(**PLEASE NOTE – The opinions expressed in this column do not reflect on Future Entertainment, any of its employees, Silver Bullet Comics, any of its associates, the comics industry as a whole or any sane and rational human being. They are the opinions of one deranged man, j.hues, and his alone. May God have mercy on his soul!**)
What the hell is this? Who’s that white boy? That ain’t Brandon (BT) Thomas! Yeah, yeah I know. I have to live with it every day of my life; you’re only stuck with it for one week. Truth be told, Brandon is out of town right now and rather than have a generic “Mr. Thomas was unavailable to write his column this week” blurb from ye olde editor, he asked me to step into his large shoes and try not to piss away all of his readers.
So who am I? My name is j.hues. I am currently the Public Relations and Marketing Manager for Future Entertainment (you remember us, the upstart gang of comics veterans including the likes of Bob Layton, David Michelinie and Dick Giordano who bucked the trend by distributing our own books and more recently by shifting to a new all trades format (debuting soon!)). Before this position, I was a regular right here at SBC with my own irreverent column in which I poked fun at this industry we all love. It was called “Rolling With The Punches” and its Archives can be found here! Read ’em and love ’em.
Now that the introductions are out of the way, I want to address something that’s been plaguing me over the last several months. As background, I spent the better part of the nineties working as the manager of the largest and oldest single comics retails shop in the state of Missouri (sadly the owner has since retired and sold off our nearly 3 million comics inventory). During my tenure, while the industry saw its sales decline through the mid to latter nineties, we saw our customer base and profit margins increasing. We accomplished this through good customer service, a commitment to product knowledge, and understanding our customer’s likes and interests. I am currently trying to recapture my “lost glory” by running a start-up mail-order comics company (ORDER NOW–MINIMUM 20% DISCOUNT FOR ALL PRE-ORDERS: email at firstname.lastname@example.org (shameless, ain’t I?)). Bottom line is I have some experience in this area of the industry as well.
I started to explore and ponder this issue seriously when IDW launched their first CSI: Crime Scene Investigation mini-series. The retailers spend much of their time complaining about how there are no new fans coming into their shops, it’s the same old faces (thank god for them or we’d ALL be out of work!) they’ve been seeing for ten years or more. Then, IDW announces that they’ve secured the rights to produce a comic based on the #1 show in America. CSI traditionally has around 15 to 20 million viewers each week. Not only that, but they got Max Allan Collins, who wrote another well known graphic novel which got made into a blockbuster film starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, Road to Perdition, as well as being the author of the bestselling CSI novel series. What a great tool to use in trying to reach out to new potential customers.
And yet, how many copies of the CSI comic were ordered in America’s comic shops? Well, according to the estimates provided by ICv2, there were 17,502 copies of the first issue ordered. That’s good enough for 103rd place on the sales charts! What came in just above it was Black Panther #53, a book that was canceled due to poor sales.
Is it the retailers’ fault entirely, though? What percentage of retailers, I wonder, even know that this comic book exists? Personally, I know of at least three separate stores in my area that had no idea until I told them, and I’m in a relatively significant metropolis. They just can’t be bothered the “risk” of ordering from the back of the catalog, I was told. Many of them have stopped even ordering from Image and non-licensed books from Dark Horse because they can’t trust them either. That only leaves DC, Marvel, Buffy and Star Wars for them to build a business around.
Let’s take another example, and this one reaches the coveted youth demographic that has all but disappeared from the industry. This past week, the folks at Viz threw a party because Shonen Jump hit the 500,000 mark in sales for a single issue (granted due to a promotional insert), before settling down to its average of 300,000. For those out of the loop, Jump is a manga anthology featuring some of the most popular children’s television and gaming properties like Yu-Gi-Oh! and DragonBall Z. Top-selling card games and top-rated television shows means top-rated comics! Well not in the Direct Market. The latest estimates put Shonen Jump Volume 1 #11 at 225th place with 8,369 copies sold. That leaves the other 291,631 copies to be sold in other venues. Thus, the comic book Direct Market is able to represent approximately 2.9% of the total sales of this book. So this tells us that comic shops are reaching just shy of 3% of their potential audience with their current tactics. That’s a lot of untapped potential (at least for this particular title, and remember that these are of that coveted youth market–the next generation that we’re NOT reaching). Books selling below this margin include CSI: Miami, the entire line of Disney comics, and DC’s entire kid-friendly lineup, which includes the popular Powerpuff Girls and Scooby-Doo properties, as well as the classic Looney Tunes (stars of a major motion picture and a hugely hyped DVD release). So just what are these coveted kids supposed to read when they come in?
