I don’t know much about selling comics. I’ve mostly worked for the Big Two, DC and Marvel, and I’ve rarely strayed from that comfortable world. I let the PR department sell the books and I go to cons to meet the readers.
Matt Wright, Marc Alan Fishman and Kyle Gnepper.
With a group portrait of them as Power Puff Girls by a superfan!
To expand those skills I hung out with the Unshaven Comics crew at Anime Midwest 2014. Unshaven have always flown solo, creating their own books and hitting the con circuit to get the word out. I’ve watched them in action at conventions and I’m an admirer. They’re not shy but they are always low pressure and polite. Carnival barking works for some folks but they’ve rejected that path.
There’s an old joke, “How do you make a small fortune in comics? First start with a large fortune.” Independent comics can be a money pit, and small books almost all go under within a year. Matt, Marc and Kyle have been publishing successfully for years. Marc tells me, “We make 99.99% of our sales at conventions. Simply put, Unshaven Comics must earn its fans one at a time, in person.”
I went to learn how they do it!
I decided to go undercover, so I didn’t register as a pro. While the crew sets up in Artist Alley I spend two hours waiting outside, quizzing anime kids about what the heck Homestuck is. It’s a very different buzz than a superhero focused comic convention. More hugging and French maid outfits.
While all of the Unshaven crew work hard, writer Kyle Gnepper is their official “seller extraordinaire”. He breaks the ice with folks coming by their table and lets them know why the book is awesome. Co-writer Marc Fishman has a better memory for faces and specializes in repeat customers. Matt Wright draws good: he’s the Gene Ha of the crew.
Here’s what they taught me about pitching your book at cons. (As an aside, here’s a previous post about how to set up your convention table).
The pitch is crucial. Get the tone right for your book. While their comic has plenty of silly elements, the story takes itself seriously. It’s not tongue in cheek or parody. Their Artist Alley presentation is fun but never self-dismissive or overblown.
The cold pitch is simple: “Can I tell you about my comic book?” If Artist Alley is too noisy, Kyle has a sign printed with the pitch. Then he’ll hand them a comic and invite them to have a look.
They have a standard elevator pitch that they’ve even printed on t-shirts.
“Samurai-astronauts led by an immortal kung-fu monkey saving the universe from demon dinosaurs and zombie cyborg pirates IN SPACE!”
It can be comfortably given in under 30 seconds, but for fun they’ve done it in 10 seconds. “A one minute pitch is pushing it and two minutes is death.”
If the attendee needs more explanation, don’t be afraid to compare it to popular TV shows, movies and comics. Depending on when the potential customer grew up, the Unshaven crew will compare Samurnauts to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or to the Power Rangers. Don’t tell folks that “It’s like nothing else!” That just means you can’t name any of your inspirations.
After the elevator pitch, they give the technical specs: how many pages and how much it costs. Unshaven sells single issues of 36 ad-free pages for $5.
Be prepared to meet hesitation. If customers don’t have cash, the Unshavens are ready with their credit card reader. If they say they’re just doing a first walk-through before deciding where to shop later, Kyle gives them a “comeback” card good for a free bonus with any purchase.
If they’re still undecided, their closer question is not, “Do you want to buy it?” Unshaven avoids high pressure and unpleasant sales tactics. They prefer to ask it this way:
“Would you like to give it a try?” Elegant.
If they are ready to buy, the crew sees if they’re interested in anything more. That’s the upsell. Would they like the next issue too and a free poster?
Finally, have bags for the comics and sheaths for carrying posters. They ordered bulk years ago and still have plenty left.
How often does the pitch work? Using a hand clicker, Marc has counted how many times they’ve pitched at a show and compared it to their sales records. Marc guessed the pitch worked 1 time in 10. Kyle the salesman expected 1 time in 15. The actual number? One time in 3 when they started counting, and by now they’ve improved their batting average to 40%.
Selling your books and the artists’ to the left and the right
I also spent time at Anime Midwest with my old writer pal Russell Lissau. We’ve never worked on a comic together, but we share a passion for getting comics to kids. I love to share the stage with him for talks at schools and libraries.
Russell has worked on a variety of genres, tones, and target ages. “Can I tell you about my book” wouldn’t work for Russell because he has to figure out which book to pitch.
