Merch is short for “merchandise,” meaning all the non-comic book stuff you might sell to make money. Merch is promotional material and profit, but only if you can segway into something fans want. On the upside, there is excellent potential profit, but on the downside, you could put out a lot of money and distract yourself from the most critical endeavor: making your comic book. These are the Pros and Cons of Merch.
Pros: It makes you more money.
Price points on comic books are often so low that it’s hard to make a profit. Even today, with (in my opinion) the wildly overpriced floppy comics by indie creators, you’re lucky to make a few bucks per unit. Comic books were meant to be cheap entertainment, so selling a $30 t-shirt is like selling five comic books in terms of profit margin.
Cons: It costs a lot more money.
The capital you put out to make this merchandise is always more significant. So unless you’ve already got a bit of success or a few extra grand burning a hole in your pocket, this kind of expenditure can kill a fledgling comic book company. Think carefully before you endeavor to make a t-shirt for a comic book character you may not be able to afford to publish. And speaking of…
For some creators, this is a gold mine. For others, well— At least you’ll have a lot of extra shirts should you go out of business. The guys from Penny Arcade made a mountain of money selling gaming-related t-shirts. Some would argue that they were a t-shirt company launched by a webcomic. At $20 a pop, I watched these guys rake it in and immediately thought, “Gimme some of that!”
Unfortunately, the first roadblock you run into is how many shirts you print and in what sizes. With my first foray into garments, I stuck with all XL shirts. I figured it was a good median size. Smaller fans might still buy it and take in larger fans— Well, I just figured there couldn’t be that many people of large girth asking me for shirts.
Of course, I was completely wrong. Although I think I broke even with my initial run of Super Frat t-shirts, I knew I lost business because I didn’t have enough sizes. It was nuts. I had people asking me for baby-ts and XXXL!
And while buying an initial run of a few dozen shirts could drive the per unit price down, that was only because I bought all the same size. Adding sizes made the math more complicated. The oversized shirts cost more (more fabric), and I couldn’t order just one or two of the extreme sizes.
The bottom line was that to justify the expense and hassle of ordering more shirts of varying sizes, I would have to sell dozens of them during a show. Since I was lucky to sell one or two, that seemed like a foolish investment. Additionally, schlepping around the shirts from comic-con to comic-con and displaying them wasn’t exactly feasible either. I don’t know; I guess I’m not big enough to do shirts yet. Your mileage may vary.
After two other failed attempts, I have officially decided to do my shirts on sites like Red Bubble. There, the shirts are printed and shipped; all I have to do is collect the money and point people in that direction. Plus, it allowed me to invent the Pizza Pillow, which I find hilarious (your mileage may vary).
Shirt Strategy: Make a design that people will want regardless of your comic book. In other words, something with just the title requires a fan to be a fan of your comic book to enjoy the t-shirt. Whereas, if you have a cool-looking demon in your comic, putting that on a t-shirt might sell to anyone wanting to wear a shirt with a monster.
Pros: Merch makes your little comic book empire look more prominent and more important. It gives you something other to display than just your comic book. Fans will assume you’re a much bigger deal than you are.
Con: You need something to display the merch correctly at a comic-con, and you’ll be carrying more boxes of stuff. You’ll also need more room in your car or have to pay more for shipping if you’re taking a plane to a big show.
For my money, games are the best merch you can make from your fans. However, they are usually one of the most complex ones to make. Games require testing, artwork, and, depending on the kind of game, a whole lot of capital. Let’s look at it, cheapest to most expensive.
RPGs or Role-Playing Games
These are the cheapest to make since you’re basically just publishing another pamphlet or book with illustrations. If the RPG is centered around your comic, your comic illustrations can also be reused. The most significant expense will probably be the printing costs.
Unfortunately, writing the game is a big time investment, especially if you have to create your rule system. Some established RPGs have OGLs or Open Game Licenses, which means you can use the established system and create your characters within that system. Unfortunately, the biggest OGL, the d20 System, recently changed its open licensing rules. There are others, but even with an established system, these games require many pages of errata. It’s like writing a small book, and I should know since I’ve written for games and my own OGL RPG, Complete Mafia for d20.
