Despite the fact that I have actively resisted advertising on my site and any sort of merchandising for my old comic Casual Notice, I have also looked into various methods of marketing and merchandising, just out of curiosity. I've also watched other comics, both here and at their home sites and gathered a little intel. My advice (which you may feel free to ignore or accept in whole or in part) is this:
- Collate and/or print your first book collection after about 50-75 pages (150-225 strips, for 3/4-panel comics). Even if yo only publish it as a PDF or Kindle file, you can still see where you stand on postmarket interest. Collection Books are also useful for Convention Marketing, because they allow potential readers to scan your comic without having to rush home and boot up their computer (or flip their tablet off of the convention map/torrent of The Host) to look at your site.
- If asked by friends or family, make a couple of custom T-shirts or Jerseys. You can get a losal shop to do a small (10 or so) silkscreen run for about $150 for a 2-color design and maybe $350-500 for a 4-color design (depending on complexity). This gets you low-cost advertising (off net) and also serves to give you practice in finding the right balance between cost and appearance.
- Bulk printed office items (lighters, keychains, pens, swag bags) are best used as convention giveaways.
In any case, I would advise selling individual items directly from your front page and at conventions before you set up an online store.
_________________Casual Notice--commentary, comics and an appreciation for snappy hats.