Tilting at Windmills: How Low Can We Go?

Thu, November 15th, 2012 at 11:58pm PST

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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Kill the Babies

A few weeks ago, Todd Allen wrote a pretty insightful post over at The Beat, where he broke comics sales into "bands." Go click through that link for a second, so Heidi won't be upset when I gank this portion:

Here's the sales bands for Marvel books.

100K+: 1
50-59K: 8
40-49K: 4
30-39K: 23
20-29K: 24
10-19K: 14

And for DC

100K+: 2
80-89K: 2
70-79K: 2
60-69K: 5
50-59K: 8
40-49K: 8
30-39K: 11
20-29K: 12
10-19K: 22

It's not usual that we look at the chart data presented in this fashion, and it can't help but make you say something along the lines of "yikes!" (mine was a bit more colorful).

We don't know a lot of things about our market -- even the sales charts underreport a lot of sales from a lot of books -- and one of the keys facts is exactly how many comic book stores there are. When Diamond puts the charts up on their consumer website, they only put up the Top 100, but they do at least provide us with this line down towards the bottom:

"Data for Diamond's sales charts -- which include the monthly market shares and all top product charts -- are compiled by Diamond Comic Distributors from a universe of over 3,500 accounts, comprised of comic book specialty shops and other merchant stores and buyers. The shops are primarily located in North America, with a percentage of sales also to international stores and buyers located throughout the world. The account base includes not only brick-and-mortar comic book specialty shops, but also Internet stores, chain stores, and other specialty stores."

(Man, is that clunkily worded, or what? "a universe of?" Really?)

But, you see it there, right? "over 3500 accounts" (in 2009 and earlier this read "4000+," but they do not appear to be changing this citation month-to-month in order to have any method of tracking what the changes are; I wish they would) -- though this certainly counts any number of stores at are solely buying toys, games, statues, or other "pop culture" detritus from Diamond, and not buying any periodical comics whatsoever.

I think that those of us who have actual working comic book stores draw our lines a little narrower, with the general consensus among those of us who talk privately about such matters being that the number is much closer to 2000 comic shops.

But we have no real way of knowing which, if either, estimate is actually correct -- somewhere between two and three thousand proper stores, presumably.

Now, the critical thing to always keep in mind about the Direct Market is that all sales are firm and non-returnable (except in cases of mis-solicitation, and the like), and the reality of this fact means that stores have to be really hyper-efficient in what they order -- if you have significant amounts of unsold product, you're not going to be profitable, and if you are not profitable, you're going to go out of business.

What's "significant amounts of unsold product?" For most stores, probably something in the 10-20% range.

Historically, this wasn't any kind of an issue because there were fewer titles, selling more copies, so there was plenty of "wiggle room" available, but more recently the major publishers have been willing to publish significantly more titles that have insignificant print runs and audiences.

If there are, in fact, 3000 stores buying new comics from Diamond, and a title is only reported selling 15k copies, that means that the "average" store is buying just five copies.

Let me tell you something about buying five copies for sale: it's a mug's game. Without having a perfect 100% sell-through, you're not actually making a profit. If you fail to sell one single copy, you are, at best, just churning cash flow. If you're thinking things through, then you can also see that the market then puts a disincentive on trying to grow new audiences for marginal titles -- if my sales data shows me consistently selling 5 copies of a book, why would I even consider ordering a sixth copy?

And, look, all books suffer from a certain amount of attrition, eventually -- entropy is the rule of the universe and comics both -- so, sooner or later, the book you're selling to five readers is eventually going to lose one, and then you're down to four sold, then three, and eventually all the way down to naught.

The sad reality of it is that books that sell less than ten copies per store are extremely difficult to do profitably. And, even when you make the sell-through work where you're not "dying the death of a thousand paper cuts," you're not making a significant enough of a profit to make taking on the risk particularly worth it -- wow, after the wholesale cost of the comic, taxes, rent, labor, and so on, I've made an entire dime, yay!

It used to be that the kinds of book you took that kind of high-risk, low-reward position on were "indy" books, and I always looked on that as a duty to diversity, and supporting new voices to get themselves established.

