I’ve never been a fan of what I call the shotgun method of marketing: fire a property at the market and see if it hits anything. This is most often seen in the small presses, but it’s not unheard of from larger publishers.
In the horror small press, this typically involves getting a book listed on Shocklines or the Horror Mall and calling it a day. In the comics direct market, the publisher gets their placement in Diamond’s Previews catalog and hopes the cover and/or title description will attract retailers’ attention. In the mass market, this means the publisher drops a title into their distribution chain and then kicks backs and waits for the numbers.
This is a bit simplistic, of course. In all cases, I’m sure review copies are being distributed and maybe a title shows up in an advertisement or book club here and there. However, nobody’s doing any real legwork; for the most part they’re crossing their fingers that the readers, retailers, and media will find them. If the book does well, the publisher claims they’ve found the next Brian Keene, Frank Miller, or Stephen King. If the book doesn’t, they declare it a failure, cancel the title (or decline to purchase another book from the author), and move on to the next guy.
To be fair, this is part of an economic reality. Small presses — both prose and comics — run on a tight budget, and they have to sell through most of their print run before they make a profit. Mass markets and the larger comic companies pump a lot of advertising and marketing dollars (not to mention royalties and advances) into their larger titles, making slim pickings for the guys in the mid-list arena. They’re not picking on anyone or playing favorites, this is just how their business operates.
Unfortunately it’s not doing either side any favors: the publishers absorb their loss or shut their doors, and the creators either pray that poor performance doesn’t harm their chances with the next publisher or they scan the classified ads and wish they finished their degree when they had the chance. Nor is it doing the property any favors, as this one-time performance is not in itself an indication of whether the product is any good or not. If the property was good enough for publishing in the first place (a subject for another day), then there’s bound to be an audience out there somewhere. It’s just a matter of finding that audience and making sure they can get their hands on it.
In short, it takes patience, and for that I like to look at Mike Mignola and Hellboy as the model.
Hellboy first appeared in a short in ’93, and Seed of Destruction came out in ’94. Seed had a few more things going for it than many small press projects, mainly a John Byrne script, the Dark Horse logo, and Mignola himself already had a modest career established in comics. Yet by his own admission, shifting over to Hellboy was a big step, and a big risk. I don’t know how the sales were on that book, but I’m sure it wasn’t equal to those of the mainstream titles he’d been doing covers and backups for.
Yet Mignola kept plugging away. With each subsequent release he built upon his audience. Here we are in 2009, and in addition to the main series he’s got spin-off comics, novels, anthologies, two animated movies, two feature films, and countless toys, posters, and other products. Hellboy himself (as portrayed by Ron Perlman, of course) appears in DirecTV commercials, effectively making him a household name. The takeaway?
Instant hits happen, but they’re rare. You can’t predict them, and you definitely can’t bank on them. If you believe in a product, you have to keep plugging away. You have to have the patience to develop it, to let it find it’s audience.
And there’s never been a time there were more tools to reach that audience than now.