Creators: Let Me Tell You Something You Already Know (Florida Supercon Presentation)

My name is B.J. Mendelson, and I am the author of the cult-classic, Social Media Is Bullshit. If I tell you about all the other cool stuff I’ve done, we’ll be here all night. All you really need to know about me is that I once applied to be the captain of a steamboat.

So what brings me to Florida Supercon? Well, Fantasy Super Cosplay Wrestling, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Convinced Diamante, one of my favorite wrestlers, to dress up like Mileena from Mortal Kombat, and that’s something I really wanted to see in person.

Beautiful women, professional wrestling, AND Cosplay? Take my money.

But more importantly, I have a plan for the next ten years of my life. I hope I can encourage you to do the same. You should plan your decades. Five years goes by fast, and anything more than a decade feels like a lifetime. So ten seems like a safe bet.

My plan involves working my way from the bottom of the comic book industry to the top. From writing the indie books I’m publishing now and ending with me having a solid run writing She-Hulk for Marvel.

It’s this goal that brings me here to you. What I’ve learned over the past twenty years may be useful in helping you sell your comics and climb that ladder as well.

I don’t get into politics in this presentation, but I think it’s important for you to know why people do what they do. You know my goal, but you don’t know the why. And as you’ll hear, the why matters.

For me, the why is simple. I believe it’s a man’s responsibility to take care of those around them, to defend those in need, and to make sure everyone is given an equal opportunity to create and to be heard. That’s why I do what I do.

I’m not here to sell you anything. If you want an electronic copy of my books or comics, I’ll give them to you for free. Just text the number on my website at BJMendelson.com

I’m also not a consultant, and I don’t charge for my presentations. I’m here on my own dime. To borrow from a reporter in Philadelphia, who was laid off from their newspaper job and started covering the local news on their own, “I’m from the Internet, and I’m here to help.”

So, let’s talk about you …

In life, there’s 50% of things you can control, and 50% you can’t. Whether you want to call that 50% you can’t control luck or fate, it doesn’t matter. What matters is we have to acknowledge this randomness when it comes to making our plans.

Someone in this room, could get ridiculously lucky, do little of what I’m going to suggest, and still be the next Gail Simone. Someone in this room could also just as easily get killed by one of the vending machines in this convention center. That’s just life.

For that reason, you should only focus on the stuff you can control, and the first thing you can control is showing up. 90% of being successful in anything, let alone marketing, is showing up and outlasting your competition.

If you want a great example, look at the trail of dead comic book podcasts out there. Most don’t make it past a year, let alone three months. The podcasts you know and listen to? They’ve probably been around for a long time.

You have to show up. Every day. Even when you’re broke. Even when you think you’re never going to have any success. Even when you think you don’t have the time to do so. You have to show up and put in the work.

And everyone hits a lull. Everyone. So don’t be discouraged when it happens to you, because it will. You just have to find a way to survive and keep at it.

And speaking of survival, never quit your day job to pursue your dream. Telling everyone to drop what they’re doing and pursue their dream is lousy advice. Better advice would be to emulate Harvey Pekar, the creator of the “American Splendor” comic book series. Pekar kept his job as a file clerk even after he got famous.

There are a lot of reasons keeping your day job is a good idea, but I’ll give you the most relevant for this presentation: Use your day job to fund your work and take care of yourself. Until we have Medicare for all and universal basic income, you have to survive to keep showing up, right?

Someday, the beginning of the 15 hour work week and the end of BS jobs will arrive, but that day is not today and we have to act accordingly.

You also have to get comfortable with promoting yourself.

When you want a job, you market yourself to your future employers. When you’re out on a date, you’re marketing yourself to a future partner. Everything we do is marketing. So don’t get hung up on this or use it as an excuse not to promote your stuff.

Marketing yourself and your work is important. As important as creating the work. You have to put the same amount of effort into marketing yourself and your work as you do creating it. Marketing a product is not something you do in a day or a week. It’s something you do over the course of years. Maybe even a decade.

And you can’t hire someone to do the marketing for you. Not at first anyway. Especially given how expensive it is to make comics. Everything you can do yourself, you should. There are a lot of great professionals out there who will help you sell your stuff, but you go to them last, not first.

The same is true for advertising. You do that last, not first, and only if your project has some momentum behind it.

There’s no secret to successfully promote something beyond what I’m going to tell you. You’re not going to find a golden ticket in some random marketing book or on YouTube. Unless the person you hire can get you on Seth Meyers tomorrow, there’s little they can do that you can’t do yourself.

