Sunday, December 2, 2007

Comic Shops and distribution

As usual, Steven Grant in his column Permanent Damage had something interesting to say. I don’t always agree with him but he usually presents a view supported by logical reasoning and past experience. His column dealt with publishers getting the right exposure for their titles and therefore, selling them. Here’s the link if you haven’t seen it. Steven’s column ties in with some threads appearing on some forums such as CBIA (a private retailer’s forum) and Panel and Pixel (the newer site that is host to comic creators in the vein of the late Engine). Essentially, the question comes from publishers on how to get their books noticed (and consequently ordered). There are a lot of titles being offered to comic book retailers and fans and most of them will fail to reach satisfactory numbers to continue or in fact, even come out in the first place. The major problem is the system of distribution which of course, means Diamond. I don’t blame Diamond at all…they’re in the business to solidify THEIR business and until someone proves to them that NOT having a virtual monopoly is beneficial to the market and themselves concurrently, it’s likely to stay that way. But this is where the discussion on the forums is centered at and it brings up an interesting facet of the business model. Grant, in his column says, and rightfully so, that the act of publishing doesn’t mean you’re going to have readers or support from the retailers. As he put it, the “build it and they will come” mentality just isn’t going to work, yet that is the approach that most publishers have in today’s market. However, the strategies that publishers can engage some kind of promotional scheme is very limited and again, it comes down to the distribution format. A publisher launching a new line of comics has to get the retailers on board to their titles so they order it for their shelves (racking the books) and hopefully entice readers into discovering the title. What can a publisher do? The most obvious strategy is to advertise in the monthly Diamond Preview. After all, this is essentially the source of information for all titles each month. Fans can turn in an order form indicating what they want and in turn, retailers turn in their order forms to Diamond which is unfortunately, just about the only ordering system in place for comic shops. There are a few other distributors that shops use to fill reorders but essentially Diamond is the engine that drives the comics market. So, how do publishers make fans and retailers aware of their titles? Mainly, as I said, they advertise in Diamond Previews. But in those forum discussions, you have a lot of stores, and major ones at that, saying they don’t use Previews in their stores. Shops mentioned that they had 2-10% of their customers actually even look at Previews (if they were supplied or ordered for them). And these are large and respectable stores. Even further, some of these stores don’t want posters or flyers as they just don’t have any place to display them. There are a few outspoken retailers who want publishers to know that because of the sheer number of titles being offered, theirs is not likely to be carried by the store unless the publisher gives them a reason to carry it…feedback from customers demanding the title…awareness in the media…or as one put it, have a “buzz” about it. But most of these retailers say that the market is small as it is---simply getting attention in the comics market via Newsarama, Comic Book Resources, the Pulse, etc., is not enough. They want the publishers to bring in new readers. This makes sense if you concede that buyers spend their allotted budget and so any competing product simply takes away from another product the retailer already ordered. New readers are new dollars...old readers just shuffle the same dollars around. With many stores, there is a resistance towards purchasing new or unproven books. In fact, one store said that they would consider racking a book (available on the shelf) if they got at least five advance orders on a title. So, if four advance orders came in, the store would still not stock it for the shelf because it wasn’t enough demand to do so. It ends up that stores won’t order titles unless there is a buzz about it. Consumers won’t buy the books if they aren’t at the store and apparently the use of Diamond Previews to advance order is used far less often than most publishers thought, so consumers won’t even have the chance to be aware of it. The recourse to publishers is to strategize the Internet to build customer awareness yet many stores say that method is insufficient to build true consumer demand. Of course, the stores (and most publishers, obviously) want new readers. Where do these new readers come in? I think it has to come from new titles that hold a broader appeal than the superheroes. Let’s face it, the “world” at large knows all about superheroes from movies such as Batman, Superman, X-Men, Spider-Man, Hulk, Daredevil, etc. The movies and consequential awareness are not driving customers into comic stores. Whereas the comic fans have defined comics as the genre of superheroes, the outside world as defined superheroes as characters in film. Look at the movies which have generated incredible sales of the printed material…Sin City, 300, The Crow, and to a much lesser extent, V for Vendetta, History of Violence, Road to Perdition, and From Hell. Not a superhero in the bunch. Perhaps the larger audience out there (the mass market) will venture into graphic storytelling…if the material is the right material. I’m not suggesting stores are necessarily negligent or lazy about ordering smaller publishers’ books. They operate on a tight budget and they don’t really have the luxury of taking chances. But it is the system and the system is not efficient for things outside of the usual course (i.e.