Comic Book Publishing Follies: Issue #1

Fri, June 1st, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Todd Allen, Columnist

Hello. Welcome to COMIC BOOK PUBLISHING FOLLIES. I'll be popping in every two weeks or so to take a look at the new and unusual on the business side of the comics industry, perhaps paying a bit more attention to the emerging digital initiatives.

BURSTING THE BALLOON

Want to work in comics? If you're already using your skills in a different field, you might be startled and dismayed by the salaries in comics. Point in case: Devil's Due recently posted an opening for an "Online Web Store Manager" (as opposed to an Offline Web Store Manager, I suppose). Go ahead and take a look. You'll find they want a lot of territory covered for a whopping $11/hr. Finally, a comics position that makes an assistant editor look like a high-paying job. Passing this listing around e-commerce and interactive types has produced a combination of laughter and disgust. A typical response being a creative director saying "we pay our interns $14/hr."

Let's break down that description into some of the individual jobs it encompasses, and see what Salary.com estimates the average salary (for Chicago, where Devil's Due is located) would be, just to see how much money a person needs to sacrifice to work in comics. We'll list the bottom 25% salary. Not an average salary, but towards the low-end and probably representative of working for a smaller company.

  • Webmaster $60,402 (link)

  • E-Commerce Customer Service Representative - $25,462 (link)

  • Inventory Control Manager - $63,675 (link)

  • E-Commerce Marketing Analyst - $64,051 (link)

  • Copy Writer I - $38,302 (link)

  • Shipping Clerk - $24,526 (link)

And that's not counting "And much much more!!!" (Janitor? Masseuse? Pest Control?) You're starting out with 6+ job descriptions and skill sets rolled into one position, half of which are easily $60K+ jobs, before you get into the classic catch-all of "additional duties."

How much would you be giving up to work in comics? $40K+, if you're qualified in technical and marketing fields, it would seem. Realistically, this is probably a $70K+ position, were it in another industry. I hope that quarterly bonus is massive. It needs to be.

If you're still interested in distributing comp copies and returning the original art, might we recommend this Director Position at DC for a higher paying alternative, with those duties listed in the description.

Or if you really have your heart set on Devil's Due, there might be a new opening, soon. In the blog of Devil's Due VP of Marketing, Susan Bishop, a couple posts up from that Web Store Manager job listing, mentions that she's spent some time looking for a new job.

(Thanks to The Beat for the original job link.)

THE CONTINUING EMERGENCE OF DIGITAL DOWNLOADS

Tired of hearing about digital downloads? Suck it up, it's the new, new thing. Our new contender is Top Cow. Top Cow is partnered with IGN and offering downloads via the Direct2Drive.com site. And they're not the only ones. DrMaster Publications has offered their "Chinese Hero" comic there, as well.

Here's where it gets interesting: this is the closet thing to a trend in digital downloads, thus far. Top Cow's downloads are $1.99 an issue. Pricing from the other initial offerings is as follows:

DriveThruComics - $1.99

PullBoxOnline / Devil's Due - $0.99

EyeMelt/SLG - $0.69 / $0.89

So now we have a second site picking the $1.99 price point. Interestingly, there's another similarity between the Top Cow deal and DriveThruComics' offering. DriveThruComics is a spin-off of DriveThruRPG, an existing and popular online retailer of role playing games, which extends an existing audience. Direct2Drive is an existing site selling downloads of video games, television and movies with an audience to push towards the comics. A line extension for the transacting site in both cases. While it's too early to really call this a trend, it definitely is worth noting.

And it should be reiterated, no natural price point for digital downloads has emerged. After all, also at Direct2Drive, "Chinese Hero" is going for $2.50 an issue. Anyone who says they know the natural price point is, at best, making an educated guess. This is a very young sector for comics.

And for those keeping score at home, Direct2Drive is associated with IGN, which is part of Fox Interactive Media. Richard Branson has Virgin Comics, Rupert Murdoch has downloads at Direct2Drive. The real money in comics appears to be in the investors!

THE SHIFTING SALES CHANNELS

Everyone has probably read their fill of Direct Market rants of late. Yes, the "death" of Captain America showed an inherent weakness in pre-ordering in the face of unexpected media attention (well, unexpected if you didn't know the initial coverage was pre-brokered) and the glaring lack of a "Just In Time" fulfillment system for emergency re-orders. We'll come back to that in the coming weeks, but for now, let's be a little more interesting and take a look at some emerging sales channels and how they might affect publishers and retailers.

Bookstore Distributors

Graphic novels are popular these days. That's as obvious a statement as you can make. But with graphic novels surging in popularity, it becomes easier to find them in bookstores and that opens up an opportunity for publishers and an opportunity for retailers.

For publishers, this is a seriously double-edged sword. Bookstores are a returnable market. The Direct Market, for its flaws, is an incredibly efficient system from an economics stand point. The retailers order. The publisher gets that order number and prints it. The publisher doesn't have to do anything but print-to-order, should they so desire. You know if you're profitable and by how much when you get the orders in. Not so with bookstores. If your book trade distributor and/or the actual bookstores vastly overestimate their ability to sell your book, you are looking at large returns and a mountain of red ink. Ask First Comics about that. Ask Eclipse Comics. Oh, wait. You can't. And unsold copies in the bookstore market played a key role in the demise of both once-popular publishers.

