By Brian Hibbs
I’ve been sick for about eight weeks now – I’ve a virus that is causing post-nasal drip, leading me to a wet hacking wheezing cough that just won’t go. I don’t really have other symptoms: I am not feverish, it’s staying (stubbornly!) confined to my throat, I’m not otherwise weak – but this malaise just won’t leave my body. I’ve seen multiple professionals, I’m taking both western meds, as well as stuff suggested by an acupuncturist, but the main thing that everyone says is “You pretty much have to wait it out”.
That’s pretty much how I feel about the Direct Market portion of the comics industry right now: we’re sick, it clearly isn’t getting any better, the people who are supposed to be able to help aren’t doing anything useful about it, and I guess we just have to ride it out.
Last column, I talked about how my confidence in the vision and policies of our largest suppliers has declined so much that I was actually contemplating that maybe it would be smarter to just shut down my smaller store. I’ve been wrestling with the options in the time since I wrote that, and while I ultimately decided I sure as hell didn’t want to be the one to shut down another comic store in a city that has lost nearly 2/3rds of them since I first opened almost thirty years ago, if I can possibly avoid it, I also hedged my bets by only going for a very short-term lease so I can evaluate this again very soon.
My hope in writing that column was that it might shock a couple of people into action. And, certainly, I know a few other retailers who have been making similar points over the last few weeks, including one similarly well-known store who posted a very long, very plaintive plea for change from the publishers, to an industry Facebook group. I’ve urged that person to go public, because I think the more voices we have delivering this verdict as strongly as we can, the greater the chance that we might actually enact change. However, my peer wants to keep it away from fans for the time being because he doesn’t want it to seem like he is “airing dirty laundry”, and he still has faith that the folks at the largest publishers will actually make changes to the benefit of the industry as a whole.
Sadly, I think he’s very mistaken.
There are a significant amount of players in the comics industry who have spent the last 5-10 yearsmaking a specific kind of bed, and now we’re all being forced to lie in it. The changes that these people have made in the essential manner in which comics are marketed and ordered have since degraded the market itself to the point where I don’t think many can now survive without those variants and sales stunts – once having a variant added 10% to the bottom line. Now the lack of a variant means you’re going to sell 10% fewer copies.
Basically every DM-driven comic now comes with two or more covers (one publisher, which shall remain nameless, just solicited one hundred and six covers for the seventeen new periodicals they are publishing that month, virtually none of which will pass fifteen thousand in sales – of all covers combined. Ponder the irrationality of that, please) – and all of this sucks time and energy and resources away that could otherwise maybe be used for expanding the market and growing the audience. It is not resource-free to solicit, order, and distribute comics. All of this clutter (at best) just clogs up the system, and when it comes to mechanical functions (like Diamond’s comics-picking line, or doing Final Order Cutoff for multiple stores) is actively detrimental to distribution functions.
Yuck. We have succeeded in breaking the comics specialty market.
Meanwhile, over in the real world, Raina Telgemeier’s new book, Guts, is going to have a million copy print run. One cover. Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man: The Lord of Fleas had a three million copy print run. And there’s no reason to think those millions of copies won’t sell just fine. Those are all being aimed at readers, not collectors and arbitragers. They’re certainly not trying to get people to buy multiple copies with multiple covers!
And, here’s the thing, for stores that get behind them, these reader-friendly, aimed-at-kids books can do fantastic in the Direct Market environment – certainly in the first month, I sold more copies of DOG MAN v5: LORD OF THE FLEAS than I do of an average Marvel or DC periodical comic book…. And did it without a single preorder or standing order. In fact, I’m 100% certain that I undersold that book because I didn’t have enough inventory on hand at all times. Meanwhile, most of the superhero output is crashing through the bottom of sales expectations while the audience reveals that they don’t actually like to be treated as bottomless ATM machines who are being sold out for the mass market’s film, TV and other media implementations.
