How Indie Creators Can Give Mainstream Comic Publishers a Run for their Money

When David fought Goliath, he didn't try to wrestle him. Instead, he slung one of his stones at the giant's head and felled him

He knew his advantage. Yes, he was tiny. But he was a great shot with his sling, and he was able to use his strengths to win what people thought was an impossible fight.

In comics there are a lot of Davids trying to wrestle giants. Independent creators who are fighting to compete with mainstream publishers, when those companies have more manpower, greater resources, and larger fanbases.

We try to compete with them for coverage on comic sites, listing in previews, or even space on retailer's shelves.

But that's fighting on their terms. That's trying to wrestle giants - competing in places where we're naturally outmatched. And even if we know better, many of us are stuck in this mindset because we don't know how else to compete.

Fortunately, after you read this post that won't be the case. By the time you get to the end, you'll have learned how to make use of the greatest advantages available to you only because you're a David. Your very own 'sling and stones'.

So, you ready to take down some giants?


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Be Better

More than anything, the most reliable way to beat your competition is to be better.

You need to make better comics, have a stronger relationship with your audience, and - across the board - outperform your competition.

This is not easy.

This is one of the lessons we discussed last week in my post: "6 Lessons We Can Learn from the Archie Kickstarter."

This is one of the lessons we discussed last week in my post: "6 Lessons We Can Learn from the Archie Kickstarter."

Where mainstream publishers often have editors, you're lucky if you can afford one. Where they have dedicated marketing and PR staff, you're fitting in your promotional efforts around actually making comics, and possibly a full-time job. Where they've got a long history of making comics, a lot of you are just figuring things out.

But we weren't ever promised easy. If you want to compete with the larger publishers you've got to work harder. If they're working 9 to 5, you need to work 8 to 6.

But working harder is just one part of the equation. So, let's talk about working smarter.

Sing a Siren's Song

When a Siren wants you to drown, she sings an irresistible song to entrance and enchant you, so you don't notice when you shipwreck on a rocky coast or get tossed overboard by a giant wave.

She doesn't get up in your face and tell you, "Hey! Drown!"

You don't need anything more than common sense to realize that wouldn't work. Lately, there's been a lot of conversation about these two differing approaches to marketing and how they tie into author self promotion.

Deb Aoki put together a great and thorough storify that does a great job of curating this conversation (and links out to even more great writing on the subject).

It's important reading for any creator trying to figure out how to walk the line between pushing and pulling an audience. Especially since marketers keep ruining things and make selling that much harder for the rest of us.

But we shouldn't stop selling altogether just because it's difficult. And I reject the idea that creators can't or shouldn't promote their work. We just need to do it authentically - by making a beautiful book people want to look at. By writing an amazing story people want to talk about. By engaging with your readers and making them want more. By pulling readers in with sing a siren's song - rather than begging them to buy your books.

Delilah S. Dawson explains this idea - in much less metaphorical terms - here, and dives deeper into the different ways we can 'sing our song' here.

So how does this help us defeat giants? Well, it helps because Goliaths are tone deaf.

They're so wired into the outdated sales model of selling that they don't know how to sing. Most mainstream publishers just keep pushing even though most readers just get tired of it. As a result, the way they were pushing stops working so they find a new way - or a new place - to push. When was the last time you clicked on a banner ad or email advertisement? While these used to have really high returns, most people - even giants - know not to use them anymore.

And sure, this strategy still works for them. At least, it works better than it would for independent creators, because people are used to being sold to by companies. It's much easier for readers to swallow "push" promotion from a business entity that they recognize as existing to make money, versus an independent creator, especially one they have no preexisting relationship with.

Publishers also benefit from having greater credibility than indie creators when it comes to self-promotion. A creator would never tell us that their book or comic is anything but great, but because publishers also serve as gatekeepers, people assume a certain level of quality in the books they publish, and afford them more flexibility in self-promoting.

But it's only a minor victory for the Goliaths. Being good at push marketing is essentially like being great at stomping on houses. Yes, Goliath is going to be way better at it than David, but people still don't like it when their house gets knocked down.

So do what we're naturally better equipped to do. Pull. We're a single creator and they're a major company. People prefer to connect with the creator of a book than whoever's managing the companies social media account.

Make a genuine connection with your readers & learn how to market for the world that we live in. Sing a Siren's Song and drown those damn sailors.

Jack and David would be great friends

Jack and David would be great friends

Go for the Beanstalk

When Jack fights his giant, he uses what's to his advantage - namely that he's standing on the ground, at the base of the beanstalk, and has an axe - to win. He calls for his mom to get his axe and as soon as he gets to the bottom, he gets to work and chops down the beanstalk.

The giant falls and Jack survives. With a bag of gold coins, golden-egg laying goose, and a harp that plays by itself to show for his trouble.

