So you want to publish a graphic novel? First the good news. There’s never been a better time to do it. Printing has never been cheaper, interest in graphic novels is at an all time high, and thanks to online stores like Amazon.com publishers are no longer shackled to the narrow minded ordering habits of comic shop owners. Now the bad news, the comic industry is dead. No, let me rephrase that. The comic industry should be dead. Rather, it has become the monster that refuses to die. It’s a rotted, bloated corpse, that’s been shot thirty time, set on fire, and then shoved off a 12-story building, yet the damn thing gets right back up and starts killing again. Killing? Yes, as in murder. The comics industry as it has existed over the last 30 years has not only managed to bankrupt itself and blow every opportunity to grow and evolve, it’s also slit the throats of anyone who has ever tried to drag it out of the fanboy ghetto. Make no mistake. The comic book establishment and their “base”, a readership of myopic fanboys who kneel at the alter of Marvel & DC will be the biggest obstacle to your success.
Who are the fanboys? Men between the ages of 35-60 who fell in love with the superhero comics of the 70′s, 80′s, and 90′s and want things to stay that way forever. They run the industry, own most of the stores, and only cater to an audience that is exactly like them. It doesn’t matter that this audience is tiny and rapidly shrinking. It doesn’t matter that there are huge new audiences/genres waiting to be tapped. This is their clubhouse, damn it, so GET OUT! Is it any shock that when DC recently chose to “re-invigorate” their product line the first thing they did was fire nearly all of their female creators. That’s a pretty clear sign of where their headspace is.
Now I’m sure at this point some of you are saying, “But Josh, I plan on publishing good comics written for intelligent adults who’ve managed to mature past the age of thirteen. I don’t see how the guys from Kevin Smith’s show Comic Book Men will effect me.”
True. It shouldn’t. And maybe someday the influence fanboys have on comics will diminish to a point that we can all sit around the bar at ComicCon and laugh about the bad old days. But we’re not there yet. Soon, maybe, but don’t hold your breath. To better illustrate how this affects you…
Imagine you are a musician. You’ve written your first album which is classic rock. Problem is, for the last thirty years the music industry has been dominated by two corporations that ONLY release heavy metal clown gangsta rap. So influential are these two companies that they’ve managed to chase all other kinds of music off the shelves in records stores. And aside from a few flukes, all record store owners are hardcore fans of clown gansta rap who REFUSE to stock anything but that kind of music. And when fans of classic rock show up at a store asking to order your album, the owner and everyone in the place becomes openly hostile and tells this “noob” to get lost. Even worse, the influence of clown rap is so ingrained in American culture that the word “music” itself implies heavy metal clowns rapping about bitches and grease-paint.
So you try to get the word out. You shout, “Hey world! There’s more to life than rapping clowns!” But guess what? The music press is also dominated by hardcore clown rap fans, and they hate you too. At best they ignore you, at worse, the talk all sort of shit about your album and regard you as a threat. So you try to self-promote, but guess what? The public at large hears the word “music” and automatically assume you’re just another freak with clown paint rapping about how many bitches you can stuff into your clown car.
Right. I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. The point is, if you get into graphic story telling, the comic industry’s unholy alliance with fanboy culture is going to effect you.
Now the twist. Sure, the comics industry keeps rising from the grave to kill again, but just like in the movies, undead hell monsters can suffer a fate worse than death –irrelevance. And that’s just about where superhero comics are today. Sure, superheroes may be scoring big at the box office with Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, but neither Marvel or DC have been able to translate the success to actual book sales. In fact, their readership continues to shrink. Why? A refusal to adapt. To enjoy a Marvel or DC title you need to be steeped in at least twenty years of superhero trivia and willing to buy a minimum of five interrelated titles a week. Plus, on a more basic level, the writing on these books have been generally bad.
