By Brian Hibbs
There’s a particular Myth of the market that says that the “Wednesday Warriors” – the hardcore, most committed fan, who comes in every week without fail, usually on a Wednesday – are the core of the business that we should be catering to. This is a narrative that is regularly advanced by the largest publishers: search “Wednesday Warrior” and “Dan DiDio” to get scores of hits for the DC publisher, and Marvel’s Joe Quesada recently got into the game. Even the sell-through reports at Bleeding Cool are designed around the idea that the first few days on the rack are the key ones.
This is not a completely incoherent opinion, because you only have to walk into a comic book store on a Wednesday to see things are busy; often very busy – but how much real scrutiny does the premise hold up?
I have two stores. One (the larger and older one) runs much more like a bookstore, while the other could hardly be more of a traditional periodical-oriented store. If you’d like some deeper and longer perspective of the stores and how and what they sell, please read this.
Now, these are absolutely just two data points from a single city, but they’re the only data points that I have free rein to analyze and go deep into – it’s possible (if not especially likely) that we’re somehow wildly and insanely different from other comic stores, though no anecdotal evidence that I am aware of would actually support that conclusion. It was easier for me to doubt my own data when I just had a single store, but with the second (again, primarily focused on the weekly-comics experience), I’ve come to believe that my data is not so very different from the majority of my peers.
And what my data shows is that while Wednesday Warriors are absolutely a significant part of the business, they’re not actually as much of a driver as the Myth would say.
We use a Point-Of-Sale (POS) system to track sales and inventory and customers. We strongly encourage customers to get into our system by becoming “subscribers” to the series they consistently follow. Those customers we can track week-over-week, while non-subs are listed in the sales record as “anonymous”. On any given day the exact percentage of sales-to-subs and sales-to-anon can vary pretty wildly, but when you’re looking solely at sales that involved any amount of periodical comics, I can generally state that subs spend (on average) roughly twice the amount that a non-sub does, while being roughly half the number of transactions. This is actually pretty consistent between the two stores – within just a few percentage points – and I think very strongly state that the periodical focused customer is a different “kind” of customer than the book-focused one.
So, at the periodical-focused store, we have roughly 225 subs at any moment. I did an analysis of the three strongest months for periodical sales last year, and found consistent enough results that I’m comfortable presenting the strongest of those months in fair detail.
Of the ~225 subs, only 129 of them came in during that calendar month – call it roughly 60%. Not only was this matching roughly from month-to-month, that also matched pretty close from store-to-store. This is one of the reasons retailers are constantly asking folks to pick up their comics.
Of those 129 subscribers, the actual breakdown of visits looked like this during this four-Wednesday month:
Came 1x in Month: 65
Came 2x in Month: 31
Came 3x in Month: 13
Came 4x in Month: 15
Came 5x in Month: 4
Came 7x in Month: 1
In the other two months that I checked, the results were essentially the same – roughly three-quarters of the subs that came in either shopped once or twice a month.
Obviously, we can’t really differentiate between “anonymous” customers in any significant way, but our anecdotal evaluation of customer behavior suggests the same thing – the majority of periodical buyers are not coming in weekly; the largest number come in monthly or less.
Again, this sales pattern was played out the same at both stores, during multiple months that I checked in on.
Now what is true is that the folks who came in weekly or better absolutely bought more series, on average, then those who did not. And it appeared to me (though there’s really nearly too many data points to look at to be 100% certain) that those customers tended to be the folks who were more likely to purchase the lowest-selling series and “subs-only” titles. But I’m very much not certain if that’s a great tradeoff to make – what we want is more strong-selling titles that sell widely, and to a variety of customers, not more books where we’re essentially acting as a catalog shop.
I took a look at our best-selling series at the periodical-focused store – “Batman”, currently – and when looking solely at anonymous customers, or named customers who are not subscribed to the series, about a third of the copies sold go on the first day, with about twenty percent more selling in that first week, while the remaining about forty-percent trickling out over the next month.
