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TKO Studios in Review: The industry’s response to two waves of disruptive publishing

The Beat examines TKO Studios' performance in comic book stores, the changes they've made since launch, and their current standing in the comics industry.

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At the tail end of 2018, TKO Studios introduced itself to the comics market with a bang. The brand new publisher dropped four fully completed miniseries from a host of familiar names including Garth Ennis, Steve Epting, and Joshua Dysart. As impressive as its list of creators was, the industry was especially taken by its binge release model. Customers were given the option to buy TKO comics digitally, as box sets of oversized issues, or as trade paperbacks collecting the series into one volume. Digital versions of the first issues were also available to read for free by taking advantage of TKO’s Try Before You Buy program.

Due to the caliber of the creators and its unique release strategy, TKO received press coverage from not just major comics news sites but mainstream outlets including The Hollywood Reporter and The New York Times. All eyes were on the new publisher. 

But with all of that attention came extra scrutiny. Some sectors of the comic book industry expressed concern with Publisher and Co-Founder Tze Chun’s background in TV and film, worried that TKO was nothing more than an IP farm.

Sebastian Girner’s role as Editor-in-Chief of TKO Studios alleviated a lot of those concerns. Girner is highly respected in the industry, from his time at Marvel through his last several years of freelance editing some of Image’s most high-profile titles. His connections helped a brand new publisher secure top creators for its series, and his involvement provided the publisher with a much-needed sense of legitimacy when it burst upon the scene.

TKO has been fairly open that its business model factors in the value of the comics’ intellectual property. Creating comics for TKO is a work-for-hire assignment, which means that the publisher retains the licensing rights to have series adapted into other mediums. Even the name of the publisher, TKO Studios, and its website, tkopresents.com, signal that the publisher is courting Hollywood. But Sebastian Girner and Tze Chung have expressed how adamant they are that, first and foremost, their books have to stand as comics.

The binge release model is a clever strategy to not just excite the comic book industry but attract the attention of executives searching for new stories to adapt to television and film. But that business model hasn’t prevented TKO from publishing comics that excite readers. Its series don’t all read like movie pitches. Some of the titles, such as Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli, and Giulia Brusco‘s beach bum murder mystery Goodnight Paradise, are difficult to imagine as anything but comics. TKO has put a lot of work into assuring the industry that a publisher centered on selling its intellectual property can produce solid comics in the process. Not everyone is on board, but based on my discussions with stores, more retailers are warming up to the publisher.

Retailer response

TKO’s biggest challenge has been its relationship with retailers and in simply interesting comic shops in ordering their books. While the industry was fascinated with the binge release model, it proved a source of concern for retailers. In my email interview with Tze Chun for this piece, Chun pointed out that, when a store sells one TKO title, it captures the sale of an entire 6-issue series, which is much more profitable for the retailer. That’s true, but the format also makes it difficult for retailers to gauge their order numbers, putting them at greater risk of being stuck with copies they can’t sell, especially when TKO first burst upon the scene. 

Normally stores estimate how many trade paperbacks they need by the sales of a series’ issues. Since TKO titles aren’t released in single-issue format like most comics aimed at the Direct Market, retailers have less data with which to determine their order numbers. Stores also have to predict whether their customers will prefer the $19.99 trade paperbacks or the $29.99 single-issue box sets.

Comics retailer and Beat contributor Brandon Schatz of Edmonton’s Variant Edition Comics + Culture noted that TKO Studios received early pushback over its ordering structure. When the publisher debuted, its wholesale discount was dependent on how much product retailers purchased upfront. The minimum order requirement was $250, for which retailers only received a 20% wholesale discount, which is rather low compared to other indie publishers. The discounts maxed out at 45% but to qualify stores were required to make purchases of $2500 or more.

TKO Studios also offered a consignment tier, sending participating retailers free copies of all of their offerings for display and issuing discount voucher codes granting customers a 10% discount on all TKO offerings. Stores received 15% of all sales made using their individual voucher code, including digital orders. It was a novel idea but, given the tier was soon removed, one that seemingly failed to gain traction.

Chun said he spent most of the month following TKO’s debut communicating with retailers and listening to their feedback. He took quick action, revising TKO’s consignment deal within 30 days of TKO’s launch so that its retail partners could feel confident purchasing their titles. To its credit, TKO drastically improved its offer to retailers, dropping minimum order requirements entirely (except to qualify for free shipping overseas) and raising its wholesale discounts to 50% across the board. 

