“We don’t live in a world of bookstores vs. the Direct Market. We live in a world of bookstores and the Direct Market and whatever else works. Everyone that matters knew this years ago.”
Tom Spurgeon


  1. Yup.
    Question for discussion: if the monthly comicbook goes the way of vinyl records (still produced, but for a select group of collectors and enthusiasts), will comicbook stores go the way of music stores and specialty bookstores?

    Will we see the rise of antiquarian bookstores specializing in rare graphic novels and comics? (In a way going full circle back to the underground bookshops of the Sixties and Seventies, which sold records, science fiction, pulps, comics, posters…)

    Will stores become like the San Diego Comic-Con, still selling comics, but also selling movies and games and books and t-shirts?

  2. To continue your discussion Torsten, I don’t believe the fate of the comic book store needs to be tied to the future of the monthly comic book. If they indeed do go the way of vinyl records (and that’s still as big if), the retailers would just have to change their business model. Some already have. And the transition to more trade paperbacks could actually be a more stable and profitable one. The bookstore market can’t handle everything this industry has to offer and its fans are drawn to its eclectic nature. The selection of a bookstore, even if it’s of quality, won’t be able to handle that demand, just a book enthusiast’s interests interests won’t be satiated by what can be found at the check out stand. The comic industry still needs specialty shops, we just have too much to offer for anything less.

  3. I can’t and won’t speak for Brian, but the I get the impression that some DM retailers fear that publishers will focus their marketing efforts in growing their sales in bookstores and online markets, instead of the Direct Market.

    And for obvious self interested reasons, they’d rather that promotional money be devoted to getting more customers into their shops.

  4. Comic book stores ALREADY sell movies and games and books and t-shirts. And toys.

    Of course book stores, as well as other outlets, should be pursued if only to help usher in more readers. But if the direct market is excluded in this completely- as is the case with many locations, and a number of publishers- then yes, it is a “versus” thing. Not giving the specialty shops their product to sell, not working with the retailer like days past, IS putting them out of business. It is spitting on the roots, and denying the fans who were there every week for floppies, before the cool kids started scoring Graphic Novels at book shoppes because they heard on NPR that Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine are the bee’s knees.

    Yes, all avenues should be explored, but that is NOT the case currently, and less and less so. Anyone who thinks otherwise is sheltered.

  5. Here’s a tangentially related thought…

    If digital sales (whether from the iBookstore or whatever else) ever becomes a significant chunk of how comics are sold, what will the effect be on the local comics shoppe?

    This comes to mind ‘cuz I recently heard the owner of an indy bookstore lament that if a customer is going to buy an ebook (in whatever format) there’s really no way he/she can do that in such a way as to support a local bookseller. The bookstore owner had apparently been reasonably successful positioning his store as an alternative to the big national chain stores in town, but he won’t be able to replicate the same strategy for customers who want stuff for their iPhones or Kindles.

  6. >> I get the impression that some DM retailers fear that publishers will focus their marketing efforts in growing their sales in bookstores and online markets, instead of the Direct Market.>>

    As I understand it, the advantage of the bookstore market is that it puts the material in front of a wide array of casual shoppers who may not yet have made a decision to seek out comics at a destination store. And the advantage of the direct market is that selling the material non-returnably is much more efficient and offers a better return on investment — every copy sold to the direct market is sold; only a percentage of copies sold to a rerturnable market is sold.

    As such, both of those markets are valuable, in very simple ways that publishers are aware of. The only publishers I know of who concentrate more on the bookstore market are those publishers who encounter difficulty making headway into enough DM stores. So I wouldn’t think publishers are going to abandon the DM; it’s easier money.

    That was its appeal to publishers way back when it started, and it’s an appeal that’s never gone away.


  7. My point is this: specialty music stores have vanished because the public can now buy the music they want online, customized to their tastes. I’m not just talking about independent music stores, but the large chains as well, such as Tower Records. (vinyl:MP3::comicbook:epub) Tower was famous as a hangout. You could visit their huge stores, meet knowledgeable staff, find obscure titles, and meet people who shared your tastes. That’s all moved online. What makes comics shops different? What can I find in a comics shop that I couldn’t find online?

    How much guaranteed income is generated by pull lists and single issues? If comics shops were to remove that revenue stream, would they be able to stay in business?

    Also, a graphic novel is generally a collection of comic books. If the consumer is happy to read Watchmen on an ipad or e-reader, then what does this mean for book sales?

    The Direct Market offers little risk for a publisher; they get the order from Diamond, print enough copies, send it to the stores, get paid. However, the stores tend to be conservative, ordering only what they know will sell. Whereas a returnable account can order conservatively, yet still experiment with certain titles. (There are costs involved: return shipping, lower margins). Maus was successful twenty-five years ago because it was published by Random House/Pantheon, and did not require the Direct Market to succeed.

