CCI: Top Cow Pitches Free "Cyber Force" to Retailers

Top Cow's "Cyber Force" relaunch, announced in the run up to Comic-Con International in San Diego, has already turned heads in the comics industry, less for the return of the Image Comics launch book than for its unusual and perhaps unique distribution model. Each issue of "Cyber Force," co-written by Top Cow founder Marc Silvestri and President/Chief Operating Officer Matt Hawkins and illustrated by Khoi Pham, will be funded by Kickstarter and made available free to readers in both print and digital formats. Top Cow held a panel at Comic-Con to discuss the mechanics of this program with those perhaps most affected by it, the retailers who will stock the ongoing free "Cyber Force" comic in their stores. Comic Book Resources was on hand for the nuts-and-bolts discussion, which also featured some intriguing new details for readers.

Hawkins said that the free print and digital comic was an effort to capitalize on Top Cow's 13,000 Twitter followers and the innumerable torrent downloaders. "What we want to do is find a way to find a way to get those people buying comics," he said. He noted that "the genie is out of the bottle" as far as torrenting is concerned, though he also recognizes that only a tiny fraction of downloaders would pay for the comics even if it were possible to halt piracy altogether.

"When we did the 'Darkness' game, there were download codes for sixteen free books, there was something like a 3% conversion rate. [2k Games] thought that was great, but I'm thinking...these are free books." But if even a small percentage of those who illegally download can be enticed into shops with the free "Cyber Force" book, Hawkins said, there is the potential for a huge boon for the direct market. He is hoping for half a million torrent downloads of "Cyber Force" #1, of which even 1% of the readers making their way to stores would be significant.

Silvestri and Hawkins then noted that there is perhaps greater promotional potential for the free "Cyber Force" than Free Comic Book Day, not only because the even carries over five months, but because of the unique distribution model and media coverage. "The point with the Kickstarter is, USA Today is going to carry this story. Everybody's going to know there's a free comic out there," Silvestri said. "What's going to drive people is creating some sort of frenzy."

"The reason the mainstream media is going to cover this is that we're going to upload these books to the torrent sites ourselves," Hawkins added. "No publisher has ever done that." While some in the audience were skeptical of this aspect of the program, one retailer compared this to indie gaming's pay-what-you-want Humble Bundles, which let developers approach downloaders and "get on their side," creating a reaction of "these people are awesome, let's give them money."

Hawkins also noted that, while "Cyber Force" will also be available through the more official outlet of comiXology, the program's ultimate focus is on driving traffic to brick-and-mortar stores. "80% of our publishing revenue comes from comics stores," Hawkins said. "It doesn't come from digital, it doesn't come from Barnes & Noble." Helping retailers therefore serves to help Top Cow.

"If there's a free 'Cyber Force' comic -- nobody goes [to the store] with no money in their pocket," Silvestri said. Hawkins added that during the early Image boom days, "we sold 100 million copies of 'Cyber Force,'" and the free comics could draw lapsed readers back into stores out of nostalgia.

The publisher is hoping to raise $75,000 through the Kickstarter campaign, though Silvestri said, "To be honest, it's not going to nearly our cost." The fundraising will pay for the art, the Kickstarter rewards themselves and some printing costs. Retailers will pay $.25 per copy, with $.15 going to Diamond Comics Distributor, and there will be a 1:100 variant cover. Hawkins added that, while he can't ship physical product for free -- "Diamond won't do it" -- he hopes to further reduce retailer costs down the line.

Though Hawkins did not enumerate what rewards the Kickstarter would feature, he did mention that one would be a lunch with Silvestri at a future con, prompting the Top Cow founder to joke, "That'll be a thrill! 'I'll have a double quarter pounder, please!'"

Tying in with the free comics, Top Cow will release new editions of the original "Cyber Force" run, including a compendium book. One retailer suggested there should be an edition at the $9.99 price point, which he said would be most effective way to help retailers make money from the free comics. Hawkins and Silvestri seemed amenable to the idea. "Just as a tip, the old 'Aphrodite IX' series is going to play heavily into this, so if you've got any trades of that, it could have some value," Hawkins added.

Preempting retailer concerns, given Silvestri's and Top Cow's reputation, about the potential for lateness, Hawkins said, "It will be on time. We've learned from our 25 years of mistakes."

"One reason we went with Khoi Pham and not Marc Silvestri on interiors is that we want these books to come out," Hawkins said to laughter. "He was a 14-book a year guy at Marvel, and he's only doing 'Cyber Force.'"

Silvestri added, "We actually have to tell him to slow down."

"Marc is doing a cover, and given time, will be doing a two-page backup feature in each of the books," Hawkins revealed. "Those two pages will not be in the digital version."

Clearing up some initial confusion about the series' format, Hawkins said that "Cyber Force" is an ongoing, 24-page, color comic, with the Kickstarter funding issues #1-5. After that, there are several possible outcomes. "Either #6 will be a $2.99 book, or we'll raise more than our goal," he said. A retailer suggested that both shops and Top Cow would be better served by a new #1; Hawkins and Silvestri seemed open to the idea but said they are actively trying to avoid miniseries, due in part to the tail effect of reorders with ongoing books. Hawkins also said a second Kickstarter is possible to continue funding the book and keeping it free to readers. The goal is to do at least ten issues or the first year of "Cyber Force" for free.

One retailer asked what would happen if "Cyber Force" failed to reach its Kickstarter goal and was thus not funded. "It's going to be funded," Hawkins said simply.

Late in the panel, a retailer concerned with issues of shelf space asked if there was a point at which Top Cow would be comfortable with shops selling the comics, once the free issues of "Cyber Force" had effectively become back issues. Intriguingly, Hawkins said that he's not bothered if retailers charge for the comics at any stage of the issue's life. "If you want to sell it for a buck, that's your prerogative," he said. "There's no cover price -- it doesn't say 'free.'"

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