- superhero pamphlet comics). Let’s say you’re a publisher that does a historical mystery and it isn’t being sold based on the talents involved (no big names to carry it along). It is well written, the art is very good, the packaging is top notch, and it fits into the proper format. The publisher runs an ad in Diamond, advertises online, gets interviews and previews on many of the major Internet sites, has a good website with information on the title. Chances are that the book will not be carried by most stores unless it just happens to get the buzz (which is unpredictable and certainly can’t be planned on). It languishes in sales and is considered a flop. What if the publisher decided to forego the comic distribution channels. Sure, it would be offered but not budgeted for any kind of advertising spent in that market. Sales would be less but how much less? From next to nothing to nothing? But no money was spent so profit wise, the publisher may be ahead in that market. Suppose the publisher directed all of their energies and money to outside the comics market. Hitting the mystery and history avenues…buying space in the smaller magazine or making deals with Amazon or other suppliers. A website is set up to take direct orders from consumers. Again, it could have minimal sales. But suppose it generates interest? Now, you can’t do that kind of strategy too far ahead because if people want the book, they want it now. They’re not going to order it ahead of time and wait a couple of months. And so the time factor for the comic stores takes them out of the equation. Furthermore, unless someone already frequents a comic store, they’re not likely to inquire there either…not when they can order direct or get it from someplace like Amazon. If the book takes off, what role does the comic store play in this? Not much…except to satisfy their existing customer base by providing copies on a reorder basis. The publishers, especially if they’re selling direct, don’t see much use for the comic stores (outside of any other outlet) because the discount structure is too high on each copy sold. Sure, Amazon also charges a similar discount but as a publisher, you get a lot more bang for your buck from Amazon than you do from a reluctant comic shop. A lot of publishers do realize this. They know that the comic shops are not going to give them unconditional support and most publishers actually do realize why. Stores are limited in what they can do…there shouldn’t be any animosity between the two sides (although there seems to be at times)…it’s just the way things are. Yet some publishers still are mired in this mindset and the direct market ends up being their primary focus if not their only one. With Transfuzion, my initial thought was just to bypass the comics market altogether. After all, the books were primarily reprints of some of my stuff at Caliber along with a few friends doing the same. Retailers often complain about collections of old series and how there isn’t a big enough market to support all of them. I get that and had no problems with it. The collections have a value outside of just seeing my name on the cover. They provide a tangible product for other explorations. Having collections has helped me to get foreign reprint deals, a role playing game, t-shirt licenses, interest and options from Hollywood, some video game discussions, and explorations into the many outlets of digital distribution and that’s just from a couple of collections put out by Desperado and/or Image. However, as word got out, we started getting a lot of inquiries from other creators and now Transfuzion will likely be doing a considerable amount of new stuff. So, I figure as a publisher, I owe it to the creators to get as much exposure as possible. And as someone who has been in this business for 20 years, I WANT the comics market to grow. I reconsidered my idea of not going through the direct market and just concentrate outside of it although I think I will do better “out there”. I have had a lot of success in selling direct to fans, finding other outlets (i.e.- mystery stores for Red Diaries, horror outlets for Deadworld), and I find quite a few of my books in libraries. There has been very limited success in the bookstore market but sales online via Amazon and other sources have been extremely encouraging. So, why bother with the comic stores at all? Well, obviously, any sale is sale, even ones at such substantial discounting. But I guess it comes down to the feeling that I owe it to them and the industry. Now, most of them could give a shit on whether I offer the books or not but I know that at least I made it available to them. For the initial launch of Transfuzion, the books were ready to go in August of 2007 but now they will not be released until February of 2008. If you’re going to use the direct market, you have to do it right. You can’t undercut them, so I am perfectly willing to follow that game plan. I may only get a handful of sales from the direct market, I don’t know…but no matter what happens, they always had the opportunity. Whether I can parlay that into something they can take advantage of it is a whole different question.

3 comments:

Wesley said...

I could not have said it better myself. My hat is off to you for saying what I think a lot of publishers are thinking but may be afraid of saying in fear of any backlash from retailers.

As a new publisher myself, I get the sense the paradigm is shifting from the comic shop retailer being the main customer to satisfy to the people who actual buy and read the material.

Great insightful post, Gary. Best of luck with your books.

Wesley Craig Green
Ambrosia Publishing

Gary Reed said...

Wesley,
I don't think too many publishers are worried abouto backlash...I mean, what are they going to do? Not order the books?
I agree the paradigm is shifting but I don't agree with the many people that put out that the fault lies at the retailers' feet totally. After all, they're BUYING the books first and then reselling them. I was a retailer for 15 years...I understand how it is.
But the fact is, the market seems to becoming a narrower focus and nowadays, we have different ways of dealing with it, that's all.
And good luck to you as well, Wesley...you have some interesting looking stuff.

jas said...

Very interesting article. I'm about to publish my first book and the issue of distribution is the big obstacle that's on my mind each and every day.

 
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