Tilting at Windmills

Thu, July 16th, 2009 at 11:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

A TALE OF TWO TWITTIES

How do you make “Social Media” (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) work properly?

Ah, upon this hangs a tale.

Actually, to start, a little background: as you may recall, this year is Comix Experience’s 20th anniversary, and I’ve been planning a series of events through the year to celebrate.

One of the primary “tentpoles” for this celebration was (I was hoping) an event with Neil Gaiman, so much so that I started asking Neil if he could fit it into his insanely busy schedule beginning in 2006 – three years before I wanted him to appear! You can read a much longer (and more rambling) version of this summation, and the history behind it all, over on my blog, but the most important bit of it is this: out of the blue last Monday (July 6th), Neil called me up and asked if I was interested in doing something at the last minute on Sunday July 19th, because he’d be in town then and he could fit it in then, and that probably it wouldn’t happen otherwise. We’ll get back to this in a bit.

Earlier that Monday I read a story on Heidi MacDonald’s Beat about Tyrese Gibson’s "Mayhem" and his use of Twitter. In the piece, Heidi is curious as to what the results of this Tweeting might be.

Gibson then Tweeted the thread, and, all of a sudden, the thread gets close to 100 responses (where even 30-40 replies is usually pretty rare). Follow the link to read those responses, but I would characterize the overwhelming majority of them as being glowing for Gibson, but pretty vague about the specifics of "Mayhem" itself.

By this I mean I think that this is a fairly typical response:

Let this man do what he knows….HE KNOWS WHAT HE’S DOING….STOP HATIN!!!! LOVE YOU TY….GOD BLESS IN ALL YOU DO!!!!

There’s nothing wrong with such a response, and, really, it is kind of sweet that the man has enough people with enough good vibes for him to take the minute and post a positive message about him on a message board.

But, see, to me, that doesn’t really show much, if anything, about actually moving the product. It doesn’t cost $2.99 to post a message; it does cost $2.99 to buy "Mayhem."

I want to make a special point that “hating” and “hater” is a reasonably common epithet in this thread (and the one that followed), but, seriously, go back and read what Heidi wrote and see if that’s a rational conclusion in the slightest? I sure don’t see it!

Being the kind of industry pundit I am, I wanted to insert some business discussion into the conversation, so I posted the following into the thread:

This looks like the kind of work that would naturally be a sub 5k-kind of a book in the national DM marketplace.

If the book can cross 10K in DM orders (ICv2 reported, that is), then this campaign would be successful, otherwise I just find it kind of annoying.

I ordered 3 copies of "Mayhem" #1. Without the sense that Gibson was behind it, based on the cover and the solicitation blurb alone my “natural” order would have been zero copies.

I’ve had no calls, or no actual-humans-laying-down-actual-dollars interest on this comic.

I’d be ECSTATIC if I had to reorder the book if I guessed too low, but at this moment I’m not actually expecting to sell the copies I’ve bought, non-returnable as it is.

-B

This will mark me as well, I will find out later, as a “hater," despite the fact that I’ve said I’m ordering more copies than I think I can sell, and I’d be extremely happy to be wrong and have to reorder! I opined my expectation of national sales, as a chart watcher for twenty years, and I report my actual in-store results to pre-order offers.

I’m happy to say I’m wrong about one bit of it at least – preorders are something over 20k as of the last time I spoke to anyone who might actually know (though 10k of that is to a single store); so, no matter what, the campaign is successful.

Heidi HYPERLINK "http://pwbeat.publishersweekly.com/blog/2009/07/07/tyrese-creates-"Mayhem"-at-the-beat/" writes a second posting about this, this time as a post about the previous post and the enormous Twitter reaction it caused. Since I am specifically named-checked in the article, and since a “JM Ringuet” has an Internet Insta-Snark reaction, and because I foolishly think this thread might not get Tweet-stomped, and maybe we’ll actually talk about the underlying issues, I posted this:

Here’s the thing, though: this looks from the art samples, to be the kind of mediocre Guy-With-A-Gun 90s-style Image book that has no significant natural audience whatsoever — the kind of book that, if it were lucky, might sell in the 1500 range in the DM.

From my side of the counter it doesn’t look much different than, say, the Jada Pinkett comic, or the Milo Ventimiglia one, or the Stephen Baldwin one — books published solely because someone thought, “Ooh, maybe we should get in bed with some minor celebrity, that might help us later!” than “Here’s something with aesthetic value on it’s own."

