Archaia on selling out: What it means and how to do it

We’ve all seen the limitless press announcements from every comics publisher there is about sold out books. After a while, they lose meaning. Did the publisher not print very many? Did retailers under-order? Do people just really love the book? Seldom do we get answers to those questions.

So when Archaia recently sold out of both Return of the Dapper Men and the Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard collection at the same time, there seemed to be an opportunity to dig into this phenomenon a bit. At C2E2 last year, I learned that Archaia is remarkably forthcoming about their business strategies, so their double sell out seemed like a great time to find out not only what that event means to a small publisher, but also to learn about the work that went into creating the situation in the first place. I asked Archaia’s Editor-in-Chief Stephen Christy, Mouse Guard’s creator David Petersen, and Return of the Dapper Men’s Jim McCann and Janet Lee to help me understand. They not only did that; they also gave me a unique look at how Archaia perceives itself and what sets the company apart from other publishers.

Michael May: Stephen, can you talk about the print runs of Return of the Dapper Men and Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard? How do they compare to Archaia's typical numbers?

Stephen Christy: They were both larger than a standard Archaia print run. Mouse Guard is our bestselling title, so we knew we had to print heavy and Dapper Men had enough preorders to justify a run of 10,000 copies. It wasn’t until preorders jumped on both titles a week or two before release that we started to get a feeling that we could get hit with a sell out.

Mouse Guard blew through its print run of 15,000 in just a few days, which was much better than we were anticipating. When the previous Mouse Guard volume came out, it sold about 11,000 copies in its first month in stores. We only did a first printing of 15,000 for Legends because the trend with spinoffs is to always sell less than the main series by anywhere between 20-50%, so 15,000 seemed like it would last us at least 6 months, if not longer. We see the sellout as a testament to the growing popularity of Mouse Guard, and if these are the numbers that a spinoff does, I’m very excited to see how the Black Axe hardcover will sell.

Michael: Did you guys do anything differently to promote these two books?

Stephen: In the case of Mouse Guard, I think the best possible promotional thing that we could have done for the book was the Mouse Guard/Fraggle Rock Free Comic Book Day flip book. We shipped out over 110,000 copies of that issue, and we got incredible feedback from so many readers who had heard about Mouse Guard but had never read it before. That and the fact that there were so many famous artists on the project made it really an easy item to promote to retailers, book buyers, librarians, and all the other outlets that we sell to.

For Dapper Men, the credit needs to go to Jim McCann, who himself is a one-man marketing machine. He was able to leverage so many of the contacts he made while doing marketing at Marvel to help promote this book. This was also a book that Archaia touted since the spring of this year as being one of the best books that we’d release in 2010. As a publisher, when you spend nine months going around telling that to anyone who will listen, it definitely helps get the word out. At the end of the day Dapper was one of those books where we had perfect timing on all fronts and that really contributed to us being where we are now with the book.

Michael: Jim, can you talk about your efforts along those lines? How did you plan this out?

Jim McCann: I was very lucky in that I spent six years in Marketing for Marvel. I also watched the way Bendis, Brubaker, Hickman, and Fraction all positioned their creator-owned work. David Petersen was a great help and resource as well. I knew going into it that I was going to need to create a brand for myself, help Janet’s brand go from the gallery world into sequential world, and also create a Dapper Men brand. I looked through my contacts and of course reached out to them, but there was never a guarantee that they would cover it, much less receive it as well as it was. I also looked into a number of other outlets and – working with Archaia’s Marketing Manager Mel Caylo – we cold-called and emailed a number of new places to reach the children’s, library, and steampunk markets.

The biggest challenge was switching from being able to drop the Marvel name and market their property to having to stand basically on your own merits. And honestly, as far as creator-owned properties go, I was an unknown quantity. I do have to credit social media on this as well. Twitter and Facebook played a huge role in not just me getting word out, but everyone who saw Janet’s work at a con or saw the video, they all continued the conversation by telling their friends, who told theirs, etc.

Michael: David, given the popularity of Mouse Guard, do you still need to do a lot of marketing yourself? How do you approach that?

David Petersen: I think I do need to still be active about marketing Mouse Guard myself. I don't know that I’m quite as zealous as Jim has been recently though (which I applaud him for). If you hold back on promotion thinking, “I have fans already, I can rest on my laurels,” you will regret it. I’m a firm believer in remaining connected to your audience. I try and keep as open a dialogue as I can with my fans through Twitter, Facebook, my blog, and the occasional Ustream (where I do live demos of my process and answer questions for the fans watching). Archaia does a great job of lining up interviews, press, and generally keeping Mouse Guard in view, but I think that kind of promotion can only go so far. Giving the fans access to more than just content in the books is key.

Michael: Stephen, when we’re talking about selling out at the distributor level, is that just the Direct Market or does that include bookstores?

Stephen: It’s selling out at the distributor level. That means that Diamond comics has shipped out all of the inventory to buyers, and that Diamond has nothing left in stock. So while readers should be able to find copies of both Mouse Guard and Dapper Men at comic stores, bookstores, and on online retailers like Amazon, we still need to go back to second printings on both titles to make sure that our distributor will have copies on hand.

