In this installment of Comic-Con 101, we’re going to talk about something the marketing people might call “product positioning.” I’ve talked about it in some of my previous columns, but let’s focus specifically on your presentation of your comic to the fans to get the maximum out of your resources and get the most sales.
Know Your Product
This might sound weird to tell a creator (since you created the comic), but you should know everything about your comic book. There should not be a question you cannot answer about it. That includes mundane details like the number of pages, the number of ads — Even the number of staples that hold it together—absolutely everything.
Not all creators do, believe it or not. While reviewing comic books for Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine, I would purchase indie comics and sometimes as the creator questions. It was pretty annoying if they responded with “Uhhh, um….” It just doesn’t look good if you don’t know things like your artist’s name or what he’s worked on before.
You might not want to share any of those details, even if a customer asks. For instance, you may have a reason not to disclose the sweet deal you got at your dad’s printing outfit. But you should know at a Comic-Con, for instance, the exact number of the comics in your inventory or at least be able to guess the number within five.
Responding quickly and knowledgeably about your product sends a message to the customer (or potential buyer) that you’re serious about selling your comic. To look otherwise is to appear naïve and amateur.
For those of you still working on a title for your comic, I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Except for the artwork, the title is your comic’s most important selling point. Fanboys skim the racks, and you have but a few precious seconds to get their attention. Therefore, like all comic titles, it should appear prominently at the top of your comic in big, bold, very readable letters and should convey the following:
1: The Genre: Each genre has a type of title. For instance, fantasy comics contain words like “Kingdom,” “Realm,” “Castle,” “Dragon,” “Knights,” etc. Science fiction comics will instead contain words like “Planet,” “Space,” “Galaxy,” “Alien,” “Robot,” etc. A sci-fi comic called “Kingdom of the Knights” will confuse people.
I met a creator who complained about his low sales. His comic was named after its main character, who was trapped in an alien world with medieval technology. So the title was the main character’s name. Typically, this might mean something if the name of your character is “Johnny Kickass,” “Machine Gun Mike,” or “Lord of the Hell Pits.”
Unfortunately, the name did not invoke any image. It was just a name and not a common one, so it meant little to me. It definitely didn’t tell me he was trapped in an alien world. I told him to rename his comic. He eventually started over with a new one.
2: The Focus: The focus of your comic may be on a single character, an ensemble cast, or a concept. It’s the difference between Iron Man, The Avengers, and Armor Wars. Iron Man is a single superhero, The Avengers are a team, and Armor Wars is a broader concept about fighting armored heroes and villains.
3: The Size and Scope: Your title, whenever possible, should announce whether this is an ongoing issue in a series, a mini-series, or a one-shot. It’s the difference between The Adventures of Superman, Superman/Supergirl: Maelstrom Part 2 of 5, and Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
4: The Story: When I say this, I mean the kind of tone we can expect from the story. Is it fun and light, or is it dark and brooding? Words like “Stories,” “Adventure,” and “Tales” indicates something light and all ages. Longer names tend to be more comedic or epic, while shorter, blunt names tend to be dark and brutal.
5: The Concept: Your title can often indicate the concept you’re trying to present, which may differ from the story. A fellow creator told me he had an idea of redoing a Greek Classic as a film noir, but he named it after a Greek city in that classic. Again, the name didn’t mean anything by itself. I advised him to pick a name that would mirror a film noir movie because, ultimately, the concept was more for the story’s packaging.
6: Cadence and Pronunciation: Weird, unpronounceable titles might sate your artist’s ego, but it won’t sell. Launching a title with no vowels might sound hilarious, but you’ll probably annoy a potential customer moving toward something easier to understand. The old comic book creators understood that a good cadence sticks in the head: Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lana Lang, etc.
With all these elements to consider, you must choose something at the end of the day. You may not be able to achieve all the elements in your name, but if you get one or two, you’ll probably be ahead of the game.
Obviously, you want great art and a great title, but don’t ignore the basics. Typically, covers have a number (if it’s ongoing), the price (I covered that in the previous column about Money), and the last names of the creative team. Customers have come to expect this from comic book publishers.