    As for bookshops competing with comics shops. When Tower Records closed in Lincoln Center, guess where their “walking encyclopedias” found work? At the Barnes & Noble across the street, where I worked. Though not directly responsible for the section, I made the Graphic Novels selection the best it could be. I ordered titles overlooked by our buyer (one of the best in the business). If a customer had a question, my coworkers knew to send them to me. (I even helped encourage one person to write a graphic novel which later made the NY Times Book Review.) I checked weekly sales, I recommended titles, I built displays, I kept the assistant managers informed on marketing opportunities. Most stores, if we find someone enjoys an expertise of a certain section, we encourage them to supervise that section. If they are passionate and knowledgeable about something, the customers will appreciate that level of service. Is it hard to find comics fans in a bookstore? When I started in 1994, when GNs were almost non-existent, there were four “fanboys” in the store, one of which was the store manager who allowed me to merchandise a slat wall of GNs. Now? Circa 2006, I worked with two students from SVA, one former employee from Forbidden Planet, and various fans.

    Yes, the selection may not be as broad, but the quality can be equal to that of a comics shop. A chain also has store systems and logistics which encourage special orders if a title is not readily available. Speaking as a private citizen who knows nothing about what B&N has planned, not as an employee of B&N, if Barnes & Noble decided to enter the comics market just like they entered the electronic game market (GameStop), they would succeed. (If you think that lightning can’t strike twice? Blockbuster did it before GameStop, buying up smaller video chains. It happens in many retail markets.)

    Finally, regarding my Comic-Con analogy… when does a comics shop stop becoming a comics shop? When they get rid of back-issue bins? When female customers outnumber male customers? When the majority of customers don’t buy comics?

  8. “Maus was successful twenty-five years ago because it was published by Random House/Pantheon, and did not require the Direct Market to succeed.”

    Am I allowed to say that Maus (probably?) wouldn’t have been published by Random House had it not been serialized in RAW in the first place? And that the DM was the primary sales venue for RAW?

    I don’t disagree with Tom’s quote, even a little bit.


  9. Torsten, I think your question is complicated by whether the demise of the comic shop will come through competition from the book store market or from the digital market. Or do you mean that combination of both will finally bring about the end?

    In reference to the music analogy, where digital delivery brought about the doom of the music shop, I feel the comparisons are valid, but don’t tell the whole story as it pertains to comics.

    The item purchased in the music store never truly represented the music listening experience. It was always some kind of device used to transfer information that would eventually be used to play music through speakers. And though many aficionados may tell you the quality varies from vinyl to cd to digital, it is essentially the same experience.

    A printed comic on the other had is still a printed comic. The item is actually the experience and reading a comic on paper has has palpable difference in experience than reading on screen, a difference that just doesn’t exist when comparing it to music.

    Digital comics do have their advantages, most notibly being able to deliver to a greater audience exactly what they’re looking for as soon as they want it. This is a service for our industry to be able to provide as it builds interest and awareness.

    Digital distribution may seriously cut into the amount or periodical content in print, and this may represent a significant amount of comic retailers income, but it’s based in selling a lot of product to a very finite audience. Comic stores could benefit by an increased audience looking for more specialized products. Something they’re more suited to provide than book stores.

  10. Heidi, my post of

    Alan Coil 15. Feb, 2010 at 11:44 am

    was made 2 minutes ago, just before my test post of

    Alan Coil 15. Feb, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Somehow, the first post posted way up the page.

  11. Heh… one could argue that the degradation of music from live to MP3 is similar to the degradation of a comic produced on a computer and then reproduced on paper (or produced on art board then reprinted on newsprint). This was even moreso in the Golden Age, when letterers had to use eschew periods in word balloons lest they not reproduce, or they become “corrected” as burrs on the printing plate. As nice as the Graphitti edition is, Kingdom Come is going to look even better in the original painted artwork. (And those lifesize DCU portraits, WOW!) Some (most?) readers won’t mind the loss of resolution (with PDFs, there might not be any at all, if they bother to enlarge the image) if they gain convenience from a digital file.

    Digital distribution…finite audience. Yes… it’s finite. Countable. I’d say 50,000,000 , or however many people read comic strips now. One title? If you use Micky Maus numbers from Germany, I’d say a million circulation. (In Scandanavia, I have heard that 1 in 4 people read a Disney comic book, with many issues being passed along to other readers.)

