A “New System” for Publishing Comic Books?

I formed my own comic book company in 1994. Catfish Comics published 14 issues before fading from view. After a six-year hiatus, I’ve returned to the self-publishing game with SINNAMON: GRRL VS. WORLD #1.

A few people have asked why this comic is only available via ComiXpress. They ask because in the past, SINNAMON comics were available at comic book stores. Those fourteen issues were published through what I call the “traditional system”.

Let me outline the basic steps behind the “traditional system”:

1. Get the comic book listed in a distributor’s catalogue. Since the late 1990s, the catalogue with the widest market penetration is Diamond Previews.

2. Take note of when the book will be listed in the catalogue. Normally, the book is listed three months before it’s available for sale. For example, if SINNAMON #13 was coming out in December, it would be listed in the September Previews.

3. Wait for the orders to come in. Keeping with the example above, orders for SINNAMON #13 will arrive sometime in November

4. Send the comic off to the printers.

5. Sometime in January, receive payment from Diamond for the books.

Other than keeping track of various deadlines, the system isn’t very complicated. All things considered, it’s probably the only way a publisher can get his or her book out to comic shops all across North America. But is it effective for smaller publishers like yours truly? I would say not.

This isn’t a diatribe against Diamond Distributing. There are small publishers who have complaints, but the reality is that the overwhelming bulk of Diamond’s sales come from five or six publishers. There’s going to be an obvious imbalance in the treatment of someone who might produce sales of 1,000 books compared to someone doing thirty or more times that amount.

I stayed in the publishing game until 1999. When I encountered problems getting SINNAMON SAGA #2 completed, I threw in the towel. I had been considering this for a while, because I had the gut feeling the “traditional system” was not in my best benefit. It took a few years away from the business to gain perspective and figure out why my gut was probably right all along.

Why? Let’s look at what I consider to be the major weaknesses of this “traditional system”.

Start with Diamond Previews. Each month’s issue is the size of a small city’s telephone book. How exactly do you make your book stand out from the many hundreds of books listed? You could advertise. How much money do you have set aside for advertising? Now if you’re reading this article, odds are very good you have nowhere near the advertising budget of companies like DC, Marvel, or Image.

Fine, you say. You’ll be creative and find other ways to get people to notice your book. Go for it! Every small publisher should embrace the principles of guerrilla marketing.

Now you’ll come up against the second major weakness.

Suppose you get your book noticed. Perhaps you get a favorable mention in a newspaper article, or become an Internet darling. Great! So now people want to buy your book.

Where will they buy it? Under this system, the only place is a comic shop. And how are books sold at a comic shop? The new comics come in on a Wednesday.

And that’s it. Generally speaking, your book has one week on the main shelves. All your marketing must be targeted to get people in the shop that week. Otherwise, your book will be fighting for space among all the other back issues, assuming it hasn’t sold out.

That’s not the only fly in the ointment.

Remember my description of the “traditional method”? Remember the part where store owners do their ordering? That means your marketing must hit during that ordering period. You need to get shop owners to order your book. If they’re not won over by your marketing, you need to get people to go comic shops and order the book.

Whoa. Stop.

Did you read that sentence carefully?

“You need to get people to go to comic shops and order the book.” Any sales person will tell you that the key to sales is to place as few obstacles before the customer as possible.

What could be easier for a customer than clicking a link?

Let me outline each step of the “new system”:

1. Produce your book and get it printed at a Print On Demand printer. I use ComiXpress. If there are other POD printers who do comic books, feel free to contact me with details.

2. Set up the online sale page. ComiXpress will set one up for you. They take a cut from each sale, but in exchange they are taking the orders and handling the shipping for you. ComiXpress accepts credit cards, which is another factor in making life easier for customers.

3. Promote your book.

That’s it. Compare this to the “traditional system”. Notice how this system is less complicated? You’ll also notice the absence of any external deadlines. Your marketing no longer depends on getting word out by a specific date. Instead, your marketing only has to get the word out. It doesn’t matter when word gets out, so long as every mention includes a link to the shop (or your web page). So if you get mentioned in a national newspaper or magazine, you don’t have to worry that shops have sold out of your book.

Here’s an example of how the “traditional system” fails small publishers. Ten years ago, I worked for a publisher on a book titled Bruiser. Much to our surprise, BRUISER #3 got a positive review in a comic book magazine (not Wizard). This was the kind of good news any publisher would want to receive. Did it help BRUISER #3?

It did not. The review appeared a few months after the book had hit the stands. Since the original solicitation had been very small, there was no way anyone could find a copy.

Ten years later, such an article could include a link to a site that provides more information about Bruiser. That wouldn’t put any books on the store shelf, of course. However, the publisher could sell Bruiser from the web site. The onus would be on the publisher to have copies on hand. So after getting the order from Diamond, the publisher could have an extra box or two printed up.

An extra box or two is fine if you only ever publish one book. I put out fourteen issues of Sinnamon, and because initial orders were good, I overprinted four or five boxes per issue. In ten years, I’ve moved a fair number of back issues, but do the math. Right now, I have about twenty boxes of Sinnamon comics in the basement. It’s a good thing I live in a house.

Personally, I rather like the idea of keeping ten or twenty copies of a book on hand, and let ComiXpress print out more books as they’re needed. It definitely beats moving to a bigger place, especially in this housing market.

Although this “new system” makes life easier for the small publisher, it does not make success automatic. The only way to sell comic books is to work hard at marketing. Diamond Previews does get into every comic shop. The economics of this “new system” means you can’t afford to sell your book through comic shops. Instead, you must focus all your marketing upon getting people to click on that link.

This is not a bad thing. Too many small publishers think that being in Previews is a marketing accomplishment in itself. Too many of them think a Previews listing automatically translates into sales. That is not the case. No matter what system you choose, marketing will be the key to your success. It is my belief that the “new system” will allow a small publisher to maximize the results of his or her marketing.

My belief gets put to the test with “Sinnamon: Grrl vs. World #1”. If it works, expect to hear from me again!