You also want to showcase the best part of the book on the cover. It would be best if you had a scene that captures your story’s essence without giving it all away. For instance, the iconic cover of the Hulk’s reflection is caught in Wolverine’s claws. Not only are these two of the most popular characters in Marvel, but the pose indicated what the story would be: an epic fight.
If your story is epic, make the cover epic. If your story is a dark, sleazy tale of crime, your cover should reflect that. If your story is a crazy comedy, then you should probably have one of the craziest scenes right on the cover.
Highlight Your Strengths
If you got a good price point and page count, advertise it. (48 pages! $3.99! No ads!) If you spent some extra money on a cover artist, announce it. (Cover Art by Frank Frazetta!) Or perhaps you hired a great writer. (Written by Tony DiGerolamo!) Maybe some element of the story could be a selling point. (Based on a True Story! Adapted From the Award-Winning Novel! Foreward by Chris Claremont!)
This is why old comics often had the characters in danger and dialogue right on the cover. “Oh, no! If Superman doesn’t hit that switch, Boy Wonder and I will plunge into a vat of acid!” You want to get your reader excited about reading your work.
Red is irritating to the nervous system. It’s suitable for titles, title highlights, and bright colors like gold and white. Color schemes are best left up to the artists, but remember, you’re going to be a con. This book will be propped up on a table, and you want it to “read well” from across the room. The title should be legible, and whatever’s happening on the cover should be able to be understood by the viewer.
Fans won’t be able to process a busy cover, a muddied unpronounceable title, and a bad color scheme. They’ll pass you by, and the customers in the comic book shop might do the same. A good test might be to prop up the cover and see how far away you can stand and still read it. A solid design should give you at least 40 or 50 feet (not the subtitle or the credits, but the actual title).
Every comic story should have a solid one-paragraph synopsis. This will be your blurb in the distributors’ catalog, or anywhere else you’re going to advertise the comic. Boil down the essence of your project. This is the chance to sell it to everyone using your words.
And just like writers hire artists to draw their comic book dreams, too few artists don’t use writers the other way around. In comics, writers get paid less than artists because what we do, we can do much faster. It’s why a writer might be working on three or four titles at major publishers, not just one. Most writers will happily write you a synopsis for a pretty cheap rate if you feel the task is too daunting.
The paragraph should be used in your catalog listing and all your advertising and press releases.
You also need what Hollywood refers to as a logline. It’s one sentence or phrase that nails your story. For The Pineys, I tell potential readers, “It’s the story of a family of hunters that hunts the kin of the Jersey Devil.” Obviously, there’s more to it, but that gets to the essence of my book series: family, hunting, the supernatural, and folklore. If the conversation continues, you can explain more of the details.
Your Product Presentation
In previous columns, I’ve talked about your booth presentation at a Comic-Con, now, we have to think about how to position your actual product within that booth. Your product is the centerpiece. Nothing else should distract from that, even if you have a big art piece, statue, or custom prop— The comic should be just as prominently displayed.
As I said before, coordinate your tablecloth color with your comic book. You don’t want your color scheme sinking into the tablecloth. If your cover is black, then you need something lighter. Black is always a nice choice as long as your colors aren’t super dark. As comic creators, we all know that thicker black lines make characters pop. Well, displaying your comics on a black tablecloth basically surrounds your comic with thick black lines.
Tabletop vs. The Rack
A rack is nice to have for your comic, especially when you’re just starting out. With your first or second issue, having the same cover displayed across the table and on a rack is nice. It gives it different levels that people can absorb as a display.
The disadvantage is that you might be constantly knocking it over with your arm while passing fans a signed comic or collecting money. And while racks encourage customers to pick it up and flip through (which is good), they often don’t put it back carefully enough to keep it standing— Which can be bad. So I would say if you have a six-foot table and four or fewer comics, a rack makes sense.
Tabletop is my favorite, mostly because I have many products now. It also encourages people to come by my table and browse. Although I have an awesome comic rack, fans would mistake me for a comics dealer because I had so many issues once it got full. (You don’t want to look so professional people think you’re just there to sell hot comics.)
