Selling indie comics at cons

Ben Towle wraps up Heroes Con with a detailed list of observations and he confronts what many people saw as low sales for indies at the show in a very constructive way:

Smile! It’s probably a bit of a regional bias, but I definitely saw some residents of Indie Island who really gave off a mopey, unapproachable vibe. While this is absolutely, 100% preferable to the other end of the spectrum, the loathsome “hard sell”/carnival barker routine, one of the things Heroes is known for is how friendly and personable ‘most everyone is. If you look like you’re in the midst of an existential crisis, you’re not really inviting people to come check out your work.


We know that by pointing out such things we’ll be accused of making excuses for a poorly run con — which Heroes was not — but we happen to agree with that assessment. This year’s Indie Island was a bold attempt to break into a new market with a lot of fabulous comics, and we’re not ready to say if it worked or it didn’t. I know some people who were used to seeing books fly off the table at MoCCA, San Diego and SPX were disheartened. And yes it disheartening that you can’t just put a book by Charles Burns or Gary Panter on a table anywhere on earth and see it sell. Sure, I think a little more salesmanship may have sold a few more books…but given the limited budgets and resources of most indie publishers I don’t think asking them to slave away at mining a new territory is entirely fair either.

There were two booths at the show that got quite a bit of attention. One was for the book Light Children and the other was for a publisher named Steam Crow. Here they are.

Img 4817

Img 4816
LIGHT CHILDREN is a multi volulme fantasy story being serialized on the web. The creators, Andy Horner and Kyle Webster, promote the book quite a bit, and have a professional booth (borrowed from Horner’s day job at a printer). Last year they exhibited with just a preview but signed people up for a mailing list, and this year many people came to look for the book, having been reminded throughout the year by a few newsletters of its arrival. That’s a good sound practice and they sold lots of books.

Steam Crow had a pretty impressive booth consisting of a foam-core castle, and a very limited display of adorable figurines and books, all laid out in an appealing, clean fashion. The guy who writes and draws the books — Daniel Davis — said his sales hadn’t been terrific but it was a new territory for him and he new next time he would need to do more promotion and online marketing. The booth was the kind of professional looking set up that most people would feel comfortable approaching — and if you liked cute, designer toy-influenced art and books, you would have been drawn right in.

I mean no offense to either LIGHT CHILDREN or Steam Crow when I say their offerings are not as good as Charles Burns or Gary Panter — very few things are. I mean no offense to Heroes Con — which is still the nicest show on the circuit — when I saw the crowd is mostly middlebrow. I also saw a lot of quirky Southerners, but they seemed to go more for odd little cartoony things than punk or goth, perhaps.

Not everyone can be a road warrior like Chris Staros and hit the trail for 11 weeks running. that’s just CRAZY! Not every publisher has the resources to maintain even something as basic as a mailing list. In the end, finding and building a new audience is time consuming for everyone concerned.

Comments

  1. The comic market is so divided,. Superhero comic lines, Manga comic lines, Dark Dead Vampire lines, etc And there are the Indies.

    I could be conjuring up some real hostile fire by bringing this up, but as far as increasing sales, is there a potential here for Marvel or DC to launch yet another brand extension?

    That is, an “Indie Imprint” where they lend marketing power to some of the more commercial indie products. The creators would retain copyright and royalties, but Marvel would promote “their” new line in return for street cred and cash. Maybe they are issued as Indie Imprint mini series.

    (I would put Omega The Unknown into this category, IF it were an independent creation; an indie mini series, dressed up as an offbeat superhero comic.)

  2. I’ve been waiting for years for Marvel to come up with something akin to a Vertigo line. Omega is definitely a tiny step in the right direction. The Icon line just seems like a place to keep vanity projects going for their top-selling writers. I have a group of ten or so hardcore comic reading friends that cover everything from Beanworld to X-Men and the amount of Icon titles we get is close to zero. DC’s recent Vertigo/OGN initiative announcement should be worth watching.

