A Life Lived in Comics Day 8: The Hard Sell


I’ve been using the term “solicitation copy” in the past few entries when I’ve referred to the text that goes into Previews saying why you and your retailer need to buy a particular Dark Horse book, but in-house we call this “tip copy” and write it into a form called a “tip sheet.” I’ve never really asked why we call them that, and I don’t know if other publishers do too, but it’s one of those terms that, even though you’d have to stop and think to guess its actual provenance, pretty much sounds like it makes sense, hence my never asking. For this entry I looked up the term on wikipedia, and while we’ve adapted it for our own use, it’s pretty much what I’d have guessed.

So for the purpose of this post, we’re going with “tip copy.” No big.

“It looks like it’s just stapled paper with the hero’s latest adventure, but that’s not it. It’s about when we were helpless, and our fathers were heroes. Sometimes they saved us from pain, and sometimes they brought these silly things home and the world was good. This is a time machine, taking us back to when we know we were loved.”

I am currently late on my tip copy, though I’m caught up with the copy I write for editors Diana and Dave, because my assisting responsibilities still come first and I have less leeway to be a screwup there. I do a pass on all of Diana’s tip sheets, which are usually approved without revisions, and all of Dave’s that aren’t Star Wars–related, as assistant Freddy Lins works with him on those books (I’ve pinch-hit various tasks on a few Star Wars comics and been amused to see my undeserved credit in them, but for the most part there’s a firewall there). Those usually require a little more revision because, as a non-gamer, my total ignorance of what I’m writing about sometimes shows through (more in a bit). I’m not very late on mine, which include some archives, MIND MGMT #6, and Creepy #10, and I’ll finish some of it up today and the rest during the week, but I am behind.

One reason I’m behind is that I’ve foolishly made extra work for myself in a related area, the DH digital store profiles for Usagi Yojimbo. In addition to Dark Horse comics, the digital store carries a few other comics that we have digital rights to, such as the 1970s Conan the Barbarian comic originally published by Marvel, Dell’s Little Lulu, and the original iteration of Usagi, still in print from Fantagraphics. While the descriptive text for most of our digital comics is simply imported tip sheets, we don’t have copy for these other comics and have to come up with something. The eight issues of Conan all use the same copy, and I used a similar approach for Little Lulu, borrowing part of the back cover copy from the volume each issue appears in and adding a list of the stories in that issue. Just takes a minute.

For Usagi, a series that I love beyond all reason, I got into the habit of creating synopses fpr the first few issues, not thinking about the fact that I would then have to do this for the remaining issues. I’ve made it pretty easy for myself, using the same opening paragraph for every issue, and the same pull quote for each batch of six or so, but I have put myself in the position of having to skim each story and write a short, hopefully intriguing synopsis, amounting to 40 extra bits of tip copy over the past few months. D’oh!

It’s been interesting writing store profiles, though. I’m also doing it for any digital-first material like the Dragon Age and Prototype II web series, and it’s subtly different from writing tip sheets, because you are writing for the actual reader. When you write for Previews, the key thing to remember is that your first main audience and real customer is the retailer, not the reader, and information should be targeted accordingly. The practice of releasing solicitations to comics websites has muddied this a bit, but it’s still essentially true, since the retailers have to determine what and how many they can sell at their stores, and Previews remains the main tool for making that decision.

I’ve never worked in a comic shop, but I’ve been a comics reader since I was 11, so writing for retailers took some adjustment on my part, and I still occasionally forget what’s relevant to whom. On a recent revival of an old series, I initially noted how many years it had been since the last issue, since as a reader seeing a beloved character I hadn’t seen in years would get me excited, but it was pointed out that for retailers this isn’t a selling point, since it raises the question, “How do I sell this thing when there are no recent sales figures and that many new readers are unfamiliar with it?” By contrast, in writing the tip sheet for Skeleton Key, I made a point of drawing retailers’ attention to the fact that the book would be in stores the Wednesday before Free Comic Book Day, so they should stock up in order to have plenty of copies on hand when a greater number of children then usual come through the store on that Saturday (this is also why I scheduled the book for that week in the first place). Information not especially relevant to a reader, but important for retailers to consider.