The upside is that you don’t have to worry about knocking over products; fans can stand over your table to see everything. You also won’t have to worry about your comic blocking any of your backdrops. The downside is customers sometimes will set things on top of your books like knapsacks, purses, or (God forbid) a beverage covered in condensation on the outside.
Personally, I think once you have four or five issues, tabletop— Along with appropriate signage— is the way to go.
Here’s my recent setup at the Gill Memorial Library in Paulsboro, New Jersey. My backdrop is dead center; my extra table signage is not blocking it. (The box is, but I move it behind the sign with my name.) I stood all the way on the left, not blocking my backdrop where the majority of the sales will happen. (That end of the table has Book 1 of the Pineys and Jersey Devil #1.) Note my pens and my notebook are also there.
My main product is books, so I’ve arranged them in nice neat piles in order of publication, 1 to 10. With my black tablecloth, nothing below the books can distract your eyes.
You won’t have this much product at the beginning, but one of the things I did was to put issue #1 out, cover-up, and then another pile showcasing the back cover artwork on Jersey Devil #1.
Choosing Your Table at Comic-Con
When you’ve done comic book conventions as long as I have, you sometimes get to choose your own table in the room. (This is another reason you want to arrive early. It’s more likely to happen if you do.) Even if the room has already been mapped out, if you arrive at a Comic-Con early, the organizer might let you swap tables before another creator, or a dealer arrives.
Ideally, you want the table with the most traffic flow. Note the entrances to the room. You want to be right where people enter, facing them so they can see you, your backdrop, and your product. Never face away from the entrance if you can help it.
Corner spaces can also be great depending on the show’s size and the room layout. This will allow you to set up a second table, so you have an L-shaped area to showcase your product (assuming you have as much as me). In that case, your prime product needs to go on the corner, and everything else arranged outward from that.
Corners are going to draw people’s eyes. So the rest of your material can flank it on the sides, going out in an upside-down “V.” Ideally, you might also have some levels as well, putting the props and the taller items on the wings of the “V” arranged from shortest on the corner to tallest at the ends of the “V.” You also might want to adjust your backdrop and angle it towards the center of the “V” depending on what you’re facing at the corner.
If one side of the “V” faces the entrance, forget all that and set up to face the entrance.
I love fans and fan groups, but they are not pros. They’re just hanging out and having a good time. Most of them are very respectful and aware that you’re trying to sell a product, but a few of them are just oblivious. They also sometimes have costumes that stick out and knock over products as they pass between the tables. So if you have the choice, don’t set up next to a cosplayer or a fan group.
Noise is also a huge factor. You want to be able to talk to fans. If you are stuck next to someone blasting Anime Soundtracks or that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where they did a musical, try not to kill yourself. You might have to ask them to turn it down politely if it’s bad.
Artists’ Alley vs. a Vendor Space
This typically happened to me at medium-sized Comic-Cons, especially newer ones. Someone would discount, or the organizers couldn’t sell enough tables, so they bring in more artists to fill up the space. The question is, which area is going to be better for your sales? Here are the pros and cons:
Artist Alley: Pros:
You’re with your creator bros!
Your fans expect you here.
Artist Alley: Cons:
You’re with your creator bros, and there’s too much competition.
Fans run out of money before they even get here since Artist Alley is usually in the back.
You may get stuck next to cosplayers, fan groups, or other amateurs that don’t attract fans.
Vendor Space: Pros:
It’s located closer to the entrance.
It’s where everyone usually spends their money first before they run out.
You’re one of the few publishers/creators in the room, and your spot will stand out.
The fan traffic will be superior as some people never even go into Artists’ Alley.
You tend to get more perks like carpeting, an extra chair, more space, etc.
Most vendors are professional, you won’t have to be worried about being sandwiched between a cosplayer and some noob with a weird booth.
Vendor Space: Cons:
There are no cons. Take the space if you’re offered. Your fans will find you because they’ll walk this space just like everyone else. Worst case scenario, tell whoever gets your Artist Alley space where you are if people ask. Also, everyone will assume you paid big money for it. (Don’t brag that you got it for free; some other vendors might get upset.)
