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Communication & Momentum

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Communication & Momentum

As a comic book retailer, as you can imagine, I get a lot of people asking me to buy things from them. And probably three quarters of them do it wrong. So, let’s talk about some ways to do it correctly.

One of the first things to consider is who your audience is, and what their needs are. On a typical day, I’ll get at least five different pitches from aspiring creators — but very few of those are aimed at retail or a retail store’s needs!

I’m happy for you that you are Kickstarting your comic project — I really am! — but the overwhelming majority of Kickstarters have nothing for me: there’s not a retailer-driven tier, or any part of a pitch that is aimed at retailers. In fact, most of the time it is a naked plea for me to talk about your Kickstarter on my social media, and nothing more. Ask yourself: why would I want to do that? What could I gain from that? Supporting “Team Comics”? There aren’t enough hours in the day to do that, and retailers are small business people, just like you — their first devotion has to be toward paying the bills and moving their own business forward. Spending time to promote your Kickstarter — which is expressly designed to not sell more comics in the retailer’s store — is not usually in the retailer’s best interest.

In point of fact, you’re more likely to cause your career some measure of harm with the working retailer, if it gets your name in their head as someone unhelpful or unprofessional.

If you’re one of the (rarer!) creators writing to promote an actual print comic, that is designed to be sold in a physical store, the hurdles don’t stop there.

The largest mistake that many fledgling creators make is to assume that we are already in business together, rather than inquiring if we can be! You have to understand, like most comic book stores, we’re curating our individual stocks. I don’t carry every item from even giant publishers like Marvel and DC (when it comes to graphic novels, it might only be one in three — because the rest simply don’t sell!), and those publishers have decades old relationships with us, and sales terms that are generally vastly superior to what you’re offering. So, we picking and choosing what and how we stock. And why.

I’ve said this several times before, but the nature of the 21st Century comics market is that Everything Is Available, Always, which means that you’re now competing for rack space and mindshare against the last eighty years of comics production and being “good enough” is no longer Good Enough. Especially when you are producing genre work that deals with conventional tropes (e.g. zombies, vampires) you have to be miles better than everything else on the market.

Whenever possible, you want to tailor your message individually to the listener — as an example, I’m fairly strongly on the record of being disdainful of variant covers, so having the header of your email be focused on variants would not be a wise call if you want me to open and read your mail.

Email is cheap and easy — in fact, probably too cheap and easy. Be extremely careful when sending pictures and attachments without asking first. I’ve had people send me unasked for 50 MB files. Not only should you learn how to shrink your files sizes, clogging someone’s mailbox with something that they haven’t requested is seldom a wise idea towards building a relationship. Not every retailer has the fastest broadband, and I know more than a few using ISPs with bandwidth limits. Clogging or crashing retailers’ email won’t endear you to them.

Especially when it isn’t something that they want!

(This is literally as true when you’re, say, sending a resume as when you’re pitching a book — I once had someone send me what I recall as a 20 MB PDF of their single page resume which could have as easily been send as a plain text file with no reduction in readability whatsoever.)

You’re trying to make a positive, professional connection with retailers that you send things to, so the best thing to do is always ask before sending a file — or, even better, using a file-sharing service like dropbox to simply send a link to the art you’d like to share. That way the receiver can decide whether or not they want to look at your opus without having to feel as though you’re forcing it upon them.

Always be clear about what it is you’re looking for or what the pitch is — one thing to consider is to try and write your mail like a newspaper story where the single most important fact or statement in the first paragraph, and working down in importance from there. As a general rule, no retailer wants (or has time to) read more than a single short sentence describing your story. Aiming for “the length of a tweet” (or shorter) is almost always the best plan — we don’t need to know the intricate details of your plot, or the relationship between your characters — we are looking for the “high concept” pitch that quickly allows us to wrap our heads around what you’re selling, and who you hope to sell it to.

(Learning this skill will help you greatly as your professional career advances — whether you’re writing promotional copy for the Diamond catalog, or trying to pitch in five minutes or less to a movie producer, you need to learn to succinctly hone your message in a way that quickly gets your message across in an exciting way.)

If you have a financial inducement aimed at retailers in play, don’t save it to the end (that’s called “burying the lede”), but make sure that you clearly understand your market and what the likely actions of the participants in that market might be. If I get one more letter offering me an entire thirty percent off cover price if only I will buy twenty or more copies, I’ll probably cry — there is virtually nothing in my store that I’m stocking in any meaningful way if I can’t keystone it (that is: potentially double my investment) — and it is extremely rare for the average store to order more than a handful copies of most items. Honestly, divide the number of stores (about 3200) by sales (which you can find monthly breakdowns right over here), and you’ll quickly see that the average store is ordering 1s and 2s of the majority of comics that they carry. That’s not to say you can’t score a higher number… but you have to be exceptional.

Another thing to consider is when to send your pitch. Every retailer is a little different, but there are at least two commonalities: 1) the overwhelming majority of retailers receive their comics on Tuesdays — in fact, that’s the single busiest day of work for my operation, at least, where I’m trying to count in, pull subs, and rack and merchandise hundreds of titles on that day, and looking at an over-the-transom pitch is just about the last thing I have time for on a Tuesday.

In much the same way, I would strongly advise against trying to pitch a retailer on a Wednesday — that’s our busiest sale day (outside the weekends), and we’re mostly concentrating on selling what we already have, not bringing in new titles.

(I also think Mondays are generally bad days, because a significant percentage of retailers are finalizing their Final Order Cutoff orders on that day, and are otherwise preparing the beginning of each week’s labor. Though, that’s less than perfectly universal — many do that work on the weekend.)

