Tilting at Windmills

Thu, December 16th, 2010 at 11:58pm PST

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer
34

TIME'S UP

So, yeah, I’m worried a bit.

As we close 2010, there’s no particular sign that things are heading in the right direction. Sales are soft, there are no periodical comics selling over 100k copies for three of the last four reported months, at least as the numbers are interpreted by ICv2 or John Jackson Miller (though, of course, those numbers are off by some amount -- generally accepted to be in the 20% range -- as sales from Diamond UK aren’t reported in the American charts).

Obviously, we’re somewhere in a recession. While it may have “officially ended” in June of 2009, the economy hasn’t particularly recovered in any fashion that the average working American might be able to detect. Unemployment is still radically high -- in California where I live, the unemployment rate is currently sitting at 12%, while for the US overall (and San Francisco in particular) it is 9.3%, according to that chart.

That’s a lot of people without work (and, of course, like all statistics, doesn’t necessarily paint the full picture of what’s going on)

The thing is, during the last couple of economic downturns, comics did reasonably well (at least in my store). The conventional wisdom has been “comics are a low cost, high entertainment item, and that’s attractive in bad economic times”

But this economic downturn? Look, the general advice when someone asks “How’s business?” is to be bubbly and upbeat; you always want to appear strong and confident so that consumers have confidence in you as well. That’s good advice, and one I certainly practice in the store, but in this column I really feel like I need to be honest and forthright: seventeen of the last nineteen months our sales have been down compared to the same month a year before. In most cases by at-or-near double digits. Now, four of those months have had heavy construction in our neighborhood (e.g. closing four lanes down to two kind of heavy, on a major cross-town artery), and the huge impact of that (which still lingers a bit) shouldn’t be understated, but still, that’s not exactly good news.

Well, what’s good news is that November ’10 broke that trend and we were up by nearly 5%, and, so far, December's looking hopeful as well, and I’ve instituted some prudent cost-cutting measures so the impact on profit isn’t as great, but, in general the market as a whole doesn’t look like it’s heading in the right direction.

It isn’t that we have fewer customers coming in -- in my store we’re actually net positive on number of subscribers over the last two years (though they are coming in less frequently, as a body), and customer counts on book buyers are strongly up, too -- but rather that the core periodical business is weakening due to the Chickens finally coming Home To Roost.

“Event Marketing” ultimately conditioned the majority of consumers to not want books that weren’t part of events, weren’t part of the “core continuity.” The over-proliferation of line expansions (seriously who wants eleven different “Thor” comics solicited to ship in a single month? Thor, historically, can barely support a single title) did the same. The movement of focus of the market from “mostly long-term ongoing series, with a few minis and one-shots” to “mostly mini-series and one-shots” has led customers to be skittish about new titles and makes every “jumping on” point a “jumping off” one instead.

The trend of “deconstructed” storytelling, where writers aren’t as focused on writing jam-packed single issues, but, rather stories paced for the “inevitable” collection, when coupled with the incredibly stupid and greedy price increases has directly conditioned many buyers to look for reasons to not buy a new book.

When you bundle all of these trends together it’s really no surprise that periodical sales are down in the way that they are.

Two or three years ago, people were eager for new material -- it was fairly routine for me to see something up to half of our subscription base to jump in on brand new titles. Today? Twenty percent can be considered stellar. Rack sales are the same. Hell, 2-3 years ago I wouldn’t even consider not racking (even if for a single copy) the full and entire line of Marvel and DC comics. Today something like 20% of what those publishers are producing I’m ordering almost entirely to pre-orders. And those pre-orders are dropping.

Even the Big Books are much less Big than they used to be. Our sales on what used to be dependable mega-hitters, like, say, "Uncanny X-Men" are at historical lows. We’re selling fewer copies in total than we would have sold just from pre-orders alone as little as five years ago.

What we’ve done, as an industry, is to break the very habit of comics collecting for a distressingly large number of people.

The thing is: this is a self-inflicted wound. Event marketing, line expansions, overproduction of minis and new #1s, price increases -- these were all things that publishers chose to do in order to make as much money as they could. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se -- we live in a system of capitalism, and capitalism demands greater profits. But we’ve systematically made what seemed like sound short-term decisions that largely gutted the long-term market for most of the product within it. Ooops!

I very much don’t think that there’s less general enthusiasm for comics as a media, nor, on a practical basis for the periodical as a specific delivery system, rather I think that the publishers are largely producing too many of the wrong comics at the wrong price point. And, as such, I suspect that the course can be corrected with hard work and some radical rethinking of strategies.

Do we have the fortitude for it, is, of course the open question?

I know for me, at least, the store is getting by, if only just. I’ve got good enough inventory control, and I see some reasonable places I can cut expenses and just ride out the general economic tide until people start spending again, but I wonder about my fellows. Nearly all of the retailers I’ve spoken to lately have said the same things: business sucks right now, the core customer base is drifting with ennui (well, OK, no one said exactly that, but that’s the gist of it), and I’m very nervous that we’re going to see a tremendously ugly first quarter this year, potentially with a lot of stores going under.

