Tuesday, April 14, 2009

ARTICLE #6: Action - The Road to a New Market.

Enough complaining - time for action!

Not that I haven't enjoyed the whole whine-a-thon, or the cheap 'n easy potshots along the way. Some of that stuff was just too sumptuously ludicrous to pass unscathed. And passively complaining about 'the system' is a cherished tradition of our generation.
But as riveting as whining may be, it's even more fun to shake things up and watch the pieces fly. Have you ever seen a hand grenade go off in a chicken coop? ...Me neither, but that hasn't stopped me yet. I'd rather kick ass than mope - so let's get down to business! It's time to stop glamorizing the Creator Revolution, and start making it a reality.

We've established that the establishment cares about the creator-owned movement, much in the same way that windshields care about butterflies. But now comes the truly pertinent question: Do you care about it? Your answer determines the future of an entire medium. What's your stake in this endeavor?

Any aspiring creator with a unique, exciting story to share - this article is for you. Come on in. If you enjoy reading comics and want to see more & better books, then this article is for you, too. Welcome, good to have you with us. If you never really liked comics that much, but have the capacity to appreciate dynamic art and entertaining stories - then this article is for you, too! Seating is to the left, just file on down. And if you love hardcore bondage but can't find any that involves vintage grammaphones, then this article is... Well... No, actually, it's not really for you. Where'd you come from? Google's that-a-way, bucko.

To kick things off, let's reiterate one last time what the Creator Revolution is:
Comics are a long underestimated medium with massive potential for fun and relevance, a medium that deserves a niche in mainstream culture. The Creator Revolution is about putting control of comics back into the hands of creators and readers. With genuine taste and imagination unfettered at both ends of the spectrum, comics can finally bloom, offering more diversity to more consumers, and a healthy, viable market for aspiring talent.
Fundamentally, the Creator Revolution is focused on serving the needs of creators and readers.

So practically speaking, we're talking about building a market together. We have people with the talent and desire to create, and there's a huge population of potential readers out there. All we need now is some clever way of sticking these two groups together. The current Direct Market for comics performs this task with all the aptitude of a novice neurosurgeon howler monkey who doesn't take your insurance. We've got a square peg, and a square hole - the only thing lacking is a connection. The effective connection between a seller and a buyer is a marketplace.

That's our Holy Grail - a New Market.

We need a system that doesn't choke out good work as it sprouts, but instead lets it flourish. A system that's attractive and inviting for potential customers, one that makes it easy for them to find something they like.
So, something unique to the world of comics as we know it.
The hardest part is starting. (Except with drugs, of course.) Starting with nothing takes a lot of grit, and a lot of hard work. After that, it's an upward spiral that results in surfing on waves of cash. Waves and waves of cash! Guaranteed! Surfing along without a care in the world! Look, I can prove it with maths: (Watch, as my honors high school math courses pay off in SPADES!)

New Creators + Sacrifice Time = Different Work.
(Different Work + Marketing effort) = New Readers.
New Readers = $$$
$$$ = (More [Different Work] from New Creators + Newer Creators) = Even More Different Work
(Even More Different Work + Marketing Effort )*(New Readers + Word of Mouth) = $$,$$$,$$$
$$,$$$,$$$ = (More Creators^2) + (New Readers*Comics visible in Public) = Actual Mainstream Market
Actual Mainstream Market(AMM) + Creator owned work + $$,$$$,$$$ = Diverse Quality Comics.
Diverse Quality Comics * AMM = Surfing on the blood of the innocent.

Oops. Well, slight miscalculation - but you get the idea! Nobody likes innocents anyways, they're so boring. About the only thing they're good for is blood, and potlucks.

So the functionality of our New Market is pretty straightforward. We need someplace where creators can get a chance to be seen by readers, and readers can pay for what looks good. But how, exactly, should we make that happen? Vague idealistic notions are great for politicians - but if we're going to accomplish something (Besides plunging a nation irrevocably into a black abyss of mind boggling debt), we actually have to know what direction to head in.

