Tyler James writes,
Let's talk about "The Question."
C'mon, you know the question I'm talking about…
It's the most common question you hear creators get asked, over and over again in interviews on podcasts, blogs, panels, etc. It's the question that starts like this:
"What's one piece of advice that you would give yourself if you could start over from scratch?"
"If you could go back in a time machine, what would you tell yourself?"
"If you could give a young creator one piece of advice, what wisdom would you give them?"
It's all the same question, really.
And at the heart of that question is the tacit desire to know how you can get to where that creator is now, how you can achieve the same success… only much, much faster than it took him or her.
It's a great question.
(And that's why it's asked so damn always.)
Because it's asked so often, you hear a lot of answers to it. I know I have. I've heard a lot of good ones, too.
But there's one answer that I rarely heard when I was first starting to take this creating/selling/publishing comics thing seriously.
(And to be honest… it makes mad that I didn't hear it sooner.)
But unfortunately, I'm not alone.
I know people who went to art school, came away from four years education and a hundred thousand dollars or more in student loans, and never heard this piece of advice. Not once. And that's criminal.
I even know people who went to business school and never heard this piece of advice!
And I think of all the retired comic creators who once had incredible careers and entertained hundreds of thousands of readers, but have now fallen on hard times without a safety net, whose only recourse is to turn to charity for help. (Seems like every few months, there's another one of these heartbreaking stories.) I can guarantee you, none of them were given this of advice, or had it instilled in them to the point where they took necessary action on it.
Even in this information age, where there are no "secrets" and the comics industry is as transparent as it's ever been…
I know that creators young and not so young still aren't getting this message.
I found that out when I took on my first group of students for the pilot version of The ComixLaunch Course. Eight creators took part in a pilot version of a course to learn about the mindset, strategies, and tactics to run a successful comic book Kickstarter campaign, and not one of them had not made this piece of advice an absolute priority.
(We corrected that in a heartbeat during the course, though. And it's already paying dividends.)
This piece of advice is also one of the single biggest takeaways listeners of the ComixLaunch podcast tell me they've internalized from subscribing to the show. I guess when you talk to some of the top crowdfunders out there, and they all say the same thing, that message eventually starts to resonate.
Case in point, just the other day, Jason Brubaker of Coffee Table Comics was on the podcast, and he stressed the importance of this piece of advice. This month, Jason launched a Kickstarter for the second volume of his beautiful book Sithrah. His project set an ambitious twenty-four thousand dollar goal… and he hit that goal in about 24 hours!
That only happens because Jason made this piece of advice a priority in his business as an independent creator. Yes, Jason is a ridiculously talented creator, but figuring this out is the only way he raises $24K in a heartbeat on Kickstarter.
So what's the advice already?
I'll tell you, but not yet.
Yes, I'm teasing you here.
Because I want you to actually think about this for a minute…
I want this to sink in so that you take some action on it, rather than ignore it to your own detriment.
This month, I'm helping my friend, writer/artist Joe Mulvey (SCAM), run a Kickstarter for his new book, Mummy's Always Right.
(You can check that out at MummysAlwaysRight.com.)
This book is totally unlike anything Joe's ever done before. It's a children's book, and Joe is someone who's been called "The most dangerous man in comics" for plenty of good reasons, and lots of stories that we won't get into right now. (Buy some art from Morning Glories Joe Eisma at a con some time, and he'll tell you stories.)
Joe was facing some uphill odds with this latest campaign… He's tackling a genre he's never worked in, in a category — children's book publishing — that is far more cutthroat on Kickstarter than comics. (In fact, 70% of those projects fail vs. the far friendlier 50% "Black Jack-like" odds of comics projects.)
But in less than a week Joe's project was fully funded and has already started crushing stretch goals.
And even better the success of the launch wasn't a surprise or an emotional ordeal that him that so many creators go through when they launch.
Rather, Joe was near certain he was going to hit his goal and then some, precisely because he had this one little piece of advice figured out.
Okay, no more further adieu, no more build up.
Here's the piece of advice that I hope you take to heart if you ever plan to create anything in this life… or the next.
And this applies to…
…and creators of all stripes…
…whether you're working for the biggest publisher in comics and are on top of the world right now…
…or you're literally posting your first comic page for your first comic book project online today…
The crucial piece of advice is this:
If you want to be a successful creative entrepreneur, you need to make building and maintaining an email list of engaged fans a top priority.
That's advice I didn't get when I first started taking making comics seriously a decade ago.
That's advice I didn't get when I co-founded ComixTribe with Steve Forbes in 2011.
(Gonna go back in time! Mummy's Always Right art by Joe Mulvey and Jules Rivera)
If Marty McFly shows up today in a Delorean, you can bet your butt I'm going back in time to tell 12-year-old Tyler to start building his damn list.
"You mean on AOL?"
Just trust me little, Ty. #ItGetsBetter
Why wasn't Joe worried about his Kickstarter getting funded? Because he built an excited email list of 1200 readers interested in Mummy's Always Right prior to launch.
How was Jason Brubaker able to get $24,000 of funding in about a day? Because he's built over years an engaged and supportive email list of true fans he could point to his Kickstarter the moment it went live.
