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NYCC ’16: Karen Berger Was Right About the Direct Market

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Karen Berger made a long overdue public appearance to talk about the comic market at the ICV2 conference on Thursday.  Alex Lu’s recap has a bit of that.  I’m sure you saw a few more pull quotes floating around Twitter.

I will grant you that it did sound like Karen might be stumping for a job running a graphic novel imprint for a mainstream publisher, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.  And these are things that are worth talking about.

Variant Covers / Doesn’t Anyone Remember the 90s?

I’ve been saying this myself for a while, and if you read The Beat regularly, I’m sure you’ve read me getting exasperated about it… yet so far the collectors keep buying.  The trouble with these markets is at some point they bust.  And they way all the publishers keep cranking out more and more, scarcer and scarcer (this more expensive when you factor in the number of copies that must be purchased to obtain them) variants.  So far, nothing’s collapsed.  But is it really a wise thing to be pushing your luck with 10-20% of your income?  (It’s been said that variants are 10-20% of Marvel’s income.)

If the variants crash, that’s a big sales hole you need climb out of and there’s bound to be some retailers left holding the bag.  In a non-returnable system, it’s the over-ordering retailer that always gets left holding the bag.  That’s just the way it works.

In the 90s, everything went variant-crazy and enhanced cover crazy. Investors swooped in to load up on collectibles and when they realized there was no way that kind of overproduction was going to accumulate short term returns, the market tanked with their exit.  If didn’t exactly help that editorial quality was in a downward spiral at the time, so the double whammy of catering to investors while alienating longtime readers.  Hard not to see a cautionary analogue.

Karen’s asking why everyone is so willing to play with fire?  Nobody’s going to begrudge a few variants, but when you’re doing a 1,000 to 1 variant that’s a blown up panel from an old comic?  Yeah, that’s silly and you better hope the people who collect variants don’t think it’s silly, too.  That’s how trouble starts.

On the other hand, if it’s propping up your monthly sales, what else can you do?  Nobody’s going to admit that’s the case, but it sure does make a person wonder.

Greater Diversity Outside the DM

This is true, but it probably needs a bit of nuance.

Yes, laying out the capital for to be able to get those variants likely does eat up retailer dollars that could be used for offering a wider variety of books.  Hold that thought, I’m going to come back to it.

When you talk about greater variety outside the DM, you need to be a little specific.  There are two or three things that DO seem to do better outside the DM.  Young Adult?  That’s gotten so big, DC and Marvel are chasing it and are making more YA available to the DM as a side effect.  Whether the rank and file knows how to sell YA or get kids into their stores… that’s an open question.  10-20% of the stores do.  50%?  I’m not so sure.

Manga’s almost always had a higher profile outside the DM.  I’ve heard multiple retailers tell me that’s as much an expertise issue as anything else and I’ve had multiple retailers tell me they prefer to do a lot of their manga on a returnable basis through a traditional book distributor… so there’s probably more manga in the DM that the Diamond charts indicate, but it’s still more of an outside the DM thing.

Alt-comics, or what we used to call art house comics, tend to do better outside the DM.  Although, again, you sometimes hear dealers saying it’s easier to order some of this fare through bookstore channels, so it might be a hair stronger in the DM than It looks on paper, since that’s not going to show up in either Bookscan or the Diamond chart.

Outside all that, we really need to see the 2016 Bookscan numbers to compare other genres to the DM.  The sheer depth of titles stocked by the DM means a lot of things will have greater sales there, even if under-represented, but it’s entirely possible some things are finding their audience on the outside.  Particularly Amazon ordering, but Amazon and print books is another conversation entirely.

Doesn’t Anyone Remember the 80s?

So going back to that comment about variants eating up retailer dollars.  DC and Marvel didn’t always put out 50+ issues each month.  It used to be more like 30 and there DID used to be a little more diversity in subject matter.  In the mid-90s, DC and Marvel – especially Marvel – started flooding the market.  I don’t know if it’s ever been officially acknowledged they were trying to soak up as much available shelf space and retailer dollars as possible to squeeze the competition off the racks, but that’s the commonly head belief of a lot of people and it makes since if you view shelf space as a zero sum game.

Back in the 80s, DC was still publishing a few comics like Warlord (one of their few bright spots before New Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes took off), Sgt. Rock, Blackhawk, Atari Force, Jonah Hex and so forth.  Marvel had Master of Kung Fu in the early 80s, the science fiction of Micronauts and Rom, Conan lasted into the 90s.  Conan used to be a top seller into the early ‘80s.  Is this a ton of diversity of genre? Not really, but a bit more than it seems like is able to survive right now at the Big 2.

