Before we get started this week I need to apologize to you readers. I had this strange delusion I could walk you through dealing with the comics press in a single article. Yet, when I hit 3100 words and still hadn’t managed to get past how use a press release effectively, I figured, “Okay, I’ll do two installments for this one.” Well, here I am again with the next installment pushing toward the 3000 word mark and I’ve still got more to share. On the upside, this is more information for you. On a similar note, keep the questions coming. Sure, it is one of the reasons these articles are getting so damn long, but sharing knowledge is what it’s all about, right?
Also, I need to mention this installment would not have been possible without my partner in crime, Kat Rocha. Her hands are all over this entry, I’ll let you guess where. No, not there you dirty perverts…jeez. Anyways, on with the show…
Alright. You’ve mastered the press release and you’ve employed the “shotgun” method of getting the word out. It’s easy and effective, but that’ll only get you so far. Sure, it may score you a review or two, maybe even an interview, but don’t get your hopes up. Chances are you’ll see a few sites re-post your press release and move on. The next step is contacting news outlets directly.
Getting in touch with the right people requires three things:
1. You need to know who to contact.
2. How to contact them.
3. How best to get their attention.
The first place to start is with those sources that re-posted your press release. You’ve already gotten their attention, they already agree you are news worthy. All you need to do is send a short email to the managing editor (or review editor) which reads something like:
“Hey there. I just wanted to thank you guys for supporting my book. I very much appreciate it. Would you at all be interested in a free copy for review?”
That’s the beauty of the press release. It saves you a lot of time and helps you to find the “easy sells.” Now comes the hard part. Contacting those reviewers that will require some convincing that your book is worth their attention.
Like I said, you need to know who to contact. That means thinking long and hard about who your audience is and finding news outlets that can reach them. This will require time spent online, surfing sites, and reading reviews. One method I use for finding potential news contacts is to create a list of books that are similar to my own. Then I search for reviews of those books using Google. For my book Utopiates, for instance, I did searches on DMZ, Old City Blues, and the graphic novelization of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Any place that gave these titles a good review I contacted.
Why research matters.
So why not use the shotgun method when contacting editors directly? Why not contact anyone and everyone and see who bites? It worked well enough with the press release, right? Easy. Every review copy you mail out costs money. But more importantly, sending books out blindly is about as safe as sleepwalking across a minefield. In the past most reviewers tried to maintain a certain level of professionalism and would restrict their negative criticism to only the constructive type, or they wouldn’t cover a book at all. But in recent years there’s been a growing population of snark-happy assholes who go out of their way to find books to slam. It would be easy to simply attribute this to fanboys who hate anything that doesn’t bare a Marvel or DC label on it, but the hipster crowd and the rising “geek girl” scene are just as guilty. In fact, the one and only time I ever received a snotty letter back from anyone was when I sent a query to Johanna Draper Carlson at the indie review blog, ComicsWorthReading.com. To her credit, Carlson did not post a nasty review. She just went out of her way to send a REALLY nasty response that ended with the line, “…and never email me again.” Sure, a simple “not interested” would have sufficed, but at least I knew ComicsWorthReading wasn’t worth anymore of my time.
The worse case scenario is encountering someone as unpleasant as Carlson who doesn’t tell you to piss off, who instead “welcomes” that review copy so they can then shit all over it. Trust me. It happens. A LOT. Anyone can set up a review blog. Any hack can claim to be a member of the press. This is comics. It’s not like anyone is checking credentials. And unfortunately a lot of reviewers are in it for all the wrong reasons. Before mailing someone a copy of your book for review, ALWAYS read a sampling of their past reviews. A quick skim of their work should reveal if they are excessively critical, unfair, or cruel. Likewise, you need to be aware of what the reviewer likes. If they only write about superhero titles, you REALLY shouldn’t send them your slice of life book…even if they “claim” to be interested.
Fail to do research and you will find yourself out both time and money with nothing to show for it but a pile of snarky, mean spirited attacks on you and your graphic novel. In truth, the minefield comparison is pretty apt when dealing with the comics press. And here are a few major landmines you are going to want to avoid…
Indie Superheroes: The Hard Road.
