By Retailers (and Elizabeth Genco)
So I’ve got this book. It’s called Blue, it’s coming out in July from Desperado (Diamond Code: MAY083778). It’s about this young woman, Blue, whose ex-boyfriend appears out of nowhere, seduces her, and turns out to be a serial killer. You can see gorgeous preview art from my collaborator, Finnish darling Sami Makkonen, at our blog. Oh, yeah, and I have to get it into comics shops.
The fact that Blue is in Previews doesn’t mean bupkus. There are a squillion books in Previews. The fact that someone other than me is printing Blue doesn’t mean bupkus. Ordering new books is a financial risk. How do I get a harried, pressed-for-shelf-space retailer to take a chance on me, a first-timer with no track record? That’s the question I posed to four of my prospective customers, indy-friendly retailers. They are: Rory Root, owner of Comic Relief (Berkeley, CA), Alex Cox, owner of Rocketship (my home store here in Brooklyn, NY), Andrew Neal, owner of Chapel Hill Comics (Chapel Hill, NC), and Ben Trujillo, owner of Star Clipper (St. Louis, MO). Boy, have they got answers.
Read on …
So I’ve got this book. I need to get it into your store. What are some good ways to make that happen?
Rory: Be brilliant! For everybody else, walk it in the door, preferably not on a Wednesday, and explain why my customers need your book. Calling or e-mailing first to set up an appointment works well. Or have a friend who can shill and who lives near the major shops do the same for you.
Wow. How many people actually do this?
Rory: Very few folk for printed work have walked it in. Those who did well endeared themselves, others not so much. Some had friends do it for them. As an example, Dan Zettwoch was Kevin Huizenga’s “West Coast rep,” as he put it when he first walked in; lucky for us both he brought his own work, too. Like some folk, he had great confidence in his friend’s work; fairly self-effacing on his own. We liked both. All in all, folk should play to their strengths. If there are some good stores in your area go in on a slower day, ask the owner, manager or buyer (often all the same person) when is a good time to come back and show your work and talk about what sells in their market. Make sure you have a copy on you to leave behind or show them right then if they have time. It does help for those it can work for. Check back with that local shop to see if they need more and if they have feedback for you. A success story goes a long way to open doors. So-and-So sold how many? Get Diamond, Last Gasp and perhaps Haven to carry it. If the book is commercial at all, this is not too hard.
Alex: The basics: Have a bold, interesting ad solicit. Make the premise clear, and have a good representation of the artwork. Give me faith that this book is really being pushed, and that there will be demand for it beyond the Previews ad and a few mentions online. Provide something that can help me generate customer interest; posters, buttons, flyers, etc. … As a store owner, I get hundreds of titles a month, and I can’t get fired up about all of them. The creator or the publisher has to do be a part of the promotional process. If I feel that someone is doing their part to promote a book, it makes me happy. The financial part: Have a competitive discount. Give me an incentive to order more. The Really Hard One: Make it good. Produce a quality book that will grab customers, and build itself on audience based on love. Create a book that I can hand-sell- something I can legitimately hand to my customers, and say, sincerely, “This is something you need to read.”
Andrew: The best thing you can do is show me the book. If a cover is nice-looking, I’ll maybe order it if the description, the reputations of the creators involved, and my gut tell me to. If the interior art is different than the cover art, that chance goes down. If I can’t tell if the interior art is by the same artist who did the cover art, that chance goes down. If you show me the book and I don’t like it or [don't] think I have a market for it, you’re frankly not much worse off as far as my orders on the book, but I do appreciate the effort. If you show me the book and I do like it or think I have a market for it, I’ll order it. I ordered very high quantities of the first issues of Mouse Guard and Action Philosophers because I got full copies of the comics in the mail, and knew I could sell them.
Ben: Send us a preview of the completed work. With the abundance of publishers and creators clamoring for shelf space, we need something concrete to make a decision, and a preview is the best way to help us make up our minds. We’re also interested in carrying works that the creators have spent a significant effort promoting online. In the small-press biz, getting an online fan base makes a big difference on how well the title will sell in our store. Also, be willing to sell on consignment. Unless you have an established sales history in our store or are coming from an established publisher, we generally can’t pre-pay for your books.
When considering an indie book, what do you like to see in the book itself and/or its creator?
Rory: A good grounding in the workings of the art form and how business is done. A fair package for a good price is a nice start. Good story and great art are subjective, but they have never hurt anyone’s chances. Most creators are not as brilliant as Chip Kidd or Chris Ware; they can do things you can’t. At least not yet.
Alex: Something different. Art that is new and fresh. A premise that is solid and/or exciting. Too many indie books are simply low-grade Marvel or DC or Vertigo. I’m not interested in that, and neither are customers. I want to see innovative concepts, and art that has an original “voice.” The best indie books are “indie” because that’s where they thrive creatively, not because they couldn’t make the cut at a larger company.
