Let me tell you a story about the harsh realities of the indie comic book publisher.
The story starts not with comic books, but with a high-tech company. It all happened a long, long time ago (three years ago) and far, far away (a few miles from my home).
Once upon a time there was a high tech company that created a website with games that were supposed to make money. The games were pretty awful, and the company wasn’t making a lot of money doing them.
They decided to hire me to design games for them, games that would be good for a change. I was happy to do it. It was a chance to build something from the bottom. Once I was hired, though, they hardly ever bothered to actually build the games I designed. It’s not because they didn’t like the games I designed. It was because they chose to pour all their money into marketing instead. You know marketing, right? It’s the machine through which hordes of people come to one’s website.
I sat more than once with the CEO in his office, practically shouting at him: “If the games aren’t good, it doesn’t matter that people come!” He countered adamantly with, “If the games are good and people don’t come, that doesn’t make me money.”
His position was that “I can have the most terrible games. If I bring enough people, some of them will play and that will make me money.” I couldn’t convince him. And he couldn’t convince me. He thought marketing was the silver bullet. I thought a good product was the silver bullet. It was his company, so in the end we did what he wanted.
Let’s skip ahead six months.
I was trying to raise money to create an indie comic book company called New Worlds Comics.
Venture Capitalists asked me: “How do you know you’ll make money?”
“Are you kidding?” I said. “Comic book fans are dying to get top notch comic books, which we can provide. If they find an amazing comic book, they’ll spread the word like wildfire.”
“How do you know it will spread like wildfire?”
“Are you kidding? You don’t know comic book fans. They’re tech savvy. A huge percentage of them are on social networks, and they constantly talk to each other. If they find a top-notch comic book, everyone will know about it.”
Skip ahead a year and a half.
Our first comic book came out, Wynter #1. It was immediately hailed as sensational and mind-blowing by many review sites. Did those review increase sales? Not even by one percent.
Wynter #2 came out. Now review sites began seeing a trend. They started calling it “The best sci-fi comic book on the shelves today.” Did those reviews increase sales? Again, not even by one percent. Wynter #3 came out. Review sites continue to call it the best sci-fi book today. Did sales increase? They did not.
And so the arguments I used to have with the game company’s CEO come back to me. Apparently, he was right. Quality doesn’t matter (if you believe the reviewers that Wynter is great quality). Quality is what people say they look for, but it isn’t what they really look for. Marketing is king. Good marketing can make a bad comic book a bestseller just like it can make a good comic book a bestseller. It’s not the quality. To paraphrase Clinton: “It’s the marketing, stupid.”
That’s what people in the industry don’t tell you: It’s the marketing, stupid.
So far I’ve encountered more than 200 indie comic book publishers on Twitter alone. They’re all trying to succeed by creating good art (some have better comics than others, of course). They are all floundering, unable to reach audiences wide enough to sustain themselves for a long time. There are quite a few books by comics veterans about how to draw really well or how to write really well. Professionals tell us their secrets and how we can create really good comics and succeed in the comics world. But they don’t tell you that the quality of what you do doesn’t matter if your aim is to sell. Even in this super-democratic world of Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, forums, and whatever, it isn’t the quality of the product that makes things viral or that makes everyone talk about that one thing. It’s the marketing, stupid.
So if you’re a comic book fan and you want to become an indie comic book publisher; if you want to find great financial and personal success creating comic books – then keep in mind that writing well is not enough. Creating great graphics is not enough. Being able to get the job done and publish it, that’s not enough. In fact, those three things together are not even half of what determines the success of your comic.
You had better learn far more than the art side of the business. You’d better learn marketing. You’d better learn to sell yourself. Because if you don’t sell yourself right, no one will buy your masterpiece.