PLEASE NOTE: This article has been updated with a 2020 edit here and this original version is here for posterity.
Getting that all-important first review for your self-published comic can seem like a daunting task. The ever burgeoning pool of new small press talent currently out there producing exciting work – and taking the initiative to publish it in physical form themselves – is a wonderful thing to behold. It’s a harsh reality, though, that while the self-published comics output in the UK continues to grow, the number of outlets available to review them stays relatively static.
So what can you do to maximise the possibility of your comic/zine/book getting some article inches? I’m not going to pretend that the points below are the ultimate self-help manual to answering that question. What I can bring to the table, as a small press reviewer of at least a few years standing, is the perspective of one of those very people whose time and attention you will be looking to win. Hopefully this will give you some thoughts to mull over about the “dos and the don’ts” when planning your review strategy, and how to then build on any coverage you do get…
This is pitched very much at the grassroots, D.I.Y. culture section of the British scene – those creating work with print runs in the tens rather than the hundreds. Those for whom press releases, crowdfunding and the like will be an irrelevance. In that regard a number of the following thoughts may seem blindingly self-evident to many readers. But in all my travels and discussions – both online and out there in that big, real, physical world – I am constantly surprised by how up-and-coming creators fail to grasp the potential of even the most obvious opportunities to market themselves and their work. If just one reader gets an extra review out of this it will be worth the effort!
Have an online presence before you ask for reviews
There are two things you should have in place before approaching reviewers. One is desirable while the second is essential. Firstly, some form of online showcase for your work that can be linked to, be it a full-fledged website, a blog, tumblr or whatever. An online presence with examples of your comics allows reviewers to send traffic your way and offers our readers a more immersive appreciation of your work. Check out the sites of small pressers Rebecca Bagley, EdieOP and Alys Jones for excellent examples of creators who know how to showcase their art online.
Secondly, and crucially, if you are serious about wanting review sites to cover your work then an online store is a must. A review is a three-way relationship. The reviewer has a responsibility not just to give a fair and balanced evaluation of your work for your benefit but also to provide a service to their audience. If we cannot direct our readers to a link allowing them to purchase a copy of the comic in question then the entire exercise becomes pointless. A good review is worthless if nobody can actually buy the work in question. The existence of an online store is one of the first things I will look for when considering review submissions.
Simply providing an e-mail address as a way in which potential purchasers can get in touch to buy a copy is also unlikely to get you any extra sales. A good review may get you impulse sales through the convenience of minimal clickability. There’s little chance of anyone going through the hassle of e-mailing you and sorting out payment in a more cumbersome way.
Target your reviewer
Most comics sites have a general submissions e-mail address. But if the site also has an obvious specialist in small press/self-published/minicomics and their contact details are listed (as we do with ‘Small Pressganged’ at Broken Frontier!) then target them personally. Not the site’s generic e-mail. Not the site’s Twitter account. Not the site’s Facebook page. It’s very easy for your book to get lost in the glut of general review requests. Focusing on the specific designated staff member with an obvious and stated interest in that area is more likely to pay dividends. When approaching them appeal to their interests. Explain why you think your comic would be a good fit for their time based on both their coverage to date and similar books they may have reviewed.
Always offer a choice of physical or digital copy for review if possible
In the first instance this is a basic courtesy. Some reviewers may prefer to read a physical copy. It’s important to remember that the person you are approaching is not reviewing comics online as their primary source of income. The actual likelihood is they are doing it for free for the love of the medium. They may prefer not to spend their spare time reading from a screen as well.
But there’s a far more important reason as to why a physical copy is more likely to get you that review. I am going to let you into a little secret here. There is a guilt factor attached to a physical comic that a PDF will never have. PDFs can get overlooked. They can get lost in the daily influx of an e-mail inbox or saved in the wrong place on a laptop. Hard copies are unlikely to be forgotten. Reviewers will always feel more obligated to cover a physical copy that has been sent to them because it represents money, time and effort.
Play to the strengths of your chosen format as well.If part of the reading experience of your comic is a tactile one, or its physicality adds extra layers to the narrative, then you are short changing yourself by sending a digital copy to a reviewer. They will not be able to assess that aspect of the book as effectively and you will lose commentary on an important selling point of your comic.
And please don’t ever ask a reviewer for a review, secure their agreement, and then send them a link to your online store and expect them to buy their review copy. A strange but true experience I have had on more than one occasion…
Don’t ask for a review of out of print material unless it is available online
Again this comes down to that aforementioned three-way relationship. A reviewer is wasting their audience’s time giving commentary on a book that is no longer available. If the work is still accessible online then it’s another matter entirely. But don’t expect reviews for work that cannot be obtained by a site’s readership.
Small press super-heroes are a hard sell to reviewers
In a nutshell, if you are self-publishing a super-hero comic then you have an uphill battle on your hands to get it reviewed. Super-hero reviewers are not interested in imitations of the “real thing” and most small press reviewers cover the self-publishing scene precisely because they don’t want to deal with capes and costumes. There’s a reason you rarely, if ever, see DC and Marvel reviews from me at Broken Frontier for example.
