About Art 2
Sometimes we forget that comics isn’t just an industry of self-publishers, it’s an industry of SELF-RETAILERS. Thus, everyone is still chiming in on the whole pre-selling at cons thing. Colleen gives a little historical perspective on how folks in artists alley used to be FORBIDDEN to sell their comics . She also explains how that had to change. Johanna has a big wrap-up post that includes the Boom! North Wind matter.

In a follow-up to his many posts on the topic, Brian Hibbs explains why returnability isn’t really an option.

You know, on the face of it, we’d agree whole heartedly, but we were reminded of something interesting the other day. Remember that “Think Future” panel we co-moderated back in November? On it, Diamond’s Bill Schanes said that publishers might want to start thinking about returnability. We don’t remember the context — it was surely no more than a passing comment — but our pal who recalled it said it made more of an impression on him than anything else said on the panel. So…who knows, maybe it’s not as impossible as it seems.

Steven Grant steps in and looks as possible solutions to the Pre-Sell Problem We’ve cut his answers a bit for space:

1) Publishers make all comics sold unannounced at conventions first returnable – but returns must go directly to publishers and not through Diamond. The publisher only has to refund what the retailer owes Diamond, while comics at cons are usually sold for cover price and upwards, so I don’t see where anyone loses. …

2) Publishers should package all “for introduction at conventions” copies under different covers, or in some other way make them distinguishable editions, i.e. effectively not the same comic going out to stores, and a collectors’ item. …

3) Retailers could establish bonds of trust with valued customers, ensuring to the best of their ability that if faced with the possibility of buying the same comic elsewhere earlier, they’d wait to buy at the store instead. Because comics fans are just that trustworthy.

Actually, there’s another solution, suggested here in a comment: let retailers at show buy in to the early shipping copies.

This last one is done sometimes, actually. We can see flaws with all three plans, especially since books are usually just shipping late to begin with. As long as folks think the drop dead deadline is for comics reaching the booth and not Diamond, it will continue to happen.

And retailers will continue to complain about what amounts to nickels and the very occasional dime. Don’t believe us? Take an example proferred right here in our own comment thread. Jackie Estrada sells 60 copies of the new issue of Wolff & Byrd. at a show. At a $2.95 cover price and 50% discount (let’s say) retailers are missing out on a grand total of $88.50 in profits.

Even the notorious one- volume Bone comes out to 400 x $40 x .5 or $8000. Okay a little more change. Let’s divide that up by the 2000 or so comics shops in the US and it’s $4 a store. Admittedly, we’re just hvaing fun with numbers, but as publisher Viyaja Iyer points again ONCE AGAIN IN OUR COMMENTS, the retailers have sold an additional 104,500 copies of 1-volume Bone since then, so everyone should be smiling by now.

This is on another topic entirely — although the blog in question does comment on the matter of the day– but Sean J. Jordan has a site called Story of a Small Publisher which has some very interesting links and info of a technical nature for selling and marketing. (Also a nice plug for this blog, so thanks Sean.) He also has some wisdom:

I remember one year, I was at WizardWorld Chicago visiting a friend in the Artist’s Alley, and the guy sitting next to him was pathetically begging everyone who walked by to “Please buy my book.” I felt sorry for the guy and wanted to help him out, but his book was $10 and it looked awful. It was around 32 pages, Xeroxed, and stapled by hand, with edgy artwork that had lost some of its definition by being copied and letters that we so small I could barely read them. Buying the book would have been a disservice to the guy, because it would have encouraged him to produce a product like this again instead of forcing him to wonder whether or not this comic book thing was really for him, or just a pipe dream.

You nailed it, Sean! DON’T ENCOURAGE PEOPLE! Tough love. That doesn’t mean you can’t give advice, but when people clearly don’t know what they are doing, just say no.


  1. This all seems to come down to timeliness, and while I would never attempt to stiffle creativity, or put a hindrance on someone’s imagination, or attempt to interfere with their craftsmanship, BUT…..if I consistently ran late on my work as (gross over-generalization coming) the comic industry did, then I would have been fired a long time ago.

    I know not everyone is that way, and everybody knows the worst offenders (his initials are Kevin Smith), but routinely books from all publishers/creators do not stick to their monthly schedule. I realize how hard they are to produce, but if you want to be in BUSINESS then you have to run it like a BUSINESS.

