This is the third month of my independent publishing round table posts, so we’re continuing a discussion started in Bleeding Cool a couple of weeks ago.
Jude Terror posted a Fanboy Rampage entitled Whose Job Is It to Sell Comics Anyway? I posed the same question to my panel. The consensus was pretty even across the board.
What do you think?
Except for emphasis in limited areas, I kept the editing to a minimum. Each expert’s opinion is their own.
Steven Colle, Founder at Editor’s Eye View
In the comic industry, there is one absolute: Comics don’t sell themselves.
To use the adage of “build it and they will come”, that is not the case in comics. Just creating a comic in and of itself will not sell it. And as a result, a second absolute comes to mind:
Comic sales are driven by people buying them.
Now, there is a lot of blame assigned by industry professionals as to why comic sales waver and die, which can be found online:
Brian Bendis blames lack of customer pre-orders with comic shops and incomplete data from industry analysts;
Peter David blames trade-watchers who don’t buy the monthly titles;
Jim Zub blames pirated digital versions of the comics prior to physical release;
Jamal Igle blames format, with periodicals/floppies not appealing to younger readers; and
Matt Rosenberg blames creators who aren’t dedicated to creating comics and therefore use their work in this industry as a stepping stone to film.
There are, in essence and in fact, a number of culprits who can be either presumed or found guilty of comic sales dropping and dying on specific titles or storylines. Let’s begin with those who are presumed to play a role:
Reviewers, Trade Show Organizers, Distribution Channels, and Comic Readers
To begin this section, I have heard blame placed on reviewers for a variety of reasons, ranging from bad reviews of a story to “poorly written” reviews that didn’t excite the person reading it. These are formal opinion pieces that – in reality – have the same value as any potential word of mouth critique or praise of a story. They aren’t gospel, and even if they were, they would still have different levels of acceptance or value.
Moving on to the next group, trade show organizers are likewise blamed for dry sales, whether the show is well attended or not. Speaking from experience as an attendee, vendor, and organizer myself, I can see how placement and promotion can play into a vendor being noticed. As an organizer, I have both been praised by vendors for considering their needs and condemned by those whose needs were likewise considered, but whose sales didn’t meet their expectations. To this I share the following story:
I often organize craft sales around Christmas. I promote the events on various sites, print ads, and through extensive word of mouth; offer incentives of promoting vendors if they promote their own participation at the event themselves; arrange the floor plan to strengthen traffic flow; deliberately avoid direct product-type conflicts by clearly separating vendors selling like-items; and guide consumers with interior signage and pleasant customer service interaction with our volunteers and myself.
Even with multiple vendors doing extremely well in their sales, two vendors at my last event were very disappointed – even angry – with me as the organizer. They hadn’t made a single sale by the end of the event…and I could see why. Product priced out of realistic sales reach; poor displays that had too much, too little, or poorly laid out product; items that were either too eclectic or too common; and worst of all, their lack of professional presentation and conduct in how they were dressed, how they interacted aggressively or not at all with attendees, and how facial expression and body language spoke more than their voices ever could. With this, I knew who I wanted to have back next time and who I didn’t.
If 98% of vendors are happy and 2% aren’t, the math dictates the organizer isn’t responsible for poor sales.
Next up is distribution channels. Looking specifically at Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc., their direct customer is the comic shops, not direct-to-reader. This is accomplished through product being noticed and ordered through their PREVIEWS catalog. What this creates is a situation where it becomes the responsibility of the retailer to share all information and content for upcoming titles with their customers (more on retailers in a bit).
There is a lot of backlash from independent publishers who feel their placement in the catalog affects their orders, where DC and Marvel have their own supplementary catalog while Image, Dark Horse, IDW, Dynamite, and Boom! receive preferential placement in the main tome. To those publishers, they believe the green-banded “Comics-Graphic Novels-Print” section to be the isle of no orders, especially if the company name doesn’t start at the beginning of the alphabet. Having spoken to many retailers on this subject, they all agree this isn’t the case, as they will often start in this section due to the unlikelihood of being able to place orders on most small press/independent product after final order cut-off (FOC) or placing reorders on sold out issues (or titles they missed the first time out), unlike the ease of doing so with larger publishing houses.
