This is a modified excerpt from a book I’m working on called The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing. It’s the third installment of my seven part series on independent comic book marketing. My plan is to start from the basic idea of marketing and explore the goals and challenges of marketing in the competitive environment of comics.
As always, I welcome your comments and insight.
An ideal reader is the specific type of person who would enjoy buying and reading your comic. Some writers use Stephen King’s approach focus on a specific real world individual, like his wife. Others use a theoretical profile. This post will focus more on the hypothetical idea, since all of us aren’t fortunate enough to marry our ideal reader.
Are You Your Ideal Reader?
If you are a person who loves comics, and you are in love with the idea for your book, you might think that you are the best template for your ideal reader. This makes a certain amount of sense, but it is only the beginning of the analysis, since there are several other factors that play a role in defining an ideal reader.
First, consider how you chose the comics that you read:
How do you find out about them?
What are you looking for in a comic?
Why do you choose one book over another?
Whose opinion do you trust when looking for a comic book recommendation?
When do you buy them?
Where do you buy them?
Once you understand your current relationship to buying comics, go further and consider how you first got into comics. Try to remember the context of your early encounters and what factors played a role in your initial relationship with comics as a reader. Then talk to your team about their experiences with comics, both past and present. Look for common threads and insights that can be applied to your ideal reader. Finally, consider the impact of so called “cult brands” and how they evolved. The mainstream comic industry has been a fertile source of cult brands since the 1970’s, with DC and Marvel building rival cults for almost a century by catering to the qualities of their ideal readers.
What Are the Qualities of Your Ideal Reader?
The most basic method to conceptualize your ideal reader is to imagine them based on their profile. For our purposes, an ideal reader profile is based on demographics, psychographics, genre and generation:
Demographics are the statistical characteristics of human populations
Psychographics are classifies groups according to psychological variables
Genre: is a category of literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content
Generation: is a group of individuals born and living in the same time period and social context.
The easiest way to differentiate between demographics and psychographics is to look at demographics as a focus on external or physical factors, while psychographics focus on internal, mental, emotional factors and general world view. The combined demographic and psychographic appeal of your book will come from the intersectional positioning of the story.
Intersectionality is the interconnected nature of social categorizations as they apply to a given individual or group. While the term has its origins in womanist theories of discrimination, you can analyze the related components of your story to determine who it might appeal to. For example, a book that appeals to an immigrant, lesbian, college student living in New York might not appeal to a nationalist, cis gendered, retired clergyman who never left Dublin.
Neither perspective is wrong in terms of entertainment choices. Everyone is looking for something different. You just need to find the right people for your book.
Intersectional elements exist in your characters and their impact on your story. Kevin Feige, film producer and architect for the Marvel Cinematic Universe stated in an interview that “people want to see themselves in the stories they watch”. If the characters you create and the stories you tell give prominence to the psychographic and demographic perspectives of the reader, you have a better chance to appeal to them, especially if no one else is telling their story. If your plot and theme resonate with conflicts your ideal reader can recognize, they will identify with your book. For example, consider the impact of the following elements in these books:
Gender Roles (InSexts)
Race (X-men or Black Panther)
Religion (Ms. Marvel)
Cultural Traditions (Lone Wolf & Cub)
Personal History (Maus)
Sexual Orientation (Bingo Love)
Sexual Expression (Sunstone)
Of course, your story is more than a clinical dissection of demographics and psychographics. Almost every narrative falls within, or is a combination of, story genres that shape the content and conventions of a story in ways that appeal to some groups more than others. The superhero genre is a major element of modern American comics, but McKee developed this list of the major genres that applies to all forms of narrative media including the diversity of comics:
Coming of Age
Slice of Life
At first glance, this list might seem short. Keep in mind that each major genre contains multiple sub-genres. For example, cyberpunk and alien invasion stories are just two of many science fiction sub-genres. Spy thrillers and medical thrillers are both forms of thriller that appeal to very different groups. More expansively, stories can combine conventions from multiple genres to create an unlimited number of hybrids. Consider these comic examples:
The Shadow combines historical fiction with action-adventure and crime.
Alien Legion uses politics, science fiction, and war.
Lone Wolf and Cub mixes the historical fiction with martial arts.
The Walking Dead combines dystopian science fiction (which is its own sub-genre) with horror and drama.
Star Wars is a combination of space opera (sub-genre), action-adventure, and war.
The superhero genre, as it has been shaped by the Big Two and emulated by others, might be the largest mashup genre of them all, since almost any and all of the genres listed have been thrown into the superhero stew at one point or another.
Your ideal reader seeks out specific sub-genres and combinations of sub-genres when they seek out entertainment. For example, the person looking for romantic comedy might not want dystopian horror. Again, no individual perspective is wrong, and I’m not trying to say people can’t expand their horizons and try new things. But before you try to convince the general public to love your work, make sure you appeal to the genre preferences of your ideal readers.
To find the sub-genres of your story, look at the creative influences that inspired your ideas. Art critic and author Jerry Saltz advised creators to “make a list of your interests, every major book, movie, television show, video game and website”. This list will help you position your story in the overall universe of narratives and identify relationship connections with your ideal reader beyond comics.
Your story also exists in a broader social and historical context of your generation that can be pivotal to the appeal of your book. Every story is influenced by the time when it was created. Superman was an answer to the Depression. Captain America was a response to WWII. The various anti-heroes of the 90's were a reaction to rampant urban crime. Today's stories have to serve the needs of today's audience. Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, and the MCU struck different chords for this generation.
What's next? How does your story appeal to the audience of 2020? Your story needs to resonate with today’s ideal reader and not try to recreate a past era. Your publishing company can’t be the “next Marvel”, but you can respond to the generational myopia and give your ideal reader what they’re looking for.
I’m not suggesting that you pick a “hot” ideal reader and then attempt to reverse engineer a story to appeal to them. My theory is that whatever story you’re trying to tell, there is an ideal reader. You can use your story to identify who that person is and then focus on connecting with them, instead of publishing and praying. Taking the time to understand your ideal reader can give you an edge against your competition.
Next week, we’ll take a look at how to understand the competition for your book.
Have fun with your comic.
If you have questions about the business or legal aspects of your comic book publishing and you'd like a free consultation, please contact me and we can set something up that fits in with your schedule.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS BLOG POST IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR LEGAL ADVICE. IF YOU HAVE AN ISSUE WITH YOUR COMIC PROPERTY, DISCUSS IT WITH A QUALIFIED CONTRACT ATTORNEY OR CONTACT C3 FOR A FREE CONSULTATION