The trick is to just not be an ass when you push your stuff to journalists, influencers, and other parties. You’ve heard this all before, but it’s worth repeating because enough people still make these mistakes: Don’t spam people. Don’t be a dick if you pitch something and get rejected. Be polite. Say thank you, even if the person replying to you is rude. And keep your communications brief and clear as to what you want and why you’re writing.

And DO NOT follow-up. If people are interested in working with you, whether they be influencers, reporters, or industry professionals, they will get back to you.

One last point about you … All because you have a day job doesn’t make you any less of a creator. You’re a comic creator the moment you say that you are.

This might sound silly, and I’m not telling anyone to run around and pretend they’re now astronauts, but how you think of yourself guides everything that you do. That means if you’re going to go down this long road, you have to have a clear idea of who you are, what you want, and why you’re doing it.

As the author Simon Sinek points out, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. That’s why the why matters so much.

I’ll tell you something else you might have heard before: No one is truly an expert at anything. We’re all faking it in some way. That’s why we get obsessed with metrics when it comes to marketing. Marketing and advertising, as industries, is something we made up back when we were still selling actual snake oil to people.

So for almost two hundred years now, marketing and advertising have been driven entirely by guesswork. In response to that, we try to quantify everything. But doing so is pointless beyond giving people with MBAs something to do. So I want you to know, the only metric you should measure is how many copies of your comic you sell. That’s it. The rest is garbage.

This includes social media followers, likes, retweets, shares, views, impressions, message resonance, brand lift, click-through-rate, conversion rate, visitors, virial coefficients and customer lifetime value.

And just a quick word about the different social media platforms, both present and future. I don’t talk about them too much because if you don’t know how to use any of the specific platforms out there, google it. I tell the college students I speak with all the time that “I don’t know” isn’t an acceptable answer anymore. The same is true for the rest of us.

Twitter is great for reaching out to journalists. This isn’t anything new, it’s been true since 2008.

I promise that you can be an expert on any digital platform that’s out there in less than two days. There’s no secret or trick to any of them. You just have to do the research.

Now, in addition to social media, there are 18 other channels you can use to promote your product. I don’t have enough time to cover all of them. So we’re going to focus on word of mouth marketing. If you’re listening carefully though, I will tell you everything you need to know about public relations, branding, and working with influencers.

Ok. I’ll tell you one more thing about reaching out to journalists and media outlets since it’s important later on when we talk about launch dates: Find the smallest outlets and go to them first. It should be easy to get some coverage, it’ll be good practice for you to work out your talking points for the comic, and you never know who’s reading or listening.

So don’t get hung up on how small a particular outlet is when you contact them, or how many followers they have. Remember, those numbers are meaningless.

Let me give you an example: Just recently I did an interview for a small radio station in Vermont for my book on privacy. That interview got picked up by a website that covers privacy and Internet security. That post then got picked up by Boing Boing. So, you start small for all those reasons.

Since you’re already at this conference, I don’t have to stress how important going to these events are. Go to as many of these cons as you can, because as you’ll hear, the connections you make at them matter.

We put a lot of emphasis on the online stuff because it’s quick and easy, but the truth is, the offline stuff will always matter more. So when in doubt, put in the work offline.

Now, let’s talk about your product …

I’m going to give you two quick exercises to do at home. The first is something Amazon and the ad agency CP+ B does and it’s very simple. Before you do anything, write a press release promoting the thing you want to create.

Writing a press release isn’t hard. You can grab a template online. The point of this exercise isn’t about how well you can format a press release. The point is to sell yourself and your friends on your comic. Because if you can’t do that, then nothing else I’m going to tell you is going to matter.

In fact, if you can’t write a press release that gets people excited about your stuff, drop everything you’re doing and focus on this until you do. Don’t move on to the next step.

Here’s the other exercise, both of these, by the way, was suggested by the author Ryan Holiday: In the third person, write a sentence, a paragraph, and one page explaining what your comic is, who it’s for, and how people should feel after reading it.

That last part sounds silly, but it’s important. If you can’t provoke an emotional response in your readers, they’re not going to care enough to tell others about it. ”Good” isn’t good enough.

Nobody talks about good products, they talk about great products. Think about the difference between The Infinity Gauntlet, which just served as the basis for a multibillion-dollar movie, and The Infinity Crusade. One of those comics is a classic. The other is best left in the ‘90s.