Original superhero characters published outside the sphere of Marvel and DC are an incredibly difficult sell –both to readers and the press. The reasons for this are vast, so here’s the short version: Superhero fans tend to like what they like and nothing else, and what they like is produced en mass monthly by two major publishers. If you are doing an indie hero book, you’re competing with Marvel and DC for their readership on their turf. That’s not a battle you’re likely to win. Some have done it, but they usually had to sell organs in the process. So what about everyone else? What about the indie crowd? Or manga? Well there’s always a chance, but remember these are readers that have been ignored by the big two. They don’t want spandex clad crime fighters. If they did they’d be at the local comic shop buying Batman and X-Men with everyone else.
The problem is that indie superheroes are typically assumed to be cheap knock-offs of already established, more popular characters. And sadly, they often are. Even if your book is wholly original the assumption makes you an easy target for ridicule. Expect your characters to be instantly compared to the closest mainstream characters they resemble, no matter how vague. And don’t overlook fanboy rage. Rage? Yes. Absolutely. Some people take this stuff far too seriously. Dishonor a fanboy’s favorite hero with your “like Batman but not” book and you could be kicking up a shit storm typically reserved for cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed.
When soliciting the press, keep in mind that you are going to be compared to a long history of characters and stories nearly a century old. You have to convince your readers (not just reviewers) that your book is different, or at least that you can tell those stories better. If you make a claim that your story has “never been done before” you had better damn well deliver, otherwise you’ll be pegged as just another Batman / Watchmen / Spawn / Deadpool wanna-be.
When “Indie” isn’t.
In this business “indie” is a loaded word. For most of us the term “indie” means any comic or graphic novel that is released independently of big corporate publishing. Yet amongst a small but verbal community of comics hipsters it has a very different meaning. To them, indie is not a means of publishing. It is a genre, an art style, and a way of life. What constitutes an “indie” book to this crowd is essentially anything that follows in the tradition of Dan Clowes’ Ghost World and Craig Thompson’s Blankets.
Stray from that narrow format with the wrong indie reviewer and they will not hesitate to rip you apart limb from limb and smear your eviscerated guts across the blogosphere. When it comes to shitting on new creators, journalists who’ve sold their soul to the Cult of Clowes can be amongst the most vindictively cruel. Consider yourself warned.
To illustrate just how hostile the indie hipster scene can be I offer you this true story: Two years ago I introduced the hosts of a popular “indie” podcast to a friend and fellow creator, Jules Rivera (Princeless, Valkyrie Squadron). I wanted them to take a look at Rivera’s manga-inspired sci-fi comedy acid-trip, Marsh Rocket. As I explained to the podcasters…
“The writing is solid and the art is incredibly unique. Sort of a fusion of manga and Frank Miller, a with a very unique coloring style.”
“That sounds great!” they said.
“She’s doing the whole thing herself…publishing, promoting, she’s even got the three volumes packaged in an exclusive handmade box.”
“Wow! That’s awesome!” they said.
“She’s a great interview, very funny. Plus, she’s probably the only Puerto Rican woman working in comics today.”
“That’s even better!” they said.
So the introduction was made and they hit it off great with Rivera. All was going well, that is, until they saw her book. Instantly neither of the hosts wanted anything to do with Rivera or her work. The problem? Here’s what one of the hosts told me later, and I am quoting, “It looks like a fun story and you’re right, she has a great style, but the presentation is too slick…too professional looking. Maybe if the artwork wasn’t so clean, or if it was printed on handmade paper and stitched together or something. Maybe then we’d consider it.” This from the podcast whose tagline used to be “Indie comics talk without the snobbery.” If these are the nice guys, you can imagine what the self-professed snobs are like.
It is important that every one of you reads this and takes it to heart because you will encounter this. And as someone creating independently of big corporate publishing it is only natural to assume a website that claims to be dedicated to “indie comics” would be a perfect place to send a review copy to. If you do choose to brave the nine levels of hell that is the hipster indie scene, here are a few things to keep in mind:
* Stories in the “indie genre” typicaly are about a “normal” person dealing with “normal” problems in the “normal” world. And by “normal” I mean privileged art school kids who suffer from depression and bitch a lot about their lives.
