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LESSONS LEARNED #13

By Chris Gumprich. (originally posted July 18, 2005)

Of all the subdivisions of the entertainment industry, comics provide the lowest barrier to entry. The good thing about the post-speculator collapse of the nineties is that, as opposed to novels or magazines, getting your comic carried by one distributor will give you access to virtually every comic store in North America. On the other hand, if that one distributor refuses to carry your book, you've got one hell of an uphill battle ahead of you.

Attending the APE convention had given me a burst of confidence and energy that was sorely needed at that point in the project. I knew that the next step was to contact the distributors - especially the big one - and convince them to carry Evening Shift. I had to approach this with confidence, trying very hard to ignore what would happen if I failed.

The big distributor is Diamond. If I got in with them, I was set. but how would I get listed?

Research. A commonly held belief is that Diamond exists to keep smaller publishers out of comic shops, thanks to some obscure conspiracy dedicated to preserving the Status Quo at the expense of Real Art. This belief is not only wrong, it's ridiculous. Diamond is a business like any other - it's there to make money. If you want to do business with them, then you have to demonstrate that you will make them money.

According to a certain Internet columnist, the way to approach Diamond is to hide your newness. Present yourself as an already established company who just happens to be sending in their latest solicitation. If you appear confident, then maybe they won't notice that they've never dealt with you before.

Keeping this advice in mind, I put together solicitation packages for the three largest distributors - Diamond, Cold Cut (a reorder distributor) and FMI. I did everything by the book: professional cover letter with all words spelled correctly, solicitation information, all forms filled out correctly, and a photocopy of the recently-completed comic. I even inquired as to the price of a full-page ad in Diamond's Previews catalog. Professional all the way.

Filled with confidence, I dropped the packages in the mail and waited for the purchase orders to arrive.

Here's something to remember: confidence is a good thing to have, but it is no guarantee of success.

Diamond's form letter arrived about six weeks later. Two checkboxes had been selected - one stating that they felt the book was not marketable enough in the current environment. I had to concede that point - it was, after all, a new book from an unknown creative team in a commercially unproven genre. The second checkbox, however, served to highlight the single biggest mistake I made during the creation of the book - the art was not up to professional standards.

That was it. Evening Shift would not have a chance to appear before 95% of the comic stores in North America. Based on Diamond's response, the odds were against Cold Cut or FMI carrying us.

The email response that I received from Cold Cut went about as expected, except better. Rather than a form letter, I was sent a personal email detailing the reasons why they had decided to pass, along with a detailed critique of the book - along with a life-line. The comic had great promise, he said, the story was paced well and kept him turning pages. He liked the fact that we were trying something new and different. He would have been happy to carry the book. except for the art.

"We will be happy to reconsider the book if you have it redrawn by another artist."

I flashed back to the creative process, and my words came back to haunt me. "Nobody will notice." Dead wrong.

Things were not looking good. I would have to approach the 3000 comic stores in North America one-by-one and ask, "Hi, wanna sell my comic?" Not a promising plan - how many times have you bought something from a telemarketer who phones you out of the blue?

No, this was going to take some careful planning. and a drastic rethink of the budget and expected sell-through. Unfortunately, the book had already gone to press, with a print run of 1000. I stood to lose a ton of money.

Remember one of the first lessons: you have to plan as if you are going to sell zero copies.

If I wasn't careful, that would be exactly what was going to happen.

Postscript: I never did hear back from FMI, however they were the only distributor to carry Evening Shift . How do I know this? Because I happened to see the book listed on their online order form. Not the positive turn you might think it was, because I never received a single order from them. Technically, I still haven't been told that they were carrying the book.