Tilting at Windmills

Thu, June 19th, 2008 at 11:41pm PDT | Updated: June 19th, 2008 at 11:47pm

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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PUBLISH AND/OR PERISH

Lots of gyrations in the publisher world this month, probably led by Tokyopop’s announcement that they’re going to reorganize by cutting production by 50% or more, and will split their company into two divisions: a publishing arm, and a merchandising/movie/multimedia arm.

This is really no surprise to me, and if there’s any shock here it is that the publishing reduction didn’t happen much earlier.

I think that if you asked virtually anyone who sells comics for a living, they’d all say that Tokyopop had been wildly overproducing for a really long time and that a correction was absolutely inevitable. What is funny to me, at least, is that it is yet another example of a publisher being unable to read the market, and thinking that if they have a title that sells x number of copies, then pushing out three titles will yield them 3x in sales. Well, no. If you’re lucky you’ll manage 2x in sales from that, but you’ll still have 3x in creative costs.

It may well be that this disparity didn’t faze Tokyopop " unlike most “western” comics publishers, creative costs weren’t a huge issue for them, paying relatively very little in terms of page rate and translation/lettering expenses " but even with that, at the end of the day rapid expansion, unless it is extremely carefully managed, nearly always leads to diminishing returns.

There’s another wrinkle here as well, and it is that a great deal of Tokyopop’s success came from aggressive courting of the bookstore market. The problem is that the bookstore market primarily consists of a small number of national chains which represent the vast majority of overall book sales. The (I believe) largest of those chains (or, at least, the largest supporter of comics and manga) is Borders, which has been having its own set of financial problems lately.

Rumors have abounded for months now of massive returns, across a wide swath of publishers, coming from Borders. When your largest vendor in your largest channel is returning large portions of what you’re shipping them, of course business is going to be rough. It comes down to eggs and baskets, and how many are in which. While the Direct Market may be dominated by Diamond Comics as the primary distributor, at least the individual component stores that comprise the DM are independently and individually owned and operated.

At the end of the day, Rapid, Explosive Growth is almost never sustainable " Slow & Steady is what wins the race " and comics history has proven this to us over and over and over again.

The one good thing that we’ve heard out of all of this is that Tokyopop does appear to be doing the right thing and releasing some creators from contracts, and renegotiating with others, so as not to leave works in limbo. Assuming this continues to be true, and is widespread, there’s an area where they should certainly be congratulated " too many publishers have gone down taking the creators and their works with them.

I don’t think that the tumult of either the manga publishers or the bookstore market is likely to cease any time soon.

I continue to be bullish on the Direct Market (as to be expected as a DM retailer), for a couple of reasons: as noted above we’re independently owned and operated, which makes it harder for “outside” forces to cripple the market, and most of us are in it for the “right” reasons " love of the medium, passion etc.

But it seems to me that a lot of people don’t really understand what it is that the DM actually wants from a publisher.

But really, it is fairly easy to make a list of what the DM wants:

1) A quality product
2) Delivered in a Timely fashion (both in the sense of “on time” as well as “at the right time”)
3) producing material that is not identical to material already on the market
4) with an appropriate amount of promotion, advertising, and publicity to let interested audiences know that the material is being produced
5) at a profitable margin for retailers.

It is possible to only hit, say, four of these five points, and still succeed, though your odds drop precipitously. And there are a handful of examples of books only getting three of five right out of the gate, though they fixed their flaws later on. But if you want to make it in the Direct Market, that’s a formula you’ll want to follow.

Let’s discuss these in greater depth.

1) “A Quality Product”
In some ways that’s the most chimerical of the requirements, because everyone everywhere thinks that their goods are “quality” " no one says “Hey, let’s publish some crap today!”

But it is equally as clear from most of the press releases that I get that most publishers are completely blind (willfully or not) to any objective look at their wares. The basic question of quality is the most important thing I look at when I decide how much (if any) of my monthly purchasing budget I’m going to spend on your comics; and all that really matters at the end of the day is whether I think the work is “quality” or not.

That doesn’t mean I have to “like” it " there’s plenty of comics that I stock that I don’t like; but it does mean that it has to pass my judgment as to whether or not I believe that the work’s intended audience will like it or not. There’s no doubt as a retailer sometimes that my judgment is incorrect, but all things considered my judgment has to be fairly accurate or else I’m not going to stay in business very long. That’s basic economic Darwinism.

2) “Delivered in a Timely Fashion”
As noted above, this isn’t just “on time”, but also “at the right time.” I don’t just mean that sending me Christmas stories in July isn’t going to work, but that the zeitgeist needs to be ready for what you’re doing.

It also means that if your production schedule is four books a month, you shouldn’t be shipping them all in week #1, and nothing throughout the rest of the month.

But “on time” is also completely 100% essential.

Particularly for a new publisher. Your Marvel and DC’s of the world have built themselves a certain amount of ability to screw up from all of the hundreds of times they haven’t screwed up, if you see what I mean? You’re not them. Don’t imagine that you are them. Not for a tiny second. Because you are not them.

Time after time after time publishers have ruined themselves on the rocky shores of lateness, and in almost every situation it is because of poor traffic management, poor communication, and overly generous production schedules.

Here’s an example: I was really, really digging most of Achaia Studio’s output " smart books, with nice production values. But when they quadrupled their production commitment, bam, actual production skidded to a halt, or got oddly bunched up. It was the week that they shipped two issues of (the wonderful) “The Killer” in a single week that I knew I couldn’t support them any longer. In that one move, two thirds of the audience for that book decided they didn’t need it any longer at Comix Experience.

