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Top Cow To Win New Fans Over w/ 60,000 Free Comics

by  in Comic News Comment
Top Cow To Win New Fans Over w/ 60,000 Free Comics
Top Cow launches Let Us Win You Over in February, an initiative to give away 60,000 free comics

One thing can be said with total certainty – Top Cow has been making a lot of noise lately.

As we come to the end of 2008, Top Cow has told CBR News about their publishing plans for the new year, which include a commitment to keeping all prices static with no increases for at least twelve months. In addition, Top Cow will work aggressively with at least 300 select retailers in 2009 to give away over 60,000 comic books to new readers. The move is part of an initiative called Let Us Win You Over.

Exactly what is this initiative? What comics will be given away for free? Which retailers will be participating? What is the expected end result? CBR News caught up with Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik for the answers to those questions and more.

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CBR: Filip, please tell our readers about Top Cow’s new initiative, Let Us Win You Over.

Filip Sablik: The Let Us Win You Over initiative is basically Top Cow’s yearlong initiative to try and get new readers over to our books by working with retailers and the press to put a spotlight on what we do. The short version is [starting in February] 2009 we’re going to work with 25 different direct market stores – comic shop owners, for the lay person – and each of those stores are going to get 250 free copies of one of our books, predominantly “Witchblade” or “The Darkness,” whatever is coming out that month. They will be giving them out for free to anyone who has not read those titles or isn’t reading those titles currently.

The idea is the first hit is free – we just want people to give the books a shot. With budgets being what they are and the economy being what it is, folks are probably a little hesitant to try new comics out. So, we want to give them the opportunity to see what it is we do and hopefully they like it and come back for more.

“The Darkness” #75 will be one of the free comics given away in 2009

How many comic books will be given away and how many stores will be participating in this initiative?

In total for this promotion, we’re going to give out 60,000 free comics over the course of the year. That’ll go through 300 stores. We’re starting off working with ComicsPro, one of our primary partners, and our other partner is Diamond Comics Distributors. We’ll start with shops that are ComicsPro members and the stores will be varied in location and size. You’ll probably see some familiar names amongst the participating stores, places like Atomic Comics or Golden Apple Comics, some of the more well known stores, but you’ll also see smaller operations located in places like the mid-west as well as the east and west coasts.

I was talking with Top Cow’s Marketing Manager Mel Caylo the other day and when you add up all the books we’ll be giving out, plus our participation in Free Comic Book Day this year (hopefully as one of the Gold Sponsors), and the books we give out for free at conventions, well, we’re looking at giving out over 200,000 free comics in 2009.

You mentioned that stores participating in this initiative would be ComicsPro retailers. What’s the criteria for choosing stores outside of those retailers?

We’ll be working with Diamond on that. We’re looking for stores who are eager to grow their business with us and get out there and promote this. Part of the package deal with this promotion is that in exchange for these free comics, the stores who are participating will agree to receive overship quantities on subsequent issues.

For those who aren’t familiar with that concept, it’s basically this: retailers will agree to receive additional copies of a book and they’ll take a period of time to try and sell those. Anything they end up selling, they pay for. Anything they don’t sell, they return to us and don’t pay for them. The idea there is that it’s great to give out free books, everybody loves free books, but ultimately if that customer comes back the next month after having read one of those free books and is interested in continuing, but they walk into their store four weeks later and that next issue isn’t on the stands because the retailer hasn’t increased their orders, then that free issue kind of went to waste, which is what we’re trying to avoid.

One of the reasons why we’re starting with ComicsPro stores is because, in my experience working with that organization, those are retailers who are actively interested in not only growing their business, but the comics industry in general. They want to see new consumers. They want to see existing customers buying more product. So, we felt confident launching this promotion that the retailers who are members of ComicsPro will get behind it in a big way.

Is there any concern that handing out these free comics will result in people simply getting a free comic and not coming back to Top Cow the next month, or is the onus more on the retailer to keep them engaged?

I think, as with anything we do, it’s a joint effort. One of the reasons why we decided to do this large, nationwide, widespread public promotion is just for that reason – we have given away free books in the past. There have been times we’d call up a retailer and tell them we have a new series launching, we’d like to help promote it by giving them free copies of the issue and they agree, but then we get back to that problem where they come back a month later and there’s nothing there for their customers to latch on to. That’s when you end up just giving away a bunch of books. The promotion has been conceived specifically with that problem in mind. How we can give them a taste of what we do without that opportunity being wasted.

One of the things a lot of publishers have done is the free preview issue. The downside to that is that it feels less valuable. If you’re a consumer and you have the word “free” stamped on it and it’s just got part of a story with some back matter in it, it’s cool, but ultimately consumers are savvy enough and get that it’s kind of a less valuable promotional item. Whereas, I think if you hand them an issue that has $2.99 on the cover, and it’s a regular issue of the series, you’re saying I’m confident the material is good enough to bring you back. That has a bigger impact.

When all is said and done and you’ve handed out these 60,000 free Top Cow comics, what sort of conversion rate of regular, new readers are you looking for to call this promotion a success?

One thing we’ve said before is if we got two new regular readers of either “Witchblade” or “The Darkness” in every store in America, it would be a big difference maker for what we do. It’s actually that easy. If we get 1-2% new readers over the course of a year, I think the promotion will more than pay for itself. If we get 5-10% new readers, you’ll probably be hearing about me doing cartwheels down Santa Monica Blvd.

I think we’d all like to see that, Filip.

