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How to Sell Your Small-press Book to Retailers Part 1: Why Bother?

| June 8, 2015 | 3 Comments

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Six New England comic shops in just four hours, a new personal best!

IMG_2269ComixTribe intern Charles and I took a weekend drive to visit a number of local comic book shops to get the word out about our newest ComixTribe series OXYMORON: The Loveliest Nightmare (JUN151199), which is releasing in August.

As I am committed to making The Loveliest Nightmare the biggest ComixTribe direct market launch yet, I’m focusing on getting retailers to stock this book. In the four years or so that I’ve been courting retailers, I’ve learned a thing or two. I’m channeling everything I know on the subject into this, a new series of articles all about selling independent and small press titles to comic book retailers.

This will be a multi-part series, with this article discussing the why, and the articles that follow talking about the how.

Now, I’m calling this a “how-to” series, but a more appropriate title should be “How I am trying to…”

The results are not in.

These techniques have not been split tested.

No double-blind studies have been performed.

Some, or all of what I’m about to share with you, may not work.

There might (will) be things I’m missing or leaving out.

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Ask me in eight months, after the new OXYMORON series and upcoming EXIT GENERATION series have both finished their four issue runs, how effective these strategies have been.

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But I know some of you can’t wait that long… and need this info NOW.

So, let’s throw caution to the wind and jump into the deep end of the pool. We are ALL works in progress, after all.

And who knows, I might just have an idea or two that’ll help you sell a hell of a lot more books to shops the next time you try.

Why Do I Have to Sell the Retailer?

You don’t.

Not really.

We’re in a GREAT time to be a creator.

In fact, there are plenty of creators making stupid money entirely outside of the direct market. Kickstarter, Patreon, Online Sales, Comixology, webcomics, conventions… there are many options to make real money in comics outside of the direct market.

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However, just because those options exist, doesn’t mean we small press creators should ignore the direct market entirely.

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Comic book shops are still relevant in 2015.

I’ve talked to a dozen shop owners over the past month, and to the man (and woman) they all reported their biggest Free Comic Book Days ever this year.

Good comic book shops become a hub of comic book conversation and commerce.

And I don’t know about you, but I want my books in the mix at places like that.

But getting retail space for your small press book isn’t easy. (Ask any creator who has tried.)

It’s not something Diamond is going to do for you.  And if you’re a new creator at a small publisher, it’s not something you can reasonably expect your publisher is going to do all for you either.

Retailers need to be sold on your book before they’ll ever sell it to their customers.

And that’s why you need to sell them first.

The Retailer is Your First Customer

When you’re launching a series in the direct market, one of the most important things to recognize is that retailers are your first customer.

Every month, Comichron.com comes out with estimated comic book sales numbers. While those numbers are benchmarked estimates and not the actual numbers, they’re pretty close… or at least the closest thing we have.

But it’s important to recognize that those are not estimates  of “sell through” sales. Rather, the reported numbers reflect the total number of books Diamond has sold… to retailers.

In order to have the opportunity to sell your book through to a customer, you first need to sell a retailer on the concept so that they stock the series.

And that’s not an easy thing to do.

A Numbers Game That Isn’t in Our Favor

There are a few large players in the comics retail world who carry just about everything in the 500 page monthly Diamond catalog. Midtown Comics, for example, will stock at least the first issues of every book from every publisher in Previews. However, you could probably count the number of retailers who order like that on a single hand.

There is simply too much product.

Marvel and DC put out more than 100 SKUs a month. Image releases 60-70 titles.  A retailer is into the high 300s before they even get out of the Top Six publishers!

And that’s just the arena we’re fighting in.

The truth is, 80% of comic shops aren’t going to stock our books. Period.

Any time spend courting that 80% is time well wasted.

AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE was ComixTribe’s biggest seller to date. But even that series was only carried by about 10% of the retailer accounts in Diamond’s system.

Ten. Measly. Percent.

So Why Bother?

If the direct market is dominated by other players, and if 10% is all you’re getting, then why bother at all?

Look, I get the sentiment, and there are times I’ve thought the same thing.

But there are a ton of benefits to being in the direct market.

Having your book come out on Wednesdays will improve its sales everywhere else you’re trying to sell it… online, digitally, cons, etc.

