By Brian Hibbs
Some of you may remember that I purchased a second store, Comix Experience Outpost, somewhat recently. The previous owner decided almost overnight that they were going to close – and do it fast; he actually posted to Facebook that he was closing at the end of that week, so I got myself on the bus and headed over there to see what the story was. By the end of that conversation, I was in talks to purchase. (No one wants to see comic stores close!)
And now, five years later, our lease is almost up and I have to figure out whether or not to keep it open.
Backstory, first, though! Our original Divisadero St. location (coming up on thirty years in business next year!) is very much more like a book store in layout and presentation and function, where almost 2/3rds of sales are of book-format comics, which allows me to do things like our two 200+ member Graphic Novel of the Month Clubs. By contrast, Outpost, stays stubbornly a periodical-driven store, where roughly 2/3rds of their business is basic comic books. We’re constantly trying to drive book sales up in that location, and while we’ve gotten it up to almost a quarter of sales, it won’t go any higher.
That’s fine, each store is going to have its own clientele, its own zone, and I really think that comic book stores, in particular, thrive from being different from one another – but it does mean that how I feel about comics, and the traditional Direct Market, changes when I rotate my perspective between the two locations.
Outpost also has some real limitations in its current location that I am clear-eyed about. While it is in a “commercial strip”, most of those businesses are services not retail – multiple dentists, several beauticians, etc, so no real crossover or synergy. Very very little other retail, either. There’s virtually no walk-by (though it has crazy good free parking, which in San Francisco can’t be understated). And while it is on a very busy driving street, we’re right near the apex of a minor bend in the road that, when coupled to the giant street trees in front means we’re essentially invisible to cars driving one direction.
On the other hand: cheap rent (by San Francisco standards)
Outpost does “fine” – I make a tiny profit from running it every year, but nothing one would get excited by on its own. The main store is what pays my way in life.
I could move Outpost, certainly. Nine or so blocks away on the same street is a much bigger commercial district, with far more retail (though still not really a ton), but with less easy parking. But rent would increase a ton, with a big “???” on if sales would increase for sure to offset it.
A lot of that is in the stubborn periodicals-driven nature of Outpost – will that change in a fundamental way with a nine block move? I’d hope so, but I’m not actually certain how baked it is into the actual neighborhood itself.
Because here’s the nut of this: while I am utterly bullish on the medium of comics, I am exceedingly bearish on the near-term future of the periodical market. Because when it comes down to it, I really no longer trust my largest suppliers. The biggest publishers are all travelling in the wrong directions in their periodical business in my estimation.
The fact of the matter is that Marvel, DC, and Image are the majority of sales in the Direct Market – more than ¾ of the dollars come from those three, and this is nearly as true in my book-oriented main store as it is for the periodical-oriented Outpost. But, historically, when one of those publishers is going in the wrong direction, the other two are trying to pull things in the right one. I don’t think that’s happening in 2018 at all, and I especially worry for 2019 and 2020 as corporate interests that control Marvel and DC aren’t showing any external signs that they’re going to do anything but double-down on the kinds of cash-grabbing short-term gain strategies that put us in this place to begin with.
With Marvel my opinion probably shouldn’t be any surprise – I have written extensively about what I see as the problems at Marvel – but let’s try to summarize cleanly here: Marvel’s publishing and marketing plans are far more about trying to get people to buy extensions and add ons, than on the core product itself. Whether that is through variant covers (Fantastic Four #1 has a staggering 25 non-exclusive covers), or title-packing of storylines (“Spider-Geddon” has at least seven distinct series or one-shots attached to it; “Return of Wolverine” has at least eighteen different comics stretching the story released before Logan even “returns”, etc.)
I strongly think this is an extraordinarily dangerous way to sell periodicals because it is systematically putting a greater pressure on a few people to support sales – those twenty-five Fantastic Four #1 covers are each $5.99! – and while it apparently led to initial orders of over 300k, I think that we all know that by issue #5, Fantastic Four isn’t going to be selling over 50k max (and I suspect it will be a lot closer to 35k)
To me, as a working retailer, while the money from this kind of stunt-driven publishing strategy can be alright, what I’m actually looking for is Marvel turning their general current peak of 50k readers into 60k or 70k or 80k or 100k or more – these are world-known characters who have millions of fans, so it’s kind of preposterous to me that the average ongoing Marvel comic gets outsold by Saga or Oblivion Song (even nationally!) – no matter just how good those comics may be. It’s much much healthier in the mid- and long-term to have more customers buying, rather than trying to treat your static and/or shrinking customer base as ATM machines.
There’s also a really pernicious problem resurging in comics of the return of speculators, and the way that impacts and changes the ways retailers purchase and rack books. Though, more accurately, I think, is that it is an influx of arbitrageurs who are looking for the quick in-and-out flip from whatever is “hot” this week, rather than speculators who were holding on to quantities for weeks or months. Arbitrage is, in many ways, more grinding on the gears of ordering and Direct Market commerce, because it is far less predictable or counterable. At the end of the day, however, it’s probably trivially easy to corner the local market on specific books because initial order quantities are so low, as are overprints on those print runs – for under $500, I’m fairly confident that an arbitrageur could buy 100% of the rack copies of almost any comic book released in the city of San Francisco.
Virtually all of Marvel’s sale tactics directly play into the hands of the arbitragers, empowering them and enriching them. Certainly stores could (and some DO) react by getting more involved in flipping tactics themselves, but any even modest student of history should recognize that such tactics nearly destroyed the entire comics industry not just once, but twice, between the b&w Bust of ’87 (or there abouts) and the color comics Speculation bubble of the 90s. And when I see retailers collectively buying 300k+ copies of the first issue of a book that is going to settle down to about an eighth of that, well it makes me think of history and how those who don’t learn it are doomed to repeat it.
