I call this a guide to self-distributing your comic, but perhaps more accurately it's a record of my own attempt to self-distribute my comic, GUN.
I found that there are plenty of resources out there on how to make a comic, slightly fewer but still a substantial amount on how to publish a comic, but when I was researching how to actually market and distribute your own work, there’s surprisingly little information out there. Well, maybe not so surprisingly, comics are a unique case, which is why I think a resource like this may be of use to other creators and self-publishers.
For starters, let’s just clarify some terms: Coming up with a comic, writing it, drawing it, that’s creating a comic. Next you want to publish this thing you came up with. Essentially this means getting it into some format other people can share; for our purposes here we’re going to concentrate on printed comics you can purchase in a comic shop (though certainly digital is becoming a more viable option). Getting this printed comic on a truck and into stores is what we’ll call distribution. DC & Marvel, Dark Horse & IDW, those guys are publishers and all publishers from the big guys to the small presses, even self-publishers, all of them use one distributer and that's Diamond Comic Distributors.
Diamond is the primary distributor for comics in North America, meaning evry comic shop, book store, mom & pop gets it's comics from them. Diamond puts out a monthly advance order catalog called PREVIEWS; retailers and readers alike thumb through it, pick what they like. and roughly two months later via their network of distribution centers Diamond delivers the goods to comic shops all over the country each and every Wednesday, or as it's colloquially known, 'comics day'.
Most comic shops have a subscription service of some sort, fans let the shops know what they want in advance and when the comics come in they set them aside for the interested parties, essentially pre-ordering (although note that the stores themselves absorb the risk). Diamond communicates this to the publishers and they in turn print to order. This is called the Direct Market. This is of particular importance: the key peculiarity of the direct market (as compared to other publishing industries) is when Diamond ships your comics, retailers cannot return the inventory. Unlike books, or magazines, or CDs, or DVDs, where after a few months you return what didn't sell, comic book retailers are stuck with the inventory they order. And this is the single defining tension of the comics industry: retailers vacillating between not wanting to miss the summer sleeper hit but cautious about getting caught holding the bag on a dud and publishers and creators constantly trying to push that needle.
OK, so my experience with Diamond went like this: I submitted the first issue of my comic, GUN to Diamond through the normal channel. Diamond declined to list. Though discouraging it was not entirely surprising, by Diamonds own reporting they accept only about 10% of what gets submitted to them, though I did have reason to be optimistic (we had just cleared a successful Kickstarter, we had financing in place and I sent a polished, professional package).
Diamond came back with some suggested revisions, nothing that I felt compromised the comic so I made their changes which amounted to about 6 new pages which I then resubmitted along with the second issue. They also requested a marketing proposal (I had submitted one with the first submission but I beefed it up to 11 pages) Diamond declined again.
Now the reason why getting in Diamond is so important is very closely linked to why, I suspect, they make it so difficult. (This next part is kind of number-y, if you bore at the site of percentages feel free to skip down to the friendly little line of asterisks) Diamond has minimum requirements, these are slightly discretionary but you should be moving roughly 2,000 units of your book. This isn't arbitrary, if you are selling a $3.99 book and you are selling less than 2k units, you're only taking home $3,192 (remember you’re giving Diamond & the retailers a 60% discount on the book). Printing 2k units is costing you a little more than $2000 dollars so that leaves about $1,200 which we're assuming is covering your creative costs, which means as a publisher you're making little to no profit. Diamond knows this, if you aren't making their minimums you aren't turning a profit. Unfortunately, it's a paradox, if you want to make a living selling your comic you need to be pushing around 2K+ units but it's next to impossible to move that many units if you’re not carried by Diamond.
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Now let me just get this out up front: I have NO BEEF with Diamond. My correspondence with them was cordial; I had the opportunity to meet with Marty Grosser, the editor of PREVIEWS, at a panel at San Diego Comic Con last year and I'm pleased to report he's a nice guy who truly loves comics and it's a relief to know the keys to the kingdom are in the hands of someone who is at least a fan and not some suit with a business degree.
Despite their constant grumbling, there’s a tacit acquiescence on the behalf of retailers regarding the bed they’ve made with Diamond. I worked in a comic shop during the historic (and failed) rebellion when Marvel splintered from Diamond with its own distribution company Heroes World. I can tell you: if there’s anything less fun as burrowing though a 400 page PREVIEWS catalog to place orders on a Saturday afternoon, it’s plowing through two catalogs. Comics retail is an unglamorous and fickle market. A lot of smaller shop owners start off loving comics and their stores were an extension of that love, but 10 years in their interests have shifted and the shops often struggle given the cyclical booms and bust of the industry. I don’t blame any single comic retailer for succumbing to the ease and simplicity of Diamonds monolithic hold on the industry. And I too make the common mistake most comic creators make by confusing what is good for the medium for what is good for business. All said, Diamond is a business (just like the publishers, just like the retailers.)
Anyways, the point of this blog isn’t to quibble about Diamond, it’s about how to distribute if you’re not with Diamond? The good news is it's a frontier, the bad news is it's a frontier. What I’ve settled on is something I’m calling Microdistribution. I'll explain:
Microdistribution is marketing directly to the retailers with a simple, very streamlined 2 click process. They get an email, they click to a product link, and then they checkout. They can order a la carte as many issues as they'd like or a bundle of 5 copies with some nice premiums. They can order a month in advance or right up to the week before delivery (if we still have copies even after delivery). Checkout is easy, they can even use paypal, most purchases will hover under 10 dollars, so it's not a critical hit to their budget (less than lunch on most days). It isn't expensive, it isn't time consuming. Two minutes, two clicks, done.
Now of course, there are hurdles, you have to penetrate with the retailers. I'd be surprised if even 15% of them even open their email. This is the other lacuna I've found. When Diamond came back and asked for another Marketing Proposal I assumed that the one I sent was not extensive enough. I started researching, well what are the marketing proposals other comics are submitting to Diamond. I would use that as a template. Guess what? I couldn't find any. I based mine on marketing tool kits I had built for companies I had worked for in the past. I'll break this down in the next post (disclaimer: Diamond still passed so caveat emptor.) But the gist is, retailers are actually your second target, reviewers are your first.
This has gone long so I'm going to wrap up here. The next post will be a sidebar where I explain my strategies for marketing a indy comic and then after that I'll explain at length my plan for micro-distributing. In the meantime, feel free to like us on Facebook, @theVillainist on Twitter or Tumblr. If you have any comments or feedback, you can email me.