    Personally I see this as further proof that “pamphlets” have gone the way of the dodo, triceratops, and fanny packs. Quit trying to put out books on a monthly schedule; you just can’t do it.

    For the record, yes I realize most of the books discussed here have been larger volumes and not the “floppies,” but the point remains valid I believe. This industry I so love suffers from the worst case of student syndrome I’ve ever seen, and if I worked this way (or heaven forbid ran a business like this) then I would routinely expect to have to fight for survivability and constantly squabble with other parties in the industry…much like we see with comics.

    “Dear Comic Books,

    I love you, but you really gotta get your act together.


  2. There are probably closer to 3000 direct market stores than 2000, but the real problem with the Bone formula above is that you can’t really average that cost any way at all. There’s no store anywhere that ordered a fraction of a book. There are stores that ordered one, stores that ordered multiples, and stores that ordered none, but no stores out there ordered twenty-six hundredths of a copy.

    -Captain Math, who was not in business at the time the whole thing happened.

  3. Good points Jonathan.

    The student syndrome, a good term for it.

    Think about the well meaning amateurs ( I’m sorry, but…) who embark into making and trying to sell a comic that is really, honestly and truly not very good.

    Perhaps they have toiled away on this self published epic after work and on weekends, quietly and in a dedicate way, for months and months. But they have never actually shown the material to anyone else, because A: they are sensitive to criticism, B: they have invested so much sweat into this baby already, they do not want to redo the whole darn thing and C:it’s their comic, darn it, and that’s that.

    If it is not successful, do we blame the non-buyers for being non-supportive?

  4. Hibbs wrote a column in his first version of Tilting At Windmills about this topic. He called the publisher selling at cons before he gets the books experience as “death of a thousand cuts.” Everybody points out Bone or whatever, but there are a bunch of other small press titles where the lost sales might be 1 or 3 copies. Taken individually it’s quite small but all together it adds up to his electric bill.

    But I do see the publisher side of it too. Marketing, especially the way retailers want (bring in new readers, not play musical chairs with the ones we got) is quite expensive and likely has a very bad ROI. A lot of titles need to be hand sold in order to sell. It’s impossible for Retailers to hand sell every single deserving title. So publishers do it themselves at conventions.

    But why sell them before retailers get the books? Heidi talked about last minute-itis and that’s probably the correct reason. But the cynical part of me thinks it’s because A) They know they’ll sell more (this weeks new titles are more popular than last weeks, or last year in the conventions case) – and they want those sales to offset production & convention costs. Reason B) Many/Most retailers are only ordering their books for subs. Which means if the subs don’t buy them, they go on the shelf where they might pick up a new reader.

    I’m sure that idea breaks the heart of small press publishers everywhere. Retailers stuck with their books may end up giving it a little extra attention to sell it. And it might turn into repeat sales of the next issue or book they do, which *should* lead to better DM orders in the future.

    But this a short sighted way of doing things. Nobody likes being ‘forced’ to do extra work or take a loss if they don’t (and I suspect most don’t do that extra work, the books just end up in the bins and reinforces the view that small press books don’t sell). Retailers will remember this next year when the next new title is about to debut around convention time. And the cycle of pre-orders only/we need convention sales continues.

  5. Brian (while incorrectly taking on the name of my pal Captain Math) has a basic point. When you talk about the damage that pre-release sales of Amazo-Indy-Book does, you can’t average it among the whole body of DM stores…. because most of the DM stores didn’t order Amazo-Indy-Book. Instead, you’re damaging the possibly-single-digit percent who actually did order. These are the stores that support you, and thus the stores that you least want to tick off, frustrate, or have themselves find that your book moves fewer than expected.

  6. This just confirms that we need to stop fighting over the same existing customers (old comic fans) and try harder to bring in totally new customers.
    The most successful comic shops seem to be doing this already.

    The amount of money being talked about/fought over makes “comics” not even seem like a real industry if we are really that fragile.