Michael: I understand that this is the first time that Archaia’s sold out of two books at the same time. Is that important? If so, how is it more significant than selling out of a single title?

Stephen: It’s hugely important for us as a company and it’s a great way to end what I think was a very difficult year for the industry as a whole. For Dapper Men it was just a great vindication that this weird little story that we all loved connected with so many people in exactly the way we wanted it to. For Mouse Guard, it showed us that the audience for our most popular book is growing by leaps and bounds. And after a year that was a real struggle for the industry as a whole, it’s nice to end on a high note with two books that not only sold out but that have been critically acclaimed as well. It makes the last twelve months of hard work seem worth it!

Michael: Do you think the books were under-ordered by retailers?

Stephen: I think that Dapper Men was definitely under-ordered by Direct Market retailers, but I can understand why. It’s a new book, an OGN no less, by two creators who aren’t superstars and who have never even produced a graphic novel before. Plus, it’s a $25 book, which I know is not an easy thing for retailers to take a chance on in this economy.

Still, I think we all hoped that the buzz building around the book in the months before its release would have encouraged retailers to take a chance on it. The bookstores were behind the book from the beginning, and that was reflected in the orders that they placed. We actually had to talk some major chains into ordering less of the book because we were worried about being open to too many returns, but the fact that major retailers have already placed reorders means that the sell-through on this book is strong.

Michael: Are you already planning additional print runs?

Stephen: We’ll see how quickly these new print runs move. I can promise people that we’ll go back to press as much as we need to on these titles. These books are going to be in print for a long, long time.

Michael: What’s the potential for future volumes from Archaia’s perspective?

Stephen: Well, David is hard at work on Mouse Guard: The Black Axe, which is the next volume in the series. The first issue of that is out now, and the rest of the issues will be following shortly thereafter. We’ve also announced that we’re going to be producing a second volume of Legends of the Guard, with another group of incredibly talented creators coming into and exploring the Mouse Guard world.

Dapper Men is the first book in a trilogy, and the sequel, Time of the Dapper Men, will be making its debut at the end of 2011. The finale, World of the Dapper Men, will hopefully see print in 2012 or 2013 at the latest. I know that the word “epic” is thrown around a lot, but from conversations with Jim and Janet I can promise you that the first Dapper Men book barely scratches the surface of this incredible universe. A lot happens in the next two books that I think will shock readers of the first volume. Jim and Janet definitely aren’t afraid to see their characters change and get hurt and grow up and become different. I’m excited to see where they take their story and I hope readers are too!

Michael: David, is Mouse Guard a series that can go on indefinitely or have you already planned the end?

David: No end in sight. After Black Axe, I have two more series planned out, with several more seed ideas waiting in the wings. I know I’ll take a few breaks in my career from Mouse Guard, but that’s for preservation purposes. I don't want to burn out on the mice, so I’ll factor in a few new side projects as I go along. But Mouse Guard will be what I do for life.

Michael: Is there potential for other spin-offs besides Legends of the Guard?

David: I don't think so, other than more Legends series. The Legends format works perfectly to have guests do work without my panicking about turning over the reins. To have another spin-off would mean finding someone I trust completely who has an open slate and for me to be able to turn over story ideas to... So it becomes a question of, “What part of your mythology do you not want to tell personally?” And I come up fairly blank. I won’t say, “Never,” but another spin-off seems unlikely to me.

Michael: Jim and Janet, I didn’t realize until Stephen just pointed it out that Dapper Men is the first volume in a planned trilogy. Does it end on a cliffhanger or do readers get a complete story in Return?

Janet Lee: While Return of the Dapper Men is indeed the first volume of a trilogy, it is also a complete story in and of itself. And it’s our intention that all the books in the trilogy function that way, much like the OZ books.

Jim: We wanted to make sure that you get a complete tale in one volume, both in terms of storytelling (knowing that this would hopefully be read by kids and adults) and just in case it didn’t perform as well as we'd hoped. Fortunately, the latter went beyond everyone’s expectations, so thank you to the fans!

Michael: Can you see the series continuing even further than three volumes?

Janet: This is something Jim and I plot and dream about all the time. While the Dapper Men series is planned to end after three books, the universe it’s set in is rich enough that we could tell other stories there. I think they would be their own “thing” though.

Jim: Time of the Dapper Men and World of the Dapper Men tell a complete arc, following our main characters through the most important times of their lives, but you’ll see by the end how we could continue to work within the universe. Janet and I have – literally – years’ worth of stories that we would like to tell, each with their own message, tone, and take on fairy tales.

Michael: I also understand that you guys are doing a story for a future Legends of the Guard. Can you tease that at all?

Jim: We were so honored that David asked us to be part of the Legends volume. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a story of a legend becoming larger than life and how the characters involved see the perception of them.