The bottom line is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the comics industry as it is being run right now. Numbers have been on the decline, shops are closing up and no one seems to know why. And while it would be easy to stand here and point fingers, I think the blame lies in part upon the hands of everyone involved professionally, from the distributor(s) to the publishers to the retailers, and possibly even the creators and fans! I’m not going to stand here and say that I know how things got this way, but I bet I know a lot of factors that have helped put us in this situation. I’m tired of people hedging around the tough questions and issues of this industry. These things need to be talked about and considered, no matter how difficult it might be to face our own role in this collapse.
Marketing: For the retailers: if you are only reaching 3% of your potential audience, then you need to let that other 97% know that you’re there. Odds are they have no idea your store exists. Retailers just don’t seem to get the importance of marketing. Again, understand that I am talking about my own experiences in my city and other cities I’ve traveled too. And I know blanket statements don’t apply to everyone and there are always exceptions, but let’s just say that there is a literally silent majority of comics retailers out there.
In the hey-day when comics sold in the millions we didn’t need to market them. After all, comics were in supermarkets and drugstores across the nation. This served as a constant reminder to the casual reader/fan that comic books STILL EXIST. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase “they still make those?” Because comics are no longer in the mass market and only relegated to the few thousands of comic shops remaining, a large portion of the American public seems to think that they aren’t being published anymore. I even had someone who was surprised that Spider-Man was still a comic. He thought the movie was based on the comics they USED to make back when he was younger.
So what can the comics retailer do? It’s as simple as a promotion with a local movie theater when they roll out the next comics-based film. Or the video store when it goes to video. Or the bookstore for the novelized adaptation. We used to swap coupons all the time with a theater at the other end of the strip mall. Or we’d ship a stack of movie-related comics down to them and they’d do contests at our store to win movie tickets. It was cross-promotion at its best. And it’s the absolute best option for the small business owner. Talk to schools and libraries about reading programs, after all it’s no secret that this country is concerned about the lack of reading in the younger generations. Most of us would agree that comic books can be more appealing to a young person than a book, and it’s still reading. Find other businesses and just talk to them about it. You’d be surprised how many of them will be open to your ideas.
For the publishers: stop marketing to a captive and dwindling audience, or at least stop doing so exclusively. Someone explain to me why the majority of the advertisements you see in Marvel and DC’s comic books are for video games, and yet you never ever see an ad for a comic book in any of the video game magazines. Clearly someone has already determined that the two audiences have similar interests, so it would seem a no-brainer. Video game magazines have millions of subscribers, so think of the possibilities. If not, advertisements, there could even be inserts. Or advertisements in Entertainment Weekly, the most comics-friendly mainstream magazine, which also happens to be owned by Time-Warner, which also happens to be the parent company of DC Comics. The fact that DC Comics (which is part of a veritable entertainment empire) doesn’t market themselves beyond comics boggles my mind.
Smallville could end every episode with a short “based on the Superman family of comics published every month by DC Comics,” just as they cite the songs and bands used in that night’s episodes. Television commercials for Marvel or DC movies could do the same thing. If the publishers care at all about their publishing business, they would make it a requirement in negotiation of the deal (we get to promote the source material in some way). Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Sci-Fi and any other channel that plays either superhero cartoons or cartoons that have comics would be a great place for a comics commercial. And speaking of…
Superheroes: Let’s face it. One very specialized genre is not enough to sustain an industry. Imagine if the top two book publishers decided one day that all they wanted to publish was historical romance. So now 90% of what is making it to the bookstores is historical romance. How long would it take under these circumstances for the vast majority of your current readers to walk out of bookstores and abandon reading altogether. The only fans left would be the very small, niche, almost exclusively female in a specific age bracket audience that historical romances are written for.
