What is the Ceiling on DIY Distribution?

| January 30, 2012 | 5 Comments

Last week was a good week for ComixTribe.

SCAM #1 by writer/artist Joe Mulvey, our first release of 2012, generated an incredible amount of buzz with its debut on January 25. Despite a first printing of just 777 copies and being available in just a few dozen comic shops in North America, SCAM #1  was IGN.com‘s Comic Book Pick of the Week , was featured on iFanboy and Bleeding Cool, and received a 9 out of 10 rating from Newsarama.

Pretty damn good for an indie.

Now, by no means is SCAM the only indie title in recent months to generate, what many could argue, is outsized hype for such a limited run.

Sam Humphries‘  Our Love Is Real  gave this new  DIY distribution movement its first real success story last year. With a first printing of just 300 copies sold in only a handful of stores, Sam’s book sold out fast, and thanks to strong reviews and Bleeding Cool coverage, the speculator market for that book was very strong. Sam parlayed this into another sold out 2nd printing, and eventually a deal with Image Comics to distribute the quirky black and white one-shot nationally. (I spoke to Sam about that book in a TRENCHES interview last September that is well worth your time.)

ComixTribe took note of what Sam did with his book in California, and tried to replicate his success with THE RED TEN #1 by partnering with members of the New England Comic Retailers Alliance (NECRA), offering that network of retailers 30-day exclusivity to the book.  Since then, powered by solid reviews and strong sales, and spread by the powerful #comicmarket hashtag on Twitter,  THE RED TEN has continued to build steam, and is now in some 30 retailers in North America.

Then, in January, Humphries took his DIY game to the next level with a new mini-series SACRIFICE, which debuted in January with some 60 shops on board, and a print run in the mid 1,000s.

On the west coast,  Brian Buccellato seems to be building some serious buzz for his creator-owned series Foster, which if I were a betting man (and I am) I’d say is the next self-distributed indie title to build real interest.

Which brings us back to SCAM, a self-distributed, creator-owned, limited print run book which, arguably, could not have been received any better.

Okay, before you accuse me of over-selling and puff piece-ing, I’ll be the first to admit that SCAM is not a perfect book. And I expect, now that it has some heat, we’ll start hearing some backlash.  (Success, even at the smallest of levels, tends to breed the hateration.)  But it’s undeniable that SCAM‘s reviews have been great.  And more importantly, shops that are carrying it are reporting strong sales, with many already selling out, including MaximuM Comics in Las Vegas, who sold out of 100 copies of SCAM day one!  That’s a home run, any way you slice it.

SCAM‘s success puts ComixTribe in a unique (and somewhat daunting) position to answer a question which the entire indie comics community would love to know the answer to:

What is the Ceiling on DIY Distribution?

Okay, we all know Diamond Distribution is pretty much the only game in town for national distribution of comic book material.  As one prominent retailer advised me, “Diamond is a direct pipeline to the 1700 comic book retailers around the nation.”

I and ComixTribe have nothing against Diamond.  You won’t hear us railing against them as gatekeepers or “keeping the little guy down.”  Honestly, if Diamond doesn’t want to carry a publisher’s indie book, it’s probably because they don’t think it has any chance at selling to their distribution network.  And, though it may be a hard pill to swallow, in most cases, their judgement is probably better than ours about that.

As a small-publisher, we have not ruled out working with Diamond in the future.  (In fact, I have a submissions package more or less ready to send their way.)  But, looking at their catalog, it’s hard to think that getting featured there is a sure path to wider distribution.  Getting buried in that massive catalog, one designed primarily to move 40 -70 year old properties owned by major media empires, isn’t something that we can afford.

What’s more, we’re finding that one of the strengths of our current DIY approach is that we are establishing direct, personal, and ideally long-term relationships with comic retailers- the men and women on the front lines of the battle for the hearts, minds, and dollars of the comic market.  With this direct connection, as a publisher, we can offer concierge-level service to comic shops, and provide exclusive products that help create a unique selling proposition for those shops.

But is this sustainable?  And if so, how high can it go?

SCAM #1 sold 777 copies in a few dozen shops. There are probably a few 1000 copies of SACRIFICE, now on its second issue, in the market right now.  And I have no doubt the 500 issue first printing of FOSTER #1 are going to be gone soon, if they aren’t already.

