Any serious creator should have a business plan if they want to make money doing what they are doing. Part of developing that business plan should be a long, hard look at the challenges that the creator has to overcome. There should also be an examination of the default practices of the people who are currently making money, especially those practices that address those challenges. Ultimately, the creator has to decide if those practices make sense for someone with far less resources and infrastructure. That decision-making process is easier to do if there is a good understanding of what benefits (if any) those default practices actually bring and why.
In general, three major challenges facing the first-time comic book creator include distribution, genre and format. To a degree, these are interrelated and can only be addressed seperately to a point. The most obvious challenge is distribution, which makes it a logical starting point.
Diamond Comics is the main distribution channel for comic books in North America and, as such, has become a monopoly. This is the result of years of optimization by superhero publishers who want to sell their products to specialty stores who will then sell those products to their customers – who are mostly superhero fans. This supply chain is known as the Direct Market and it operates exactly the way it is meant to. From the perspective of the largest comic book publishers, the monopoly aspect of the Direct Market is not a bug, it is a feature that restricts access to the market.
Unfortunately, most first-time creators make the very common mistake of believing that this distribution channel can (and should) be used by anyone. They neglect to ask the basic research questions that are common to anyone building a business plan – Does the default distribution channel work for me? Will the default distribution channel get my products to my target audience?
And really, it depends on what the needs of the individual creator really are. If you are trying to sell a 24-page monthly superhero comic to superhero fans, then the Direct Market might meet your needs. If you aren’t, then it probably won’t. Understanding that the Direct Market should not be the default distribution channel for the vast majority of comic books (and why) is a huge first step.
So what is a good distribution channel? Well, that depends on the genre, doesn’t it? Most first-time creators have a hard time remembering that there are other genres besides superheroes. It sounds really stupid to walk up to someone and say, “Hey, I see that you like watching DVDs. Would you be interested in watching my DVD?” Why doesn’t this sound stupid when DVD is replaced with comics?
Somehow, this has become the basic marketing strategy that everyone uses. This default assumption implies that comic book readers are interested in the medium first and the content second – which is why everyone is trying so hard to get their work into specialty stores; that’s where the comic book readers hang out, right? (Actually, that’s where the superhero readers hang out, which is only marginally helpful if you are working in any other genre.)
One of the basic questions in every business plan is “Who is your audience?” If the answer to that question is any variation on “comic book readers,” then you need to put some more thought into your business plan. Basic market research will tell you that there is a population of people who are, in theory, sympathetic to the idea of comics as a mechanism for telling stories. However, the vast majority of them do not know that comics are anything more than superheros – mostly due to poor market visibility.
But if you are making a science fiction comic, it would not hurt you to sell directly to science fiction fans first and let the comic book retailers catch up once you have established an audience. If the choice is to educate superhero readers or non-comics readers on the fact that non-superhero comics exist, which has a better return on investment?
Many people believe that selling digital copies of comics will enable first-time creators to do an end-run around Diamond and the entire Direct Market system and sell their work directly to readers. This will only work well if the creator is savvy enough to market their work to genre readers. Most creators are not this savvy.
As a rule, most digital business plans work on the assumption that the digital sales front will enable an end-user to purchase a service or a tangible object – the digital sales front merely works as a substitute for the storefront. Sadly, selling pixels is not always the best way to monetize content.
But just because selling comics on the web is not a great profit generator doesn’t mean that the web is a bad prospect for initial serialization. In fact, putting a comic out on the web is an excellent means of building an audience. Serializing a book a page at time has been proven to be a best practice among webcomics creators for years. What most creators struggle with is how to monetize the content that has been provided for free.
Again, it helps to look at default assumptions about format and decide whether those defaults are actual best practices or just in place because that’s the way that it has always been done. For example, who says that comics on the web have to be complete pages? European comics like Asterix were originally serialized at the rate of half a page a week in anthology magazines, but the collections are where the money was made.
And, to be honest, collections make sense as a money-maker for comics that were originally presented for free on the web. If the audience for your comic is not the default superhero reader, then there are less expectations that have to be addressed. These readers might be more likely to purchase something with a spine if they are already familiar with the original content. It is important to understand that you are selling paper, ink and convenience – not the content. It is even possible to provide an easy value-add to a collected edition of a webcomic if you were so inclined; present the free web version in black and white and present the collected print edition in color.
It is important to remember that priting costs scale in favor of collected editions. The margins that come with printing monthly comics are as thin as the product, which means the money has to be made in aggregate and the break-even costs require a huge amount of sell-through. Basic math indicates that a thicker profit margin requires less absolute sales to reach the break-even point.
Another example of a default format decision is the size of the printed page. Currently, monthly comics are printed at 6.625 inches by 10.25 inches. But when it comes to printing costs, it does not cost much more to print comics at 8.5 by 11. Interestingly, the only group of people who expect the monthly comic size are superhero readers. Most non-comics readers are more comfortable with magazines, which are printed at 8.5 by 11. (The additional square inches of the slightly larger page actually work towards the benefit of the creator, because it allows slightly more content per page.)
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. There are as many ways to make comics as there are creators who want to make them. I believe that the key to a healthy comics market is diversity – in genre, in format and in distribution methodology. It’s nice to think that there should be a one-size-fits-all solution, but that doesn’t actually make a lot of sense in practice. Tailored solutions have a better overall chance of success. At some point, the Diamond monopoly is going to collapse and it would be beneficial to have multiple proven alternatives in place when it does.
More importantly, there is no compelling reason why a first-time creator should be interested in providing solutions for large corporations – they have staff to do that for them and will not reward your efforts. There is, however, a compelling reason to figure out how to get your comic books to your target audience in the most efficient, cost-effective manner possible. And sometimes that means figuring out that “default” implies that you can change the settings to suit your needs.