The Retailer's View

So I launched a comic store on Free Comic Book Day. It was quite the trick, trying to get things ready for the day with things exploding all around. We had ordered a point of sale system from Diamond, but when we phoned to ask them where it was a week after the supposed delivery date, we were told it had yet to ship. Before that moment, we were assured that it was on its way numerous times. We buckled down, bought the disperate parts of a computer, and assembled the damn thing ourselves with installed software. All in all, by the time we opened our doors to a line of already waiting customers, we were equal parts ready and not ready at all, but prepared enough to make the day work perfectly.

While I’m still new at owning a shop, it appears as though the feeling of prepared chaos is at the heart of running a small business. Measured doses of fear mix with confidence and produce a sheen of outward competence. That’s what I’ve taken from this experience and the numerous books and articles I read about making a go of things.

It will always be a tough go when you’re a relatively small force working against the never-ending tendrils of life and circumstance, but with enough diligence, passion and luck, things can always work out. The trick, it seems, is being able to find creative solutions to problems when they arise, using popsicle sticks and glue with enough ingenuity to hold the weight until you can afford a sturdier foundation. The other trick, is convincing people that what they’re standing on, is concrete.

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Earlier this week, Archie Comics announced a Kickstarter that would see the launch of their #NewRiverdale initiative. Born out of the excitement surrounding the company’s upcoming Archie #1 with Mark Waid and Fiona Staples, the company was (and still is) asking for $350,000 to fund the production and marketing for the first six issues of three companion books in the line – a Jughead title with Chip Zdarsky and an unnamed artist, a Betty and Veronica book with Adam Hughes providing script and art, and a Life with Kevin series, written and drawn by the character’s creator Dan Parent, with inks from artist J. Bone. Needless to say, the internet had questions and opinions about this. Why would a company like Archie need to do a Kickstarter? Were they cash strapped? In trouble? What happens if the Kickstarter isn’t funded? And if it is, where does the money go specifically?

To the company’s credit, they came back and answered most of the questions brought up with swiftness and as much transparency as they could muster. They met the base question of “why seek funding” with vague details about distribution and retail real estate deals with Wal-Mart and Target, and the nebulous costs thereof. If the Kickstarter isn’t funded, they said they would still be moving forward with those titles, but the timelines and formatting might have to change. The biggest question about this Kickstarter that currently remains unanswered is in regards to the breakdown of where the money will go. That’s perfectly understandable, as there’s not a smart business in the world that would willingly divulge the details of various contracts and cost specifics to the general public. That said, there is a disconnect that remains – and it all comes back to the structure that Archie is building for this new line, with this Kickstarter.

I’ve spent a few days reading up on the specifics of this Kickstarter, and I’ve spent a few years ordering comics from this company, so what follows is the appearance of this popsicle structure from this specific vantage point. Please keep in mind, I do not have any inside information on the company, their financials, or the specifics of this Kickstarter beyond what they have willingly offered the public using various platforms and forums. That said, so much of this business is built on perception, that I feel the need to detail exactly what Archie’s structure looks like to a person in my position: the retailer who will be supporting this initiative in store with orders, and the new business man, who just went through the process of procuring funding for his own (smaller scale) project.

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Let’s start with the Kickstarter. I’m a big fan of Kickstarter, and its ability to sell a product directly to customers who need it. If I’m being perfectly honest, going to Kickstarter was an option that we (my business partners and I) were thinking of when we were looking to fund our store. Eventually we decided against it because of the various responsibilities and connotations that Kickstarter brings with it. As with all requests for funding, you have to put forth a solid business plan and superior product in order to receive what you need to go forth. Opting for the relatively easier process of heading to various banking institutions with our hats in hands afforded us the opportunity to detail our plans, services and structure in relative secret. Going with Kickstarter means you have to provide the public with sufficient reasoning to fund your project, as well as the math to back that up.

The big problem Archie Comics is running into involves warring ideas. As a self-sufficient publishing company, they have certain contracts and financial details that they need to keep confidential. However, they are taking a step out of the “self-sufficient” bounds by asking for money – which demands that the math be shown. It might be a popsicle stick solution to a unique problem, but they are doing a poor job in convincing me that it can support the weight.