Taken all together, this seems to suggest to me that while weekly buyers are very important, they’re pretty far from the driving force, even just looking solely at periodicals – an “average” customer is far (far!) more likely to show up roughly monthly to buy comics.
And if you start extending into book format product, the numbers scale away even further (simply because a clear minority of book sales happen right in that first week) – at least for any product with “legs”. Certainly, somewhere around twenty percent of the book format product we bring in only ever sells one time, ever, and never turns a second copy. That’s usually not in week one (though it is almost always in month one) – but perennial format buyers often shop somewhere between monthly and quarterly.
But let’s stick with the periodicals for now – the evidence seems pretty damn compelling to me that the customer, even the most dedicated and focused ones, are not, on average, shopping weekly. There are weekly buyers, they are significant (often very!) spenders, but the numbers suggest to me that not only is the majority of periodical sales outside of the “Wednesday Warriors”, but that, much more importantly, the potential for growing new periodical buyers means focusing on monthly-or-wider time horizons.
So, and this is where we get to the title of this column, this is why retailers as a class generally hate weekly comics – that isn’t how the majority of customers shop. It’s also harder – significantly harder – to correctly order weekly comics than it is to order monthly books. The Final Order Cutoff cycle means that with a weekly comic that lasts a month, you’re ordering the entire series without having even received issue #1. If you order too many, you don’t have the ability to cut your orders, and if you order too few, it’s very expensive to get replacement copies in anything remotely like a timely fashion. It’s very difficult to sell issue #2 of a series if you’re out of #1, but on a weekly series, many of retailers aren’t getting that level of turnaround.
More and more “major” projects are trying to ship weekly – recently we had “Phoenix: Resurrection”, the “Avengers: No Surrender” storyline, the JLA/Young Animal crossover from DC, and they’ve announced that both Scott Snyder’s Justice League revamp and Brian Michael Bendis’ Superman are going to launch with weeklies.
The level of increased risk that weekly ordering brings inherently brings down the initial orders for such projects. Without some sort of mitigating counterweight (like returnability – which used to be absolutely de rigueur for weekly series: think projects like 52 and Countdown) this puts an unreasonable burden on retailers, and makes it significantly less likely that we can find the ceiling on such projects in a responsible way. Give me a monthly Bendis Superman launch, and I’ll probably go solidly triple-digits on orders. On a weekly one? I have a hard time seeing going up over, dunno, fifty-sixty copies? Purely as a matter of frequency, and received risk.
Here’s the thing: if you’re doing a weekly series in order to launch a different (or multiple) monthly book (as Phoenix: Resurrection leads to X-Men: Red, and the weekly Man of Steel will lead to runs on Action and Superman), this native conservatism is going to cap out those projects as well.
I’m even going to go a step farther: in a world where publishers appear to be more interested in filling slots on the rack than making sure that each of those slots pay off the most, retailers as a class need to insist that publishers respect the tenets of Final Order Cutoff – that every comic ordered should have the benefit of a full week’s sell-through data from customers of the previous issue before FOC orders are due. If not, then those comics should be made returnable as a matter of policy, and respect to the needs of the market.
Yes, that ultimately means that I believe that any book that ships more-frequently-than-monthly, even bi-weekly, needs to be made regularly returnable for the long-term health of the market. (I can certainly show mathematical evidence to suggest that the majority of bi-weekly post-“DC Rebirth” title in the last six months has been only mediocrely profitable for us)
This is the kind of demand that I think that retailers, as a class, need to make to our publishing and distribution partners as the nature of selling periodical comics changes (due to publisher action!) I call upon my fellow retailers to take up this cause this year at the annual ComicsPRO meeting in Portland, and at the Diamond Summit in Chicago!
Honestly, there’s a whole list of things that retailers need to start insisting upon from our partners – and whoops, I almost started writing an entirely different column before I just judiciously hit the “Delete” key – but this seems to be low-hanging fruit: by all means: go ahead and do weekly comics (despite how much they suck for retailers), but please don’t ask retailers to shoulder the risk for your non-traditional publishing plan.
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.