Tilting at Windmills: Year-End Reflections

Thu, January 12th, 2012 at 11:58pm PST

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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The end of the year charts are out (I find John Jackson Miller's Comic Chronicles to be my favorite presentation of year-end summary data), and maybe it's time to have a hard conversation about one of the largest publishers.

I wish I at all knew just what Marvel was doing with their backlist.

Look through the list of best-selling books, and you'll see that Marvel doesn't even chart for the very first time until item #49. And when they do chart? It's not even a "Marvel" book -- it is Mark Millar's "Kick-Ass." In fact, six of Marvel's Top 10 best-selling books aren't "Marvel" comics in any meaningful sense of the word, and even that #10 ("Takio," by Bendis & Oeming) only comes in at #135 on the overall list. This is despite some enormous advantages in pricing and catalog reach and brand awareness.

Lest you think "it's just the comic shops", nah, not really -- I don't have this year's BookScan numbers yet, but looking at last year's tells a very similar story -- and Amazon is said to report to BookScan as well.

There's more than a few things going on that cause this market response: first and most foremost is that Marvel produces very little "'timeless' and self-contained" material. While DC has published "Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" and "Kingdom Come" and (insert 20 more examples), Marvel has a much smaller bench of work like that, largely because Marvel's periodical production is much more keyed to interconnected soap operas that are very much of their moment in time.

Second: Marvel seems to have an aversion to keeping material in stock over long periods of time. There have been anecdotes that Marvel has been ordered by upper management to not have more than x volumes of any given series in stock at one time, but who know what the real truth is? What we can say is that there are vanishingly few examples of multi-volume runs of creator or title that stay in print in a single format over a long period of time.

Third: Multiple formats. Gosh, does Marvel like endlessly repackaging material. Hardcover, paperback, digest, omnibus hardcover, omnibus paperback, variant covers and so on. It makes it very, very difficult to stock and build a proper library when the available format is constantly changing.

Fourth: I fundamentally believe that Marvel's policy of immediately reprinting a significant proportion of its monthly output in collections that are essentially treated as slightly more expensive periodicals, and aren't kept in print makes that the worst of both worlds. I am generally loath to quote message board commenters, but I thought this phrasing from "Corey (Ottawa)" was dang near perfect: "Marvel for their part, seems to be willing to cannibalize their young, and drive down [periodical] sales for TP waiters who never buy, while still incurring the costs of publishing the trades." That's it in a single sentence.

The thing is, that last point also impacts the periodicals as much if not more as the books, and is perhaps the largest factor contributing to a generally softer periodical market. Marvel seriously needs to rethink their core publishing policies, because this set has clearly stopped working.


Going in the completely opposite direction of the above: one of the things I believe is that the best way to showcase material is in a quality retail environment, and that the best retailers are, essentially, curators who are there to guide you through the forest of choices you face. That's to say: while anyone can place a book on a shelf, it takes a knowledgeable and passionate person to match a consumer's tastes to a different piece of entertainment in a specific and meaningful fashion. To say, "No, this is the book you want; that's going to make your day and bring you bliss!"

While organizations like Amazon are swell at bringing you low prices, they're largely doing it by paying employees minimal wages, and forcing them to work in 110 degree heat. And they're largely incapable of sparking the passion that a physical storefront can.

There's a lot more call these days for DYI entrepreneurship from creators, as there should be for those creators who have the passions and skill sets to sell for themselves -- if you control your finances and message, you can do very well for yourself, indeed.

What I find interesting is that the comics market has never really been a market with a model of corporate control -- the single largest chain (which I think is New England Comics?) only has what appears to be eight locations. The overwhelming majority of comic stores are owner-operated businesses, and that's had, I think, a fairly dramatic impact on the ability of independent creators to succeed independently.

It's always been my perception that the large retail chains that existed in music and movies and books have been/were pretty openly disdainful of anything self-published -- I'm not sure if there's a more derogatory concept in the book world than "vanity press" -- but that's not really the case in comics.

From the advent of the Direct Market, "independent" success stories (like "Elfquest" and "Cerebus") were key to the tenor of the market. We've helped create giant brands that have gone on to be extremely successful for their original creators (could "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle"s have possibly have started natively in any medium other than comics? I do not think so) -- and the math seems to suggest that just the success of "Walking Dead" alone almost managed to sell as many backlist books as all of Marvel comics combined in December. That money goes to Kirkman (and his collaborators, we can assume), and I really don't think it could have worked the same way, independently, in any other creative field.

