What We Mean When We Talk About Comics Marketing
Where do you first hear about new comics?
Is it in an announcement on a comic or entertainment site, one that comes alongside an insightful interview, preview pages, or simply a press release? Is it in a tweet from an unrelated creator or a notable celebrity, touting this new release as something you can’t miss? Or is it on a podcast like my own, in which a key component of the creative team guests on the show, discussing this project that might be your new favorite?
All of these are options, as are innumerable others. Our awareness of the next big thing in comics can come from a range of places. But the starting point for each of these methods is often one and the same, forming the foundation of what drove your eventual interest in a title, even if you didn’t know it. That commonality?
The efforts of a comics marketer. 1
Comics marketing is a fascinating subject, and that’s not just because I’m an easy mark because my day job is at an advertising agency. It reminds me of the public perception of editors, as both earn blame for the failings of a project but little applause for one’s success. Most of the time I see the subject of marketing mentioned, it’s as a caustic rhetorical question along the lines of, “Does comics marketing even exist?” It does, and it can be crucial to a comic finding its audience. Like with the work of an editor, you could say the efforts of marketers can make or break a comic.
To me, at least part of the reason some struggle to understand the impact of comics marketing is because, frankly, no one really understands what a comics marketer does and how the role works. It’s one of the most sprawling roles in comics, as in this industry, marketing isn’t just marketing. It’s marketing, public relations, publicity, sales, social media, retailer relations, and, as it might say on a job description, many other jobs as assigned.
It’s also closely related to other key aspects of the comics business, as the decisions in publishing and distribution feed into and even define the work of a marketer, with that troika of sectors often overlapping to the point their Venn diagram forms a single circle. That makes it both a complex job and a complicated one to talk about.
And yet, here I am, talking about it all the same.
Because of its sprawling nature, there’s just no way to address comics marketing in a single feature that isn’t painfully dense. 2 That’s why I’ve split it up, as this week on SKTCHD, there will be not one, not two, but three different features exploring this subject. One will be from an analytical perspective, another will be looking at what this side of the comics world is missing, and then another that endeavors to answer the question of, “What do we mean when we talk about comics marketing?” Because if we can’t definitively say what it is and how it works, there’s no point in addressing any of it.
And that’s exactly where we’ll be starting today.
Fundamentally, comics marketing isn’t too dissimilar from marketing in other fields. It’s all about achieving results, whatever those may be. And in comics, it’s about making the sale, whether that’s to retailers, potential buyers in other markets, or on the long side of the process, readers. That makes comics marketers equal parts hype person, information delivery artist, and relationship builder, connecting a project with core audiences by delivering marketing materials, revealing covers, writing solicitations and press releases, gaining news coverage, arranging interviews, inspiring reviewers, aligning influencers, and any number of other tactics.
As mentioned earlier, the phrase “marketing” in comics is more of an umbrella term. Your average professional in that field quickly shifts between varying business disciplines. Because of the versatility of their role, their efforts may look wildly different daily, hourly, and by the minute. But if any element defines what they do, it’s the concept of the “purchase funnel,” or, effectively, the path a consumer follows to commit to a purchase. 3 They are trying to drive a sale, and their efforts shift as the consumer gets further down that funnel. If you know anything about marketing, this all likely sounds fairly unremarkable.
Here’s where things get weird.
While comics marketing still fits in that traditional “funnel” concept, it becomes complicated because they are quite often dealing with two of them at the same time, which are the sales cycles of the primary channels in comics: the direct market, or comic shops; and the book market, or major box stores, bookstores, libraries, schools, and beyond. 4
While there are plenty of other places comics exist and marketers operate within, including the promotion of digital, webcomics, crowdfunding, and beyond, the vast majority of the revenue in comics goes through those two channels. This means the bulk of marketing efforts and budgets are deployed in pursuit of interest within them.
And the strange part – at least to outsiders – about how those two markets work is the customer in each isn’t the reader. Their focus is on the buyer of the product in each channel, whether that means a comics retailer or a buyer at Target. Don’t get me wrong: marketers eventually want to sell to readers. Readers are a big piece of the comics marketing puzzle. But customers can’t purchase the comics they want unless their shop of choice orders them. Because of that, the sales cycles of each market define the work of a comics marketer, as comics marketing consultant Tara Ferguson told me.
“There is definitely a structure around how comics are ordered and released,” Ferguson said. “Keeping up with the solicitations and ordering periods, tracking final order cutoffs, 5 planning launches for first issue or trade releases. I don’t think anyone in comics marketing can avoid conforming to that structure in some way.”
That’s why it’s important to know how these processes work, because they dictate so much of what these people do, and because, hilariously, those structures Ferguson spoke of are different for each market. Gina Gagliano, the Publishing Director of Random House Graphic, 6 told me that while the processes for customers in each can be similar, the difference lies in the timing of your efforts.
“One of the things that’s different with material made exclusively for the direct market and material made for both the book market and the direct market is the sales cycles. The principles are the same – you start marketing, publicity, and promotion, and releasing data, covers, and information to tie in with when the book is presented to the buyer and then shared with the reader,” Gagliano told me. “And all those buyers 7 need information to make their buying decisions at different times. Some of those times are much earlier – which leads to book publishers doing a general data release far in advance of when Diamond releases their Previews catalog.”
