Wednesday, April 13, 2005

How To Sell Me Your Comics, part one: APE

I was thinking of writing another book review today – maybe the first three issues of Helios, which I just got from the publisher in the mail, or the first Astro City trade, which I got from Larry Young – and when I got around to thinking about reviewing Video #1 and Fragile Prophet #1, which I picked up from the Lost In The Dark Press table at APE, I realized I had something else on my mind. See, over the last several months I’ve started really trying to pay attention to the way this business works, and I realized I learned a lot from my exploration of APE this year. Some great successes and some pretty miserable failures.

I’ve also noticed a new column up on the Isotope forum by Joe Rivera, called
The Consumer. Joe lets us know in a stirring manifesto that the most important cog in the whole comics machine is himself – the consumer. The reader. We’re the last link in the chain, and without us, everything falls apart. Because none of it works unless we decide to grab our wallets, pull some hard-earned cash out of there, and slap it down on the counter to take those comics home and read ‘em.

I think Joe’s got himself a mighty fine point. So I’m writing today to paint a little picture about how folks can get me to do just that, and I’m gonna use APE as my canvas.

Tell Me Why Your Book Is Good
I read an
article by Larry Young a while back about how creators should pitch their books to publishers, and he told them, “Know what your book is about.” He explained how to be concise and how to get your concept across quickly and attractively. Frankly, if you’re trying to sell your book to anybody, you should take a look at that article, ‘cause it works the same on me as a reader. Most tables I walked up to at APE, I asked the same question: “What can you tell me about this?” – and I’d point at their book or their posters or whatever – and boy, did I get a range of answers. Some folks had it together. Bret Hodson, creator of Romance And Cigarettes, told me, “It’s like True Story Swear To God, but if it turned out really badly. With more swearing.” Out came my three dollars. Lots of people, on the other hand, didn’t have any idea what to say to me (and these are all real quotes):

  • “This one has robots.”
  • “It’s autobiographical. Oh, and this one is a humor anthology.”
  • “It’s not really about anything, really.”
And away I walk. There’s a harsh truth you’re gonna have to deal with: I've seen a lot of indie books that were amateurish and stupid. I say that as a huge indie supporter. Even if I’ve got my cash in my hand as I walk up to you, you’re gonna have to convince me, and that means being able to tell me why I’ll like your book.

Present Yourself
Look, you have to have some confidence and enthusiasm. There are shy, sensitive-looking people slouching at fifty other tables. I don’t want to share a cry with you. I want to have a conversation. If I come up and say hello, don’t look surprised! And try not to act desperate; that gets me nervous, and kinda creeped out. You want me relaxed. It’s okay if you’re a perfectionist and you don’t think your art is good enough. It’s okay if your book has a sad theme, or if it’s about something depressing or alienated. That doesn’t mean it’s smart to pitch it to me in the same way. Save that depression and alienation for your drawing board; when you’re actually talking to me, try to at least give the impression that you’re glad I’m there. You don’t have to tell me the funniest joke I ever heard right off the bat. You don’t have to launch into a prepared speech about your book. You don’t even have to impress me – that’s for your book to do. What you have to do is make me want to continue to stand in front of your table. It’s like Las Vegas. The longer I stay, the more likely I’m gonna leave my money with you. If you’re having trouble getting confident enough about your actual book – and I can understand self-doubt, believe me – then start simple. Smile or nod at me. Say hello. Take a deep breath, and go from there.

Have An Interesting Cover Design
Again, pretty obvious, right? Well, a lot of y’all fucked that up. I saw some great covers this year – one of the best was the cover to Lost In The Dark Press’ Video #1. Here’s that cover from their website (this is the best I could find – the real thing doesn’t have the text at the bottom):

There’s a lot of good stuff to say about this. The color is vivid and sharp. There’s a good balance of detail and “white space” (which in this case is actually colored black). It provides just enough content and context to get me interested, and no more. That’s ideal – get me interested, but don’t give anything away if you can avoid it. You get the best of both worlds; it’s physically appealing to the eye, because it gives me just enough to look at without overloading me, and it’s mentally appealing to… well, the brain, because it makes me want to find out more about what’s going on here. If you made this cover any more “busy,” you’d ruin it – there wouldn’t be any mystery, and it wouldn’t be as eye-catching because you’d kill the contrast and overload the image. A lot of folks had some really plain covers, boring or busy or uninspired, and I don’t want to drag them out because this isn’t a finger-pointing column, but let me say this much: Take advantage of your production specs. If you’re printing in black-and-white, work it; don’t just settle for it. If your book is physically smaller than the average, find a design that fits that size. I saw a lot of covers that were obviously meant to be in color on full-size glossy paper, and frankly, that just makes me want to wait until you get your act together and print it that way. To put it another way: play to your strengths, brother. For more on what makes covers work, you might take a look at what Warren Ellis or James Sime had to say.

