And one more speech from last weekend’s ComicsPRO meeting in Charlotte, NC. Retailer (and Beat columnist) Brian Hibbs (owner of Comix Experience in SF) have a “State of the industry” seech and while you’ll recognize some of his themes from his Tilting at Windmills column, here it is in one big satisfying chunk.

National sales are very poor – there are comics in the national top 100 that aren’t even selling twenty thousand copies.  A significant number of stores have closed — perhaps as many as 10% of outlets.

And, as far as I know, every person in this room is working significantly harder — with many of us barely hanging on as our margins have cratered.

So the remit that was given to me was to lay out some blame.

I am happy to do that; in fact, I’m pretty OK at it.  But before I do that, I actually want to start off by saying that I believe that the Direct Market is one of the greatest creations in the history of the intersection of Art & Commerce!

Look: we are a self-created market of entrepreneurs – folks who wear the passion for what we do on our sleeves every waking hour.  We are thousands of independent retailers and creators and, yes, publishers who do the things that we do because we believe in what we’re selling, and, more, we burn to do it.  Nothing delights us more than seeing the spark we hold glowing in our hearts and minds and watching it ignite in the hearts and minds of another!

If we didn’t exist, people would be wistfully dreaming about a system like ours.  Go ask, say, poets if they wouldn’t do anything to have an independent, focused and passionate market like ours.

We are a market that took the ashy embers of a medium that had been crushed by Senate hearings and cultural irrelevance, a medium that had been utterly written off as only viable for sub-literate morons —  and helped fan them into a flame that is now the molten core of the greater entertainment industry.  For the most part, those writers and directors making the TV shows and movies, as well as the teachers and librarians spreading the word to the youngest generations have been able to do so because of our hard long years in the trenches.

However, now we are watching our market crumble away even as “comics culture” takes over the mainstream.

First and foremost, a lot of that blame for that lies with the very people in this room.

Honestly, publishers and creators will only do what they think they can get away with.  I’m going to spend a bit talking about publisher behavior in a minute, but, to a person, we enabled those behaviors!  THEY can’t and won’t publish material unless WE buy it!  Every single order form we turn in is a vote for the future that we want, and a lot of us have been voting actively against our best interests for many years.

I can’t especially blame the publishers for trying to meet our “demand”: if you could get an extra 20% in sales by paying $500 to an artist, and doing a plate change at the printer, why wouldn’t you?  But, as with absolutely everything in the post-Heroes World Direct Market, we lack absolutely anyone willing to stand up and say “No, that’s a little too far”; to protect us against our own worst impulses.  All Markets need brakes and guardrails.

We have, as I see it, two major problems at the publisher level: one of content, and one of the amount of product.   In terms of content, while I think that we’re at a golden age of comics right now, with more amazing material being published than ever before, the base level of quality of our core periodical product in the direct market – the driver of sales and success in our market, both in the superhero universe material as well as most licensed and creator-owned titles – is at a near-historical nadir.

I am not at all convinced that over the last two decades or so that even the minimum amount of effort has been put into developing editorial staff and support at the largest publishers.  Most Editors are desultory at best at that skill set: instead publishers have been emphasizing traffic management and corporate synergy as the most important skills to develop.  Comics are written to fill arbitrary holes in production schedules, rather than to be the best stories they can be.  Creators are encouraged to write for page counts of pre-scheduled collections, rather than crafting each individual periodical release to be satisfying in and of itself, and only allowing the best of that material to go on to permanent book format collection.

Content is, of course, the thing we retailers can impact the least.  “Make better comics” has long been a battle cry, but its out of our direct wheelhouse.  Perhaps the cry should be to “Make better EDITORS”?

There are also, plainly, entirely too many SKUs in the market.  At the front of the process how did we enter a world where they’re offering us twelve different “Spider-Man” branded comics in a single four week period? When exactly did we cross the Rubicon that suggested that bi-weekly or faster production was the right way to make comics, how customers actually want to purchase comics?  Please listen: we are destroying and devaluing our “Blue Chip stocks” rather than drawing in the vast muggle audience to purchase our products.