Why not kick things off with some brainstorming? Just because it hasn't been done, doesn't mean it can't be done! (Except for cloning cats with thumbs. I mean, duh. Obviously that can't be done. Who wants a thumbs-up from a cat, anyways? Not me.)
What if Deviant Art set up an online store where subscribers could sell and buy books? What if Amazon.com developed a ranking system and site exclusively for comics? What if people could subscribe to digital comics on their i-phone? What if we could magnetize comics so that they shot through people's windows and stuck across their TV screens? How about comics on toilet paper? Yes? Yes?

Not every idea will be a gold nugget - but we need to get some new ones, and start acting on them!

“It is not a successful formula to keep doing things the same way because it worked in the past. If you want to achieve a competitive edge, you'll focus on creating something that will strike a nerve tomorrow.”
-Donny Deutsch

Whatever form the new market takes, it needs to perform one task surpassingly well - serve the customers, both veterans and especially the uninitiated. The experience must be easy, fun, and uncomplicated. It has to be inviting and entertaining - Like a comedy troupe with a mansion for rent. Simulating the perspective of a potential customer, new to comics, here's what I would want:


Customer Service Requirements:

#1: Lazy Compatible.
Like I'm going to get up and move around over stuff I don't want yet. Right. If I'm going to start getting into comics as a customer, it has to be convenient for me. How about a website? That's easy.

#2: Pretty Colors.
The website has be appealing, of course. I don't want to spend time in a clunky website that hurts my head to look at, and I certainly wouldn't feel safe spending money there. What if I'm robbed by internet gypsies? Or that Nigerian guy that won't stop e-mailing me?
I want a site that's appealing, fun, and inviting to the eye. Boobs wouldn't hurt either. Not a requirement. I'm just saying. You could make them buttons or something.

#3: Free Stuff.
Pour out your effort, your hopes, your sweat and talent to me - for free! This isn't really asking all that much. I mean, listen. If I'm not a comic fan yet, am I going to rush over to a site just to buy comics? I need something to entertain me - something fun. If there's no free entertainment, I can always visit, I don't know... A bazillion other websites. Keep that in mind - you're competing with cute kitty videos on YouTube, You'd better have something damn amazing.
And I don't mean a couple of measly page samples. Give me something quality, and a decent, engrossing stretch of it. I won't buy your story until I need to read more of it.

#4: Easy Browsing.
So, I'm at a retail site - maybe Amazon, maybe IndyPlanet, maybe Haven's got an online store, maybe something totally new from an ambitious creator. What activity would I, the customer, cherish more than anything else?
If you answered 'scroll through countless pages of cover thumbnails that all look bland', then your response was WRONG! Open bear trap, insert head.
If anyone and everyone can offer their wares in this new market, let's face facts - they aren't all going to be keepers. And prospective customers aren't going to laboriously squint through screens and screens full of mediocrity in search of the gems. (See Requirement #1).
I want a way to find what I want, fast. A few genre tabs are only the start - I want to have control in narrowing down my browsing, so I can zoom straight to what I'm interested in. So how about a reader ranking system? With multiple categories, too; Art Quality, Concept Originality, Story & Writing, Character Appeal, Humor level, Action level, Drama level, Sexaciousness, Overall Score, etc... And having a reader review box would be nice. Speaking of readers...

#5: Add Friends.
Hook us up! An online customer community, be it a forum or whatever, is essential to the experience. I want to chat about my purchase, and read about what others are saying. If I feel like I'm part of a group, and can enjoy interacting with others, there's a much better chance I'll return to the market for more.

#6: Add Stuff
If I find something I like, and I'm a consumer, odds are I'll want to buy some related stuff. Look at how many band - related t-shirts are out there. What do t-shirts have to do with music? Nothing. But they accent the culture, by showcasing a person's individual taste to others. Shirts, or other merchandise, allow me as a consumer to extend and enjoy my experience with your product.


So, that little fantasy session gives us a nice picture of just one idyllic venue for the new market. If something like this were set up with good content, and the creators put some elbow grease into marketing it, I guarantee that readers would come. And if you’re a Direct Market store owner fuming over this competing service concept - well, who says that’s not the website for your personal store? You need to shift gears upstairs.

This is a neat idea - but how do we accomplish it? How do we bring comics back to mainstream level readership, with creator owned content? By all means, brainstorm some ideal scenarios. We need to have something worthwhile to aim for. My personal favorite is the comic strip-porium, where Vegas meets cartoons, and white tigers with pencils for claws prance about on the paper-stage, live. But we’ve all got to start from where we are right now - reality. (I can only afford one white tiger.)