If mainstream publishers are the giant, then the beanstalk is their fanbase.

And it's massive. In fact, its size tends to be one of their big advantages. But, because of the way most publishers interact with their fanbase, it's also a weakness.

Due to the size of their audience, most publishers have difficulty engaging with individual fans in a meaningful way. Relationships with individual readers are forfeit for 'relations' with a readership, and publishers start thinking more about the width of their reach than the depth of their connections.

But we're smaller. We don't need to make that mistake. As independent creators we can compete in a way they'd never imagine, much less want to. We compete by cutting to the core of the beanstalk and focusing on engagement instead of eyeballs. We compete by going smaller.

Instead of trying to match their reach, we should be using the fact that we're just individual creators to provide unparalleled depth. Where mainstream publishers are concerned with appealing to a mass readership. we can make genuine connections with individual readers. We engage, in a personal way that the Goliaths could never emulate.

You can do this by doing things that don't scale.

You table at conventions and, as Jim Zub writes about in Part 2 of his "Conventioneering" series, you provide an invaluable experience. "The experience [of] enthusiastically getting a comic from the person who makes it."

If you're packing your own comics, you sign them all, and include a personal note if you can do so sincerely.

You stop worrying about the inefficiencies and only concern yourself with scaling when you need to. If you worry about it too soon you'll be giving up one of the unique advantages of being a David.

We can't compete on advertising. They can outspend us. We can't compete on coverage. They have more recognition.

But, we can compete on the connection. We are more human.

Look at how the independent publisher ComixTribe acted during FCBD this year. Their series And Then Emily Was Gone, by Scottish creators John Lees and Iain Laurie, was very successful and the subject of much praise. So, they decided to capitalize on that success and build more anticipation for the release of their trade paperback by putting out a "zero issue" on Free Comic Book Day.

But they knew they had to do something different to compete with all the other comics coming out that day - the majority of which were by larger publishers - so they started the #EmilyFound campaign on Twitter.

But they didn't just create the hashtag. They encouraged participation by giving away copies of other graphic novels they had published to readers who tweeted a picture of themselves holding the FCBD issue, and used the hashtag #EmilyFound.

Plus, Tyler, the publisher, and both John and Iain, were on Twitter engaging with participants all throughout the campaign.

The end result? More FCBD engagement than I saw for any other comic out that day. Hello beanstalk, goodbye Giant.

Don't Play Their Game

Some of the advantages of being David are incremental, like the ones we discussed above. Pulling readers into a sale, as opposed to pushing them. Prioritizing depth over width, and deepening your relationship with individual fans as opposed to just trying to grow your fanbase. These are both ways for Davids to use their strengths to outperform Goliaths & beat them at their own game. But there's another way to give mainstream publishers a run for their money.

You change the game. You don't need to just compete with them on their terms, using the natural advantages we discussed above. Instead, you try something new. You do something they couldn't even hope to compete with.

It's risky. What you try might not work, after all you're betting on a variable. But the only downside is failing, which, is actually just a great opportunity to learn and become stronger. So if the downside is minimal, then all you're left with is the upside. And the potential upside here is huge.

Run Like the Road Runner

Wile E. Coyote chases The Road Runner relentlessly. Like mainstream comic publishers, he has far more resources than The Road Runner, but try as he might to anticipate and plan for The Road Runner, he can never catch him. That's because for all his tools and resources, Wile E. Coyote is slow and we, like The Road Runner, are fast.

Your speed is the first tool in the interconnected arsenal of advantages at your disposal that can help you change the game.

Because we're smaller, usually solo operations, we can adapt to new situations faster than mainstream publishers. We don't have any of their institutional inertia. We can try new technologies and adapt to new trends faster then they can. And, if we're paying attention, we catch those waves at the right moment.

We profit, while the mainstream publishers struggle to climb back up the cliff. Look at The Archie Kickstarter for a great example.

While publishers are scrutinized and lambasted for using the Kickstarter platform, Independent Creators have an easier time getting away with it.

And these innovations can have a massive impact. Without crowdfunding, I wouldn't have been able to start making comics. As things stand there's over $39 million of comics that have been funded on Kickstarter. That's a great thing - and something that, in many ways, is uniquely available to independent creatives.

Search for El Dorado

Back when much of the world was still a mystery to people, explorers used to set out, hoping to strike gold or find places previously unknown to them. Sometimes they'd succeed, and reap the benefits of that success; other times they'd fail and their stories would end there.

Publishing can work quite similarly. Mainstream publishers tend to get fixed into preconceived notions of what is and isn't working - like with how most publishers look at all-ages or romance comics.

They sit firmly within their comfort zone, never straying and never reaping the potential rewards from such a venture. But that leaves an opportunity for independent creators.

