Comic Book Publishing Follies

Sun, January 13th, 2008 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Todd Allen, Columnist

Trolling for Naughty Librarians

One of the increasingly large graphic novel markets you may not have heard of is libraries. How big a market is that? Well, according to the ALA, all library systems do their purchasing independently, so there's no such thing as unified records (yes, this makes BookScan look like a definitive list), but there are some clues. For instance, when the Library Journal did their 2006 survey, 20% of respondents cited graphic novels as their largest expenditure. If you go back to their 2005 survey, while not topping very many purchase lists, it was starting to chart on them. That would be trending. Go to your local library, and the odds of you finding a graphic novel are greater than ever before. (I can tell you, anecdotally, that the Chicago Public Library did a serious expansion of their collection in 2007É and Brian K. Vaughan may have noticed the difference in his royalty checks, as he appears to be on their happy list.) While you don't hear the mainstream publishers talking about this market too much, rest assured that it exists. Crossgen, in another one of their "too far ahead of the curve" moves had success with titles like "Meridian," and in this very column, Gary Reed spoke of good fortune with libraries.

How many libraries are there? The ALA lists 16,549 Public Libraries (counting branch libraries, as well as the central administrative unit), 3,653 Academic Libraries, and 93,861 School Libraries. Special (i.e., corporate, law, etc.) Libraries probably aren't a factor here, but that's still over 114,000 venues for graphic novel product. If a publisher could get 10% penetration into libraries, that'd be 11,400 copies sold. That would rank as the #4 title for Graphic Novels on the November 2007 list at ICV2. Of course, the "Heroes" graphic Novel, "Black Dossier" and "Dark Tower" all came out in November, so a more fair comparison would have that same 11,400 hypothetical books outselling everything in the category for October 2007 and August 2007, while coming in 2nd behind a new "Walking Dead" volume in September. We're not talking about a small market, here.

So, you might ask, how does one market to the libraries? Again, this is a tricky question. What you're doing here is marketing to the individual libraries, not an overall industry, per se. One thing you find when you examine the buy patterns is that librarians tend to lean heavily on reviews, but that there isn't one preferred source for reviews. You may have seen, over the past few years, a number of books with titles like "Graphic Novels Now" and "Getting Graphic! Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy with Preteens and Teens." These sort of books are written as guides to starting up and stocking a graphic novel collections. They also do you little or no good for new releases, unless you're a creator whose previous work was glowingly reviewed. Still, if somebody's writing a book like that, try and get your material in.

In terms of current reviews, there's a number of sources that pop up on a regular basis. The American Library Association's Booklist is popular with librarians and has a graphic novel breakout in both the adult and youth fiction categories. If you're going for the K-12 market, the School Library Journal is a good market for you (the most recent set starts with a glowing review of "Re-Gifters," and this services a prime market for a Minx title). Ever heard of Robin Brenner? Well, figure out who she is, because the ALA has her http://www.noflyingnotights.com/ listed as a review resources, which makes her more important than most websites. Some more mainstream sources of reviews that get taken seriously are The New York Times and Publisher's Weekly / Comics Week. The idea being that either librarian-based (in the case of Brenner) or respected media-based reviews are more appropriate when gauging mainstream opinion than fan sites would be.

And of course, you can advertise in such publications, but the reviews are what seem to drive the purchases.

Another prime mover in providing information to librarians is Diamond. No, I'm not making that up. The Diamond Bookshelf promotes graphic novels to librarians, complete with reviews. If you're using Diamond for your trade business, you might want to make sure you get acquainted with this. Another distributor you might want to familiarize yourself with is Brodart, which also deals with libraries.

Now if you're a reader, not a publisher, there are two things you can do to get graphic novels in your library. First, most libraries will have a form to request new books. Fill some out. The second thing is to start ordering books through inter-library loan like a demon. Get your friends to do it, too. If the demand is documented, the library will likely capitulate. Remember, the mandate is to serve the community, and you're part of the community.

How Not To Brand

Why do I keep writing about Zuda? Because Zuda is a useful educational tool, much in the same way as the Berenstain Bears, are useful. Much like Papa Bear, you can look at Zuda and learn what not to do. This time we'll look at a cardinal sin of branding and advertising: not putting the right URL on your ads. (Putting the URL in the ad when you're advertising a website is the entire point of the ad.)

If you study online marketing, one of the things you'll hear is that you want to plaster your site's URL everywhere you advertise, be it print, television or radio. Let's give them a little bit of credit, Zuda has been doing a fair amount of print advertising. Unfortunately, their display of URLs is a problem.

Observe the Zuda logo in these ads:

That was taken off the back cover of the recent "Comic Shop News" #1070.

So, we've got their word balloon icon, large (relatively speaking). You've got the Zuda logo, smaller and in white. Then, finally, under the Zuda logo, in a different font, and in the color red, is "comics.com." Where exactly is the URL?

To get to the Zuda website, you need zuda.com or zudacomics.com. I see neither URL in that logo. In fact, the only thing that looks vaguely like a URL is comics.com. But comics.com is a website operated by United Features Syndicate (webcomic fans can find "Diesel Sweeties" or "Boy on a Stick" there; fans of "traditional" comic books might enjoy Gray Morrow's Sunday "Tarzan" strips). I wonder if UFS sent Zuda a Christmas card, because if somebody hadn't heard of Zuda before, and all they had to go on was that ad, it's likely they'd go to comics.com and look for something called "Zuda" (or in the case of the ad I was looking at, "Bayou").

