Tilting at Windmills

Thu, December 17th, 2009 at 11:58pm PST

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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BOOK 'EM, DANNO

Come next April, I'll have been selling comics in my own store for twenty-one years. I worked at another store for some three years before that, and I spent close to a year working at Capital City Distribution. So, yeah, like twenty-five years selling comics in some fashion or another.

Some common memes have cycled around in that time, one of which got repeated again in a recent comment thread at the Savage Critic(s) – to whit, that in another decade comics won't be sold as periodicals any more.

"They cost too much!", "No one wants the format any more!", "The audience will grow up!", whatever.

I hear this in 2009.

I heard this in 1999.

I heard this in 1989.

I'm told, by people who are even more lifers than myself that this was being said in 1979, and I presume it was also said in '69 and '59, and, heck, maybe even '49 as well.

I remember, pretty vividly, that when comics went from 75 cents to $1 that people were saying periodical comics were dead.

I heard that again when they went from $1.50 to $2. And again when they went from $2.50 to $3. And, of course, we're hearing that as they move to $4.

And yet the periodical continues to chug along.

Getting a full sense of sales volume is a tricky thing because there were decades without any kind of centralized data, but we do have fairly solid stats over the last decade. As I write this, we're still a few weeks from having the final end-of-year data for 2009, but we can compare 2008 to 1999. From the link above, in 1999 periodical comics sold in the Direct Market 78 million units, for $202 million dollars. In 2008 it was 81 million units, for $263 million.

That's not shrinking, that's not dying – that's growth, by either measure.

2009 numbers are likely to be a bit lower, certainly, but we're in a global recession, so it would be more surprising if they weren't a bit lower. But looking at comic sales over time, the Direct Market is clearly growing positively.

Using fact-based numerical analysis, comics in general, and the DM in particular, appears to be heading in generally the right direction. So why the gloom, why the dire predictions?

Part of it, I think, is the natural tendency people have to universalize from their specific experiences – "I've stopped buying periodical comics in favor of TPs, therefore everyone must be doing this!" That kind of thing.

There's no doubt that the book-formatted comic has seen an incredible rise over the last two decades (I, for one, see my store as a book store that specializes in comics-material… and have for at least the last ten years – so don't go accusing me of format favoritism, thanks!), but there's a lot of economic/social/marketing reasons that material gets serialized that are extremely unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Let's start with a semi-common complaint that runs something like this: "Manga, as presented in America, is a superior package – 200 pages for $10; American comics should be packaged like that."

On the face of that, that sounds pretty reasonable. Until you consider that the creative costs of that material (the cost of paying a creative team to generate the content in the first place) have already been covered by its original serialization… in Japan.

It costs money to generate content. Comics are really wonderful in that they are relatively inexpensive to produce – most comics are produced by (not counting editorial teams) one to five people, and that the costs of equipment and material is fairly cheap. While many people certainly use computers, you don't have to have anything other than paper and a pen to make comics.

Compare that to film/TV (where you need scores of people to create that content) or music (where you generally need expensive equipment), and comics are a positively egalitarian medium.

But relatively inexpensive is not the same as no cost – I'd hope that anyone interested in comics as a form are eager for those content producers to be able to make a living doing so!

Manga, in America, is generally licensed by the publisher, and they're not paying "page rates" to bring that material to market. While there may be some upfront fee to license that material, most of the money is being paid over the backend, and the largest expense is not the creation of material, but the physical printing of it.

There's a reason that you don't see a tremendous amount of Original Graphic Novels (OGN) being priced at $10 for 200 pages of material, after all – virtually no one can make a living from the creation of the work at those kinds of prices, even from the long-tail of the backend.

Now, obviously, I understand that to an uneducated consumer none of that matters – looking at two items on a market and seeing that one is at a cost of x, and the other is triple that, you're going to prefer (assuming the content is at all similar) to purchase the less expensive of the two items. But there are extraordinarily few creators with the craft/dedication/financing to produce material for free (or nearly-free) in hopes that they'll profit from the backend/merchandising. Creative content isn't detergent; there isn't a way to lower production costs by making larger batches. Quite the opposite, in fact – the best content is content that reflects passion and enthusiasm and craft, and those are decidedly finite things.

