Judging by the immense amount of email I have received based on my most recent columns about bagstuffers, it's pretty apparent that people within the industry (particularly self-publishers) are interested in beginning or perfecting a comic bagstuffer of their own to help promote their books. Personally, I think that's terrific that creators and publishers are interested in going ahead with bagstuffing campaigns! However, the other thing I have found to be apparent from the recent flood of emails is that many of these people who want to start taking advantage of this effective marketing tool don't know how to get those bagstuffers into retailers' hands.
So for the purposes of this particular column let's just assume that the creator or publisher of that great comic is you. And you are the kind of creator who is smart enough to realize that no matter where you lie on the comic industry food-chain, the longevity and livelihood of any one of your books is based on the harsh realities of finance. You've invested hundreds upon hundreds of hours of your life struggling to bring your creation to life, and you know all too well that if people don't buy your book that your invested hours and passion aren't going to be enough to keep it alive. Even Marvel and DC cancel great comics on a regular basis because these titles, despite how good they may be, were unable to find a readership to sustain them.
Books that don't sell don't get printed for long and in an effort to give your creation every opportunity to find it's readership you're ready to do a little grass-roots marketing of your own. Maybe you're planning on sending out free copies of your books. Or maybe you want to provide retailers with some xeroxes of the book before they place their orders. Maybe you're planning on sending out some free postcards and mini-comic bagstuffers for those retailers to give away to their customers. Or maybe you're even a little bit crazy and just want to try giving every retailer in the country a five dollar bill to get them to think about ordering your comics.
Whatever the case may be, let's say you've already fine-tuned your strategies and warmed up weapons of mass promotion and now you're ready to take it to the streets for serious trench-fighting guerrilla marketing action.
But there's one small problem. You don't have a clue how to find those stores to mail them your promotional items to. How does one go about sending this kind of stuff out and how the fuck are you supposed to learn who these comic retailers are and where their stores are located?
If your comics are carried by Diamond, you have an excellent resource already. Since they are one of the sole distributors to comic stores, they obviously have a pretty long list of comics stores. Now they aren't going to give you their list, because that's proprietary information, but they will let you use it for a fee. As a retailer I didn't know exactly how this worked so I called up Larry "AIT-PlanetLar" Young, the fine publisher of such great books as Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard's "White Death," Warren Ellis' "Switchblade Honey," Brian Wood's "Channel Zero" and Max Allan Collin's "Johnny Dynamite" to find out.
"Hey Larry, it's James. I've got a Diamond question for you."
Larry's a great guy and always helpful so I wasn't at all surprised when he replied, "Go ahead, what do you want to know?"
"When you send promotional items out to retailers, how does that work?"
"Well, I get on the phone with my Diamond publisher rep, the awesome Fil Sablik, and I tell him I want to do a marketing insert. It's that simple."
"Seriously, is that it?" I asked in disbelief.
"Seriously." Larry laughed, "I just tell Fil what kind of specifications I want. You know, maybe I want it sent to every Diamond account, or every Diamond account that did re-orders on DEMO. Or maybe I'd ask that they sent it out to every store that ordered the new Howard Chaykin book that's coming out."
"Simple as that?"
"Yep simple as that. I ask and Fil makes it happen." Larry Young is never one to keep things vague so he promptly explained this concept to me further, "To do all this Diamond charges an insertion fee, which is practically nothing by the way, fifteen cents per item. When I sent out two copies of Astronauts In Trouble: Live From The Moon to the top 1,000 retailers last year, I not only got to give retailers a little apology for Available Light shipping a couple months late, but I also got to hand retailers 26 bucks in free product."
"And you paid our shipping costs too," I said remembering getting my free copies, "That was cool!"
"Yeah, I told Fil I wanted to send those out and do it freight paid, so you guys would be getting those things completely free of cost, you know? Aside from the cost of the books it cost me around five hundred bucks total. A cheap promotion at twice the price, and it generated a lot of good will from retailers too."
"Okay so there's one more thing I don't understand…" I said scratching my head, "Why doesn't everyone do stuff like that?"
That really got a laugh out of Larry.
"I don't have a clue," he replied, "Maybe they don't have five hundred bucks?"
(Take a bow, Larry Young. And thanks for your help!)
Going through Diamond sounds like an excellent method for getting promo items sent out to retailers, except for the fact that you are completely dependent on Diamond's top-secret retailer list when it comes to dealing with these retailers. And it tends to be a little impersonal to receive things like bagstuffers and other promotional items in with my regular weekly shipment. So even if you're going to use Diamond for sending out promotional goodies, I suggest you start building your own list of industry contacts as well.
Amassing a list of comic retailers is something that publishers should spend some serious time making for themselves, and that goes double for the independent and small-press publishers. This isn't going to be easy, it's a time consuming task to build a definitive list of industry contacts but the more time you put into it, the more you're going to get out.
These people who own and operate these comic stores are your bread and butter and the difference between the life and death of your book, so get on the internet and just start researching comic shops like crazy! Aside from the usual Google searches for "Best" "Comic" "Shop" and "indy friendly comic stores" I suggest learning about the various comic stores out their by going through the Master List of Comic Stores. This is probably the single most valuable resource for creators and publishers that you could possibly find… but if I were you I wouldn't stop there!