    On the Heroes Con front, it’s my favorite convention of the year because it’s a medium sized pure comic book show. It’s also a very strong sketch show. Because of the high facetime you can receive with creators, I think it would be a good thing for those in Indie Island to cut back on the merchandise (not the comics, the merchandise: buttons, TShirts, etc) and offer up cheap or free sketches as a loss-leader to their booths. You can’t go to Heroes with a MOCCA mindset. Two different markets. The indie creators I heard from that did well were offering up sketches with their comics.

    And seeing Ben Towle’s name makes me remember to pull out Farewell, Georgia finally.

  3. Didn’t Marvel try do a creator-owned line with a relaunch of Epic not too long ago? I seem to recall that falling apart, but not the details why…

  4. Tom Spurgeon says:

    please god, no

  5. Hi, Heidi,
    again, it was a pleasure meeting you at Heroes and we hope you will come back soon – I have a feeling the Indie Island area is only going to get bigger and better. Thanks for mentioning our Light Children book – we will send you a copy of the second book in the series in January, when it is printed! Best wishes from North Carolina, Kyle

  6. While I rarely (OK, never) put together a slick setup like the Light Children and Steam Crow folks did, and Heroes was no exception, I had a great show, both sales-wise and meeting new and interesting people-wise. Folks were friendly and talked about comics, even when they didn’t decide to buy ‘em.

    While I’m not quite to the zen master stage of not caring at all about the monetary aspect of publishing books and attending conventions, I do think that connecting with a new group of potential readers is always worthwhile. Cheers to Dustin for making that possible for so many folks this year. If every show was as good as Heroes I’d be tempted to try and emulate Chris Staros…I doubt I could match his stamina, though!

  7. I think the idea that leads to people wanting an indie line out of DC and Marvel is the same reason why something like Indie Island failed so badly; superhero fans don’t want to buy anything that’s not stamped with the seal of approval from their superhero companies.

    Were some of the indie guys moping? I have no doubt. But how much of that was caused by the realization comics in America are held hostage by superhero fans and they were fighting a losing battle by being there?

    Indie comics people need to break free of the direct market. Anymore, the indie books that become successful do so despite the direct market. (Not stuff like Love & Rockets, stuff like the success Jeff Smith has had.) The direct market will die as soon as the current generation of superhero fans die. The manga kids will take over. I know people want to bury their heads in the sand over this, but it’s how the market is evolving. By not trying to keep themselves relevant outside of their personal interests, direct market owners lost out on being part of the manga culture shift.

    I think at some point in time, we’re going to see stores pop up specializing in manga and anime and I think the indie guys will have some more success there. It may even be just on-line stores, but I don’t think physical retail space is really needed anymore. I know I can find everything I’m looking for on Amazon and I get a better price than in a direct market store.

    I don’t even really know why indie guys are bothering with superhero conventions. It’s like Fisher Price trying to sell toys to the Kid Robot crowd.

  8. I definitely heard a lot of reports from some of the new exhibitors, especially Picturebox, Buenaventura, and Bodega, of disappointing sales. But I have yet to hear a report that someone didn’t have a good time, which is heartening. My goal with Indie Island has been to bring as many top-notch cartoonists and illustrators together into one space, with the hope that their many small groups of fans will together form an enormous crowd.

    This year was the first time I went for it whole hog, with the support of my boss and the convention owner, Shelton Drum. I fully expect that subsequent years with the same amount of work and energy on my part will result in Indie Island solidifying into a must on the indie convention circuit. There’s NOTHING like it in the South, period, even close. Besides the unfortunate fact that the South isn’t New York or San Francisco, I think Indie Island is about to turn a corner. Jeff Smith is already onboard for next year, as well as a couple of other big names I haven’t announced yet. With luck I’ll be able to trick Dan and Frank and Alvin into coming again–if nothing else, I like those guys and enjoyed getting to talk to them!

  9. Dustin,
    as I mentioned on Ben’s blog, you are truly our hero. Without your hard work, Indie Island would not continue to grow into the cool spot it is becoming and we would have a really tough time raising any awareness for our book amongst all the super hero titles. I can’t wait to meet Jeff Smith next year – wow.