Creating your own RPG system will take up a lot of time. It’s not impossible, but if the game is to survive more than a single game for your customer (and RPG fans desire this), you’d better beta-test the thing to shake out the bugs. Plus, once you have an RPG game, you’ll need to demo it at cons to spark interest.
The good news is, if you do all this work, it will open the door to doing Gaming Cons. The great thing about Gaming Cons is that fans stay for the entire length of the convention to play games, and they are usually much more flush than comic book fans. They come for the weekend, bring plenty of money, and don’t mind throwing fifty to a hundred bucks at a game if they like it.
When I did my fantasy comic, The Travelers, it was published for most of its run at Kenzerco, publishers of Knights of the Dinner Table, and many different games. This opened the door for me to do gaming cons and sell not only my game but my fantasy comics. Since comics are generally much cheaper than games, it was often an easy sell to gaming fans.
The card games require more costs because you’re not just printing cards; it involves some kind of packaging. While more compact than the RPGs, if you design them correctly, they tend to be quick to play. That’s their appeal.
The downside is that you will have to do more artwork and almost as much game design as the RPG. If the mechanics of the game don’t work in an RPG, the players can modify or ignore specific rules because the fun is invested in their characters, not necessarily the game mechanics. With card games, the whole game is about the mechanics, so if that doesn’t work, forget it.
An upside is that you can create exclusive cards to stick in your comic. This can be an incredible boost to your sales if the card game is popular. Unfortunately, I don’t think many people got into the Magic: The Gathering comic books. I saw fans buying the comic with the card exclusive and throwing the comic away. Card games were the hottest thing for a while, but trends come and go. Keep that in mind before investing in this merch, fanboy.
Unlike card games, board games are a bit more universal in their appeal. In terms of game design, they tend to be simpler, especially if you’re designing it for younger fans.
Unfortunately, the big expense here is usually the component pieces that come with the game: dice, figures, game pieces, cards, etc. These all have to be designed, manufactured, and boxed. If you’re doing that all yourself, it can be quite an undertaking if you’re fulfilling hundreds of units for stores and fans nationwide.
And just like any other piece of merch, the more complicated the game, the more expensive it will be to make, and you’ll have to make more of them to drive down the cost per unit to sell it at a reasonable price for your fans. You could spend more time designing and building this game than your comic, which may defeat the purpose of making this merch in the first place.
Video Games and Apps
Although these can be your most affordable merch, they only exist as software on computers and phones. All the expense, time, and energy will be in the game’s design. Additionally, if you can code it yourself, great. If you can’t, well, you’ll need someone or a service to do all that.
It can be an expensive and time-consuming process to get something that’s cool enough for your fans to be impressed. The downside is monetizing the investment. Many games and apps are free online, so why would anyone pay for yours? I did one for Super Frat many years ago, and one of my fans did all the work. It was online at a server somewhere, and eventually, the link stopped working. It was a fun freebie for a while but didn’t bring me too much in the way of sales.
Games, Broadly Speaking
If you can afford to do them and know how to design them, why not? People with access to a company or other people that can make this stuff or give you a good deal— Well, that’s worth it. If you want to do it for the sheer thrill of making your own game, I understand that, but I would expect little in the way of sales for your comic.
The upside is that you could find yourself with a hit game and be in a situation where the profit of the game funds the comic. (A good problem to have!) That’s unlikely. (Although I did work with a gaming publisher who stumbled upon a hit comic and was able to do the opposite.) Games are their own thing and take tremendous capital, time, and energy. If you have those components, go for it. If not, stay away.
Pros: Merch can bring your comic book characters to a new audience that never knew they existed.
Cons: If the merch outshines the comic books, this can be disheartening for a creator, even if the money starts rolling in.
Action Figures and Toys
There’s a big market for this kind of merch, and it can open the doors to toy cons you would not otherwise be able to do. Most creators would love to have action figures of their characters. I had someone do custom Jersey Devil action figures and even sold a few of them.
