During last week’s ComicsPRO meeting in Portland, Boom! Studios was elevated to a Premier publisher with Diamond, comics’ biggest distributor. (Dynamite was also elevated.) It’s a huge deal for both companies, who join IDW, Dark Horse and Image in the front of Diamond’s massive 500+ page Previews catalog and get other perks from Diamond. (Marvel and DC are also Premier publishers, but both have their own separate catalogs now.)
Filip Sablik, Boom!’s President of Publishing and Marketing, offered to talk to The Beat to explain more of what this means and discuss industry issues in general, as well as how Boom’s various imprints fared during 2017: Studios (the mainline imprint for adults) Archaia (the graphic novel imprint), Boom Box (YA creator driven works) and KaBOOM! (kids comics.) He’d just returned from ComicsPRO and felt very optimistic about the tone of the meeting.
THE BEAT: What does it mean in layman’s terms that you are now a Premier publisher?
FILIP SABLIK: I think there are two pieces to it. On the one hand, it’s nice to have Diamond, and by extension the industry, and retailers recognize that we are the caliber and the category of publisher that is a peer for folks that have amazing track records like Image and IDW and Dark Horse. It’s great to have that recognition and to be in that company. But I think the other piece of it is, on a practical basis, it means that we will more than likely be seen by a greater number of retailers, which is a pretty tremendous opportunity for a publisher like us.
It varies from title to title and varies in every given month, but I would say that anywhere between 40 to 50% of the shops that have accounts with Diamond never make it past the upfront portion of the book. And so on a really fundamental level, it’s opening the door to sell to an entirely new audience. That is incredibly exciting
THE BEAT: People get bored after going through just 200 pages!
SABLIK: Yeah, it’s a big catalog and we also know that in any retail situation there is a limit on shelf space, there’s only so many square feet in any given store. It’s a validation. Just like when you walk into a retail location and you see merchandise on the end caps or in the front, it’s telling you to pay attention to those things. It’s an endorsement in some fashion.
THE BEAT: I know there are other advantages that come with being a premier publisher that are not as easily seen by the public. But it also means that Diamond is really more of a partner, right?
SABLIK: Correct. It’s a deeper relationship with one of our two primary distributors and the key one for the comic shop market. It means that retailers are likely to see more direct communication through Diamond about product. Obviously there’s a different group of spotlighted items for the Premiers than there is for the rest of the catalog. And you know the material that [Premier vendors] put out is more prominently covered in all Diamond’s publications, which was exciting. At the core of it, without getting too deep into the details, it’s a deeper relationship with a really important partner.
THE BEAT: Let’s talk a little bit about the current situation. You’ve always been very candid talking about how the industry is hitting slow patches, then speeding up again. It’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster ride in the last few years but definitely there’s a slowdown that’s happened of late. What can you say about Boom’s 2017? And how are things are looking going into 2018?
SABLIK: Yeah, I don’t think anyone would look at 2017 and the initial moments of 2018 and say that there is a rising tide or an easy path forward. But I think where [Boom has] been fortunate is in reading the tea leaves of the industry and taking a long term view. We actually had a really solid 2017. We had a number of things that were real victories for us at the beginning of the year. We launched WWE and the Planet Of The Apes/Green Lantern crossover book. Those were the top indie selling books of that month. We had Grass Kings come out which was a big win with Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins and then towards the tail end of the year we had Bolivar, which is turned into the best-selling original graphic novel in the history of the company.
And so there are some real victories there and some real wins. In the meantime we’ve made real efforts to be the best partner that we can be to retailers and give them resources and incentives to continue to work with us and reduce some of their risk. All in all, we felt like at the end of the year we were in a really good position relative to where the market was. Going into 2018, I look at it and I say I have twice as many retailers to sell to as I did the prior year. I think we have a really good product mix and a really good positioning within the market to do some cool things. So we’re cautiously optimistic.
THE BEAT: You worked at Diamond, and Top Cow. Looking at it from a longer perspective, how do you see this time right now? As you know, there is a tendency in comics to always say the sky is falling, the industry will be dead in a month or two months if we’re lucky. How do you see this period fitting in?
SABLIK: I would actually almost take an opposite view. Not to be too Pollyanna but I think The awareness for comic books and graphic novels and the acceptance of it as something where people with virtually any kind of interest can find something to entertain them [has never been higher.]. I think the future for comics as a medium is actually incredibly bright. The direct market as it has existed for, certainly, the entire time I’ve been a working professional, probably you would say the same thing: it’s been so heavily reliant on the choices that Marvel and DC make. This market is definitely much more impacted by turns of fortune for those two publishers than, let’s say, the book market or the library market which I don’t think are feeling the shift in quite the same way.
I came out of ComicsPRO, after talking to retailers, having a sense they’re actively looking at how do we further diversify our offerings? How do we work with more publishers? How do we not be so reliant on one or two suppliers to make sure that that our business is healthy?
For the long term, I think that’s great. But you know in the short term it is going to mean that some folks are going to feel the pinch. Retailers and publishers are going to occasionally have to make some tough choices.
THE BEAT: I think the doomsayers are just that. It’s more this kind of persistent trope. But it definitely is a time when I think a lot of people are reassessing how their core business works. And certainly having you and Dynamite join the Premier publishers is a sign of that.
