This is a modified excerpt from a book I’m working on called Independent Comic Book Publishing. It’s the second 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 a competitive environment. As always, I welcome your comments and insight.
A target market is the specific group of potential customers most likely to buy a company’s products or services. While every independent publisher is eager to connect with their target market, the first step is to understand who isn’t a potential customer.
Is Everyone in Your Target Market?
Your project can’t reach everyone in the world. Even if you could generate Super Bowl ad, Beyoncé endorsed, viral cat video, blockbuster movie level exposure, your story would still only appeal to a minuscule portion of that audience. There is no point in wasting your resources trying to tell everyone about your book because that isn’t the way media entertainment is consumed today.
Wired editor Chris Anderson described the shift in market composition in his best-selling book The Long Tail. According to Anderson, people had fewer choices in the analog era thirty years ago. There were a three major television networks and a handful of movie studios, record labels and major publishers controlling all media consumption. Because there were fewer options to easily select from, most people tended to gravitate towards the same things. Prime time television, Top 40 radio, and the New York Times Best-Seller List dominated media culture. There were always a minority willing to seek out alternative and underground entertainment, but those fans were so scattered that connecting with them wasn’t cost effective for media producers. Comics shared in this phenomenon. All of the top selling comic book issues in the modern era were published by the Big Two and all of them were released between 1987 and 1993.
Digital production and distribution permanently altered media consumption because it was able to satisfy granular preferences in a cost effective way. Prime time television lost its importance to niche cable television, on demand streaming television, and video platforms like YouTube. Record stores vanished with the rise of MP3s, illegal distribution like Napster and its more legitimate successors like Pandora and Spotify. Amazon crippled bookstore chains. Comics are still clinging to the Wednesday comic shop model, but the number of stores in America has decreased drastically. And the sales of individual comics have followed in this trend. While the top selling book in 1991 sold more than 7 million copies, the top selling book of April 2019 didn’t reach 200,000.
But lower sales at the top of the chart are not necessarily bad news for independent comic book publishers. According to the Long Tail theory, lower sales at the top are the natural result of more and more people focusing their attention on smaller and smaller niches in the market. For example, the person who might have listened to Top 40 music twenty years ago because she liked a few hip-hop songs on the list can now focus her time and money on the underground Korean hip hop she really wants to hear. Someone who read best-selling science fiction books in the past can spend all his time reading and writing gay Serenity fan fiction now. The teenager in the 1960’s who identified with Spider-Man’s teenage angst now has an entire category of YA books and comics specific to her race, class and gender identity to satisfy the same need. Of course, we still have blockbusters in every form of media, but it has never been easier for people to carve out their own niche and connect with like-minded people around the world. We live in a world of niche marketing now. Director and activist Ava Duvernay once said “Every creative project has an audience. The key is finding, understanding and connecting to that audience.”
How does the Long Tail theory and niche marketing apply to your independent comic? Once you strip away all the people who are not in your target market, you’ll be able to define and identify all the people who might want to read your book and focus your attention on them.
Are All Comic Book Readers in Your Market?
Trying to define your target market as everyone who reads comics is both too broad and too narrow to be a helpful classification.
It is too broad because comic books are not a market. Comics are a narrative medium. It is a way to deliver a story. An entire medium can’t be a defined market. That would be the logical equivalent of a movie studio trying to release a movie that appeals to everyone who likes movies, or a television network trying to promote a show to everyone who likes to watch television. Comic book buyers are not a single monolithic group. In order to create a useful definition of your target market, you have to go beyond the medium and focus on the message.
It is also too broad to define your target market as fans of superhero comics. There is a misconception in popular culture that all comics are superhero comics. The reason for this error is obvious, at least in America. The Big Two dominate much of the monthly output of comics, and the vast majority of books on they put out are about the adventures of superheroes. The most prominent merchandise, movie, and television shows that take their inspiration from comics focus on the connected universes of DC and Marvel. If a person only knows about comics from mainstream media and never goes into a comic shop, then it’s easy for them to think that superhero comics and comics are one in the same.
But superhero comics are simply one type of comics. In the same way every movie isn’t a summer blockbuster and every television show isn’t reality TV, every comic isn’t and shouldn’t be, about superheroes. If you consider the literary importance that bandes dessinées have in France, the enormous variety of manga genres in Japan, or the steady tide of non-superhero work coming out of the independent comic publishers, then you’ll realize that you can take comic’s unique ability to tell any story to create a narrative that is unique to you and your perspective.
Attempting to define your target market as simply comic book readers is also too narrow in the modern comic book marketplace. According to the market and consumer data site Statista, 75% of adults in America have never read a comic book. There are also economic indicators suggesting the overall number of adults buying comics is shrinking. This means that if you only define your target market as current comic book readers, you’re focusing on a small pool that is getting smaller and already dominated by two major players. A better approach is to look at a target market that includes a subset of comic book readers, but also identifies a potential group who haven’t read comic books yet.
Is Your Market Just Superhero Comic Book Readers?
Even if you are publishing a superhero comic, defining your target market as the readers of all superhero comics is still too broad to be effective.
While the superhero genre is a specific category of narrative characterized by a particular style and form, it fits more of the McKee’s definition of a mega-genre, since it is large and diverse enough to include dozens of sub-genres. There are major differences in narrative content and tone from one superhero story to another. The person who reads Superman might not be interested in The Punisher or The Boys. The same logic applies to other broad categories when considering niche markets. There are multiple variations of comedy, horror, science fiction, and action. For example, Marguerite Bennett’s InSexts isn’t simply a horror title. It can be more accurately described as a historical, lesbian, feminist horror title.
The target market for your book will be defined by the relationship between the content of your book and the particular characteristics of your potential readers. There is an ideal reader for your book that can’t be defined by medium or broad genre. Once you identify the nature of your ideal reader, you can figure out how to create satisfying relationships with them.
I’ll provide a system for creating a definition of your ideal reader in next week’s post.
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