Wednesday, February 07, 2007

My favorite dead horse, beaten again.

And now for something completely diff'rent...

Dave Carter over at Yet Another Comics Blog has an insightful and thought-provoking commentary on the niche industry aspect of our favorite hobby: he cannily points out that the bestselling book of comics right now is merely a drop in the bucket of other media and our market is dramatically shrinking...not merely from forty or fifty years ago but even from seven to ten years ago.

It's a good, solid analysis and it got me thinkin' (which is always a dangerous thing). Dave's post is a twist on a question that I often muse (and sometimes blog) about: where is the new generation of comic book readers coming from? Because we're all gonna die out sooner or later and if the market/publishers don't make increases in a new customer base that hasn't picked up comics before, we're all standing around lookin' shocked in the same way Henry McCoy was when he announced the extinction of homo sapiens: only a handful of generations left before comics die.
New X-Men #116 panels
Panels from New X-Men #116 (September 2001),
written by Grant Morrison, art by Frank Quitely, Mark Morales and Dan Green

Incubus DreamsI work in publishing so I see things from the view of the trade (rather than direct) market and one of the major problems is the circular argument of the existence of the floppy as direct market exclusive. They don't sell well in general bookstores to a new audience that has never bought them for a few reasons or combination of them, among them being perceived as poor value for money and the stores' reluctance to devote a section of the magazine department to low-profit items. But the publishers' reluctance or incompetence to draw new fans into the hobby confuses me as well. I probably make no fans among comic book store retailers with this view, but I wring my hands (er, hooves) over the recent Anita Blake and Stephen King programs from Marvel as floppies eventually collected into trade. Although they are genre works, with such a faithful and strong built-in audience for these series, there must be a considerable contingent of 'em who have never set foot in a comics store. And possibly never will, even tonight when King's comic debuts. But s'pose an original paperback graphic novel of these stories was released at the same time to trade bookstores and comic book shops—heck, even ship it a couple weeks early to comic book shops than to bookstores—and pay for co-op placement or marketing that would position the books physically or thematically where the customers for the series usually go—an Anita Blake graphic novel shelved with the Laurell K. Hamilton books, a Dark Tower GN shelved in the horror section next to King, not (or at least not only) in the GN section. Use that as the launch for a new floppy series and promote it in the back: "Coming in August 2007: a new monthly comic book series continuing the illustrated adventures of Anita Blake!" With instructions on how to look up your local comic book store (1-800-COMICBOOK).

Anita Blake comic bookI might be being naïve and I know I don't have the economics chops to work this out all completely, but I do think you'd sell a heck of a lot of GNs to a wider and more diverse audience that has never set foot inside a comic book store...and now you're giving them incentive to check one out. And a savvy store will market that movement to their advantage: Anita Blake endcaps or displays featuring the GN, new issues of the comic, PLUS other monthly series the audience might like. An informed hand-selling staff: "Hey, if you like Anita Blake, you might enjoy this Vertigo comic." The conversion rate is hard to predict but it will be quantifiable, and I believe this benefits the publishers, the direct market, and the trade bookstores.

Halo Graphic NovelThe closest thing I have to an example of this—and it fails my idea because it had no monthly follow-up to drive customers into comic book the summer 2006 Halo original graphic novel from Marvel. No, it didn't sell 300,000+ copies, but a quick peek at BookScan, the Nielsen sales reporting system for bookstore sales, tells me Halo has sold over 35,000 copies in trade bookstores to date. BookScan numbers are actual out-the-door sales that results in cash in the register, by the way, not sales to the stores that may result in unsold copies sitting on the shelves. Baker & Taylor, one of the industry's largest bookstore wholesales and definitely the largest library wholesalers, does not report to BookScan so add their sales—6,200 copies—to the total*. I haven't any idea of how many sold through the comics direct market, but I'd guesstimate it pushes the total sell-through at over 50,000 copies. So, that's a $25 book that probably is sold to bookstores at $12.50 or possibly a wee bit high (depending on the distributor: most publishers seldom sell books to bookstores at discounts higher than 50% except for exceptionally massive quantities like those to accounts with centralized distribution centers or price clubs; I don't know enough about Marvel's distribution to bookstores or Diamond's arcane discounting schedule to be more accurate). Leaving aside royalties, production, marketing costs that are of course present, that means this book's profit is more than half a million dollars...not massive at all, but not chickenfeed in the general book industry either.