You should also try to develop a thick skin — the market is complex and compacted and very fragmented these days, so it may take a while before the mass of retailers recognize the value in what you’re doing. Even people who are fully baked professional packages can take years before the market figures out how to properly order their work — in fact, it generally takes about the equivalent of three full collections of your work (3-600 pages) before the market is going to pay any significant attention to your work — unless you’re the rare savant who is flawless in your work and work ethic both (hint: you’re probably not that person, sorry!).

For every one hundred blind pitches I receive, I probably only read all the way through the email of a quarter of those (the other three quarters making basic mistakes of tone or audience), and, of those that remain, I doubt if I’m making a purchase on more than one-tenth — so 2-3 out of every hundred. That low percentage is virtually always a matter of the underlying work not being professional enough to compete against eighty years of comics history and the sheer deluge and flood of product flowing through the market today.

That isn’t to say it’s impossible — that we’re likely taking some action on 2 to 3% shows that — but you’re stacking your odds against yourself if you don’t make a clear, focused pitch and you don’t clutter the inbox with things that aren’t requested.


In other topics, we’re now at the third week of the “All-New, All-Different” Marvel comics relaunch, where for the first time in Marvel history they’re restarting their entire line at one time, with new number ones, and at least someone different status quos, making it, without a doubt, the single best jumping-on point for Marvel comics probably since 1963.

However…

I’m not sure how it is working for other retailers, but our results have been extremely mixed. At the satellite store, the one that is basically already Marvel-oriented, the new relaunch is selling about the same, maybe a smidge higher than Marvel books were already selling, but at the main store? Title sales for Marvel books are flat or even down in several cases.

The contrast is really against the 2011 New 52 relaunch of DC Comics, which was a rampaging success, at least at the start, drawing many many “lapsed” readers back, and ultimately (ironically), creating a new audience for Image Comics as those readers realized that the strength of that creator-owned line was really what they wanted to be reading in comics. And, so it may very well be that the ultimate fizzle of the New 52 (which really began just after the lenticular covers on Villains month, from my customer’s POV) soured customers on the very notion of a line-wide relaunch of a superhero universe, I actually think the much sounder explanation is that Marvel editorial just shot themselves in the foot.

“Secret Wars” by Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic was meant to be the bridge between the “old” Marvel U and the “All-New, All-Different” (“ANAD,” from here on out) one, and “Secret Wars” actually did the thing that big line-wide crossover events haven’t done in a really really long time — it was excellent, it was inviting, and it really seemed to matter and be a thing that would leave the world different at the end of it.

I don’t know how to not undersell this: line-wide events usually do pretty OK (which is why publishers do them over and over and over again), but “Secret Wars” actually was genuinely doing great — lots of people who didn’t usually buy Marvel comics, especially crossover comics, were strongly attracted to this story, and, much more importantly, virtually everyone has seemed to be really enjoying it. I know I am, and I’m a pretty savage critic of superhero material at this stage of my life.

But “Secret Wars” was supposed to be eight issues, lasting from May to September (remember, they solicited the first four issues as shipping in just two months), and then October would be the big relaunch and everyone would be joyous. That didn’t happen.

Instead, “Secret Wars” starting shipping late from nearly the start, only putting out one issue instead of two in June, and entirely skipping the month of September, and, now that it has had an additional, ninth, issue added to the run, it’s very difficult to see how the story can possibly conclude before January (and February wouldn’t surprise me one bit) — long after “ANAD Marvel” launches, and spoiling at least some of the surprises.

I’m a big big supporter of creator vision, and taking the time to do it right, and artistic purity, as anyone who knows me can attest, but there is one single place that production is flatly more important than purity and that’s in the big linewide crossover series. Because you lose the two most important things from delays: the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, and momentum. And, in today’s comics market of 2015 where you can sell in the 60K band and still make the Top 10, momentum and building a week-to-week chain of excitement for the reader is almost certainly the single most important rule you simply can’t break when you’re doing something across your entire line.

Because today books just don’t rely on themselves — they rely on other pieces of the story as well. There were plot points in “Secret Wars” #6 that other comics had to be held to not spoil, and the psychic cascade effect of delays compounding delays causes all of the excitement to leach away. We were rocking the Marvel event for the first three months, but September’s delays lost that momentum, and October’s sales (both “SW” tie-ins and “ANAD” launches) clearly suffered as a result.

See, the market has friction, and the trick is to launch well enough that you escape orbit and soar off into space, instead of crashing back to the earth. And ANAD was a poor launch with not very much velocity. And that’s a problem because a line-wide relaunch-at-#1 plan is something you can really only do once a generation.

I’ve no doubt that ANAD is going to post strong first-month numbers because of retailer “Secret Wars”-driven confidence (I certainly ordered strongly), but here at week number three, I can’t see how the lack of momentum (or perhaps worse still, maybe, competing, not-supportive, momentum’s from within the same company!) is not going to leave these particular comics with basically the same readership and same overall (declining!) sales pattern as before. I’ll be selling fewer copies of “Amazing Spider-Man” in 2016 than I did in 2006 than I did in 1996 than the store that I worked at then was selling in 1986. ANAD was really a chance to break that cycle (in the way that New 52 absolutely shattered it for DC — at least until the audience figured out that it really didn’t like the content there) and put Marvel (and by extension, the shared super-hero universe in general) into a much healthier orbit. It’s a massive failure for the entire Direct Market (not just Marvel) that we’re almost certainly not going to get multiple six-figure regular monthly sellers out of ANAD as we should have.

Too damn bad.


Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program..

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