Bloodstains On The Looking Glass

A ribald old-timey revue, featuring the Scots Flying Monkey Battalion and Shakey Pervy Pete, the Inelegant Dinner Guest.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


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 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 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 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's what kept Spider-Girl going against all odds.


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.



  • At 5:05 AM, Blogger Elayne said…

    Is there going to be a Birds of Prey trade of the current stuff?

    The thing of it is, as you know, with comics it's complicated because the readers aren't really the publishers' customers. The retailers are. And the reasons why retailers don't buy/order books in a sufficient quantity to constitute good sales are many and varied. I personally think the fact that comics aren't returnable tops that list of reasons. And of course if they're not all over shelves readers can't buy them.

  • At 1:21 PM, Blogger Bill D. said…

    Oh, and buying a book in trade is TOO supporting a book. Sorry, had to say that out loud.

    First of all, I just wanted to say how nice it is to actually hear a creator say that (or see a creator type that, as the case may be). So thanks for that.

    This reminds me of something my wife and I recently saw on the Arrested Development season 2 DVDs. On the blooper reel, there's a scene with David Cross and Jeffrey Tambor where Cross, in costume as Tobias-as-Mrs. Featherbottom, breaks character and goes off on a rant about all the accolades the show has earned and how the network places the blame for lack of the show's commercial success on the show itself, instead of the marketing people, which is where he (rightly) feels it actually belongs. And I think that applies here, too... there are all the books that people campaign so tirelessly to save, and the companies seem to do so little to support those efforts (or the books themselves) at all. That always struck me as very odd.

  • At 1:22 PM, Blogger Gail Simone said…

    Right, but when I hear the question, "WHY AREN'T YOU BUYING THIS BOOK?" it's usually aimed at the end-user, to continue a crass line of jargon.

    Retailers not ordering books is a similar but still varied proposition.

    And yeah, I was kidding about Bop, it's very very stable and does well in trades.



  • At 8:16 PM, Blogger lou said…

    I am not buying Birds of Prey because YOU STINK.

    - Lou

    P.S. I actually buy Birds of Prey. And I still want to see you on (Ultimate) Spider-Man. Bitches at Marvel need to make that happen!

  • At 8:30 PM, Blogger Barry said…

    When I reviewed at PBR (and Rose & Thorn was a book I got an Advanced B&W of), I guess I used this phrase.

    "Best Comicbook You Are Not Reading"

    I stole this from TV Guide. This is what they dubbed Homicide: Life on the Street. The Best TV Show You Are not Watching.

    I agree with what you say, but the comment about shelf space and retailors is correct. I had to move Heaven and Earth to buy the DC run of Fallen Angel.

    BoP is great, even if Canary is headed to JLA.

  • At 5:24 PM, Blogger Matt Goldey said…

    But... but... but... I *AM* buying Birds of Prey! I just started buying it two issues ago (because of Barbara's plan to memorialize Ted) and now I'm absolutely hooked. It's on my pull list now at Zeus and I'll be buying the back-issues in trade paperback just as soon as they get some more copies in! :D

    PS - I picked up a copy of Killer Princesses this week. I'm about 2/3 through it and I love it. :D

  • At 5:08 AM, Blogger Gail Simone said…


    Any Zeus customer is already a genius, in my book. Thanks for the kind words!


  • At 9:02 AM, Blogger Ian said…

    A good post, Gail. I'm glad you were able to articulate how the sentiments to keep a book alive often become a fan's chance to vent his/her personal frustrations, a total turn off for everyone else. It's something I've thought about but never able to put my finger on. And thank you for the trades comment, too. If you want to do a mighty post on that subject please do, I think we would all like reading it.

    I enjoyed Rose and Thorn a great deal (I read it recently, buying all the issues at a friend's garage sale). I remember Grant Morrison praising the book which is certainly enough to get my attention. I love stories that feature plenty of psychopathology. It's certainly what a tale of two very different women in one body calls for. I would love to see your version of the character brought back for another mini-series. Alas, From what you write of the book's performance in terms of sales that doesn't seem likely. Oh well, that's how the world works I suppose.