In a nutshell, distribution channels – which include third-party online sources – are not responsible for poor sales either.
And the last presumed culprit in this section, the comic readers themselves, may seem like logical scapegoats in this crime of sagging and/or dead sales – through reading comics purchased by others, reading the comic in-store, reading digital versions before print copies are available for sale, etc. – but the percentage of the market who do this is so small that all evidence would be purely circumstantial.
If the above groups and individuals aren’t directly responsible for comic sales, then whose job is it to sell comics?
Is it the comic retailers?
After all, isn’t ‘selling’ synonymous with retail? They order the product; stock the product; have the expectation of having the product on hand or getting it if they don’t; keeping the product in their stores until it sells; etc. They are also expected to order product from every publisher, even those least likely to have titles that could sell through their own specific businesses; have every book front and center for the best possible sale potential without playing favorites; put up whatever marketing and promotional tools are provided to them by the publishers; provide opportunities through special sales events and creator signings; hype through word of mouth every product that comes into their store (which ranges in the hundreds each and every month); and on and on.
AND…there must be an expectation that the retailer will share every ounce of information from Diamond’s order catalog, forward any emails they have received from publishers, and just generally dedicate all of their energy to ensuring every product is in the limelight.
In truth, retailers can only sell what is sellable in their specific locations, through their variable store sizes, to their particular customer bases, and within the time, energy, and willingness they have to sell something that doesn’t keep the lights on, doesn’t support their families, and doesn’t keep their businesses from closing.
So who does that leave? The publishers and creators
Many, if not most, involved in the industry perceive the publisher (or publishing house) to be the primary seller of the books. These include the readers, the retailers, and – in all honesty – a strong percentage of the creators themselves who are published through these companies. In most cases, they are viewed as the public access point through which the comics are formatted, priced, marketed, promoted, printed, distributed, etc. As a business, they are the ones who make the decisions to accept a concept; identify an audience; decide on format, packaging, pricing, distribution, and more; and are reliant on their own name and brand value as a selling point in and of itself. Of course, there’s a lot more involved than that alone.
However, the publishers themselves are dependent upon the central figures of comic sales:
Creators create the product. They know the comic best. They sell it to the publisher and their company’s representatives, which include the editors, the sales staff, the finance team, etc. This applies to creator-owned, company-owned, and licensed properties. The publisher’s reps make the judgments of how to proceed, which includes anywhere from limited to deep involvement in ensuring what the creator sells to them can sell to the company’s market. And then the publisher makes the final call.
Even though many creators don’t know it (or care to acknowledge it), they are the foundation of the question “Whose job is it to sell comics?”
Here are a few points for consideration:
With a company-owned property, it’s the creator’s name branding that helps sell the book, but if the creator’s work isn’t selling (for any number of reasons), the publisher has to make the decision to replace the creator’s brand with a different creator brand or cancel the title until that can be accomplished. In many cases, this can result from dropping sales or negative reaction to the creator’s work or story direction (again, there’s more to it than that). Rarely, if ever, is the company’s own brand name the selling point for the success of a comic. This is evidenced by the successes and failures of major, independent, and small press publishers in and outside of the comic publishing landscape.
Publishers are dependent on the social presence and efforts of their creators - who have value to their own followers even if they don’t have a well-known (and/or well-respected) personal brand. In truth, the publisher can “big picture” market a creator’s product, but it is the focused efforts of the creators to ensure it is known that they are attached to a particular work to the community that follows them.
Just as retailers have a large variety of publishers whose product is sold through them, the publisher likewise will have many titles that will require judgment calls in how extensive their promotional and sales efforts will be for each. It’s poor business practice to put extra efforts into a sinking ship when the others can carry the financial load and benefits. That’s why the creators – the individuals most invested in the product – are the ones who benefit the most from selling their own comics.
