Tilting at Windmills: Cover Follies

Thu, August 1st, 2013 at 11:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

What I’d like to discuss this month is cover design and how it impacts sales on the racks of comic book stores.

The first thing I would like you to consider is how people (at least in Western cultures!) read and absorb information -- our eyes scan from left-to-right, then top-to-bottom, looking for information to process, making something that is very close to a "Z" pattern. Here’s an interesting scientific article on how the eye moves on the comics page, if you’re so interested.

In fact, I suspect you can think of a time where you encountered a comics page that did not "flow" right, where you couldn’t instinctively figure out the "right" panel to read next -- and I bet that in most cases where this happens, it is because the layout breaks the normal "Z" pattern.

The second thing to consider is how the average comic store racks the comics on their shelves. Now, I have certainly been in stores that have the space (or thinness of stock) to display every title as full cover, but I believe that such stores are by far the minority.

What is far more common are stores that either overlap left-to-right, like so:

In a left-to-right racking scheme, as little as the leftwards 20% of a cover can be shown, while the "last" comic on the rack can get a full face.

Some stores use what is known as a "waterfall" rack in order to display comics:

As you can see, on a waterfall, the first row (generally) gives you something close to full cover, while the back rows only show you something like the top third of the title. And, even when you try really hard, a certain amount of left-to-right overlap is sometimes possible on a waterfall.

That’s my New Comics Rack, by the way.

So, given how the human eye tracks, and given the wide range in possible racking schemes common sense should tell you something: the single most valuable bit of "real estate" on the cover of a new periodical is therefore the leftward and top-most 20% of the cover. If you want to convey information to someone "scanning" a rack.

That behavior -- scanning -- is key for the commercial prospect of many works, because "discoverability" is usually one of the major factors that a work needs to conquer. That is to say, look at that week of comics on my NCR, there are an awful lot of things competing for space, attention and the customer’s dollars, and if you’re something new and unknown to the customer, you want it to be as easy as possible for the customer to "discover" you on the rack. Racks and racking are, in fact, the one major sales advantage that physical retailer has over a computer-based one. If one knows exactly what they want it is often better/cheaper/easier to order something from their computer, however, if they don’t already know that they want it, it is significantly harder to connect consumer to work.

On that NCR there are thirteen brand new issue #1 comics in that single week, and please let me tell you directly, this is a smaller week of comics. The amount of competition for new ideas each week is pretty staggering. If you are not "discovered" at your first issue, your odds of success drop precipitously, and since the goal of cover design should properly be "selling as many copies as possible," I’d like to show you a classic Marvel cover divided up a little:

The combined Red and Blue spaces on this cover is about what the average "waterfall" rack is going to display. The combined Red and Green spaces are about what a left-to-right rack will show, which means that if you want to be 100% sure that the customer is seeing something, it needs to be roughly up in that Red box alone. This is why I really miss the (long long long gone) Marvel "character boxes" that ran through the '70s and '80s -- there’s no way that any reader anywhere, even if they’re pre-literate, isn’t going to be able to find this book under any kind of racking system.

All of the brown space on the cover is only providing information in the relatively rare number of cases that a store is able to give full-cover racking.

Now, look, I know that cover layout is also done for artistic and expressive reasons. And I entirely understand the school of thought that is against homogenous design and is for "standing out" on the racks, but I also think you have to balance that very carefully against how things actually function in the real world.

For instance, take another look at my NCR. Look specifically in the middle tier, front row, on the left side. Let me zoom in a little so you know just what I mean:

So, how does that cover "read" on the rack? Would you be likely to pick it up from the visual information alone? Do you even know what it is?

And this is the important part -- I rack my NCR by "merit" and against the Tyranny of Alphabetical -- that is to say that the books that I think are the best (and/or have the most commercial potential) each week are racked "forward" so that they get the maximal cover exposure. I made a (relatively) special effort in racking this comic to move it to the front and outside because it looked good but even I can’t give everything the best cover vantage all of the time, and even with my positive intervention, the cover design itself worked against the sales potential of the book.

Here’s what the full cover looks like, and it looks nice and designy here, and, probably, on the computer screen of the artist:

But, look, it absolutely destroys the display of the title on the rack, and it buries probably the single most important sales information it could grant ("Brian Stelfreeze") in the single deadest spot on the cover.

My first week on-sale results were predictably dire -- we only sold one out of the ten copies we ordered. A fact I attribute significantly to the cover design on display here.

If you’re attentive, you’ll see there are at least six other "below sight line" logos on the NCR -- most of them are Marvel periodicals. Marvel has an advantage that few other publishers do -- they have a fairly "captive" audience whose Wednesday buying is largely driven by habitual purchasing. These habits make it at least slightly more likely that those readers will be able to spot those characters that they like and follow, but they absolutely reduce discoverability among non-readers in my opinion. Sometimes it is clear in that top third that displays on Waterfall racks what the comic is, but far too often it isn’t.

The average comic doesn’t bear the Marvel imprimatur, however, and doesn’t already have customers predisposed to be actively seeking it out -- and for all of these comics, it is usually not a good idea to hurt discoverability.

It doesn’t just apply to periodicals -- books get it wrong, too. Can you find the second paperback of "Revival" on the NCR, there? Top tier. No? How about on the left side? Middle shelf, yo.

Totally invisible and what little information there is is neutral and "dead" visually.

Here’s what the full cover looked like -- I bet that looked great on the computer screen! But it looks absolutely abysmal on the overwhelming majority of racks.

New work already has so many strikes against it -- it is hard to get on the rack in the first place, hard to get attention, hard to keep traction -- so why make your struggle that much harder by a cover design that doesn’t communicate properly to your prospective audience?


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.

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, day men, revival

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