  10. Oddly enough I never thought of Heroes Con as a “superhero convention” but rather a “comic convention”. When Image, Ape, Top Shelf, AdHouse, Oni etc. are all set up as the major publishers, it’s hard for me to see it as appealing to only the super-hero crowd. I guess it’s how you market your work. Are you a comics creators or are you a non-superhero creator. Because those two things definitely set off a different vibe to potential customers and will keep people at a distance. From the various reports I’ve heard from my fellow podcasters, it seems this was even better than last year and those small press creators that attended for the first time are looking forward to returning – especially since it was cheaper than being in NY for MOCCA or Baltimore for SPX.

  11. I’ll be honest, it was super tough keeping up my usual chipper exterior by Saturday afternoon at Heroes. Usually I’m standing behind the table almost the whole time, trying to smile away at everyone and being chatty, but it was just really hard after Earth-shattering successes at both Stumptown and MoCCA, seeing how little interest there was at Heroes. Luckily in the end when I counted up what I sold, I didn’t do half bad and I was pretty pleased with the result, even if it wasn’t MoCCA or SPX numbers. It was pretty good for a first con in a place I’ve never been and don’t have a strong pre-existing fanbase. I have strong faith that if I continue to go back year after year I’ll start to see those MoCCA and SPX numbers, especially knowing now what sells at Heroes (mainly sketches and original art).

    All in all I would say Heroes was a success for me, both sales-wise and fun-wise.

    And Dustin Harbin completely and totally rules. I’m sure if he puts in as much next year as he did this year it will be even better than this year.

  12. The Beat says:

    I think we are all united in how hard Dustin works and what a great job the show does at making guests feel welcome. The South shall rise again!

  13. Kenny: “…Indie Island failed so badly…”

    Wha?! I think by most anyone’s count, Indie Island was a success (and has been for the last several years–this isn’t the first year of this, you know). The point of my original post really was just to point out that there were plenty of non-superhero folks who did really well at Heroes… and of course had a great time to boot!

    One of the things I most enjoy about Heroes is that it’s NOT a “preaching to the converted” situation like SPX or MoCCA, frankly. You’ve got to take a different angle as to how you present yourself and your work, of course, but “superhero people” are not the monolithic automatons that they’re often made out to be in a few of these comments; like the rest of us, they mostly just love comics and are can absolutely be open to new material… if they’re exposed it, which is precisely the point of Indie Island.

    Here’s looking forward to next year’s show!

  14. With travel fees and the hotel, it’s really hard for me to turn a true profit at Heroes. I admit that one of the main reasons I go there is to have fun, and second is to get new readers. A distant third is to get new buyers. The money-making shows for me are still the Anime shows, but that has more to do with the crowds at the shows and the cash available to certain demographics.
    Still, I’d have to count Heroes as a huge success. Even being cut off by the huge Cooke and Fraction crowds, I still got a fair amount of traffic. And this was mostly because I was having fun and keeping my energy level up, and I felt that others realized that.
    Also, it helped that I was able to make people laugh.

  15. Without spending too much time on this, I would say that ALL of the questions about superhero-vs-indie, etc., are intrinsically boring and should be ignored. While that might be the reality on the ground–that HeroesCon is essentially a “mainstream” show with a growing indie component–over the years these distinctions will blur like all such distinctions.

    And also, to be clear: I don’t in any way see reports of slow sales as whining or moping. Besides all the fun and everything, the first reason for a publisher to be at one of these things is sales and outreach, and it’s that metric that governs success or failure. I only mentioned those guys by name in the interest of upfront-itude, not in some way to call them out. Not my style.

    And thanks to Liz Prince! I’m glad things turned around for you–I was stunned to hear AGAIN AND AGAIN how many people had their best days on Sunday, which any convention veteran will tell you is usually the slowest day. Maybe next year we’ll extend to Monday?

