I've grown to hate this sentence.
I believe it's totally the wrong approach, and on top of that, it's damn smug.
Yes, it's true, a lot of great comics don't sell very well. It's equally true that a lot of not very great comics sell very well indeed. If you look at the 'buzz' on the net, it's darn near an axiom that the comics the internet claims to adore are at the bottom of the Top 100 charts, if they appear on that chart at all.
Almost every writer, even the elite of the elite, has had a personal project, a book they really believed in, tank hugely. These may be mere blips in their career, but they're significant blips. What they say is, no one is failure-proof, in commercial terms. And make no mistake, some of these ARE great books, worthy of much higher sales.
So when a good book tanks, it's inevitable that a well-intentioned pro (or reader) will say, in exasperation, "Why aren't you buying this book?"
Some will shout it, some will whisper, some will write in in blood from their own scalp in letters ten feet high. And I wince a little, every time I see it.
First, I've usually been a manager or business owner. I've had employees, and my thinking was always if they screwed up, ultimately, it was my fault. Either they weren't trained properly, or they weren't overseen with enough zeal, or they were improperly motivated, or they shouldn't have been hired in the first place. They may have gotten a talking to, but I got the blame, and deservedly so. Now why, in a sales environment, would a mistake that ultimately was MY fault, be blamed on the customer?
The answer is, it shouldn't. If we didn't sell, if we didn't close a deal, it's easy to blame the customer, but it's also usually wrong. And it's counter-productive in every way that counts.
Comics readers are a dream prospect, to keep the sales analogy going. They're educated in the product, and they're motivated to purchase. Usually, their desire to buy outstrips their available funds, in fact, and that, my friends, is a great position for a seller (be he or she a retailer, creator, or publisher) to be in. In fact, with the repeated customer (impulse buyers are quite a different issue and not as relevant to this conversation), the interest level is high enough that the main problems are;
1) Competition from other books the customer might like just as much or more, and
2) Enough suitable, profitable venues to supply that customer.
(Insufficient numbers of readers will be discussed in a bit).
I don't like to think of what I do as a business. I don't obsess over numbers sold, or chart positions, and most pros I know feel the same way. They're writing to tell stories. They draw because they love it.
But it is a business, both in real terms (we need publishers and retailers and distributors and all that comes with that just to keep the stories on the shelves) but also in the more abstract way we relate to the readers, the way the stories go from our brains to those of our audience. We want our work seen, and usually, by as many people as possible.
But if we make a book that isn't appealing enough to be picked up off the shelves...is that really the customer's fault? Is it right to imply that a book's failing is solely because of the readers?
To me, it goes back to that thing, that it's wrong to blame the customer if they don't want your product. This is true both of individual creators and even large publishers, and trying to guilt a reader into buying a book is a bad move because;
1) It rarely works, and
2) It's chicken.
Let's look at number one, first. How many books have had their sales improved by this tactic? Manhunter is one of the PAINFULLY small number of books that have gotten a repreive by word of mouth, Spider-Girl is another. In both cases, however, the grass roots campaigns to save the book were almost uniformly positive. They stressed that readers would ENJOY the books, rather than said, "Why aren't you reading this book? Are you an asshole of some kind? Is your taste so terrible that you can't be reading this book I love?"
You show me an attempt to gain new readers that takes the above tone, and I'll show you a failed attempt to gain new readers.
Time and again, I see well-meaning pros ask this question, unselfishly, with the best of intent, about books they love. And time and again I see a vaguely annoyed and insulted audience clicking off the 'I'll never buy THIS book' on their mental pull charts.
Hmm. 'Mental pull charts.' That is a gross phrase, somehow.
The second bit is more difficult. It's chicken to blame the readers. Readers support books they love. Something in YOUR book didn't hit them hard enough to make them pick it up, or once they read it, to KEEP reading it. Maybe your book is exactly what you meant it to be and changing it would destroy it. Maybe you don't care if it sells even a single copy. There's nothing at all to be ashamed of in either case...in fact, I applaud you. Commercial concerns shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of any artistic endeavor, obviously, and all of us have projects we'd do whether or not anyone bought it once it hit the stands. And not every book is a Wolverine/Spider-man/Batman/Vampirella crossover book, thank God. Some are quiet little books about mouse guards and torso killers and Seattle slackers, beautiful and perfect, and with devoted followings, and critical acclaim and probably great groupies, too.
But when you do the less commercial book, you know the deal you're making. It may be huge, it may outgrow comics and be a huge mainstream hit. But it's just as likely that the audience will be a small subset of the already not-huge comics audience. And you did it anyway because it was important, the art had value, the story had personal meaning. And you knew it was probably not going to sell Spider-man numbers, and you were fine with it.
So a book you put your heart into doesn't sell. For me, it was probably Rose And Thorn, a book I was dearly proud of, with a great deal of personal meaning. Adam Hughes covers, great interior art by Adriana Melo...we did our very best on it, but everyone knew it was likely not going to do JLA numbers. But we all believed in it and I think we all felt it was a special comic.
When it didn't sell through the roof, there were quite a few well-meaning readers (and a few pros as well) saying the PHRASE. While I appreciate the effort, I think it has the opposite effect...it turns people off. No one's in this hobby for guilt. They're here because they love the format, love the characters, love the stories. It doesn't make me feel better, nor did it raise sales a whit, to finger wag and blame the people who passed the book by.
And ultimately, we who worked on Rose and Thorn WANTED to do a more personal project. I'm still delighted with the results, and the fact that it wasn't top ten (or top fifty) doesn't detract from that in the slightest.
If you love a book and it could use more readers, I suggest you consider telling people why it's great, what it is you love about it. Imagine someone suggesting you try a new restaurant by saying, "This restaurant is going under...why aren't you eating there?" It's just not appealing. It may feel good momentarily to say, but ultimately, it just bugs the hell out of me to blame the readers when they WANT to support comics. It's we who, somewhere between our computer and the comic shop, didn't give them something they felt intrigued, compelled, or horny enough to buy. Can't blame marketing, can't blame the weather, can't blame video games, because none of those things stopped a thousand other books from selling like crazy. I know some pros who are seemingly above such petty things as even the simplest of marketing, even the most basic methods of getting the word out, AND YET still manage to blame readers for their books not selling. Not everyone is good at (or cares about) message boards and interviews and the like as others. I myself often feel very uncomfortable talking about my own work. But if you can't do any of that, and your book fails to capture much interest, how ridiculous is it to blame the reader? It's like trying to sell a car by posting a FOR SALE sign at the bottom of a deep lake.
So again, if you care about a book, whether it's your own or someone else's, instead of trying to blame the last person genuinely responsible (the reader), why not extoll that books virtues? The internet is fantastic for putting words in front of eyes. If you're going to bother writing the "WHY AREN'T YOU BUYING CRAPMAN?" line, consider instead saying something that moved you about the story or the characters or the art. That's what, I believe, got Manhunter a well-deserved reprieve...it's what kept Spider-Girl going against all odds.
That said, WHY AREN'T YOU PEOPLE BUYING BIRDS OF PREY?
Oh, and buying a book in trade is TOO supporting a book. Sorry, had to say that out loud.
That's it, sorry for rambling.