While the average comic fan read up on last month's Diamond Retailer Summit in Baltimore to catch product news rolling out of publishers like DC and Marvel, comic shop owners were confronted with news of a different kind from BOOM! Studios publisher Ross Richie. In fact, Richie's Summit presentation came off more like a call to arms.
At the event, Richie declared BOOM!'s intent to climb up the sales charts in 2010 and bring the company's ranking up so that it's one of the top five publishers distributed by Diamond. The overall name for BOOM!'s gate-storming campaign was announced as "Prove Bill Wrong!" which may catch many fans and retailers of guard. But as Richie explained to CBR, the promotion gets more to the heart of how comics are sold in America than anything the company has done before. The "Bill" in question is Diamond VP of Purchasing Bill Schanes, a name familiar to anyone working on the publishing side of comics as a powerful name at the direct market's sole distributor. As for why BOOM! is trying to prove him wrong, Richie explains that the campaign's roots stretch back to this past summer.
"At San Diego Comic-Con, I had a meeting set up, and a guy showed up who I had not expected: Phil Boyle, who owns and runs the Coliseum of Comics, a five-store chain in Florida and one of the top ten comic retailers in America," the publsiher explained. "Phil's been in business for over 25 years, and when he doesn't like BOOM!'s policies, he doesn't stand on ceremony. He let's us know and is not known for biting his tongue. Phil met me and said, 'Hey, I want to let you know that I really believe in BOOM! and I think you guys are going to be a top five publisher next year.' I said, 'You know Phil, that is incredible. I really appreciate you saying that.' Then Phil said, 'I made a Diamond Dollar Bet about you.' And I said, 'What's a Diamond Dollar Bet?'
"What a Diamond Dollar Bet is is that you take a dollar and write why the bet was made on the dollar. The person who loses signs the dollar, and the winner takes it and pins it up behind their desk. Now, if Phil Boyle made a Diamond Dollar Bet because he though we were going to be a top five publisher, that would mean that Diamond had to bet against me."
While BOOM! has made inroads at distributing its products through channels different than Diamond - from a newsstand deal with magazine distributor Kable to a second print deal with direct market indie distributor Haven to a much more significant book store deal with Simon & Schuster for trades - Richie admitted that in considering Diamond, "They are the direct market business. To pretend that there's anything else going on is disingenuous. What the promotion for us is about is the fact that the way that every single retailer in the country gets their product is through Diamond, and Diamond made a gentlemen's bet that they didn't think we'd be top five. Look, Diamond is who Diamond is, and maybe they know something that I don't. They probably do. But I think the spirit of our promotion was to call them out in a fun way."
Phase one of the year-long campaign rolled out in Baltimore when BOOM! handed out "Prove Bill Wrong!" t-shirts to the assembled retailers after a speech by Richie outlining the idea and poking a bit of fun at Shanes' long tenure in the industry. "We gave away 520 shirts in two hours. It was basically as fast as I could pull them out of the box, and the groundswell of support was very strong," he explained.
In order to get the other view of the event, CBR contacted Coliseum of Comics' co-owner and general manager, Brendan Boyle, to hear his thoughts on how the idea spawned by his chain's bet went over.
"Ross delivered a great presentation," Boyle said. "It’s easy when you’re getting your 15 minutes in one of these settings to give a good presentation, but perhaps not [one that's] so memorable. Ross, however, showed a lot of energy and excitement, and I think most retailers take notice of this sort of thing, especially when it’s coupled with a product that has a growing demand." He also explained that Coliseum of Comics - whose five Florida locations combine for over 17,000 square feet of comics retail space - carries a large array of titles from independent publishers and that "BOOM! is mixed in with our independent titles, but they are well represented as their across the board selection does well among all ages, as well as those looking for original and recognized properties.
"At the end of the day, we’re all in the business of selling comics. This is a creative and fun industry, and this is the kind of energy this business needs to make all the number crunching worthwhile. I think all of us, from the smallest retailer up to [Diamond owner] Steve Geppi, realize that, and it’s these kinds of attitudes that have kept this industry alive. And I’m sure Bill has some equally endearing pictures of Ross from back in the day that he’s just waiting to share with the world."
While the initial phase of "Prove Bill Wrong!" seems to have gone over well with the players involved and the retailers assembled for the Baltimore presentation, what comes next is much harder. BOOM! must find a way to turn their tongue-in-cheek shot at a contentious bet by the industry's biggest distributor into an actual increase in sales across the country that will bring them to the top five spot they want. Richie explained that, aside from their publishing ambitions, more rollout is in the works in terms of getting the message out to retailers who may not have followed the news from the Summit. "We're having all sorts of internal discussions about [where to go next.] Because this is a distribution thing, that's something that's confusing to fans, and often confusing to retailers. I think getting the word out in a really clean and clear way is a big step in this campaign. And if there might be some online ads that say 'Prove Bill Wrong!,' you might know where they're coming from.
"Our sales this year increased by a factor of two and a half times. Somebody's ordering those books, and they're the fans, and they're the retailers. Retailers are telling us over and over and over again, 'We love what you're doing.' What I'm saying is, 'I think we can really [make the top five]...but I can't do it without you.'"
BOOM!'s 2010 publishing plans will hopefully help Richie and company back up their boasts. The publisher explained that ongoing marquee licenses like "Die Hard" and a to-the-letter adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" prove that BOOM! remains competitive in a market largely controlled by characters that have been selling for at least 40 years. "I'll go to the mat, and I'll say that 'Irredeemable' is something people are going to buy. Roger Langridge's 'Muppet Show' is something people are going to buy. I like the spirit of competition as an entrepreneur. That's fun. We have to innovate and do things that are different. When we got the Disney standard license - Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck - people told us, 'You can't do a Mickey Mouse comic that sells.' But we did one that sold over 6,000 copies, and that's a tremendous accomplishment in the direct market. Over and over again for BOOM!, we've had to create opportunities that other people have overlooked.
"We have a couple of critical aspects to what our publishing plans are in 2010. One of them is that we are associating with one of the greatest superhero brand names in the history of comics. We're going to be doing a huge summer publishing program around that, and frankly I expect it to be bigger than anything BOOM! has ever published. I know that sounds like publisher hyperbole, but for us...while this was a big year, it was just prelude to what will be a much bigger year next year. We're working with one of the best-selling novelists of all time in genre fiction and doing a number of projects with him. We'll continue to find these other licenses that other people overlook and under-appreciate while doing things like 'The Anchor' and other creator-owned books coming from people we think have a really unique voice."
After that, success or failure will fall on retailers and whether or not they believe BOOM! can provide them with salable material in what remains a hard economy for everything, up to and including comic books. "BOOM! is working hard within the system to get more books on retailers’ stands," concluded Boyle. "They have some great projects and solid properties and a good head office. As retailers, we look for great books to sell as well as on-time shipping. Retailers have overhead to pay each month, regardless of what is and isn’t published, and we look for publishers and creators that appreciate that. I don’t have a crystal ball, but we did bet a dollar on it."