The Retailer’s View: Eventful

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In August, I went on vacation with my girlfriend (who is now my fiancée) and took some well deserved time away from the store and the world of comics in general. Being Mr. Manager for a shop and writing about comics on the internet doesn’t allow for a lot of extracurriculars, so stepping away for three weeks was a welcome change.

When I returned to the store a week ago, I was met with the sight of the first week’s worth of Future’s End books spilling from the shelves, and almost a longbox of The Death of Wolverine sitting in a box as overstock. Immediately, I felt my heart tighten. This sensation was exacerbated when the first customer of the day walked through the door, grabbed a handful of each lenticular and foil embossed cover and inquired as to what the investment value of the books would be. I smiled even as my veins filled with poison, and I told them what I tell everybody: if there was a science to making money off of comics, I would be a far richer man than the one you see today.

SUDDENLY TIGERS
SUDDENLY TIGERS

Let’s take a few steps back and give a little context for Future’s End and The Death of Wolverine. Given the fact that you’re reading an article about comic book retail on the internet, it’s probably safe to say you know the basics, so we’ll skip past the bits about the how’s and why’s of both series and go knee deep into the retail bits.

As detailed in my first column for this site, DC’s methods for this year’s round of lenticular covers were informed by last year’s madness. In an effort to bypass issues with supply not meeting demand, the company asked that retailers submit their final orders for the books at the end of May. For normal comics, the final order cut off for a book usually arrives three-and-a-half weeks before said issue will hit the shelves, allowing retailers to adjust numbers using relatively current data. Placing orders at the end of May meant extrapolating demand using a set of data that would be better utilized for books shipping in late June or July, which made things hard to balance. On top of that, there were a heap of other troubling things to deal with, such as:

  • Finding a balance between last year’s artificially high demand and this year’s guaranteed supply.
  • Guessing how the line would tie into the weekly shipping Future’s End series, and how that would or would not effect certain books in the line.
  • Trying to set numbers for titles that had yet to debut, such as Grayson.
  • Dealing with the late announcement of the creative teams for each title, and attempting to inform readers about the books that would and would not feature the book’s regular team.
  • Guessing what other retailers within driving distance would order and how it would effect short and long term demand.
  • Discovering some kind of alchemy that would tell me which customers would leave and arrive in the course of a quarter of the year, including the crap chute of “how many students from the nearby university will want to open up files and/or grab comics”.
  • Guessing whether or not the Booster Gold issue was the start of a new ongoing or mini-series or just a one shot.

All of this while dealing with the more regular considerations such as trending audience interest, spending budgets, and oh yeah, placing initial orders for books that were going to start shipping in July, which were solicited alongside them, and due on the same day.

The fact that I have yet to sell out of any of the new lenticular books is a minor miracle, especially considering the fact that I placed my bet on these covers selling only slightly better than the books would sell during a regular month. On the other hand, there are more than a few that I splurged on that didn’t quite ignite interest. Will I sell them all? Probably. The covers are still quite the draw, and will probably turn over regularly in the back issue bins – but for more than a few books, it will take more time than usual to turn my orders into a profit. Luckily, I’m running the kind of store that can weather a line of books taking a bit longer to sell than usual. I shudder to think what would happen to a store who couldn’t easily absorb such a stock. Even if they push through, their purchasing power for the upcoming Christmas season will be severely truncated, causing an ever expanding ripple effect due to a couple of bad hunches.

Death_of_Wolverine_3_Cover

Now, on the other side of things, there’s The Death of Wolverine. Instead of matching DC pound for pound with a bit of line-wide craziness, Marvel opted for the safer track: one big bet on one big event. The comparative risk between the two ventures couldn’t be more different. Over at DC, their event is a gamble that involves almost their entire regular superhero line. Over at Marvel, it’s a gamble that involves the death ($) of one of their most recognizable characters ($$). A decent order was going to be placed on the title regardless, but there were a few things that made this pill a little harder to swallow than most:

  • Marvel was going to ship the book weekly, which meant that proper order adjustments were going to be nearly impossible under the best of conditions.
  • The company was not soliciting the book under the best of conditions – which in this case meant all four issues were solicited early, and with a final order cut off date of July 14th – whole seven and a half weeks before the first issue would hit the stands.
  • The first issue carried with it no less than eight different variants, all requiring different order thresholds to hit – a logistical nightmare.