Nobody’s going to hand this to us. We can't conquer the world from our couches - it'll take applied persistence, innovation, and effort. The new market is for Creators and Readers - both are integral to building it. Each has their own crucial role to play:


Your future career is literally on the line. What do you want to spend the rest of your life doing? How much do you love your craft? Perhaps you’re content to enjoy your art as a side hobby, while working in an unrelated career - there’s nothing wrong with that.
...But not everyone can relegate their endeavors to a side-bin. There are people out there with a story burning inside of them. Individuals who love to create, who devote themselves to honing their talent, who must pursue their passion or live unfulfilled. For those of us dedicated to our chosen form of storytelling, there’s no other option. The current situation is sterile - we must forge a new market to have even a chance at success. It’s do or die!

...Let’s discuss the ’do’ direction.

To build a new market, creators must accomplish two tasks - and the first of those is to craft stand-out quality work.

Task 1: Make Something.

Creators, your unique work is the crucial foundation of the new market. It’s pretty hard to build a market selling nothing. We're not Wall Street. And you can’t merely make comics - you have to make great comics! We’re not just reaching out to comic fans, remember - we have to offer something irresistable to the millions who have no interest in the current selection.
Make something compelling! Something of quality, something of substance! Something that will resonate with the imagination and taste of readers! Something that surpasses the standards and preconceptions of the industry! And, most importantly...
SOMETHING DIFFERENT! Don’t offer more of the same - no matter what, find a way to stand out! After all: If you’re not creating something unique and different, something that only you personally could envision - then why make it? If it’s been done, go pick it up, read it, and enjoy it. But don’t echo it.

“If you're just starting out, being different is your only edge. You can't compete on experience or size. Unless you can strike a fresh nerve, you can't win. I'll take it a step further. I don't care what you're doing, if you can't honestly say that you're bringing something new and different to the marketplace - something that adds value - what's the point?”
-Donny Deutsch

Don’t forget - comics give you, the sole creator, the liberty to make anything you can envision. There’s no board room censoring your jokes, no focus panel picking out your characters' traits. In comics, you have the freedom to do anything, the freedom to be different and honest and better - use it!

So, let’s say you’ve accomplished Task #1. After the most inspired creative effort of your life, you’ve rendered the best graphic novel in the world, ever. Using glow-in-the-dark silver ink on pages of pure platinum.
Great job! But guess what?

It doesn’t matter. Nope- not at all. You may have just pwned Shakespeare by summoning forth the crowning artistic and literary achievement of the human race, but all of that effort and love was wasted. Unless, of course, you follow through with your next task:

Task 2: Market it.

If a gold asteroid falls in the woods, and nobody’s around, what sound does it make? Answer - it doesn’t matter. Because if nobody knows about it, then nobody cares.

You thought making your own entire book was tough? The hard part is still coming - you have to learn to effectively market your work. If your story isn’t being heard, then you wasted your time in making it.
The better your creation, the more you owe it to yourself, and your potential readers, to spread the word.

Now, I’m not saying you have to purchase a full page spread in People Magazine and start running 30-second ad slots during prime-time. Buying mainstream advertising is probably the least cost-effective technique you could use for growing a readership.
Marketing is a scary word, but there’s no secret magic (Or secret shortcut) to it. Marketing is anything you do to attract attention to your work. It could be as simple as joining a forum, or giving out some postcards. You don’t need a thousand-dollar budget, or a publicist. But you do need to learn what options you have, which ones work for you, and make sure you apply them on a consistent basis.
That means research - read library books about marketing, hit the internet, do whatever it takes. But remember one thing - Unless you learn about marketing, inside and out, and use it to promote your work, then your work isn't going to matter. You must learn to market effectively - nobody’s going to do it for you.


You really need to do some marketing for the creators.

Oh, wait, I got that out of order... I’m supposed to make you care first, hold on.

I suppose it's a valid point to bring up... Whether or not you have an obligation to care about this stuff. You’re the customer, after all. You’re here to find what you like, and enjoy it. It’s not your job to be a salesperson! Besides, don’t salespeople get paid?

