By Brian Hibbs
It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote “Dear publishers: weekly comics suck”, though the focus in that case was primarily in managing the failures in that kind of scheduling. But we now have a textbook-perfect case, in the launch of House of X/Powers of X mini-series of how terrible weekly comics are for something that’s successful.
Let’s construct the argument from the beginning, so that everyone is on the same page. First and foremost, and this is a critical thing to understand about the modern periodical in the Direct Market, but most retailers for most releases are more focused on managing failure than maximizing growth.
Let me repeat that to really underline it: most retailers, for most periodical releases, are more focused on managing failure than maximizing growth.
Hopefully the reasons for this are obvious: Periodical comics are non-returnable. Retailers used to have a robust back issue market into which they could trickle out their leftover inventory, but a combination of (among other things) overwhelming line expansions (like how October-shipping books features 18 “Spider-Man” titles and 23 different comics from the “Batman” family), and the virtual guarantee today that any periodical mainstream-superhero comic is going to be collected into a book format totally crashed the viability of the back issue model for the overwhelming majority of stores. Further, the more lines expand, the more the gross size of the total audience for that line contracts. Once upon a time, I was selling fifty or more copies of “Amazing Spider-Man” in a world of four Spidey books a month, now in a world of eighteen releases in a month, I barely sell twenty copies of ASM. Oh, sure, all of my Spidey titles combined do sell more copies than the single book used to, but the risk in carrying those copies has sailed way up, and the profits are lower because of the four-plus-fold increase in workload.
There’s another part that is, I think, largely invisible to consumer reporting and to publishers: the number of customers who are willing to put in advance orders for new series has dropped precipitously in the last two or so years. Most people are preferring to “wait and see” on new titles. I believe that this is also a direct result from the previous paragraph’s two main forces: line over-expansion and “guaranteed” collection into book format. But this makes it harder and harder to accurately predict future demand, because consumers are now less likely to be willing to try new books sight unseen – even from creators or concepts they are predisposed to!
Finally, the third Problem Pillar is the incredible surge in speculation, seemingly driven by Facebook groups and phone-based apps, that is driving a remarkable amount of “flippers” focused laser-like on this week’s comics and which ones can be quick-flipped for huge profit as they travel from store to store. But, pretty self-evidentially, these forces aren’t actually long-term customers for whatever title they descend upon: they are only there as long as the book is “hot”, then they scurry away, leaving drastic confusion in retailer’s cycle sheets and rack counts. Again, I think they full scope of what this means is really misunderstood by publishers – for example, in the real marketplace of Fall of 2019, I can no longer rely on the once dependable formulae for percentage of orders we’ve lived with for decades. Now instead of issue #2 being in the 80% range for us of issue #1, it is often plummeting down to the 40% range. This has huge ramifications for future ordering down the road! It also means a market that is ripe for exploitation by speculators because the supply is so low, even tiny changes in demand can have huge domino-impacts.
All of these things combine to a pretty toxic ordering environment for many periodical comics, so in most cases, most retailers are thinking “How can I not get stuck with any of these when they come off the shelf?” rather than “How can I sell the most number of copies to the maximum possible number of humans?” That is not a healthy ordering mentality, but one that retailers largely have to adopt to have a hope of being profitable in the current environment.
And what this means is that success becomes harder to leverage for the average retailer, because the number of truly “successful” books are few-and-far between – we’ve dulled our abilities to see and adapt to “real hits” because of that same over-production our customers have grown so attuned to.
A startling percentage of my rack sales are in the single digits, and the core math of comics retailing has always been that you need 80-90% sell-through to remain profitable, but those two things don’t play together well because the lower the sell-in, the more precarious hitting the profitable percentages becomes without primarily aiming for “selling out”. That has a downwards pressure on one’s expectations of what can be racked and promoted and succeeded with.
When most of your internal calculations are towards getting as close to complete sell-through as possible, it’s much easier to under-assess what a “successful” book might do. It’s much easier to have an 80% sell through on fifty copies racked (you’ve got a ten copy buffer!), but as fewer and fewer titles sell at that level any more, it becomes harder to place those kinds of bold bets.
Here’s your “for example” of this – the “flagship” book for the X-Men line prior to the House/Powers relaunch was Matt Rosenberg’s Uncanny X-Men. But the last ten issues of that series sold twenty or fewer copies of us. At that point, I need to be selling eighteen of the twenty copies, or only having room for all of two unsold copies if I’d like to make a profit and keep paying rent and my staff. That’s not much!