  • At 12:31 PM, Blogger Ron said…

    I am not a regular reader of BOP. I picked it up after seeing your writing in Villians and JSA Classified. I love Secret Six.
    I would make it a regular but lets face it, Dan at DC is oversaturing the market. Between '52' and all the crossovers and all the other stuff - we ask why does that have to come out now while I am buying too much as it is.
    With gas prices and everything else going up- $3 buck (plus) a book is too much for a guy with 3 kid and the sole income in home. (I have to put two in collage soon)
    I have already dropped Outsiders and Checkmate last month.
    I will be buy the trades of BOP.

  • At 12:40 PM, Blogger Unknown said…


    I had to say that as I recently had to give up buying comics in order to be able to have a vehicle. I was on average spending about $100 a month on comics and that's with a 20% discount from my local retailer. Since my old truck died and I had to get a newer one a monthly payment was in order and comics are the first in line to be chopped. While I don't advocate stealing online comics, it sure would be nice to have some sort of place to go and get my monthly comics online. Maybe some sort of limited time limit on an issue or something, I don't know. I just know I'm jonesing for comics already and it's only been a week.

  • At 7:23 PM, Blogger Markus said…

    I seems to me that your problem is not with the PHRASE. Your problem seems to be with using guilt as a marekting tool. We agree it's a poor one.
    Meanwhile, the PHRASE is also used (a) as a cry of despair over the poor taste of publishers, retailers and fans. No marekting intended. (b) in a jocular way to market the book. Granted, this is the area where most may (seem) to cross over into actually trying to guilt people into buying a book. In my experience many of these uses of the phrase are however - perhaps somewhat clumsy - attempts at humor. For instance, the advertsing technique of tying a product to sex or success or something you want to be/identify with is known well enough that people frequently subvert it by jokingly questioning the [presence of positive quality Y] in the person not consuming product Z.

    In short, I know there are many uses of the PHRASE to whom your criticism does not apply and I believe the number of uses to which it actually does apply is very, very small.

  • At 7:43 AM, Blogger kizzy said…

    I am blind. I have written a children's book. It is called "The Adventures Of Captain Kizzy And The Grapes" by Paul Graham. It is designed to help children ;rstm jpe yp read and enjoy reading. I wonder if you could help me advertise it. "The Adventures Of Captain Kizzy And The Grapes" is available from ",k/bookstorethe adventurews Of Captain Kizzy And gthe Grapes". It is priced at £10.50 and is cheaper in bulk to retailers.

    Y:our site is wonderful. i got my imagination. From reading comic books before I lost my vision.

    Best Wishes

    Paul Graham

  • At 9:31 PM, Blogger Dan said…

    From now on I'm gonna open every Gail Simone review I do with "WHY AREN"T YOU READING THIS BOOK!!!!!!" >;)

  • At 1:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Are You an Advanced Marketer? Click here to learn how to broadcast thousands of messages directly to people's desktops with just a click from your mouse, Spam Free. Learn more about it here: business opportunities site. It pretty much covers business opportunities related stuff and it is FREE to join.

  • At 2:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This is a great blog that applies to promoting other media too. I knew a "music promo guy" who did his clients a great disservice by saying to potential listeners, "the bands you like suck, you should listen to this band instead".

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  • At 2:32 AM, Blogger Esbat said…

    I've always felt a little bad picking up a trade of a comic that ended. I'd hear people rail and rant and rave about certain titles, months, even years later I pick up the trade and then go "Wow, that was good/interesting/sexalicious/entertaining, I MUST CONTINUE READING THIS!" only to find it over and done with and moved on.

    *sad boosh*

    Anywho, I'm sad BoP is gone. But very happy with Secret Six. I picked up the ongoing from issue #1, and went back for the single issues of the VU and the SS mini.

  • At 1:27 PM, Blogger Danny Sichel said…

    "Some are quiet little books about mouse guards and torso killers and Seattle slackers"

    That sounds like one hell of an interesting comic.

  • At 3:36 AM, Blogger Invicible Man said…

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