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The Indirect Market: Allow Me To Reintroduce Myself

It's important to say something when things aren't "okay".

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In another life, in another world, I would probably be a grifter.

While I don’t think science has offered any tangible proof of the existence of other forms of reality, the idea still floats around in my head, taking different forms in different moments. Like “who would I be if my parents stayed together”? Would my view on relationships change? That might depend on whether or not the reality in question had parents like my own who proved to be incompatible or parents who found a way to communicate and work through their issues. Do I have the same relationships now? The same points of connectivity? When things got difficult between me and my partner years and years ago, would an example of miserable parents resign me to that style of life, or would the painting of resiliency cause me to question a relative “lack of ease”? Would we still have worked things out?

I’ll never know these answers. You can wonder, but until you’re presented with evidence, you can only guess, and wonder, and create false realities to visit, good or ill.

In the life I actually lived, I was raised by a single mother. My dad left us when my sister and I were quite young and would visit us occasionally. We were loved and supported by my mom, my extended family, and my dad, who just… lived somewhere else.

Sometimes he’d come on the weekend, and my sister and I would be so excited. We’d pack things, stay at dad’s and have a lot of fun. A few years ago, my mom told me that in the early days, she often wouldn’t tell us about times my dad would promise to spend with us, because occasionally, he wouldn’t show up. Something would happen. She wanted us to have positive memories of our dad as kids, so she just… never told us the harder bits. My parents were young. My dad was young.

One summer after my parents separated, he and my mom drove my sister and I down to California to go to Disneyland. The trip from Central Alberta was a long one. They didn’t tell us where we were going to maintain their sanity on the trip. I remember having the absolute best time on that long road trip, because my parents put aside whatever existed between them and decided to give us some great memories.

This type of parenting continued as both my mom and my dad grew up alongside us. As a kid, I always thought parents just had it all together — that you get to a certain age, and things just work. Both of my parents took great pains in different ways to give that appearance, but sometimes the façade would crack. I have a few memories that I won’t share where my childlike understanding of adulthood hurt my parents — where I’d tell someone a thing about our lives and it would embarrass my mom and dad. I regret that. I regret a lot about my younger days.

The author’s first work.

At some point in my youth, I developed a bad habit of lying to avoid every and any bit of conflict. I would pile deceptions to extend what I viewed as “executions.” I would shift blame, or make up a story to buy a bit of time. This is something that lingers in me today, but it’s not nearly as bad as the havoc I caused as a kid. For a period of time, I was also stealing bits of money my mom had stashed around the house. I was tired of never having any money when I was hanging out with friends and thought she wouldn’t miss it.

I didn’t fully grasp the deep pain these actions were causing. My mom was supporting two kids on a single income, just trying to make sure we had a roof over our heads and food for us to eat. In one of those times the lies and thievery caught up to me (I’m ashamed to say this lesson had to be learned a few times over), my mom broke open. In her sadness, her frustration, she asked me why we might be over at my grandparent’s house so often for meals, why we had to work so many bottle drives and log so many volunteer hours to go on band trips. She was an adult just trying to keep things together for her kids, and she had almost nothing but her time, and the bit she got from working at the drugstore, which barely allowed for the appearance of “being okay.”

As an adult, I can look back at what my mom accomplished with more clarity. Things don’t just land when you’re an adult, but we want to make things okay for those around us. We don’t want to cause a worry. Truly, I’m lucky to be able to afford the opportunity to even “keep up appearances” if I so wish.

I was listening to a rewatch podcast for The O.C. the other day, and the show’s creator, Josh Schwartz, ended up talking about how the character of Ryan would always eat dry cereal. In having spoken to folks who had dealt with true poverty in their life, one of the key life lessons Schwartz took away was the fact that you could tell when times were good or bad with a family by whether or not there was milk in the fridge. For folks like myself, who grew up even with the “appearance” of “okay,” there was always milk in the fridge. Some never got that luxury. The character of Ryan, coming from a very disadvantaged background, is often just seen munching dry cereal out of habit.

Which brings me back to the top.