The other thing you need to be careful about as a publisher in the direct market is cash flow. All things considered, the direct market / Diamond gets the publisher their money fairly quickly. In the bookstore market, returnability slows this process down considerably. Can you wait six months before getting paid for your bookstore sales? How about 12 months. I see books at Borders that were printed over a year ago. If I bought one today it could easily be 18 months from point of printing before the publisher sees a dime on that book. You want to play in the bookstore market, you need deep pockets.

Now these things aside, the bookstores offer a wider potential audience than the direct market. There just are more outlets. Mind you, the sell-in problems for small publishers are the same as you'll find with comic retailers, but you're only asking for shelf-space, not an advance purchase. Business-to-business marketing is still required. You also will need a distributor. Ever notice that as much as people complain about Diamond in the Direct Market, you seldom hear a complaint about them as a trade distributor? Publishers seem content. Fantagraphics, for an alternative example, uses W.W. Norton, but had a serious scare when their previous distributor, Seven Hills, went bankrupt. Dark Horse had a similar scare with PWG and switched to Diamond.

This isn't a miracle cure, the bookstore market. There's financial risk. There's talk of the graphic novel sections getting overcrowded with too many titles. There are retail problems in the book trade, such as the recent announcement of the many Waldenbooks closings. But some people do very well in this market, especially manga.

If you happen to be a retailer, getting an account with a book distributor, like Baker & Taylor or Ingram, is an alternate way to get your graphic novels with less risk. You'll be looking at 40% discount in most case, not the 50-55% you might see from Diamond, but the books will be returnable. This is of particular value in scenarios where you're unsure what the actual demand is. For instance, let's say you can't really get a finger on the pulse of your local manga market? If you have to experiment with titles, best to experiment with returnable titles, especially if the flavor of the month is a moving target. This is a bonafide trend in retailing.

Online Bookstores

While the bane of the retailer's existence, getting listed in online bookstores is a nice side effect of dealing with bookstore distribution. Let's face it, the biggest knock on the Direct Market is the limited number of retail outlets and the lack of coverage for large swatches of geography. Being in the bookstore distribution database gets on Amazon, BN.com, BAMM.com, Powells.com and all sorts of similar places.

That's not to say there aren't online comic book stores. Mail order has a long tradition in comics and several of the largest retailers have extensive online offerings. Midtown Comics and Mile High Comics are two that immediately come to mind. There is no comic book equivalent of Amazon. It would make thinks easier if there were, but that's not the current reality. It is, however, interesting that there seems to be a little discrimination going on against pure online comic book stores. Our good friend, Rich Johnston, found that Diamond was refusing to supply Free Comic Book Day books to some online retailers. There must be some angry luddites lurking about. Really, that's like a book publisher cutting Amazon out of a promotion on principle and one really has to wonder what the difference between selling the books in person or by mail is. They're still selling the product.

As a publisher, there is a way to get better online exposure, even if you don't participate in bookstore distribution: sell directly to Amazon. You'll find the terms are slightly better than Diamond (55%) and while there are returns, Amazon dislikes carrying excess inventory, so the possibility of a business-ending slush pile are minimized. And it gets you listed in the 800 pound gorilla of online booksellers.

Direct to Consumer

Here's another method that's gaining popularity, albeit moreso from the webcomics sector. And again, it's something that retailers just hate. If you can attract consumer attention, there's no reason you can't just sell to the consumer yourself. Mail order. That's what Amazon does.

Traditionally, this is what subscriptions are. Of course, subscriptions mean you should follow a regular publishing schedule and there's lots of accounting involved, so not everyone does that.

Some publishers use a proxy to avoid the appearance of direct to consumer offerings. Dark Horse has their Things From Another World chain. Avatar has Comic Cavalcade. From a corporate structure they may be independent, but we're effectively talking about the same thing.

Webcomics tend to take things a bit further, selling a variety of merchandising directly off their websites and often ignoring the retail channel entirely.

Speaking of webcomics, direct to consumer is also where digital downloads fall.

Just like the online bookstores, the purpose of direct to consumer is to take your product to the audience and not care where the audience is located.

File direct to consumer under Mohammed going to the mountain. That's just exactly what it is.

If you look at music, you see contractions in record stores with the singles market transferring to iTunes and its brethren. If you look at book stores, you see contractions in retail outlets and a movement online, particularly with used and rare books. Remember, the Direct Market has a lot in common with used and rare books. Perhaps not as much today with tpb's replacing some of the back issue market, but enough to warrant keeping an eye on this. Comics do not exist in a vacuum, despite all attempts at isolation.

Todd Allen is the author of "The Economics of Webcomics, 2nd Edition." He consults on media and technology issues and is an adjunct professor with the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, see http://www.BusinessOfContent.com.

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