Civil War comic bookAt the heart of it I can see the point of Marvel's program for something superhero related like Civil War. In just the main series alone, it's a floppy that sells approximately 200,000-300,000 copies of each of seven issues: by my admittedly spotty and inexpert economics that's over five million dollars, plus spin-offs, tie-ins, merchandising (t-shirts, posters, toys) and yes, the eventual trade paperback market. It makes sense for those superhero comics to debut in this format inside a comic book store because that's where the audience for 'em is: already in the comic book store. But is the main audience for Anita Blake or Stephen King inside a comic book store? I've gotta guess that only a slice of the Venn pie of their fans are also comics fans.

Dark Tower Comic BookYou can argue—and I do realize and understand—that Marvel's in business to make money, not new customers. They can publish the comic and put out a graphic novel later, and yes, in some ways that does serve the same purpose I'm proposing by getting the Anita Blake fans on board after the trade hardcover collection comes out in May 2007 (although I'll be interested to see if there's a back ad in that collection that points readers to the ongoing series in comic book stores). It's naïve of me to suggest Marvel needs to be "socially responsible" to their business. But there's a saying in business and it's a very simple one: "Start where the money is." Although there's some of it there now, the Anita Blake and Stephen King money started not in the comic book stores but in Barnes and Noble. And Borders. And Books-a-Million. And Elliott Bay. And Tattered Cover. And Shakespeare and Co. And Olsson's. And Barbara's. And And CostCo. And Sam's Clubs. And Target. And that little indie bookstore down the street from you. And your local library. And hundreds of other places filled with customers who have never, would never set foot in a comic book store. Even if they see on that a Dark Tower comic is coming, how many of them say, "I love King but I don't read comics." Put the comics where they spend their money, in forms that are reasonable for their purchasing habits, in locations that will leap out at them rather than hidden away, and the money will follow.

Or, I might be completely wrong and right now at a few minutes after midnight, a sizeable percentage of King fans are stepping into comic book stores across the country, stores they've never been in to buy something they also never have: a comic book. And they'll return and buy other stuff. And get hooked on that. And become comics fans for life.

Hey, it could happen.

*I'm aware there may be some overlap here: B&T's numbers are to both libraries and bookstores, so in some cases Halo may have been sold by B&T to a bookstore reporting to BookScan, which means those copies would have been counted twice. It's hard to quantify that number but I mention the possibility for accuracy and fairness's sake.


Kevin Church said...

I have, without any real knowledge of how the book market works, wondered if Marvel missed the boat by not creating the King and Hamilton tie-ins as graphic novels in their own right, releasing two a year (which is a better rate than the authors can manage) and tapping the voracious audience these writers have. The floppy is, as you've pretty much pointed out, a dead-end for retailers and I think the returnability demands of a large chain would make the pamphlet a poor choice for Marvel's distribution in that area.

I'll admit that I'm curious what affect "Coming August 2007...the next Anita Blake graphic novel!" on shelftalkers would have for Marvel's sales. They need to stop acting like a huge fish in a small pond and start thinking like a voracious, eager fish in a much, much larger lake.

Sleestak said...

If only comic books had some addictive substance added in during printing, then publishers would never have to worry about keeping or gaining an audience.

Free Comic Book Day would have a whole new meaning. "Hey, kids! The first one is free."

Siskoid said...

There's tons of bad marketing where comics are concerned. For example, why do all my local comcics stores shrinkwrap trade paperbacks and graphic novels? Not being able to check the insides is a major impediment to impulse buying.

That said, I agree with your assessments about missed crossover potential.

Phil Looney said...

>>An informed hand-selling staff: "Hey, if you like Anita Blake, you might enjoy this Vertigo comic." The conversion rate is hard to predict but it will be quantifiable, and I believe this benefits the publishers, the direct market, and the trade bookstores.

I think a lot of shops drop the ball on this - but I think a lot of it has to do with not being staffed well enough to have some one somewhat free roaming the floor and helping cutomers.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

The comics industry simply isn't structured properly to break into bookstores because their business models are built on the cash flow that comes from the Direct Market's guaranteed hit every month. It's more expensive to produce an OGN, and targeting bookstores means taking a big financial gamble each time out because they'll have to factor in returnability and a less predictable cash flow, plus shift their marketing schedule to accomodate the much greater lead-time needed to reach the mass-market retailers.