By Brandon Schatz, with edits and contributions by Danica LeBlanc

In another life, in another world, I would probably be a grifter. While I certainly can’t prove it, I’d expect there’s a world where my parents couldn’t afford to monetarily or mentally make things appear to be “okay.” In that world, there’s no milk in the fridge. There’s no smoothing of the rough stuff, no trip to Disney, no lessons taught or learned. There’s just an idiot kid who figured out he can get by pushing the ends out a little further with a well-timed lie and the acquisition of a few more dollars that don’t belong to him. So his friends don’t know things aren’t okay.

I see this kind of life leading down bad roads. Grifters are a huge part of our society today. They’re some of the most successful people in the world, and some of the worst. They enshrine systems that exploit workers to the point where the middle class is swiftly vanishing. They tell us that they hear us and they’re there for us in a commercial and then lobby for the system to continually push the poor down. They push ivermectin, they tout bleach, and they point outside, to the “other” and talk about how the problem isn’t you, it’s them. All for their gain. All for their comfort. To know that anything bad that happens isn’t their fault and that the flaw doesn’t come from the system they’re comfortable with. 

I’m lucky to be where I am, and to be who I am. I’m lucky to have had parents who taught me how to grow up from example. Who, when they finally let the rough patches of life through, did so with compassion. Who weren’t afraid to apologize and accept apologies. Who grew to become what many would assume to be a weird family unit.

When my dad remarried and had kids, my dad and my step-mom made an effort to include my mom, even during the hard parts. I had a half-brother who meant the world to me, who was born with a short life expectancy. There’s an option in that situation to let the hurt take over. It would be understandable.

I have a vivid memory of being in the hospital shortly after he was born. We were told to prepare for the worst. A priest was brought in and the family was asked to pray, and my mom stood to the side. She had driven my sister and I to the hospital and would be my ride home, and she didn’t feel like this was a moment for her. This wasn’t her family. My step-mom and my dad insisted that she join us, telling her specifically, “You are a part of this family.”

There were tears. There were emotions I couldn’t deal with. I was… 10? 11? As an adult, I recognize this as a formative moment. Despite my general move away from organized religion, I still hold onto the emotion of that moment. A family. A unit. Fractured, but whole in a way, with an intent of purpose. To say hello to a new life. To maybe say good-bye and mourn. To come together and send a hope out into the world, and ask for some time. To keep things going, to push the ends out a little further without any malice or selfishness.

This lesson is the thing I remember most about my childhood. This is the thing that codifies how I see my family and how I approach community. While I didn’t intend to get this deep into my past (I was honestly just looking for a short anecdote to talk about choices and circumstances), I think this provides a bit of context to where I am and why I’m writing these columns.

The comic book industry is my life. It’s my blood and my air. It’s my community. It’s my family.

I started reading comics when I was young, starting with Casper digests that I would get as a treat on special occasions, to quietly reading anything and everything new that arrived at the drug store my mom worked at. Every day after school, my sister and I would walk to the store where she worked, and we had to occupy ourselves until her shift was over at 5pm. Those Casper digests occupied me when I wasn’t writing terrible fiction that borrowed heavily from the Animorphs series or, as I got older, sad boy romance stories about finally getting the girl.

When I was finally able to save enough paper route and odd-job money to afford a car, one of the first things I did was open a file at the only comic shop within 100km in any direction. It was about a half-hour drive from where I lived — a dingy place with the kind of carpet that’s been there for too many years, but it had what I wanted. Single issues stopped going to the newsstand a while before this day, and I’d had to make due with two trips to a comic shop a year, usually around my birthday and Christmas.

I was able to curate a tight list of 10 comics that I wanted, and could afford. When I’d stumble across a little extra money, I would ask the proprietor for recommendations and was sent careening out of superheroes and into Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine, David Lapham and Rich Veitch, among others. It wasn’t enough – I couldn’t afford enough – so I went looking for other options. Luckily, Marvel and CrossGen were offering chunks of their line for free on the internet using weird new comic readers. I absolutely devoured these books, and access to a greater library than I could afford dragged me deeper into the medium.

At this point, I started digging into forums, and writing about the things that I loved. I nabbed a “job” at a site called ComiXtreme where I ended up doing a lot of absolutely bizarre stuff before I got a job at a comic store, and started writing about my experiences. I called the thing “Me vs The Angry Mob”, and it was atrocious, just like everything else that I write.

