Top Cow's recently enacted "Let Us Win You Over" initiative is, as the company's Publisher Filip Sablik described it, "the initiative where I went crazy."
That's certainly one way to look at a campaign in which a comic book company gives away 200 free comics to 25 different comic book stores every month, totaling 5,000 free comic books for each 30-day period with a grand total of 60,000 comic books in one year - all of this in the midst of one of the worst global financial situation in recent history.
"These are our regular books. They're not promo books, they're not preview books, they're not dollar books that we're giving away. These are honest-to-god regular issues of Top Cow titles," Filip Sablik told CBR. "So, yeah, it's where I went crazy."
Crazy? Perhaps, but the move is also potentially brilliant. Comic book publishers are not the only ones risking their bank accounts in this economic climate. Indeed, it's the comic book buyer whose wallet is thinning with every continued purchase, leaving said fan to make harsh judgments about which books they will continue to buy and which books will need to be dropped. By instituting the "Let Us Win You Over" campaign, Top Cow is giving some of these struggling readers an opportunity to try a new full-length book that they might not otherwise be able to afford.
"No matter how much I talk about how awesome our books are - which I do incessantly until I'm blue in the face - to a certain extent, people discount that because it's my job. I'm supposed to talk about how awesome we are," Sablik explained. "Nothing speaks to a fan about the quality of a book like the product itself. There's nothing you or I can say, or an artist or writer can say, that's really going to speak as well as the actual product itself. I really wanted to do something that was a national, large-scale initiative to let people know that Top Cow is serious. We're putting our money where our mouth is. We believe in the quality of these books. We're essentially saying, 'We think our books are better than you think they are, so give it a shot.'"
It's a risky proposition, to be sure. Despite potentially great rewards - attaining new fans that become long-term customers, for one - the process of giving out 60,000 free comic books in one year is a costly one, if only on an immediate surface level. That fact did not and has not escaped Sablik and the rest of the Top Cow crew. "The risk is, obviously, it does cost us money," he admitted. "We're spending on the printing and shipping of these books. We were lucky that we got [the retailer organization] ComicsPRO and [comic book distributor] Diamond on board early on. Diamond helped us minimize the extra costs in getting these books out there for free and ComicsPRO as an organization helped get the word out, so they were sharing some of the burden of the man-hours and marketing effort.
"But the way we boiled it down is, again, going back to that core concept of what ultimately is going to get somebody to come back and buy 'Darkness' and 'Witchblade' month in and month out. If I'm going to take 'X' amount of dollars and spend it on an ad in a magazine or on a website, is that as effective as me putting up an extra 5,000 copies of this issue that I think is really good and getting it in the hands of 5,000 potential customers? What we're hoping is that the giving away of the free comic is a more enticing and effective way of hooking people in. It's the drug dealer approach!"
The drugs in question have bizarre names even by street slang standards - they're called "Witchblade" and "The Darkness," to be precise. "Ultimately, both for us as a publisher and for the retailer, that's where this promotion pays off," Sablik said. "If we put a lot of money and effort into it, we want to make sure that if we hook somebody, we're hooking them on something they can continue reading [like 'Witchblade' and 'Darkness']. We were kind of lucky that the month we launched we had 'Darkness' #75 coming out, which was a great anniversary issue. The second month, we had 'Witchblade' #125, which kicked off 'War of the Witchblades.' Both of those issues were oversized, so it also gave us a bit of a PR bump and allowed us to say, 'Check it out! Not only am I giving you a free comic, but I'm giving you a free comic that's 48 pages long!'"
Other jumping-on titles are being offered as part of the initiative too, including the recently released "Berserker" #1.
With the risks and rewards outlined, as well as the specific books Top Cow is looking to promote, there's really only one question left to ask - what are the results so far? "Let Us Win You Over" launched six months ago, meaning 30,000 free comic books have already been given away by Top Cow. Is the company seeing the response it hoped for? "The retailer response was fantastic," Sablik said. "We were blown away by how receptive retailers were. All the fans we've talked to and the retailers we've talked to who have done the promotion seem to respond really well. They feel, 'Wow, this company is actually reaching out to me.'"
