Tilting at Windmills: The Bucket Theory

Fri, October 18th, 2013 at 8:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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Let's start with a brief (?) follow-up on Villains Month from DC.

(You can read prior commentary from me, if you like)

Given the descriptions of the DC Road Show meetings (though nothing official whatsoever, we must continue to note, from DC itself -- all reports were second hand), it seemed to me to be extraordinarily likely that many of the Villain Month comics could get allocated. Surprise, they all got allocated! But I foresaw at least some of that, so I gamed my order, ordering significantly above what I thought the interest level from my own customer base was.

It appears that many of my fellow retailers in San Francisco didn't do that (or couldn't, since, again, there was no official notification of the possibility of allocation until after the books were allocated), because most of those "extra" copies ended up selling to their customers on Wednesday, frantic to find comics that weren't on the other store's racks.

That's the essential problem with allocation games -- they are essentially zero sum. If I order more copies than I think I can sell of something, and there's a limited number of them, then the copies I am given are "coming out" of someone else's allocation. That's how it works.

Much like Mike Sterling, I tend to suspect that if these books hadn't been allocated, creating the feeding frenzy, there would have been more than enough copies on the market, because most retailers, most of the time, know just how to order for their stores. But the way the game played out a series of haves and have-nots were created, which did nothing useful for most stores.

Because I gamed my orders, my personal results showed me that the 52 3-D covers in September grossed me a 43% increase in revenue over the 49 "New 52" books that I show that DC shipped in August, on a 31% increase in pieces. This isn't exactly a huge surprise: just one book marked as "Batman" represents the same sales as roughly the ten lowest selling DC titles (which weren't published that month), obviously. Overall, we received just 71% of what we ordered on the 3-D titles.

I understand Game Theory well enough that I was able to be one of the "haves"; but that doesn't mean I necessarily like that, or don't feel bad for the "have nots."

The 2-D covers, on the other hand, were an unmitigated flop -- we've mustered just a 27% sell through, which is brutally low. After we deal with the labor and shipping and everything, our profit on those is going to become an essentially meaningless number, and there were fifteen of the 52 2-D titles that we sold one copy or less.

(By "less" I do, in fact, mean "zero.")

The crazy thing about this all is it certainly appears to me that DC printed significantly under what you would imagine they might for their largest promotion of the year with fancy covers and all. Even without the frenzy of speculation over the allocations, the numbers printed on Villains Month would appear to generally be a significant decline on a title-by-title basis. While it is over normal line averages, most of that growth comes from DC not producing their poorest-selling titles that month, and replacing them with four "Batman" titles, and four "Justice League" books (etc.), rather than sales growth within the titles. Even with the fancy covers, it appears that DC didn't expect these books to sell all that great, relative to their "parent". And quantities were pre-limited (although they didn't bother mentioning that up front), so, of course, they couldn't, even though the market appeared to want them to.


But enough of that, that's not what I really want to talk about this month. I want to talk about The Bucket Theory.

As you might be aware, I also have a consulting business, and, when I work with publishers one of the biggest challenges is helping them understand just how retailers order. Hell, it's a big enough challenge for retailers to understand it, because a lot of the received wisdom we take from our customer buying patterns and our internal cycle sheets ends up being sub-rosa.

So, maybe the first thing to do is to picture the comic book buying public as an ocean -- vast and roiling and unpredictable in so many ways. This ocean really is much bigger than most of our measuring systems might infer -- I've had otherwise rational people insist to me that the buying population in the Direct Market must be a sub-200k figure, because the "benchmark" title, "Batman", is generally about 125k. But that doesn't match my reality even a little bit -- my average number of weekly transactions is pretty close to six times my monthly sales of "Batman", and while I acknowledge that I don't exactly run the same kind of store as a lot of my peers, I have a hard time picturing that I am that disproportionate.

I absolutely believe that the audience serviced by the Direct Market is somewhere between 500k and one million readers.

(More than that, it is pretty clear, I think, that there's an extremely large number of people who either "dabble" in comics or are "lapsed, but still curious," probably putting the potential audience for comics in North America in at least the five to ten million range -- we almost never reach even 1% of that potential.)

So, anyway, the population of potential readers can be envisioned as an ocean, right?

When it comes to any given piece of work in the marketplace one way to conceive of its individual sales potential is to picture bringing a bucket to the ocean. The size of the bucket determines just how much of that ocean you might be able to hold.

Certainly, sometimes the retailers underestimate what the size of the bucket could be -- Jeff Smith's "Bone" started out with something like 3200 copies sold of issue #1, and grew into more than a million copies of the collected graphic novels -- there's no denying that; but as a general rule, markets tend toward efficiency and accuracy, otherwise those markets quickly fail.

There are a lot of factors that go into the size of the bucket. There's the really obvious ones like creative teams and character and brand -- the size of the bucket of, say, "My Mother The Car" is quintessentially smaller than the bucket for, say, "Star Wars," but there is a relationship between creative and project that frequently transcends that. For example if Neil Gaiman and Jim Lee were heading up that "My Mother The Car" relaunch, I suspect that would sell considerably better than a new Star Wars comic by, say, you and I, even though no one cares about MMTC, and everyone loves Star Wars.

What I want you to understand is that, in this (silly!) example, there are multiple buckets in play -- there's the "My Mother The Car" bucket (small), there's the "Star Wars" bucket (vast), there's the "Neil Gaiman" and "Jim Lee" buckets (vast), there's the "you and I" buckets (teeny), and how and when those buckets interact and overlap, the picture changes.