I soon became tired of what seemed to be a growing negativity on the site and others, and in forums in general, and started an unsearchable website with a good pal called Comics! The Blog. The raison d’être (hi, sorry, I’m very Canadian) of that site was to approach everything we wrote with an air of positivity. If we didn’t think something was working, we tried to be constructive instead of destructive. It was the most prolific writing period of my life, with content happening every weekday for several years.

One of the better headers I made for C!TB

Eventually, Danica and I opened Variant Edition, and the writing slowed to a crawl. The owners of the shop I used to work at had all but checked out long ago and had painted a very inaccurate picture of what comic shop ownership was like. What I’ve discovered is, you can care and live in the product as the manager and sleep well. You could also slack and hire smartly as an owner and sleep well. But caring and running the day to day while also being an owner? There’s a lot of work and restlessness in that, and it doesn’t stop.

Regardless, during this time, Heidi saw a value in my perspective and offered me a platform here. Her mistake has allowed me to continue talking about this industry and my perspective on it for quite a few years, and during that time, I’ve grown. I used to be angry. Very angry. To an extent, I still am, but as the world becomes more fractious and petty and cruel, I’m remembering who I am, and the experiences that made me this way.

I was a lonely kid from a poor family. In times when I was untethered (whether I realized it or not) comics provided me an escape, and a community. Meanwhile, my family, as fractured and as dissonant as it could be, provided me a road map for how to live my life. Today, I apply those lessons to the comic industry, and to my views of the direct market.

I believe that we are living in an incredible period of change, both in the world at large, and in the comic book industry specifically. I believe that the direct market collapsed a while ago, and we’ve been mourning for some time. Or at least I feel as though I have been.

Several people in the industry have pointed out to me both directly and indirectly that the industry has seen an overall growth for years, with sales during 2021 being especially robust. And I love that. I want to encourage these folks to keep the dialogue going (and don’t be afraid of contacting me directly) because I know I have a very specific perspective, and it does not encompass the entirety of the business. I could always learn more, and I can always grow. That said, I have a concern I would like some clarity on.

When I speak on the death of the direct market, and the ability (or lack thereof) regarding print single issues to be the driving force of this industry, I speak in terms of what I can see. In last week’s column, I ran numbers from Comichron that showed how many copies were sold per individual print single issue offered in the direct market. I noted, as the numbers went from over 10 thousand all the way down to around 3.5 thousand within the last decade, that due to various reasons, this wasn’t an accurate measure of sales so much as a measure of how much effort a retailer has to put into each individual item offered to keep things running.

This week, I want to look at a slightly different angle.

Comichron is an invaluable resource for this industry. If you’re at all interested in the numbers of it all, you should definitely check it out.

Here, instead of the amount of individual items offered as print single issues, you see the amount of titles offering unique content that have come out for the past few years. I took these numbers and ran them against the other information I have gathered and found something I’d like more insight on.

From the years of 2015 to 2020, the amount of individual items on sale per actual unique title/issue increased a whopping 34.6% (with the year-to-year varying in between, of course).

In that same time, the dollars earned per unique content/title increased by 8.65% – which means this increased production shows clear diminished returns.

ITEMS PER UNIQUE CONTENT/TITLE:

2015: 2.180

2016: 2.281

2017: 2.499

2018: 2.490

2019: 2.739

2020: 2.935

2015-2020: +34.6%

MONEY EARNED PER UNIQUE CONTENT/TITLE:

2015: $67,674

2016: $69,683

2017: $59,976

2018: $64,830

2019: $66,868

2020: $73,529

2015-2020: +8.65%

But it gets worse.

If you take a look at the average amount of items per unique content/title and use those ratios to figure out how many copies are sold per title, you get a grimmer picture.

AVERAGE COPIES SOLD PER UNIQUE CONTENT:

2015: 10,457

2016: 11,715

2017: 10,616

2018: 9,208

2019: 9,619

2020: 10,625

2015-2020: +1.61%

While the sheer amount of items offered has increased by 34.6% over the past six years, the sales per title have only increased 1.61%.1

When you consider the fact that most variant covers aren’t bought by new readers or even unique readers — that variants are built to be a collectible item designed to goose the numbers — this suggests a terrible trend for the amount of individual people who are actually reading single-issue comics.

