self-publisher's forum: letting the world know you exist
11 October 2003
Martin Buxton, who is currently writing his first comic book series, Life and Times of Henry Green, writes:
I've emailed you in the past with queries on self-publishing and I know you say you don't mind answering questions on the subject, but I'd still like to say thanks for taking the time and having the patience, before I go any further.
I've read your information on contacting distributors and, hopefully, getting them to take it for you, but I was wondering if you could advise me on the promotion side of things.
How did you go about letting the world know Strangehaven existed? Is it a matter of hoping the distributors do you justice, or can I do something myself to tell the word about my work.
I know some comics advertise new titles, but from what I can tell they seem to be bigger companies advertising their own comics.
Being a fellow Essex resident I wondered if you got in touch with local TV and radio stations or the Echo and its sister the Gazette?
Promoting your comic is obviously a hugely important thing to do - if people don't know about your work, they won't buy it, pure and simple.
The problem begins when deciding how much time, effort and money to put into promoting your book. You certainly can't have too much publicity at the launch of a new title, but your resources must be balanced against the creation of new work - especially if it's to be an ongoing comic book title. There's no point in spending so much of your time promoting your book that you haven't got time to create the next issue or book. Likewise, the amount of money that you spend on promotion should be balanced against how much profit your book is likely to make.
You do have to remember that when you're promoting the first issue of a series, you are in effect promoting the entire series - advertising subsequent issues of a four-issue mini-series will only reap a limited return compared to your advertising first issue, as most readers are a lot less likely to pick up issues 2, 3 or 4 if they haven't picked up the first issue already.
I've found that most new self-publishers tend to make two basic mistakes:
1. They have no advertising/promotional budget, or haven't even considered it.
2. They start thinking about promoting their book after the distributors have listed it, or even after they have had it printed.
The first point is a difficult one to come to terms with for many new self-publishers. It's understandable that in many cases, they have most of their investment - possibly all their savings - earmarked for printing costs. But you must plan for at least some percentage of your capital to be spent on promotion - otherwise the rest of your investment will most likely be insulating your attic for years to come.
Exactly what percentage is the $64,000 question.
The second point is not something that a self-publishing neophyte wants to think about at such an early stage, but is essential to start thinking about. You should at least have your first issue (if not your first two or three issues) already completed before you approach the distributors. But you need to get the promotional ball rolling even before the first issue gets solicited in the distributors' catalogues.
In terms of advertising, if we're talking distribution to international comic stores, primarily in the US, then we're talking Diamond Distributor's catalogue Previews. If you're going to blow your entire budget on one advert, this is the place to do it. Previews is used by many comics fans and virtually all comic book stores to advance order their comics. You'll need to reserve your ad space at the time of soliciting your book, so that your ad will draw attention to your listing in the same catalogue. But this kind of publicity doesn't come cheap, and a single page full-colour advertisement in Previews may cost more than the print bill for your first issue. There are other options; half page colour and both sizes in black and white are available at a more reasonable cost, and I might even suggest that an ad of some sort in Previews is essential for a new book.
If you provide distributors with a full dummy copy and a good quality scan of your cover, you may even be fortunate enough to secure additional promotion within the distributor catalogues, although space is extremely limited. I was lucky enough to benefit from a Previews' "Small Press Spotlight" featurette on the first issue of Strangehaven.
Remember, it's not the distributors' job to promote your comic or book. But some distributors do offer certain promotional services like e-mail shots, phone promotions, flyer distribution and suchlike - at a cost. I must admit I have found it more cost-effective to work on these types of promotions myself and are probably of benefit more if you already have a runaway hit on your hands. But your distributors will be happy to give you details of any services they may provide.
You may choose to advertise in other specialist comics publications, and although these may be considerably cheaper, they will have less immediate impact on your sales. Think about your target audience and don't waste money on advertising your superhero book in the Comics Journal. Do your research.
Direct Mail Shots and Preview Copies
One of the things I did to promote Strangehaven was to send a direct mail shot to around 100 retailers, consisting of a press release, some preview art and suchlike to coincide with the publication of the issue of Previews that carried my solicitation. I only received one response - from Page 45 - but they alone sold over 200 copies of the first issue of Strangehaven. Many other stores may have ordered it on the strength of my mailing combined with the space in Previews. Well worth the investment of the cost of 100 stamps and 100 sets of photocopies.
If you can afford it, sending out an advance photocopied preview of your entire comic just before Previews is published can also reap dividends. If a retailer sees the product before he's ordering and he likes it (or rather, thinks he can sell it), he will order it. If all he has to judge your book by is a tiny cover repro and a couple of sentences in the Previews listing, he will probably ignore it. Again, you need to target your audience. Sending out full preview copies is an expensive business and a scattershot approach will largely be a waste of money. Find out what you can about the big retailers and whether they carry the type of book you're producing. If you can, find out the name of the store's comic buyer and address your preview book directly to them.