* Words like “genre” and “sci-fi” are more often than not an insult in this scene. Unless you are Brian Wood, you typically are not allowed to venture into so-called genre fiction without being considered a sellout (or worse).
* Artists who use a computer, even just to clean up their art, are met with contempt and scorn.
* If your book is not Xeroxed, silk screened, hand sewn, or doesn’t come printed on handmade paper, you are dead to them…that is unless your book has been published by Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, or First Second. Then four color printing is perfectly fine.
If your books doesn’t fall into these narrow parameters, you really ought to avoid the hipster “indie-is-a-genre” crowd. Again, you have been warned.
The dreaded Chris Sims wanna-be.
Columnist and world renowned Batmanologist, Chris Sims, has made a career out of penning massively funny, yet brutally honest reviews. From his savaging of Jim Ballent’s fap-tastic series, Tarot, to the weekly newspaper strip Funky Winkerbean, to Kevin Smith’s very own Comic Book Men, Sims has a gift for getting to the core of just why something is sooo bad it is actually good. But here is the thing, his commentary is just that –art commentary. His writing isn’t about slinging insults. It’s about well constructed arguments that just happen to be very, very funny. So much so, in fact, that his reviews of Tarot have actually grown the book’s readership, not hurt it. Not only that, his review of Comic Book Men was re-ran in Forbes magazine because the person assigned to cover the show could not make it through the first episode, nor did they feel they could do a better job of explaining why.
It is said imitation is the highest form of flattery, and maybe it is, because Sims sure has a lot of them. Sadly, I have yet to find one who understands that they are supposed to actually review content, not simply mock it. Their writing tends to be little more than a collection of cheap shots, personal attacks, and jokes they stole from South Park. In short, these reviewers see your book as an opportunity to make their audience laugh. They have nothing to offer you or anyone else but their own over inflated ego. Avoid them.
Phantom contact info.
Websites without easy to find contact and/or submission guidelines are always a bad sign. If a someone makes it difficult for you to contact them, chances are they don’t want to hear from you. The first indication that there may be problems is how easy it is to find the submission guidelines on a site. If you really have to dig this is either an indicator of disinterest, or worse, incompetence.
Submission guidelines from Hell.
It is not uncommon for reviewers to have some specific submission guidelines, especially if they are popular and receive a lot of queries. This is to be expected. However, occasionally you’ll stumble across submission guidelines that boarder on the ridiculous. If someone expects you to come to them on crawling your knees and treat them like royalty, chances are it’s not going to end well. Submission guidelines should ALWAYS be easy to follow. They should also be respectful of the person reading them. Be on the look out for unnecessary snarky comments like, “If I make the decision to not review your book the reason is probably because the quality isn’t professional enough for me to care.” Also phrases like “I’m very busy, so don’t expect me to review your book until I feel like getting around to it…” should trigger alarm bells.
“This comic is like wickid awesum dood!”
I kind of feel bad bring this up. I mean, I certainly don’t want to slag anyone who is actively promoting the books they love, but the truth is, there are a lot of younger reviewers out there who really should’ve paid better attention in school. Quality of writing matters. If a journalist’s stuff reads like a middle school book report, they’re not ready to receive a free copy of your book. A favorable review that is utterly incoherent is actually more worthless than a negative one. Catch the subtext in that statement? Yes, I just implied a bad review can be a good thing. More on that later. Promise.
Turning contacts into review.
Once you’ve done the research and swept away the landmines what you should be left with is a nice list of news outlets you’re ready to approach. But before you start writing emails or tracking them down on Facebook there is one more thing you need to know: how to get their attention. And by that I mean the RIGHT kind of attention. It’s not as intuitive as you’d suspect. Big comics news site, review blogs, fan pages, webzines –all need to be approached on their terms. What sparks the interest of a big site like Comics Alliance isn’t going necessarily to work with a more focused webzine like GraphicPolicy.com or the industry minded ICV2. And since I’m sure everyone has dreams of the big comic news outlets reviewing their book, I will start with them…next week. Yeah. I know. We’re just now getting the good part. Sorry. Now is the part where I…
…insert a gratuitous plug for my book.
Utopiates. It’s my latest graphic novel. Buy it. Read it. Love it. Post a snarky review about it…wait, skip that last part.