Andrew: I like to know that the book’s going to come out when the publisher says it’s going to come out. I like to see indie books which aren’t trying to be mainstream superhero books. Marvel and DC cover that market pretty well. I sell a ton of indie comics, but almost none of them are superhero books. I can sell funny comics, pretty comics, and comics with a clever hook. The easier you can make it for me to sell a book, the better it’ll do.
Ben: Star Clipper is interested in seeing new and creative works that tell interesting and unique stories. Autobiographical or semi-biographical and political pieces do very well. The artwork, while important, is open to more stylized production values in the mini or small press arena. Since the customers who cling to the stereotypical superhero styles aren’t usually the same customers who are willing to spend money on small press or indie works, those who are generally like to see stories and styles that aren’t available in the mainstream. There are some general rules of thumb that guide our purchasing: Cover art should match interior art. Cover art should communicate the content of the piece, and should clearly state the title and price. Lettering should closely match the style of the art. Bar codes and ISBN’s are a big plus. We also like to see creators who invest time and effort into shameless self-promotion. No one sells their work better than the creator (usually).
What turns you off?
Rory: Unrealistic expectations. I like hope, and we all have dreams, but walk first and then learn to run. A lot of young talent right now are working on the great American graphic novel. They should be finishing their fourth minicomic.
Alex: On a purely personal level, books that look “adolescent.” If the ad screams, “BOOBS AND VIOLENCE!!!!” and it’s not from Metal Hurlant, I am likely to turn the page. On a business level, a book that has no “hook.” I have a pretty good idea what will sit lifeless on the shelf as my customers pass it by. Finally, if I have no faith that a product will ship on time, that affects my ordering. New properties need consistent presence on the racks to build a following, and that’s a simple fact. If a book doesn’t show up for six months, people lose interest. Certain books can pull it off, most cannot.
Andrew: Here are some things which may or may not be evident until the book arrives (unless we get a preview), but which can certainly affect whether a book sells or whether a book is reordered when it does sell:
- Bad design both from a visual standpoint and a financial one: an unreadable spine, an unattractive cover or a cover that doesn’t reflect the interiors in some way, a title or price that’s impossible to find. You need to have an ISBN on there, too, even though it’s not pretty.
- A lack of consideration for the details that add up to the overall product: bad lettering can ruin an otherwise attractive book.
- Bad (or no) editing: incorrectly spelled words and bad grammar can hurt a book, too.
Ben: Blatant rip-offs (unless satirical). Also, we don’t need a mini or indie superhero title unless it really breaks the paradigm. Cover styles should match interior styles. Lettering styles should match art styles. Always, always, always put a price on the cover that is easy to find. We’re far less likely to order anything that violates the foregoing “rules.”
How can an indie creator get on your good side?
Rory: First, make a really good comic, and then make another one. Tell me and the readers in my shop who it’s for. No, it is not for everyone. Do mystery lovers with an interest in South America like this book? Then tell them.
Alex: Send me promotional materials. Get a serialized book out on schedule. Produce something I love, and can get behind. Don’t preach at me on-line, or presume to know how to better sell books to my customers. But most of all, Make Good Comics, that show a desire to enrich the medium of comics. Don’t create mediocre stepping stones on the way to writing/drawing New Warriors. Create something you love, that people will come looking for because it is new and beautiful.
Andrew: She can send me a copy of the book she’s promoting. If she’s the publisher, she can do her best to make it available at a discount that alleviates the risk of ordering the product. The better the discount, the more likely I am to order something, though a good discount doesn’t ensure orders unless it’s backing up a solid product. I have certainly ordered books at crummy discounts, but for a new project from a new (or unknown) creator, that’s a lot less likely.
Ben: Create high-quality stories and maintain high production values while keeping good product available for restock. Meet the deadlines you set for having the story available. If it’s an ongoing story arc, meet your schedule for production and shipping. Very little will negatively affect future orders of a title as much as missing publication schedules.
How can she stay on your good side?
Rory: Keep the good stuff available. If your book is out of print I can’t turn the new reader who would love love love your book on to it, we both may lose a customer and neither of us makes any money.
Alex: See above!
Andrew: If she’s the publisher, she can try to ensure that the book is in print and available so I can keep it in stock while there is demand. This is hard to do sometimes because Diamond (the primary comic distributor) won’t always cut you a purchase order without hitting a certain level of backorders, and a lot of retailers don’t like to backorder titles because we don’t know if they will ever fill. Making the book available through other distributors or direct from the publisher can help alleviate this. If she’s promoting a sequel she can make sure the first volume is still available. If she’s promoting the book on her website, she can include links not just to online retail giants, but to the small businesses who are carrying and actively promoting her book.
Ben: See above.
Alex, you mentioned promotional materials. What kinds of stuff did you have in mind?
