It is the time of the month when industry figures fret about the Future of Comics. No slight intended—we do it all the time, too, and a few remarkable clear and essential posts about The Way It Is have just been made. So let’s review:
Things kick off with Mark Waid‘s new blog detailing his move to digital comics, in which he lays out the realities of comics distribution, from the Diamond benevolent monopoly to the economics of printing to the brutal realities of geography:
Big And Scary Bit Of Math #2: How many retail outlets nationwide does Diamond serve? If you’re a small publisher, how many stores can you hope to get your comic into? If you guessed more than two thousand, you’re dreaming. Maybe two thousand, and that includes every tiny sports-card shop or private individual who maintains an account with the distributor by ordering the bare minimum amount of merchandise monthly for their own collections, not for resale. It’s pretty sobering to realize that four regions–California, New York, Texas and the Chicago area–account for a jaw-dropping majority of comics stores across America. Last time I looked, for instance, if you live anywhere between Memphis, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi, there are no comics stores to be found. And that’s just one example of their scarcity. Those of us who live in major metropolitan areas lose sight of how hard it is just to find a damn comic book at all in, say, Prattville, Alabama or Tupelo, Mississippi. Distribution is awful, and it’s only getting worse as stores struggle.
The comments section is also full of smart observations from industry participants, and well worth digging into. Waid is right about all the maths…it’s a very special game and anyone who can play it and win deserves many kudos.
Among those still beating the odds? Brian Wood. And here he explains the fundamental truth about the American comics industry that every creator must embrace:The Retailer Is The Customer:
I ran some numbers the other day. Looking at some recent numbers on my Vertigo books, Northlanders sells about 8000 an issue in actual numbers. Retailer friends of mine confirm that the general consensus is that there are about 1800 comic shops out there. That means, roughly, 4.5 copies per store. But what about a place like Midtown Comics, who seem to order 40 copies in just the one branch (of three) I sometimes visit? That right there means quite a few shops not ordering it at all. What about Jim Hanley’s, the Isotope, Golden Apple, TFAW, Mile High, Casablanca Comics, and all the others? For every shop out there ordering more than 4.5 copies of Northlanders means several others just not bothering at all. I live in Brooklyn, and can think of at least two comic shops within a couple miles of me that don’t carry Northlanders. Or DMZ. Or most small press books. I’ve been called out a few times in the past for saying that most retailers don’t carry my books, but I honestly believe this to be the case. And what does that say about the books of other creators who don’t yet have 14 years of awareness built up?
Again, read the whole thing and the comments.
And to complete the trinity, retailer Brian Hibbs has his own take on the State of Things, essentially agreeing with Waid and Wood but throwing in a particularly unwelcome reality: not all comics were created equal.
There was a point when Diamond, the big bad monopoly that they are, pretty much let almost any piece of crap come to market (I think mostly because they were concerned about being labeled as the monopoly), and what happened? The catalog swelled, sales collapsed, and suddenly they’re distributing hundreds of utterly unprofitable comics that simply didn’t have any commercial potential of any kind. Even today I have to say I can easily think of at least 5 publishers who truly don’t deserve the privilege of access to the market, because in multiple years of publishing, they’ve never come close to publishing something of lasting value.
That’s right, creators and publishers, some of your comics are crap and don’t deserve to sell. And sometimes you know it! Hibbs has his own take on the local/numbers relationship:
Let’s take INCORRUPTIBLE, for our example, because Mark used it as well. The most recent issue, #27, which came out six weeks ago, has only sold two copies at Comix Experience, so far, one of those to a preorder. There’s one more sub copy sitting in the store, unbought so far, but it is safe to say I will ultimately sell it, bringing the total to three copies. Keep in mind that I brought in five, which means I’m almost certainly going to lose money on #27 (though that’s my own fault because I misread the stronger sales on #25 as being permanent)
I’ve never once sold 100% out of an issue of INCORRUPTIBLE in less than 45 days, and the most I’ve ever sold of a single issue was 10 copies of #1 (on 12 ordered). It’s just been a very slow leak over the last 2+ years until I’m down to 3 copies sold.
And I’m a reasonable sized store (#2, I think, in volume) in a major metropolitan market, and I can’t shift four copies with a subscriber base of 125, and a stores that handles at least 1000 transactions a month, and yet there’s an expectation that it’s somehow wrong that a store in Tupelo, MS doesn’t carry the book in the first place? That hardly sounds rational. It sounds more to me like the natural market response to a product that is aimed at a niche segment (people who want non-Marvel/DC versions of…) of a niche genre (…superheroes…) of a niche medium (…comics) and, as such, you should actually be THRILLED that as many as 500 stores carry it.
Yes, but…there’s nothing to say that there isn’t a Tupelo consumer who might like INCORRUPTIBLE, too. This isn’t a regional bagels vs grits/shorts vs thermals debate. It’s entertainment. Surely people in Tupelo watch The Simpsons or Family Guy or HUNGER GAMES or something that isn’t superheroes…
So who is to blame?
CREATORS/PUBLISHERS for turning out mediocre product in a glutted market.
RETAILERS for catering to a closed market of narrow genre readers.
DIAMOND just for being DIAMOND.
How do we BREAK THE CHAIN?
We’ll have to ponder that over the weekend. But we will leave you with MacDonald’s 3rd Law of Comics: “When most people talk about saving the comics industry, what they really mean is saving their JOB in the comics industry.” Waid, Wood, and Hibbs are all trying to do the latter, and along the way, helping with the former.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.