Which brings me back to you. So you want to publish quality graphic novels that are about something besides men in tights fighting for justice? Excellent. We need you. The medium needs you. Not only that, there’s a whole world of potential comics readers out there that are being neglected by the current regime. But to find your audience you are going to have to be a trail blazer. The old routes –comic stores, the mainstream comics press, Diamond Distribution—these are all dead ends. In fact, it’s best to simply think of your graphic novel as a traditional novel and market it as such. Is your graphic novel a crime drama? Then market to the noir/true crime crowd. Horror? Then you want the horror reading/viewing audience. Marketing non-hero comics to the traditional comics crowd is a waste of time, money, and sanity. In fact, did you know the vast majority of sales for my sci-fi war epic Titanium Rain were not at conventions or comic shops? Nope. Most of my books sold on Amazon.com and mostly purchased by people who don’t read comic books.
Now for some tips about graphic novel publishing…
1. Avoid Diamond Distribution.
This is the traditional distributor for comics, and for a long time has been the only game in town. Diamond is notorious for losing product, not paying, delivering late, and in general, screwing up and making YOU swallow the cost. These guys are a joke, a bad joke. Avoid them like the plague. Sure, most comic book shop owners ONLY do business with Diamond, but that brings me to my next tip…
2. Don’t bother with comic shops.
Again, I’m sure a few of you are saying “Whaaaat?!? But I’m selling graphic novels. Why wouldn’t I want my book in a comic shop?!” The vast majority of comics stores are not worth your time. They are club houses for 50-year-old men who never grew up. Their clientele will never buy your book, and the owners (regardless of what they say about always being on the verge of going out of business) will never want to do business with your readers. Are there exceptions? Sure. Isotope in San Francisco, for instance. If every store was ran like this one comics would be in great shape. Now here’s a number to chew on –in 2010 there were less than 2000 comics shops in the US. Out of those shops, less then 200 stocked non-superhero titles. That’s a number small enough that you can literally bypass Diamond Distribution and sell direct to the shops that give a damn. You make more money this way and you build a relationship with owners who are worth your time. But really, the number one place you’ll do most of your sales will be…
3. THE INTERNET!
Want to reach your audience? The internet is your best and most powerful tool. Create a promotional site or blog with an online store. Next, get your book on Amazon.com, DCBService.com, and Barns&noble.com. Likewise, get friendly with the Kindle ASAP. I could write more here, but really this is an article all on its own.
Sadly, most of the comic news sites suffer from the same problem the industry does. For the most part they focus on the big guys and don’t care much about the indies. But there are some comics press that are worth your time. So who do I recommend? Well, I know I’m going to forget some people, but off the top of my head…
Broken Frontier (www.brokenfrontier.com)
Comics Worth Reading.com (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Expanding the Multiverse Podcast (www.exploringthemultiverse.com)
Comic Book of the Month (www.comicbookofthemonth.blogspot.com/)
The Geek Cave (www.geekcavepodcast.tumblr.com/)
The Furnace (email@example.com)
The Daily Rios ([link])
I apologize to anyone I’ve forgotten. How about this. I’m about to dive into the trenches and start promoting my next graphic novel, UTOPIATES. So I should soon have a more up to date list of who in the comics press is worth your time, and who to avoid. Stay tuned for this.
Also, if you yourself are actively working to promote indie comics message me and I’ll check out your site. If it passes muster, I will add you to this list and tell my fellow creators to start sending you books to review.
But aside from the places mentioned above, the best press you can get is from non-comic news sources. But this will require you to think creatively. Remember, you want to get one of the many audiences the comic industry is ignoring. Not the indoctrinated zombies who drool over the latest re-hash of men-in-tights stories. As mentioned above, target the genre your story fits instead of focusing on the sequential art. As well, contact your local news paper or local NPR affiliate and see if they would be interested in covering you. Also, and I cannot stress this enough…
5. Do NOT ignore the anime crowd.
Drop whatever preconceived notions you have about anime and anime readers. This audience represents the biggest (and most enthusiastic) consumers of sequential story telling. Sure, right now they’re mostly in their teens and fixated on stuff coming out of Japan, but you know what? These kids LOVE the comic medium and have no preconceived notions about what it should or should not be. And it’s been my experience they are always willing to try something new. Even better, these kids are going to get older, mature, and want to graduated up to more complex forms of story telling. This is exactly the kind of reader who buys my books at anime cons. In fact, Anime Expo has been my highest grossing convention for the past two years.
Okay. Your turn. Ask me questions. I will try my best to answer them.