The difference today, the main ugly difference, is that far too many of the borderline books are DC and Marvel superhero comics. I remember a time when I could not sell fewer than ten copies of any Marvel comic, no matter how uncommercial it might have been. Today, probably a third of what they publish is now selling fewer than ten rack copies at my store. This is frustrating on multiple levels, and averages say that I am nowhere near alone -- if we draw the line at 30k, assuming there are 3k comic book stores racking Marvel comics, then according to that chart up top, more than half of Marvel's line is like that for the typical store.

I run a store more focused on backlist, more focused on the artform of comics -- I aggressively stock any number of things that are designed to expand my market, to appeal to a widest range of possible customers, rather than to be specific commercial hits. Perhaps to my detriment, it is possible, but this has been a model which has worked for decades, because the tide of math was on my side -- "big" books generate enough profit to fund the racking of "smaller" books, which expands the marketplace, which leads to more, and "bigger," big books. Our championing of, say, "Saga," doesn't lead to a single copy less sold of "Batman" -- it makes the market larger and more diverse.

But this math has been breaking down in the face of the relentless assault for rack space from Marvel and DC -- what were once the most solid and commercial brands, the ones that allowed stores to experiment with a wider and more diverse set of titles because they were so profitable, have found themselves fighting an entirely self-imposed war over the bottom of the market, publishing titles at circulations that would have been literally unthinkable a decade or two back.

I strongly believe that it isn't merely hurting a store's ability to be acceptably profitable -- it is hurting the very brands themselves. I believe that the absolute inability for Marvel and DC to currently launch new ideas successfully is intrinsically tied to the insane overproduction that they themselves have created. The market has neither the room, nor the desire, for the sheer bulk of "DC Universe" and "Marvel Universe" titles that are being produced, and so the very value of the idea of a "universe" is being steadily eroded.

Given that this market is fundamentally predicated on the commercial success of those "universes," this would seem to me to be an extraordinarily short-sighted decision that we're now seeing the clear results of -- a series of titles which are essentially making no money for anyone. It does comics shops no good to have comics that essentially have to sell out for the overwhelming majority of stores, in order to be profitable -- this leads to "catalog stores," and undercapitalized retail, two things which inescapably lead to lower orders. It does distribution no favors to be trapped into processing scores of titles where they have to accurately, and without damage, pull extremely tiny quantities for accounts -- it takes virtually no difference in time consumed to count and pack three copies and to count and pack thirty copies of a book -- the real quantifiable difference is the profit you are generating in doing so.

And it makes no fiscal sense for Marvel and DC to be publishing these low selling books -- while they may or may not be losing money publishing those low quantities, they're certainly not getting anything like a sensible return-on-investment on a comic selling 20k copies, as creative costs and overhead for those sizable companies quickly erase any possible gain.

What gets me is you would think it would be entirely 100% self-evident from the building successes of the Marvel movies leading to "Avengers" that the shared universe makes each individual character more valuable, due to connections to that universe. How any thinking executive in a post-"Avengers" world could come to any conclusion other than "we should husband and nurture this resource, as well as the testing lab that these billion-dollar franchises come from (comics)" is really beyond me.

And, in a world where up to half of the comics Marvel and DC publish have reported orders (not even sales) of under 30k, I find it hard to conclude that we've done anything but break that testing lab, perhaps irreparably.

What's needed now are firm hands on the rudder of the "big two" designed to steer their courses away from the shoals of irrelevancy that they are current steaming the truest value of their universes towards. Smaller, tighter continuities, I think, are the way forward -- both companies should immediately cancel any title that gets orders for an average of fewer than ten copies-per-store; I suspect that average is about the 30k mark on the reported Diamond charts.

Further, they need to stop launching books which are clearly losers-on-paper. The chances for, say, DC's newly announced "Vibe" series to make it to issue #13 would seem to me to be somewhere between slim-and-none -- it's hard to picture a scenario where it launches above 30k with issue #1, which means it's likely to be down to 20k before issue #4. Why do that? Why waste the creative, publishing, distribution, and, yes, retail resources to publish a title that the market is statistically likely to reject before it even arrives in stores?

As a store, I'm looking for more comics that have potential to reach triple digits in sales; I need no more titles that have only single digits. The former leads to prosperity, the latter to barely breaking even.

I know which direction we should be heading.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is one of the founders of , 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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