Publishers are treating the customers as “super fans” who are bottomless ATM machines.  But every working retailer in this room can tell you that this doesn’t match the reality of our customers: the people who want (or even can afford) this endless barrage of material clumping down the pipeline is narrowing and hollowing out month after month, and is soon going to hit a number that is probably not sustainable for any of us.  I still clearly remember the days when I couldn’t order less than ten copies of anything Marvel might produce: I’m even talking Star Comics like Planet Terry and Royal Roy.  If it had the Marvel logo on it, it sold.  But today?  At my store there’s almost a quarter of Marvel’s output from month to month I no longer have the customer interest to even shelf a single copy.

Want a clear and current example of Marvel’s preposterous “flood the zone” strategy?  “War of the Realms” is supposed to be their major Q2 project in 2019, but in the first month alone they’re asking us to buy into TWO issues of the series being released with no sales data, as well as FOUR different tie-in-mini-series.  All six of these comics (which are built around a six issue storyline) will require final orders from us before we’ve sold a single comic to an actual reader.  Is there anyone in this room thinks that this is good? That this is sustainable?  That this will sell more comics to more readers?  That this will sell any copies to people who aren’t already on board Marvel’s periodicals already?

I say to you: we do not need plans or programs that are aimed at selling more comics to the same customers – they really can’t afford and don’t want any more titles to buy – our focus as an industry should be on making our periodical releases more attractive to more new readers, and to grow our base, not simply exploit the existing one.

By the same token, the SKU explosion has expanded out past just number of series, but also into the number of covers and variants we offer on those comics.  In January 2019, I counted a staggering fifty-nine percent of the SKUs offered were variants and alternate covers!  FIFTY. NINE. PERCENT.  This is, in no way, a healthy state of affairs, and it exists at every level of the market: from the top at Marvel, where the aforementioned “War of the Realms” had seventeen different covers on the first issue at initial solicitation, and they’ve also added another eight more at FOC (after, of course, we’ve presold our sets and such) – all of this on a SIX DOLLAR comic.  A customer who actually wanted all 25 copies of that one single release would be asked to spend nearly $150.  On a single issue of a single comic.  This is not a tenable or rational place for us to be as buyers of non-returnable goods – even at a wholesale price of like $68 is far too insane for us to any risk.  This is predatory behavior on the behalf of the largest publisher.

It isn’t just Marvel, of course; this rot and weakness penetrates down to the smallest publishers too: Zenescope and Dynamite and Archie and Action Lab, to name just a few, all seem utterly incapable of producing comics without 2-5 covers apiece, while organizations like Avatar and Boundless and American Mythology appear to have strategies utterly pinned on releasing up-priced variants of the same material for multiple months forward.  None of these models are sustainable, none of them increase the number of READERS by even one.

Listen to me, publishers: this behavior needs to stop! If you can’t sell enough copies of your comic to fit your business goals with one single cover, then you probably shouldn’t be publishing it in the first place!

Too many SKUs, whether from title count or from variant expansion, are actively harmful to the market:  they take time and energy and resources from things we could be doing to SELL more comics.  Not just from your retailer customers, but from the distribution pipeline as well – the more individual SKUs Diamond has to touch, at quantities that (nationally!) can measure in the mere hundreds, the more likely they are to make mistakes, the more likely we are to have overs, shorts and damages, wasting more money and time from everyone and stressing the entire system that much more.

Be clear: I am not arguing for the abolition of Variants altogether; they have a great deal of value and of worth when used intelligently, strategically and with restraint, but putting five covers on some mediocre comic that you’re not even expecting to get over 10k in the national market on the main cover is a path that is leading us straight to doom.