The other thing that we tend to see in comics is that what sells the best over the long term is creator-driven work. Generally speaking it isn't collections of regular monthly issues of work-for-hire ongoing superhero series -- where the superhero material scores, it is almost always things like "Batman: Year One" or "All-Star Superman," where the pedigree of the creator and the underlying quality of the work is what drives the sales. Seriously, go look at the sums of the Direct Market end-of-year charts: the clear majority of the top 100 are creator-driven stories. Only one book in the Top 10 is corporate-driven, only six in the Top 25, only sixteen of the Top 50. And, I would submit to you that, even where you do have corporate-controlled concepts there in the charts, they tend to be form a specific creative vision (eg: "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns"), rather than collections of ongoing monthly periodical runs.

So it always surprises me that so few creators (or small publishers, for that matter) work directly with retailers in any kind of a proactive fashion -- the multiplicative impact of an energized sales person can be astonishing, and knowing who and where and why your comics are selling is a tremendously useful tool.

Distribution stands in the way of gathering that information, sometimes -- Diamond, we're told, is awfully afraid that publishers knowing exactly where their books are sold will lead to those publishers trying to cut out the middleman -- but as a working retailer, I find that a pretty specious fear because at the end of the day, the consolidation of billing/shipping/processing that distributors add is more than worth a reasonable cost for those services (especially, as I say, because we're mostly mom-and-pop stores who don't have, y'know, accounting departments to do that work!).

Despite that lack of permeability (and I strongly think that Diamond should reconsider their policies here because informed publishers and creators and retailers are better publishers, creators and retailers) it is my belief that everyone publishing and creating comics in this business should be working hard to make their own, in-house contact lists so that sales data, and promotional tools, can be shared more efficiently.

It is my belief that every publisher, every creator, should have a list of "their" shops, shops that they know stock their wares, that they've built a relationship with, that they can specifically send consumers to as places that they're confident that have stock. Having digital options is all well and fine, but physical presence by energized salesmen has a dramatically multiplicative effect that should not be overstated.

I look at a creator like Ed Brubaker, who, when launching his Criminal series, made an effort to identify "his" stores, to send them galleys, promotional posters, and just a personal touch offering to help in any way he could to promote his book and his career. And, I have to say, I think it worked, because when I see Ed's name on anything creator-owned I think "Here's a guy who has my back, I'm going to support this to the best of my ability" And so, his recent "Fatale" was one of the highest ordered comics in my store last month.

If you're a creator and you don't know where to start, you're not looking very hard -- you could start by reaching out to ComicsPRO members, or by joining the Comic Book Industry Alliance message boards. You can look to things like the independently-run Master List, or even spend some research time going through the Comic Shop Locator Service (seriously, anyone in the world can build a database just by plugging zip codes in, and recording your results). You should be gathering business cards at conventions, asking your peers to share information (both ways, of course!), visiting stores as you travel and so on.

Building relationships with people who do nothing but sell comics for a living is the smart thing to do if you're trying to sell comics -- direct digital connections might yield broader or more profitable sales among people who already know they like your work and your wares, but they're generally mediocre tools to expose people who don't know that they're going to like what you do.

Confirmation bias (the tendency for people to more strongly believe things they already believe) appears to be infecting search engine results more and more (different people searching from different computers already will get different results, depending on what they've looked at before), and as more marketers trying to manipulate "social media", it's hard to see that improve at all -- which makes a broadly displayed storefront even that much more valuable in exposing your ideas to more people. They say that all politics are local -- well I think that commerce really is, as well.

Were I a publisher, I'd make every effort I could to identify "my" stores, and to not only make them stronger, but to hold them up as examples to others -- there should very much be "New 52 headquarters" and "Fantagraphics Favored Stores" and everything inbetween. There's a tremendous value in have strong, energized grassroots salesmen for your work who are properly identified and supported.

See you in a month with (we hope!) the 2011 BookScan analysis!

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, even if this column and every other one is purely and entirely his individual viewpoint as an individual retailer! Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here.

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