Gimmickry In Comics: How Indie Artists Can Take Control

I had an interesting weekend.

I had a chance to speak with a variety of indie creators who had some interesting thoughts on many aspect of the independent comic book industry. We’ve shared info about the invaluable Creator Resource free info for aspiring comic artists, but one of the things that caught my attention seems to be a very contentious issue when it comes to marketing books.


Now for those who have talked at length with me on this topic know that the primary reason that I left comics in the mid-90’s was because of the changing face of the industry as a result of the primacy and power that speculation accumulated. 

It was not properly handled and it almost destroyed the industry.

By “not properly”,  I mean an industry that markets to the speculators instead of primary consumers – which are readers.

***Funny how after all this time, they still don’t get it.***

All of us here at Bleeding Fool as well as our readers and the community at large are heavily invested and supportive of the independent creators movement. 

And so the real question in my mind is –

How do indie artists take control of their own marketing and increase the inherent value of their work by controlling the output ? 

There are passionate opinions and “a wise business savvy” that shapes those perceptions.

Everyone has something to say about for instance – variant covers. This is something worth talking about and therefore it seems to matter to readers. So I’ve tried to identify some common marketing devices that many indie creators utilize;  that might be misunderstood, misapplied or in some cases – under used. 

I had some thoughts on how artists might harness their own marketing and how they distribute their products to maybe push their own sales, create chatter; but  perhaps help to revitalize brick and mortar shops and the community in some way at the same time.

Separate your product according to audience.

Who are the buyers? In the comic book world we have some pretty straightforward examples.

We have the shop owners, the devoted fan, the collector. We have the speculators.

Most importantly of all we have the general casual type reader: the walk- in.

I ask myself how can creators take control of their product and play the market to these interests instead of the other way around.

and no one should be playing to speculation.

Market in a way that focuses on readers and shop owners. If what you have is popular, and things start getting big for your IP, parasites of various shades will show up whether you want them or not.

So, I have broken down the buyers in order to help explain my thoughts a little easier.

The Walk- In customer –  If it was my book, I would take a look at mass appeal first of all. This is where the bread and butter comes from. Get your book out there. The answer – newsprint. Create as your primary line   “economy” books that will see your brand, your logo, your character and your name out there – everywhere possible. 

Superman is a cultural icon because everyone knows who he is.

Even before the 1979 Superman with Christopher Reeves he was huge. Why?

Since the early part of  the 20th century he was printed cheaply and distributed far and wide. People who didn’t even read comics saw the Superman logo in the gutter while waiting for the bus as it was swept up with the rest of the trash at the end of the day.

His symbol was EVERYWHERE. Recognized and remembered by millions.

We’re talking about making comic books. So, in order to get your symbol in comic books out there, you need the cheapest vehicle possible and that is newsprint.

This being said, the floppy that makes it to the shelves for general readers should not be some line of books with three variants. It should be the bare bones, Plain-Jane book.

Nothing fancy just get it on the shelf.

(I’m not talking about a compromise in quality of art and writing here.)

Start small and let go of the heavy cover stock and interior paper that sets  costs of printing a book at over 2.50$. How do you recover costs like that when you are just starting out? 

Newsprint distribution helps to gauge how  readers/customers respond to your work and you should try to sell as many as consumers will buy.  

However, take charge of this and show it on your covers and in your indicia. Make sure your books are print numbered : 1st ed., 2nd ed. etc… Make sure customers know you are counting numbers and runs. They will start doing the same without being prompted I assure you. 

You could try to find the nearest comic shops perhaps within 500 miles of your home. Send ten copies to each one for a relatively low cost. If you found ten shops in this way, that’s one hundred books with your logo out there, in peoples hands.  

Digitalz – I can see the hate coming now…”What about digitals Mike…!? “

I fucking hate digital. A blight on every single tactile based craft  industry it touches. Unfortunately, we have no choice in the matter.

We live in a digital age. 

I of course sometimes use them for reviews and I deliver my own work to a digital stage. Many of our favorite creators work in a digital format – if not from start to finish – at the very least at some important stage of their craft. It’s a bit hypocritical sounding to hack on the digitals I know.

But even so, I don’t buy Ebooks. I buy books, and newspapers. It’s a psychological thing. The human element. The craft is that which ties people and ideas together. This thing in my hands went through so many other minds, hands and hearts to find it’s way to me. I think just the process of that is inspiring and worth preserving. Perhaps I’m just an old relic. 

But my suggestion most certainly is – 

sell as many digital copies as you possibly can.

No variants, no frills, no fan service. The quality of the digital should be purposefully diminished, in order to increase the appeal and value of your physical book. There should even be cover blanks on the “E” variant so that only the “bones” of the book  are available in this form.

If you’re spending 200-650$ for a cover artist to represent your work why would you give that away for nothing? 

You should absolutely use your digitals to help push your other products, but perhaps be more clever about how to make a market of your own instead of being manipulated by one.