The way it works is fairly simple, even if there are occasional permutations in the timeframes you’re dealing with. The sales cycle for a book market release is roughly 12 months long, while the direct market is a quarter of that at three months. The marketing window typically mirrors the period comics are available for order, 8 because again, their objective is to drive orders of their product.
The role of a comics marketer largely builds from one or both of those processes. While some exclusively work in a single market – Ferguson, for example, only deals with promoting her clients’ work to comic shops – most exist in both because there’s typically significant overlap. After all, a single issue of an ongoing series for the direct market is but the first step in the process towards a trade paperback that will eventually be pitched to the book market. 9 That might sound like it complicates matters. But as David Dissanayake, the Director of Sales & Marketing at Vault Comics, noted, these two markets often “dovetail nicely.”
“Most book buyers are looking at title purchases between eight and twelve months in advance of release. So, for example right now, in September 2020, we are already talking to book stores about titles coming out in mid-2021,” Dissanayake said. “But because many of those are collected editions 10 that are launching now, the two fronts line up well (intentionally so).”
The sales cycles for each market are crucial to everything they do, and while it can be jarring to us as outsiders, existing – and thriving – within those order windows is something the marketers I spoke to have turned into science over the years. All it requires is a good plan, and that is something marketers excel at.
Take Ferguson, for example. She shared a marketing plan she created for an upcoming title, and within this 12-page document you can find a timeline with important milestones 11 for the three-month order window, specific tactics to deploy, how to handle signings and events in the COVID era, interviews and media, 12 items to build awareness and drive orders, and more. Basically, any contact point between a project team and a potential buyer – be it retailer or reader – is identified within this plan, with the necessary timing to go along with.
It’s a perfect guide to a successful debut – and this type of thing is necessary for both markets – because it recognizes that even that three-month order window isn’t just one chunk: it’s a stretch of unique periods that require different efforts to succeed, as Arune Singh, the Vice President of Marketing at BOOM! Studios, told me.
“I’m a big believer in identifying four distinct periods for any new project – Announcement, Pre Order, On-Sale and Sell Through 13 – and then tailoring your plans to build a consistent, sustained narrative throughout,” Singh said.
Multiply all of that by the amount of titles you’re promoting or publishing and all of a sudden a comics marketer isn’t just spinning plates; they’re spinning plates that are standing on bowling pins they’re juggling. And depending on deadlines, they might be on fire as well. For that reason, the best path to achieving results requires finding the right balance, as Superfan Promotions’ David Hyde told me.
“My approach to marketing comics is to try to find a balance between the demands of the sales cycle, promoting titles for pre-orders at various stages, and the reality of the press environment,” Hyde said.
That’s why it’s such a hard gig, and one that’s not as easy to define as it might seem from the outside. It isn’t easy to find that balance. Each project has its own primary market, each market requires its own messaging and materials, and that messaging works better at different times in the process. Because each project can be so unique from one another, with variables like age targets, genre, and whether it’s fiction or non-fiction shifting the fit of a comic, finding the right answers can be a tough task. One idea or approach might work once and never again. Others work for everything.
The problem is you never know which is which.
But the work of a good marketer is crucial to the success of your favorite comics, especially in an environment like the one we’re in today. Not only are the direct and book markets saturated with releases, but we’re in the midst of an impossible year where money is tight and foot traffic is limited. To ensure buyers learn about a book, order it when the time is right, and readers buy it when they visit a shop, a comics marketer has to be a little bit of everything: the hype person, the information delivery artist, the relationship builder, and whatever else they’re asked to be. The good news for comics is while everything else is upside down in 2020, that’s business as usual for your average comics marketer.
Thanks for reading the first article of three this week on comics marketing. Come back tomorrow for the main event, as we take a deep dive into the current state of that world.
For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to use “marketing” as an umbrella term representing everything someone in this role might do, even if many if not all comics marketers do roughly equal amounts of publicity and public relations work.↩
I know. I tried.↩
For a more technical sounding explanation, here’s what Wikipedia says about a purchase funnel: “a consumer-focused marketing model that illustrates the theoretical customer journey toward the purchase of a good or service.” Basically, consider it a map from awareness to purchase.↩
The book market is so sprawling that Arune Singh, the Vice President of Marketing at BOOM! Studios, told me they are moving away from using it. It’s just too broad to be useful, as each market is distinct. He’s right. But for this article, it’s easier to just say book market. So book market it is!↩
Or FOC, the final date comic shops can adjust orders for upcoming releases.↩
Who was formerly the associate director of marketing and publicity at First Second.↩
Which includes Diamond, Lunar and UCS in the direct market and “a whole host of buyers” in the book market, like “B&N, Amazon, box stores like Target and Costco, indie bookstores, bookstore distributors, library and school distributors,” to name but a few.↩
Even if sometimes they’re announced slightly before that stretch in hopes of gaining some separation from one another and heat in the process.↩
And the direct market too, of course, but it’s a product that appeals specifically to the book market because your average bookstore doesn’t carry single issue comics.↩
Of single issue series.↩
Like the release of solicitations, when to distribute PDFs, when to deploy specific promotional plans, retailer outreach, etc.↩
Including outlets to reach out to.↩
Sell Through means selling it to actual readers, a crucial part of the process plenty of publishers ignore.↩