After you’ve completed those exercises, you can move on to the next step. And that step is studying your genre and industry obsessively. I name dropped Harvey Pekar. That’s someone you should know. Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Flo Steinberg, and Jackie Ormes are also all people you should also know.

Knowing your industry inside and out gives you an edge both in creating your work and marketing it. You will know what works, what doesn’t, and what came before you that you can build on top of. If there’s a comic book out there like the one you want to do, you should know absolutely everything about that book and what the publisher did to promote it.

And if you have any questions? Ask! The comics industry is not very big, and everyone is pretty friendly. Just contact the creative team or the PR people at the publisher and ask them how they promoted that particular book.

When it comes to your comics’ genre, you must know what rules to break and what not to. Whether we like it or not as creatives, people will put your product in a box, so you have to fit inside that box for them to accept your comic. If your product is too different, they won’t understand what you’re doing, and won’t give you their time.

Everyone is busy. You are fighting against other comics, video games, and fantasy cosplay wrestling to get people’s attention. So the trick is to limit the number of mental hoops people need to jump through to understand what you’re doing.

Some people see getting put into that box as restricting their creativity, but I disagree. I think restriction breeds creativity, and that by truly mastering your genre, you’ll find new places to go with it. Don’t take my word for it. Just ask Wonder Woman. After almost eighty years, we’re still coming up with great, compelling Wonder Woman stories to tell.

If you don’t know where to start, find mirror products. A comic just like the one you want to put out, for example, is a mirror product. This is also true for getting started with the marketing of your book. Find mirror products, and research who is reading them, who is talking about them, and how those readers are sharing that book.

This should sound obvious, but … don’t produce garbage, you know? Like if you think your product sucks, don’t release it. Far too often people pump out content just for the sake of it.

Whatever you choose to put out in this world, it has to be great, and you shouldn’t be in any rush. If you think you’re going to get rich doing this, you’re wrong. That’s why you keep your day job.

So instead take your time, put your best possible effort into the product, and then release it when it’s ready. If you don’t, all the marketing in the world isn’t going to help you.

It took John Grisham three years, writing a page a day, to complete the first draft for A Time To Kill. A book, and later a movie, which gave us the best Samuel L Jackson line ever, “Yes they deserve to die, and I hope they burn in hell.”

The better your comic is, the easier it’ll be to market. The worse it is, well … the harder.

In order to know if your comic is ready, there are three steps you can take. My literary agent drives me crazy with this whenever I pitch him a book. He’ll say to me, “Is it a book? Or is it an article?” The real question being, do you have just a good idea, or something you can run with for a long time.

Wonder Woman has been around for as long as she has because of the richness of the world she inhabits. Can you say the same for your comic?

So, in the same way, that a book should be an article before its a book, and a dinner conversation before it’s an article, a comic should be a free 8-page preview, before it’s a 22-page issue that you sell.

And that 8-page preview should be some character sketches and a nice outline before it’s an 8-page sample.

As you work through these different stages, you’ll solicit feedback from as many people as you can. The myth that you’re going to lock yourself away and come out with a classic on your own is crap. Don’t do that.

J.R.R. Tolkien had a writer’s group called the Inklings to share his ideas with, which among them counted C.S. Lewis as a member. Without The Inklings, we wouldn’t have The Lord of the Rings. We’d have The New Hobbit. A book he gave up writing three chapters into it.

Going through each of these phases in a public manner allows you to tweak, test, and improve your product to your desired audience. There’s also an added benefit of generating interest and enthusiasm in the final version, once it’s ready for release.

(This, by the way, is one of the keys to success with Kickstarter. You get people excited and invested in the project BEFORE you launch your Kickstarter campaign. Working in public will allow you to do this.)

And if you’re worried about someone stealing your ideas, stop it. This is the comics industry. Everything is a ripoff of everything else. If we didn’t have The Phantom, we wouldn’t have Batman. If we didn’t have Deathstroke, we wouldn’t have Deadpool. If we didn’t have Metron, we wouldn’t have Thanos.

Can someone rip your ideas off? Sure. But you know what the difference is between your stuff and their cheap knockoff? You’ve dedicated the time, effort, and energy into mastering your genre and voice. Nobody on this planet can do what you do.

Working out your comic in public also allows you to answer an important question that most people don’t bother to answer until it’s too late: Who is your audience?

I once got into a screaming fight with the former president of a television network because he didn’t feel like answering that question. Don’t be that guy. You must have a specific answer to this question. “Everyone” is not an answer.” Neither is “people who read comic books.”