For store profiles, I am a bit less rigorous than when writing for Previews. I focus more on story details than I would for retailers, and don’t try quite as hard to treat an individual issue like it might be someone’s first, since the previous issues are just a click away. Both forms are equally hypey, but the store profiles are slightly less formal in the way they hype.

The tip sheets are about half basic information, such as the names of the creative team, price, how many pages, format, comp titles, etc., and half hype. This includes a headline, which Marketing may choose to run above the cover image; the synopsis itself, typically 70–130 words, though I always try to keep mine below 100; pull quotes that may run in a box to the side; and any additional, short selling points, such as sales figures, awards, big-name talent, or especially exciting story details will become bullet points below the synopsis.

The headline is just a few words, something to grab someone’s attention as they flip through Previews. Sometimes the book sells itself and so BLACKSAD IS BACK! is all you need. Other times you may go a little more whimsical to get noticed, so you headline to the romance and team-up between Conan and Bêlit, the pirate queen of the Black Coast as BREAKING HEARTS—AND FACES! With a book that readers won’t be as familiar with, like MIND MGMT, a more out-there line might pique interest, so the tip sheet I’m working on right now is headlined ALL YOUR MIND ARE BELONG TO US!

Comics are often sold this way.

Synopses are spoiler-free, since fans read them online months before a book comes out, but should still give a sense of why this issue is exciting. They are kept short, but give a general sense of what the story’s about, to the best of our knowledge—sometimes these have to be written before that’s entirely finalized, which is where the other selling points become even more pertinent. If you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in an issue, you have to work from what you do know and pace greater emphasis on the external factors that make the book important. Either way, I just try to keep mine punchy and short, hitting one or two main story beats and leaving room for the selling points.

Selling points can be anything that isn’t the plot, though if it’s “an unexpected death!” or “the kiss ten years in the making” or whatever, that can be an exception. For video-game comics, we’ll mention how well the game sells, or how the comic is released at the same time as the game, or is written by the writer of the game. Maybe the series is a New York Times bestseller, or the artist just came off a hit book. Maybe a collection has new material. Is it a great jumping-on point for new readers? Anything like that.

This can all be pretty dry, so sometimes we’ll see what we can do to mix things up. More senior editors have told me of games they’d play where they would see how often they could get clichés like “everything you know is wrong” and “the power of love saves the day” into copy. I create challenges for myself to fit words or phrases in, and have put out challenges for others, though I’m told the current one (of course I’m not telling) is impossible, and my own inability to make it work is starting to make me wonder. My proudest tip copy moment was one that was only one word long, and I thought it was perfect, but all the same I wrote an alternate version, which I ended up needing when the editor of the book came into my office with a face full of “WTF?”

I’ve never worked with a writer who wrote their own tip copy, but often on creator-owned books we’ll run what we’ve written by them, and someone like Beanworld’s Larry Marder, who’s actually worked in advertising, will take what we give them and improve it as well as make it more idiosyncratic and personal.

When this is all done, Marketing has the job of actually making it fit, so they’ll trim as necessary, choose which issues get headlines, or swap in new selling points. A few members of Editorial will also take a pass at the designed catalog pages to punch up text or suggest stronger headlines before the complete section goes back to the editors to give final approval.

I always relate most to Peggy. Is that weird?

I can only assume other publishers’ processes are comparable, even if the individual steps differ, and some run more copy in the catalog while others run less. It’s definitely one of the more challenging tasks not directly related to editing a comic, as it requires getting into an advertising mindset that doesn’t come entirely naturally to me and is of course on-demand writing. You have to sell write ten or so of these a month (more now that there are digital store profiles to write as well), whether you know much about the book or not and whether you have a good idea already or not. Nothing on writing the actual comics, of course. But that’s how that gets done.

Later today (maybe): Secret Origin part 1: They make me think of you.

Why’m I doing this, again?


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