Let’s talk about the third leg of the market: I also want to call on Diamond to step up, and take seriously your job to protect and nurture the Direct Market.  While I certainly appreciate the efforts taken to act as the “bank” of the Direct Market, it’s been too many years since you ceded all of your gatekeeping power.  We retailers are asking you now to do all of the stuff that you should have been doing for decades to protect us:

I am calling today for the following ten point plan:

  1. Stop mixing SKUs for things like minimum orders and chart reporting.  Combining SKUs defeats critical economic Darwinsim needed for a healthy marketplace, and sends clearly distorting messages about how and what is selling.  Each and every line item should stand on its own individually, and if there are variant covers that do not, or can not, meet those paltry $2500 wholesale orders, then it should not be allowed access to the national marketplace.  There’s absolutely no reason to waste everyone’s time, energy and bandwidth for individual covers that less than 200 accounts are purchasing.  Publishers should handle those sales directly with those retailers without involving the national marketplace
  • By the same token, I call again for all sales charts to include a “penetration index” – a simple percentage of how many accounts are purchasing a specific SKU.  SKUs that don’t reach (and this is a number from a hat for a talking point) approximately one store in three probably don’t deserve national distribution.
  • All “Meet-or-Exceeds” must go away, immediately.  Tying one product to another is not only immoral, and creates an environment of “haves” and “have nots”, but I also strongly believe it is against Federal Law.
  • There needs to be a creation of a threshold of what the native sales of a base title must sell (or be projected to sell) that limits the number of variants that are allowed.  I suspect the number is something like “one for every twenty thousand copies sold”, but, again, numbers from a hat.  If you sell 20k or over, you can have a variant cover, 40k and over, you can have two, and so on.  Below those numbers you don’t deserve any.  And there is no universe outside of once-in-a-lifetime events like ACTION #1000, where any single comic should have ten or more covers.
  • If that’s not enough, I also think there should only be a certain percentage of a publisher’s line that should be allowed to be variants.  Again, as a from-the-hat number, I’d suggest a possible number like 25% of their total output.
  • I call for all shipping information to appear on invoices in a box-by-box format.  Shipping is an entire black box at Diamond with very few (or very poor) methods for retailers to understand what this major expense genuinely entails.  Frankly, its time for Diamond to entirely reevaluate how they handle discounts and shipping because as things currently stand, in most cases (including virtually every single “exclusive” publisher) it is actually cheaper to buy most backlist product anywhere but Diamond because almost every other distribution option includes 100% free, or steeply discounted, shipping.
  • FOC needs to be 100% firmly bolted down and locked no later than noon on Fridays.  This includes each and every cover.  Absolutely no changes should be added after this time, and every listing that doesn’t include all art and all information should then be 100% returnable (even if that’s out of Diamond’s end)
  • Without a truly exceptional and out of the ordinary reason, every comic should be listed in PREVIEWS for initial order.  Comics that first get listed on FOC for the first time would then be fully 100% returnable, as we have no way to poll customer data to determine the proper orders.
  • I call for a “Data Summit” in which all stakeholders come together to have an extensive conversation about how why and when to assign “Series Codes” to products.  Such codes have far reaching implications for the working retailer’s ability to properly order comics, to track data, and to make meaningful conversions to our customers.  Diamond regularly, and without reason, assigns series codes to one-shots, while not establishing them for things that are clearly series.  This causes endless problems which have to be worked out individually by retailers at great time and individual expense.
  1. Finally, I call for the first THREE issues of any new series to be fully, no fee, no hoop, returnable from ALL publishers.  This includes one-shots and mini-series.  The only way I see to encourage publishers to be cautious and sober about what they put on to the market (and how they promote it) is to make sure there is a financial incentive to do so, and I think that returns are the mechanism with which to do that – where we are all sharing skin in the game

I think that Comics – the medium – is fine.  The BookScan numbers show what I take to be very sustainable growth among kid’s comics, and all of those kids are going to grow up to be passionate, educated consumers of all manner of comics.  The potential future for comics is insanely bright if we can navigate this moment of greed and darkness within the Direct Market.  What will we do?  And how will we be remembered?

Those are your questions for today.

Thank you.