The changes instantly made TKO’s products more appealing to retailers. Thanks to the improved wholesale discount, stores make more money for every TKO title they sell. The removal of a minimum order requirement also allowed risk-averse stores to take a chance on the new publisher, which placed TKO books into more readers’ hands.

Wave 1 Titles

TKO Studios launched with 4 titles: Goodnight Paradise as well as Sara, 7 Deadly Sins and The Fearsome Doctor Fang. Because of the popularity of its creative team, Sara served as an “anchor” title for Wave 1, which helped to attract attention to the whole line. 

Garth Ennis war comics have a built-in audience no matter where they’re published, and Sara was no exception. His collaborator, Captain America artist Steve Epting, drew even more attention to the title. Sara made TKO difficult for retailers to ignore, which created a larger potential audience for the publisher’s other offerings.

I was only able to communicate with a handful of retailers about their experience with TKO, in part because some shops haven’t ordered anything from the publisher yet. But the retailers I interviewed had a wide range of experiences.

Dal Bush, co-owner of Challenger Comics and Conversation, said TKO’s original ordering structure was untenable for his store, but he ordered a few times from the publisher once it was revised. He said the business model wasn’t as interesting to him and co-owner Patrick Brower as the fact that they had a Garth Ennis/Steve Epting war graphic novel they were confident they could sell.

Big Bang Comics also had a lot of customers interested in Sara. Owner John Hendricks said that several TKO comics sold well at the Dublin-based comic shop, and Sara finished in its Top 30 Best-Selling Graphic Novels of 2019. Hendricks was impressed by the success of the box sets, which proved surprisingly popular for many retailers. According to Chun, the breakdown between orders of box sets and trade paperbacks is about 50-50, even though the box sets are 50% more expensive.

Wave 2

For Wave 2, TKO Studios assembled a talented, diverse group of creators with backgrounds not just in comics but also in the book market and television. TKO teased Sentient before revealing the rest of the line because it saw the appeal of a comic from Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Walta, popular creators whose sensibilities complement each other.

The Wave 2 titles featured a lot of star power from in and outside comics. For example, The Banks is a heist story written by New York Times best-selling essayist Roxane Gay and illustrated by The Kitchen’s Ming Doyle. And Punch for Punch is a grindhouse comic from Natalie Chaidez, showrunner of the USA Network series Queen of the South, and veteran artist Andy Belanger.

Still, TKO didn’t receive the same level of press coverage as Wave 1, since a lot of the excitement around TKO was tied to its publishing model. TKO couldn’t net another New York Times write-up just by repeating its distribution strategy.

Bush shared that none of the Wave 2 titles caught the interest of his customers at Challengers Comics. As of when I interviewed him, out of TKO’s 8 titles, only Sara had sold more than one copy. Even Sentient failed to grab customers’ attention.

Bush attributed that in part to a lack of reader awareness. Because TKO titles aren’t sold through Diamond, they’re not in the Previews listings. As a result, they don’t factor into Challengers’ subscriber emails, counter displays, or any other way the store tries to persuade customers to pre-order books. They just show up on the shelves, without any buzz or awareness. Bush said maybe Challengers could work harder to let customers know about TKO comics, but a lot of that responsibility lies with the publisher.

Similarly, Hendricks said that TKO titles struggle to feel “fresh” for very long. In his words, “it’s hard to keep the momentum up in terms of marketing, awareness, and promotion after you’ve released so much product in one go.” While Big Bang has found success with more TKO titles than Challengers, Hendricks agrees with Bush that not all comic readers are even aware of the publisher because they’re outside the normal distribution model.

But Hendricks was impressed with TKO’s output, saying, “As long as they keep producing good quality books like they have been that interest, engage and appeal to our customers and us ourselves we’ll definitely keep stocking them.”

After a month of selling TKO product at Acme Comics, Jermaine Exum said that several of the series he ordered instantly found homes with customers, which is the best possible result when ordering a new line of comics. He specifically cited Sara as a quick sell to Garth Ennis fans and said The Banks attracted fans of Ming Doyle. Overall, Exum said the store did very well with the TKO titles he ordered.

Schatz shared that Variant Edition has already placed several orders with TKO because demand has been so high. Sara and Sentient are by far the most popular at his store, selling at roughly a 5:1 ratio to any of the other 6 titles.