I hope so! But really, I think what’s true about these promotions is you have to throw a lot of stuff at the wall to grab people. We have no delusions. I don’t think either myself or [Top Cow President] Matt Hawkins feel, in the next year, we’ll be sitting in the Top 50 selling 60,000 copies of “Witchblade” every month. We do think this series is better than what it’s direct market sales figures reflect right now. We think there’s a larger audience for it.

It’s not going to be for everybody, but we do think there are consumers who have preconceived notions preventing them from picking up the book. We’re all creatures of habit – we walk into the store, pick up the same thing and it’s real easy not to add anything new, but I think there are too many customers out there buying out of habit and not enjoying the read anymore. I’d like them to be reading my books and I think they’ll enjoy it.

Let’s talk about the timing of this initiative. You’ve already announced that all Top Cow books will remain at a $2.99 price point and will not rise above that in 2009 unless they’re oversized or otherwise distinctive; you have this promotion to give out free comics; and we as a society are in the midst of a recession that all signs indicate is only going to deepen. Yet, Top Cow seems undeterred and is making a rather large promotional investment here – giving away 60,000 free comics simply ain’t cheap. Have you factored the uncertain economic times ahead in your decisions here?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s not that it doesn’t come without some risk and without some trepidation on our part, but it’s calculated risk. Top Cow, as a company, has a history of doing things that are a little bit riskier and haven’t been tried before. Two years ago, Matt Hawkins decided to put out a 50-issue, full color compendium book for $60 bucks. It had never been done before and if people had not reacted to it as positively as they did, it very well may have sunk the company, just based on the printing costs alone.

That being said, I think it’s no secret that the last couple of years Top Cow has had some really nice successes in other media that have helped shore up the company and put us in a comfortable position cash-flow wise. Unlike some of our peers, and I’m talking about non-Marvel and non-DC publishers, we’re not in a position where we’re operating issue-to-issue to make ends meet. When we look at this, we’re looking at it as an opportunity to really reach out while everyone else is pulling back or are raising prices or whatever. This, to us, seems like the perfect time to offer more to the consumers and show them that we really value our readers and retailers and are listening to them.

I won’t pretend its altruistic, ultimately we hope folks back-up what they’re saying with their wallet and will give these books a try.

Let’s take a look at the first five books that will be participating in this initiative:

February – “The Darkness” #11, which is actually the 75th issue of “The Darkness” since the title debuted.

March – “Witchblade” #125

April – “Witchblade” #126

May – “The Darkness” #13/77

June – “Witchblade” #127

Won’t some of those books be mid-storyline when given out for free?

We’ve taken that into account. There will be a couple of issues that’ll be a part two or three. Specifically with “Witchblade,” starting in March we’re launching a six-part story called “War of the Witchblade,” which will be our biggest Witchblade story for the year and possibly the biggest in the last couple of years. It’s something [writer] Ron Marz has been building towards since issue #100 or so. What we’ve told both [“The Darkness” writer] Phil Hester and Ron Marz is let them know well ahead that we’re doing this initiative, they’re both really excited about it, and just said we have to factor this all in and ask ourselves the question when every single issue comes out, “If this was somebody’s first issue, is it a satisfying read?”

Some of the things we’re doing inside the issues will help, such as recap pages, and we’re trying to do it a little different that just having a recap page with straight text, throwing in some panels of artwork or sequences with captions that help bring readers up to speed. Some of it is how Ron and Phil Hester choose to write the stories, too. The great thing about Ron is he’s been doing this for so long, he’s really good at giving people ground level reads. Phil, specifically, has already been planning on doing a number of self-contained issues. The best way to describe Phil’s stories is that they’re single-issue stories that have a larger story running throughout. A new reader picking it up will, at the very least, be able to enjoy the done-in-one story. It’s definitely something we’re taking into account and hopefully if we’re doing our job right they won’t be confused.

Wrapping things up here, if there’s a retailer reading this who’s not a ComicsPro member but would be interested in participating in Let Us Win You Over, how should they go about throwing their name in the hat?

They can simply e-mail myself or Mel Caylo. Contact us. ComicsPro currently has 100, maybe 150 members, so our partnership with them gives those members the opportunity to participate first, then after that we’ll open it up to any direct market retailer, coordinating with Diamond. There will also be a sort of call-to-action with Diamond, giving retailers a chance to sign up. We’re going to try and give as many retailers as possible and opportunity to participate.

And if you have more than 300 stores looking to participate?

It would be fantastic if we got more than 300 stores chomping at the bit to do it, but we’ll have to cross that bridge if we get to it. Obviously, if it’s 305 stores that want to participate, I’m probably not going to turn those five stores away. We’ll find a way to add those stores. If it’s 500 stores that want to participate, we’ll have to figure something out, but that would be a good problem to have.

The other thing we’re doing for existing fans of “Witchblade” and “The Dakrness,” and any other book we have that ends up participating in the promotion, what we’re going to do so they don’t feel like they’re paying for something they’ve always been paying for while some other guy gets a free issue …

Do you mean, Hey, Where’s My Bailout?

Exactly! More to the point, “I’ve been supporting you guys for XX many years, why am I getting screwed over while someone else is getting a free ride?” The answer to that is we’re going to publish Customer Appreciation covers. So, those stores that participate and let’s say they have 10 regular customers who buy “Witchblade,” when they get their free copies of “Witchblade,” they’ll also get 10 copies of an exclusive variant cover which will only be available to the customers for those stores that are participating that regularly buy “Withcblade.” It’s just our way of showing those readers that we appreciate their support and the fact they do buy our books month-in and month-out.

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