    Publishers like Scholastic go to Comic Con and GIVE AWAY hundreds of copies of the colored Bone books FOR FREE—every year! They did the same thing for the Baby-Sitters Club and their other books at the NYCC (and not to mention Book Expos). They throw lots of parties where you can grab as many copies to take home as you want. They don’t care if a hundred or so comic nerds didn’t buy them at a convention or a retailer. Because their longterm plan is to get those books into peoples hands so they can read them, talk about them, spread the word, show their friends and convince the millions of people who weren’t at the con to go out and buy them down the road (from retailers). They are shooting for much higher goals, loyal readers, and bigger profits.
    TokyoPop is similar in how they always give away tons of books at each con., have entire books that you can read online for free etc.
    Obviously most comic companies don’t have the same marketing budgets
    But we can all learn a lot from the bigger picture they paint.

  7. Brian’s math only works out when there is a demand for the product in question. As I recall, the black-and-white glut wiped out many stores and some distributors in the late 1980s, and the general collapse of the market in the early 1990s, when the speculator bubble burst, wiped out a whole lot more. It took nearly 10 years for the market to recover.

    What the direct market does is remove much of the risk for the publisher when a product is poorly received or demand for a particular product suddenly wanes. The result is that the retailers take all the risk and they fold like a lawn chair when sales start to go south.

    Before the DM, it was the publishers who took most of the risk, and they were thus very careful about what they foisted upon the distributors and the customer.

    One other aspect of the DM that Brian does not address is that it actually restricts, to some degree, the growth of sales. In recent years, publishers have avoided overprinting, so if there is a book that suddenly experiences strong sales, there are never enough copies to meet demand. In those cases, people like me, who never pre-order comics, never even see the book. This also goes for the new, walk-in customer. The result? A book that perhaps could have sold 120,000 copies may only end up selling 70,000. Reprinting the book is a gamble, because by the time re-orders are gathered, and the new copies printed, the interest may have flagged. If that happens, who gets screwed? Yep, the retailer.

    In the 1970s, before the direct market, a sell-through of, say, 55 percent was considered good. But if the book suddenly became hot, the publisher could make a killing with a 75-80 percent sell-through. But if the book bombed, it would have zero impact on the retailer’s bottom line. To maximize his/her profits, all the retailer had to make sure of is that the periodicals they put on the limited shelf space were good sellers and not stinkers.

    Personally, I think comics retailers — despite the deeper discounts — almost always get the shorter end of the stick by dealing with non-returnable items.

    Then again, I could be wrong…


  8. Nat – I think that your use of the term “damages” is inflammatory and totally wrong in this instance.

    As much as you may want to think otherwise, there are those who never attend any conventions either due to location, interest or age restrictions. However they do read the news on the internet and see Con promotions and then go to their local shop to see when the book is coming out so they can buy it.

    Likewise, some fans loan copies out to others and then that friend orders a copy for himself.

    The fact that Jeff Smith sold X number of copies of BONE to convention attendees only stimulated the market for people to eventually buy the book at their LCS and bookstore.

    That isn’t damage. It’s business.

    Dave Roman’s excellent point re: Scholastic and Tokyopop shows that the “taste for free” model works as does the Boom Studios strategy. Now its up to retailers and publishers to get together and understand how it works and how it can work for them.

    This all reminds me of how in the early 1920’s, record companies were fighting radio because they thought that giving away music for free over the radio would destroy the record industry. Instead it stimulated more and more record buying.

    Re: Don’t encourage people – agreed. Be a person of discriminating taste, and don’t support those who want to get paid for their substandard, uninteresting work. There used to be the fan press for this sort of thing, but everyone now wants money for it. The fact is that no one deserves to have a career in any creative endeavor, they must work at it.

  9. Note to Brian: I have it on fairly good information that there almost certainly closer to 2000 comic book shops than 3000, FWIW.

  10. @JEH: Diamond has consistently claimed that roughly 3200 different accounts buy at least one piece of BACKLIST from them each year — if these aren’t “comics stores”, who are they?


  11. I think I fall into the camp that believes that retailers may actually be able to MAKE more money by publishers hand selling at cons which creates buzz and excitement which translates into order for books which means money in the pockets of retailers. BUT… I also don’t see why more publishers can’t alert retailers that they plan on doing this- though if retailers started to “punish” publishers for doing so by not ordering books they otherwise would have I can see why. However, would retailers REALLY be willing to leave money on the table and cut off their nose to spite their face? Hmmm….

  12. Does this mean that review copies are hurting store sales too? Reviewers are dedicated fans, but they don’t buy the book from a retailer. That free copy generates buzz, some good some bad, which helps sales, just like a Con creates buzz.