The legitimacy of the direct market increases coverage on major comics news sites and outlets.

And if your goal is to one day work for major publishers, nothing gets their attention better than getting actual books on actual store shelves.

In short, a good retailer in your corner can go a long way. 

Truth is, we all need more people advocating for our books.

If every purchase of a comic we create needs to be facilitated by us, then it will be very hard to ever scale. Our audiences are only so big, and there’s only so much time in the day to sell.

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So, my goal isn’t to get 100% of the comic market to carry ComixTribe books. That’d be a fool’s errand, and momma didn’t raise no fool.

Instead, my goal is to forget about the 80% of retailers who won’t carry our books, and focus exclusively on the 20% of the market out there who might.

If we can change the math so that 20% of the direct market is stocking ComixTribe books instead of 10%… that’ll make a real different in our business.

And because we’re not 100% reliant on the direct market, and also harness the other platforms mentioned above, improving performance in any one channel has a “virtuous circle” effect in improving other channels as well.

So, Who are the 20%?

That, my friends, is the Golden Question.

Who are the 20% of comic book retailers out there worth a damn?  Or at least worth small press creators putting time and energy into courting.

And I wish I had the list here for you all… and if I did, I’m sure some of you would pay handsomely for it.

Unfortunately, that list is something that takes time and effort and making offers and seeing who gets onboard… and it will inevitably be a different list for different publishers and creators.

I mentioned at the top of this article that me and Charlie Boy visited 6 local shops… the local angle is KEY for small press and indies.

Local is something that you can trade on. It’s a UNIQUE SELLING PROPOSITION that can make retailers and their customers give a damn.

Use local first and foremost. 

Don’t worry about selling the whales of the comic book industry until you can first establish a strong network of local shops who can sell your product.

ComixTribe started with just a small handful of shops in New England — Larry’s Wonderful World of Comics, Jetpack Comics, Comically Speaking, Double Midnight, The Comics Palace, Chris’ Comics, Friendly Neighborhood Comics — and we’ve built from there.

Today, ComixTribe has an email contact list of around 200 retailers, which we’re trying to grow.  Later on in this series, I’ll talk about what we’re doing to grow this list and to better identify the 20%

Are You One of the 20%?

And speaking of growing the list, it would be a lost opportunity talk about growing my email list, and not ask any retailers skimming this page to add themselves to that elite company.

Join the ComixTribe VIP Retailers List

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(See what I did there?)

Next: Tools to Sell to Retailers

The next part in this series will talk about a tool I’m using to help me position and sell my newest series to retailers. It’s call the New Series Retailer Portal Site, and it’s awesome.

Questions, comments, or ideas you’d like to see covered in this series? SPEAK UP in the comments below!

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About the Author ()

Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, educator, and publisher residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of THE RED TEN, a superhero murder mystery, EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and TEARS of the DRAGON, a swords and sorcery fantasy. Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, which is both a new imprint of quality creator owned titles, and an online community where creators help creators make better comics.

Follow him on Twitter @tylerjamescomics, or send him an email at [email protected]

Comments (3)

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  1. Hi!
    Thanks for the article, on my way to read part 2 now.
    Quick Q though: I’m not a US based writer/self-publisher and we have ZERO local stores here so the US and Europe are pretty much where I could hope to maybe get my comics carried but I have no idea what’s the best/most reasonable way to approach them.
    Any thoughts/advice you might suggest I try out? I know there’s no answer but figured it can’t hurt to ask.
    Cheers!

    • Tyler James says:

      It’s a great question…

      In your case, I might spend most of my time trying to build a direct audience with online readers via webcomics and digital comics. And then see about partnering publishers who already have in-roads with direct market retailers.

      It’s going to be a very tough sell logistically and very expensive to sell overseas comics to a US market shipped from overseas. That’s not where I would put my time and effort.

  2. Jen king says:

    As a retailer who supports small press I have to tell you that it’s a hard market to break into: the one where you actually get shelf space in the comic book store. Face to face meetings with owners and comic book managers at perfect as they often steer the ship regarding what comics make sense for their stores. Family friendly ones like mine are not likely to pick up super graphic indies, for example. The biggest factor is professionalism. If your art isn’t up to par and you are printing on newsprint it isn’t as likely to be picked up by retailer nor customer so hone your craft first.

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