Well, here’s the deal... It depends on how much you want a new market, and all it entails. A new, revitalized comic market means more new creators with careers, which means more variety, diversity, and quality in comics. There are brilliant stories out there right now, in the process of being created, or in the early stages of conceptual formation. If there’s no market for these potential treasures, odds are they’ll wither and disappear before they see the light of day. They’ll vanish forever as though they never existed, the talent behind their inception wasted and forgotten.
Other entertainment industries have mainstream support and funding - comics, as discussed, have been crippled and marginalized for decades. The business powers in the Direct Market won’t help - quite the contrary. They see original upstarts as competition to be crushed.

There’s nobody else to turn to - and literally nobody else that cares. Just you. We can build a new market together, and achieve these dreams - but the creators can’t do it alone.

Aaaannnd - DING! According to my calculations, you have now been guilt-tripped into caring. So what exactly am I suggesting that you do, anyways?
Well, anything and everything you’re willing to do - but why not start simple? Find comics that you enjoy - you’re already doing that anyways. Then, share your favorites with other people.
...That’s about it. Relatively painless - yet this small habit is utterly vital to the survival of independent creators.
I’ll share a little secret with you. The most effective form of advertising in the history of earth is also the cheapest - it’s word of mouth. I mean, think about it. What are you going to place more trust in - a random banner ad flashing in front of your face, or a friend's recommendation? We trust real opinions more than expensive ads - and for good cause. A good half of the stuff being advertised to us is guaranteed bullshit. When it comes to politics, both halves. But if the product is endorsed by someone we know - someone who is sharing their positive personal experience - that connects.
If you’re enthusiastic about a story you just read, share it! You are the outside world's guide to comics! Remember, the vast majority of people haven't an inkling of what comics can offer. You're a reader - you have some familiarity with the terrain out there. Explore! Find what's good, and bring the exceptional titles to light. This is the simplest and most effective thing you can do to help generate a new market - casually, naturally introduce people to what you like. And some of them will like it too.
Now, let's say that you enjoy sharing your favorite comics with those who might be interested - but you want to do even more to help promote that series! What then?

Well, first off, you're a glittering gift from above for whatever lucky creator you're a fan of. Bless you, and bless your children.

If you want to do more, the sky's the limit. It's your turn to be creative - you can help in any way that you choose. Make up something fun! It can be gratifying and entertaining to get involved promoting an under-recognized story. Here's a brief brainstorm of ways to go above and beyond in helping promote your favorite comics:

1) Write to comic reviewers.
Do you read comic reviews anywhere? Drop that reviewer a line, and tell them what you think of the series - and that you'd love to hear their review of it. You're their audience, after all - they should have a healthy respect for what you like. Let them know what about the series appeals to you, and why you think they should take note.
2) Write to other book reviewers and publicity venues.
Same deal as above - it wouldn't hurt to clue in some mainstream reviewers that their readership has an interest in graphic novels. Write to bloggers, podcasters, magazines, newspaper sections, radio hosts - anything that comes to mind. Heck, write Oprah. Why not? You're the audience, after all. If you give them a heads up on an emerging trend, they should count themselves fortunate for your input!
3) Ask for the title.
Go to a Barnes & Noble, your local bookstores, your comic shop, your library, and ask if they stock your favorite title. If they don't, ask them to do so. Now, if you already own a copy of this comic, don't get them to stock the title and then bail when it comes to purchasing, that doesn't really help anyone in the equation much - storeowner, creator, or you. If you can convince a local place to invest money in a title, try to ensure it pays off for them.
4) Promote the title.
Post a few flyers around town, or near the shops that should be carrying the book. If you're in school, post flyers or hand out copied ads in the halls. Stick a flyer on the bulletin board at work. Write a personal note on the flyer, mentioning what people may find interesting about the book. Send a personalized e-mail, or talk up your favorite book in an online forum. There are other ways besides posting flyers, too - don't limit yourself!
5) More stuff.
Start a fan club. Make an online group. Dress up for Halloween as your favorite character. Wear a t-shirt featuring the series. Hire a sky-writer. Give books out as gifts. Wrap them in candy and throw them at children. Be creative, and have fun!