But what’s the ceiling for DIY distributed sales?  1,500? 2,500?  5,000? 10,000?

And more importantly, who is going to find out?

The “Math” Problem

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling SCAM, SACRIFICE, FOSTER, and THE RED TEN success stories.  Getting ANY coverage for indie books in an industry whose headlines are currently dominated by Avengers punching X-Men, corporate logos changing to nobody’s satisfaction, and ever shuffling creative line-ups,  is a win in my book. But ultimately, coverage isn’t what’s going to keep these books coming out…

Money is.

For a DIY model to be sustainable, it ultimately needs to be profitable.  And the reality is, a 28, 32, or in SCAM #1‘s case, a 44-page full color book, sold at a 50% off cover price to retailers is, at best, a break-even proposition.  While it’s true that that’s about 11% less than the discount you would have to give Diamond, at print runs of 500-1,500, it’s impossible to get print costs down low enough to see a profit on those sales.

It really isn’t until runs are around 3,000 or so that these books start generating anything resembling a profit.

So, for a DIY approach to be sustainable, those print runs MUST get into the mid-four digits.  

(For comparison’s sake, a mid-four digit selling book would probably just crack the top #300 list of comics sold through Diamond.)

But maybe it’s not about being profitable…

Perhaps I’m being short sighted.  Perhaps these indie break-out DIY success stories aren’t about making money through the direct market.  Perhaps instead they’re about  exposure, furthering your career, or generating sales through other means.  Let’s discuss the “long game” for a moment.

First, exposure. No question building DIY buzz can generate heat and exposure for an indie property and creator.  The comics world is a small enough pond, that it doesn’t take all that many headlines to feel like you’re the talk of the town.  And that’s a great thing.  Expanding one’s platform is important.  But as the old saying goes, “you can also die of exposure.”  Exposure doesn’t keep the printers running or work-for-hire collaborators paid. Exposure doesn’t let anyone quit their day jobs to focus on comics. Exposure, without a plan to harness, isn’t much of anything at all.

On the other hand, we’re already seeing how some creators are taking this approach and running with it to advance their careers.  Humphries was able to parlay his DIY success into both a publishing deal with Image, and work on a high profile license for Marvel. Mulvey’s commissions requests are increasing, and you can bet it won’t be long before both he and SCAM  colorist Andrew Crossley  are in high demand at the Big Two.  DIY and indie comics have long been a stepping stone for “real work” in the industry.  But what if you’re not that interested in drawing or writing the 679,954th Peter Parker yarn?

And finally, there’s an argument that the heat generated by limited direct market success can be parlayed into other, more profitable ways of making money with the property.  Humphries likely put a few bucks in his pocket selling signed Our Love is Real and Sacrifice variants at 10 and 20 times cover price on E-bay.  First printing sketch cover variants of SCAM #1 are selling quite well online at a $24.99 price point (which is arguably still a steal for a one of kind piece of art.)  And I have no doubt with the help of great buzz, reviews, and increased product awareness, SCAM and THE RED TEN are going to tear up the convention circuit this year…Boston Comic Con, get ready!

And then, there’s digital.  There’s great hope that direct market and mainstream comic market buzz will generate increased digital sales, which have a marginal production cost of zero and are thus all profit to the creator.  Because ComixTribe is not currently working with Comixology, the biggest player in digital comics, I can’t speak with authority on the true state of digital sales.  (Come on Ron Perazza let’s do some business!)  But we did make SCAM #1 available at both DriveThruComics and Graphic.ly at the same time it released at comics shops.  Jury is still out on digital sales through those channels, and I’m optimistic that they WILL be up for SCAM,  likely improving from bus fare to beer money.  But alas, still not anything close to fun money.

SCAM is a Hit…Now What?

So, I’ve had a long winded discussion, and probably stated a lot of things indie creators already know.  So what’s ComixTribe’s next move?

As I said, given the critical and reader reaction to SCAM, and its sales success for many of our retail partners, we’re in a unique position to see just how far we can push this thing.  I want to test the ceiling for DIY distribution.  I think it would be a valuable thing for the indie comics community to see.

So why not us?

Who are the 200 Most Indie Friendly Comic Book Retailers in the World?

That’s what we aim to find out.