Think about this like how Netflix recommends movies. People who like the Fantastic Four may also like The Terrifics. People who like No Mercy may also like The Fix. People who like Ms. Marvel may like Squirrel Girl. Very specific genres, and very specific comics within those genres have a very specific audience.

If you need help with this, look among your friends, family, co-workers, and anyone else you may interact with and talk to them. (Which is yet another reason to keep your day job.)

As Professor Steve Blank said, “Get out of the building and talk to people.” That’s the only way to start this process and better know who your audience is, what your audience wants, and how to give it to them.

The secret to marketing, if there really is one, is to study your audience. If you do that, they’ll show you everything you need to know. They’ll show you the channels, media outlets, and people that you must work with to reach them. This isn’t rocket science, it just takes a lot more time, energy, and thought then we think it does.

To truly understand your audience, you have to put yourself in their shoes. After the initial creation phase, the product is no longer about what you want. It’s about what the audience wants.

If the audience doesn’t like it or doesn’t get it, they’re not going to tell other people about it. Stephen King doesn’t ask himself what he thinks about his stories.

He asks about what his wife would think because to King, his wife Tabitha is his target audience. He doesn’t write for himself, he writes for her. She’s the audience.

I can’t stress enough how important word of mouth marketing is. Especially in an industry like comics where you have a weekly event, New Comic Book Day, a place for customers to gather (your local store), conventions you can plan around, and all our own media outlets like CBR, Bleeding Cool, and Newsarama. We’re spoiled, not every product and industry has these opportunities. And all of which are key elements needed for word of mouth to spread.

So, how do we spread the word?

There are a lot of dumb formulas and numbers people like to throw around when it comes to word of mouth, which got dressed up for a while as “viral marketing” before some dumbass rebranded it as “growth hacking.”

Unlike those terms, word of mouth has been, and always will be, with us forever. That’s because humans are herd animals. We’re hardwired to observe what other humans are doing and follow along. How we transmit those instructions, how we survive as a species is through word of mouth.

So here’s the only number one you need to know: 10,000. Your marketing job is to reach 10,000 readers. If you look at Comichron.com, you’ll see 10,000 readers will put you in the top two hundred comic books sold in June of 2018. That’s not bad.

Some of you might have heard 1,000 fans is the number to reach, but that’s only if those one thousand fans are wealthy. When it comes to something like comics, where your competition is everything and everywhere, not to mention, there’s a whole lot of attrition that goes down between each issue, 1,000 True Fans is just not going to cut it. 10,000 will.

Especially if you figure the average comic, at minimum, costs three thousand dollars to put out, and I suggest that you sell you your comics for as little as possible. All of my books sell for a $1 on Comixology.

A dollar may not sound like a lot of money to you, but you have to remember the comic book industry was at its peak when comics were cheap and plentiful. A dime in the 1940s, which was what most comics went for, is equivalent to $1.75 in 2017. Not $2.99. Not $4.99. And definitely not $7, which was what the most recent first issue of Thor sold for

Comic buyers, as well as the rest of us here in America, are on a budget. If your book is priced equivalent to a book from Image with a known creative team, you’re going to lose almost every time when a customer has to decide between your book and their book. Pricing is marketing.

Cheap doesn’t have to mean “cheap.” If you put your book out for $1, that doesn’t speak to its quality. It’s a fallacy and trick of the advertising industry to make people think otherwise. The coffee at the deli across the street from Starbucks is just as good and costs way less.

10,000 fans may sound like a lot, but the good news is that it gets easier with the more fans you get.

It’s getting the first thousand that’s the hardest part. But once you have them? That first thousand can help you reach that other 9,000 in time.

Remember that people will only share great things, not good things, and they’ll do this not to help you, but because by sharing that great thing, they’re making themselves look good in the process. That’s how things spread because we all want to look good.

The cover, the price, and the packaging of your comic matter a lot, and all that stuff is marketing. You want a great cover, not a good one. You want your price as low as possible. Low enough to lessen the number of hoops people need to jump through to commit to your product over another.

You can always make your money later, and remember, if you still have that day job, you shouldn’t be thinking about making money at this point anyway. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Now, I know networking has been absolutely destroyed as a useful term, but when it comes to word of mouth, your network matters the most because those people are going to be your advocates.

And since humans are herd animals and no one ever wants to be first to try a new thing, you need those early advocates out there banging the drum for you.

And don’t tell me you don’t know anyone. You’re sitting in a room right now filled with fellow comics book creators, hot professional wrestlers, and other awesome people. If you truly don’t know anyone, take a moment to introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you. There. Now you know someone. Now do that again and again before you leave the con for the weekend.

