Tilting at Windmills: Format Matters

Fri, May 17th, 2013 at 12:01am PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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As a retailer, I really hate the miniseries.

A good portion of this comes down to how retailers order books on a non-returnable basis, while other portions come down to the changing patterns of purchasing from the consumer, but I think that in virtually all cases, creators are doing themselves a disservice to work in a format that the market really isn't enthusiastic about.

Retailers, as you really should know by now, buy the stock for their store on a non-returnable basis, which means if a work doesn't sell, the retailer is the one who pays the largest price for that, in the form of unsold/unsalable comics. Ordering comics in the Direct Market is a predictive art where we try to hedge our (what literally amount to) guesses with consumer preorder numbers, past performance of "similar" previous series, and so on, trying desperately to not order "too many" comics (which crush out profit margins with dead stock) or "too few" copies (which reduce our ability to grow and leave customers unhappy).

It is a really difficult balancing act, and as a very general rule, it is difficult to find the "correct" numbers until you have somewhere between six and fifteen issues released, where a series is "mature" and "stable." Again, it is really key to note that under-ordering is just as bad for the store, publishers, consumers, and creators as is over-ordering.

The other problem is that the patterns of consumer behavior have dramatically shifted over the decades -- it used to be that you could count on robust back issue sales to largely "cover" the margins on the non-returnable bets the retailers are making. But the "filling in my run" aspect of recent back issue collecting has almost entirely disappeared except for the top 10% of periodical releases. Instead, the "getting caught up" customer is far far more likely to be interested in simply purchasing the inevitable collection of recent material, in TP or HC.

This hurts miniseries prospects in a far greater fashion than it does ongoing titles -- at least ongoing books hold out some hope that someone might buy them, but virtually all miniseries go ice cold after the final issue ships, shortening your possible sales window, and, thus, your sales.

There are some rare exceptions. The most obvious might be "event" miniseries, which often have a sales potential of "every DC (or Marvel) fan" when they potentially impact every component of the ongoing soap operas that are those universes. An "Age of Ultron" or a "Blackest Night" has a greater sales potential in the market than just an average issue of "Avengers" or "Green Lantern" because (in theory at least) the "stakes are higher."

Another might be work by the "rarely seen superstar." Someone like, say, Neil Gaiman may never do monthly comics again (though never say never!), and the general paucity of his comics output means it is "noteworthy" to see more comics work from him. For these few and rarified names (and there are probably less than a half-dozen people at any given moment who can truly fit into this category, whose star-power transcends the natural market-entropy that time itself inevitably brings), the miniseries might even be a boon because it, too, is a form of "event."

These are exceptions that prove the rule, however, as the average miniseries instead becomes a self-limiting format for most creators and most works.

So there's a real psychological difference in how a retailer approaches ordering (the average) miniseries versus ongoing and continuing titles -- we're forced, by the basic economic underpinnings of the market, to what I call placing "fire & forget" orders. Basically, on new first issues, rather than looks for what the highest possible ceiling of sales might be for a miniseries, I'm placing an order largely intended to sell out before the miniseries has concluded. And, if that book sells out faster than I intended, in most cases, it becomes an "oh well" situation because there's no real profit in trying to maximize medium-term sales for work that is designed for the short-term.

Meanwhile, on an ongoing book, I'm wanting to order that #1 to find the maximum of copies I could sell because (I would hope) that I'll still be selling that series to many of those same customers twelve months, twenty months, a hundred months from now. I have long-term financial reasons to maximize my ongoing sales. Not so much for the miniseries.

The other side of the issue is that miniseries also tend to make backlist collections that sell poorly, because there's nothing to drive ongoing interest. The few that rise to the top very much tend to be things that "would still be an 'event book' if published today" -- "Watchmen" or "Kingdom Come" and so on.

The real problem is that most minis aren't "stand the test of time" ideas. Instead, most minis are "test the waters" kinds of presentations where publishers like an idea enough to give it a shot, but not enough to take on the risk of an ongoing, and so it is hard not to view them as "Well, they don't have enough faith in it to support it, so why should I show support, then?"

With very few exceptions, the market is pretty economically hostile to "single volume" ideas. It is difficult to succeed in the backlist without either being a "Name" creator, an "event," or having a multi-volume series, or where you're having frontlist production spurring those backlist sales.

Some suggest skipping the serialization altogether, and going straight to the "Original Graphic Novel" (or "OGN"). Let me tell you, in most cases, your sales potential with any kind of genre-driven work is much much worse as an OGN than as the mini-plus-TP model. I think it is also really terrible career management for talent, because it keeps you off the market for longer.

The overwhelming majority of OGNs have backlist sales potential that can be measured in just weeks. Without something else driving sales (character, author, history, etc.), most OGNs are consigned to the dense forest of spine-out shelves where they aren't thick enough to attract consumer attention. It is why, when doing genre-work, the multi-volume series rules all.

In my opinion, just about the only place where OGNs commercially work is non-fiction and memoirs, but if you're doing fiction (not that memoirs aren't sometimes/often fiction!) then what the backlist market wants, what that market is good at selling, is multi-volume serials.

The sheer density of volume of production in the marketplace makes one-off ideas a true struggle, commercially.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of HYPERLINK 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. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

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