Based on my discussions with retailers, ordering TKO Studios titles appears to be a mixed bag, depending on which store you ask and the customer bases they serve. 

Because TKO Studios doesn’t share its order numbers publicly, The Beat can’t compare the sales of Wave 1 to Wave 2. However, Chun expressed enthusiasm about the response to TKO’s latest series, saying the second wave benefitted from the groundwork already laid with Wave 1.

Interestingly, Chun also said that the launch of Wave 2 created a resurgence in the sales of Wave 1 titles, which suggests that readers are still learning about TKO for the first time. With a large segment of comic book readers still unaware of the publisher, increasing brand recognition may play an important role in TKO’s future success.

Chun shared that TKO Studios recently closed a deal with the major book market distributor PGW to have their books in nationwide bookstores starting in the late summer of 2020. Besides indie bookstores, all of the publisher’s sales have been online or through comic book retailers. To survive off book sales alone, TKO needs to get its books into more comic shops, but some retailers are still uneasy about the binge business model and ordering outside of Diamond. One of TKO’s primary concerns should be to change the minds of hesitant retailers, and it has taken steps to do that, including a recent move that has been widely praised.

On March 27, amidst the outbreak of COVID-19, TKO Studios pledged to send half the sales from online orders to comic shops its customers want to support. Even stores that have never carried TKO material are eligible. 

Chun said that TKO felt it was in a unique position to help stores fight back against the pandemic since they control their own distribution, are active on social media, and have a very healthy e-commerce business. In his words, if a percentage of stores were forced to shutter their doors because of COVID-19, an important part of comic book culture and American culture would be lost. Chun and TKO Studios wanted to do everything in our power to prevent that from happening. Since launching the initiative, Chun said TKO has sent out over a thousand checks to 600 stores.

Exum expressed his appreciation for the initiative and hopes the program will continue throughout the year. He said comic book stores have long memories and this measure has already gone a long way, especially for stores still on the fence about ordering TKO product.

With its offer, TKO is playing its part in supporting retailers, the lifeblood of the comics industry. The publisher is also demonstrating to stores that, even though its business model incorporates selling intellectual property, TKO is committed to comics.

The offer is both an act of kindness and a smart step forward for a publisher that understands the importance of comic book shops for its future. Since the launch of the initiative, TKO Studios has had record-breaking days of sales. Whenever a customer selected a retailer to support, half those proceeds went to a store in need.

Given the lack of sales figures, it’s impossible to know the financial state of TKO Studios. But, by further establishing itself in the market, TKO Studios creates more opportunities to earn the respect of retailers that remain on the fence. With TKO Wave 3 arriving this summer and Wave 4 in active development, the publisher seems keen to do just that.

Thanks to Tze Chun, W. Dal Bush, Jermaine Exum, John Hendricks, and Brandon Schatz for contributing their insight to this piece.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Living in SW Ontario Canada, nobody I know carries their products. I ordered the first 4 trades to a friend in Michigan who brought them across because shipping was brutal.

    They were okay. I’m glad I bought them, but I won’t be ordering anything else. The oversized form factor is also a pain. At least a trade can be put on a bookshelf. The comics have to be kept in the boxes as they don’t fit any standard bag and board. You can’t store them in a longbox, and they are too small for a magazine box.

  2. I’d say that, once out of the gate, TKO’s special business model doesn’t deliver anything extra. It got them some attention, that’s it. Of course, not working with a distributor might leave TKO with more profit per unit sold, so they might need less sales to keep their boat afloat, when compared to similar publishers that do work with a distributor. But that makes no difference to either retailer or consumer.
    The boxes aren’t that interesting. They carry a heavier price tag, and aren’t interesting to the floppie crowd. I at least think so, because these aren’t genuine single issues, meaning they weren’t released seperately beforehand, and that’s part of the attraction for collectors of single issues. As box sets on their own, the content doesn’t vary enough with the book versions to justify the price increase.
    The oversized books are nice, and more publishers are experimenting outside of the standard rigid comic format. One drawback seems to be te cardboardstock used on the covers. Copies I have seen tend to curl back quit rapidly when not supported or kept in place by a sleeve or by other books.
    The stories themselves tend to be solid quality stand-alone graphic novels, decently out of range of standard super-hero fare, but also nothing really standing apart from the crowd, meaning there isn’t a signature TKO book out there, carving out a specific corner of the market for them. Where I live, top-sellers seem to be Sara, followed by Sentient.

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