Let’s Retire the Underground Example — Followup Sales Figures

As part of a round of promotion last week, Fred van Lente took part in a live chat at Comics Should Be Good. His most recent work, Comic Book Comics #6, tackled the future of comics, including digital versions, both legal and non, so it shouldn’t be surprising that that topic was also covered in the chat. (Although there’s much more to it than just this subject; you should check out the whole thing.)

Site readers may remember a year or so ago, when Steve Lieber and Jeff Parker’s Underground got a sales boost after being scanned and distributed online without their knowledge or permission. They later took advantage of the attention the situation brought them by putting up their own free version accompanied by a donation button, as well as making it easy for new customers to buy the print book. Steve dropped by Fred’s chat and looked back at that example. Here (for the first time, as far as I know), he reveals some sales numbers.

Steve Lieber: Over the next two weeks we got several thousand in donations from people downloading the book. We call it “the honor system.”
Fred Van Lente: While before, you were getting next to nothing.
Ryan Dunlavey: I will confess I downloaded Underground for free, read it, liked it but didn’t donate.
Greg Pak: Can I ask how the sales of the hardcover did?
Steve Lieber: Hard copy sales were about 300 copies that week, compared to about 900 through the entire direct market in the six months since the book had shipped. Paid taxes as “misc income.”

Fred Van Lente: And the moral of the story, in your eyes, was…
Steve Lieber: Moral= The direct market isn’t a healthy market for spelunking thrillers.
Fred Van Lente: Ha!
Steve Lieber: “Maybe it’s time to try something else.”

Fred Van Lente: You summed up your overall experience nicely in 3 steps in a Tweet to me & Parker. Do you remember it?
Steve Lieber: 1. No Money
Steve Lieber: 2. Lots of Money
Steve Lieber: 3. Sandwich Money
Steve Lieber: WE ROCK!
Fred Van Lente: Ha! So the spike basically was a one-time only thing.
Steve Lieber: Oh yeah, We did nothing to maintain it.

Fred Van Lente: And the larger point, also, I think, was directly engaging readers, not demonizing them, had positive results, right?
Steve Lieber: Definitely. The one long term effect I noted was that sales at conventions were double what I’d expect. That says to me the biggest part was letting people know that the guy who drew the book was an actual human being, and you can meet him.
Steve Lieber: This is not, as they say, a “scalable business model.”
Steve Lieber: Then again, neither is making comics.

I thought pointing out the final (so far) take on that now-classic example was only fair, since it’s a topic that comes up around here every so often. Steve sums it up in terms of any promotional boost getting people talking about the book being a help, but it’s not a predictable avenue.

Meanwhile, Fred makes the excellent point that this one example doesn’t prove anything. If I may extrapolate, it’s also about time to stop talking about it, because it’s way overused. It’s beginning to become as tiresome as people who mention “New Coke” in reference to any change they don’t like, especially if we’re talking about Green Lantern.


2 Responses to “Let’s Retire the Underground Example — Followup Sales Figures”

  1. Thad Says:

    It’s a valuable example if taken for what it is — pirates are, in at least some cases, potential customers.

    Where it breaks down is when people omit those caveats (“in at least some cases” and “potential”).

  2. Kevin J. Maroney Says:

    Thad, the lesson more broadly is:

    Giving away work CAN lead to increased sales.

    I am staggered by the number of people who don’t know about the Baen Free Library, which has been demonstrating that principle for over a decade.




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