At the end of the day, without some sort of amortization of creative costs, the cost of original material is going to be substantially higher than producing reprints – and virtually all Manga sold in America is reprints.

We serialize comics because that's the best method to amortize its costs-to-create. By giving you an installment, you're underwriting the cost of creation of that material, so that when/if it does get collected in a permanent edition, that cost isn't completely prohibitive.

While there is the theoretical chance of the potential that maybe that amortization could possibly be covered by wider distribution on digital platforms, no one has come even close to cracking that nut as of yet; and given that digital content is perceived by the greater mass of humanity as being "worth" either Free (or stolen) or Very Little Money, it seems hard to recommend that publishers abandon a profitable, relatively risk-free environment for something that may (or may not) work.

In the 21st century, it seems to me, the greatest battle is for that of mindshare. We're in an attention-based creative economy. When I was a kid, we had five television stations; today there are a hundred times that vying for your attention. Anything you might want to read/watch/hear is right at your fingertips right now (relatively speaking). When I was a kid, I was desperate to buy a copy of "All You Need Is Cash" (the soundtrack of The Rutles movie that I watched the one [!] time they showed it on our local PBS station). I saw it in a store, but didn't have the money for it, and by the time I'd saved up enough money, the store was sold out. It took me nearly five years to finally get a copy of it. Today, it's just a quick internet search away; and there's hours of (effectively) free Rutles material out there on the web, so maybe I wouldn't have needed to purchase anything at all to scratch the particular itch that particular content gave me. I'm not even talking about pirating the material via torrents or whatever.

(Nearly) everything that you might want is available to you.

That means that attention becomes the true currency of the realm.

The way this relates to print, and comics creators for the purposes of this discussion is that while creating comics content is relatively inexpensive, it isn't something that can be done swiftly, and it takes far longer to create than it does to consume. That comics page it took your favorite artist two entire days to draw is going to be read by you in a matter of minutes (if not seconds).

Therefore, this is the other, utterly crucial function that serialization provides for creators – it keeps them in the public eye on a regular basis.

If you're doing a six issue story, you've got a marketing push at the beginning of that story, and you've got an ongoing (even if only passive) awareness on the racks for those six months. Then, at the end, when your work gets collected in the first of (hopefully) many formats, you get another push – that's creating awareness of you, the creator, as your own brand.

As an OGN, you get only a single push, and then your work is (effectively) off the market for the next six months until your next volume comes out. Some people can do well in an environment like this – particularly if you're doing work far and above the general level of work on the market. But let's be deeply realistic: you're probably not doing work well above the general level of work on the market, and there are very few creators that the wider audience is interested in waiting on, or, even more rarely, deeply anticipating their next work. It's great if you are that guy – but that's a lottery ticket, not a business plan.

2009's best OGN, in my mind, was David Mazuchelli's "Asterious Polyp". I also sold a ton of copies. But at least two-thirds of those copies had to be hand-sold. I had to put the book in people's hands, talk it up, rave, promise them it was excellent, etc. Virtually none of today's audience remembered David Mazuchelli, except vaguely, despite his work on such perennial sellers as "Batman: Year One" or "Daredevil: Year One". Without my strong advocacy for this book in my store (and remember: we're a book store that specializes in comics), we'd have only sold a third of what we have.

And Mazuchelli is a world-class cartoonist.

But he was "off the market" for long enough that people forgot that.

In an attention-based currency, you need to be regularly capturing people's attention. And the number of creators who are capable of doing that via an OGN is a much smaller pool of people than those who can be reached by serialization.

I'd also like to add that for the long-term success of a work, your prospects dim greatly once you end up stuck in the spine-out stacks where the sum of your exposure is that bare half-inch of your book's spine. With our Point-Of-Sale inventory system, I regularly need to prune out material that doesn't turn fast enough. What is most likely to stop selling with enough velocity to stay on my book store's rack? Yeah, OGNs – especially ones that don't feature a "name" creator or character.

At the end of the day, I think it is far healthier to have a greater number of consumers spending less money individually, for the health of a marketplace. I'd rather have five hundred people spending $5 than one hundred buying an OGN for $25 – even though the gross amounts are the same, the five hundred people represents a larger pool of readers, probably coming in more frequently, and being exposed to a wider range of material on an ongoing basis, and, potentially, exploring more new works. That's healthy, and that's good.