But just like anything else, doing things right cost money. You’ll need a sculptor/designer or someone to build a prototype, and you’ll have to find a company to make them at a cost that won’t leave you charging $200 a figure. There’s also packaging and designs for that and possibly even warehouse space if you think there’s enough interest.
It’s going to be expensive, but at least you won’t have to design a game. If you want to go the cheaper route, do what I did— Find a guy that modifies existing action figures. He can take an old figure and repaint and reshape them into your character. You can at least have a few for the table, and if there’s interest, you can have a short run made for resale. If you get bombarded with requests, you can upgrade to a production run, but something like that would require a crowd-funding campaign.
Pros: Your comic book empire looks legit with all the merchandise on your website. You have multiple streams of potential income.
Cons: Shipping all this stuff can get expensive, and the comic book (which should be the center of everything) looks marginalized next to an extensive line of merch.
And the Rest
Over the years, I’ve seen creators do all kinds of wild merch: flying discs, bumper stickers, books, beer, hats, phone cases, candy— The list is endless. Which one is right for you? That depends on your comic book.
When picking out the kind of merch to do, you want something that makes sense with the comic. Currently, I’m promoting The Pineys, which is about a family of hunters that hunts the kin of the Jersey Devil. Besides the big three, I’d want merchandise that would go along with hunters. Hats and hunting vests might go over well for me.
With your comic or project, it would be completely different. I knew a creator who did a knitting comic, so naturally, she could sell branded needles and stuff she knitted. When I was promoting Super Frat, I devised a way to make Frat paddles and sold them at cons. (They came with a Super Frat comic strip mounted on the back.)
Cater the Comic to the Merch
Maybe you already make something cool at your Etsy store. If you made a comic book that somehow tied in your product, the comic helps promote the product and vice versa. There were some guys that did a comic about brewing beer, so naturally, they made beer too. They couldn’t sell it at cons, but they could promote it, and these days, local brewing is big business.
Some creators might say doing merch at all is somehow devaluing your artistic vision. If you feel that’s true, no one is forcing you to do it. But if you have a popular comic and need to monetize more, or if you can make a unique item that goes perfectly with your comic book, why wouldn’t you make it? It’s not like you’re making it to rip people off. If it’s fun and fans want it, you give the customer what they want. It’s only when you ruthlessly pursue every dollar at the expense of your creative endeavor that it may damage your rep as a creator.
Combine the Merch with the Comic
RPGs and other game systems can put game material right in the back of your comic, and it’s easy and doesn’t take up much room. This encourages the gamers to buy the comic and the comic readers to check out the game.
Giving Up the Merch
Special offers, contests, and giveaways can help promote your comic. Even if the merch turns out to be a total bust, have a contest and give it away. At least you’ll get some promotion out of it. Fans seldom complain when they get something for free.
I’ve been around long enough at cons that I have tons of material I know isn’t going to sell anymore. Or, it’s a comic I’m just not promoting, but I still have a few hundred copies. The solution is to give it away as added value. If someone buys a lot of something, I might throw in a few of those comics as a bonus. Why not? They’re just sitting in my basement. This can also be done with merch that didn’t sell. When you’re sick of seeing it clutter up your storage area and need it for something new, give it away.
Crowd Funding Merch
If you have enough fans, you should crowd-fund the merch. When The Webcomic Factory did Post Apocalyptic Nick, we did a Kickstarter for the book that made its goals. We added t-shirts, stickers, and pins along with the comics. If you have a big enough following, you can crowd-fund just about anything— But make sure you know the cost ahead of time. And if it is a stretch to raise the money for an action figure, crowd-fund it separately from the other items.
They say if you have 10,000 fans that 1,000 of those fans will be loyal enough to buy your stuff. And with that many paying customers, a comic book creator can make a living. If I had to translate that into YouTube fans, the number would be closer to 20 to 30K. And, although it’s changing, Twitter does not monetize well, in my opinion. I would not trust a following to buy anything, and that goes doubly for Tik Tok. You may have better luck with platforms with realistic engagement and websites that you control entirely.
Anyhow, get out there and create some merch creator. The fans are waiting! Until next time, fanboys— See you at the con.
Check out our previous Comic-Con 101: How to Get Your Comic Book Written.
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