How To Publish Niche Titles And Strengthen Your Whole Line: A Helpful Guide For Comics Publishers [Op-Ed]

In case you haven’t noticed, this is a weird time for the comic book industry, particularly when it comes to lower-tier, more niche titles… And particularly when it comes to the “Big Two,” Marvel and DC. With a recent spate of cancellations at Marvel, as well as similar rumblings about DC titles – relaunch mega-sales aside – fans are heading en masse to the Internet in an uproar to cry about their favorite titles being in danger.

What they aren’t doing, of course, is heading en masse to comic book stores to purchase said comics – or at least, as is par for the course, there’s a very vocal minority that I’d include the press in (when it comes to comic books, at least) that’s shouting about their favorite titles while the rest of the comic book buyers either aren’t reading their please on Twitter, don’t have the cash to shell out on titles they’re not sure about, or straight up don’t care.

Why write about this now? Well, no less than James Robinson – according to an article on CBR – went to Twitter to encourage fans to buy issues of his recent maxi-series The Shade, so they can get a chance to publish the whole thing. In case you have no idea what The Shade is, and given Robinson’s online plea we’re guessing most of you don’t, it’s a semi-sequel to Robinson’s ground-breaking, mega-selling Starman series in all but name. Not only that, but the author has actually finished scripting all 12 issues, and enlisted top tier talent like Darwyn Cooke, J. Bone, Cully Hamner, Gene Ha, Jill Thompson, Javier Pulido, and Frazier Irving to draw the book. That’s a bit of a comic book dream project, and a dream team… And as an extra added bonus, I can firmly tell you that the first two issues (at least) are really good. Like, Starman good.

That’s pretty good.

And yes, this is a prestige sort of project that should, if finished, do splendidly on book shelves placed next to Starman. Also, DC – according, again, to the CBR story, because I let other people do my research for me – has said there are currently no plans to discontinue the series at this point. But, and there’s always a but, depending on how low sales are, who knows what DC will say a month from now, or two months from now? First issue sales (which publishers swear are inaccurate) are estimated at around 30,648, which isn’t too shabby… Though I’d imagine the second issue will drop precipitously.

Anyway, this is all intro… What’s my point here? My point is that, yes, these titles are in danger, and yes as a business, you need to feed the bottom line. But as a publisher, you also desperately need titles like The Shade – or Avengers Academy on the Marvel side, another favorite that has also been the source of a lot of speculation lately – to make the whole line strong.

To explain why, I’m going to talk about something I know inside and out, which isn’t the Comic Book Publishing Business. It’s running a theater.

For a few years, I was the Artistic Director of a flagging comedy theater here in New York City. Not to get too much into it, but the theater survived mainly on money made from classes and corporate events, not on the shows in the theater. And given that in New York, comedy shows usually only go for $5-$10, you were probably never going to get millions – or even tens of thousands – of dollars off the shows, even though that was technically the life-blood of the theater.

What I found over the years I worked there putting together the schedule was that this wasn’t a detriment, it was an opportunity. Rather than trucking in shows I know would make a quick buck packing the house with their friends and family, I concentrated on getting the best damn shows I possibly could on the schedule. Because if we weren’t going to get any money anyway, why not get shows that made me – and by extension – the performers at the theater, and the staff – happy and proud to be part of the theater?

This was, of course, tough. I first tried rebuilding the schedule with only the amazing, niche shows I loved, and attendance started to tank. These were talented performers and writers who were in a point where they had exhausted their friends and family audience, but weren’t superstars yet… So the audiences were tiny, and I was getting pressure from the owners of the theater to shut down the shows.

To cut ahead of a long story here, I found that a balance was necessary: bring in the big shows that pack the house, the ones that sold tickets, and created a buzz in the audience, and those shows – if programmed correctly – would let audiences spill over into the really excellent shows, letting people try something new, and selling them on the overall quality of the theater.

I even tried some initiatives – particularly, one that made the entire Wednesday night schedule, which showcased the theater’s house improv teams, one hundred percent free for everyone. We then spent most of that night plugging other awesome shows, and found that it worked. Same as with the spillover technique, audience members excited about being in a packed house for Wednesday – and feeling great from getting something free – would show up for other nights.

And here’s the crucial thing: the Wednesday night schedule had existed before. The “big selling” shows were already there in the schedule… But tickets sales were down across the board, and even with the big selling shows, they could sell out one, maybe two dates and that was it. We found that audience members would be sold on the high quality of our smaller shows, and be encouraged to check out more shows throughout the theater. So it wasn’t just a trickle down theory, it trickled up, too, until the entire schedule was selling out, night after night… Sometimes as much as five shows in one night of varying audiences.

By the time I left my position to pursue freelance writing, box office receipts were up over 400% across the board, and classes and corporate events were up exponentially as well.

All of this is not to say, “Hey, I’m awesome you guys,” and I realize it’s not directly analogous, but lets apply the same thinking to comics. Yes, you have the big “Events” of potentially dubious quality that nonetheless will bring in the readers and maybe even attract mainstream press attention. Keep those. But once you have everyone’s attention with the latest Secret Crisis On Infinite Wars… Point them down, not across. Use the opportunity of a big event to say, hey, why not check out this smaller title; it’s nothing like what you’re reading, but it is awesome, and it’s a large part of why our publisher is so great?

And similarly, you’ll find that continuing to publish those smaller titles won’t get you big sales… But they will get you loyalty. People who say, “Wow, DC published The Shade, and it was awesome… I wonder what else they publish?” Give that reader one, two more quality titles, and you’ve created a fan for life. Or the next few months, at least.

We’ve seen the same thing happen with the purge of all ages comics that’s been going on. Yes, they don’t sell a ton… But they’re also your primary way to capture a new audience. When we’re talking about 50,000 readers for a “big” comic, how can you turn away even 5,000 potential new readers, when that’s another 10% of your audience? Or whatever the math is, because I used to be good at math and now I hate math?

Point is: you need a healthy line with various different flavors to attract a wide audience, not just one type of thing. Part of that, though, is realizing that those niches won’t ever attract the wide audience the non-niche things attract… Though given time, they may catch on. So stick by a smaller title, and the audience may actually grow. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

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