Navigating monthly orders is a bone-numbing pain. I feel as though this is something I write a variation of in most of these columns. The sensation clearly remains. It’s a thankless process that rarely ends happily, with hundreds of order codes to run through and thousands of bits of data to think of. In the end, you will always mess up on several orders. You’ll discover this months down the line when you’re staring at empty shelf slots a couple hours into new comic book day or a section choked with product on the following Tuesday. At best, you can use your knowledge to mitigate any huge losses, and come out winning more often than you lose – but you’ll still lose, and you’ll still lose often.
How’s that for a cold open?
A bit wary about placing the order for THEY’RE NOT LIKE US. Stephenson’s trackrecord as publisher? Great. Creater? Terrible at deadlines.
— Brandon Schatz (@soupytoasterson) October 20, 2014
When I was going through last month’s Previews, I ran straight into the listing for Eric Stephenson and Simon Gane’s They’re Not Like Us and immediately took the internet to drop some misspelled opinions. I had been looking over the solicitation for a month at that point, and had been wondering what I was going to do when the time came to punch in some numbers. Over the course of the month, I waited for an interview to pop up regarding the book so that I’d have a little bit more to go on than what was in the solicitation. Nothing was forthcoming, so as I stared at the listing, I went through the contents of my gut to see what it thought.
I knew that the series would be good – or at least, would be a book that would appeal to me. I was familiar with Stephenson’s work through Nowhere Men and Long Hot Summer and was a fan. Gane, I knew from projects like The Vinyl Underground and Paris, and knew him to be an amazing draftsman. There was preview art and a cover that boasted contributions from the amazing Jordie Bellaire and Fonografiks with the promise that both would be a part of the series. These were all things that filled me with confidence in my ability to move this book, and gave me a vague idea as to the audience that I would be aiming for with it. I was also clearly worried about the book’s schedule, and how it would effect the sales and interest in the series.
As much as I liked (and like) Stephenson as a writer, my internal notes were telling me that this was a series that probably wouldn’t ship on time. I was basing this purely on the track record of his most recent series, Nowhere Men, which started off with a strong opening (both critically and sales-wise) before petering off into obscurity as the book slid further and further off schedule. By the time the sixth issue shipped, my sales were but a fraction of what I had started with for all of the usual reasons. Some took the waiting period as a sign that they should give up on the singles and wait for the collections. Others forgot about the book’s existence and plot and decided to leave it on the shelf when it finally arrived. Still more pulled it out of their budgeting calculations as other books moved in to fill the gap. The result had clearly left a bad taste in my mouth, one that led to my ordering dilemma.
Now I should note, shortly after sending the tweet out into the wild, I was greeted with a chorus that pointed to a google document Nowhere Men artist Nate Bellegarde had posted claiming full responsibility for the delays. I had not seen this, and plugging around the comics internet digs up very few news sites that actually linked to the information. This is unfortunately the fate of late books – no matter the reason (and Nate in particular had and has some very good reasons for the book’s disappearance), lateness results in disinterest, and disinterest results in lower sales. This, of course, translates to a hesitance on the part of a retailer in ordering a creator’s new books, which brings us back to the main point.
Armed with some incomplete information, I was ready to place an order far lower than I normally would for a book I think people are going to enjoy. The reverberating effects of this notion are quite wide-ranging. For example, I’m a guy who regularly checks comic book news sites, and has built up a network of folks who are ready to hand me some extra information should the situation require it. I’m not the norm when it comes to retailing. Others are just going to go on the information they have at hand – the concept, the names of the creators, and their past performance in store. More still won’t even order based on that – they’ll just plug in a token “Image number” brush their hands off, and call it a day without a second thought.
Going out from there, you’ll have readers who are similarly minded, who will see Eric Stephenson’s name, and assume that this title will be late before it’s even had a chance to prove itself. While many of you reading this article are the type to keep up on this kind of information, the majority of people buying comics at comic shops are very passive in their extracurricular consumption, opting to just read the comics as they come in without dipping their toes into the minutiae of it all. Most of these people will be getting information about this series from aforementioned retailers who don’t have a view of the bigger picture, and this might honestly result in middling sales for the series – at least to start. If memory serves, Nowhere Men was a series that was severely under ordered, and the quality of it pushed it through several printings of almost every single issue. This could very well be the case for They’re Not Like Us, and it could have quite healthy sales through to the end of its run, which would be nice – but regardless, damage will be done. People will go into shops and come up short – and while we’re living in a wonderful age where you’d be able to go to Image directly and nab a DRM-free digital copy, sales will still be lost in the transition – and that’s a problem. Hopefully, in this case, a very small one.