An even more cost-effective way of using your preview copies is by sending them to reviewers well in advance of your Previews listing. One or two good reviews on important comics websites or in the big comic magazines can create a tremendous buzz, and if timed to coincide with your listing, it will benefit your orders no end. Selecting which reviewers may be more likely to give your work a good review is another matter for consideration, as almost everyone who has a computer seems to have their own web review page these days.
Writing an entertaining yet informative press release is an art in itself, but it's a skill that is extremely useful to learn for a self-publisher. You need to create attention for your new comic in the comics press and on the Internet. Press releases are easily sent out to both websites and print magazines, but you need to find out the correct personnel and their e-mail addresses to send your information to, which may mean some research. You also need to recognise that each will have their own requirements for image files - a good way to irritate people is to fill their inbox with huge image files without getting approval first. Websites will only require small bitmap or jpeg images, while print magazines will require high-resolution tiff files or similar. Help them to help you.
Maybe you'll get lucky and one or two of the Internet news sites, or even one of the comics press will write a small item about your forthcoming book, or do a short interview with you. But in reality, if they use your press release at all, they will probably print it word for word, such is the standard of much of comics journalism these days. Bear this in mind when you're writing your release, and remember to write about yourself in the third person. e.g.; Gary Spencer Millidge says, "It's strange thing to do, but you should learn to do it."
And don't get irritated with them if they fail to immediately fawn over your book - they will be receiving many other similar requests for publicity and you have to be patient - you don't want to make enemies of any journalists before you start - you may need their assistance in the future.
Websites, E-mail and The Internet
In fact, the relatively recent development of the Internet has given the budding entrepreneur a fabulous tool for promoting their own comic (or any other piece of merchandise for that matter).
Your own website, containing preview and promotional material for your new comic, can be set up relatively quickly and inexpensively compared to other forms of promotion. You can start to build an e-mail database of readers and retailers, although it's wise to limit your electronic news bulletins when you have something important to say, rather than committing yourself to a weekly newsletter of which your recipients will soon tire and even come to resent. And remember that a lot of people will simply delete unread any e-mail which comes with an attachment.
You can even spread the word through the considerable number of message boards and news groups that exist independently or attached to some web sites.
However, as the Internet becomes bigger and bigger, with web space and domain space becoming cheaper and cheaper and with the advent of automatic anti-spam software, it has become harder to get yourself heard. The golden age of Internet self-promotion may already be over. But it's still very worthwhile, if you don't waste too much time on this single aspect. An all-singing, all-dancing website may be a fantastic thing to behold, but it won't make you any money at this stage, and unless people specifically decide to visit your site, your efforts will have been wasted. It may turn out that it is as difficult to promote your website address as it is to promote your comic itself.
Conventions and Festivals
Hiring space at a convention is a great way to actually launch your comic, and with enough product on the table, you may even find you can turn a profit. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Prior to publication, it is still worth attending conventions for several reasons:
You could even hire one of the cheaper spaces (such as a "small press" table) to promote your book - have on hand a preview copy or two, some flyers - possibly with an order form attached, perhaps a promotional postcard and maybe business cards for potential contacts. Even if you can't afford a table, walk the floor and hand out your flyers; You can start "networking" with other professionals, publishers, journalists, distributors and potential fans and start spreading the news about your upcoming book. But don't get too pushy, you want to pique their interest, not bore them to death.
Do some research on how the other exhibitors are promoting their own wares: Which of the booths are you attracted to? Which ones are drawing the most attention? Could you learn from their approach? Where would be the best area for your table to be positioned? Then when the time comes to purchase your own booth space, you will be better equipped to make an immediate impact.
Finally, as far as local media is concerned, you may find that this is more trouble than it's worth. Local newspapers and radio stations may be fairly interested in your work, but a local angle is inevitably required, even if it's only "local boy makes good."
I've often been asked by local media to stress the small number of geographical locations that are based on the local area and to play down the fact that Strangehaven is actually based on a small Devonshire village on the other side of the country.
Most of the local journalists I've spoken to have no understanding or even interest in what I'm actually doing beyond filling a few column inches or airtime minutes. The final result is usually distorted beyond belief and the case of the newspapers, usually accompanied by an unflattering photograph.
This will probably have the effect of making you a local celebrity for a few days - I have been recognised several times in the street after appearing in the Evening Echo - but the impact on sales will most likely be nil. None of the people who I've spoken to that have seen me in the paper or heard me on the radio have been intrigued enough to stumble their way into the local comic shop and request a copy of Strangehaven, or have sent in a cheque to my PO Box for one of my trade paperbacks. That's if the journalist bothers to include any information on how to obtain your comic. Perhaps the proliferation of web access would encourage visitors to a web address detailed within the article, but I wouldn't stake anything on that ever happening.
Certainly, I tend to avoid local media interviews wherever possible these days, although now my trade paperbacks are available in local bookstores, I sometimes think it's my duty to try to educate the general public in the delights of comics.
© 2003 Gary Spencer Millidge. All rights reserved.
All text and images (c) copyright Gary Spencer Millidge/Abiogenesis Press All rights reserved.