And here I thought that was just another mistake in Barnes & Noble’s system…

Newsarama has confirmed that Marvel Comics and Barnes & Noble Booksellers are continuing the exclusive partnership that spawned those affordably priced Masterworks trade paperbacks that dropped last year, this time choosing the Ultimate imprint for their next promotion. On May 24, B Noble becomes the sole carrier of a nearly thousand page hardcover that contains the first 39 issues of Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man series, for the criminally low price of $49.95. Actually, $39.95 if you order off the website, which you will because spending more than 25 bucks qualifies you for free shipping. There is no question that this is an incredible deal, and a really smart move by Marvel, but this is the comics industry folks…we can’t just leave it at that, can we?

Obviously, this is yet another way to hype/capitalize on the upcoming release of Spider-Man 2, its promotional budget blitzing a media outlet near you. Sony/Columbia seems to be under the impression that there’s a significant chance this movie won’t make an unseemly amount of cash come July, because they’ve grafted lengthy trailers to the season finale of The Apprentice, the series finale of Friends, and attempted to place logos on major league infields. And it’s only May. Honestly, unless the sequel reaches Collateral Damage levels of critical acclaim, this is going to be a certified smash, and the Spidey saturation point will have reached an even higher point by summer’s end. So yeah, this is the perfect time for one of the nation’s largest chain bookstores to offer more than three years worth of Spider-Man material with an especially high level of mainstream appeal.

Bendis and Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man is the best teenage superhero title available today (though Kirkman’s Invincible is gaining), and you’d be hard pressed to find a more appropriate title to create a massive coffee table ready collection out of. The perfect blend of teen angst and costumed adventures, the tone and scope matches up very closely to the Hollywood adaptation, and above all else, it’s consistent, which is vital in a format like this. Revolving creative teams is expected and often necessary in the freelance fishbowl that makes up the industry, but the uninitiated will just notice that the art inexplicably changes between issues four and five, and that’s who this whole thing is specifically aimed at, the potential audience not yet driven into a frenzy by Wednesday afternoons. Some commentators have suggested that “sweetheart deals” like this one, that obviously put the direct market at some disadvantage, are a resounding and pronounced diss to the machine that powers the industry. Well…not really, no.

The label on this reads Barnes & Noble Books and not Marvel Comics. This might be my own immaturity at work, but I seriously doubt that Marvel has the resources or inclination to print a thousand page hardcover for the admittedly minimal price point of 50 bucks, especially with the healthy print run probably involved in this. Most likely, the bookseller paid a licensing fee, and is responsible for the final packaging and distribution chainwide. From what I understand, and this is from a B & N employee’s perspective, the actual Barnes & Noble publishing division is responsible for a significant portion of the yearly sales, and actively look for companies and material to absorb into their overall collective, to produce books just like this one. While I was still at my first store, my guy Nathan, who ran the bargain area of the store, explained to me how the section of the store with the lowest price tags brought in the most profit.

Say a book publisher printed too many copies of some Tom Clancy book, and the buzz has effectively died down, leaving the publisher with thousands of unsold stock collecting dust in some warehouse. B Noble comes in, and is like, “We’ll pay you two bucks each for these,” and facing the prospect of a book that’s not selling anymore, and likely never will without an Oprah appearance, the excess stock becomes B & N’s property. Then they mark it up to a price around six dollars, and net a clean profit from a title that wouldn’t have a chance selling at 25 bucks, but moves incredibly quickly at 6. Not to suggest that Marvel had some warehouse full of Spidey HCs they couldn’t sell, but only to illustrate the Borg-like tendency for assimilation that’s proven incredibly profitable in B & N’s case, combined with their ability to present “bargains” to
the customer.

If Marvel has any sense, and I’ve no doubt they do, the licensing fee charged to B Noble wasn’t cheap, especially with an inevitable blockbuster on the way, so the bookseller has to be committed to selling this thing to people that wouldn’t ordinarily find graphic novels in their hand. If they weren’t, there’s really no chance they’d bother. From a presentation standpoint, it’s going to turn heads, if only to elicit what will be everyone’s first comment, “Man, I’ve never seen a comic book that looked like this.” Turning that initial attention into a sell is the challenge, which identifies the most critical factor in ensuring that this is even moderately successful…product placement.

I’ve worked in two different stores, and been to a couple more, and unfortunately the graphic novel section is often buried in some dark, forgotten corner, found only by complete accident. My current store is guilty of this, the GNs in probably the last place in the store that anyone would look for anything, nestled next to the role paying guides. It’s really not their fault, because honestly, when most of these stores were put together graphic novels were some niche offering that appealed to the most exclusive of audiences. Now, graphic novels are one of the fastest growing categories and likely sooner rather than later, the bays will emerge from their dark corners. For a while, my last location considered moving the GNs to the front of the store, and I spent about a week planning the takeover, only to lose out when corporate decided to push crossword puzzles instead. Point being, a 50 dollar Spider-Man hardcover does no one any good confined to the corner.

This thing needs to come out of hiding and enjoy cross-promotional space with the numerous Spider-Man 2 tie-ins, though it easily rates its own display, which is a good chance considering that the Masterworks launched with a decent in-store push. Everything relies on presentation, and if Barnes & Noble can ensure this is perceived as the “bargain” it appears to be, it’s going to move, regardless of the price point, and hopefully, kids will be harassing their parents all summer for these.

The effect of this promotion on the direct market will be in no way disastrous and stands a better chance of being completely negligible. I don’t buy the possibility that this hardcover will effectively murder the sales of the individual trades that Marvel has already released, because the consumer that buys their books in specialty stores isn’t the same person searching their bookstore in vain for the graphic novel section. Personally, my buying habits swear allegiance to the comic shop, and if I wasn’t getting a discount,
I wouldn’t be buying more than five trades a year from chain bookstores. What would be the point? Where is this person that stops into their friendly neighborhood retailer, and then heads out to Borders to finish their shopping for the week? No matter what gets discussed, it always seems to turn into this tried and true “us vs. them” argument, and though sometimes that’s exactly what’s going down, it really doesn’t apply here. Bookstores only maintain the power we allow them to have.

People are still going to need their Ultimate Spider-Man trades from their local shops, because they’ll either not care or not know that B & N is putting this out, and provided there is a fraction of fandom that has been waiting for just this opportunity to jump onboard this title, they’re in the definite minority. The issues have appeared in three different formats already, and if they were interested in the stuff, they’ve bought it already and really won’t care when they hear of this. Best case scenario, another small portion of the bookstore GN audience ultimately finds their way into specialty shops, because there’s no way the direct market is funneling the people into bookstores. This is just another example of companies taking steps, and seriously, this isn’t even a huge one, in addressing the needs and habits of a new segment of people that may finally come to their senses, with a little help.

Let Barnes & Noble have their pretty little hardcovers, as I’m sure they paid an equally pretty fee to get them, and if people are finding new things to read, at the end of the day, we want it to be our stuff, in whatever format that may be. Everybody is going to have Spider-Man on the brain for the next few months anyway, might as well take advantage right?

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