Also I recommend searching on other publisher's websites to see if they list any stores that stock their books, particularly those publishers whose books are of similar content and style as yours. Those retailers who buy ads in indy-friendly publications are going to be a great bet every time. And I wouldn't let those kind of stores that sponsor the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, A.C.T.O.R., the Ignatz and Eisner Awards go un-noticed! They obviously have an interest in more than just the run-of-the-mill mainstream books and they're likely to have the customers who your bagstuffer campaign is targeted towards.
And if that isn't enough to get you started, Sequential Tart has a (mostly) monthly retailer profile that is going to prove to be an invaluable resource to you, called "Retailer's Corner" and if you spend some time digging through the archives you're going to thank yourself for doing so.
Now I'll probably catch some heat for saying this, but you want me to tell you how to get results, not to pussyfoot around, so take this to heart when I say it:
Retailers can be bribed.
Some like food, some like free product, some like booze, some like a plug in your book, some like vintage comics, and some like other things of a less than legal nature. They might all like the same things, but they all can be bribed. Now you're not going to get them to order hundreds of copies of a book they can't sell, but just like a comic store offers it's customers "added value" those retailers are your customers... and a little added value goes a long way. Smart retailers will want something that they can turn around and add value for their customers so signed comics, sketches, and unique items their customers can't get anywhere else are always a cool idea. Personally, if I were a small press publisher I'd be finding new ways to grease those retailers' wheels every single month!
Now you don't need to bribe me or retailers like me with anything but great promotional tools, because that's the stuff I really like to see come in the mail... but even James Sime's head can be turned with a great scotch or a picture of Deborah Harry. I'm such a sucker for those two things and although I'm not asking anyone to send me either of them, I'm just sayin' y'know?
Learn the retailers who are most likely to buy your books and treat them like they are solid fucking gold. Take the time to be polite and respectful. Learn to use their names and keep it a bit personal and plenty professional. They will respond well to you if you treat your book, your retailer and yourself like the professionals that you are.
Be sure to be enthusiastic but not over-eager, because in all likelihood these retailers are successful business people with plenty to do and they probably don't have the time to respond to you as much or as often as they would like. If you want to help them sell your comics you want to do it without creating any extra work whatsoever. That's going to get you the best results. Always take great care to keep these retailers happy because they are your customers, and in truth they are your most valuable customers of all.
And while some creators make a policy of bad-mouthing retailers that's never going to help them sell any fucking books, so if you want my advice, don't do it. It's just not good business. And if it were my dime on the line as a creator or publisher I would jump through flaming hoops to keep from bad mouthing retailers. Just like I never badmouth the customers who shop at my store (or any other store for that matter).
Remember that because of the reality that 99% of all the product that retailers carry is non-returnable not all comic retailers are willing to risk their limited resources on things that might not be able to find an audience at their store, and independent and small-press comics might be one of those things that they don't feel is worth the risk. So when you're putting together a list of retailers to send things to, you might decide to cut your losses on those stores that don't stock the kinds of books you are selling and not waste your time and money sending things to them.
And also before you start sending out big stacks of things to retailers, take a little time to check out this short but great resource for self-publishers from a creator I absolutely love (Jane Irwin of the amazing Vogelein comic). If you read nothing else, you must read Jane's cautionary advice about contacting retailers.
Having gone through all that, I believe that while some retailers are reluctant to carry independent comics, that even the most conservative and unadventurous comic retailer in the world is willing to take a few chances on independently published comics if they find something that strikes their fancy. Despite the odds against it, your bagstuffer might be just the thing that this retailer thinks will go over great with his or her customers and they'll put in an order on your book. Or maybe they've got a new manager who is interested in expanding the store's traditional audience. Or maybe there's a new retailer at the other end of that mailing address who bought out the previous owner's failing business and have decided to remake the comic industry in their own unique vision. Stranger things have happened!
Until next week, happy comic pimping!
For more information on getting your comics into the hands of the entertainment-starved masses:
On November 7thI painted an intimate portrait of how Diamond's Previews catalogue is used by me to choose what comics to stock on my store shelves. I discussed what steps can be taken to ensure that retailers like myself are given all the information we need to order books with confidence, and what publishers can do to further ensure their books get onto store shelves.
November 14th saw the beginning of a series of columns dealing with the single best promotional tool that creators have at their disposal, the creator in-store appearance. I profiled an in-store I did with author Joe Casey and explained exactly why these kind of events can be a promotional goldmine for both retailers and creators.
November 16th included a additional thoughts on the importance of in-store appearances. This column included my personal out-the-box philosophy on throwing these kind of events, ideas how to make them more intimate for the consumers and more promotionally effective, and some simple ideas to make your in-store appearances great successes.
December 5th featured some very practical ideas pimping to the pimp
Leading up to last week when I did a detailed breakdown of one of the most often overlooked low-cost marketing tools that creators and publishers can use to attract the comic buying public to their books, the bagstuffer. In this column I take a look at six different bagstuffers that have proven to be exceptional promotional tools at my store.
Know of a great comic store that carries independent and small-press comics that would appreciate receiving bagstuffers, signed comics and other promotional items for free from creators? Share their addresses and the owner's names with Comic Pimp readers on our forum!
And as always, feel free to pontificate on industry issues, preach the gospel of great comic books or discuss this article on the Comic Pimp Forum