As creators, rather than companies, we're in the trenches with our readers. We're standing alongside them and can more readily identify underserved and underrepresented audiences. Once we do, we can then create for those audiences.

By doing so, we show that we're not just sympathetic, but genuinely passionate about their interests. We don't just set up a chance to strike gold, we engage them in a way nobody else is. We create comics for people nobody else is creating comics for.

Success isn't just finding an underserved niche and making money by publishing for it. It's knowing that you're making comics for people who can't find comics for them.

Success isn't just finding an underserved niche and making money by publishing for it. It's knowing that you're making comics for people who can't find comics for them.

For a recent example, check out Rosy Press. Janelle Asselin, the publisher/owner of Rosy Press, saw something she didn't see enough of in the industry - romanc ecomics - and decided to do something about it.

She decided to put together an anthology of romance comics. Each of those things on their own are traditionally considered hard sells, but she saw a need and responded. In the end almost 1,500 backers helped her raise $53,311 - notably more than her $28,000 goal.

In time, of course, the Goliaths catch on to this game and the advantage fades. Just look at how Marvel & DC have slowly responded to the shifting marketplace by producing more female-led titles. But this cycle will always continue. As Davids keep pushing the boundaries and searching for El Dorado, Goliaths will follow behind. They'll pave the trail independent creators cut with higher profile titles. When we stop competing with others, they start competing with us.

This isn't a drawback, it's motivation to use that speed we discussed, never stop innovating, and never get too comfortable.

boat-in-a-storm

Brave the Storm

In business, even if we're so far ahead that we're not competing, we are still fighting. It's just that by focusing on pushing the boundaries of our industry, we're fighting the elements - market trends & consumers wants - instead of larger companies.

But that's okay. Because giants don't want to get involved in this kind of fight. Like in a storm, the larger trade companies - or mainstream publishers - will worry about the risk or potential damages and refuse to go. But the independent creators - the people with a small boat and nothing to lose - will brave the dreadful weather. And, much like on the road to El Dorado, they may never make it to the other side, but will win great rewards if they do.

This is part of our duty as creators. We can't let the industry rest on its laurels. Progress only comes as a product of exploration. Every great innovation in the industry - from trade paperbacks, to webcomics, to digital & the rise of crowdfunding - needed someone to brave the unknown, take that risk, and show that it could work.

That someone is the independent creator who can handle the danger and is accountable only to themselves. Mainstream publishers can't take these kinds of risk. Individuals within the companies are accountable to their superiors and need to be reasonable. But sometimes being reasonable won't get you where you need to go. The risk may or may not pan out, you may try something that doesn't catch - like motion comics - or you may try "Pay What You Want" and be surprised how well your experiment works.

You're small & have much less to lose than mainstream publishers if an experiment fails, but so much more to gain if one works. Use that advantage to its fullest.

If the last section was about finding new audiences and exploring via the work you create, this is to remind you to innovate on the business side, too.

Go digital. Experiment with alternate formats. Stop worrying about the competition and learn from what other industries are doing. If you only look at what other comic companies are doing, you're going to be following in their footsteps rather than blazing a new path.

Yes, there's risk, and you might fail, but you should be able to deal with any failure that goes your way. If you can't, you wouldn't have lasted long anyways.

Dive into uncertainty. Try something counterintuitive. Be a little reckless.

achilles-heel

A Hole in the Armor

When David and Goliath met on the field, Goliath could've charged David and just stomped him. But instead he cursed & complained, insulted that a mere boy would challenge him. Goliath didn't think that the young kid wearing a plain tunic and wielding nothing more than a simple sling could beat him.

That's what gave David the opportunity to win.

It's difficult for companies to change that narrative. When they're created they need to be the David to gain ground and build momentum, but as they grow, they increase in size. They become more and more the Goliath of the story. When you get that big you have so much more to take care of and you leave that many more gaps. Those gaps - those holes in the armor - are where Davids have an opportunity to make their mark and thrive.

Especially if they know what their unique advantages are and how to use them to their advantage. And they do; you do.

You know that you need to work harder than they will if you want to be better.

You know that you can pull an audience in, with authentic, genuine marketing. And do it better than they can ever push one around with their megaphone approach.

You know that inefficiency is an advantage. It can enable you to form a stronger connection with individual readers than they can with a general fanbase.

You know how to change the game and keep publishers on their feet - regardless of their resources. You do it by being faster to try new technologies and adapt to market trends.

You know to keep exploring not just in the content and audience of the work you create, but also in your approach to the business itself.

You know to stop wrestling with larger mainstream publishers. Instead you use the unique advantages you have because you're an independent creator to punch a hole in their armor.

You know... how to take down a giant. So get slaying.

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