  13. Bill: I’m sorry that the term “damages” confuses you, but it is an accurate reflection of the situation as experienced by many of the folks actually involved. They find themselves with books sitting on their shelves because the people they expected to sell them to saw it first at a pre-release at a convention and purchased it there.
    If the publishers want to deal in an honest and forthright manner, they will announce -before retailers order the book- their intention to premiere it at a show. That way, those retailers who feel such a premiere will help sales will be encouraged to order more, while those feel it will hurt them will have the information needed to make their ordering decision.
    Because the DM is made up of many independent retailers, the mere shifting of expected sales can create increased wholesale sales and thus the illusion of increased sell-through. Say retailer A and retailer B each accurately expect to sell 5 copies of WonderBook, and order those 5. If the publisher pulls some unexpected stunt that increases sales near A and decreases it near B (and this need not be something that moves individual customers, but merely a promotion that different folks in different places react different places.) Retailer A may now have 10 customers for it, so he sells his 5, reorders, sells another 5. Retailer B now has 5 copies gathering dust on the shelves. The publisher of WonderBook has sold 15 copies, the sales reports will reflect 15 copies, but the sell-through was only the 10 copies that the retailers had originally anticipated, and the retailing community as a whole has made less money because of it.

  14. Point of information. When I paid to have inserts for STRANGEWAYS put into all Diamond invoices this very week, I was required to furnish 4500 copies. I doubt Diamond would want to keep extras around. My guess is a significant percentage of those accounts buy cards and toys and order light on the comics, because I can’t think of 4500 comics stores, even counting Canadian and overseas stores who might have Diamond accounts.

  15. I fear I’m beating a dead horse, but it’s worth the beating so…

    This whole debate is another example of a market in blind and fear driven retreat, trying to crawl into a shell and save every last cell from perceived danger – but in doing so it stops eating, breathing, and hastens it’s own death.

    We have so few ways to effectively promote our books as is. And the retailers want us to loose one of the best of them left to save themselves maybe at best a $100 collectively here and there? And in fact, it may well be that it made them several $100 more here and there through increased over all demand if the book found an audience.

    ALL the more so in the case of early releases at cons, that’s the WHOLE and ONLY point for me and I think most of us on the creating end of things. Thinking otherwise is really a bit paranoid. Building up a bit of a early buzz about a book is purpose built to encourage readers to take an interest, to excite them, to get some to see it and say to the rest ‘hey this is tasty, you need to try it out’ and thus also not just encourage retailers to buy more, but HELP them sell the ones they do.

  16. I think I keep forgetting to add into this discussion that if the problem is retailers getting stuck with books that their own customers pre-ordered and bought elsewhere (which seems to be on the of the big retailer arguments brought out from time to time) then how it this the fault of publishers?

    Perhaps the next white paper needs to be formulating a way to create a better guarantee for retailers that their customers pick up books they ordered as I can’t think of one store that asks for any kind of deposit of stuff ordered through Previews- though sometimes the big ticket statues and stuff may get them to ask for something up front but I don’t think it happens much with books.

  17. Nat said:”Bill: I’m sorry that the term “damages” confuses you, but it is an accurate reflection of the situation as experienced by many of the folks actually involved. They find themselves with books sitting on their shelves because the people they expected to sell them to saw it first at a pre-release at a convention and purchased it there.”

    Nat, I’d like to hear a SPECIFIC example of two books that caused two retailers to experience “damages.”

    And if anyone else cares to chime in from the retail or publishing fronts – I’d like to hear of situations where people heard of a book or saw a book or bought a book at a con and later bought it (or subsequent vols. ) at their LCS. Or possibly referred the book to a fellow fan who went and bought it.

    I’m willing to bet that those “lost sales” at the con more than made up for themselves when the customers came back to the store looking for more material from that publisher or by that creator.

    See, I’ve had someone from Tokyopop give me a copy of Skull Man and I went and bought the rest in the series at my LCS. After that free taste I was hooked.

    Nat, you and I can agree that the publishers should announce their promotions and give their retailers tips on how to maximize that con promotion at their store. That’s just good business for all. I also agree that you should hold customers to their orders.

    But I am telling you now there will come a day when ALL comics will be delivered via the web for free to readers. Later those comics will be collected in big print editions which retailers will sell. No periodicals in print. The economy and the ecology won’t allow it.