Janet: I can tell you I am having an amazing time designing mouse fashions. I designed a ruff that looks as if it were made out of wasp paper! It’s unbelievably fun to get to create a little piece of the Mouse Guard world and so wonderful to see what directions other artists go with it. I loved the first series!

Michael: Stephen, what attracted you to the ideas behind these two books in the first place? How do they fit into Archaia's larger publishing strategy?

Stephen: Dapper Men was something that we were immediately attracted to because it was just so different. As a small company with limited resources, one of the few ways that we rise above the competition is by taking risks on books that are new and that push boundaries and that would be harder for other companies to publish. We felt Dapper Men was a risk, but a risk that would pay off in a big way if readers were able to buy into the incredible world that Jim and Janet created, which luckily they have.

I can’t speak to Mouse Guard as Mark Smylie, Archaia’s founder, was the one who brought that book into the fold, but obviously Mouse Guard is Archaia’s tentpole property and one that continues to reach a wider and wider audience, which we’re really proud of.

Both of these books exemplify what Archaia is all about, which is a commitment to excellence across the board. Dapper Men was also part of a broader strategy to put a message out there that you can be a successful writer at one of the big two (like Jim is), and you can come to Archaia and create something that the big two would never take a chance on. Judging from the response in the creative community I think that message was well received.

Michael: David, Jim, and Janet, what about you guys? Why Archaia? What led you to thinking that this was the right company to pitch to?

David: Ha! They were the first publisher I contacted. It turned out for the best, but I went to San Diego as a fan to see the spectacle that is the SDCC, not to find a publisher. Archaia was suggested to me while I was walking around the floor, so I went over to them thinking mainly I was going to get a nice review of my self-published first issue from Mark Smylie (then-president of Archaia who had given me a very helpful portfolio review a few years prior). Archaia was interested almost immediately.

I really didn’t think a publisher would be interested in my book about mice with swords, so having someone say, “Yes” right away was my first reason. Secondly, Mark asked if I wanted to keep the format the same, the square 8” x 8” size that Mouse Guard is. I told him I would and he said something along the lines of “That's the right answer.” Thirdly, after talking to Mark, I saw that I was going to be given the creative freedom at Archaia to make Mouse Guard what I wanted it to be instead of what an editor or marketing person thought might be more saleable. That last reason is what I would list as the number one reason I’m still happy there.

Janet: When we were considering publishers for Return of the Dapper Men we wanted a company that had a great track record with original stories that didn’t really fit the mold. We knew we wanted a stand-alone graphic novel and that the feel and quality of the final product needed to be special. When you look at the kinds of books Archaia puts out – Mouse Guard, Tumor, Syndrome, God Machine, Hybrid Bastards, Fraggle Rock – that's exactly what they do. They also have an amazing track record for all-ages product. As a publishing house, Archaia isn't afraid to take a chance on something really different. That was the kind of place Return of the Dapper Men needed to be.

Jim: Archaia was always on the short list. I’d known Stephen when he worked at Marvel, Mel Caylo from Wizard, Mark Smylie was friends with Janet, and David and Julia Petersen and I were pals through cons. I loved the way their books looked and I also loved the fact that their catalog was so diverse. I honestly believe they have the most diverse catalog of any publisher out there in terms of content and genres. I pitched them on the floor at SDCC based on a rough idea and some printouts of Janet’s design sketches and they said, “Yes!” on the spot. I called Janet and she agreed that Archaia just felt right. I am so glad that we’ve made a home here.

Michael: Is there something that defines an “Archaia book?” What, if anything, ties them together? Stephen, you first.

Stephen: Our strategy is very simple: only make quality books. Life is too short to turn out licensed books that nobody really cares about or recycled ideas that you’ve seen a hundred times before. In our mind the ideal Archaia book should be one that transports you into its world, whether it’s the grounded, real world in our upcoming drama An Elegy for Amelia Johnson or the world of Dapper Men where time itself doesn’t exist. We want our books to take you on a journey and have you come out the other side hopefully looking at the world and people around you a little differently. I think we’re lucky as a publisher that our line isn’t tied together by genre (such as Marvel or DC) or by style (such as Radical), but by quality and a unique approach to the physical production on comics.

Michael: David, Jim, and Janet, what defines an Archaia book to you?

David: “Unique” and “creative” are two that come to mind. Archaia, when taking submissions at shows, would often turn away wonderful-looking work, not because it wasn’t up to snuff, but because it was something too similar to what another publisher may have already had with another title. Archaia wants to be the home for the books that wouldn’t have homes at other publishers.

Also – as my stance was with Legends, to give the contributors as much freedom as I could (something I have been afforded since Day One) – Archaia caters to comic creators with their own voices and gives them a long leash to work from.

Jim: Quality and diversity. They play around with sizes, binding, and paper stock all to make sure that each book has a unique look and feel that’s perfect for that project. All of this adds up to one of the best looking collection of books out there!

Janet: When I pick up a book published by Archaia, I know I’m going to read something unique and beautiful. Something that probably wouldn’t have been published yesterday, but that might be everywhere tomorrow.

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