By Todd Allen
Last week, I conducted a survey on how people buy their comics. The results of which are eye opening. 67% — a little over 2/3 — of respondents listed a form of pre-ordering as the primary purchasing method.
A few caveats with that:
- This survey is representative of the readership of The Beat. It does not necessarily reflect all comics readers.
- Since this is a survey from an online comics site, this is probably slanted towards dedicated fans, not casual readers.
- I would expect the Digital percentage to be a little higher from an online survey.
- In the comment section on the original survey, many people expressed a use of mixed purchase modes. Most frequently a variation on “I have a pull box, but I also look at the rack and will pick things up there.”
That said, it’s likely the average purchase volume of the dedicated fanbase is higher than casual readers. Certainly, your pull box subscribers tend to order more books. I also have some confidence that a 783 response survey has statistical significance for The Beat’s audience. Particularly since the percentages changed very little once the survey got past 300 responses.
Let’s look at these numbers in a couple different ways. Pull boxes and mail order are forms of pre-ordering. Shopping off the rack and digital tend to be buying as things come out. From that perspective, 58% of the audience pre-orders. If you throw out digital, 67% of the print audience pre-orders. If you just look at people buying comics at physical retail (remove mail order from the equation), then 57.6% pre-orders.
The first thing this says to me:
If the majority of the dedicated consumer base pre-orders, the publisher and/or creators cannot complain when the consumer has a bad reaction to a product announcement solicitation. If the market buys sight unseen, they have the right to complain sight unseen.
Now, if you think that buying sight unseen is a strange market… well, I might agree with you there.
Yes, some of the pull box people will wait to make a decision on a new title until they see it on the rack. Of course, with pull boxes being a significant percentage of sales, those pre-orders are going to have a significant influence on what a retailer orders for the shelf. You also have 19.4% that are going mail order and making the retail rack a secondary thought at best.
Certainly, this trend will have the largest effect on new titles and especially new independent titles. You have to get the pre-ordering consumer’s attention at the same time you’re soliciting the retailer. Normally, selling to a retailer is called “sell-in” (i.e. you’re selling to get IN the stores and on the shelf). It’s a B2B (business selling to another business) sales function. You do that when the Diamond catalog comes out. Then as the comics ship, you switch over to “sell-through” and market to the consumer (B2C, is the jargon for that) . Clearly, there’s a very serious blurring of the lines between sell-in and sell-through in the comics market. Clearly, comic publishers need to be marketing to the consumers at the same time they’re marketing to the retailers. Most industries would look at you like you’re crazy if you said that, but the Direct Market is a strange beast.
Pull boxes and mail order effectively replace the traditional notion of a magazine subscription for collectors. Some of that would explain the percentages. Pull boxes are frequently referred to as “subscription lists” and function as standing orders for many retailers and mail order companies. Which again, makes it a little more interesting launching a new title where you’re effectively looking at people subscribing sight unseen.
I also suspect that the percentages change a lot from shop to shop and city to city. Anecdotally, I’ve found a lot of differences between comic shops, in terms of how easy it was to shop off the rack and how easy it was to just walk in and pick up what you wanted. New York City, for example, is so much of an off the rack town, the common discount method is to give you a rebate after you’ve spent a certain amount of money. (For example, after you spend $100, you’re award $20 credit towards your next purchase.) They don’t keep track of your books, just what you spend and pull boxes are an afterthought. On the other hand, I spend a couple weeks in Iowa, there’s not enough time to pre-order, so I need to call in advance and hope there’s a shelf copy that can be pulled.
The secondary danger with too much of a consumer pre-order mentality is when the shelf stock is too low and potential new readers can’t find what they want. You can’t complain about new readers coming in if you’re not stocking the goods. Make no mistake about it — pull boxes and guaranteed sales are great for the retailers’ bottom line. On the other hand, there are apparently a few stores that may be more of a subscription service than they are a retail establishment. That’s not an unreasonable business model, but it is a different business model.
It would be interesting to see a wider survey on this matter and try to account for more casual readers. (I’m looking at you, Bonfire Agency.)
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.