Saturday, December 15, 2007

Comics...maybe not dead?

Interesting conversation going on at Newsarama which came out of Brian Hibbs' latest column of Tilting at the Windmills. To sum up, Hibbs---one of the premiere retailers and a staunch supporter of independent publishers---says that with his new POS (point of sale) system, it allows him to track sales of product much more efficiently. The title of this particular column, “Unintended Consequences”, alludes to the fact that Hibbs is gaining a much greater appreciation for sell through (and sales overall) of all of the titles, specifically graphic novels. His hard data is telling him that a lot of the graphic novels and trades he orders are just not selling. Not selling poorly, mind you, not selling at all. Here’s the link to the Newsarama thread. This isn’t limited to just the “indy” books although he does specify that the ones with no market awareness just sit there and do not sell. But Hibbs points out that many of the books from the big four (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Image) also face the same problem. In fact, Hibbs says that he strongly suspects that he could make ½ of the Marvel and DC superhero trade paperbacks disappear and no one will notice. Now, I don’t know Hibbs personally but he’s been around a long time and I know that he is one of the “full service” stores that carry a wide selection and tries to carry “almost everything” that comes out. But with the shift in the comics market heading towards graphic novels and trade paperbacks, it simply becomes a case of just too many books. The market can’t support them as the fan base just isn’t big enough. The graphic novel market is one of the fastest (in recent years, it is THE fastest growing) segment of the book market but a lot of those sales are skewed by the successful penetration of manga. However, even without the manga driving the market, sales in graphic novels have been growing at a tremendous clip, spurred by media tie-ins such as 300, Sin City, From Hell, etc. The problem comes from the distribution of many of these trades…they rely on the comics market which just isn’t big enough to support all of them. In the month of December, the big four publishers scheduled about 100 books and the other publishers officered around 200. That’s a lot of books to be absorbed into the comics market and it is a good bet that many, if not most, are not going to get sufficient orders to print. Many retailers are relying on customers to pre-order the books or else the store isn’t going to carry one for the shelf. They just simply can not carry everything and hope it sells. This brings an interesting dilemma to the comic shops. They are increasingly becoming specialty shops of a niche product (comics). The growth in trades is, of course, beneficial to them but they are not the only ones sharing in that growth. Online retailers and bookstores have tapped into that same market. And of course, with the increasing accessibility of print on demand and online sales, many titles are selling directly from publisher (or creator) to the end consumer. So, if comic shops aren’t supplying a unique product in trades, then what’s to be their success strategy? Oddly enough, it may just be those comic pamphlets that so many have said are a form just waiting to die. Recent years have seen a mad rush to circumvent the comic book periodical by doing more original graphic novels or to use the comics as almost a promotional tool in order to get the trades out. Potential customers can sample the periodical and as happens often, if they like it, discontinue picking up the pamphlet form and wait for the trade. The shift may return to having the periodic comics become the focus again. It gives a viability to the comic shops that no other outlet can match. In recent years, only the major publishers have relied on the periodic format as most independent publishers have abandoned them because of little support and virtually no sales. Stores have reinvented themselves as book stores, ordering most comics to sell out and dropping back issues. One store that I know of, Dark Star Books (a great supporter of Caliber in the day) has reverted to becoming a trade only store and doesn’t even carry periodic comics any more. When I had my stores, we carried virtually every trade in existence plus imported many from France and Japan and even carried Chinese and Korean titles. Anime at that time was called Japanimation and the manga titles were not translated although some companies such as Eclipse and Dark Horse were just starting to bring Americanized versions over. Periodicals still made up a hefty percentage of the business as did back issues. Even in the waning days of running the stores (I sold them), I saw the decrease in the periodicals due to expectations of trades following soon. This of course, impacted both new and back issues. Comic books (the periodicals) are becoming such a specialty market and are in danger of following so many magazines and newspapers that are giving way to the electronic form. But comics, even more so than mags and papers, rely on a tactile basis…people just like to hold them in their hands and the digital formats just don’t measure up for some people. However, that comparison is with “current” fans. New fans may forego the physical form completely and have no such discrimination. Wouldn’t it be ironic that the very thing that saves the sequential comics market is going back to the basics of comic books? If publishers pushed back the trade collections so that the monthly comics renewed their value as entertainment, then comic shops might find their little niche could survive. It’s an interesting watch especially for those of us who remember the early days of the direct market and how things have changed. Most of those changes were completely unpredicted so when I see predictions on future avenues or events, I just have to think back of so many predictions that didn’t come true and the unknown arenas that opened up into all new and unexpected venues. Side excursions: It looks like the Deadworld: Requiem for the World trade paperback (collecting the Image series of Deadworld 1-6) is sold out. It was overprinted at about 60% of the initial orders so that was good to see. Not sure how much sold in the direct market and how much via the “book market” (i.e.- Amazon) but is seemed to get a good response outside of comic shops. There will be a reprint but no details yet. Speaking of Deadworld, I should have some more information soon on the role playing game. It’s in production so things should start rolling on it soon. It looks like some of my planed comics writing will be delayed as I have a book project that I just got involved in and that will consume much of my time…but its financially worth it and it sounds like a fun project. In the event that I don’t update before the “magic day”, I hope everyone has a Happy Solstice Day…or whatever religious day you celebrate.



An interesting piece... Yes, it would be ironic, indeed!

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