A "best selling" periodical comic book can sell 200k copies or more – the number of OGNs that can hit a circulation of even half of that within its first six months can probably counted on one hand.

The lower the price point, the more people there are who might be willing to sample a work. The more people sampling, the easier it is to create a buzz, to build a career, and, yeah, to eventually sell more copies of the collection in the end.

Something to remember is that all material is "new" to someone who has never seen it before. If you're a "bookstore customer" who doesn't enter DM shops ever, there's no real difference to you between an "OGN" and a "TP" of previously serialized material.

Serialization never precludes eventual collection; but an OGN implies against eventual serialization. Why would you not want multiple revenue streams, whether you're a creator or a publisher?

There's another argument that goes something like "Rejoice! We can free the creator from the tyranny of format! No longer must we have a mandated break every 22 pages!"

I think this concern is pretty amusing – not only does it appear to assume that longer-is-better (when, really, it isn't – I can think of several OGNs that would have been very well served by some judicious pruning. An infinite canvas really only has value if you have an infinite content to put on it, and infinite talent to do so, and most people don't), but it also ignores the fact that publishers are generally willing to play with format/length when the creative concerns really need it. Yes, there are still some physical limitations, like that pagination has to be in multiples of four pages, but I have plenty of stuff in my library that runs longer (or shorter) than 22 pages exactly.

But, still, it seems to me that this would be like railing against Network TV shows having to fit into half-hour multiples. Those 22-ish minutes of broadcast within every half hour don't seem to necessarily "limit" the creative story-telling potential, and I don't really think that that episode of, say, "Lost", would be any better if only it could have run 1:13, instead.

And if it really really would be better? Then the broadcaster (publisher) will figure out a way to make that happen (probably in that case with padding out more commercials into "a special ‘Lost' event", heh)

But, by and large, I think that boundaries are a relatively good thing for creative folks, as it can help restrain some of their laziest creative impulses. I mean, for that matter, I really wish we still had an outlet in America for eight page stories, because I think that the training to pack an entire full thought into that small of a space makes you much sharper as a writer, but I digress.

Heidi MacDonald, over at The Beat, often talks about "the satisfying chunk", and I think she's absolutely on something there – but I think it is a dire mistake to think that "22 pages" can't be, or isn't, either "satisfying" or a "chunk". Those are matters of craft not format!

We started with talking about price, but if periodical comics are in trouble, it isn't because of price, in and of itself. After selling comics for as many years as I have, it has become clear to me that virtually no amount is "too much" if you're selling people something that they want, and, conversely, no matter how cheaply you price it, it is incredibly difficult to get people to pay nearly anything for material they're not interested in.

The problem with mainstream superhero comics isn't "the $4 periodical" or "the 22 page format", for that matter – it is "never ending events" and "unwanted line extensions" and "editorially-mandated creative directions" (among other things)

It isn't formatting or pricing that is "killing" (heh) mainstream comics – it is greed, and pushing the audience far past what they're willing (or perhaps more accurately, able) to accept.

OGNs won't solve that; the reality is that the price differential you have to have is going to yield you fewer overall readers. OGNs are, by necessity, going to be more expensive per-page than the equivalent serialization.

Further, there are probably less than a dozen superhero characters who would even remotely be able to support an ongoing OGN line.

If you're the kind of reader who has shifted over to "trades only," I salute your choice, and I totally get why you think OGNs are the way to go. But I have to tell you, my hand to God, that the number of people who buy comics in book formats is absolutely dwarfed by the number of people who buy them in periodical formats. And this is coming from a book-oriented comics store. The number for mainstream superhero titles is probably 1:10, on average, for us, and even for broader hits it seldom approaches even 50%.

Serialization simply reaches a wider audience, and provides both cash flow and greater exposure and variety. Nothing about serialization precludes eventual collection, either. Quite the opposite: it can clearly demonstrate what material has long-term demand.

The periodical serialization of comics is a good thing, and, even if it isn't your preferred method of reading them, it isn't a channel of production we should ever want to go away.

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. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert "classic." before all of the resulting links) You may discuss this column here (but you have to insert "classic." before all of the resulting links).

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