The publishing industry would shortly be in a state of turmoil and chaos trying to find out what happened. Writers who wrote in other genres would be frustrated that they can’t even get the bookstores to order their books, and many of them would stop writing what they want and force themselves to write in the only apparent genre available to them. Due to the decline in sales and customers, bookstores across the nation would shut down. Grocery stores would stop carrying books because the lack of variety would kill their sales as well and it wouldn’t be cost-effective anymore. If there are fewer book stores and the mass market abandons books, there are fewer places to sell the books, and so overall sales of the entire industry would start to decline and before long people would see a book and ask “do they still make those?”
So now the remaining bookstores are left are in a quandary. They want to bring in new readers, but the past ten years have shown that only historical romance books are selling to their almost exclusively female audience. How could they possibly order The Executioner series. They’re clearly geared toward a male audience, which statistic show aren’t coming into bookstores. What do they do?
Knowledge: If you’re going to be a niche store catering to a specific product and demographic than you’d damned well better be an expert in your niche. If I walk into a model train shop, I expect the guy behind the counter to be able to tell me everything I could ever want to know about model trains. In our store, it was important that we had people on staff to cover every type of product we sold. The more successful comic shops in my city have that. I think that this is a key part of the hiring process (if you’re going to have employees) that is being missed. And if you’re a one-man operation, than it is your responsibility to be the expert. If you’re not, then why do you own a specialty shop?
Part of that knowledge is reading the trade press, mainstream press, Internet press, etc. Find out what people are talking about. How can a book that is spotlighted in Entertainment Weekly not crack the Top 100? I guarantee you that video stores order extras on DVDs that are getting a great deal of press, even if they were independent films with little to no mass market (IE theater) presence or sales (look at 28 Days Later as an example–virtually no theater presence, and yet there were more than twenty copies at my local Blockbuster). After all, when their customers walk in and see that “buzz” indie film on the racks, their brain recalls that they’ve read a lot about it and they might pick it up. They probably didn’t go in looking for it, but it’s still a sale.
In the Direct Market, when you read a lot of buzz about a book online, or in trade publications, or even in mainstream publications you can still walk into many comic shops and not only will you not find it on the shelves, the person behind the counter might not have even heard of it. I’ve experienced this too many times to count. It’s frustrating when I, as a fan, am more knowledgeable than the people who own and work at a comic shop. I’ve had to step in and steer my fellow customers in the right direction on multiple occasions. A real exchange…
Customer: Do you have that one book with the vampires I’ve been hearing about. About a little town in the dark or something? What was that called?”
Retailer: “I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
Me: “It’s called 30 Days of Night.”
Customer: “Yeah, that’s it.”
Retailer: “Oh yeah, I think they canceled that or something. We ordered it, but it never came in.”
Me: (thinking) No, you didn’t. Now, you’re just lying to save face. (speaking) The last issue shipped two weeks ago. They’re putting together a trade with some extras. The first issue is worth like $50 now, so you’d probably be better off to wait if you just want to read it.
Customer: Hey, cool. (to retailer) Can I put that on my order.
Retailer: I think I already turned that order in. I’ll have to see if I get any extras.
Me: (thinking) You could just reorder it. It hasn’t even shipped yet. How the hell are you still in business?
Diamond: Though I can’t really blame Diamond for becoming the distribution monopoly; it was really Marvel that started the whole debacle when it bought Heroes World and decided it could distribute it’s own books; I can blame them for some of the damaging practices they have in place; for example, the exclusive contracts and preferential treatment shown to Dark Horse, DC, Image and Marvel. Sure it’s great for the publishers because they collectively get about half the pages of the entire catalogue and they get to design their own sections to really stand out and attract attention and they have exclusive rights to BOTH Previews covers, but it’s bad for the industry because let’s face it… the diversity between these four publishers is akin to 90% of the novels published being historical romance.
