A couple of weeks ago ComicsPRO -- the trade organization for Direct Market comics retailers -- concluded their annual meeting, this year held in sunny Portland, Oregon.
This weekend continues to be the single most valuable 48 hours that I spend any given year outside of my stores. Being able to meet with other retailers in a true meeting of the minds, without being beholden to any other organization's agenda (the problem with, say, a Diamond summit) is absolutely golden, and it consistently provides the greatest value of time to me. I learn more this weekend than I can even express from my fellow retailers about best practices, new lines and thoughts on merchandising, staff management, systems and plans, and, sheesh, basically everything there is in running a store. I come back smarter every year.
The annual meeting is open to any retailer, member or not -- hell, I'm not a ComicsPRO member any longer -- and is astoundingly useful.
We also get conversation-driven opportunities to meet with our suppliers and express our thoughts. Here's a report of a tiny fraction of that.
I have to give DC a lot of props for standing up and taking a pretty serious grilling from the ComicsPRO retailers -- Dan Didio and Jim Lee were as candid as a publisher ever can be to what I would characterize as a mildly unfriendly audience, in the face of the post-"Convergence" crash of DC.
DC Comics presented a first draft of their "Rebirth" plans to the assembled retailers at ComicsPRO -- I say "first draft" because all that DC announced was titles, and no creative teams. This suggests, to this observer, that DC is repeating their playbook of building a line around concepts first, then trying to find creative teams who can deliver. Essentially the same way that "New 52" was built, but you'll please remember that this process, generally, yielded initially strong-selling, but creatively-poor comics that were fairly rapidly dropped by their readership. Obviously, there were a few exceptions -- Snyder & Capullo's "Batman" chief among them -- but those were exceptions, and not the rule.
It perhaps sounds a little reductive, but the honest truth is that what the audience wants is "good comics" -- and it is very difficult to develop "good" work "by committee."
In any medium.
The root notion of DC's "Rebirth" seems to be the proposition that having more frequent publication of "top selling" titles will yield greater sales than miniseries or weaker titles. And there's a certain amount of mechanical truth to that concept -- having the ongoing "Harley Quinn" comic ship two issues a month, rather than one issue of "Harley" and one of a spinoff miniseries will almost certainly yield some greater sales because of some of the more unusual habits of collectors (e.g. the usual sales difference between "Batman" and "Detective" -- even when both have top flight creative teams!) -- but it also has a few drastic flaws in the idea. These are mechanical flaws that come from how comics are created and sold.
First and foremost is that DC's current best-selling (and one could argue: most creatively-focused) titles, "Batman" and "Justice League," are exactly the titles that are having the hardest time being on a regular monthly production schedule in the first place -- generally speaking, those "golden" creative teams that excite the audience and yield the highest sales as a result, are ones that can't simply double production. The inability of a single team to produce so much, so fast tends to lead to rotating creative teams, which almost always leads to ennui among the audience at best, and the sense of a title becoming an anthology with the sales that typically implies, at the worst. How do you stop these books from all ultimately becoming perceived by the market as "Legends of the Dark Knight?"
The second core problem is that while double-shipping on "Batman" or "Justice League" or even "Harley Quinn" sounds all right, not all of the seventeen announced titles are actually books with enough audience excitement to drive twice-monthly shipping. Take a book like "Cyborg" which is already struggling to even come close to 20K in the national charts -- that doesn't suggest a lot of natural appetite for 24 issues a year.
The third core problem is a math problem. "Standard Attrition" is a real and tangible thing -- virtually every comic drops ~1% in sales with each issue released. People lose interest, drift away -- this is an actual thing, and not some wrong-thinking of the market. So how to do you stop the attrition curve of doing anything but accelerating with the publication schedule? It seems to me that after six months of twice-monthly publication you're going to be at the same sales position you would have been at the end of a year of monthly comics.