A selection of super-hero related small press comics with something different to offer that did secure BF reviews
It’s a hard, brutal truth but the bottom line is that your “exciting, original take on the Batman mythos” almost certainly isn’t. And your “never before seen examination of super-heroes in the real world” was old nearly three decades ago when Marvel launched their New Universe line. That’s not to say super-heroes have been entirely unseen in ‘Small Pressganged’ but when I have covered them then it’s been because the creators involved have approached them as vehicles for their own storytelling. Not as auditions for writing Superman.
Look at what has been reviewed in that genre at BF – books like Martin Eden’s Spandex, Rol Hirst and Rob Wells’s Department of the Peculiar, Jamie Gambell and Andrew Maclean’s Department O, Tsao Wei’s Windrush – and ask yourself if your take has either something similarly interesting to say, or attempts to stamp your own creative voice and ideas on the genre.
Walk that fine line between patience and tenacity
If you have secured that promised review, and are anxiously awaiting feedback with a mix of trepidation and excitement, then do bear in mind you are not the only person in the same situation. There will be a queue.
If the wait is longer than the reviewer initially indicated then there is nothing wrong with an occasional gentle reminder. But don’t let your eager anticipation turn into badgering. Given the ratio of enthusiastic self-publishers out there to reviewers who cover small press comics it is indeed possible that you may well be waiting a few weeks (or much longer) for coverage. E-mailing every other day to ask about the status of your review isn’t going to speed the process up.
Think carefully about pricing
I am probably going to upset some here but I mention this only because it saddens me sometimes to observe truly excellent small press work going unseen because it has been priced at an unrealistic level. Your 12-page minicomic may well be printed on gorgeous card stock but it doesn’t matter how good a review you get, if you are charging a tenner for it then the chances of anyone clicking on that link to your online store are minimal.
I do appreciate the comments of those I have spoken to who have arguments about being compensated for the work itself and not just charging for the physical product. It’s an entirely valid and fair contention. But if you are just beginning on the road of self-publishing there are practicalities you need to consider.
Do think carefully about whether it is a better strategy in the short term to take a bigger hit financially on your efforts in order to maximise the potential audience for your work and get your name out there. Think about whether a cheaper format may be more appropriate in order to expand your reader base. I receive a lot of small press review feedback along the lines of “That looks great but I’m not paying that sort of money for that number of pages”. Be pragmatic. Don’t price yourself out of exposure when you are just starting out.
Have realistic expectations
You only think you know how many review submissions sites like Broken Frontier or any of our fine colleagues elsewhere on the internet get. It simply isn’t possible for us to review everything we’re offered, to post every press release or to respond to every interview request. The frustration of not getting the coverage you need to make that next step up is probably only equalled by the frustration we feel that we can’t give everything equal time.
So be realistic about the review submission process. If it doesn’t happen this time then chalk it up to experience and persevere again with the next project. Naming, “shaming” and complaining on social media about sites that haven’t reviewed you will not help your cause. It will also put off other potential reviewers. Not getting coverage is not necessarily a reflection on you or your work.
Build on positive reviews
Once you have some positive reviews under your belt then build on them. Make sure you link to them in review requests to other reviewers to underline good word of mouth. Don’t be afraid to use pull quotes from reviews on covers, on your website, in publicity, on tables at cons and fairs, or your e-mail signature.
Be active on social media
You no longer have the luxury of opting out of a social media presence. It is an invaluable tool for driving traffic and potential sales your way. Ignore the nay-sayers who say you shouldn’t re-post praise. For a grassroots practitioner this kind of commentary is vital in publicising your comics. You have every right to push your work and alert others to positive feedback on it.
Approach small press-friendly comic shops
You will find that small press sections work on different business models in different shops, and degrees of curation as to what is accepted for sale may also vary from store to store. I started to list some of the excellent shops I use for small press books and am indebted to a number of people on Twitter who suggested further outlets they frequent for self-published work. Any other stores that would like to be added to this list are welcome to get in touch with me via the Broken Frontier contact page.
Gosh! Comics, London
Orbital Comics, London
Page 45, Nottingham
OK Comics, Leeds
A1 Comics, Glasgow
Geek Retreat, Glasgow
Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham
Dave’s Comics, Brighton
Inky Fingers, online store
Consider other methods of delivery for your work
If you have had demonstrably good online feedback to your comics from noted online commentators then why not check out the submissions policies for the wealth of wonderful anthology titles we have in the UK? I have covered many of them in ‘Small Pressganged’ both on the current version of the site and the previous iteration of BF (here). It’s another potential avenue to greater exposure and also a chance to interact with your peers in the small press community.
Visit small press and zine fairs and talk with other creators. Sharing experience with others in the same situation as you – or those who have been in your shoes in the past – is an invaluable exercise.
As I mentioned at the top of this column, this was written very much with a specific audience of artists in mind – primarily those working with very small print runs who are new to self-publishing and possibly even new to comics. A number of these points have been culled from e-mail correspondence I have had with newbie small pressers over the last couple of years who have contacted me to ask for my thoughts on how they can push their work further. The feedback I’ve had suggests it was of at least some use to them. I hope that also extends to those starting out on their own self-publishing adventures and that they too find some benefit in this edition of ‘Small Pressganged’!
As ever, your thoughts on this column in the ‘Comments’ section below and any further suggestions are actively encouraged…