7 NO-NO’s for Indie Comics Publishers

by Joe St.Pierre

The comic industry has really changed from the time I bought my first Spider-Man comic book! I have worked for Marvel, DC, Image, Valiant, IDW, Dynamite as an artist and writer, and have penciled more #1 issues featuring Spider-Man and his cast than any other penciler. I make my living mostly by doing commercial art and storyboards nowadays, but my passion for the comics medium and my head full of big ideas keep bringing me back in to the scene. Tough to shake that comics bug!

I started publishing my comic book series, the NEW ZODIAX, in February of last year. By far my most ambitious work, NEW ZODIAX tells the epic tale of 12 characters who can channel the cosmic energies of the zodiac. Each of the first four issues debuts a new member of the cast, making them all collector’s items. Issue #1 sold out at the Diamond level. Issue #4 just came out in stores on Sept. 30.

In my journey to make the NEW ZODIAX a million copy seller, I have learned a HECKUVA lot in the last eight months producing and promoting the series. Here’s a list of NO-NO’s I previously thought would be effective to help sell NEW Z, but proved otherwise. These are not complaints, they are observations based on my personal experience.

I’m way past taking any of this personally (I hope;).

NO-NO #1—Non-#1 Issues

My first issue of Amazing Spider-Man was #78. My first Fantastic Four was #133. My first JLA, #67. Even as a child, I knew the characters had a history before I read the comics I had chosen to read at that time, but only felt the need to read past or future issues once I read the comic in my hand and ENJOYED it. It’s painful for me to admit, but those days are gone. I can count on ONE HAND the number of comics fans I’ve met in eight months who didn’t feel the need to start reading a comic series from #1.

I intentionally structured the NEW ZODIAX to make each issue special. Each of the first four issues are first appearances of major cast members. This had NO effect on orders of issues after #1. Instead of releasing them as NEW ZODIAX #1 thru #4, I’m entirely convinced that if I had released each issue as NEW ZODIAX: Aquarius #1, NEW ZODIAX: Leo #1, NEW ZODIAX: Pisces #1 and NEW ZODIAX: Sagittarius #1, I would have had better sales. I’m also seriously considering releasing comics with NO numbering in the near future.

NO-NO #2—Mini-series

The 3 to 4 issue mini-series is dead. Related to the No No above, readers won’t jump onboard a second, third or other issue of a mini if they don’t have the first issue. If they’re interested in the series, the ones I’ve chatted with will wait and buy the trade. If you have a story to tell that takes 4 issues, don’t bother doing a monthly single issue presentation, do a trade/gn. Another option would be to reformat your story so you can release it as a series of #1 issues that complete a phase of the overall story arc (ie, the Pink Elephant #1, The Pink Elephant Strikes Again #1).

NO-NO #3—Working on the Series Content While Promoting

Complete your comic book project before you solicit. Promotion is a full-time job. I had 3 issues in the can before I solicited for NEW ZODIAX #1 in December 2014, and thought I could get the fourth issue done by its release date in September 2015. My day job in commercial art and promoting the comic thru cons, signings etc. completely devoured my schedule and I was a month late. If you’re doing multiple issues, it is especially crucial for an indie that they be released on a reliable schedule.

NO-NO #4—Communication with Retailers by Email

I sent dozens of emails to retailers asking them to support NEW ZODIAX. The responses were minimal. I also experimented with a Diamond service called the E-Mail Blast, where Diamond sends out a promotional email to their top 300 retail clients to help promote your product. Inside the blast, I placed links to promotional materials and interviews that were traceable on my end. The result of the email blast: 8 hits! Conclusion: retailers are busy too!

In my experience, nothing beat the personal interaction between me and the retailer. I actually prefer the personal interaction myself, I consider many of the shop owners I’ve met during the process my friends now. It’s just very time-consuming, and most times not practical. Once that connection is made the email chat will open up a bit.

NO-NO #5—Bi-monthly Status

I don’t envy a retailer’s job. A full catalog of comics to choose from, with minimal info on each product. And that’s just the comics! Don’t forget the action figures, the merch, etc.! Many are on a shoe-string budget themselves. They have to speculate on a comic’s future sales.

NEW ZODIAX was released on a bi-monthly schedule. The idea was to allow the retailer, in that extra month, to actually see the results of the sale of the book on their shelf so they could order future issues with confidence and risk-free. Didn’t work for me.

I spoke to one retailer who said that they had ordered 10 copies of NEW ZODIAX #1, and had sold 9 of them. When I asked how many of #2 they ordered, I anticipated a number close to 9, as the evidence was there for all to see. The answer was “One for the shelf and one for a subscriber.” That’s a pretty austere business model, folks. Take it to heart. I guarantee there isn’t one creator out there who feels the second chapter of their comic book should be seen by 80% fewer people than their first.

NO-NO #6—Variant Covers

I was frequently asked to pencil covers when I was a regular in mainstream comics. I love doing covers.

I treated my variant covers for NEW ZODIAX like special events, too. I worked with A-list talents like Sandu Florea (Batman, Deathstroke), Jay Leisten (Death Of Wolverine), Laura Martin (A-Force, Spawn), Steve Firchow (Grant Morrison’s X-Men, Top Cow), Dennis Calero (X-Men Noir, The Suit), and my favorite, Joe Sinnott. While these variants were all CREATIVE HIGHS in my artistic career, they did not translate to dramatically increased sales through the standard retail channels.

TWO CAVEATS: 1) My variants do sell pretty strongly at cons and signings. And 2) Retailer exclusives really helped keep the numbers up for NEW ZODIAX #3 and #4. I approached a number of retailers about this idea, and was lucky enough to work with the Comic Depot in Saratoga Springs, NY and the Independent Comic Book Review website. Each exclusive had its own unique cover image, with the company logo featured prominently. That helped with production costs, and really helped keep the sales numbers solid when the Diamond side declined. But business-wise, if you can’t get a retailer exclusive, I think you could save a lot of cash on plate changes and added creator costs by skipping the variant and using that cash for promotional purposes, or to pursue a returnable incentive to retailers so they order more copies of your book.

NO-NO #7–Doing It All Yourself

I created, wrote, penciled, inked, lettered, edited, colored and published NEW ZODIAX mostly by myself. I’m exhausted. Find someone to help you share the workload, someone who compliments your skill set, whether it’s creative or promotional, and compensate them handsomely;) Personally I am on an active hunt for a promotional person who knows the comics industry well and can handle the press releases and sales side of things.

In summary, I’m simply looking at these No-Nos as problems to be solved. If you are an indie creator and making cash is your sole priority, you wouldn’t be doing this, right? There’s a tremendous amount of love in the indie comics I’ve seen. But at the same time, I feel the financial rewards should be as important as the creative rewards. We all have limited budgets and limited time. If you are thinking about any of these No-Nos for your own project, I hope some of my experience will help save both your budget and time. Feel free to share your own experience and opinions.

The NEW ZODIAX Trade Paper Back ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, and is now available in comics shops and through my site, astronautink.com. It’s a collection of the first four issues, and a great opportunity to jump onboard a new universe of characters I really feel are unique in this marketplace. Please support the book and thank you for helping Spread The New Z!

Here is the link: http://astronautink.com/store-comics.html

Joe

One Comment

  • Jose says:

    A lot of these points are rubbish and you’ll find many indie creators disagreeing. Let everyone find their way, there is no ONE RIGHT WAY to do things. Mini series are dead? Give me a break, what evidence do you have of this? In fact I believe it’s quite the opposite. I won’t go on about the other points, it was an utter waste of time to even read and comment on this drivel.

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