And all of those previous examples? I SOLD either 1 or NO copies, just like I can’t sell comics based on, say, William Shatner stories, or Vincent Price, or, the stuff from Virgin that was from Jenna Jameson or Nic Cage, or, going back further, most of Tekno’s line, or… well you get the point?

The number of cases where “celebrity” comics actually SELL comics can be counted in a mere handful — usually music-based projects which tie into the music (Say the Tori Amos comic, or, back in the day, the Prince one), or something like, say, UMBRELLA ACADEMY where the results are something that is a comic for it’s own sake and strengths rather than because of the fame of the participants. (Like, say, Percy Carey’s SENTENCES)

This isn’t a matter, from my side of the counter, of “refusing to expand the market” or whatever, it is looking at the material presented and concluding there isn’t a natural market for it BECAUSE IT *looks* JUST LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE ON THE STANDS.

It, in fact, looks like just another “superhero” book where the characters aren’t owned by Time/Warner or Marvel Entertainment Group.

IT IS THE VERY FACT THAT GIBSON IS “tweeting” all over this that got me to stock those 3 copies in the first place, but at this moment in time I still don’t have ANY expectation that they’ll actually SELL — as noted (though Heidi didn’t quote that bit), we’ve had exactly zero requests for, or any indication that people-who-are-actually-willing-to-pull-money-out-of-their-pockets will come in for this.

“Tweets” don’t sell comics, people walking into a store with money in hand do.

I’ve not heard from any retailer who has indicated that any of this campaign has translated into a significant and verifiable number of new and actual customers. I’ve heard from a few that have gotten CALLS, but that few/none of those calls have translated into someone willing to, say, put their credit card down to buy. Except Meltdown — Gibson’s “home” store.

I’d LOVE to be wrong. I’d love it if I sell my three copies in 30 seconds, and have to reorder 10 times that. I’d LOVE that.

But based on twenty years experience in selling comics, and, yes, selling comics to the GENERAL PUBLIC, I have a hard time seeing that that happening based upon what we’ve been shown of the work in question.

-B

This is probably snarkier than it needs to be, I really should follow the “24 hour” rule when posting, but there you are.

(I also had to clarify later that I was referring to "Sentences" as a book that sold on content, since that’s completely awkward phrasing up there)

I followed this up just a little later with one more post to Heidi that said (in part)

Here’s the thing though: I take the postings of roughly 100 people to the other thread as no sign of ANYTHING, commercial-sales-wise. Viral marketing is interesting and all, but it is also something participants can do that isn’t spending cash money to do. I think it is GREAT to motivate people that way, but when they do it in a rah-rah, no content kind of fashion like in that thread… well, it makes me a little itchy.

Now I start to get a few calls/emails from industry people letting me know that Gibson is “checking up on me” – calling around to find out who I am, why I post, that kind of thing. Ah.

Now, at this point, I stop thinking about Gibson, or "Mayhem" at all – I have a Neil Gaiman signing I have to arrange! Signings, especially signings with Big Well-Known Authors are typically something you want to have six weeks, at a minimum to work through. Just promotion alone, if you’re going to do it right, is a month-long affair, and here I was being given twelve days.

I’m no fool, and I’m not going to turn down a Neil Gaiman signing, even if I will have to break my neck to make it happen, because… well, you just don’t, right? Besides, I’m pretty alright at what I do (wouldn’t be celebrating twenty years otherwise, would I?), and I could make it work.

But there was one kind of essential component of really being able to make the truncated time frame actually work – and that was the power of Gaiman’s own blog and Twitter feed.

As noted above, I have a blog, and it gets a reasonable amount of visits, but nothing like www.neilgaiman.com. I have a store mailing list but, again, we’re talking about hundreds of names, not thousands, and more importantly, these names are largely customers who have recently visited us (we only started it when we put POS in, and that’s still less than two years now), and sort of the whole point of doing an event like this is to draw people who haven’t been in your store recently, or maybe ever at all. I don’t have a Twitter account (Gosh, I don’t have the time!), and, even if I did it would unlikely be more than hundreds of people. Meanwhile, Neil’s Twitter feed is followed by (as I type this) 765,695 people. Cuh-razy!

More importantly, people who follow Neil are very very interested in Neil Gaiman, in particular (duh, I know!), while my tools are limited to comics, more generally, and the specific store. For all I know, only a third or less of “my” e-readership are interested in Neil, specifically, or at least enough to buy a book and want to come to a signing.