  1. I wondered how much of this could be achieved from a leverage standpoint simply by retailers organizing; creating a union.

    At least then they might hold sway enough to “vote” as a block and substantively resist things like rampant and expansive variant production and the like.

    Late-stage capitalism makes that pretty darn tough to pull off though.

  2. That’s kind of what Comics Pro is, only they can’t legally be a Union and act in the way that you suggest as that would violate anti-trust laws. So they form as an organization to make their collective voices heard about what’s harming them and what could help them. Individual retailers can ask other retailers to not support practices that are harming the industry as a whole, just like Brian did in his speech.

  3. The first 3 issues from any publisher be returnable? Won’t that pretty much destroy small press publishers? I mean, for major publishers, that makes sense, but it pretty much guarantees that the DM will see a lot fewer small, quirky books. Or am I misunderstanding?

  4. Its my strong belief, Cassandra, that this will get more copies out on the stands where they have a chance to be purchased. Historically real-world copies-back are said to be very very low. Sub 20% in almost all cases.

  5. retailers get together already and take control of Diamond, or form your own distribution platform on the side. That’s not hard. Then you dictate your own terms.

  6. Fifty-nine percent of items in Previews being variants is ridiculous. As a reader, the more gimmicks, variants, and extra price hikes I see, then that is my cue to drop or about a series. Even with Action Comics 1000, I really wanted as many variants as I could get to celebrate and remember the milestone in my collection. But Detective Comics 1000 is $2 more expensive, and the variants are worse, and it’s not a historic milestone anymore. So I ordered an extra 3 variants that I absolutely couldn’t pass up. I’ve avoided any Marvel series for 6 months. I’ve avoided any new Valiant series for 1 year. I’ve cut back my double shipped $3.99/issue series. And I tightly track my anticipated monthly comic costs to a fixed budget. So higher prices and extra shipping are more likely to cause me to drop the offending comic than to buy more than my budget allows.

  7. As someone who has loved and supported the art form for most of my life, I’ll call it what it is now, a disgusting, disgraceful, corrupt industry that deserves to Fail. Hard. (at least with regards to the Top players)

  8. For posterity: Brian told me the “ten percent” of stores estimate was based on the count from the ComicsPro slideshow by Phil Boyle, one which covered closures since mid-2017. Phil’s count, however, encompassed pop culture stores of all kinds, including game stores, hobby shops, and retro video gaming stores. Phil provided me with the list; my estimate is that probably less than half the stores would have had Diamond accounts.

    Further, as in all these cases, it’s worth looking at openings, as well. In a cursory search, I found news articles touting grand openings of 40 separate comics shops in the last twelve months. That would restore a couple of percentage points right there.

  9. Nick: “Even with Action Comics 1000, I really wanted as many variants as I could get to celebrate and remember the milestone in my collection.”

    I just wanted a story to read in that issue. Unfortunately there’s not a one to be found. Just weird little mood pieces, and unfinished thoughts about the character with artists going to waste. Superman #400 it was not.

  10. I remember in the ’90s seeing lists touting over eight thousand comics shops supported by a dozen distributors. Now it seems more like 1,200 comics shops and ONE distributor — and the sales figures have fallen proportionately. In my daughter’s classroom, only three kids besides her have ever held a comic book in their hands, in part leading me to understand that new, fresh distribution venues need to be birthed and nurtured. Seem to me more distributors — with healthy competition and a return to warehouses nearby to which shop owners could drive without spending a ton on shipping — to get things back up and beyond that 8,000 shops level of the ’90s, is critical to bringing the numbers back up. How do young new readerships get excited to buy new comics every month if they never see them? What’s more, I could mow a lawn when I was a kid and buy sixteen comics (including tax!) for my two bucks’ pay. If you pay a kid even 20 bucks to mow that yard now, he’s lucky to be able to afford four comics. Diamond’s system is designed to thrive on their premiere publishers and punish the small ones; the fewer publishers, the less overhead/fulfillment grief for Diamond, which makes real publisher growth in this biz unreachable. Brian Hibbs is a rare real, sane voice out there. I hope they listen to him. It would be a good start.