Now, one caveat... I’m not asking you to rush around and promote all independent comics... Only promote work that you actually like and think is good. Remember, you’re a customer - not a charity for the hopeless. You are the market’s quality control! Nothing will turn off new readers faster than having a crappy product foisted on them.
If you don't like a particular comic, then don't buy it, and don't feel obligated to support it. That goes for my work, too. It may sound a bit harsh - and it is. It's reality, the most honest and valuable feedback you can ever give a creator. Most artists have friends and family that care about their feelings (Or about the risk of pushing their offbeat companion over the edge), so they tend to sugarcoat feedback. That's helpful for an uncertain artist's immediate emotional needs. But for long term improvement and success, nothing is more helpful than candid reality.

Well, creators... Readers... that's about the long and short of it. We are nearing the end of my long, long winded ramblings.

You may notice, however, that although I exhort a general direction for both creators and readers to take, I didn't mention a lot of details and specifics about exactly how to proceed.
I left the details out, because things are so much more interesting when freedom and originality run the show! Of what value would it be for me to state one static 'formula' to follow? You can think of ideas that wouldn't ever have occurred to me - That's why there's two of us. The details are up to you.

And I do mean you - you, sitting there, reading this blog right now. How many other people do you think are browsing this alongside you? Millions? Hundreds? Ten? Newsflash - As of the writing of this article, I'm still pretty much unheard of. You're one of the few people on the planet reading this right now. So, it really is a question for you, personally - what are you going to do? What do you want to do?

For the record, here's what I'm planning to do:

I'm going to work hard with my partner Liz, making the absolute best books that we can. I want 'Dreamkeepers' to be a truly exceptional series, filled with character, color, story, and danger, a series that can hold its own and endure on a crowded bookshelf.
Using our story, I'm going to launch my upstart publishing company, 'Vivid: Independent Publishing'. I'm raising the capital for this venture by selling short - run editions of Dreamkeepers right now, while I work a night job to pay my bills. It'll take time to earn my way up - but I'll get enough for professional scale print runs sooner or later.
Once I can operate at a professional, profitable scale, I'll promote Dreamkeepers as far as it can go, and turn it into a mainstream success. Readers have compared its appeal to Harry Potter, and I intend to fulfill that potential. (Although, just between you and me, the climax of Dreamkeepers is going to make Potter's finale look like a baby shower.) And being the owner of Vivid, I can ensure the books are released with integrity and creative control intact.
And of course, owning a publishing company will have other advantages - like the opportunity to publish other stand-out independent creators, and give them the same creative freedom and ownership which I so value.
Throughout my endeavors in reaching for these goals, I'll share my failures and successes here on this blog. Because what could possibly be more entertaining than me? …Me with blue hair? Hmmm… I’ll see what I can do. No promises.
Hopefully others out there can learn from my efforts. I'm going to spill the beans on everything, from the creative end of things, to business advice and mistakes. Tutorials and notes will be mixed in amongst my progress updates.

And on that note, here are the links to my first video tutorials:

'Then and Now' introduces my tutorial series, and compares my highschool art to my current stuff. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LF_tRHgM1S8&feature=channel_page
'Basic Photoshop Shading' is just what is sounds like. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVWKECLQhNc&feature=channel_page

Mainstream success, a new market, being able to feed myself with my life's work... This stuff is a long shot, of course. All I really have right now are dreams. Is it actually practical to focus all of my career efforts on these unfounded aspirations? Can we really create a new market, and bring vitality back to this wayside medium? Am I crazy to think I can actually do this?

Maybe. I guess there's only one way to really find out.

"The best way to get started is to stop talking and begin doing.”
-Walt Disney

Here's a list of resources that I have found helpful to date. For those looking at where to start, here are some good choices: (Note for those that share my operating budget - libraries are free.)
1001 Ways to Market your Book - John Kremer
Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud
Reinventing Comics - Scott McCloud
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - Stephen Covey
Guerilla Marketing - Jay Conrad Levinson
How to Make Webcomics - Scott Kurtz, Kris Straub, Dave Kellett, Brad Guigar
How to Publish Comics, not just Create them - Josh Baylock
Think Big and Kick Ass - Donald Trump
The Big Idea; How to make your entrepreneurial dreams come true. - Donny Deutsch

Websites: (This is only a tiny sample of all the useful, free information available on the web.)
Note - for those on a budget starting small, I highly recommend Ka-Blam's print on demand services. I've had great products and great customer service from them.