You have to make your network large and diverse. This is something else people tend to mess up. They’ll tell you, “I have a network, I have 12,017 connections on LinkedIn!” Well, no , you don’t have a network. You just have a list of shallow connections on a platform with one of the lowest known rates of activity, once you get past people accepting their connection requests.

You generate a network, a real one, by connecting people with other people. If you introduce cool people to other cool people that they can work or play with, they’ll remember who made that connection.

I know, this is being a human 101, but it’s still not something we do well. That’s why “Make yourself indispensable” sounds like really obvious advice, and yet too few people actually do it at their job, with their friends, and with their network.

Ok, so let’s say you’re doing all this. What next? Now you get organized.

You know what the craziest thing I heard once while working for a multimillion-dollar operation? “You bitch, I’m going to rip your face off.”

You know what the second craziest thing was? When the CMO was asked for their quarter four marketing plan, the CMO pointed to their head and said, “It’s up here.” That is bananas. Don’t do that.

Instead, put everything you have, ad budget, relationships, press contacts, notes from similar comic launches, resources you have to work with, people who owe you favors, everything you can possibly use to promote your comic, and get it together in one place, preferably a spreadsheet.

For one, doing this will make your reach out operations much smoother since you can track who you contacted and when, but it’ll also help you visualize things and make connections between those resources that you might not have otherwise.

And don’t just use your stuff, ask your friends, your family, your weed dealer who is also your cable guy, all of them. Ask them if they know anyone, have anything, or might think of something that can help you. You are not doing this alone. ASK FOR HELP.

If, after you get everything together and you think it’s not enough, don’t launch your book.

Instead, keep working on building up this spreadsheet. Your first 100 customers should be friends, family, and other people that you know. The next 900 or so should be people you can reasonably access through your friends, family, and connections. There’s your first 1000! It’s not as hard as it sounds. It just takes a lot of time.

So what do you do after that? There are two things that are really important.

The first is to set a launch date. In the comic industry, new comics come out on Wednesday. So pick your Wednesday. Don’t get cute and pick a Tuesday or a Sunday. Pick a Wednesday. That’s when new comics come out.

BUT before you do, make sure you give yourself enough time to get everything together that we’ve talked about. Usually, you should have at least three months of prep time before whatever your on-sale date is.

Launch dates, especially with comics, are important. Fans are going to expect your book to ship at a specific cadence, and the launch is preparing them for that.
You’re changing people’s habits, and that’s not easy to do. That’s why one huge launch at the start is so effective. People want to do what other people are doing, so if they see your comic everywhere, or hear other people talking about it, they’re going to check it out.

Remember: No one wants to be first, but they’ll follow what their friends are doing.

I’ll also let you in on a little secret from the scummy world of tech: You don’t launch until you have everything ready, right? So if you launch, and nothing happens? There’s no reason why you can’t launch again. There’s no rule saying that if you launch, and fail, that you have to quit. You launch, and then you launch again if you need to.

And then after that, if all goes well, you launch the next issue. Never forget that the best marketing for your comic is releasing that next issue, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Here’s the second most important thing you can do: Get emails. The reason why I don’t talk much about social media is because if you do all this right, your fans will do the promotion for you on those channels.

The other reason is that for word of mouth to spread, you need as close to a 1:1 relationship with your customers as possible. That means you can’t count on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, or any of them to reliably show your message to your audience.

That’s now how their algorithms work. They don’t care about you. They only care about keeping people on their platform. We’re giving our audiences to social media companies because we’re idiots. Because it can allegedly be measured. Don’t make that mistake.

And those algorithms change every day. So I encourage you not to play that game. Email has been around longer than most of us have been alive, and it’s not going anywhere, so use it. Build your list every chance you get and use it as your primary way of communicating with your fans.

One last thing: As much as you can do to make each reader feel important, you should do. Surprise them with handwritten thank you notes. Buy them candy. Send them t-shirts. We live in a world of giant corporations run by douchebags and their techie criminal friends who believe people don’t scale. That we’re all interchangeable parts that can be disposed of when we no longer suit their purposes.

They’re wrong. Every reader matters. Write that down somewhere you won’t forget: Every reader. Every fan. They all matter. Anything you can do to remind them of that will go a long way to securing a fanbase for life.

And if you do everything I’ve laid out for you, you’re going to be just fine when it comes to the marketing stuff. More than fine. I mean, unless a vending machine falls on top of you, but if that happens, you got bigger problems.