[The following was written as part of a blog roundtable hosted by Women Write About Comics on the sustainability of the direct market and comics growth.]
We’re entering a period of disruption, if we’re not already well into it. Is it something in the air, an upcoming election, the increasing consolidation of big media/big tech, millennials taking over? Probably all of that. And how does that affect comics? Of late the “slow patch” hit by direct market periodicals due to faltering by the Big Two seems to have cast all of this into discussion. Kate Leth, a creator and also a former comics shop employee, has a much linked to post about the direct market process which talks about how pre-ordering is key in what she calls a “system [that] is so deeply twisted”:
This process puts pressure on everyone – on creators to drum up interest in the series and therefore promote sales, on publishers to push the book on stores and the potential audience, on stores to stock and sell the comic (often without knowing how it might do – what’s real online buzz/enthusiasm and what’s marketing?) and especially on consumers to spend as much money as humanly possible.
This is why we ask you to pre-order, but we know it’s strange. We don’t want to pressure you to spend money in a way you don’t want, or at least I don’t. I understand that books are prettier than single issues. I didn’t come from money, I get it. When we ask (speaking for myself anyway) we’re asking you to buy if you CAN, and I hope at least this post explains why we’re asking. We’re not trying to milk you for money or exploit our fan bases, we often just want our books not to get cancelled, we want the shops not to close, and we want to keep doing what it is that we do.
The key truth of the direct market is that the consumer for the entire system is the retailer. The comics reader is really part of a resale market. Pre-ordering—to let retailers know there is interest in a book—is such a key mantra for creators, specially those at Image or other creator driven imprints, that Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie made a fumetti out of it.
Before going on with this, let’s take a look at where we are. ICv2 released September numbers, that backed up the slow patch, showing periodical growth down in Q3:
After posting a robust year-over-year growth of 16.46% for the first half of 2015, sales of comics slipped 8.8% in the third quarter vs. Q3 of 2014 according to figures released today by Diamond Comic Distributors. September comic book sales were down 19.62% from September of 2014.
A substantial portion of the decline appears to have been in Marvel sales, as its share was down substantially behind delays in the core Secret Wars title that are rippling through much of the company’s line (see “Are Marvel Delays Affecting Market?”). Marvel’s share, at 32.67%, is approximately eight points below where it was running regularly just a few months ago (see “Marvel Continues Summer Domination”).
However graphic novel sales remain strong with a Q3 growth of 9.32% over Q3 2014. These sales helped keep the decline for the entire market in Q3 2015 at -2.98% from 2014. And as ICv2’s Milton Griepp points out, comics hit another rough patch early in 2014, and bounced back. While Marvel and DC’s current problems aren’t awesome, they are far from fatal and don’t presage The End Of Comics As We Know It™.
At the 2014 White Paper that Griepp presented at NYCC, where the slow patch was mentioned, figures showed a pretty strong overall growth in all channels over the last decade. Here is a slide from the White Paper ©ICv2 showing this.
Overall, it’s a very healthy trend line. But still, here comes disruption! A few weeks ago there was a blog roundtable devoted to the question posed by Loser City’s Nick Hanover, “Is it possible for comics to grow sustainably if the direct market continues to dominate distribution?” hosted at Women Write About Comics reflecting the anxiety of the retailer as end point of the system. The readers may be fine but they are also blocked by backwards thinking retailers. Several very thoughtful essays were penned, several by people with retail experience. Loser City’s David Fairbanks, wrote:
The direct market is clearly most beneficial for superhero comics as well as comics that are superhero adjacent that might get a few orders from small shops on the hope they will break even or make a small profit. Basically, if a store owner is flipping through Previews and sees a comic from some smaller publisher that has a heavy sci-fi or horror bend, they know there is a chance they can sell at least half of them and break even, if not sell all 4 issues they order and pocket a few bucks. But many of them don’t make enough money to justify going out of their way to take risks on books they don’t know will sell with their customers, and it’s hard for me not to sympathize with that. I worked in a shop for 3 years, and while I loved it, it was tough to sell some people on really good comics. Now imagine having to go to a small press’s website because they aren’t even in Previews. It doesn’t usually happen in a small town, small comic shop environment.
Christian Hoffer relected both the DM’s staying power and the disruption of sidestepping it entirely:
Industry trends suggest the direct market isn’t going anywhere. Diamond’s sales figures has shown five consecutive years of growth, moving more stock and generating more revenue than at any point since the 1990s. Even the concept of the comics store is engrained in the consciousness of mainstream culture. Thanks to television shows like The Simpsons or Big Bang Theory, comics has become tied to the image of the specialized comics store, filled with posters and merchandise promoting their favorite superhero store. Common sensibility suggests that the direct market is here to stay, with all of its limiting flaws and warts.