A regular schedule is key in terms of the success of a series, and of a creator. The comic market is littered with the corpses of books that launched strong, but flagged as delays hit. While some launch strong enough to weather the storm through to the end, nearly all of them proceed with a smaller audience. If the delays persist, the numbers will continue to shed at an accelerated rate along side of it, resulting in a monetary lesser for all those involved. Take a look at any sales chart, and find any book that has hit a patch of delays, and you will inevitably see the pattern. While there are some exceptions (there always are) the vast majority of books shipping on a delayed schedule lose readers at an equal pace. Books that don’t ship don’t fit into a store or a reader’s budget as well as books that show up as promised. Moreso, books that don’t ship stop being part of the conversation. Less is said about the story and more about the delays, until that becomes the story. People become okay with waiting, and so they do. Waiting breeds forgetfulness, and forgetfulness breeds death. The cycle continues, on and on.
If you’re in the business of producing comics, the most important thing you can do is hit your deadlines. Even a bi-monthly schedule is better than a promised monthly that doesn’t ship. The ideal, I think, is the <em>Saga</em> model, wherein you ship an arc on a monthly basis, delivering on the due date as promised on time, every time. In between the arcs, you can take a break. Let readers stew with a cliffhanger, and release your trade so stragglers can catch up. Offer retailers the chance to breath, sell a trade, and build up your audience. Come back guns blazing with another arc that comes out consistently. Because while delays within a story arc will kill you, delays between arcs will not. People are trained to deal with these gaps. Most serial media consumed thrives on gaps building pressure and audience in the interim. That’s the reason why sequels are a better bet to make money than a movie’s initial release. Come out with a good product, give the people an experience that has them clawing for more, and then let them wait. Let them stew. Time things right, and you can keep getting bigger and bigger. Start screwing up with your deadlines, and you’ll start to see that intensity and momentum dry up and fall away.
As the publisher of Image Comics, I’m sure Eric Stephenson already knows all of this information. He has enough sales data at his finger tips to know how delays effect a book, and how the model Saga has been running on is the ideal. It’s the way Jim Zub has been running things with Skullkickers from the start of his run, and each time his book has come back, sales have gotten stronger and stronger. It’s the way Antony Johnston has started running Umbral and The Fuse, and while I think it’s a little too early to say much about what those books are doing as a whole, I can say that the schedule has done well for his books in my store particularly. It’s a smart way to run a series, and honestly, I think it should be adopted by the industry in general. I honestly believe that instead of shipping books like Batman and Amazing Spider-Man on a never ending schedule, building in tangible breaks can do wonders. I worked a version of this when DC decided to soft launch a few of their books this October after building in a glorified skip-month in September. The results? I’ve sold twice the amount of Catwoman and three times the amount of Batgirl than what I did in August. Green Arrow admittedly stayed the same, but considering the fact that the title was coming off a run that was so indelibly tied to the previous creative team more than the character (at least in my shop), that’s not a small feat, as loss roughly equalled gain. In that particular case, DC would have done better pushing a publication gap for a couple of months before a big return. Sure, they would have missed timing the launch with the return of the Arrow television show, but in the end, the title would have been all the better for it.
Consistent shipping will do almost as much for a book as its perceived quality will. While a quality book can get by with delays, the results will almost always be lesser for it – at least in terms of periodical sales. For a perceived mediocre book, delays will result in death. Readers will stick with something if it comes out regularly, and they’ll stick around even longer if you can hit that final note and give them something to ponder over a break – but give them the slightest excuse to walk away, and they will, even if it’s a book they enjoy. Retailers, for their part, will always react to this, and they’ll carry a perception around as a result. They’re Not Like Us is a series that’s going to have perception working against it from the start, even though the creators have yet to do anything to truly earn that. It’s unfortunate, but in a business where the people ordering books are sifting through information for over 2500 listings a month, it is what it is.
Hit your marks. You’ll be glad you did.