You’ll also perhaps remember last month when we talked about how astronomical shipping can be from Diamond – one of the knock-on impacts on this for this store at least, is we use the slowest (thus cheapest!) possible shipping from Diamond for restocks. This makes it mildly easier for us to hit our cash flow needs, but it also means that means that restocks are usually what amounts to two weeks away. This means that if you do guess low, it’s that much harder to “make up” your mistakes with reorders because they take so long to arrive. Even worse is when the publisher also under-estimates the appeal of their comics and has to do second (and later) prints – because of the way orders are collected through the Final Order Cutoff system, and the time involved in setting print runs that way, then it really means three (or more) weeks pass before one gets restock. In fact, most typically second prints of an issue will not ship until the same week as the next issue released!
Depending on where you are located in relationship to one of Diamond’s two warehouses, doing a direct ship reorder (where you are restocked in 2-3 days) can be up to 20% of the costs of the product itself. Can’t stay in business for long doing that, in most circumstances.
Hopefully after reading this description of the purchasing and sales environment, hopefully it becomes self-evident why weekly comics can be even that much more difficult for the typical store? Especially if there is a “hit”.
Because this is how it went for us with Powers/House: New preorders were near zero – we had automatically added Uncanny X-Men subs to both books (because we’ve learned the last two years that we now have to do that), but there were no other, new folks signing up, so that datapoint was of little help. Still, I ordered more than double of the first issues of each than I had of the most recent Uncanny X-Men, thinking that had to be at least the first few week’s stock – it was the highest we’d ordered an X-Men comic since at least 2012, in fact!
And we sold out in under three hours. As far as I know, so did every other store in San Francisco, and probably in the Greater Bay Area too.
At first blush, this rally looks like some nature of true demand – for example we’ve signed up more new subscribers in the last month than we have in the entire year combined, and virtually all of them have House/Powers on the list. I almost certainly had “actual, native” demand at or around the one hundred copy level, at least for that first issue or three; and if I had known how much every store blew it collectively, I could have seen selling 150+ if I have had copies in stock. But I didn’t, and getting restock (and advance reorders!) in later is somewhat of a challenge.
This is where the burden of weekly shipping becomes horrifically problematic when the retailer is bearing all of risk. Marvel is not interested in inventory, and despite the publisher level being the place where 1) they are actually aware of the interior content and 2) where the lowest unit cost (and highest return-on-investment) exists, they had already sold out and announced a second printing before the books already shipped. When I see that the actual demand for House of X #1 is outstripping our supply, I immediately place a reorder on that day – however, now the 2nd print is already sold out. We have to wait for a third print. The functional result of this is that there is no additional supply for five (of twelve) weeks. Advance reorders for the weeks in the meantime also aren’t filling.
And what that means is that here at (as I write this) at week six, we still have really no idea what the actual demand is, and how much of our sales are coming from other stores selling out faster than us, rather than demand that we’re going to still be filling at week ten and twelve.
Let alone for the six monthly series that then spin out of House/Powers.
I’ll add one final thought to this: to me as a working retailer, first-week second printings for periodical comic books are not a thing to be proud of, or to bragged about as some sort of proof of fecundity. No, first-week second printings of periodicals are a tacit failure for a publisher to have actually done their job and function which is to maximize the number people with access to their wares so that they can continue to sell them that book for the next x years (the announced plan on Hickman’s run is actually three years)
This is as true for smaller publishers like Boom! and their four-printings-in-a-month of Once and Future as it is for this House/Powers from Marvel. A retailer typically has just over 100% ROI on a $2 investment for a $4 comic. A larger publisher’s marginal cost to have reorders is almost certainly at 50 cents or less, giving them a 400% ROI.
(It’s also purely insane to have “secret” variants [whose sole result is that they remove stock from the racks higher than reader demand] on the fifth release of a weekly series, before retailers have figured out their sales, like Marvel did with PoX #3.
I don’t think I want irrational or unreasonable things: I want the appropriate information so that I know how to order stock correctly, and I want the publisher to stand behind my risks. I don’t want scheduling to undercut my ability to receive stock and sell a book, especially a good book that people appear to want. And the most sensible time to receive supply is when the demand is right there. Weekly comics simply fail most of these tests, and they don’t comport with the way the average customer actually purchases periodicals, let alone what the average store needs in order to stay profitable and in business.
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.