ComixTribe’s new goal for Spring 2012 is to get our books carried exclusively in 200 comic shops.  200 is a nice, big, round number that still represents a small % of the comic market.  We want to move 2,500 copies of SCAM #1 (2nd printing) and 2,500 copies of THE RED TEN #2 (second printing) in February. 5,000 books is a big number for a non-big 6 publisher.  It’s nearly unheard of for DIY.

But why not swing for the fences?

We want to see how far we can push the DIY Distribution model.  We want to set a new benchmark, and then challenge other DIYers to show us how its really done and top us.

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of comic veterans out there who want to pat me on the head and say, “We’ve all been there.  You’ll learn eventually that the only game in town is Diamond, and you have to play by the rules.”  And we certainly will be pursuing that approach as well.

But right now, we’re going to strike while the iron is hot and see if we can make some more headlines breaking the rules before we start following them.


If you’re interested in being one of 200 retailers carrying ComixTribe books this spring, we want to entertain your customers.  Contact me directly at tyler.james @ gmail.com or reach out to me at Twitter (@tylerjamescomic.)

Indie Creators…

Sound off.  What do you think?  How high can DIY rise?   Comments are open below.


Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, and educator residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of superhero murder mystery maxi-series THE RED TEN,    EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and  Tears of the Dragon, a swords and sorcery fantasy. 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.

Contact Tyler via email (tylerjamescomics@gmail.com), visit his website  TylerJamesComics.com, follow him on  Twitter, or check him out on  Facebook

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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 tyler.james@comixtribe.com.

Comments (5)

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  1. Love this post! Honestly I don’t think there is a ceiling. Just because it hasn’t been done or because its tough doesn’t mean its impossible. If you stick only to what has worked in the past for selling comics and reach out to only the regular comic reader audiances then yes there is a ceiling unfortunately. This is a great place to start and to nurture a strong brand but eventually you have to expand the brand outside of that audience.

    Thing is with the shapeshifting properties of our beloved medium I think the potential for this kind of expansion has never been better. And a small publisher like comixtribe certainly has as good a chance as any to open up the market pushing your brand and comics as a medium forward. I think with hard work and time you could even start to compete and surpass diamond with individual titles. Of course by then you may decide to distribute through them or another publisher. But what your learning will help you to be successfull in that realm as well.

    So yea I say go for it. And I really think sky is the limit. Someone has to push this medium further. There’s no reason in my mind it can’t be you guys at least in part. Keep up the good work!

    Oh and I think supplimenting comic sales with special editions and merch and digital is definitely a smart move. Possibly the only way to turn a good profit at first. Almost using the comics as a promotional product as a gateway to deeper fan involvement.

  2. Jon says:

    Well, I want to say congratulations on your current success and I wish you guys much more. The site provides many great DIY ideas.

    One of the biggest questions is how to expand the market for indie books that are as good as any book on the shelf. I have to argue that I am all about being profitable as well as getting my name out there. I can say until I became a creator I never even read the previews and honestly it feels antiquated.

    The most important thing to push DIY distribution to the next level is co-promotion and marketing. I’ve met some awesome creators that I wouldn’t have know existed unless I wen to a convention they attended.

    • Tyler James says:

      Jon, getting attention in a highly-saturated market is always tough. You need to have a tremendous product, know who the target audience for that product is, and know how to reach them. Conventions, especially for the indie creator, are a great testing ground for ideas. I’m better at pitching books to retailers because I know how to sell them to individuals. And creators also need to educate sales partners on how to sell their books…make it as easy for them as possible.

  3. Martin John says:

    Creating buzz behind books requires great material. That is the first step. Make a good book. I think I am going to try this out for myself in the coming months, and am curious to see not how many books I can sell, but how much buzz I can get behind myself.

    I have a book that I made that I think is pretty good, and others have told me likewise, but the marketing pitch is the biggest hurdle of all. Since the book has been in my hands for awhile now, I think that I have a pitch for it that works really, really well, and I know my audience, because my audience is me, the mid-30 white guy that likes Superhero stories with cracking art.

    Since my product is an OGN I am not worried so much about the initial print run, as graphic novels can have multiple print runs. The thing I am losing is heat from variants and collectibility. However, I can get my book into bookstores (possibly) and in other venues if I work hard enough at it. It will be an interesting endeavor and I am sure I will learn a lot about it. Good thing I have such great articles to read here to help me with getting my head around things.

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