This is a modified excerpt from a book I’m working on called The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing. It’s the seventh and final installment of my summer series on independent comic book marketing.
Now we have a detailed understanding of who your ideal reader is (See Who Is Your Ideal Reader?), how many of them might exist (See How Many People Want to Read Your Comic?), and the importance of finding more of them (See How Can You Expand Your Market?), we can move onto understanding what your ideal reader wants so you can establish the type of connection that can lead to a long term relationship with your book.
What Does Your Target Market Want?
The most basic thing to understand is that your ideal reader does not want your book.
They do not want your books in your genre and they do not want comics. In fact, they don’t want any book at all. They don’t want any good or service they buy or consume. When you reduce human motivation to its philosophical core, you realize that people want whatever their various purchases and products can do for them. They want the feelings that goods and services generate, not the things themselves. As an independent comic book publisher understand that your book is a delivery mechanism for your story, and your story needs to be a source of the feeling that your ideal reader is looking for. Realize what is important to the reader and you can relate to them in a way that works.
This means the first step in building a relationship with the ideal readers in your target market is to define what feeling your story is supposed to create and continue to communicate that feeling in all your messages and interactions. At a basic level, if you have a horror story, then focus on the type of fear your ideal reader wants, whether it’s the campy jump scares of teen slasher movies or the nauseous squirming of splatter films.
On a more profound level, consider the way Stan Lee related to Marvel readers when he was editor-in-chief. Everything he did, from the friendly style of Stan’s Soapbox, to the Bullpen Bulletins, to his rebellious competition with the Distinguished Competition connected with readers in ways that went beyond comics that earned him almost universal praise when he died at 95. When you think about building relationships with your target market, Lee is the gold standard.
The second step in building this relationship involves combining your story and what you know about your ideal reader to create a hook that will transform your ideal readers into true fans online and offline. Let’s take a look at what a hook and a true fan are before we try to apply this idea to concrete marketing actions.
What is a Hook?
For our purposes, a hook is an aspect of your story designed to attract and hold the attention of your ideal reader. It is a promise that your story will deliver the desired feeling to your reader. It is similar to how a successful trailer can give you the tone and flavor of a two hour movie in two minutes and create enough excitement to inspire you to go buy a ticket.
Because comics combine images and text to deliver their message, a hook can be visual, verbal or both.
A visual example of a hook can be found in Captain America #1. The book offered readers a chance to feel powerful and patriotic during the dark days of World War II, so the cover promised all those things by showing a muscular character wrapped in the American flag punching Hitler right in the jaw.
Verbal hooks can be just as powerful. Lee’s greeting of “Hey, True Believer!” in the Soapbox gave the comic book reader more than a story. It suggested this was a modern mythology and invited them to become an acolyte.
The powerful imagery of the new, colorful X-Men charging through a washed out poster of the old team combined with the words “Deadly Genesis” in an example of words and images promising a narrative revolution that has become iconic.
When you can understand your story and its potential appeal, you can create a hook that will convert an ideal reader into a true fan.
What is a True Fan?
The concept of a true fan was developed in 2008 by Wired Magazine editor Kevin Kelly. The basic premise is that creators of all types do not need millions of customers or millions of dollars or millions of anything to profit from their creations. Instead, he promoted the idea that if you can create a situation where a small number of people are willing to buy everything you create, then you can make a decent living.
The original essay focused on 1,000 true fans for a musician but that number fluctuates depending on what you create and what people are willing to pay for it. For example, if you’re a painter and your work sells for $1,000 each, then you might only need 100 true fans. If you’re an author and your books sell for $10, then you might need 10,000 true fans. In the years since the idea was introduced, the concept of the true fan has influenced entrepreneurs from Tim Ferris to Ryan Holiday to Seth Godin.
As an independent publisher, the idea of the true fan is similar to your definition of the ideal reader since your book can’t, and isn’t designed to, appeal to everyone. The difference between an ideal reader and a true fan is that the ideal reader is a theoretical construct you created based on your book while the true fan is a specific person. In other words, an ideal reader is the type of person you look for. The true fan is the people that you find and build relationships with because they respond to your hook and identify with you.
How Can Ideal Readers Identify with Your Book?
Imagine you’re walking down the street and a total stranger steps into your path, pushing you to buy a book you’ve never heard of that has nothing to do with you or the things you like, but is supposed to be the Best Book Ever! How do you respond?
Now imagine you’re walking down the street with a friend. You know she shares a lot of your tastes and you look forward to your conversations with her. When she offers to tell you a story about something topics you enjoy and characters you relate to, there’s a good chance your response to her will be different than your reaction to the stranger.
This thought experiment illustrates a core marketing principle. People interact with and buy from companies they like and identify with. If they like you or something about you, then they’ll be more likely to buy from you. If they see you as just a salesman with a gimmick, then they are less likely to buy from you.
This type of identification often has more to do with the relationship between the ideal reader and their image of themselves and less to do with your book. You can consider many famous marketing campaigns to understand this point. Many of the ads for Calvin Klein, Dos Equis, Mercedes, and Apple don’t talk much about their products. They spend more time showing images of specific types of people enjoying different types of activities. The subliminal message is constant: People like this use products like this. If you’re this type of person, or you want to be, then you need to buy this stuff. Identification creates a sense of belonging that motivates consistent action.
Gimmicks and trends have a tendency to reduce this kind of identification. A gimmick is a trick or device used to attract short term business. It can create attention and excitement in the short term, but over time it loses its novelty. For comics, gimmicks have little or no relevance to the characters or story, and are often used purely as shock value or to attract speculation. Temporary superhero deaths are a long standing gimmick, as are variant covers, “reboots” to issue #1 and cameos from more popular characters.
A trend is a related concept because it is an idea that follows the popular taste at a given time and may have little or no relationship to your original story or your ideal reader. As an independent publisher, there are three distinct reasons to avoid trends and focus all your attention on your target market.
Trends change without warning. What might be popular today might be passé tomorrow. Because independent publishing often takes more time than mainstream comic book publishing, the risk of missing the trend is even greater. At the same time, you don’t know what the next big trend will be, so it’s difficult to anticipate the Next Big Thing and publish a book in time to capture the zeitgeist.
Trends make it harder to stand out from the competition. Because a trend is popular by definition, there will be more competitors fighting for share of the market. If you copy a trend, you’ll have to pull eyeballs away from established properties, big name creators and market dominance. For every Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that makes it big, there will be a dozens of Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters that don’t last over time.
Trends may not inspire you in the long term. Loving your story is an important motivator for independent publishing because it gives you the resolve to overcome the inevitable setbacks and stumbles. If you don’t love the trend, you might not finish the book. Even if you do get the book out the door, your lack of enthusiasm will show and alienate the ideal readers. As Stan Lee said before his death, “you have to write stories that are interesting to you and then find an audience for them”.
You can find your audience because you know the type of person who will enjoy your book. You can build a relationship with them because you understand what they want and how to identify with them. You can use your theoretical analysis of your target market to take concrete steps to get their attention and offer them the feelings they want. I hope this guide has given you the perspective to take this foundation into your online and real world marketing to create the fan base your comic deserves.
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