But with the indies in the 80s, it was a lot easier to find them at any given store and you had a broad range of genre.  American Flagg!, Grimjack, Nexus, DNAgents, Crossfire, Airboy, Cerebus, TMNT, The Eagle, The Realm, Miracleman, Boris the Bear, Scout, Ms. Tree, Elfquest, Cerebus, Elementals, Mage, Grendel and Jon Sable, Freelance are all comics that come to mind and span the science fiction, fantasy and detective genres.  You even had some superhero trappings thrown in. For that matter Marvel’s Epic imprint had Dreadstar and Alien Legion among other, shorter series.  Several different publishers and while not all comic shops were created equally, it was a lot easier to track down those various titles than it can be to track down independent comics today.  And they seemed to sell better… although there were also a lot more shops back then.

Image, IDW, Dynamite, BOOM! and the rest of the independent DM-centric publishers have a lot of SF/F options for you and an increasing amount of YA, but it’s a matter of whether you’re near a store that stocks them for the rack.

Other than availability, the other big difference is that it was easier for an independent publisher to sell superheroes back then.  While Valiant has a lot of superhero trappings, they’re really more SF/F adventure comics.  Invincible is probably the only straight up superhero comic to get much traction since Marvel bought the Ultraverse.

Karen’s Right

The DM, as a whole, really has backed itself into a demographic and genre corner.  Oh 20% of the shops have taken steps not to get cornered, but there’s a lot of shops that are very dependent on DC and Marvel’s output.  Shops that would be sweating bullets right now if Rebirth wasn’t getting initial traction.

There is a question of demographics and widening things up.  There’s also the small matter of retailers being able to get that new demographic into their shops.  This is where you can get into another danger area. It’s not a good idea to tell your existing demographic to go jump in the lake before you have a new demographic in place and buying.

DC managed to drive off their audience twice in less than a decade (their “baby, please come back – I won’t do it again” pitch to the audience has worked so far with Rebirth) and Marvel’s non #1 issues sure aren’t looking very hot as they reposition themselves for the next round of their regularly scheduled relaunch cycle.

On the other hand, if you can get a 100K order or two from the Scholastic book fair each month, that’s going to paper over a whole lot of lower sales in the DM.  It’s a question of whether the DM can pull in that Scholastic crowd and if anybody wants to service the audience that may be left behind as editorial priorities change.

It’s a complicated equation of who can produce work that a given demographic likes and whether it can get placed where that demographic can get at it.  If the demographic doesn’t like it, it won’t work.  If the retailer or retail outlet can’t reach that demographic, it won’t work. Unfortunately, quality work doesn’t always find its audience.

And so we’re left to ponder Karen’s concerns and wonder which genres and reader demographics will be catered to and where that catering is going to happen.  Alas, once size doesn’t always fit all and different people are going to want to read different titles.  I do fear the publishers don’t always acknowledge when they do target different niches.

Want to learn more about how comics publishing and digital comics work?  Try Todd’s book, Economics of Digital Comics or try some fiction.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Great article! Karen Berger could not be more spot-on. In my store, variants have been dead for a long time. I no longer order them even if I meet the minimums with my regular orders.

    The comic fan demographic is totally different today than it was just a few years ago. The flood of new readers are not remotely interested in floppies or super-heroes. They want diverse and sophisticated graphic novels that are not about men in spandex beating the snot out of each other, and that is something the old guard at the Marvel and DC are totally out of touch with.

    This past Saturday was spectacular sales wise. As I stood behind my counter and looked out at the activity on the sales floor, I marveled at the excited and diverse crowd in my store. It was easily 50/50 male and female and racially diverse as well. All age groups were represented. But what was painfully obvious was that all of the excitement was centered around our graphic novels, all ages graphic novels and manga areas. The floppy area was pretty much a ghost town.

    The print sales percentages for the day were as follows:
    Graphic Novel Sales = 62%
    Manga Sales = 27%
    Floppy Sales = 11%

    The time of the floppy comic is coming to an end. Prepare yourselves. In my store floppy sales have been declining since September 2015 by double digits (Except for the much flaunted month of August 2016, when they only declined by 7%). October is already back to a double digit decline. Marvel is in complete sales free fall with DC already falling into the standard rate of attrition mode.

    Graphic novels on the other hand have been increasing by double digits since I started keeping track back in January of 2014.

    In the past when ordering new comics, it used to be about predicting how many copies to order for increased demand. Now it is all about predicting how many copies to order for the inevitable decrease in demand for monthly comics. The continued production of monthly comics are a doomed business model at best. What are the publishers going to do?

  2. Same old fears. The market will adapt. Stores will add variety outside of traditional sales. The quality of comics has never been better. As long as the stories are told through floppies, trades, or digital, the audience will find and read them. Holding on to the traditional sales model will only lead to the problems of the 90’s.

  3. Just to be clear, the comics market is in great shape. Graphic novels and Manga are on fire. The problem is with floppies. They are no longer viable and not of much interest to today’s comic fans.

  4. For me personally when it comes to the whole Young Adult or Adult comics in general I seriously question the quality. The quanity is growing but not the qulaity. The fact that comics are regressing in sophicated story telling and books from over 40’s years ago like corto maltese are still the golden standard is a troubling sign. Granted there the exceptions but very very few. And just so we’re clear I am not saying all books have to on par with Corto Maltese but I feel like we are still missing the mark here

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