Your relationship with your readers does not require a middle man.

The publishing industry at large is built upon control of markets, ideas and distribution. They are in the business of discouraging you. **see daily Twitter feed**

Don’t play in their sandbox. Make your own.

Why should you give anyone a PDF of your IP that is essentially ready to print for $1 or even $10? Why?

This is madness. 

When you get mail asking about the quality of the digital, remind them, they only paid 99cents. They should really get their hands on the book. You’ll eat the shipping if they’d like to order an actual issue too. Every chance you get to speak with readers – even if it starts out as a negative or a criticism – is an opportunity to gain a follower and customer. If they took the time to reach out to you to bitch, take the chance to make a connection. 

Your digitals should be used as marketing tools not the flagship of your product line. They are essentially “trailers” to the actual show. 

Just a .99 cent advert. Use them as such.

They can have the story, but they cant have the quality. For that they must pay.

The Merch – The most simple merchandising ideas sometimes have the greatest appeal to fans.

A button. A coffee cup. A T shirt. Signed prints.

These things are what help fans feel like they are truly invested in your work and your ideas. It creates a sense of belonging within your reader base.

Do not underestimate the value of a single customer that is able to pick up a one shot set of cards featuring all the characters from your story or even just a poster at their local shop. That one fan has the ability to transfer your idea to hundreds, perhaps even thousands of others if he feels like he has a stake in your work, if he is respected and is invited to participate. Loyal readers do this sometimes without even being asked. They are truly are amazing. 

George Lucas taught us many years ago that you can make far more profit with merch than with the product itself –

…if you are clever and have a feel for your fans desires.

Merch doesn’t have to be expensive to produce. Some merch is actually quite efficient to produce and distribute.

Indie creators that are starting out should really be thinking about shipping weights. T-Shirts can be shipped in an express envelope. A coffee cup cannot. You could ship a ball cap in that same envelope, but will your customers be pissed off that you’ve crushed the hat in order to ship it? What if that large fancy print is bent?

When you get into shipping either in bulk or weight – costs rise sharply.

**international shipping costs in N. America are ghastly**

Merch should be simple,  appealing or maybe even useful somehow and it needs to be available with your books.

Do not ship ANYTHING without merch.

One simple button or a signed postcard slipped into the box will be a very pleasant surprise to your fans when they open your parcel. 

You may get a wholly receptive and hopefully hungry audience only on account of your ideas. If you’ve left the schwagg out and scrambling to make it up, you will have already lost the moment when you could have made maximum impact with your customers.

Of course it should be remembered, potential customers are always watching too.

One fan of yours walking into the shop with a new Tshirt and people talk.

It’s really very simple. 

Take charge of your IPs and put your logo on as many charming little trinkets as you can. Some IPs’ make more from merchandising appropriately than they do from their main product. Think of movies and toys. T-Shirts can be produced for less than 8$ if you want to do a little bulk. They can fetch 20$ and are cheap to ship. That’s more value in profit to you than an issue of your comic. It’s also of greater value of course to your customer. A book is a novel thing and a great escape, but a T-Shirt is useful. Win/Win.

Perhaps it’s useful to think of your “book” as your calling card, logo and vehicle to making more valuable items available to an audience that you’ve tailor made to your own ideas and style. 

The Devoted Fan : Once you’ve cleared the hurdle of making your book visible by distributing the “main line” far and wide in newsprint or low-qual digitals, you need to show some appreciation to your actual fans right?

This is where such things as variant covers should come in. And when I say they should come in, I mean to say that they should occupy a very different place than they do now. 

If you printed a thousand newsprint editions say, how many high quality variants will satisfy the devoted fans of your particular work? That’s hard to gauge of course but…

I think that variant or other “cover & style” editions should be very limited.

Make them fight for it. They will have to pay a premium to be part of the “club”.

If it was me? I would not print any more than 20% in premium editions of any given floppy run. Limiting the run enables you to set a much higher price that can help start with the recovery of costs. Or in my 10% example here, you would have every issue numbered and signed. This is fan service and is very appealing. These “Premium Editions” would be crafted on heavy cover stock and fine interior paper. The price would also be higher than the newsprint floppy.

Limited Editions – Some indie creators are doing “sexy variant covers” or perhaps featuring guest artists or pinup covers. These are great, but again, they have to be severely limited in order to not over saturate the market you are trying to compete in. We’ll call them “Limited Editions”.

Limited Editions allow you to set much higher prices for much higher quality product.

These editions at the very least will help to fund your next run. These editions in particular need to be even more restricted in circulation and the price should rise accordingly. In our 1000 units/printed example, I would create no more than 5-10% of the total run of these types and they would also be numbered and signed of course. 

“Limited Editions” are targeted at the “super fan”. A great many of these types of readers also fall into the “collector” category as well. In my model here, by the time we arrive at these types of runs, the next one should already be paid for, the fans have your books in their hands and therefore the return on these particular editions should be where you start to actually see real money in your pocket.