The remaining hundreds of publishers are given a generic listing, unless they want to pay substantially more for ad space (and under the circumstances, many of them don’t have the capital to do this). The way it is now, we will never be able to have a CSI or Dragonball Z cover on the catalog. I guarantee that if IDW’s CSI comic were spotlighted on the cover instead of Todd McFarlane’s Monster Maniacs 4 action figure line (because it’s his month to get the cover), it would have cracked the Top 100… possibly even the Top 50. I have to give the retailers at least enough credit to believe that. Projects like 30 Days of Night (the most talked about comic of the past two years) and CSI and Terminator 3 deserve a shot at the cover, all things being equal. But then, that’s the problem isn’t it.
In a recent letter written to Wizard, the fan asked why Wizard only puts superheroes on their covers, rather than spotlighting such mainstream properties as CSI or Dragonball Z, and the response they received was that superheroes are what their fans wanted and that these other properties just wouldn’t move product. I say to this… bulls**t! Wizard is a known commodity in comic shops, so it will sell no matter what’s on the cover. But the magazine is also sold in grocery stores and other mass market venues, where comics USED to be sold. I have to believe that there are more non-comics fans who would pick it up and look at it with a CSI cover rather than a “Wolverine vs. Sabertooth” cover. The point of a cover is to attract the MOST attention and superheroes does not reach the widest possible audience. Why wouldn’t you put a manga cover, after all Tokyopop and Viz are kicking superhero-ass all over the bookstore market!
Professionalism: I’ll leave it to others to talk about the professionalism of the companies actions and policies and decisions and public representatives. But one thing that is a true detriment to the industry is the truly amateurish quality of the final product in many, many cases. As someone with a college degree in English and Creative Writing, I am appalled at the number of basic spelling, grammatical and typographical errors I see in comic books. When you produce a final product that looks like it was made in a high school, it is hard to be taken seriously as a professional industry.
And it’s not just the independent smaller publishers, but this problem plagues every publisher from DC and Marvel to Dark Horse and CrossGen. And don’t even get me started on Image! I understand the special arrangement the ‘Image Central’ titles have with Image Comics, but since the book does carry the “I,” the central office should have some concern about the quality of the final product. It seems that the majority (and I did say MAJORITY) of Image’s “Image Central” title are plagued with multiple misspellings, grammatical errors, typographical errors, and even more heinous errors like misdirected word balloon pointers.
For the sake of the integrity of the company shouldn’t there be some sort of quality control. Of course this doesn’t excuse the mistakes made in DC and WildStorm books or Marvel books, each of which has multiple editors looking over them. If I, as a fan and reader, can find no less than thirty or more errors in each week’s stack of books, doesn’t that say that we have a problem. If a publisher of books put out such consistently shoddy merchandise, they wouldn’t long be in business. If you don’t know the difference between your and you’re, then you need someone who does to look over your comic book.
I am prepared to make an offer to the industry of my services as an “Independent Editor.” I will look through your “Final Product” and point out every mistake you make for $20 a page, and if you go to press and I missed one, I’ll refund your money on the entire issue! Is this a ridiculous idea? Sure, it probably is, but you know what? Something really needs to be done about this problem. Have some pride in your work and your final product, because you don’t want your readers to have negative thoughts about you or your book or stop reading it based either wholly or partially on easily avoidable mistakes.
Conclusions: What have we learned here? Well, I’ve learned that I could probably write a book about this stuff. But really, have I accomplished anything? It’s hard to say. I only have one week before Brandon makes his triumphant return so hopefully what I’ve accomplished is to open your minds and your eyes and your ears a bit to what’s going on in this industry. I’d like to think that maybe this little piece could open up a discussion. I’m sure I got some things wrong up there, just as I’m sure I got some things right. But we need to be talking about these things. Problems don’t usually go away if you don’t talk about them. Is the industry dying? I don’t know. It’s certainly hurting more than it has been in many, many years, and the “recovery” is slight and slow and if it takes another dive from where it is now, it’s all over. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have all of the questions. But I can tell you that whether you’re a retailer, a professional, a publisher, a printer, a distributor, or a fan… if this industry does die, we all lose. And the comic book industry will be nothing more than a historical romance.