Creator’s selling is not new. In prose, publishers, publicists, and agents need the presence of the author to help sell the writer’s book through book signings, media tours, and the like. In film and television, producers, directors, writers, and actors will make appearances and participate in interviews that will help sell the product to the masses. It is the strength of the individual, not the expectation of the whole, that often sees the greatest results.
I could continue as this is a topic with a lot of meat to its central and expanded discussion, but the point remains that, to a degree, everyone involved in the sale of comics has a role of variable influence, but the creators are the central seller. Without them, there would be no comics to sell.
Rich Douek Author of Gutter Magic, Road of Bones, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Wailing Blade
For me, its pretty simple. If you have a vested interest in seeing the comic sell well, you should do everything you can to help it do so. Promotion is a huge aspect of any property, and everyone has a part to play.
We don’t realize it, maybe because it’s entertaining, but when actors from multi-million dollar franchises like Avengers, or Star Wars, go on late night talk shows, or daytime TV, they’re doing it because they are promoting the movie - not because they really, really love talking to Jimmy Kimmel.
So, if people at the very top of the entertainment industry aren’t exempt from promotional duties, I don’t see why we feel comic creators should be.
There are lots of different ways to advertise and promote - some are better suited to be handled by a marketing person at a publisher - like providing preview pages to publications, while others, like store signings, can only be done by the creators themselves.
It’s all part of a big mix that will be different for every project, with every publisher. And no publisher wants to lose money, so you can be sure they will be doing whatever their time and resources allow them to do in terms of promotion.
Now, that’s not always going to feel like enough, but budgets and time are tight, so you can’t always get the ideal. But, at the end of the day, the publisher wouldn’t have taken the book on if they wanted to bury it, they would have just said no thanks.
At the end of the day, if you want to see the book succeed, you should do everything in your power to help that along, no matter whose “job” it is, on paper, to do promotion.
The "easy" answer is that it's everyone's job, everyone who is a part of the publishing process, from the creators to the retailers to the fans (yes, fans have some responsibility too). But obviously it's more complicated than that. Let's break it down, in no particular order:
Publishers - obviously publishers want to sell their books (if they didn't then they're in the wrong business), so it goes without saying that they need to have a person (or team of people) solely devoted to sales. But potential book sales actually start much earlier in the process than having a final product; acquisition is the first stage of a sale. If a publisher doesn't think that a book will sell, then chances are that book won't get made. Some things that can contribute, however, to the saleability of a book are the creators. Which brings us to our next section:
Creators - as much as publishers are responsible for the business aspect of selling a title, creators (in my opinion) have even more responsibility. They need to make sure there's something worth selling! This could be the content of the book itself, or it could be the "name" that the creator brings. Either one plays an important factor in the publisher's decision to move forward with a project. Which means that it's incumbent upon the creators to make the best possible product they can. It's possible to have a hit with bad material (this is where talented sales and marketing people come in), but it's much easier if the product is actually good.
Retailers - these are the people on the front lines, and they know how consumers really feel about a given title because consumers vote with their wallets. That being said, sometimes a book may need a little push, and retailers are able to have face to face contact with consumers, and can, in effect, sell them on certain titles. Which leads me to my next section...
Consumers - now while I wouldn't go so far as to say that consumers have some responsibility in selling books, I will say that they do have an impact, and can greatly affect ongoing or future ales of a title. It's all about word of mouth (which includes social media). The more people talk about a book (regardless of if the conversation is positive or negative), the more it becomes part of the the larger conversation. And whether we, as consumers, realize it or not, we share in the responsibility of how a book performs.
Dirk Vanover, Attorney at Comicslawyer.com
Sometimes I feel like the answer to this question, and for comics continued success, is everyone—creators, publishers, retailers, and readers. We all should be promoting our favorite books and medium.
Ultimately, I’d have to say whoever is responsible for putting the comic book into commerce is responsible for selling it, be it self-publisher or traditional publisher. They need to get readers interested in their books. If readers aren’t interested in, or excited about, a book, they aren’t going to buy it. The burden and risk shouldn’t all be placed on the retailer.