Don’t get me wrong: Archie as a company isn’t saying anything wrong. They are building a compelling narrative around this Kickstarter that I can get behind. They aren’t Marvel and DC. They don’t have parent companies, and so while they might be big, they’re still relatively small. This affords them the opportunity to move and change with greater ease, but such freedom also comes with a lack of safety net, so to speak. Opportunities arose, and tied up some funds. It happens. What’s losing me are the actions that have surrounded this launch, as well as the product currently being offered with the Kickstarter.

Over the past four years, the company stopped publishing their digest line, and now only produce double digests, and “jumbo” digests. They had a line of seven single issue comics including Archie, Archie and Friends, Betty & Veronica, B&V Spectacular, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead, which – before the announcement of any #NewRiverdale titles, had dwindled down to an almost monthly Archie title, and a bi-monthly Betty & Veronica. Books like Kevin Keller started up and heralded in a wave of change including which brought about titles like Life with Archie, Afterlife with Archie and the new Sabrina series. The first two concluded their runs long ago, while the latter titles have slipped on the publishing schedule hard. Afterlife with Archie #5 shipped a year ago today, and issue #8 just shambled it’s way onto the stands, with #9 still waiting to be resolicited and put back on the schedule. The first issue of Sabrina came out in October, and the second one didn’t ship until April, giving me the opportunity to quit my job and open a small business in between with room to spare. #3 is supposed to come out this May, and issue #4 has yet to be resolicited. At this point, I don’t expect #3 to come out anytime soon, and the subsequent issues of both titles probably won’t be seen until August at the soonest.

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Now additionally, Archie has their Dark Circle line up and running. Conceived as decidedly un-Archie takes on characters in their superhero catalogue, it is the third launch of the line in almost as many years. The first happened in late 2012 when the company launched New Crusaders alongside an ambitious digital program that would later inform Marvel’s own Unlimited app. This came to an abrupt stop a few months later, with plans for the second arc being scrapped after three issues were solicited, never to be published. The line popped up again in late 2013 with the first arc of Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid’s version of The Fox. It too ran five issues before disappearing from the schedule until now. Right now, the Dark Circle line appears to be doing okay. Issues continue to ship, but the new Shield title that is to be part of the line was already bumped back a couple months, and had to be resolicited.

The publisher also promised a Lena Dunham written run on Archie in the first half of this year, that has yet to appear on the schedule. Now, there are almost definitely reasons for all of these things. From my understanding, the superhero line took a couple of tries to stick, and this time it just might – especially given the caliber of work being produced. The horror line had delays owing to writer Roberto Aguire-Sacassa’s involvement in writing a treatment for a pilot based off of the Archie characters that was being considered at Fox, and Francesco Francavilla getting dinged by a car. The Lena Dunham thing? Honestly, she’s probably busy and comics don’t really pay a lot. Learning a new language in comic scripting could have pushed things back, or maybe they’re holding onto it to follow up Mark Waid and Fiona Staples on the main Archie title. It’s hard to say, and I doubt they would tell me the specifics of a project in development like that. Regardless, the company has had a less than stellar track record in terms of content production over the past few years, and the through line seems to be excitement outweighing timing. This Kickstarter seems to be a continuation of this trend, as the company wants to get the full slate of companion titles on the table as swiftly as possible to capitalize on the groundswell of interest that Archie #1 is getting them.

There’s also a problem with the product that is being offered as part of the Kickstarter – which features a bevy of options ranging from print comics to digital downloads. The main thrust seems to be built around physical copies of the books to come, with print comics being offered at the $10 tier. There’s a couple of reasons why this doesn’t quite work. The first is simple: despite whatever digital accoutrement that comes with the physical product, the company is still asking funders to spend $10 on something that will be worth $3.99 on the stands. Beyond that, they are offering the very same product that will be on the stands in comic shops, albeit with a different cover, at some levels. Beyond asking $10 minimum for this privilege, they are ensuring that copies of the self same book will be in the hands of readers who will then not have to go into shops.

