Despite the post's title, there are really no sure-fire ways to boost the sales of your comics. There are, however, principles that govern this, and today's comics creator would need to be familiar with these principles and work on them.
To me, it's basically hinged on two factors: Your Work and your Platform. And from these two factors, we look into Quality and Scope.
Quality of Work: It Has To Be Good
When we look at quality, we look at the level of excellence it contains. In my previous blog posts, I've emphasized the importance of a quality story in terms of both writing and art, but there's more to that. When we look at quality, we're also looking at how writing and art help each other in achieving a satisfying reader experience. We also ask if the writing and art are "meant" to work together. Looking at Japanese manga as an example: while there is a particular style that's inherent in manga art, there are many permutations. A horror manga would look particularly different from an action-adventure one. I also remember American comics artist David Finch saying that while he wants to work on certain types of stories, he readily admits that his style wouldn't fit.
Fortunately or unfortunately, excellence is relative, which leads us to...
Scope of Work: Not Everyone Will Like It
I look at Scope of Work in terms of the number of people a comics work can possibly attract. Just like in other forms of entertainment, a fan of one kind of story may not necessarily appreciate another kind of story, even if both stories are comics. This is a reality that any artist must face--our work doesn't appeal to everybody, some styles have broader appeal than others, and we can't force everybody to like our work. Thus many story experts recommend that creators choose a genre or two, and analyze and mine all the possibilities those genres have to offer. If you want to create superhero comics, explore its conventions, then overturn them, cut them up into little itsy pieces, squish and stretch them in ways no other superhero comics creator has done before. Apart from this, the art has to deliver as well. We've all experienced buying a comic book because we love the writer, then feel like we're pulling teeth because we don't like the art.
Quality of Platform: You Are Your Book
The idea of an author platform isn't new, but many authors are still trying to catch on. It's based on the idea that authors need to invest time and effort into marketing their own work. The idea of marketing (and selling, brrrrrr) makes many authors sweat, and while it does take a lot of work, it's not as difficult as it seems. You know your work better than anybody else, so you would be the best person who can talk about it.
The Quality of your platform is based on the kinds of messages you're sending out. When you have a blog, what do you talk about, and how do you talk about them? When you present yourself in front of an audience, what impressions do you send out? How do you engage with people? How do you want to be perceived? When an author projects a particular personality, way of thinking, manner of speech and thought process, it attracts (or repels) a certain group of people. All this has to be done with sincerity and honesty. After all, you are your book. If people like you, you have a better chance of getting your book sold.
Another dimension of your platform quality is your beliefs and advocacies. In one writer's forum, an American novelist was asking for suggestions on how he can market his "clean" young adult books. He believed that teens should be reading more books that don't highlight sex and violence. So I suggested that he tie-up with a local library and create a weekend family reading event where parents and kids can bond over books. He would have his novels displayed, and he can talk about his advocacy.
Singapore's Otto Fong is a great example of how comics can be used to push an advocacy and gain a huge following. By profession, Fong was an elementary school science teacher, but now he makes cute and entertaining science comics that help kids learn normally challenging topics. He says, "I don't say no to every invitation I get to talk about my work." His success has generated competition--other publishers eventually began to produce their own science comics.
Scope of Platform: Choose The Right Channels
As mentioned above, the Quality of your platform can define the Scope of your platform. There are many ways to promote yourself, online and offline. Blogs, press releases, talks and seminars, social media, events, tie-ups, etc. But the key is finding the proper channels that can easily reach the audience you want. In the same writing forum, an aspiring writer had finished his autobiographical inspirational book. From his online sales page, he hinted at how he had a rough childhood, grew up in poverty, spent a few years in a home for delinquent kids, and eventually set forth to change in his life. I told him that his story would make for a great springboard to get interviews on local media. He had an advocacy, and he just needed to find the right people and media through which he can share his story. An example in the Philippines would be Private Iris by Jamie Bautista and Arnold Arre. Private Iris is a comic book for kids, and one of the publisher's activities is visiting schools and talking to students. Not just about comics, but also about saving money, which is part of the comics' advocacy.
Getting Work and Platform, Quality and Scope right will take time. In some cases, mediocre Work Quality still generates a lot of sales because of wide Work Scope and Platform Scope. In other cases, fantastic Work Quality doesn't lead to sales because the author's Platform Quality is faulty (bragging, name-dropping, feeling superior) or the Platform Scope is near absent (doesn't attend events, no social media presence). So there is still some luck and serendipity involved, but it's always prudent to fill up the bases in the best way possible.
Where there's smoke, there's fire. Over the past decade or so, many comic conventions have been organized around the country, attracting thousands of comics fans and featuring prominent creators and artists. These events have been covered in tri-media and seem to be helping the industry elevate itself in the public consciousness.
The question is, has the industry elevated itself high enough? There may be fire, but is the fire big enough for people to take notice?
We could use the analogy of a burning house. If there's one burning house, the people surrounding that house would be alarmed, but that's as far as it would go. If people a neighborhood away see the news about it on television, they may may feel a bit of concern, but the incident eventually becomes inconsequential.
If that fire engulfs an entire community--or a city--alarm would spread over a wider region. Apart from that, the news would report damage estimates, death tolls and bring up issues about safety regulations and disaster management. More people would be talking about it, and the key people involved might find themselves on either sides of praise or criticism. More people would take action.
At this point in comics history, is the industry creating a small fire, or a big fire?
To me, no matter how many comics conventions there are in any given year, these are small fires, attracting the attention and excitement among fans and creators (and, perhaps, curious onlookers). Small, because relative to the size of the population, fans and creators only make up a small percentage. A contained environment, with little to no impact to the majority. This is not to say that comics conventions are useless. Far from it. But to build the fire and get more people excited and involved, the comics industry needs to go outside its comfort zone and begin to engage with people who by default don't see comics as part of their lifestyle.
The situation is akin to the state of Philippine film, music and theatre. Ask many artists, and you'll see a common theme, the struggle to get public support and patronage. For many years, the appeal to the public has been "Support Philippine (blank)." But we know now that the public won't support something that is irrelevant to them. If what we see on movie screens and the theatre stage or hear over the radio doesn't hit us the right way, then we can't and won't offer support. We'll only do so if we have the extra cash and if we're open to taking a risk.
So it's not so much about the medium, but the content. We just can't say "Support Philippine comics," because we need to give a good reason. "It's made by Filipinos" just doesn't cut it anymore.
To create great content, stories need to affect people in meaningful ways, using one or more of the basic themes that govern our lives--love, friendship, survival, self-esteem, and so forth. On top of those themes is a novel concept or an intriguing plot that taps into personal, interpersonal, and socio-cultural realms, strung together in a solid structure, all made real by entertaining writing and accessible art. The kind of material that publishers can't wait to release and distribute all over. The kind of material that industry journalists can't help but review. The kind of material that earns a spot in a university professor's course syllabus. The kind of material that'll still be selling ten years down the line. The kind of material that makes people say to others, "Have you read this? You should!"
It's not easy, and it can't be achieved by one or two people. This is a concerted effort that should involve many comics creators. Given the reality that many projects won't succeed as hoped, a huge number of comics have to be produced to realize a potent batting average. One or two major successes a year is too small.
If in a given year, more comics that satisfy the above are released, the fire burns brighter and hotter. When that fire is sustained and fed, audiences grow and sales pick up. Comics conventions would then need bigger venues, comics merchandise would become more mainstream choices, comics education becomes more popular, a career in comics becomes more viable, and comics become part of public life. That's what we want for comics. The question is, how many of us are ready to take the challenge?