Alex: Posters are good, as long as they are well-designed. Bookmarks are great – they get customer attention. Buttons are good … wee, tiny buttons. For preview copies, having material available online in an easy-to-view fashion is best. I don’t have a ton of time to wade through PDFs. Hard-copy previews are the best way to ensure I will look at something.
What are the top three mistakes creators make when promoting their book?
Rory: No marketing plan, a lack of design sense, and no follow-through, especially when the going gets hard. Go to the library and read some business, design, and guerrilla-marketing books, some of what they say can and will apply to you. And learning from others’ mistakes is much cheaper than making your own. Don’t worry, you’ll make plenty of those. We all do. Look at a mass-market paperback book. Notice how you knew it was a SF, mystery, romance, or thriller, etc., before you even picked it up. That’s called trade dress: Learn how to make that work for you, and you’ll be ahead of most folks in comics. Turn the book over, a couple of pull quotes that make sense in context, not “Mom says it’s great!” or “Neil Gaiman loved my cookbook.” Followed by a description of what lies inside and pricing and filing info for the store staff. Big major frakin’ companies have spent millions in figuring out how to make the covers, front and back work for them. You could do worse than learn from them, thousands have (done worse, that is).
Alex: Number one, relying on the comics-centered Internet for promotions. A great big Elephant In The Room in Internet conversations is thus: Online fans represent a small minority of the buying public. Creators often do a Newsarama interview and are done. That’s just not enough. You have to get press that reaches more of the audience, or even better, press that brings in New Faces. Number two, assuming that because a book exists, people will be interested. There is a hubris that presumes an audience will be there for a book, just because it is printed and on the racks. Sometimes a book simply does not sell. This is not the fault of the fans, the retailers, or the distributors. It is often the case that a creator simply didn’t do enough to get people interested, either in the creation or the promotion. Number three, misleading advertising. If the art is not representative, or the copy is unclear or vague, or an ad simply makes no sense, it hurts sales. I sometimes see ads that are so bizarre, you don’t even know what they are promoting. Is it a comic, or a board-game, or vodka? Who knows? Advertising is difficult — it is an industry and a craft unto itself, and requires a lot of thought and attention. Some folks do it poorly.
Andrew: In my opinion, the worst mistakes a publisher can make all contribute to not being able to deliver their product on schedule. Whether you’re talking about Marvel or a self-publisher, there are many comics out there which do not meet the schedule the publishers set for themselves. Comic-format stuff needs to come out on a regular basis, whether that’s monthly, bimonthly, quarterly, or whatever. Book-format stuff just needs to be out on the date it’s due. I think it’s generally a bad idea, especially for a new publisher and/or new creators, to promote and solicit a book before it’s finished. I’m well aware that creating a comic is a tough, time-consuming process, and that’s part of the reason it should be done before you start promoting it; the only way to learn how long something takes you is by doing it! On top of that, if you have the comic done, you can show the interior artwork to the retailers who will be ordering your book. The more you have of a comic to show a retailer, the better they can gauge their demand for it. Another problem with not getting your product out on time is that it disappoints and confuses your customers. When they come into a shop looking for a book that the Internet tells them is out, but it’s not out, it can hurt your credibility as a publisher, or it can hurt the store’s credibility even though they’re telling the truth about the book not being out yet! Some people believe the Internet no matter how many times it gives them the wrong date.
Ben: One, creators often don’t appreciate just how much competition for shelf space and purchasing budget there is. Our purchase of your work is not a foregone conclusion. Two, mass e-mails do not get our attention. With literally hundreds of solicitations a day, you will fall between the cracks. If you want to get our attention, send us a complete physical copy of your work. Electronic facsimiles don’t cut it, we want to see a copy of what we’ll be selling. This cannot be overstated. Three, most indie or small-press creators are not prepared to sell on consignment. There are a lot of indie and small press publishers out there, and it usually doesn’t make economic sense for us to shoulder the risk on the title (beyond the shelf space we’re devoting). If you’re willing to take the risk by selling on consignment, we’ll almost always put it on our shelves.
Any last words of wisdom?
Rory: Don’t give up. You are trying to get your voice(s) heard in the most crowded marketplace ever. The modern, Internet connected, media overloaded, time crunched, cacophonous, world of ideas. Sisyphus has it easier. Still, faint heart never won fair lady.
Elizabeth: Much thanks to Alex, Ben, Rory and Andrew for generously giving of their time and providing such great information. Of course, I couldn’t ask every retailer out there. I would love to hear what other retailers, pros and creators have to say. Comments are open… Oh yeah – and I’ve got this book coming out in July. It’s called Blue, the order code is MAY083778, and it’s gorgeous. Please check it out at http://bluecomics.blogspot.com. If you like what you see, please pre-order it from your local retailer. Thanks!