The main problem is that the product offerings in January and February look really weak, and weeks and weeks of weak product is not the path to success.

I’m still bullish on selling comics because I think our medium is like no other, and I see more and more civilians peeking in and looking around, and liking what they see, but we have some tremendous issues at play with the core periodical marketplace that have to be addressed by publishers of all sizes. We can talk about Marvel and DC all day long, and yes, they’re the most visible of the overproducers and yes what’s almost certainly needed is both of them decreasing their output by somewhere between a third and a half (whilst making the remaining books focused and powerful creatively), but Dynamite is also overproducing (too many Green Hornet books!), as is IDW (Transformers and GI Joe) and Boom (three Stan Lee titles in three months was overkill) and Dark Horse (Star Wars) and, and, and… it’s like we have this core belief that if you like one of something, you’ll love five of it, which is so completely against the way people actually purchase things, it’s kind of amazing.

We need to pull back, and we need to focus, and virtually every retailer I speak to thinks the same thing here, because we’re watching our core periodical readers walk away from the hobby, perhaps forever.

Some say digital is going to “save us,” to which I can but laugh -- there isn’t a comics publisher of any substantial size running today that could possibly survive without the print side of their business, and that’s extremely unlikely to change anytime in the next 5-10 years. I really strongly recommend that people read this interview with Boom’s Chip Mosher on the subject, which is remarkably candid with exchanges like this:

Right now, the best estimates I've gotten are that we have about 300,000 people reading comics in the Direct Market on a month-to-month basis. I think everyone is so wrapped up that we can now reach the other 99% of the U.S. population easier than we ever have been before, that they are missing that we still have a ton of issues to work through. Being a guy whose main currency is hype, the hype on digital comics is pretty astounding and, at least for me, has crossed the line into being counter-productive.



It seems to me, that everyone sees "digital comics" as having this massive change on the industry. "Digital is going to save comics." Every 5 to 10 years, something comes by that is going to "save comics." Trades were going to "save comics" before digital. The mass market was also going to "save comics." To put it simply, this is a very Pollyanna-ish view.

And let me turn the tables on you here, David. You say, "easy to attain." I really think the fact that comics now have the potential to be easier to obtain is great. But that does not get rid of the challenges that we have had with getting new readers for the past 30 years! The challenges are now different, and in some case less challenging than before, but to me they seem oddly the same!

There’s much more in that link, so, yeah, go read that interview from someone who has been “in” digital longer than pretty much anyone else.

The problems look pretty clear to me: we’re not offering the right comics to the right people at the right price. Ask any comic book shop owner worth their salt and they’ll tell you how really easy it is to sell the right comic to the right person. I get civilians coming in every day, and matching them to a book they’ll like is pretty simple. If you get the right person on a “Walking Dead” or a “Scott Pilgrim” or a “Y, The Last Man”, you’re going to have that person making another half-dozen trips back to you as well. And that’s great, and that’s the growing part of the business.

But the core that allows us, financially, to devote the shelf space to all of that collected book material is the core periodical buyer and the dependability (and eager burning passion to spend) of their cash flow.

When you break that chain, when you make that burning passion cool, well that’s why we’re having problems now. You can’t manufacture that kind of enthusiasm, and we spent the better part of fifty years building it up and supporting it, and the last five years doing what we can to tear it down or otherwise dampen it.

And I don’t get it. I really, truly don’t.

“Event Marketing” is now counter-productive; over-proliferation is counter-productive, focusing on the short-term gain, but ultimately eroding consumer confidence in a work by the constant barrage of new #1s is counter-productive, Price increases are counter-productive. We have to pack comics full of action and wonder and crazy ideas again. We have to not publish comics that “don’t matter,” we have to stop tying them all together so closely and making the enjoyment of one dependent upon the purchase of another. We have to strip lines down, hard, to just the brilliant shiny heart of it all and have the message be, “Yeah, we’re publishing half of what we used to, but, damn, if we published any more awesome stuff that you just can’t wait to get the next issue of, we’d all explode!” We’ve got to get back to where people were genuinely, frantically excited about [title] not merely because they like the core character(s) but because, “Holy crap, can you believe what [writer] and [artist] just did? That was amazing…!”

We can do it, I know we can, because there’s no one in this business who doesn’t just love these crazy things to death, but we’ve got to get back to the place where wonder simply explodes from every page, and we’re not trying to rook the core fanbase for every penny they’ve got for stuff they don’t actually want. That worked for a little while, sure, but we’ve chased far too many people away.

I still have faith we can reverse this, but we’re rapidly running out of time.

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)

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TAGS:  tilting at windmills, sales, digital comics, chip mosher

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