  18. I’m curious as to why people assume that roughly 100 ComicPro retailers, much of them quite experience and among the “best” stores, are lying when they say early release at conventions hurt them? I understand they haven’t given concrete numerical evidence along with their position paper but why are people automatically dismissing them when they say it hurts them? Do people think retailers are only imagining lost sales? Or at the minimum money tied up in slower moving inventory that messes with their cash flows and prevents them from ordering aggressively on something else? I mean they wrote a position paper about it, don’t you think where there is smoke there at least might be fire?

    I do understand the other arguments quite well. Some fans want to buy it from the creators. The publishers can enthusiastically hand sell the books while the retailers can’t. A lot of stores don’t buy the comics for the racks so this is the only real chance to see the books, etc..

    Nobody has really said how any of that would change for the worse if the books were on sale at DM stores two weeks prior to the convention. Unless, umm.. they KNOW that they are selling to some customers that already pre-ordered the book and would rather have that money for themselves.

  19. Jamie Coville said: “I’m curious as to why people assume… stores, are lying when they say early release at conventions hurt them? I understand they haven’t given concrete numerical evidence along with their position paper but why are people automatically dismissing them when they say it hurts them?”

    It’s because they –

    1) Haven’t given concrete numerical evidence as you say.

    2) Haven’t factored in other sales from referrals as I mentioned above.

    3) Don’t realize other industries do it all the time (Home entertainment, automotive, fashion) and to great positive effect to the retail market.

    Like I said, there needs to be coordination amongst the players for an effective con promotion that retailers can get behind instead of their pointing the finger and saying “Evil publishers.”

    And while I loathe dredging up this particular equine carcass and beating it again, we all know of many retailers who are ignorant of, or inadequately equipped to deal with “retail business” in the comics “industry.”
    (To be fair there are many “publishers” out there in the same boat and taking on water).

    “Problems” in any industry are opportunities for business and they should be approached and solved in that manner. Con promotions are a “problem” that should be solved and not the subject of the “blame game.”

  20. Publishers need to exploit every opportunity to generate a buzz about their product if they are to survive in this business. Initial roll-out of product at comics conventions (which are, in effect, nothing more than the equivalent to trade shows in other industries), is a perfectly acceptable way of doing that. It generates an initial flurry of media attention and Internet buzz, and also kick starts the sales process.

    As Bill points out, this process is normal ops for other industries.

    And I would argue that the buzz created by these rollouts actually bring in more sales than are lost, because there will be no demand for a product that no one is aware is out there.

    As I alluded to earlier, I hate the DM system because it conditions retailers to order primarily what they need (i.e., what their pull customers ask for), with few (if any) extras to go out on the rack. And, since I almost never pre-order books, there is a lot of product I never even see until its third or fourth issue. This immediately eliminates my interest in any miniseries or continued story arc (which is what, 90 percent of what’s out there now?), because I absolutely hate to jump into the middle of a story where I have absolutely no idea what is going on.

    Why don’t I pre-order my stuff? Simple. I’m old school, and I’m art-centric, and I thus like to see what I’m buying before I actually shell out my dough. But as stubborn as my buying habits may be, they mirror those of the new customer — something that is crucial for any retailer/publisher who is trying to grow their business. So if I never see the hot book of the month, neither will any new customers, stunting sales its growth potential. In many cases, the current state of the DM almost guarantees the pre-orders for issue #2 will be lower than a premier issue.

    In the old days, when everything was returnable and there was zero risk (except taking up shelf space) for retailers to take a stack of copies of a new title, the sales of a book like “Amazing Spider-Man” could rise rapidly each month, as word-of-mouth among new readers fueled demand.

    Today, that is difficult achieve with the cloistered, incartificially constricted DM system.

    Only in the future, when print-on-demand or electronic download is widespread, will the market return to a truly open one again.

  21. I’m trying to sell a 1977 Amazing Spiderman pocket book edition issues 1-6 (plus Amazing Fantasy) number 81443 in near mint conditions for a little under book value(price might have changed) of $150,000 for $100,000. Please contact me if you have any information on selling this item at [email protected]. Thank You.

  22. I’m trying to sell a 1977 Amazing Spiderman pocket book edition issues 1-6 (plus Amazing Fantasy) number 81443 in near mint conditions for a little under book value(price might have changed) of $150,000 for $100,000. Please contact me if you have any information on selling this item at [email protected]. Thank You.