However, it seems to me that retailers today, unlike in ’87 and ’93, are even more poorly capitalized, and way over-leveraged in terms of risk and reward, and that if we do have another Seismic shift, it is almost certainly going to have a much larger impact on most Direct Market retailers than it did the last two times. This is a giant red blinking warning sign that it appears to me that Marvel is not only ignoring, but is also putting their foot on the gas pedal even harder.
Then there’s the actions of the parent company, where Disney is licensing out the production of comics material to more and more other publishers; this hardly seems the sign of a company firmly dedicated to the growth and expansion of their audience, and more like one that’s trying to maximize profit for the moment with little regard towards a sustainable future.
So from my point of view, Marvel appears to be very happy to trade breadth of customer base in exchange for depth of purchase. That’s the opposite of everything I know succeeds from thirty years of retailing, and isn’t leading us any place that is healthy.
If it was only Marvel, well, we’d be miserable, but we could probably work around it, but DC is also heading in what I think are the wrong directions. While DC’s midlist is similarly in tatters, at least DC has the relative luxury of a few “prestige” books running at any given moment. But of course it is the midlist that keeps stores alive month-in and month-out.
DC, of course, has also taken several thoroughly confounding actions, like the exclusive-to-Walmart product featuring new, strongly Direct Market-desired material (Walmart customers have never heard of Tom King or Brian Michael Bendis – DM customers value those creators dearly) or the weird way they slow-walked taking returns on the (clearly) mis-solicited Batman #50; how on earth did it take two weeks to make that decision?? It isn’t even that either one of those things are industry-breaking, but they are moves that really make it appear that decades of established policies are no longer real or meaningful or solid. However, it wasn’t as though Adventures of Superman #500 was industry breaking in and of itself in 1993, but it was absolutely a key straw for the collapse.
As the historical number two publisher, DC has always had to try harder to get even a fraction of the respect that Marvel gets from the Direct Market retailer, so watching traditional bedrock principles (Like “All Markets should have access to the same material” or “If we mis-solict a book, it is always returnable. Always.”) crumble slowly away is wildly disconcerting to this observer. When you couple that with what appears to be an increasing amount of “Marvel-style” tactics (like the hated-by-retailers weekly-comic-without-returnability or what appears to be an increasing push for variant covers), it becomes harder to trust DC is looking out for us in the way they spent decades building.
And this is with DC being owned by a movie company, which (ostensibly) understands creative work, and audience building. What happens when AT&T takes over? That’s as a screwed up, rapacious, claw-every-penny-you-can kind of company as virtually any you’re likely to find here in the middle of Late Stage Capitalism. The pressure to maximize revenue is likely going to be immense.
And then there is Image, the living epitome of “throw stuff at the wall and see if anything sticks”. In the last three years, my point-of-sale says there have been one hundred and seventy-eight new issue #1s from Image (no, I didn’t remove Variant covers), and just nine of those have sold to our definition of “hit” status (fifty or more copies sold) – about 1 in 20.
And while that’s not necessarily a poor ratio in and of itself (DC is 16 out of 295 in the same time; Marvel is 22 out of 400), the difference is a Marvel or DC title usually has an easily definable audience (ex: “people who like the DC universe”) that gives it an additional commercial boost and a fairly predictable range within which order. That is to say, there isn’t much of a frame of reference in which to order comics that don’t have a lot of/any reference to one another – a really shitty Marvel comic will sell at least five copies because of the Marvel name/connection. A really shitty Image comic might sell five copies, or it might sell 1, or it might sell none, because there’s not any real “brand awareness”. This makes it a real random crapshoot to order Image books.
And of course, because they are all creator-owned, even if you succeed in building an audience from hand-selling and passion, you have no idea what the production schedule might be – once promising series like Bitch Planet have sowed the seeds of their own sales irrelevance through the basic sin of not producing more work in a timely fashion, or we run risks like losing our single best-selling periodical for an entire year, like we’re about to with Saga. And fair enough that they want to take a break, but at least with Batman, you know it will still be published every month without fail, right? Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples don’t owe me anything, but losing that triple digit seller is going to be a huge financial hit on the bottom line.
Either way, Image is only very very rarely a thing to Depend On. And being able to depend on your partners is what keeps a store regularly paying its bills, its staff, its rent and power and water and everything else that goes into keeping to doors open.
At my main store we’ve been able to build a dependable base by the steady (if occasionally frustrating) turn of the graphic novel, but Outpost resists the book format. If periodicals “went away”, my main store would be “fine” (not exactly) – but Outpost would be 100% doomed. It isn’t that I think periodicals are “going away”, but I also don’t anticipate much other than a continuing slow leak in audience size for what we’ve always taken as the traditional market of periodicals (superhero comics from Marvel and DC) specifically because the publishers don’t appear to be interested in doing what it would take to grow their audiences for the long-term.
Certainly, current publishing tactics aren’t working especially well – I barely make a profit at Outpost today, and since I suspect Marvel and DC will continue to chase away readers through over-production and other reader-unfriendly methods, it’s hard to muster the will to sign another multi-year lease without faith in those suppliers to change their behaviors.
I’ve got about a month before I have to make my final decision. This is a decision which would not be hard at my main store – the book market is “dependable” and stable and generally pretty predictable; but the future feels much more hazy for any store where the majority of commerce comes from traditional periodical sources.
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.