The Ultra Editions –  The foils, the transparents, the embossed editions etc…These books should be severely limited to a few dozen books if that.  Original numbered artworks hinged on the inside covers, signed by the artists with all of the glut you can fit in your book etc.. These are the types of books that the most rabid collectors and speculators will really want to get their hands on.

They should be made to compete with each other so that the CREATOR

gains much more benefit on the front end.

The costs to those who want to speculate on indie comics should be high if not prohibitive. And why not?

Indie products should be held to a high standard so that the market itself becomes more and more driven by art, artists and ACTUAL demand.  

What does all this mean? Well, in my opinion it might begin to create an environment where quality, condition and rarity would actually matter in comics again.

Speculators instead of parasitizing the industry would in effect, be subsidizing further creation by being forced to “pay to play”. 

These are just some thoughts on different approach to putting work out there where all levels of buyers would be able to purchase a stake in your IP.

A situation where a creator keeps control of both his exposure and his returns. 

What could be more encouraging and engaging for the indie world? 

The LCS :  In the publishing world, traditionally; volume is how you achieve a success when dealing in low price, off the shelf goods. When your product is listed for two or three dollars, you have to sell a multitude in order to pay costs and then hopefully turn your profit.

The LCS is seen as the backbone of comic book culture. Or at least that is what the common perception has been.

Gone are the days where comics could be found at any convenience store or supermarket.

Specialty shops became the haven that devotees of the medium could escape to, that protected and respected the books we love.

Jim Lee of Marvel and Image fame has said himself that:

“ the end of the 90’s we were seeing a situation where nine out of every ten shops were closing their doors…”

By Mr. Lees’ interpretation, that means that by the early 2000’s, there were only around 10% of the previous decades shops still in existence. This is a frightfully low number. 

Therefore comic books after the crash must be seen as a truly limited niche market where competition for exposure and shelf space were literally at a premium.

Since then it has contracted even further and continues to decline.

So how to make sure that in this ‘new age’,  we are able to support the communities and the businesses that are built around comic books?

The shops themselves out of necessity,  have already diversified into a plethora of revenue streams.

Toys, table top games, RPG’s, card games etc… The more of variety that can be offered as product or services by the LCS, the better the return tends to be. This has morphed into such a phenomenon that comics themselves in most of these types of shops are relegated to the dark corners  – and instead of being celebrated and exposed – are left to mould in storage rooms.  And why is that?

Because comics are not what drives a comic shop any longer, unfortunately. There is no way to go back and have comic shops deal exclusively in comic books.

This would be a ridiculous goal to reach for.

The best that can be achieved is to re-insert comic books into that stream of revenue in a way that also brings some excitement and energy back to the scene.

Show you local shop that comics and your readers matter.

Launch/release your project from your local shop. Plug the shop just as much as you plug your product in the lead up to your launch/release day. Show your local owners that comics can still bring customers through their doors and that you are going to help them do that.

Make it an event. 

Create LCS exclusive variants that are severely limited in number and available only at your local shop. It will bring mail, walk-ins, phone calls. A buzz. It will show your local owner that you value them as much as you’d like them to value you.

Show them that they play a necessary part in delivering your product to readers. 

The more this happens and the more you promote your LCS,  the more likely they are to see you as an asset to their business, instead of a simple salesman trying to piggyback a product on the back of their enormous risk.

Advertise your local shop with the largest ad in your book. (if you choose to run ads)

Handle all of your signings in person – at the store.

Make it a point to ensure that any activity surrounding the promotion of your books is perceived as sort of community event with the shop as the hub. 

Of course if you’ve acted like a complete ass to the folks at your LCS, then you can disregard this last bit.

But that’s my real advice here – don’t do that.  Work with them instead. It will benefit both of you.

I know that there are many many folks that have a variety of great ideas when it comes to helping keep comics alive. 

Some folks won’t agree or understand where I’m coming from here and that’s OK, I am just thinking out loud and hoping that it sparks something of the same thing in others.

These are great conversations for creators to be having regardless. 

One last thing to consider…comic books essentially are a labor of collaboration by their very nature.(unless you’re a selfish prick that wants to do everything yourself LOL )

That same spirit can be carried over not just from the creative side of things but also from a sales perspective. 

If you are an indie creator, get involved with your local shop.

Comic Shops need great books and customers.

Creators need shelves and customers. 

Take charge of your IPs’ so that both may prosper in any way that you can. 

Good for readers

Good for collectors

Good for shops.


Mike Rogers

Cryo-ed GenXer. Collector of Edwardian era books and histories. Copper and Dark Age comic collector. Confused and irritated resident of the 21st Century madhouse. Resident observer and collaborator on Indie-Sphere happenings. Need some help on a project or perhaps some exposure here ? DM @60Recce