That said, a project like Dark Tower would have been perfect to launch as an OGN first with an ongoing to follow as the publicity around it would have had a much longer reach and Marvel could have maximized their marketing efforts. It'll be interesting to see what kind of promotional effort they put behind the eventual HC or TPB, and whether or not they get the same level of media attention they've managed for the first issue.

SallyP said...

Very well thought out, Bully. I agree with you on the problem of where the future customers are going to come from.

Last night, I was with my son at the bowling alley, where a group of us participate in a local Special Olympics thingie. I had brought along a nice JLA Trade book to read, and while all the kids thought it was kinda neat, they didn't have a CLUE who most of the characters were...outside of Superman and Batman. Their parents however? I was surprised at how many of the fathers knew everybody.

Won't someone PLEASE think of the children?

Anonymous said...

I don't know a thing about publishing, but it seems to me that if it can be profitable for there to be 6 different magazines about gardening on the rack at the supermarket, that there is a profit to be made in magazine size reprint comics. Make sure the cover story is an all-ages, done-in-one, and have backup stories that will lead the kids to seek out other groovy comic book goodness. And if the price is kept low enough to attract kids, there's your next generation.

Also, if comic book readers are anything like normal people, they'll have a couple of kids in their lifetime, so readership should double in a generation, if they are turning their kids on to comics. Either we're not having enough kids, or we're giving our kids crappy comics to read.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that most LCS owners/managers care enough or have the savvy to capitalize on such launches even if Marvel/DC did them. (And a comic shop that shrinkwraps the GNs? I've never heard of that! Shudder!)

That said, I'm sure there are economic reasons but perhaps one of the biggest is that these companies aren't interested in long-term profit. That may seem short sighted (and is) but that's not uncommon in the business world. The money today is the important thing; the money tomorrow is never guaranteed, so why worry about it. I kinda think that Marvel and DC (and others) are so sure of their eventual demise that they have given up on fighting it - it happens when it happens - let's make a buck until then.

On a final and unrelated note, why is the word verification insulting me? It is "ubozoyou" - WTF?

Adam Barnett said...

What's killing the industry is the cost of the books. I hate to play "when I was a kid," but time was, I could get four or five comics for a couple of bucks. I don't know any kid who can really collect comics any more, and this is the kind of media where failure to snag a reader at childhood is a reader that is lost forever.

Anonymous said...

I could get 8 comics for a buck when I started buying them. `sigh`

So how have comic prices risen? Let's compare Amazing Spider-Man to Time Magazine:

1963 .12 - .25
1970 .15 - .50
1980 .50 - 1.50
1990 1.00 - 2.50
2000 2.25 - 3.50
2007 2.99 - 4.95

Adam Barnett said...

I understand what you're saying, mutt, and I'm not accusing either DC or Marvel of bilking people. I'm just saying that a child only has so much money in their pocket, and I would have had a very hard time paying $3 for a single comic on my paper route earnings. It may be unavoidable because of rising costs, but that's the fiscal reality of the situation. I don't pretend to be smart enough to know what the solution is, but I was able to buy 7 or 8 comics at a time without feeling like I was wasting money. Doing that these days brings us to $25, and I don't see children doing that with the same level of devotion we were able to give it as children. It's hardly the first time that making a product became cost-prohibitive and disappeared. I truly hope that more comic companies offer comics in a digital format to get the people who wouldn't mind paying a dollar to read it and store it on a CD as opposed to those willing to spend 3 times that much to keep a hard copy in a mylar bag. If they catered to both markets, that might help.
But what do I know? I just write a snarky column.

Bully said...

I get and agree with both of what you're saying. As Mutt points out, the retail price of a comic has kept step with periodicals. But I also agree with Adam: comics are very poor value for money. $3 for (usually) a five-ten minute read is not good entertainment value, espcially compared to a $6 magazine...or even a $15 CD, $10 movie, $25 DVD, or $40 video game...or a $12 manga book. Any new potential readers will soon realize they will get a lot more bang for their buck in every other entertainment medium other than comics.

Roland Dodds said...

I don’t know if it is a solution to the problems the industry faces, but I think all these mini series that Marvel and DC put out should be directly put into trades. For example, if Smith’s new Shazam book was released completed and under 15 bucks, I think they could create a lot of excitement for it even outside the normal comic market. The problem is, once a book goes to trade, it has already lost a little steam and luster, and that hurts when it comes to bringing folks into comics I think.

But what do I know.