Damn, damn shame, there was real potential in their line.

Just a handful of “bad months” can irrevocably taint you in the eyes of the retailers and consumers. And once you have a bad reputation, it is exponentially harder to get any retailer to roll those dice on you.

3) “Producing material that is not identical to material already on the market”
It really does seem like once a month we get a new start up publisher who thinks, “Well, Marvel and DC are the market leaders because they have an interconnected line of superhero titles, so we’ll do that too, and profit beyond avarice!”

Bzzzzt, wrong!

Customers aren’t looking for a line of comics " they’re looking for a title that they like. If that title is part of a line that has other titles that they like as well, well then bonus, but they’re not looking for a universe, they want a comic.

It doesn’t matter if your premise is “superheroes, but [insert religion]-based!” or “superheroes, but [insert race]-based!” or “Not exactly super-heroes, but almost exactly the same!” or whatever your individual spin is " it is virtually guaranteed that the market has no economically significant percentage interest whatsoever in your line. There is one and only one time that ever worked in the history of comics, and that was Image. And it worked for them purely because it was a superstar lineup of creators who specifically quit Marvel to do so. That exact confluence of events is entirely unlikely to happen again.

The only other time it worked was Valiant, but those with proper memories will recall that Valiant started with one single title (“Solar”), saw that it was well received (if I recall correctly, four months later), and added the second (“Magnus”), and proceeded slowly and carefully from there.

In much the same way, don’t think “I can hit it big by being the licensed comics guy like Dark Horse or IDW” " Neither Dark Horse or IDW launched out of the gate as licensed comics focused businesses, but grew into those segments. Further, almost all of the good licenses have already been taken by any of a dozen publishers, and while your version of, oh I don’t know, “Knight Rider,” might be the bee’s knees, it almost certainly isn’t a solid enough foundation to build a real publisher upon.

Unless you can give the market a much, much better version of what’s already upon it (Not just “equal”, not even “slightly better”), it isn’t going to work " you have to find the things to publish that are unlike what’s already on the market. For Dark Horse that was “Boris the Bear” and “Concrete,” for IDW it was Ashley Wood and Ben Templesmith.

My point is, there are enough mediocre, in both sales and execution, comics already upon the market " it does not need more.

4) “with an appropriate amount of promotion , advertising, and publicity to let interested audiences know that the material is being produced”
This one is possibly the most important one after “Do good books,” actually, and that’s “let people know they’re there”; maybe more importantly “let the people who might be interested in them know they’re there.”

This means you have to know who your audience is, of course, and how to target them, but I can tell you that customers coming in telling me that they want to buy a book is worlds more significant than a publisher telling me the same. The former guarantees an order, the latter not so much.

5) “at a profitable margin for retailers.”
Honestly, you’ve got to realize that any even reasonable-sized Direct Market retailer is almost certainly getting 53% off cover price or better on Marvel and DC.

Most new publishers are coming in at 40% or 45%, max. When you couple that with the 3% reorder penalty retailers have to pay from Diamond on the non-brokered publishers, you can see how uneven the playing field really is.

If I can’t “keystone” your book (double my investment), it is very, very difficult to make a profit of any kind " when you start getting down to the 40% and 35% discount brackets, you as a publisher basically only exist as a mercy-fuck for the retailer: we’re buying your book because we think it “supports the medium” rather than we think we can make any money off of it. Considering that we’re meant to be a for-profit arrangement, that’s hardly a strong position to be in, and you’ll be the first place we cut when push comes to shove.

This is all, I think, fairly obvious and simple stuff, but time and again (and again and again!) new publishers biff these core things.

It was roughly two, two and half years ago that I opined to Marvel’s David Gabriel that I thought they’d be able to get a ten point lead on DC if they worked a little harder.

That’s now grown to a 20 point lead, or, to put it another way, Marvel is about 50% larger than DC these days.

That’s just ugly.

At the end of the day, that’s down to editorial content " Marvel’s comics are simply more compelling for the audience right now than DC’s.

DC’s only real lucky grace note here is that Marvel isn’t mechanically as good of a publisher as they are " otherwise the drubbing would be even more lopsided. If Marvel were ever to figure out how to keep key backlist in print perpetually, or were to wholly abandon the no overprint policies which has them (seemingly) announcing 2-3 second prints every week, they’d be ahead by thirty points.

To this observer at least, having to do a second printing is a triumph of penny wisdom over pound foolishness. Certainly having unsold or unsalable stock is something to be avoided at all costs " but having to go to a second print means that there is unmet demand; and unmet demand on a periodical blunts and mutes future demand. When I want to have more copies of, say, “Skaar, Son of Hulk” #1 is right now when customers are asking for them. Not three to four weeks from now when they’ve probably forgotten that (or why) they were interested.

At issue isn’t even necessarily the specific issue #1 we’re discussing " it’s the long-term sales of the book. Even as little as 1% better sales on the next year’s worth of periodicals adds up to significantly greater dollars grossed than just eating the cost of a 10% greater overprint would have been. Ah, if only Marvel really knew how to publish…

Anyway, its been an ugly week for DC, with Grant Morrison publically disassociating himself from “Countdown to Final Crisis,” with “Final Crisis” itself being drubbed by the second issue of “Secret Invasion,” by Chuck Dixon being public about his removal from his DC titles, and very public speculation on Dan Didio not re-upping his contract this year.

But like I said, at the end of the day the only thing that this is about is the quality of the content. DC can, and probably will, reverse this lopsided market share simply by making better comics.

In the end, it is always about the comics.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing.

TAGS:  tokyopop, direct market, dc comics, marvel comics

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