In the interim, the company didn’t make things any easier. In between the solicitation copy hitting the publication and final orders coming due, they dribbled out several changes to the line up, including foil embossed covers (only the first issue was going to carry that “feature”), along with a price jump “order what you want” Canadian variants (which feature the same covers as the original books with photoshopped CANADIAN features like our flag and the word “CANADA”) and a smattering of more qualified variants. Does your head ache yet? Oh, just you wait.

Death_of_Wolverine 3_Canada Variant
Ohhhhh, Canada.

Two of the variants on tap for issue one – the “Deadpool” and “Skottie Young” covers – required retailers to match All New X-Men #25 orders at 250% if they wanted to get them in. While I generally dislike all variant covers, qualifications like this always grind my gears. First, a retailer has to take a look at their numbers, and determine if this is a smart thing to do. Now, in this instance, All New X-Men #25 was a book that sold an estimated 63,827 copies, so for simplicities sake, let’s say there is a shop out there that ordered 64 copies of that book. Forgetting whether or not they sold through that many copies (because it doesn’t matter to Marvel or Diamond), that means they would have to order at least 160 copies to even qualify to get those covers. Will the money you bring in grabbing all of those extra copies match the money those special covers bring in?

Bonus questions: say you decide against beefing up your numbers. How many customers will you lose out on because they were looking for that specific cover? How many of those customers would have bought more than one copy of The Death of Wolverine? How many would have bought the whole run from you, but are now going to do so elsewhere? How many would have eventually set up a file at your shop? These are all crazy questions, but every retailer has them swirling in their head when they place these orders – and I haven’t even gotten to the really crazy parts yet.

In addition to the 250% covers, Marvel offered variants ranging from “1 for every 50” copies ordered, all the way to “1 for every 500” copies, so even if you could make those 250% numbers work with relative ease, they teased you with something even more unattainable. Dare you go for broke and claw up to 500 copies for your store? If you sell it, and a few of the other variants, will it offset the cost of unsold copies? Even if you attempt to stretch your fingers for this goal, and even if you sell those variants… is it really worth it in the long run? Couldn’t money spent on 500 copies of Wolverine – many of which will end up being remaindered somehow – be put to better use by bringing in a wider range of products? But again, if you don’t try and get that cherry variant, will you be losing out on big money? Can you really afford not to?

The final knife in Marvel’s game to sell a ton of this book came in the form of some bonus ordering incentives. This bit will be easier to show you as a picture than anything else. For issue one and four:

Death of Wolvering Percentages
click to embiggen

And for issues two and three:

Death of Wolverine Percentages
click to embiggen

On the surface, it appears as though they’re helping you out. Want to try and get those crazy variants? We’ve made it a little easier on your wallet, champ. Congrats. Go nuts. Reality happens to be a bit darker than that though. As always, Marvel could give a crap about whether or not you’re selling their books. All they want to do is make sure you’re buying their books. You could purchase 500 copies and set fire to them all for all they care – once they have your money, they’re good.

Now full disclosure: my chain went for the gusto and ordered 500 copies. We took a look at all of the information at our hands, looked at what the books were going to cost us with Marvel’s extra discounts added to the mix, and worked out a system where the numbers worked for us. Given my own personal druthers, I would have gone more in the direction of one of Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows and make the principled stand. I would have ordered something that matched reader demand more than collector demand, but I manage a store that was built and funded by other hands, and at times, I end up serving other interests. I end up walking into the store and seeing a longbox worth of comics sitting in overstock. I also end up seeing a guy spend enough money on a small handful of the variants to offset our cost for the entire set of 500, so it all balances out, I guess. Where was I going with this? Ah yes.

Imagine you’re a retailer. What do you want to order? This goes for both events, by the way, DC’s Future’s End and Marvel’s Death of Wolverine. How do you place your orders? What things do you want to keep in the front of your mind? Do you want to expend the extra effort it takes to put together orders for an entire line of lenticular covers months in advance, or do you opt for the simple solution of ordering what you’d normally order? Do you become bothered by the idea that if you just do regular numbers, collectors might raid your supply and you won’t be left with enough copies to satisfy those who pop into your store every week and grab comics from the shelves? Do you bother adjusting your numbers in order to get variant editions, or do you just let things lie? Will you allow the promise of big money balloon your orders up? Do you make that gamble?