So, yeah, for this to work in the time frame posited, basically the best chance would come from Neil using his own powers of Social Media to drive people to me. And he wrote a very nice blog post, which triggered a Twitter post, and boom, the phones started ringing pretty much within minutes.

I’m going to say something blindingly obvious here: targeted “marketing” (And the best kind of marketing is that which is sincere and real, rather than hype, but that’s why I put the scare quotes around that) directing people to something specific and exact works very well.

So, now it’s Thursday and the big wave of the Gaiman-driven calls start coming in. Neil posted late Wednesday about the signing, and there were a bunch of calls then, but we’ve still got the majority of tickets still on hand on Thursday and I’m expecting that to be the major deluge. It is.

The phone is ringing again nearly as fast as I can clear each call, all with motivated buyers absolutely excited they can get in to see Neil.

It is now mid-afternoon, and the phones are slacking a smidge, and Tyrese Gibson calls. I knew he was asking after me, and, yeah, I know I’d been a little too snarky, so I shifted myself into the fax-line’s phone, letting Sue handle the Gaiman calls, and welcomed a conversation with Gibson.

It was a pretty excellent conversation, I thought. Gibson portrayed himself as being interested in working with critics, because that would make his efforts stronger. And he was talking about wanting to really be in comics for the long haul, building something of some sort of real length and value. I still had doubts about the actual content that he was promoting, because I’m a cynical bitch after twenty years in comics, but I kept them to myself because, frankly, Gibson was talking a better game than people who have been in comics for decades, and this has always been a field where entrepreneurial Go-Get-It-ness has always had an impact.

Better still, he was specifically saying that his intent was to drive people physically into the stores, “So they’ll pick up 'Mayhem,' and hopefully buy some other comics, bringing them into the whole comics world,” or words very close to that effect.

That was takeaway #1. Takeaway #2 is that Tyrese was going to have his comics partner give me a call and to discuss what could be done to promote the comic locally, to drive people into my specific store – there was a brief discussion about possible give-aways, maybe some sort of cross-promotion with a local hip-hop radio station, and so forth. All very commendable stuff and pure gold that I could not only solidly get behind, but have been asking publishers and creators for, for decades now. I was solidly agreeing to talk more later about this.

So I was completely flabbergasted, to say the least, when, within 10 minutes of the phone call ending, Gibson posted to Twitter that people should start calling me right now now now and demand the book.

Um.

Wait, what?

A few more Tweets fly, including one of “if the phone is busy, keep calling!”

Which, like, I’m trying to sell Gaiman tickets this day, so the phone is already in “if it is busy, keep dialing” mode!

Now, I never specifically mentioned the Gaiman sales that were going on that day to Gibson, and there’s no specific reason he would have known about it, so I’m not ascribing malice or anything, but, damn, that’s not even close to what we discussed. And while he certainly thinks he is helping, actually, I’m being cock-blocked.

Doing promotions properly requires planning, and requires aforethought. Staffs need to be taught what to do, what the answers to questions are, and so on. Doing things completely on the fly usually yields just a lot of problems that have to be handled later.

And here’s the key problem from my point of view: virtually none of the Gibson calls are coming from in-state. They’re from Maryland, and Florida and New York and North Carolina and wherever else, all over the map, including one from Canada. In many cases (the LA and NYC calls, and cities like, say, Charlotte) I know there are excellent comic stores right there on the ground who would fall over themselves to have people walk in their doors with money in hand wanting to buy this comic, to demonstrate real and tangible actual demand.

I can certainly do mail-order, but it isn’t the major function of our business, and, let’s be realistic, the handling and shipping and packing and materials and whatever else on a single $2.99 comic book loses me, I don’t know, something like 10-15 cents per order.

I’m not going out of my way looking for mail order customers for a one time sale – I’m looking for people to come into my door and get involved with comics, or even a single series. The success of a promotion involving a comic isn’t how many copies of issue #1 you sell; it is how many copies of issue number two. Or, conversely, how you leverage the promoted item into other sales. That’s the essence of storefront retailing right there.

Even the calls that were coming from in-state were coming from LA and south – that’s an eight hour drive away from me, this is not repeatable or sustainable business being driven my way.

So as normal people are calling (we’ll discuss the abnormal ones in a few minutes), I’m having to explain to them that, yes, it is a $3 comic book, but I have to charge $6 in shipping, and while I’m absolutely willing to do that they’re really better off finding a store local to them and showing local demand.