But despite the sentiment that comics are forever intertwined with the direct market, more and more creators and publishers are finding ways to circumnavigate the system. The comics medium has never been more accessible, thanks to the almost limitless supply of web comics available on the Internet. Creators and publishers have discovered that crowdfunding can be used as an alternative distribution service, allowing fans to support comics projects without ever having to walk into a comic store. There’s also a growing market for comics in traditional bookstores and the rising popularity of digital comics from services like Comixology to take in account, as well as the growing convention circuit that allows creators the chance to hand sell their comics directly to fans. And, that’s not even factoring in that the largest retailer in comics probably isn’t a comic book store chain, it’s Amazon.com.
At Women Write About Comics, there were various responses with Kate Tanski pointing out some of the more social problems of the system:
The direct market distribution system for comics reminds me of the patronage system of ancient Rome, with the comics companies as the patrons, and the consumers as the clients. When I was a young classics student, my professor took great pleasure in describing the salutatio, or morning greeting ritual, that the clients and friends would do every morning. The lower your rank, the earlier in the morning you had to wake up in order to greet your first patron, and then you and the patron would move to the next patron, and so, on, and so on, en masse.
Now, I can’t help but wonder if the direct market is the new salutatio, with certain comics having to be pre-ordered earlier and earlier, sight unseen, based on the insidious concept of “support;” the flawed premise that these direct market pre-sales are a demonstration of your dedication “to the cause,” especially if that cause is underrepresented demographics. If you want to see more comics like this one, we’re told, you need to buy it. Otherwise, you’re proving that comics “like this,” (featuring women and other underrepresented groups) don’t sell.
A lot of this anxiety over the State of the Industry is doubtless due to the general disruption in the air, but also the idea that change isn’t happening or not happening fast enough. It is true that today we see immense changes in the DM, mostly because of an increased response to the influx of female readers to the market. The perceived changes in the comics market over the last five years were summed up in this Buzzfeed headline: 5 Years Ago Marvel Comics Had Zero Female-Led Titles, Today They Have 17. When I tweeted it I prefaced it with “Follow the money” which is clearly what Marvel is doing.
But the actual headline was bullshit. Five years ago, there actually were several female led titles at Marvel, including Valkyrie, Anita Blake, Sense and Sensibility (!), Black Cat (written by comics “newcomer” Jen Van Meter), Black Widow, Hawkeye & Mockingbird, Shadowland: Elektra (art by Emma Rios), Shadowland: Daughters of the Shadow, Shadowland: Blood on the Streets, X-23 (written by Marjorie Liu) and the Girl Comics anthology collection. That’s 9 titles, which is a lot more than 0, if less than 17. True, most were minis, but it’s nice to see that no one actually remembers anything about comics except little niggling continuity matters.
What do I think? I think the comics market HAS been growing sustainably even though it is led by the Direct Market! Of course there are problems, but examining what has worked and is working is important to solving ongoing problems.
As someone who has been fighting the battle for 30 years (cut to a shot of the onion on my belt) upgrading and modernizing retailers has always been the thin edge of the wedge. As Hoffer says, the DM isn’t going anywhere for now THANK GOD, as opposed to five years ago when everyone thought that brick and mortar retailing would be dead in a month. As the ICv2 chart shows, digital has been additive, and more retailers are millennials as well. The big breakthroughs—allowing women and children to read and purchase comics—have largely been fought and won OUTSIDE the DM, but to forward looking millennial retailers, a dollar is a dollar, no matter who spends it. People are individuals and comics retailing is a marginal business at best but even little upticks help the bottom line. If Lady Thor sells as well as Boy Thor, only Twitter bigots will be outraged.
The book market and reading is the outlier of digital disruption. People like holding a beautiful object in their hand, and a Kindle is an alternative not the “real” thing. We need to question all these assumptions, and create a more responsive direct market so that a reader plowing through a 500 page distributors catalog and preordering isn’t the lifeblood of innovation. But for a lot of the anxious onlookers, taking a look at the whole picture may show more chokepoints where a little effort can yield better results.
To my mind, the most important retail development of the last two years may well be The Valkyries, the loose confederation of female comics shop employees created by Leth, that has already had an impact on ordering patterns at stores. At the recent Diamond sales conference I asked several folks in the marketing end of comics whether they had heard of the Valkyries, and to my surprise several hadn’t. (Don’t you people read Publishers Weekly???) An Extremely Senior Industry Figure told me he didn’t know what it was until I explained more about it, although I suspect he was just trolling me. (This ESIF is way too smart not to know that.) Quick Stop owner Dennis Barger is an Extremely Controversial Industry Figure (and I’m just fueling him by saying that) but he’s hired a female shop manager and the store now hosts a Women’s Comics Night.
I’m well aware that when I see seemingly intractable problems that I fought for 20 years solved, I may be painting a more rosy picture than younger industry watchers who are encountering a whole different set of issues from a different viewpoint. I don’t want to be like the old timers who say “We tried that 30 years ago and it didn’t work!” That said, the comics industry is going through some changes—and some companies are having a very rocky ride of it, tho that is another blog post—but I believe we have some pretty good tools for moving things in a positive direction. The next step for all of is is figuring out processes for making that happen and where the inflection points for change lie.
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.