This won’t be an issue at a convention center because they are brightly lit, but if you do shows at churches, VFW halls, high schools, bars, etc. The lighting is sometimes not designed for whatever the table setup happens to be.
One solution is to get there early and pick the most well-lit spot, which I have done. However, I sacrificed the best place for one that was under the lights and had a good day.
If you’re serious about this (and you should be), you should scope out the venue online ahead of time. The quickest solution is to bring a desk lamp. Comic-Cons held in the sort of places I listed, won’t usually care if you plug something in. It’s also probably a good idea to bring a short extension cord. Make sure you run the wire in such a way that no one can trip on it. Then focus the desk lamp on your book.
I did a show in the New Egypt Market in New Egypt, New Jersey. It was outside, and everything was fine until the sun went down. Then I realized my space wasn’t under any lights. I busted out my smartphone light. Fortunately, the battery lasted for me the whole event.
There are plenty of reasons to have extra signage. Table signs help guide the customer through the process of what you have and how they can pay for it. But, just like anything else in design, there is a balance to achieve. Too few signs and you don’t provide enough information, and too many make your table look like a cluttered mess. Here are a few signs you should think about bringing to the Comic-Con.
- Name Sign: While conventions often provide this, it’s not always the most visible, and organizers sometimes misspell names or lose the signs altogether. Making your own custom name sign allows you to add whatever touches you’d like to put beside your name: “Creator: Tony DiGerolamo” or “Author/Creator: Tony DiGerolamo” However, you want to build yourself up to the fans.
- Credits Sign: I have a credits sign because I have enough comic book credits and other credits that might make it interesting to fans. Work in movies, television, games, and other genres of entertainment can also apply.
- Price Sign: This is probably pointless if you only have one comic out. However, if you have a few issues and you’re offering special deals. For instance, a free sketch card with every purchase, you may want to put that on a price sign. Once you start selling other comics and merch, you’ll probably need this.
- Commission Sign: Artist, you must have this if you’re taking commissions otherwise, you’ll be explaining it all day.
- Facts Sign: You might list interesting facts about your comic, depending on what it’s about. I’ve known guys that did science comics and comics based on a true story and one comic that featured the image of a Hollywood actor. The facts sign explains the selling point that you already know. It makes the whole table a little more self-sufficient, so a second fan can pursue your table and get caught up while you’re signing and talking to one fan.
- Good Article: If you get a nice piece in a newspaper, magazine, or even some website, scan it or print it out, then mount it to something and put it on display. Even if no one reads the whole thing, the optics shows that people are talking about your comic. You want that positive buzz so that the potential fan will give himself permission to buy what you’re selling.
- Future Issues/Artwork: Once you have your first project, you’ll probably start working on others. Bring some of the artwork for the next project, especially if it’s a sequel to the first. This gives fans who already bought it something to look forward to and shows new potential fans that you won’t disappear in a week. It also shows that you’re serious about making comics.
At the beginning of the con, step out front of the table and take a look at how things are arranged. Is this a table you would approach? Does the product look good? Is the table clean? Is the tablecloth free of wrinkles? The nicer you make the table look, the more respectful people tend to be about you and your work. That respect translates into authority for you, and hopefully, the customer will listen to you when you suggest purchasing the book.
As I’ve said in previous columns, have your money, food, and other things on a slightly lower box below the surface of the table so fans can’t see them. If you don’t have a spot like that, keep it behind your display if it’s completely hidden.
For beverages, it’s best to keep them on the floor. Do yourself a favor and never put them on the same surface as your comic. You knock over one drink, and you’ll basically ruin all your hard work. The best place for a drink is on the floor, under your seat, where you’re unlikely to step unless you move the chair. At least if it gets knocked over on the floor, it’s unlikely to ruin any of the comics.
Conclusion: Product positioning is nothing more than putting your comic in the best possible light. If you want to build a readership, you have to sell to fans, and if you’re going to sell to fans, you need to think about (and constantly tweak) how your comic is presented and perceived. A confident and professional presentation helps the fans keep a positive image in your brain about you and your work. That translates into more sales and hopefully builds your comic book empire!
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