See, let’s take me for a minute – at the moment, I see absolutely no local demand. We offered it through our in-store newsletter, and got no takers. We’ve had no local phone calls. We’ve had no one walk through our door looking for, or asking about it. Not a single one of the phone calls generated were a lead for repeat business either for this comic, or any others.

Before the Twitter-Deluge, I was planning on order three copies of "Mayhem" for my rack, despite the lack of any apparent local audience. After the deluge, I’m still planning to order three copies for the rack, and I still have no expectation that I will sell them all.

This is why I suggested to callers that they talk to local stores – if someone walks in my door and says, “I want this, here’s some money," then I can see local demand, and I’ll order rack copies. The same thing for those stores in Charlotte and Tampa and Maryland and, jeez, New York City (Yes, in fact there are stores in NYC, believe it or not). If you want to build a book, you have to connect people to local retailers.

Economics are local. Money that is generated within your community works to keep that community strong; money exported out just weakens local business. If there is a person in Charlotte who wants "Mayhem," then it is everyone’s best interests that they buy it from a Charlotte store – then that Charlotte store will see there is real actual demand, and is exponentially more likely to order copies for their rack.

I didn’t turn a single person away, but at the end of the day, charging an effective $9 for a $3 comic is ripping those customers off when and if there are local stores that can service them, and I’m not really interested in ripping people off, either.

Sending those customers to me doesn’t help anyone, actually. Myself included.

We took something on the order of sixty phone calls related to "Mayhem," which is really a lot, I think. Unfortunately, about forty of those calls weren’t sales at all – many were asking if they could speak to Tyrese, or hang-ups when we got to price, or even the one long-distance phone call to tell me that they thought Gibson was “weak-ass." I mean, What kind of person would do that? Seriously? You don’t have better things to do? I know I have better things to do, certainly!

The whole thing would have been a failure of unmitigated proportions had it not been for what I’ll call the Hollywood Handjobs. Gibson is a musician as well as an actor, and people he’s worked with over his career called up with a few stupidly high orders – one guy wanted 150 copies, another 25.

So, on 60 calls, we generated 7 sales, for 191 copies. I don’t mind the windfall – really, I don’t – but it is a one-time, one-shot thing. Plus, the "Mayhem" calls were making it harder for Gaiman customers to get through, which certainly caused more frustration than it needed to, both for my staff and myself, as well as for potential customers who may well have given up on the non-stop busy signals.

Gibson calls me later in the day, peeved that I’m “turning away business." Sheesh, I’m not. I’m letting people know what they’re options are, and I don’t need $1.50 gross (or negative ten cents net!) per copy so badly as to effectively rip people off on shipping, thanks.

(And that’s not even counting the video for "Mayhem" later posted on YouTube by a “Douglas," purportedly as a fan. In this, I am called a “hater," among other things. The only problem is that “Douglas” specifically mentions the number of copies we’ve “sold." [some 200+ of those copies were charged to cards that were declined, however] A number which no one on earth besides myself and Gibson knew. Which means he’s a shill and mouthpiece for Gibson. Tacky!)

At the end of this little adventure, I’ll be ordering the 191 copies of "Mayhem," that came in as phone orders. Then I’ll be ordering three copies for the rack. I’d love to order more, but not only didn’t Gibson show me local demand, he kind of underlined that there isn’t any verifiable, trackable demand – surely sixty phone calls should have caused at least a single local call?

Meanwhile, I’m selling 100 copies of Neil Gaiman’s book to people that will be walking into my door, and that I’ll have the potential to sell many other things as well!

So here’s the bottom line of this all: targeting marketing directing specific people specifically to a specific location does a tremendous amount to create excitement, create sales, and, most importantly, create strong possibilities for future sales, for all parties. “Shotgun” marketing does not.

And if you’re going to Tweet about a retailer, it is probably a better idea to make sure that said retailer is on the same page as the effort, and can plan ahead of time, and give input on the best way to make things work in the best possible way for all parties.

It's really easy to Tweet: it's only 140 characters so it takes a minute to write, and you can write them and send them from anywhere your cell phone works. But planning takes longer than a minute. And so does working with a person. No matter how many people follow you on your sophisticated piece of technology of choice, they're never going to do anything particularly sophisticated until you take the time to plan, organize and work with people. I think maybe that might be the point about targeted marketing with Social Networks – today's tools are sophisticated as hell in regards to the targeting, but the marketing? The marketing is still where the hardest of the hard work happens.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links) You may discuss this column here (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links).

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, mayhem, tyrese gibson, neil gaiman, twitter

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