The fourth core problem is one of space. At my main store, we rack the last three issues of any given series, because there are a lot of series competing for those inches (from each and every publisher!) -- and while I might maybe be able to find a way to double the shelf space of "Batman" and "Justice League," because they sell well enough to justify that space, I am extraordinarily doubtful that I can do the same for extremely midlist sellers like "Flash" or "Green Lantern," let alone for the poor-selling titles like "Cyborg" and "Deathstroke." At my smaller store, this is less of a problem because we rack up to a year back, using a single stack for any given title -- but even here at some point you hit the space wall, and suddenly we're only stocking six months back (because that's still twelve issues). The point here is that increasing the frequency of publication automatically decreases the amount of "on sale" time, reducing the mid-term sales potential of a given title.
The fifth core problem is a marketing one: in 2016, publishers have deeply alienated most of the core "collector's" market that used to be depended on buying most if not all of their output, while the "new" audience isn't looking to buy a "universe" of comics. Pitching it as "buy seventeen new series all at once!" is really, really not what the market wants today, as we can clearly witness from the very weak performance of Marvel's "All New, All Different" launch, as well as "DC You" and the Vertigo relaunch.
The sixth core problem is an editorial one, where it isn't clear to me that DC has editors any longer who truly "get" the core of the characters, or, for that matter, what it is that the reading public actually wants. (Nor am I sure that this is limited to DC either -- most editors today appear to be much more Traffic Managers to my eye.) Dan Didio says, "We are returning to the essence of the DCU," but my question to him at ComicsPRO of "Why isn't that the plan each and every month, all of the time?" was danced around and ultimately not answered in any meaningful way. But, at the end of the day, if the same editors who were editing books where the sales got so low as to require a "rebirth" are still in charge, why should anyone assume that the line won't be in the same essential place a year from now? If we look at DC's recent Vertigo relaunch, there were roughly a dozen new books, and virtually none of them stated the premise of the comic in the first issue, instead "writing for the trade" -- the most basic, most core aspect of an editor's job is to make sure that each chapter of a comic is a thrilling, satisfying read. Most modern editors dramatically fail at this. But, ultimately, the question is "Why should we trust people who led us into this morass (twice!) to get us back out of it?"
Finally, DC has a very real problem of "Depth of Bench." The reality of the modern comics market (and this is a reality, I want to stress, that the overly-aggressive publishing tactics of Marvel and DC created, it was never inevitable) is that when the regular "bread and butter" titles of the superhero lines are selling 30k and under, there's no longer the financial incentive to only till the superhero publisher lands. Even a modest success from Image is going to put more money in the creator's hand, and they have the advantage of editorial freedom in making that money. Hell, Scott Snyder, whose "Batman" is the single best-selling DC title, has reportedly said that he makes more money from "Wytches" than from DC's flagship title. If the "name value" of your characters, in and of themselves, is not enough to sell more than a relatively small number of copies, then it becomes even more important to attract Top Talent to do those books. Can they even do so?
I don't want to be all Doom and Gloom on this, though, because DC is taking a few steps that are important and necessary. First and foremost, they're making the seventeen bi-weekly books no-hoop fully returnable to Direct Market retailers for the first six issues. No fees, no minimum buy-in. They're covering all of the bets, and, so how can you not take advantage of that to find out what the actual ceiling for the books can be? I've discussed how low "rack sales" have fallen before, but for my main store the situation for DC has grown even more dire -- in my last order cycle, a staggering 55% of DC's comics were being ordered in quantities of Preorders +2 or less. So, my natural buy-in... well, let's say that it would be a very, very measured one for this plan.
Here's the thing: there's not any less interest in periodical comics than there has ever been in recent memory -- in fact we're selling far more copies of our best ongoing monthly title than we would have ten years ago; we're even selling more copies of our third best-selling ongoing monthly title than we did of #1 ten years ago -- the problem is that the midlist has absolutely caved in. The way I like to put it is that at Comix Experience's main store we're selling one hundred and fifty copies of the periodical release of "Saga" every month, without even making any particular effort to hand-sell the book in the last year at least, and I can assure you that only a minority of my customers buy "Saga," the periodical comic -- probably a bit over a third. Meanwhile, my average sale in January for a Marvel comic was all of fourteen copies, and my average for a DC was a paltry nine. And lest you need to be reminded: in a non-returnable business, you almost certainly need to have a 90% sell-through to be making a profit of any measure, so sell less than (or even around) ten copies doesn't give you a whole lot of wiggle room. Making the books returnable buys DC some of that wiggle room.