“If I see somebody who’s walking by, who’s interested in comics or who appears to be browsing for something to buy, I ask them what kinds of comics they read, what kind of literature they like. Because at this stage of my career, after nine years, I’ve got virtually anything for anybody. I’ve got science fiction, I’ve got horror, Batman, young readers’ books, crime… I’ve got just about everything. And if I don’t, then the people to the left and the right of me usually do. I turn that customer onto them.”
I love that bit where he recommends his neighbors’ books. This is not a competition.
When he writes a book for DC, Russell gets 20-30 free comp copies. He’ll also buy 300-500 more copies from his local comic shop at cost. This helps increase the shop’s DC order size, which helps the shop. If the local shop can’t get the book he’ll order extras from MyComicShop.com.
Terry has a totally different model. For one thing, he doesn’t have a cold pitch because he doesn’t need one. This spectacle is what draws folks in:
“The ‘wall’ does most of the heavy lifting. They work the same way appetizers do. They keep people occupied while I engage with customers in the buying phase. I say hello to potential customers and like a waiter I guide them to one of two portfolios. Then I let them look in peace. It’s all time management.” His time management has to be excellent because he almost always runs the booth by himself.
Compare this to the advice given in the online reality show Strip Search.
In this episode’s challenge, comics artists dealt with (fake) pestering fans while trying to get a sketch done. Here’s the advice one of the judges gave the contestants:
"The convention sketch is a very important part of your career as a cartoonist. It’s one of the only opportunities to meet the creator of the work they love. And it’s an opportunity to entice new readers. It’s about managing time. Something I like to do when someone’s waiting for a sketch from me is to have a genuine interaction with them."
Terry’s model makes this advice sound crazy. There is no way you can do both jobs well at the same time. Every minute spent drawing is a minute not reaching out to new readers. And it takes a lot of minutes for artists like me to do a decent sketch. What you’ll usually see of Gene Ha at a convention is me hunkered down, making drawings. Ignoring you.
This is why Unshaven Comics needs at least two men at all times to make it work. This tension is why artists like Stuart Immonen and Adam Hughes no longer make fully rendered con sketches (that and truly ruthless sketch collectors).
Terry Huddleston’s designed his convention space to deal with these problems. “The crowd that came through the doors back in the day came to see and meet their favorite artist/writer. Back then shows were a lot smaller in scope which allowed for more of a one on one feel. Today’s shows have a completely different crowd. While some come to meet and greet most come to purchase what they consider souvenirs from a comic con experience. The new crowd doesn’t necessarily read comics per se, they watch the movies, cartoons and TV shows that are based on comics.”
The brilliance of this model shines when you compare it to the Strip Search model. Terry doesn’t need a cold pitch to reel in folks walking past. He doesn’t bother cajoling indecisive customers. The wall draws them in and he only deals with people who’ve decided to buy something. If no one’s buying anything currently Terry is free to talk with anyone or give the eagle eye to the rare shoplifter. He doesn’t lose those opportunities by making drawings at the show.
“Food for thought: 80,000 people come through the door of a show. I make 400 to 500 transactions. That means in essence 79,500 did not buy from me. Keeps you humble. It’s a huge pie! Big enough for all types of products. Keep in mind that 4-500 transactions is above average for me. Not the norm. I use it to illustrate that the amount of potential interaction at any given show is huge!”
Terry will expand his merchandise soon. “I have a book that I’ll be selling in October. It called Thaniel.” I’m eager to see how he adapts his model when that comes out.
How you set up your Artist Alley space and how you sell depends on what you’re selling. Unshaven focuses on promoting their latest series. Russell Lissau has an expanding bibliography, and is ready to sell any of them. Terry Huddleston sells prints and has turned them into a traveling exhibit.
I will be shamelessly swiping from Unshaven’s selling model. Their unspoken secret is that every aspect is based on the Golden Rule: look at your table from the other guy’s point of view. Don’t push them to do anything they don’t want to do. They have a book folks will enjoy and they’re asking them to give it a try.
Russell Lissau applies the same logic to a wider selection of books. First he needs to find out who each convention goer is, and then he can find them a book. Usually it’s one of his books, and if it’s something a neighboring table sells he direct people there.
Talking with Terry really has me questioning my model. While I’ll always try to leave time to give free sketches to kids, fully rendered sketches take too much time away from meeting readers, old and new. I dearly want to talk to those people too. I hope you’ll be one of them some day.