Anyway, like I said, the last column was intended to start a dialogue. But I didn’t hear a single word from Marvel or DC or Diamond. In fact, the only large player that bothered to contact me was Image’s Eric Stephenson, and we had several reasonably productive rounds of back-and-forth emails. We’ll see what comes out of it (given the creator-controlled nature of Image, it’s kind of hard to see things changing there as individual creators are just trying to eak out every penny they can), but one thing that Eric admonished me to do right at the end was to try to be more positive – “I’d like to see you write a column where you talk about what publisher is doing things right”, he said (or words to that effect)
It’s hard for me, really – the column is called “Tilting at Windmills”, not “Smiling at Sunshine”, and I have three decades of writing things in a particular way which inevitably colors the way I think about comics commentary – but I thought it a worthy goal. Obviously, based on the preceding twelve paragraphs, I can’t shake my habits 100%, but I would like to use most of the rest of my space here for a little bit of praise.
Honestly, there’s more than one publisher I could praise – I certainly love the market expansion efforts of an outfit like Scholastic, I love the dedication-to-craft and aesthetics and sheer stick-to-it-ness of a Fantagraphics or a Drawn & Quarterly, I’m passionate about the creators-first ethic of Image, and so on – but if I had to pick one publisher who I think is overall doing things right from the point-of-view of the business of Direct Market retailers, it would have to be Ross Richie’s Boom! Studios.
Boom! is doing a ton of things right from my point-of-view. They have a solid, if unspectacular, creative slate that features a solid mix of work-for-hire licensed properties, a reasonably focused young readers line (that also skews “hipster” so some adults are buying in as well), and a pretty good line-up of creator-owned books. If I’m being honest, we’re few and far between on “hits” coming out of Boom!: records show that for periodicals I can only find “Lumberjanes”#1 and a few of the first issues of the first series of “Adventure Time” cracking that psychological barrier of fifty copies for me, but proportional to their output, they have a much higher ratio of books that sell for us in the “mid-tier” area of 15-40 copies than do other Diamond “premiere” publishers.
But the place that Boom! shines like a beacon in the night is in the Boom! Guarantee program, which should be an absolute model for every DM periodical-focused publisher.
Boom! makes every single new comic book they publish 100% returnable to retailers who have signed up for their program, for at least the first two issues (sometimes three) – they do this without any costs to the retailer of any kind, and no gates or hoops to jump through of any kind, and, most remarkable of all, they don’t even want the books back, they just want an affidavit that we’ve taken them off sale, trusting the retailers!
All of this means that I go “long” on each and every Boom! comic – there’s really no risk to me to do so. For most retailers for most comics from most publishers, we’re spending a lot of energy and time deciding between stocking one copy or three copies, y’know? But, with Boom! if I think I might sell three, I can order ten. And what that means is that we’re never out of Boom! comics. And what that means is that we’re selling a lot more Boom! comics than we would have otherwise.
Doing the Boom! section of the order form isn’t like most other publishers: usually it is a chore to order comics. But with Boom! I essentially enjoy doing it because the crushing weight of non-returnability doesn’t have its heavy boot on my neck. It makes a difference, for me at least, about how I think about and act towards the publisher. I like this way better.
I really want to reiterate that no-hoop affidavit returns makes a massive difference for this retailer – while other publishers have returnable programs, they’re always gated or hassles to work with. Dark Horse offers returns (sometimes, certainly not on every book) but they require that you order at least ten copies to qualify. Not so hard for a two store operation like myself, but still every barrier is a barrier. When Image (so so rarely!) offers returns, it is keyed to discount tier, meaning I have to order forty copies to qualify, which is pretty useless if you think you can sell five, and would be happy to risk at fifteen. IDW’s return program comes with a chintzy 20 cents a copy fee. And most publishers, like Marvel, never ever ever take comics back under nearly any situation.
Here’s the thing: there are way way way too many comics being serialized today, and the risk/reward ratio of being a Direct Market retailer has never been worse. And right now, the majority of retailers are strongly looking for reasons to not stock books. The Boom! Guarantee program completely and totally short-circuits the usual “race to the bottom” that the current system engenders.
I am a fan.
And speaking of being a fan, Boom! has pretty much my favorite retailer rep in the business: Morgan Perry. She’s really efficient and smart and awesome and really “gets” retailers. She’s got a big future ahead of her, if you ask me. Give her another raise, Ross – she’s worth it! Seriously, Boom! is even flying her out many weekends to go and visit comic stores directly and to work behind the counter and really tailor and customize her approach to having genuine and individual knowledge about those stores. It makes all of the difference in the world.
So, there you go Eric: there’s a column of me giving as much praise as I can muster! Hope you enjoyed it, because I think I’m back to Tilting after this!
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.
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