Now, as announced at ComicsPRO, the current plan was to not include the "Rebirth" specials that precede the new ongoing series, but there was significant blowback from the attending retailers on that -- those would seem like crucial introductions to the program, essentially an issue #0, which also desperately needs to be included. Hopefully that will be changed.
The other smart thing that DC is doing this time is giving us full 100% reimbursement for co-op advertising. DC is, in fact, the only publisher that puts a portion of what we spend into a pool put aside for advertising. The trouble is, usually it is a 50% reimbursement, for which DC demands at least 65% of the ad space. There are circumstances and times where that is appropriate, but overall that' a better deal for DC than for the retailer, so most co-op goes entirely unused. 100% reimbursement changes that entirely, and really incentivizes me to spend every single dollar in my co-op pool if I can.
DC's New 52 reboot had a lot of marketing dollars thrown at it, and there's no doubt that it worked to catch a lot of people's attention; if lightning can be caught in a bottle a second time that's the one real chance of success the new program has.
I'm not sanguine -- the seven core and structural problems that are working against DC are real, and make this an uphill struggle for them, at best, but co-op and returnability at least make it so that if it does underperform from what the market needs, at least the burden of that cost is on DC's shoulders and not the retailers.
Meanwhile, Marvel doesn't even bother to send a single executive to the ComicsPRO meeting.
I find that horribly embarrassing for them.
I mean, here we have a gathering that includes most of their top accounts (including their #1 and #2 buyers), and they can't bother to send anyone with decision making power to the event?
They did send Jim Nausedas, who is a nice enough guy, but he's only at the Director level, and, anyway, was only given less than an hour to speak and was cut off just as the conversation started warming up so that ComicsPRO could discuss the wretched "Local Comic Shop Day" instead. Sigh.
But Marvel sent no executives, and certainly not a single person from the editorial side of the company.
To put this into perspective, Valiant Entertainment, which doesn't even represent 1% of sales in the Direct Market (!), had a team of no less than seven (!!) folks on hand. Further, they sponsored gift bags at check in (with things like breath freshener, which, can I tell you, was really helpful that weekend!), as well as hosting a suite for after-hour socialization. Valiant is working hard for attention.
But Marvel doesn't, as far as I can possibly tell, give a crap about their customers, or their needs. And this really discourages me. All I can figure is that they think that if they've got nearly 50% market share, then they're doing everything correctly, and can't do any better. But I believe that's not true. I could sell significantly more Marvel comics with any number of small tweaks and adjustments, and virtually every retailer I spoke to at ComicsPRO felt the same way.
Even if you think that you're doing everything right, there's an enormous amount of hubris in thinking you can't do better -- in not wanting to learn from the people who are on the front lines who are the ones dealing with, day-to-day, your customers.
There were, I think, 36 other suppliers at the meeting, from all levels of the publishing spectrum. Local hosts Dark Horse and Oni made everyone feel very much at home, and there were publishers both decades old and ones not yet to publish a single title. The last is sort of the hardest, because I honestly feel like I am kicking puppies with some of them.
I mean, publishing good comics is genuinely hard, but a lot of people seem to get into publishing not because they have a plan and a bench and a goal and a focus, but because they think if they throw enough at the wall, some of it has to stick. I mean, even when you do have a plan and focus, it's really hard to get traction in the market (look at Valiant!) so when I see folks without even that much, it's hard because you want to be honest with people. "I can't see how I can order your comics because it's not clear exactly who they're aimed at, and why those people would want what appears to be sub-par work."
There are a lot of reasons to want to publish comics, but there's a real truth in the old canard about the way you make a small fortune in comics: start with a large fortune. Your least-worst opportunity to avoid that fate comes down to doing something that you have a true belief and passion for, because at least that passion is communicable.
At the end of the day I truly believe that, big publisher or small, new publisher or old, the market just wants good comics -- what it doesn't want, in and of itself, is a line of comics. It can accept that line if you market and position it right, but for the majority of participants in the market, the idea of buying into entire lines is now a negative.
And the publishers who start to understand that will be the ones to grow the most over the next decade or so.
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program..