I would suggest that this is not the case for graphic novels, given their very different format and sales imperative. For those suggesting that the single issue market is more robust than ever — that it is bringing in a new audience and fueling the market these days — I would like to see what you see. I want to see the health here, because I don’t. I see, at best, a stagnation with infinitesimal gains and losses year to year, and given what I’ve seen offered in 2021, I see the gap of items offered and copies sold per title expanding.

Is this the best the direct market has to offer? Is this the growth single issues have to offer the comic industry at large? Things might look okay, there might be milk in the fridge, and we might not be in real trouble, but we’re still struggling, right? It’s why folks seem to break when anything seems to pull at parts of the structure. More strain would ruin things.

I see retailers talking all the time about how “DC ruined everything” with their move away from Diamond. That Marvel’s (and IDW’s) move to Penguin and the rumours of “more to come” are putting too much pressure on the machine. I see folks who are pretending like the system they’ve relied on still works, and then a shift comes and the façade breaks. I don’t think the direct market is okay, and I don’t think a lot of the folks clinging to it do, either. But they’re going to do their best to manage, because that’s what we do.

That all said, if you’re reading this and thinking, “wow, the kid doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” I want to say I don’t want to be your enemy on this. I want to come together on this. I was taught by my family to build instead of break. I was taught to come together. And while I know I have absolutely not heeded those lessons in the (recent, even!) past, I want to make sure we all survive the days to come. I want to look at what we’re doing and where we’re spending our energy, and find the best path forward for us all.

That said, there’s a lot to overcome here. The industry has lived and breathed using a specific format and structure for decades, and things have changed. The world is different, and how we consume things is different, and change is one helluva thing. It won’t be easy.

But we have to do it. We have to come together. To push away the differences, to mourn what has been, and to look forward to the future. One thing I do know is, it is not a journey to be taken alone. We need to take our history with us. The things and the people who brought to to where we are, and shaped this place. We need to recognize the faults in the machine, the things that are broken that can’t be repaired. We need to grow and become the new thing, the better thing, the one that accepts and offers compassion.

The author as Spider-Man on ice. There’s a video of this that I’ll figure out how to get online one day.

Before I wrap up, I want to mention that my half-brother did end up coming home with my dad and step-mom. He ended up being a part of our lives for a good two-and-a-half years. He met my youngest sister just before he passed and bestowed upon the family so many lessons, despite never speaking a word. 

I believe we have this one life. I believe that if there’s something else after this, that’s wonderful, but if this is what we have, then truly everything we do today and tomorrow are the only things that matter. The smiles that kid gave, they were someone living their best life.

I’m not going to live my life helping pretend things are okay when they’re not. That’s why so many of these columns often bring in elements from the larger world, and the flaws that strain has shown in the systems that surround us. It’s all the same, just on different scales, whether it’s the larger world, the comic industry, or some idiot’s story about himself and his family and why he might say what he says.

The comic industry has never been stronger. I do believe that. But the direct market is not. Publishers are looking for something else, and will continue to do so as paper shortages ramp up, and the timely delivery of dated, serialized product becomes more and more untenable. We don’t need someone to tell us everything’s okay — we need to look at the breakdown and grow from it. Become the next thing.

I won’t accept a place where we have to push 34.6% more covers just to get a 1.61% return in volume. We’re better than this.

So let’s be better.

NEXT TIME…

I do hope that this week’s column does provide some context as to where I’m coming from and why. It wasn’t what I set out to write, but I think it ends up complimenting last week’s “where we are” statement with a “why this approach.”

That said, last week I promised an article about creators and companies finding success with monetizing their products in other venues than the direct market, and I intend to keep that promise. This one got away on me, so I’m just gonna let it lie. Deadlines are a hell of a thing.

Until then.

Industry folks I’ve shared this math with suggest checking these numbers against the top 300 comics sold. That involves a lot more work than I have time for BUT, I do intend to see what the items-to-title and average copies sold ratios for the top companies listed in the near future).

The Indirect Market is a series exploring the post-normal times of the comics industry, and the world. It takes the form of these columns here on The Beat, and far looser missives on Substack. This week, as a dumb treat, I’m going to run the entirety of my “first published work” as listed above. Because I can. Enjoy?

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