Don't get cute with the graphics when advertising a website. Put the URL in a straight line, preferably in the same font, but whatever you do, frame it with a "www." and a ".com" so people know where the URL ends and begins. I guarantee you, Zuda would have more traffic if they had "www.zudacomics.com" on the ads.

Your second business takeaway: did you notice how small that logo is in relation to the rest of the page? Did you notice how small the ".com" portion of the logo is, in relation to everything else? On top of that, the red color of the ".com" portion frequently doesn't stand out. Not only is it often too small to be read without bringing the page closer, on several ads I've not even noticed it the first time I've looked at the ad. When you're advertising for a website, remember, your first goal is to get people to come to the site. Make your URL prominent and easy to read or people aren't going to show up.

How is this sort of thing supposed to be done? Take a gander at this ad for E-Bay Business. You'll note the logo and the URL are separate and distinct. The URL is easily readable, you know what the purpose of the site is. Let's be honest, some of the ads DC has been running in their books consist mainly of that Zuda logo as graffiti, and that doesn't make it obvious the site is a collection of comics. (Which also begs the question why they were using "Click Here To Continue" on print ads. Last time I checked, print comics weren't interactive.)

If you're not making the destination URL clear, you're wasting money. Make those URLs clear.

Last month I noted the eventual November Zuda winner was at just under 25,000 views, shortly before that contest closed. The December Zuda winner, "Pray for Death," clocks in with just over 16,000 views. That drastic a drop, you have to wonder how effective the advertising was. Either the advertising didn't drive traffic, viewers left in droves, or both.

More Secrets from the Platinum Vaults

You have to love an SEC filing. It's been a while since I took a look at Platinum Studios and the inner workings laid bare for all to see. Well, more supporting documents have been filed, and now you can find out what a big league contest sponsorship costs and take a look at some more licensing deals.

Are you familiar with Platinum's "Comic Book Challenge?" It's one of the "American Idol" family of comic contests along with CBR's own COMIC BOOK IDOL and Zuda. Much ado was made by Platinum about AT&T sponsoring the contest this year. And now we know why. Platinum got paid. Seems they cut a three-year deal and AT&T coughed up $150,000 in 2007, will be paying $250,000 in 2008 and a whopping $300,000 in 2009.

Want to read the "Cowboys & Aliens" movie contract? Can do. Lots of Hollywood math surrounding bonus payments in that one, but if it's a smash hit, Platinum will get a bonus. Probably. (It's Hollywood math and there are no guarantees in such things.)

Want to read the movie option on "Unique?" Can do. There's an interesting clause about selling 25,000+ units of graphic novel or appearing in the top 200 of ICV2's monthly top 300 Comics Actual index, that determines which payment scale applies.

If you take a good look at those contracts, you see a great deal of money changes hands when a film goes into production, and that's the real make-or-break proposition for Platinum. Comic Book Challenge's sponsorship is getting up into the realm of option money, but pales before a seven-figure fee when a film goes into production. The question remains, how many films are going into production?

Demographics and the Spidey Re-Boot

Have you read the interview with Joe Quesada about Spider-Man's exit from married life? Let's take a look at this controversy from a demographics stand-point. The key "back issue" dates are 1971 and 1987. One of the plans was to reboot continuity using a 1971 Spider-Man story as the starting off point. 1987 was when Spider-Man got married in both the comic book and the comic strip.

The issue here is reader age and what the reader is used to, as opposed to "other media." If you figure somebody reading the Spider-Man comic will start no earlier than age 5, then its pretty safe to say, anyone under the age of 25 who knows Spider-Man from the comics, has never known Spider-Man not to be married. Ditto for the strip.

If you go back to the cast dynamics of 1971, which is to say Peter is single and pals with Harry Osborn, Flash Thompson isn't a gym teacher, and Peter is broke, let's see, unless they're buying back issues, nobody under 41 is going to have that as their touch stone. Maybe you could drop that a couple years, presumably Harry hasn't become the Green Goblin yet, in the new continuity, but you get my point how far back they're throwing the continuity. This isn't a touchstone for anyone under 30 who knows Spidey from the comic book or the comic strip. Does this mean that Spidey's been a bad franchise since 1971 or 1987? I would think that around 1988-90, Spider-Man sales would have peaked with Todd MacFarlane's run, so there's a sales reason to say no. The sales problems started with reader backlash to "The Clone Saga."

On the other hand, Spidey's been a single man for the bulk of his recent cartoon adventures, and in the films, so the comic book and strip aren't in sync with the cross-media properties, which are a lot closer to 1971, in terms of cast and set-up.

I'm not giving a solution to this, just something for you to think about. What we have here is old fogey fans vs. younger fans vs. TV & Film and the more you try and reconcile the three viewpoints, the funnier it is to watch the train wreck. The real question is whether or not there will be a reader backlash that's measurable at the cash register, and for that, we'll need to wait two or three months.

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