Marketers - myself included - really love to spout their theory. The key truths and principles about marketing.
But many are lying to you. Not straight to your face, but lying by omission - and deciding not to tell you something that should really be made as clear as possible:
Great marketing can't compensate for bad comics.
Marketing As a Multiplier
The better your comic is - the higher the base value you're starting with - the better you can expect your sales to be if you properly market it.
If you have a fantastic comic, it's only natural for more people to read it if you market it well.
But if your comic isn't any good, even the advantages you might have can end up getting cancelled out. For example, if you're trying to get the word out with your project, even your existing network would probably hesitate to spread the word if they've read it and judged that it's not great.
Breaking Down the Formula
To dive a little deeper into the relationship between the quality of your comic and the level of marketing you back it with, I made this quadrant.
Each of those stars represents the result you get. While they might seem completely obvious, there's more to them than meets the eye.
Bad on All Fronts (Bottom Left)
In fact, it'll probably disappear just as quickly as it was released. Looking at the silver lining, you avoid disappointing your audience by putting a lot of effort into marketing a comic they won't enjoy.
If your base value is 0, or even 1, you won't get that far - no matter how much effort you put into marketing.
This is a car that doesn't just lack gas - it even lacks an engine.
The Silent Success (Top Left)
At the top left, these are the most tragic. Making a great comic is the best thing you could hope for as a creator so when you have done just that but aren't doing the work needed to get it to readers...
That's just abandoning your responsibility as a creator. You don't necessarily need to be marketing it yourself, but you should be sure that your comic does get read - especially if it's great.
Silent successes are fantastic cars, left without fuel, prevented from going the distance they're actually able.
This is where most great comics today, fall - doing little to market their work, only fostering publicity from comic news sites and doing the smallest bit of outreach at conventions, never looking beyond the comic industry for interested new readers.
Best of Both Worlds (Top Right)
In four-quadrant graphics like these, the top right is always best. It's no different for us.
A great comic fantastically marketed will take off. There's little question about that. A sports car zooming down the highway at top speed is going to get to its destination.
And having a great comic unlocks the best marketing strategy available: letting your comic speak for itself.
You can do this by providing a preview of your comic. When you do that, whether someone buys your comic largely comes down to whether they enjoyed it. If they have they'll buy it. And if not you have your answer.
A lot of creators say that this is what they're doing. But there's a difference between just leaving your comic available for purchase online - or putting a preview up somewhere (even if it's the AV Club) - and true marketing.
At best, that's just publicity. Which is a good start, but it's not where your marketing efforts should end. And unfortunately, for most comics, it is.
There is not a single comic today that is being marketed to its fullest potential.
That's right. I wouldn't consider any comic today to fall in this top right quadrant.
At best, they're somewhere along the spectrum. But there is no comic really taking advantage of all the possibilities out there.
I'm not even talking about television ads or anything as complicated or capital-intensive as that. I mean the simple content marketing that can be done for free - like writing guest posts, engaging on social media, or creating a mailing list - and the social media advertising that can be done for a much smaller budget - one feasible for an independent creator.
Even these basic strategies aren't being fully embraced - and that's a lot of what I'm trying to change by writing here.
There are many fantastic comics today, that could be here - even bigger success than they are or actually financially viable for their creative teams. But instead, a lack of willingness to and understanding of how to market leaves great comics underperforming and talented creators having difficulty sustaining a living from their work.
When Quality Doesn't Matter (Bottom Right)
But this side of things is not as simple as you might think.
Marketing can work for a comic, even if that comic isn't great. But it does have it's limits. Marketing can get anyone in the door once, but once they're past the threshold it's up to your comic to keep that reader coming back.
If your book lets them down, it's really difficult to get an audience to return.
You might be financially successful with that comic, but if you've made something people don't enjoy and work really hard to sell that you're costing yourself future sales and the loyalty of any fanbase you might have.
Despite that, you can still make a living at this intersection. Lots of people do - both within comics and outside of it. I'm not saying they're terrible - there's definitely a spectrum of quality for comics.
But this sort of success is extremely difficult to maintain. If you can't count on gradually growing your audience, by acquiring new readers and getting word of mouth, then that high turn-over rate is going to keep you from getting very far.
Fighting tooth & nail for each new reader - and over the duration of a career is just not sustainable.
Getting Over the Quality Hump
You can't be terrible, but if you're getting better with every project you can combat that high turnover rate - your reader attrition - and not shy away from marketing along the way, giving yourself the best chance to reach as many people as possible.
But, in all the marketing you do, you should always be cognizant of the fact most marketers don't want to tell you: the quality of your comic does matter.
I just happen to think that if you're trying to build a career as an independent creator, it's worse to make a great comic nobody reads than a mediocre comic with an audience.