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Now, I am completely fine with content taking the most direct approach to the consumer. In a perfect world, that’s the best delivery system for getting product to readers, and even as a retailer, I don’t mind being cut out of that equation. The problem – or at least the problem as I see it – is the fact that with Archie #1 already in hand, there would be a handful of people who won’t come in store to grab a copy from retailers. This in turn could communicate a lack of interest in the product to retailers in some way, shape or form. Even if the book still goes over like gangbusters, who will be returning for the second issues? In addition to figuring out regular reader retention, retailers will have to guess at potential interest from parties who already have first issues.

Walk your digital fingers around this site for a little bit and take a look at the nearest sales chart. Retailers by default are a cautious bunch – and who can really blame them when the product they’re being provided is non-returnable? As a result, they will account for a potential loss sooner than they’ll account for a potential sale more often than not – and that would go doubly for something that they can’t even come close to measuring, like the amount of Kickstarter product Archie will have sent out to their region. Those non-existent customers on day one will be counted as such, and the numbers going forward will reflect that, which is not a good look for this line.

Beyond that, there are things that Archie could do to turn this around. Unfortunately, at this point, they can’t change their recent publication track record – at least not in terms of recent launches. They can put emphasis on their Action line of Sonic and Mega Man comics, which has delivered consistently through out the years. That’s proof positive that they can deliver, and that should clearly be noted. As for the problems with product delivery, if I’m seeking funding from someone (and I was, just recently), they’re going to want to know the specifics of why these delays happened, and what is being done to prevent that from happening going forward.

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As it stands, there’s very little out there that fills me with confidence in terms of how this product will be delivered in a timely manner. Fiona Staples does the art for Saga, and that book comes out on a modified schedule to make sure it comes out on time, as promised. It’s a great system that has allowed the book to soar in terms of creative energy, and physical sales. Is there a sufficient amount of time allotted for Staples to produce the artwork Archie needs in a timely manner while Saga continues? If not, is there a plan in place for the books’ shipping schedule? I know there have been reports that Fiona’s only contracted for three issues, which seems likely given her schedule, and Saga has been promised to continue at its current pace. Would Archie feature rotating artists or creative teams coming in to work on the book as needed? Will there be scheduled breaks occurring in between arcs? Both?

And what of the new books announced? As it stands, Jughead doesn’t have an artist attached, Adam Hughes is a notoriously slow artist, and the company still hasn’t decided what the print component of their Kevin Keller title will be. There seems to be a lot of pieces that have yet to slide in place, and these need to be addressed sooner rather than later. At the very least, something more should be said than Archie Comics CEO and Publisher Jon Goldwater saying, “In an ideal world these books would be monthly, yes. We would strive to have them out as regularly as possible.” Promising to try real hard is quite different than making sure there is a structure in place to ensure the product is delivered in a timely manner conducive to piquing and retaining reader interest and the money of retailers. This absolutely needs to be addressed first and foremost.

The other thing I would do is offer a Kickstarter exclusive product that will attract attention. Offering a product that will soon be available at a reduced price, even with all the digital support, is not enough for consumers, and is counter-productive for the titles’ ongoing sales. If you’re asking for $10 for a $3.99 product, you should make it something that will not be available otherwise. Toss in a digital copy of Archie #1 with a 24 page physical comic. Make eight or twelve of those pages an exclusive story that won’t be available individually otherwise. Fill the rest of the comic with concept art, preview images, or bits of pitch documents. Something like that is worth at least $10, and would go a long way to offering something unique to Kickstarter backers. Essentially: give your investors reason to invest, instead of asking for $10 while handing them a $4 product.

I want Archie to succeed. I want to see these books on the stands, and I want to sell these books to people, because I’m pretty sure they’re going to enjoy them. While I appreciate the unique circumstances the company finds themselves in, they have a lot of work to do in order to convince me that this is the right solution for this point in time – that this popsicle structure will hold the weight of what they’re building on top of it without collapsing. As a retailer, I need to see this before I can place orders with more confidence, and as a consumer and potential investor in this endeavour, I need a little bit more to free the funds to help make this happen. After all, while things might not be ideal, you still need to convince people there’s concrete at the foot of this. That, as it turns out, is what business is all about.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Your article is wonderful. I love the investigative journalism bit about Archie’s questionable track record. I think your opinion is balanced out correctly as well, as you do what these people to succeed, but you are running a business directly affected by their publishing strategies. I think Archie is smart and finding some success in their recent handling of characters, but I think this Kickstarter doesn’t reflect the publisher’s recent smart publishing decisions.

