Garry Brown (The Massive), all artists who DO have a track-record of success in the direct market, certainly couldn’t hurt, right? A key here, though, is that all three of these artists became fans themselves of Lees and Laurie and EMILY, and were happy to endorse the series in the form of a variant cover.
- Double the Space in Previews – By offering variant covers for every issue of EMILY, we doubled our space in our PREVIEWS solicit…at no extra cost! Here’s the deal — putting a book in Previews gets you about 50 words worth of a solicit, and a 2 x 3 inch image of your cover…and that’s it. You want more space than that, you need to open up your wallet to buy advertising, at prices most small press titles could never support or sustain. But, by having two covers, and working with my Diamond reps to make sure both covers were displayed in our listing, we essentially doubled our real estate in the phone book that is PREVIEWS.
- Variants mean more product to sell – Small press comics are a niche product. Do it right, and you WILL earn a dedicated fan base, one that is willing to throw down money to support your work. However, your fans can only buy what you have to sell them. And if all you have to sell is a $3.50 comic book, it’s tough to see a return unless you’re selling a ton of those. But, by having variants for every issue, we found our die-hard fans would happily spend $7 to get both covers. And since, the cost of adding a variant cover to the print run only adds a few cents per issue to the overall cost, it was a smart business move.
Now, the one mistake I made was not including a run of 100 Artist Edition covers in with my initial print run of EMILY #1. We printed these POD shortly before the New York Comic Con, and it would have been cheaper to roll that into the big #1 printing as well. Another lesson learned.
Lesson 5: The Magic of Going Monthly
AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE was ComixTribe’s first monthly series. The fact that it also became our most successful series is not a coincidence. Let’s face it, the direct market is built on a monthly release model. PREVIEWS comes out monthly. Ordering comics for retailers is a monthly ritual (one likely requiring alcohol, Tums, and oracle bones to get right.) And while Marvel and DC have recently pushed more bi-weekly and weekly releases, most successful comics come out on at least a monthly basis.
Monthly means momentum and increased awareness. While ComixTribe books don’t show up until the 300th or so page in Previews, for five consecutive months, a new EMILY issue was solicited. That made it a lot harder to miss than a book with an erratic schedule. Seeing the book each month gave retailers more confidence in the title. It also made it more likely reviewers and readers would take the book seriously and give it a shot. Check out the AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE Facebook page… EMILY related news never stopped over the past eight months, as there was always a new issue available for pre-order, on sale, a new review posted, a new preview, and so on.
Activity = buzz = sales.
And speaking of sales, the above chart shows some interesting things about EMILY. Obviously, EMILY #1 would be the highest seller. Orders for #2, which were due a month before EMILY #1 hit the stands, came in at a pretty standard drop (37%). What’s interesting though, is what happened to orders AFTER EMILY #1 hit the stands. As you can see, initial orders for #3 jumped UP 17% from #2 initial orders, and re-orders were very strong for the first two issues of the series. Issue #4 initial orders were slightly higher than #3, though re-orders were less, suggesting retailers had found the level for the series. Note issue #5 orders dipped slightly, but the series still ended with orders on #5 HIGHER than #2. That’s a great feat for a mini-series.
Comparisons in comics are hard, as every series is different. But for the sake of the point, let’s now compare the MONTHLY performance of EMILY with that of THE STANDARD. Both series were published by ComixTribe and written by Lees, and both were critically hailed. But one key difference was release schedule. The Standard #2 came out two months after #1, issue #3 three months after #2, issue #4 four months after #3, and then the final double sized issue to complete the series came out a full year after the previous issue.
What’s interesting is that while initial orders for THE STANDARD #1 were two and a half times less than EMILY #1 (suggesting we did a much better job marketing EMILY initially to retailers), the drop for #2 orders for THE STANDARD #2 was an identical 37% dip to the EMILY second issue drop. However, THE STANDARD series did not get any re-order activity beyond the first issue. And while the issue to issue drops were modest for the series, the trajectory was down, down, down. Unlike EMILY, there was no upward movement at anytime throughout the run.
Make no mistake about it, THE STANDARD is a brilliant series, and 7 years from now, when Lees is writing Batman and AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE is on Netflix, his fans are all going to recognize that series as his first great work. But the erratic publishing schedule limited its already tenuous chance at direct market success. The LCS isn’t built to support indie titles that come out “whenever” they’re done. It’s just not. It’s a lesson that ComixTribe has learned the hard way (even if we sort of knew it all along.)
Okay, but how did you pull off a monthly release?
Neither John or Iain are full-time comic creators. As a result, putting out an issue a month would be next to impossible. In order to ensure a monthly schedule, they banked issues. Iain was able to finish art for an issue every 2.5 months or so. So, that meant getting about three and a half issues of the five issue mini-series completely done before even soliciting #1. That’s a lot of work and takes a ton of patience. It’s also a lot easier when it’s a true collaboration (John and Iain shared the ownership of EMILY) as opposed to a work-for-hire situation where page rates are doled out for multiple issues worth of work many, many months before the book will be on sale.