Let's make up some numbers to illustrate what I mean. Imagine that the size of the bucket for each of these -- and, again, these buckets are the potential audience -- is as follows:

My Mother The Car: 1000 readers
Star Wars: 50,000
Neil Gaiman: 50,000
Jim Lee: 50,000
You (as an artist): 3000
Me (as a writer): 500

Now, you might think "Well, Neil + Jim + Star Wars, that will sell 150k copies, then!", but it won't because when you're pouring liquid from the Neil bucket to the Star Wars bucket, a bunch of it is going to slop on the floor -- because, assuredly, there are Neil Gaiman fans who dislike Star Wars and Star Wars fans who dislike Neil, and Neil fans who dislike Jim and Jim fans who dislike Star Wars, and every other combination thereof. Neil + Jim + Star Wars might only end up being 60k -- bigger than any of the individual buckets, but not the sum of all of the audiences -- because the audience is fluid.

What if Neil and Jim do MMTC? Well, that might sell 25k of the first issue -- way way way bigger than the "native" audience for MMTC, but substantially less than either Neil or Jim's "native" audiences. Probably half the audience is shaking their heads and thinking "Why the heck are they doing that awful idea? Do Not Want!"

If Jim and I do Star Wars... Well, I wouldn't even be the slightest factor whatsoever in that bucket. It does 40k, and "my" 500 copies are utterly wasted. But if I were to write and draw MMTC? It's going to be closer to the value of "me", rather than the value of MMTC, because I would have a negative value in the calculation, since I can't draw to save my life. Maybe that comic sells all of 200 copies.

That's just the direct factors -- there are indirect ones as well. You also have to consider things like Awareness of the property and the Zeitgeist of the world around it. The vast majority of you reading this probably never heard of "My Mother The Car" before now, but in 1965 several million people watched it on TV. No one is clamoring for MMTC this second, but if they announced a MMTC movie tomorrow with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, then all of a sudden, that might be a very valuable property indeed, and the size of the bucket swells way up. Or maybe something happens in the real world, I don't know, they invent the first talking car or something, then all of a sudden the market couldn't get enough of MMTC, which comes right on the heels of the "Knight Rider" comic, and maybe someone pitches something about The General Lee being inhabited by the ghost of the actual General Lee, and so on. Zeitgeist, that's why there are multiple projects with Zombies because "The Walking Dead" is so popular, y'know? The "Zombie Bucket" got bigger.

(This works the other way around, as well -- there have been Star Wars comics published nearly continuously since 1977, yet we still occasionally get people walking in the door who scream "Oh my god, they make Star Wars comics? Why did no one tell me?!?!?!" or "Wait, what? Neil Gaiman writes comics?")

But you have to understand the Zeitgeist -- just because the market wants "Talking Cars," doesn't mean that you're going to have any success with, say, a Talking Cement Mixer, or a comics about a non-talking version of, dunno, The Mystery Machine, maybe? As a possible example, kids comics are doing very well right now in the market -- "My Little Pony," "Adventure Time," those are selling super-good, but that doesn't imply that any comic aimed at kids would succeed. For example, I'd bet strongly against a "Teletubbies" comic, because the audience for that particular show are, largely, pre-verbal.

But, put Neil Gaiman and Jim Lee on it...?

(No, still a bad idea!)

There are also physical issues like design and format and price and market competition that change the size of the bucket. Neil and Jim and Star Wars, but printed as a treasury-sized edition for $19.95 a copy? Yeah, the 60k suddenly turns into 30k at that point. MMTC by them, but it's 48 comics-sized pages for 99 cents? Maybe that swells up to 45K, then. Neil & Jim Star Wars, launching the same month that they also launch Star Wars titles by Ennis & Perez and Moore & Sienkiewicz and Millar & Ross and Ellis & Darrow -- well, maybe Neil & Jim just does 50k then, because there's too much competition surrounding it.

The size of the bucket, then, is impacted by all of the fluid choices around it -- and not just impacted, but seriously, dramatically impacted. It isn't enough to simply identify a potential new license, but you also need to make creative and business decisions that enhance or support that license as well. That's why it is no longer enough to just simply print something -- you have to make a compelling pitch to the market as to just why we should be supporting it. There's no property that is utterly dead, but there are some that have been around the block so many times, that it would take a truly herculean effort with an absolutely outstanding creative team to have even the slightest chance of breaking into the market in any realistic way. There really have been a great number of very earnest attempts at, say, Doc Savage over the years, and none of them really stuck -- it wouldn't be especially rational to think that this time the market is going to magically react well to the property. There are a lot of properties like this in today's market. Just look at the latest catalog!

You can make the market react well to it -- sure, just convince "Neil Gaiman" & "Jim Lee" to do it. But wouldn't it be better to have "Neil & Jim" doing something original that might inspire a new Intellectual Property?

You can pour Neil's bucket into a smaller IP's bucket, and watch the excess slosh over the sides; you can try to fill a big IP with smaller sales buckets of relatively unknown creators and hope that they don't bring the size of the bucket down; but the real talent in the game is matching IP and talent to that each of their buckets grow as a result.

That's alchemy, and it is really difficult.


Brian Hibbs has owned and operated in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. 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, villains month

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