SABLIK: Yeah and I think it creates some exciting conversations within the direct market. Obviously when you look at the moves Diamond is making, it’s not just Boom! and Dynamite moving up to Premier, they’re reevaluating how they’re approaching the entire Previews catalog. There are some interesting initiatives going on but things like PULLBOX are looking to close the gap between the direct line of communication that we have to fans with social media and converting those into orders incomic shops. That’s all really exciting. At ComicsPRO I talked to a lot of retailers and obviously these are some of the best and brightest that our industry has to offer. But most of them said, while they were down in 2017, it wasn’t by a catastrophic numbers. They all had a very measured and healthy outlook. We’ve seen some stores close already at the end of the year, we’ll probably see more stores close in 2018. But at the same time I’m seeing stores open, I’m seeing stores add locations and so it’s really a period of transition. The change is tough to go through but it’s not inherently a good or a bad thing.
THE BEAT: What can you say about PULLBOX? How does that impact you as a publisher?
SABLIK: I think it’s a little early to say specifically about PULLBOX but I think conceptually what is exciting about it is the industry inherently has a lot of hurdles that we ask the consumer to jump over to get to the product. In a post-Amazon world, post-video on demand world, that’s more and more challenging because we’re used to a world where we can pick up our smartphone and within three clicks have something on its way to us, and it’s here tomorrow with virtually no effort.
THE BEAT: Yeah, here comes the drone.
SABLIK: There’s obviously a ton of nuance and ways to look at that future. But what’s exciting is that as a publisher we can use these incredible levers that we have with social media and with direct consumer contact through email, newsletters and conventions and connect them with the retailer more directly. And have that person be able to place that order and then just be able to pick it up. I think it will help publishers like Boom! that are very active engaging with our licensee partners and with our creators to create buzz. It will help the consumer because hopefully it means that they are more likely to be able to get the thing that they want when they come to a comic shop. I’m really looking forward to digging a little bit deeper into it and kind of seeing how the system works. But I think the potential is really exciting definitely.
THE BEAT: Okay. I saw the YALSA (Yong Adult LIbrary Services) top ten list came out recently. And there were two Boom Box titles on it. I’ve seen some Boom Box titles really get traction and build excitement, but perhaps more in the bookstore and library markets than in the direct market. Can you talk a little about that?
SABLIK: The support we’ve gotten from libraries and educators specifically for Boom Box, but in a slightly lesser degree with KaBOOM!, has been great. It’s the benefit of having a hit. No matter what segment of the market we’re looking at, hits are what drives the business. So when you have something like Lumberjanes, it puts you on the map with librarians. It’s a combination of having the right creative and the right packaging and then being in the right moment in time. Lumberjanes debuted and really started to build steam around the same time that there was an influx of younger, excited librarians coming into positions of buying power. They really championed it. If you look at what made Lumberjanes the success that it is—and we’ve sold over a million copies of Lumberjanes worldwide—I think it is the direct market taking a position on it early. And then what I noticed was a lot of young librarians were comics shop customers and so they were buying those books and single issues. And then when they had an opportunity to bring it into their systems they did. That’s just had this really great afterglow effect on Boom Box. Thus far I think we’ve been able to support incredible creators and so they continue to be supportive of us. I wish I could say that it was all orchestrated from the beginning but the reality is that like most things, when you’re making these creative decisions and you believe in the work, you try to position it as well as you can. And then every once in a while you’re lucky enough to catch lightning in a bottle.
THE BEAT: There’s been so much discussion of sales figures. How did your kid’s material do overall in 2017? Looking through the lists I’ve seen, they really do show that kids graphic novels are on fire right now. This seems to be a very fast growing segment.
SABLIK: Yeah I think that’s true. DC really aggressively getting into the space now is a great indicator that there’s an opportunity in that segment. From our end, KaBOOM! and Boom Box have always been the biggest drivers for us in the book market. Adventure Time started it for us back in 2012-2013 and that’s continued with Steven Universe and Over the Garden Wall. We’ve got some really encouraging initial orders on the Nickelodeon collections that we’re putting out with Rugrats and Rocco’s Modern Life that will be coming out this summer. It’s been an area of growth for us for four years now. If you look at our business the drivers for us in the book market are KaBOOM! and Boom Box. The drivers for us in the direct market tend to be Studios and Archaia. If you look at those four imprints they almost match up proportionately within those two markets. There’s still room to grow there. I think there’s a lot of hungry readers that are looking for content. And historically that particular segment has functioned much closer to traditional book publishing where you have really big name authors producing work every two to four years. With Lumberjanes, where there are three volumes out a year, it’s a brand that you can follow and a property that you can get excited about.
THE BEAT: Right. Well, you know in this “dark time” there are a lot of bright spots.
SABLIK: There are. On the Premier side with the comic shop market one of the things that we’re really excited to do now that we’re kind of sitting at the big kids table, so to speak, is bring along some of the best practices that we’ve been doing in the back of the book. The way that we interact with the retailers and the support that we give them. You take a long term view and you treat your partners well and you do things like giving them returnability on a monthly basis. We do that with the Boom! Guarantee Program. I don’t know if you saw, but one of the things that we’re doing in the first month that we’re Premier is we’re giving retailers 20% off everything that we’re publishing that month and we’re relisting our top 20 collections at 20% off. What we’re hoping to do is continue to be a really good partner, an example for “Hey this is how we can we can treat our partners so they can have success in this” if you take a long term view.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
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.