These are the questions that plague a retailer’s mind when they set about ordering your comics month in and month out. Not only are they dealing with variants and odd shipping schedules and order thresholds, but they’re doing so for hundreds of titles each and every month. Not all of them require the same amount of thought, but they all require a modicum of consideration – especially when you have to make sure you order within a budget. You can’t just do all the math for determining orders for an event book and call it a day, you have to consider what that order will do to the rest of your budget. You have to keep things on track so that they don’t spiral out of control – because while there isn’t a science to making money on comics, there’s a surefire way to lose it all: getting lost chasing big money instead of focusing on the actual money you have to spend.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Brandon, I have to say I absolutely love these article and the insight you give in them. Of course, they also totally stress me out. I am happy I got out of the comics retail business before the first 3d cover month. I can’t imagine how crazy it must be placing orders for a month like September. Keep up the good work.

  2. I hope this doesn’t sound offensive, but the thing I value in a retailer is not how many copies of a comic he purchases in order to sell a special variant. I get the pain; I get how frustrating this ‘buy 500 to get the one cool one’ sales technique is to retailers. But I don’t purchase any of that stuff anyway. I don’t like the art or the stories in those Big Event titles.

    I look to the retailer as a person/company who should know more about what is new and interesting than I do. He deals in comics for a living, and probably should work at building a wider customer base than just those who chase the newest printing technique for rarity and financial gain.

    But I DO get it. I get the pain. And it must be frustrating to them.

  3. I honestly don’t think one has to do with the other – not all retailers actively try to build a larger audience, but all of them have to deal with this kind of trouble when placing orders. I find the worst bit of it all is figuring all this stuff out also takes time and money away from selling – but sadly, it can’t be ignored. If it’s ignored, comics aren’t ordered.

  4. ” This sensation was exasperated when the first customer of the day walked through the door, grabbed a handful of each lenticular and foil embossed cover and inquired as to what the investment value of the books would be.” I think you mean ‘exacerbated’ instead of ‘exasperated.’

    Great article!

  5. “Crap chute”…
    This leads directly to the incinerator which heats your store?

    That’s the analogy I use when describing the Direct Market. The copies each store orders are non-returnable. They either have to sell them, or heat the store with them. (They can also recycle them. $100/ton generally.)

    I wonder if we’ll see comic shop co-ops start to form in certain regions. Stores consolidate orders to get better discounts and variants, and a system is worked out to determine who gets which variants.

    Or if you really want to game the system (although it really hurts your discounts), just order one copy of whatever title DC or Marvel publishes, so when the 250% offer hits, it’s easier to reach. (You also use this account to order graphic novels from DC and Marvel, so that the better discount levels are met.) But still… 250x copies? What does that do to major chains like Lone Star and Midtown? 250 is probably their normal order! Multiply it, and you get 62,500!

    I would love to hack Diamond’s data, to see what the general distribution is for orders by store. Mean, median, mode… that sort of thing.

  6. As for the boxes of comics…
    I frequently see warehouse cases of Harvey comics (c.1980) for sale on Heritage Auctions. Keep it in a cool dry place, maybe shrinkwrap it, and perhaps you can make some money back 20 years from now.

    As for the speculator, you can advise him:
    Get it signed, but that will cost you about $50 in gas and comic-con ticket.
    Get it slabbed and graded from CGC, but that will cost $18. Better hope it’s high grade, since there will be thousands of slabbed copies on the market in ten years when the value finally becomes significant.

    Then wait thirty years to make a profit.

    Example: Amazing Spider-Man #252 1984 (30 years ago)
    Currently for sale at Heritage Auctions. CGC 9.6
    1426 graded copies at that number.
    General range of sales price: $88 – $137.

    (I paid $8 back in 1984 to get a back-issue.)

  7. I’d like to see more emphasis on reading the comics for the joy of it, than buying them to seal in plastic for resale. That’s where the search for the new generation of fans needs to go, not on the perceived rarity of signed variants.
    But I realize that there is some profit to be made in selling rare printed material to collectors.

  8. Great article, Brandon. I could feel your stress as I was reading down.

    But it makes me wonder – do you still love comics and what you do and selling comics, in spite of all that?

    @Al – agreed. Sadly, the Big Two don’t think like that. They’re stuck selling to the long-term fans.

  9. Oh yeah, I still love comics. For the most part, my retail articles are skin and bones in terms content opinions, and more opinions on marketing, sales tactics and distribution. I love the medium and the industry, and my main goal is to make sure as many people as possible are reading comics. There’s enough variety out there that there’s something for everyone – it’s just a matter of matching that up – and dealing with variants and thresholds and special gimmicks gets in the way of that more than it helps anything.

  10. “I also end up seeing a guy spend enough money on a small handful of the variants to offset our cost for the entire set of 500”

    There does seem to be something wonderfully plutocratic about it all.

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