I’m a new comics creator and I’m looking for readers – aside from publishing my work online for free, I also do occasional thought experiments. Last week I compared the modern comic market with disposable pulp work of the early 20th Century – Disposable isn’t a dirty word. This week I ask why true ‘creator owned’ novels are booming bigger than their comic counterparts. In other words, where is our Amanda Hocking? (warning: beefcake below)
Who the heck is Amanda Hocking you might ask, well she’s a woman who quietly wrote 17 novels in her free time while she worked in an old person’s home, before uploading nine of them to Amazon via their self-publishing program. Thirteen months later she had sold more than one million ebooks and earned two million dollars from sales, later attaining an average of nine thousand sales a day.
Let that sink in a bit… A respectable creator owned comic does well to sell five thousand physical copies a month, and has to release a whole new issue the following month in the hope to attain the same lofty heights.
Now please, my fellow snobs, don’t sneer dismissively at this cover’s shirtless man and the woman giving us the glad eye, because, jezz, seen our comic covers recently? Just hold back judgement and keep reading…
Thirteen months after she uploaded her first books to Amazon she signed a four book deal with a traditional publisher, St. Martin’s Press for two million dollars.
So she blew up, big time. There are some similarities with the previous week’s pulp analogy; she works in genre fiction (horror, romance and supernatural), she priced low, and she had massive, accessible and scaleable distribution via digital. Could this ever happen in comics? Let’s have a play and see.
1) Expanding Audience:
Hocking’s work sits in one of the big growth categories in digital books – Young Adult (YA), the same audience that ate up Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight. YA is an important player in modern media. Mainstream comics, well apparently ‘we publish comics for 45-year-olds’.
The obvious implication there is that we’re creating works for an already established audience (the comics-kids of the 50s 60s 70s and 80s), while YA fiction and Manga swoop up the young growing audiences with modern age-appropriate material.
Now I don’t want to be dramatic here, but I don’t want to work in the Opera industry; a beautiful art form with a sophisticated, dwindling audience. I would rather work at the live venue that has Ska on Mondays, Alt-Folk on Tuesdays and even (gasp) some girl who sticks out her tongue too much on Wednesdays. We have all the instruments we need to play any kind of music we want, so why do we keep playing to the same audience?
Energetic, growing audiences seek out new experiences not just ‘new takes’ on known commodities. Which leads us to…
2) Limited-Run Story Format:
Picking up a Batman comic takes commitment. There’s a lot of history there, long term relationships, previous arcs and crossovers that add nuance to the story. Part of what makes a mainstream superhero comic so good is that its flavour comes not only from the comic itself, but from the comics around it. The entrée course before by a previous creative team, the side dish of cross over characters, the expectation of the course to follow.
It’s great if you’re already sitting at the table, but it’s intimidating as hell if someone asks you to sit down mid-meal. They’re likely to grab some KFC instead.
While trilogies and serials are also mainstays of fantasy and genre fiction, there is a sense of the finite with most indie fiction that is reassuring. Even if you do get hooked, it’s not a marriage; you can try a different type of story tomorrow. And trying new affordable stories is part of what made the pulp era so successful, and is driving the boom in self-published fiction.
3) Affordable Formats:
Amazon released their first Kindle in 2007, self-published novels, and the ability to earn a sustainable living (and therefore create more work) didn’t really happed till a few years later. The first generation iPad tablet came out three years later in 2010. Last week I proposed that tablets could change everything for comics via cheap delivery for creators, and a ‘newsstand’ in every hand. While I believe that’s true, cheaper e-ink devices are certainly in more hands, so they have an advantage there.
So their devices have a head start, and we might not see a true explosion in comics reading until tablet prices come down, or colour-e-ink hits the market. But the growth of digital comics is encouraging, as is the fact that digital comics were popular with pirate sites long before we had the ideal devices upon which to read them.
4) Lots of Authors:
Comics are hard to produce, often requiring multiple skill sets (drawing, writing and design) that don’t often exist in one human. Basically, more people would feel confident writing a short story than producing a short comic, and that obviously translates into the numbers of creators working in fiction vs. comics.
Today, there are a lot of self-published novels available on Amazon. There’s romance and soft porn, fantasy and sci-fi, and there are some cringe-worthy covers for lots of them. So there’s a lot more creators, producing a lot more work, in more genres, faster. Which sounds great from my ‘pulp theory’ but also scary, unless you have simple, social algorithms ensuring the cream rises to the top.
5) Rising Cream – Social Options and Search:
in this sea of content, how did Amanda Hocking reach so many readers? She goes into semi-detail back in 2010 here and here, and there is no magic bullet aside from work ethic, and work ethic doesn’t scale.
Amazon has an amazing suggestion engine. Before you even make it to the checkout with book A, they’re suggesting you try book B based on previous purchases. They have wish lists. Then they allow and encourage deep search with genre and sub-genre categories and lists. They take any work’s momentum and multiple it in an organic and responsive way. It’s about reviews, but it’s also about readers.
You can actually browse Amazon in the way that we browse brick and mortar stores. You can just arrive with no preconceptions and a few bucks and walk away with suggested content to read.
I get the feeling that Comixology is heading in the direction and may even be most of the way there.
There’s potential for massive distribution, and evolving systems that allow cream to rise to the top, so where are the comic authors that create work that appeals to the diverse audiences we need to attract? Creators that work in different genres, that write for different audiences, that write short comics, that write epics, that write for LGBTs, or women, or romantics, or furries… Are they on Comixology yet?
No, but they’re out there in small publishing and importantly – webcomics land. Coming next week.
Resources: if you want to learn more about what’s happening in Self-Published fiction, you could:
> Listen to The Self Publishing Podcast with Johnny B Truant, Sean Platt and David Wright - they fight like a threeway gone awkward, but they know their stuff.
> Scour the Newbies Guide to Publishing Blog by writer J.A. Konrath - there is sooooo much on here, but worth the time digging.
> Download the PDF book ‘Be the Monkey’ by Konrath and Barry Eisler from Eisler’s site.
> Explore The Creative Penn site and podcasts of Joanna Penn, author and occasional guest on the SPP podcast above.