As some of you may know, I was a retailer for about 20 years and at one time, had four comic shops. Most of the time, I really enjoyed it but towards the end, with the publishing of Caliber and the writing, I had to give something up. I had been encouraged with the diversity and quality of stuff that came out in the 1980’s, became a bit disenchanted with the collector frenzy of the 90’s, but overall, it was a great experience. I get asked quite a bit if I have the desire to go back into retailing and its a simple answer. No, I would never go back to it.
I still find it interesting to discuss retailing aspects and in my roles as a creator and publisher, I try to keep up on how things are working now. They are really different from when I had my stores, primarily in the ordering areas. When I had my stores, the volume was so much higher than it is today. If I made a mistake and ordered 50 extra copies of an X-Men title, the impact was neglible. In today’s market, it can have a significant effect on a stores’ bottom line.
Stores have had to deal with some specific problems outside of the diminishing comics market, problems that are not necessarily part of the entire comics market sale to consumers. There’s the “Amazon” problem. Even though there are other online entities, Amazon is the elephant in the room. Retailers have to contend with a product they get in from Diamond and selling at retail price being made available the same day (and sometimes earlier) at a substantial discount. I just saw a post by one creator who was promoting the fact that his book had shipped from Diamond and was now available in comic shops and in the same post, he steered potential buyers to Amazon where they could receive a hefty discount. I’m sure that didn’t sit well with a retailer who ordered his book months ago and now has to recoup his investment. Obviously, the Amazon impact was always there but when the creator pushed buyers there, it had to be frustrating.
The whole digital comics is still undergoing an evaluation of determining real buyers, future buyers, price points, and whether they are more additive to the comics market or replacements of current buyers. Right now, it seems to be sorting out the polices of the various publishers (the main ones...Marvel, DC, and the major independents) and retailers know what to expect…price points, who distributes same day digital and print, etc. The wild cards are the smaller publishers and the creator owned books whether under someone else’s imprint or not. Usually, there is no set policy in place on a book coming out two or three months from now so retailers don’t know if they’re going to be competing with the creator/publisher for sales on books they ordered in advance.
The newer situation is with the crowd funding developments that are becoming a means of doing comics. The biggest is Kickstarter and followed by IndieGoGo for the comics market and I’ll concentrate on Kickstarter but most of it applies to IndieGoGo as well. Kickstarter has opened an incredible avenue of producing books and some label Kickstarter almost as a publisher. Personally, I think it’s a great idea and I’m investigating doing some projects via that method. I feel that if you are offering the donators a tangible product at about what the retail price would be, then it’s not only viable, but effective.
So, as a creator, what a great opportunity. Even as a publisher, if someone goes that route, it lessens the concern of the bottom line as poor sales in the comics market have been pre-compensated to some extent (varies, of course, on the situation). But as a retailer? I’d have problems with it. Obviously, if the book (the product--- but I’ll just call it a book since so many are turned off by the use of “product” even though that’s what they are) does not go through the distributor channels, it isn’t a concern. Or is it? I’ll touch on that later.
One of the problems I see happening is that creators are bringing in someone to illustrate a few sample pages, enough to showcase the book and what it will look like. However, I know of some writers who know they can’t afford that talent for a whole project and don’t want to ask for funding to pay that high rate, so instead, they’ll bring in a newer artist at a lower rate. Using the term “bait and switch” could be applied but many times, the creator (usually the writer) will mention it in the small print so whether it is unethical or misleading is open to interpretation.
But the biggest problem is dependent on how successful the Kickstarter project is. If a book’s funding relies on issuing some 400 copies of the final version, well, that’s 400 consumers that a retailer could look at that will not be coming into comic shops. There’s no way to determine which shops those 400 will not come into but most retailers are going to expect some kind of impact. Right now, one of the biggest problems for creators and smaller publishers is getting beyond stores ordering only pulls and getting actual rack space. A book going through Kickstarter will have less of a chance with most retailers.
Many shops have asked for consideration from these Kickstarter projects to provide some means of getting the books to stores at a reasonable discount so they can sell them at a profit (they do have to pay for space, employees and all that). Some creators have designed some retailer incentives but with the recent announcement by Kickstarter that they will not allow any bulk discounted levels will certainly hamper the methods to provide retailers with the books.
I’m not even sure how effective Kickstarter will be a year or two down the line. There are already rumblings about some creators taking the money from a successful funding and not releasing the book. I know of a couple of cases where it’s heading towards a year or so and no book. You get a rash of these or some high profile books and it could damage not only the integrity of the whole idea but the viability. Right now, Kickstarter is still relatively new and people have been pretty good about having a book well into production but increasingly, it seems that a lot of projects are being offered as “if I get the money, then I’ll start on it” which of course, is dangerous territory for creators who are often scrambling for projects and the next paycheck. Going back on something paid for and spent will be tough for some of them.
So, retailers get hit on the Amazon end, the digital end, and to a lesser extent, the Kickstarter end. While they are dealing with this, creators are clamoring for shelf space for retailers ordering months ahead of time and hoping for sales when the books arrive. Books that don’t have a proven track record can be pretty tough. Right now, the phenomena that is The Walking Dead has been a boon to the market and of course, the success of the superhero movies certainly has helped. But what's out there for retailers in a year or two years from now? Likely something none of us are even thinking about but I can't think of anything else having such an impact.
With the recent trend of higher profile creators leaving the Big Two to produce their own creator titles, the retailers are more open to racking the books as the creators likely have some kind of following that they can track. But even there, if a creator promotes himself to the detriment of the retailing system though discounts at Amazon or digital, same day release digital, Kickstarter projects, etc., some retailers may not support those books. In fact, some may question whether they should support the creator in other areas (i.e.- on a major Marvel or DC title) as that support gives the creator the cache to be able to circumvent the shops on his creator owned titles. Obviously, a store is going to do what is best for them in terms of selling product and there’s only a few that would engage in a retaliatory penalty like this, but some are questioning the support of one creator’s project when another project by that same creator will be cut off to them.
I hate to use the phrase of things being in flux because as you get older, you realize that things are always in flux. But it certainly does seem like there are a lot of considerations going on in the comics market that will play out in the next year or so that will determine where the market is headed and what kind of structure it will have.
As a creator and a publisher, I have to deal with the dynamics of it but I have to admit, I’m sure glad I got out of retailing when I did.