Perhaps the most surprising result of the campaign to date is not a sales increase in single issues, but an increase in Top Cow's trade paperback selection. "We're seeing some gradual increases on 'Witchblade' and 'Darkness' on the single issues, but what I've noticed is a pretty big increase in trade sales, which was unexpected for me," Sablik said. "But again, you go back and you start to think about it and talk to retailers before and after and ask how things went. In the current economic environment, it almost kind of makes sense. Someone might read a book and say, 'Well, this is good. I really enjoyed it. Let me go back and get the volume because I don't think I want to add another comic.' In a way, purchasing a trade paperback every four to six months is a little easier to swallow, I think, for people trying to stretch their budget out a little bit. We're definitely doing our best in the single issues to make them irresistible so you have to come back, but I've been very happy to see that there's been a response on the trades.
"The other surprising thing is that I talked to a number of retailers when we did an anniversary issue. They said, 'Well, I gave away the free copies, and that was cool, but I was surprised because the same customers came back and bought the variant covers.' Again, completely unexpected, but flattering."
According to Sablik, "Let Us Win You Over" has even had an effect on comic book readers whose stores aren't participating in the campaign. "I think [the initiative has] done a tremendous amount to buy some good will. I've talked to a number of people online who've said, 'Well, my store's not participating.' But between the 'Let Us Win You Over' initiative and our pledge to keep our books at $2.99, I think there's been a number of fans who've said, 'You know what? Just because, in principle, I believe in what you guys are doing, I'm going to go out and try one of your books.'"
"The bottom line is, you can't hook everybody no matter how good our books are," Sablik conceded. "There are some people that just won't be into the genre or types of stories that we're telling. It's kind of like music - there are bands you appreciate for your talent, but maybe it's not [necessarily their thing]. We've definitely had some folks say that, but I've been really pleased with how many people have come back and said, 'You know what? I was really surprised. I was the kind of person who looked down on Top Cow books because of what I perceived them to be, but I gave your book a shot because of this [initiative] and I was very surprised to see that it was different than my perception.' That's been really rewarding."
In fact, Filip Sablik said there's only been one "kind of remotely negative thing" that's come as a result of the initiative. "We tried to do something for our existing fan base. The retailers who are participating get for their subscribers limited edition 'All-Beef' variants [instead of regular copies]. It's limited to 250 copies and only the 25 stores get it. The only thing I've heard back is that really die-hard fans are like, 'I want to get that cover! How do I get it?' That's a pretty good problem to have when your die-hards are saying, 'I don't care how much I have to pay for it, I want access to it too!' These are things you don't really think about going into it. You think of it as, 'Oh, this is a nice thank you for the people who have been supporting us.' It's a high class problem."
With the mid-year reports in, it sounds as if the "Let Us Win You Over" campaign has paid off nicely for Top Cow. If nothing else, giving away free comics as opposed to marking up the prices of their books was an obvious business decision. "It's hard to compete on the same level with a company that has somewhere between 40 - 50% of the market depending on the month. You can't compete on the same terms," Sablik admitted, referencing Top Cow's place next to larger companies like Marvel and DC Comics. "As a smaller company, we do look at things and say, 'Okay, if this is how everybody else is doing it, how can we rock the boat in a way that makes sense for us? How can we play against that?' Some of it also stems from being a fan of comics and saying, 'Well, if I was a consumer, I might not like this either. What can we do that shows fans that we sympathize and empathize with the decisions they're having to make as far as what they buy?' Keeping our price points and doing this promotion stemmed from that in some part as well.
"As a smaller publisher, you're constantly asking yourself, 'How do I get more readers? How do we get more people to try out these books?' For a company like Top Cow that has evolved over the years from been known for having a high level of art to being a company that certainly matches on the writing side [against] stuff that other publishers are putting out, that's a tricky message to get across. It's very difficult for any of us. Once we have an opinion set about a particular group, or a particular item, it's harder to change that than to establish that idea in the first place."
Regardless of how a reader sees Top Cow, there's certainly no question the company is trying to win you over with this latest campaign - but will the publisher continue its effort six months from now, a full year after the launch of the promotion? Probably not, said Sablik, though the Publisher is likely to launch other incentives to get you hooked on the Top Cow drug. "I think with any good promotional effort, it works best when it's fresh, unique and has some novelty to it. I could definitely see us doing it again, but we probably won't be doing it for a while," Sablik said. "I think we'll continue to do promotions that are aimed specifically at trying to get new readers, but they'll probably take different forms. That's kind of the fun part from a marketing standpoint - coming up with these crazy ideas!"