Trenches #2: Selling the Retailer

| February 17, 2011 | 10 Comments

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

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Comments (10)

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  1. Well said, sir. Seriously, with the internet — anything is possible for indie creators! No excuses. Find your niche and pro-create, I say.

  2. Tyler James says:

    I love the “Work in a comic shop for a day” bit of advice. I’m willing to bet that 90% of the indy/webcomic folks out there would never think to do this. But it’s actually kind of obvious…

    If you want to MAKE comics, clearly something that would be helpful would be to hang out with, read about, and listen to people who MAKE comics for a living.

    But if you want to also SELL those comics, especially as an independent, it might also be a good idea to spend some time with people that SELL comics…you know…for a living. Retailers live and breathe comics, and there’s a lot you can learn from them.

    Good stuff, Vito!

  3. Jules Rivera says:

    I have a few questions here.

    While I’m all for doing market research, I’m curious how I’d go about chatting up my local comics retailer to volunteer for a day in their shop. Would they view me as a threat to current employees? Would I just get in the way? And would they have a problem with me approaching them with the self-serving purpose of figuring out how to sell to their customers?

    Also, I wonder about the value of courting the direct market as a webcomics creator. In my years, I’ve found that webcomics readers and direct market readers aren’t often the same audience, so is it worth expanding to the direct market which is considerably harder to approach than webcomic readers? And is there even any money left to be made in hardcopy books? Most creators, both webcomic and traditional comic alike, don’t make more than a few grand (if they’re lucky) with a successful print run.

    Given the uncertain future of brick and mortar shops, the downward spiral of the bigger book stores, and the seemingly myopic viewpoint of a direct market audience, is it better to do what more webcomic creators seem to be doing and to skip the direct market altogether, building a grassroots audience on the web instead?

  4. Vito Delsante says:

    I think that if you volunteer, which means working for free, employees shouldn’t feel threatened (emphasis on should not). In fact, you could even target certain employees to pick their brains. What I’m suggesting is first hand market research, which I think every creator can use. How you use this research is clearly up to you.

    When I wrote this article, Borders (just to use a more up to date example) was in trouble, but had not declared bankruptcy. While I agree that grassroots campaigns can work and might work better for the webcomic creator, I still think that being, pardon the pun, in the trenches is still the way to go to see who is buying what. Working in a store has helped me see the audience, not the retailer. This part of my article was the only instance where I went back to that original myth and offered a solution to how to better connect.

    Look, the direct market audience contains an aging demographic; what used to be 12-45 has shifted older, with very few new readers (new young readers) coming in. The webcomics/digital comic audience skews closer to that original demographic (I don’t have clear data to back this up, but this is what I’ve been seeing). Who are you trying to target? I would guess you’d say that digital audience, but I would hope you’d see ALL of them. I’m just hoping this advice helps.

    • Jules Rivera says:

      I do like your suggestion about volunteering. I think I am going to look into that just to get a feel for where the market is heading.

      As for marketing to the direct market vs. internet grassroots campaigning, I’m not saying it’s best to exclude the direct market altogether, but I’m a one-man-band. My marketing resources are limited. I would most likely place a higher priority on internet marketing and networking, while addressing the direct market secondary. I have been known to make occasional appearances at local shops and there really is no substitute for a one-on-one experience; I just can’t afford to prioritize direct market over my internet bread and butter.

      • Tyler James says:

        Jules, you know I’m ALL for the D-I-Y, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do it your way independent spirit. I LOVE the benefits of the webcomics model and its ability to directly connect creator to reader.

        Still, I’ve come to see the value that having strong relationships with retailers can provide. Vito mentioned Free Comic Book Day (coming soon! First Saturday in May!) in his article, and I’m a big proponent of creators reaching out to local retailers to see about doing an event at their stores. Last year’s FCBD was one of my more profitable events, and certainly beat out a few cons I did in terms of net profit. (No table fee helps.) Retailers benefit from having actual creators at their shops (I gave out a bunch of free sketch cards) and creators get to peddle some of their wares. This event alone is a great reason to make nice with retailers.

        Finally, while the direct market IS dominated by super heroes and Marvel and DC, it also still dominates the comic book conversation. Even if you’re not ready to sell through that channel, I think there’s a lot we can learn about selling comics in general (from covers that sell to pitches that pop) from our local brick and mortar.

        • Jules Rivera says:

          Would you believe I actually had a retailer tell me, “Yeah, I dont’ want any artists in the store for Free Comic Book Day. I want to free up space for more customers.”

          Needless to say I don’t talk to that gomer anymore. I’ll ask my new guy about thoughts on Free Comic Book Day. I should have a pretty sizeable Valkyrie book to peddle by then.

          • Tyler James says:

            Heh. I believe it. Not all retailers want to make FCBD an event or support local creators. But I’ve found most are actually quite supportive.

          • Vito Delsante says:

            I don’t know why any retailer would turn down having anyone in for Free Comic Book Day…unless they’re not participating. Most people don’t realize that the free comics cost money, so I can understand a retailer not taking part, but still.

            Onrie Kompan ( came to JHU at the NYCC last year and said, “If you give me shelf space at the show, I will sell every issue of my book.” And he did. Now, he might have come across as aggressive or maybe even overly aggressive (I wasn’t at the show, so I can’t answer that), but he held true to his word. He sold every last copy of the book.

            I’m telling you; no one can sell your book half as well as you can. But do all you can to get as many people on your team.

  5. “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”

    “No one can sell your book half as well as you can”

    You can only sell your book if you know how to market your book. Otherwise, an experienced marketer will blow you out of the water by promoting your book. Unfortunately, experienced marketers can be expensive. It is better to use your time and money to learn marketing. That way when you produce your product it will be even better.

    The good news is once you know how to do it, you can sell just about anything. Now imagine if you could make the kind of connection one-on-one with people from the comfort of your own home without ever going to a convention. Now imagine if you could do it on auto-pilot. I guess you wouldn’t really need retailers anymore, would you?

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