It's not magic, people. It's mail. Email.
Now, I'm sure there were points in my past when I heard some rumblings about the importance of an email list and ignored them. But I never heard this message spoken with the kind of urgency that I'm spelling out to you all right now.
For me, it took building a six-figure children's book brand in under two years (with a single book!) to finally hammer home the importance of an email list.
Now, don't mishear me…
I did get plenty of other advice over the years.
I heard that if you want to create comics, you need to create comics.
So, I created comics.
I heard if you want to sell comics, you need to go to conventions.
So, I went to conventions.
I heard you need to get readers and the fastest way to get them is to make webcomics.
So, I made webcomics.
You gotta get on Twitter.
Post on Facebook.
Get big on Tumblr.
Ughh… how does this thing work?
You on Instagram?
Should I be?
SnapChat is where it's at!
And then, when you can't take hearing about another platform you need to be awesome on, some creator you respect who is exactly where you want to be comes out there and tells you to ignore all of that stuff and instead… focus on the work and nothing else.
Because if the work is good, it will find an audience.
Cream rises to the top.
Quality wins out in the end.
And I don't disagree with (most of) that.
And I firmly believe that when you're first starting out, when you haven't created anything, you shouldn't be worried about anything else but creating.
Just work on your craft.
Hone your talent.
Build your skills.
Work hard to be not good.
Study harder to get okay.
Surround yourself with better creators to help you get decent.
But when you're ready to step into the arena and put things out into the world of commerce, when you're ready to actually start to building a career, you have to make building and engaging with an email list of your fans and supporters an absolute priority.
Yes, in the end, quality does win out, and in truth, creating exceptional, remarkable work, is absolutely critical to building a large, sustainable, long-term fan base.
But just doing quality work isn't enough!
Because if you don't have a way to directly communicate with the fanbase that you're building today, tomorrow, the next day, and all the weeks, months, and years to come, what happens when the ground shifts beneath your feet?
What happens if you fall out of favor at your current publisher?
What happens if Twitter and Facebook change their rules? (And they change their rules all the time.)
What happens if Tumblr gets bought out or goes under?
What happens if ComiXology decides that they're adding an all-you-can-read business model for $5.99?
What happens if Captain America was dating Bucky and a part of Hydra all along?!!! #LinkBait
I'm not saying all this stuff is going to happen or will happen or will be bad if it does happen… change is pretty much a given.
But all of those things are out of your control. But you have control over your list.
Quality Product + Outstanding Marketing = Sales Success
A great product, effectively marketed… those are the two pillars for success in sales, in business, in entrepreneurship, and as a creator.
Even if you don't think of yourself as a business person or an entrepreneur — even if you think of yourself as "just an artist" — to be successful long-term, you need to have a quality product and outstanding marketing.
And your most valuable direct marketing tool is your email list.
And this is where I get a little angry again…
You've heard the lesson about the power of compounding interest before, right? Y'know, the math where an eighteen-year-old starts investing a hundred bucks a month every year for the next forty years and by the time she is sixty-five, she's taking Scrooge McDuck gold coin dives?
It's the same deal with your engaged email list.
But what if you don't have a list?
What if you haven't prioritized communicating with your list?
To paraphrase the old saying about investing: The best time to build an engaged email list of your fans is ten years ago.
The second best time to do it is today.
And I was pleased to see this week that another super talented Brubaker, Ed, is making this a priority, as he just launched a new email newsletter for his fans.
I can't stress enough, my fellow creators…
Your email list is one of your most essential and most valuable business assets as a creator.
Paper. Pencil. Computer. Phone. Email list.
In 2016, those are the things you need.
Hell, maybe you don't even need the paper or the pencil and you can do it all digitally.
But you need that email list.
So, I've come to the end of my missive here, but I want to end with a question for all creators out there who've read this far…
First, have you started an email list yet?
If not, I want you to tell me why not? What are you doing today or this week coming up, that's more important than starting an email list?
And if yes, how are you using your email list? What's working for you and what's not working for you?
I'll be checking the comments for your answers.
Bleeding Cool Bonus #1 – Click here to listen to Jason Brubaker's top tips for building a large and engaged audience on ComixLaunch.
Plus, if you back Jason's project Sithrah Vol. 2 on Kickstarter and mention "ComixLaunch", you'll receive a FREE audio version of his book Unnatural Talent: Creating, Printing and Selling Your Comic in the Digital Age.
Bleeding Cool Bonus #2 – Click here to get a FREE copy of Joe Mulvey's book Mummy's Always Right.
Tyler James is a writer and artist of comics and graphic novels (The Red Ten, Oxymoron, Epic), and the co-creator and publisher of ComixTribe, a small-press comic book, graphic novel, and children's books imprint. He is also the host of ComixLaunch, where he teaches creative entrepreneurs the mindset, strategy, and tactics to crowdfund their comics and graphic novels on Kickstarter…and beyond. Tyler has designed and produced award-winning learning games for companies like National Geographic and McGraw-Hill, and is a husband and father living in Newburyport, MA.