  2. A few loosely related responses:

    1. Huh. Diamond took your money and failed to deliver. Never would have seen that coming.

    2. Pretty regularly, customers come into the LCS asking after comics they heard something about. That turn out to be Kickstarters that have long since concluded. Readers expect this stuff to be available, all the time — I hope that this publicity will generate enough interest to offset any loss in KS presales.

    3. IIRC, they’ve been kind of cagey about what exactly constitutes Staples doing the art.

    4. Just because a (wince) property is universally known, that doesn’t mean it’s rolling in cash.

    5. You, gladly, didn’t bring it up, but I feel the need to ask all the internet experts in running a publishing company how easy it is to “get investors”? And does it seem likely those investors might want to exercise some control over decisions that affect their investments, decisions that may not be in the best interest the creators and creations?

  3. Again: Archie went to Kickstarter because it provides an interest free loan which is also completely risk free since failing to provide a product from Kickstarter gets you neither sued nor jailed. It is not immoral of them to take advantage of a business opportunity like Kickstarter. Anyone who has a problem with companies which are not start-ups using Kickstarter should take their complaints to Kickstarter itself and try to get them to change their rules.

    The retailer complaints also make no sense. Sales data says Archie provides barely any of their revenue. Who cares if Archie wants to sell books in Target or Wal-mart also? And why no similar rage over Marvel and DC also selling comics in big box stores? I don’t think anyone has to worry about Wednesday warriors suddenly making a side trip to Target after buying Marvel and DC stuff at the local shop.

  4. “If you’re asking for $10 for a $3.99 product, you should make it something that will not be available otherwise. ”

    We’ll soon see “Kickstarter Editions”, deluxe versions which are one step above “variant editions”.
    We already see this for books and games. I ordered the “Exploding Kittens” card game, and opted for the extras NSFW deck.

    So we’ll see the Kickstarter Edtion, a blank KS edition, blank editions sketched by the artist or other artists, autographed copies, copies slabbed and graded by CGC…
    In essence, they are “0th printings”, shipping before the actual newsstand/Direct Market editions.

  5. Back in the ’80s, there wasn’t much risk for comics publishing. You offer a title to the Direct Market, they make their orders, you print to order, ship it out, and no returns. If you’re a newsstand publisher, you can balance the Profit & Loss spreadsheet with the Direct Market sales covering whatever loses come from newsstand distribution.

    Even in the 2000s, Top Shelf regularly used the Direct Market to fund the returnable copies sold to bookstores. (I own a third printing of Lost Girls, which arrived at my bookstore two months after the release date.)

    Many stores could subsidize small press titles because they were selling hundreds of copies of Uncanny X-Men and Batman. Those days are long gone.

    Now, it’s more difficult to hit the order minimums at Diamond, and even if you do, you’re not making much of a profit on the book, because Diamond will offer a discount to retailers of 45-55%.

    So, instead, a publisher uses Kickstarter to fund the printing, cutting out the middleman (or making him much smaller via Amazon). For a $10 payment, Amazon takes $1. For a $1 pledge, it would be $0.15. (Grossly simplified.)

    Then you sell to the Direct Market, with little risk, and then to the newsstand.

  6. Thanks for the well written article. I was beginning to think I was the only one out there enjoying Archie, and worried about what’s going on with all their false starts and sputtering stops over the past few years. The slow implosion of their digest line has worried me to no end. I used to see these at my local grocery store and in the checkout lines at Wal-Mart. But sightings have become increasingly rare during the past three years.

    And now the KICKSTARTER project has been cancelled. All this makes me go, “Hmmmmmmmmm,” and wonder more about what’s going on over there.

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