  16. Even though our sales at Heroes were not what we hoped, they were better than the worst-case-scenario we feared. Kudos to Dustin and Shelton for their efforts, and we do plan to return in 2009.

  17. Michael says:

    Speaking as a customer, I find the hard-sell barker and the surly misanthrope equally odious as a salesman. Is it too much to ask for just a little bit of general affability?

  18. I’m Liz Baillie not Liz Prince! TOO MANY LIZZES!! We should form some all-powerful Voltron-like being. I’ll form the ass!

  19. nvigneaux says:

    I agree with Ben Towle, but I didn’t want to be the one to say it. Charlotte is about 180 degrees in the other direction from Portland and San Francisco. I’m actually surprised how well indie books do at Heroes Con when I think about what Charlotte is known for–NASCAR, Banking, and Churches.

    Keep up the good work, Dustin.

  20. StevenRowe says:

    I’ve attended every one of the Heroes Cons, and there have always been indie comics there – this year there was a lot more competition than usual.
    I have a budget and I spent it, buying books from the usual suspects (I have to admire Chris Staros who recognizes me every year – not sure how he does that), and from a handful of new folks to me, usually recommended by someone whose taste is somewhat similar. I saw but really didnt even stop at Buenaventura (i dont recall seeing Picturebox or Bodega) – why didnt I stop? I’m not sure – the table seemed less a publisher than a comic shop? wasnt inviting enough? Nothing caught my eye? With that many folks in booths and on the floor, you have to do something to catch my eye as I walk by. Now I feel sure that my taste isnt everybody’s taste – but how do you show me as i walk by, why I should stop… The place is too big to stop at every table.

  21. Oh, Liz Prince, how you kid! Liz Baillie is great, really great–but can’t you be happy being Liz Prince? Have faith in yourself: we can’t ALL be Baillies, after all. Imagine what it’s like for me–I don’t even share a GENDER with Liz Baillie. You’re much closer than I’ll ever be.

  22. Thanks too, for the mention of our booth and wares here.

    Sadly, I look plenty mopey in the photo myself. (Dang secret shooters)

    :)

    We usually only do shows on the West Coast (ECCC, Stumptown, Wondercon, APE, SDCC, Phoenix Comicon), but we’ve been hearing great things about Heroes from day one. That’s why we came.

    We had a splendid time at Heroes-Con and met lots of really fun people.

    We moved a lot of product, but we had some very steep costs to overcome.

    While we may have not brought in the big bucks, we did meet some of our other convention goals: Make Friends, Make Fans, Have Fun.

    In these, we were very successful.

  23. Patrick Dean says:

    I don’t care if I make ten bucks at my table next year. I want to grab an Indie Island table because the folks I traveled with who set up there had a blast while I talked to comic creators and thumbed through long boxes for old Jimmy Olsen issues.

  24. Im definately gonna grab a table next year. You have to remember, vending at the table should be secondary, and be made of more exclusive things like signed books and prints.

    Your true rake isn’t in actual money or cashflow from the table; but from social capital. Bring lots of business cards, free fliers, promo comics, etc. You’ll do 1000x better when your building future business, and you’ll have a 500% better attitude. You’ll be meeting your objectives, and won’t be pushing anyone to buy. And if a person here or there does buy; thats just more icing on the cake!

  25. Also; what the industry needs, is an alternative to Diamond. Diamond dictates prices, and dictates what ships. However, I imagine that the competition to diamond would be almost exactly like diamond, and without a large footprint built already; diamond would crush them through sheer money.

    “Oh so you’re gonna try to distribute here? Ill give you a one month discount of half-off to use us.” You lose the business; and on a start-up; even a single month with slowed sales could be enough to kill you.

    Or, I’ve heard one of their all time favorite strategies: “If you skip buying from us this month; you forfeit your credit towards discounts, and ave to start over again. The more a retailer buys from them; the larger discount they get. Those discounts are still good for profit margin, but it makes start-up stores hard. And it makes owners feel like they’ve invested in diamond.”

Speak Your Mind

*