I realize not all creators can afford to go this route. There is always going to be pressure to start monetizing your series as soon as you can… but the benefits of going monthly on a small press series might just make it worth it.
Lesson 6: Offering Subscriptions
One of the benefits of offering a monthly series is that it made offering a Series Subscription to EMILY a logical product offering on Shop.ComixTribe. I looked at how BOOM! was handling their series subscriptions, where they offered a discount on the books, and shipped the books each month as they came out, for one upfront price. They rolled the cost of the monthly shipments into the offering. And we found that many of our online customers liked the ease of a one click, one time payment for the series that would ensure they received all variants. And it’s a lot easier for us to get that one purchase for the series subscription as opposed to five individual purchases for each issue.
Subscriptions aren’t a new idea by any stretch. But we’ll definitely incorporate them with our publishing plans going forward. And hey, looks like Image Comics is getting on board the subscription train, too!
Lesson 7: You Still Need to Beat the Drum Like it Owes You Money!
One thing that can’t be glossed over is that, in addition to making a great book, John Lees worked his ass off to promote it. If you’re a retailer in the UK, you probably received multiple emails and calls from John about EMILY. If you have a comic book review site, you probably received an email from John about EMILY. Google AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE and you’re going to get pages and pages of reviews, and posts, and interviews with John and Iain.
Positive press for an independent comic book title doesn’t happen by itself. It’s largely the result of hustle on John and Iain’s part, along with the promotional work ComixTribe did on their behalf. Twitter promotion, Facebook promotion, a dedicated promotional site with original content related to EMILY… It’s not one thing, it’s a thousand little things that add up to real buzz and comic market interest.
If you were to do a straight dollars and cents return on investment analysis for all the time John has put into this series, the numbers would probably be shockingly low. But, John (and ComixTribe for that matter) are playing the long game, and betting that all that work to get the word out about this title builds our reputation in the direct market and grows our fan base.
Lesson 8: The Challenge of Trade Sales
The success of the EMILY series enabled us for another first — we decided to take EMILY to a Volume 1 trade collection immediately, and without an accompanying Kickstarter campaign to help fund the large upfront printing costs that trades require. All of our other collected editions (SCAM, THE RED TEN, OXYMORON) were made possible by successful crowdfunding campaigns. Direct market sales alone would not support our trade collections for our other series.
But as the final issue of EMILY was due to hit the stands, and after EMILY #0, a prequel story, was accepted as one of the 2015 FCBD titles, we recognized it was crucial for retailers to have the EMILY trade on the shelves in advance of Free Comic Book Day. Waiting to complete a crowdfunding campaign before soliciting the book to Diamond would mean it might be half a year before the EMILY trade came out, squandering all momentum of the series.
Thankfully, the EMILY series was profitable enough in the direct market to fully fund a small off-set print run of the trade. So even if retailers didn’t order a single copy, it wouldn’t be an unrecoverable blow from a profit and loss sense. So, we rushed EMILY to trade.
While our initial trade order numbers for EMILY Vol. 1 were our highest for any ComixTribe trade collection to date, they were still well under the order number we were shooting for. (Essentially, we were hoping our initial orders would be enough to pay for the entire print run. They fell short of that by about 20%.) Indie trades, even on a buzz-worthy book that made lots of year’s best lists, are a tough purchase for retailers. They carry relatively high price points (compared to floppies) and are unreturnable… making conservative ordering necessary.
I fully expect strong re-order activity on the EMILY trade this month when the EMILY collection hits the shelves, and then again in May as tens of thousands of readers get their first taste of John and Iain’s horrifying world on Free Comic Book Day.
But we still have some work to do before we break-even on the trade print run, which makes me stand by a stance I’ve argued for a while now: a small press publisher should always incorporate a crowdfunding campaign when taking a title to trade. Diamond direct market distribution alone will not sustain small-press publishers.
Okay, 4000+ words later…are you still with me? Great! I hope you enjoyed this small-press inside baseball look at takeaways from bringing a series to the direct market.
ComixTribe is now in it’s fourth year of existence and third year of direct market publishing. Ever since we’ve started, we’ve been committed to sharing our lessons learned, successes and mistakes, insights and opinions, as we try to make our mark in the magnificent medium of comics and graphic novels. We appreciate your support, and look forward to another year of new milestones!
Thoughts, Comments, Feedback, Questions? Please leave a comment and let us know what you think of this postmortem.
What do you mean you haven’t read AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE?
For more context on the book we’ve been discussing, please go on and grab EMILY #1, which, for a limited time, we’re making absolutely free.
If you found this article useful, you may want to read one of these three articles next:
Category: Comix Counsel