    As was discussed in the Bookscan post, online retailers are very effective at marketing to the long tail of obscure and rare items. Does a collector search every comics shop in town for a back issue, or buy it online? Or download an illegal scan? Need a review? Google the title. Visit message boards. Both Marvel and DC seem to have developed “club houses” for their fans, which they use to market their titles. The only thing which comics shops do better than online retailers: the serendipity of finding something you didn’t know you wanted. (IF they stock the item. Otherwise, I’m using Previews and searching online.)

    Compare wine stores to liquor, grocery, and convenience stores. Some grocery stores have sophisticated wine selections, perhaps even a dedicated liquor store and manager. Others will be mass-market driven, offering wine for general consumption.

    The more venues, the more readers. If it causes some comics shops to fail, that’s regrettable, so long as others evolve and compete.

  12. I’m not in the habit of separating people into those “who matter” and those who do not. Surely this idea could be phrased in such a way that doesn’t make Mr. Spurgeon sound like such a dick.

  13. If you’d take the time to read the post, the context is pretty clear: matters in terms of making or influencing policy at comics companies.

    I mean, I AM a total dick, like Reggie Mantle to the Bugs Meany power, but the reason I sound like one in the pull-quote isn’t my fault.

  14. Comics as a format might benefit from being sold wherever a businessman wants to sell them, but books containing complete stories and comic books containing serials are two vastly different types of reading material. Marvel and DC are still as focused on event marketing as they ever were. Marvel’s promotion of “The Heroic Age” seems almost frantic.

    Douglas Wolk, talking about digital comics, commented:

    But of course the reason they’re not doing it is that their grasp on the direct market is so tenuous, and if one of them fails, or Diamond fails, or more comics shops fail, the whole house of cards goes down. They’re betting that the two markets are not the same; they’ve also constructed their whole business model on “collectibility,” which obviously disappears the moment you’ve got digital reproduction.

    Comics as a format would survive, obviously, if DC and/or Marvel stopped publishing (new) comics, but what would happen to the U.S. market? Would superhero comics readers turn to other publishers or leave the market?

    A couple of publishing industry stats:

    Make a note of it: Dec. 25, 2009, marked an inflexion point in the history of publishing. That’s the date online bookseller Amazon. com reports that its retail sales of e-book downloads exceeded its orders for hard copy books for the first time. [. . .]

    As for the most encouraging development of the year, it would have to be the near exponential growth of so-called “print on demand” or POD publishing we discussed in this space in May and is documented in this report by R.R. Bowker, LLC, the official U.S. ISBN Agency, publisher of Books In Print, and other compilations of information support for the publishing industry in the United States. While the overall number of books published in the United States in 2008 decreased by 3.2 % from 284,370 to 275,232, the number of “short run” books that are published primarily by independent publishers to fill specific bookseller or author orders grew by an astonishing 132% over 2007, from 123,276 titles (2007) to 285,394 titles (2008), and by some 462% over as recently as 2006.

  15. Collectibility is in quotes because he doesn’t mean the ability to collect literally, but this idea that some covers or variants are more collectable and therefore worth buying in multiples and running frantically to the store to scoop them up before they’re sold out. That would obviously disappear with electronic media unless they really forced some sort of weird system where limited quantities of downloads were available. But I feel that would have a stronger backlash than what happened after the 90’s.

  16. I get how downloads aren’t collectible, but I don’t get how the prominence of downloads wouldn’t make for almost purely collectible paper editions.

  17. Oh sure, but that’s a different issue. What you’re saying is that they’ll be fewer printed comics so therefore more collectible, which is nice I suppose for those who buy them. They have the satisfaction of knowing there aren’t that many copies out there (not that this seems to help me or other small publishers with our “limited” print runs). The issue here in context of Doug’s argument is that bigger publishers use the “collectibility” appeal to drive sales. The variant cover, the 1 in 25 edition. All of this actually adds up to big sales for them. Printing small runs won’t actually be profitable for them even if some collector is able to sell it one day for $50 on ebay.

  18. I don’t think print comics will ever go away. They are pictures that move without electricity. They don’t need it. They are words that one hears without ever being spoken. They can not be projected or loaded onto a screen and made to move without losing their true form. They can not be recorded and listened to like an audio book, because they are purely visual, and visual can only be interpreted by the viewer. When one takes their pure form into account, one must see that they only work in print. They are the purest most magical of art forms. Everything else is formatting for marketing. They transcend marketing and formatting. You can repackage a VHS to DVD to Blue Ray, but you don’t need to upgrade a player to read a comic, no matter how nice the print gets. As long as there are people who value their ability to connect their imaginations to other people’s imaginations, through time and space, they can never die. I’m truly frightened that there are people who want to see them die, just so they can control it’s content, and re-sell it to you, over and over again, through their products.