Don’t Be Sloppy
Jesus, I saw some shoddy-ass looking books on the tables, and I didn’t want anything to do with them. That doesn’t mean you have to have high production values – though you do, as the feller says, get what you pay for – but at least make sure you proof-read this stuff before you send it out. As Jason Rodriguez pointed out in a
recent entry on his blog, the letterer is the public face of the writer. If the lettering has a screw-up, it makes the writer look stupid and incompetent. I can’t tell you how many books suffer from this, even in comics from bigger publishers. It drives me nuts and it should embarrass you. I don’t intend to be mean or overly harsh, but this is a tough-love issue that a lot of people need to listen to. When I’m reading your book and a character says something like, “Oh Johnny I lvoe you,” that pretty much tells me that you didn’t read this thing even once. That tells me that you don’t really give a shit about your book. And that tells me that I don’t need to give a shit about your book. This applies to a lot of aspects of your comics besides the lettering – but the basic lesson is, Don’t Be Sloppy. Pay attention to what you’re doing. If you’re not doing the very best job you can do, that’s okay with me – the guy at the table next to you is.

Sell Stuff I Can Afford
I know you want to use the bookstore market, and I know
Larry Young convinced you that releasing your book as an OGN was the smart move. Hey, I wouldn’t begin to argue – it’s working like gangbusters for his books, and I sure as hell can’t argue with his numbers. But take a closer look at his numbers. $13 for a 96-page book, which is what he's proposing, is okay. It’s a little more prohibitive than a $3 floppy, but it’s still within a reasonable range. But if all you’ve got is $20 trades stacked up, I’m walkin’. I’m not made of money, brother, and I’m not dropping a Jackson on anything I didn’t already plan on buying. That means you’re gonna have to work about a hundred times as hard, for less than ten times as much of my money. A $20 trade is fine, especially if it’s a good value for my dollar – throw in some sketches and bonus features, please – but at least offer me an “in” that won’t scare me so bad and drain my wallet so quick. A $2 preview piece, or a free ashcan, for example, will get you well on your way, if I like it. I left a lot of tables empty-handed, even when their stuff looked great, because they didn’t have anything in my budget.

Make Me Remember You
So let’s say you’ve got it all together and you’ve gotten me to pick up your book and flip through it, and I like it enough to buy it. Is that all you want? That one sale? Is that why you worked so hard? Or do you want me to remember to pick up the next thing I see with your name on it?—or tell my friends about how cool you are? Remember, you won’t always be there to sell something to me, so it’s to your benefit to make sure I remember your name. There are a lot of ways to do this, and one of the biggest ones is your personality. Our conversation is gonna make me remember you. By the time I got to Daniel Cooney’s table, for example, I was a little low on funds and not really looking to get anything over $3. He was selling trades of his
Valentine series, which were reasonably priced but at the moment a little beyond what I was able to spend. But he took some time and talked to me – told me not just what the series was about, but what he wanted to do with it, why he was getting excited about it. His enthusiasm shined through and it seemed almost like he was more interested in talking with me about the book than in selling it to me. It was sincere. I’m gonna remember that excitement, that look on his face. He wasn’t just reciting a speech; he was thinking, imagining, getting worked up. That’s one good way to make me remember you – love the hell out of your goddamn book.

But not everybody’s that confident, or that sociable – maybe you’re a shy one, and this is your first time out. Okay, I can sympathize. You don’t have to charm the hell out of me, don’t worry. There’s another way you can make me remember you, and it's something you already know how to do – comics. When I tell you I want to buy your book, ask me if I’d like you to sign it. If I say no, fine – but who the hell says no? If I say yes, you’re at a crossroads. You can just sign your name on the damn thing and hand it to me, and off we go our separate ways, you with my money and me with your comic and some meaningless scribble on it. Or, you can put some pepper on it. Draw a little sketch. Ask me how to spell my name and write me a little note. Your signature is, let’s face it, worthless. Jim Lee, you ain’t. The point of having you sign it is to make it personal, so take advantage of the opportunity. It doesn’t have to be your best work. I don’t expect it to be. But if you go just that small extra distance, I’m gonna notice. When I read your book, all huddled up on my couch, and I see that silly little doodle, I’m gonna think about you, try to remember your face. Whether it's funny, or clever, or thoughtful, or stupid, the result will be the same: I’m gonna smile. Who knows? Maybe I’ll show it to a friend. Now you’ve got me doing your marketing for you. I got a lot of books signed when I was at APE this year. A lot of them are just defaced comics. But a few of them are special. I’m gonna keep ‘em, and I’m gonna take ‘em out once in a while and look at the sketches and notes, and maybe I’ll remember their creators’ names next time I’m browsing the indie racks at my local comics shop. Props to Josh Cotter, Doug Paszkiewcz, Jeremy Tinder and and everyone else to made that extra little effort - it's appreciated.

By no means is this list comprehensive. These are just some thoughts I’ve been musing over since APE, and I thought they might be helpful to one or two burgeoning creators out there. If any of my fellow readers have any other suggestions, please, let us know! Leave a comment or post on a message board. There’s no way we can expect the service and products we want unless we’re vocal about it. As Joe Rivera says, we are the most powerful force in the comics industry. And you know what they say about great power.

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