  11. Since every number anyone cites winds up being repeated somewhere as gospel (as the aforementioned 10% figure has been this weekend), I’d contribute that there are quite a lot more accounts than that, although definitions of what constitutes a full-service store will result in different figures.

    While more locations are definitely desirable, I’ve never felt the store population of the early 1990s was tenable — and I’m not sure the networks of warehouses and trucking fleets made a lot of sense when UPS was available. It seems like they added overhead to the cost of a comic book, and I suspect they would’ve gone away eventually even had the distributor wars never happened.

    Since Diamond’s initial exclusives were signed, several other smaller publishers have grown to the point that they became premiere publishers; for whatever reason, there’s been more longevity to the “middle tier’ publishers over the last decade and a half. That’s part of the industry’s challenge at the moment, because we’ve gone from a market with a smaller number of titles with titanic sales to a sales chart where today’s 400th place book sells twice what the 300th place book sold twenty years ago. There are many more publishers producing titles that sell just well enough that retailers have to care about them.

    Joe Field’s speech from the same event gets into this “skyscrapers” versus “stalks of corn” tension.

  12. Much good in this article. I don’t have a lot of hope for the floppies future. Graphic Novels will be fine, and kids are reading lots of them, but they don’t move up (to older titles) I find, they move out- to novels. Collecting monthly is a chore as a parent, because getting to the store is not always convenient, then dropping a small fortune to catch up is also an issue. I don’t know much about the industry, but I know that the ‘New 52’ is where i cashed out- I went all in on a number of titles that quickly crashed, or turned out to be garbage. I am much more choosy now and buy almost nothing. Even going in the store I see shelf after shelf of crap. Its frustrating because I believe in the art form, but there is little worthwhile published anymore it seems. Maybe my tastes have changed. I think one of the biggest problem is the weight of canon and continuity. If you haven’t read this event series or know that backstory, trying a new title is daunting and in many ways pointless. Here is an idea- get talented writers and artists and let them tell the superman or batman etc. story they want to tell. That’s it. Or plan ahead, and publish three batman GNs a year (for example) so the focus is on books, and stories, not monthly floppies. remove the pipeline pressure of writing, printing, shipping and put that time into better product. I would buy several books a year over a dozen floppies. A slightly different schedule could see a few superman titles per year, done the same way. Ditto Justice League, or Avengers etc. (Just using big names for convenience.) So it might turn out to being me buying a $25GN per month, but its a durable format, and a story that Has been worth the wait, not ‘this month is a filler story’.

    sorry for the rant. It makes me kind of sad that my kids have zero interest in this stuff beyond the movies.

  13. Fire the extreme leftists that have infiltrated the Industry. Super Hero stories these are not. Comic books have always been diverse, what they have not been is far left propaganda. It’s like if the comic book industry had been overtaken by catholics and suddenly they rewrite old characters and new characters to reflect their dogma. But i worry that it’s already to late, Marvel is going to die and with it the industry leaving behing something much smaller. But there will no longer be new X-men or Spiderman stories, not that i currently enjoy those series.

  14. Looking at all this, I am reminded of the circular influences of comics. “How do we make this comic popular? Let’s make it like this paperback novel series. That’s funny, that series was inspired by a comic book.”

  15. It doesn’t appear to me that comic books have always been very liberal.

    It does appear that many important individuals in the American comic book industry have been Jewish.

    If comic book industry insiders, in 2019 are saying that comics have always been liberal from the getgo

    they are saying Jewish creators who helped develop the industry are inherently liberal and are interested in pushing progressive ideology

    This is not true.

    Not every Jewish creator was very socially liberal.

    Liberals need to stop behaving like they speak for everyone with sweeping generalizations.

    aka lies

  16. No offense, but could you all please keep your frickin’ identity politics out of this conversation? That literally has NOTHING to do with the problems we’re discussing here.


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