Welcome to SBC’s The Panel, a chance for you to put your burning questions – comics-related or otherwise – to a group of comics professionals.

The Panel lives or dies by your contributions; please email them to panel@silverbulletcomicbooks.com and we’ll add them to the list…

This week’s question is as follows:-

“The shortsightedness of retailers predominantly ordering from only the Diamond Top 50 will kill the comics industry. Discuss.”


Stephen Holland:

Stone dead.

And the bizarre thing is, it makes no sense.

I’ve just done a quick check over the weekend, and although Page 45 does make a vast sum of money off the top fifty entries on Diamond’s list, that figure only amounts to a tenth of our monthly takings. We makes nine times that much on all the other comics and trade paperbacks (some of which Diamond don’t even distribute), simply because we stock them.

The retailers you refer to don’t know these titles sell because they don’t stock them; and because they don’t stock them, their income is limited to but a tenth of that earned by the leading few. And it’s all so unnecessary. It’s not because these stores are small in size, it’s because their managers are short on ambition, and short on basic business sense.

It boils down to this: do you want to make money off a limited range of customers with one specific interest… or do you want to make money off everyone?

Because as much as it may look as if I’m just some “indie” guy, I’m not. I’ve even publicly rejected the notion that Page 45 is “indie friendly” (I don’t even acknowledge the term “indie” which is meaningless at best, elitist at worst). We’re quality friendly, we’re diversity friendly, and we’re businessmen.

When asked in The Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing how we saw our priorities when opening Page 45, I wrote:

“The very first question we asked ourselves was: “what do we want to achieve?” As we have stated previously, and unequivocally, our primary goals were twofold:

“1. To bring comics to the masses, the Real Mainstream, the 99% who don’t yet read comics, thereby securing the future of the medium and its industry in the U.S. and U.K.

“2. To make as much money as possible whilst doing so.

“The latter is entirely dependent upon the implementation of the former.”

It’s that last sentence that counts. It just. Makes. Sense.

By restricting the diversity of comics available on the shelves for the public to buy, the retailers in this industry are restricting the diversity of potential customers, and thereby their ability to generate income. The most catastrophic effect of which is that the creators of the material which we so desperately need to reach literate adults – those 99% of the population who prefer straight fiction, autobiography, adult fantasy, humour, crime, politics and the downright weird – aren’t making enough money to produce comics regularly. Some have a day job instead. Some may give this medium up for good.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

If more retailers stocked these creators’ comics, the shops would make more money and the creators would make more money, then the creators would be able to produce comics more often, and then everyone would be making more money.

My first draft of this answer was full of exasperation, because I’ve been saying this for over ten years. I still don’t comprehend why so few have listened, but what I have begun to understand is that the old guard are not going to change.

Fortunately there’s an answer.

What we need is a new breed of retailer.

People like you, reading this Panel. People who care, like the person who asked the question.

People who can identify good works of fiction, autobiography, adult fantasy etc.. People who enjoy them, can relate to them, and inspire customers by promoting them with eloquence and enthusiasm. People who know how to use a vacuum cleaner and soap.

Almost every one of Page 45’s customers could run a better store than those they used to shop with before discovering us.

So please, give it some thought.

The industry needs you. It seriously does.

Stephen Holland runs Page 45, a comic shop in Nottingham, with Mark Simpson and Tom Rosin. He has his own monthly column in Comics International. Give him some competition. That’ll shut him up.

Stephen recommends other equally progressive retailers. In the UK: Gosh! In London. In the US: Comics Relief in Berkeley; Comix Experience in San Fransisco; Jim Hanley’s Universe in NYC; Comics Revolution in Envanston, IL; Muse Comics in Missoula – err, the middle of nowhere!


Gary Spencer Millidge:

Well duh. If this happens, the industry will disappear up its own arsehole. If this question really needs to be asked, there probably is no hope anyway. But even if the industry dies, the art form will live on. Long Live Comics!

In any case, I have a premonition that I will agree with almost everything Mr. Stephen L. Holland will have to say, so I will simply refer you to his comment where he will verbalise my thoughts much more eloquently than I could on this subject. LISTEN TO HIM GUYS. I’ve had a beer tonight. Can you tell?

Gary Spencer Millidge is the creator of the weird and wonderful Strangehaven comic, of which issue sixteen is coming imminently….yay!


Vince Moore:

I’m not quite sure I agree with this statement. You readers will have to forgive me if I ramble a bit in search of an answer to this one.

Having worked in a comic shop for nearly nine years, I do have some experience with the ordering habits of comics shops. The bottom line in that game is you order what you know you can sell within a certain window of time. For many that window is only one to two weeks. For others, that window may be as long as a month. If most of your customers are buying the top 50 titles, then you have no choice but to order those books. At my old job, we had a customer base that would support some books beyond the offerings of Marvel and DC, Dark Horse and Image. But not too many. As many indy books just couldn’t attract enough readers to justify carrying the books for too long.

In the end, it’s all about business. Yes, we all support the idea of creative freedom. I know I do. But if you make a book that looks like crap, then what right does that book have to be carried by comics shops in enough numbers to make it a success? None what so ever. So how can you expect a comics shop to support books it can’t sell, no matter what its window is? In the end, the patrons of comics shops make the determination of what sells, just as much or even more so than the retailers do. The top 50 is that way because that’s what sells to most customers, not simply because that’s what the retailers order.

But many comics shops are closed clubs anyway, serving the same clientele year in, year out. That’s definitely a formula for stagnation. The rise of manga at the chain bookstores has shown there is interest in comics beyond the superhero. But also that people who want comics want to buy them in a clean, well-lit place, to borrow from Hemingway. Many shops aren’t inviting to Joe and Jane Q. Public. Let alone the teenage girls who are mostly fueling the success of manga.

So it’s all a Catch-22 situation. Many comics shops buy the Diamond top 50 because that’s all they can and do sell. Those same shops can’t attract any new people who would support other kinds of comics, so they don’t go to those shops. And wheels keep turning round and round. And while interest in comics in general is rising, the sales of most comics are falling, and some but not all comics shops are struggling.

What’s the solution?

I know Free Comic Book Day is one attempt to draw everyday people into comics shops. That’s fine. But if the comics industry was really serious about it, that day wouldn’t happen only once a year. Let alone being linked to the release of a comics inspired film. I think if we the comics industry want to raise public consciousness about our trade, then we should do more things to increase that awareness.

TokyoPop’s recent TV ad campaign is one thing. But I think that a FCBD that occurred three to five times a year would do it. I mean, look, most comics are published monthly, right? That means that people have to keep coming back to the local comics shop at least once a month for that next hit. So how can we get the general public to pick up the habit of buying comics if we only have FCBD once a year?

Something to definitely think about and discuss further.

There may not be an easy solution to this problem. But without the willingness to look at all possible angles of this situation (fannish-oriented comics shops, low quality indy books, etc.), we won’t be able to arrive a solutions that cover as many bases as possible.

Vince Moore is the writer of Platinum Publishing’s upcoming book, Kid Victory & The Funky Hammer.


Alonzo Washington:

I feel the retailer’s pain. They want to know what is hot & basically what will sell. So Diamond provides a list. However, new comic book companies & small publishers suffer. The retailers may never order comic books from these companies. Therefore, closing their market off to just the same type of comic book nerds that comes to their store on a regular basis. This type of policy would have prevented Image, Spawn & others from being the power houses they are today.

My comic book company (Omega7 Inc.) reaches a crowd of people that probably would never be caught in a comic book store. Although, they will go anywhere to get my comic books. Comic Book retailers are missing out on the independent comic book fan’s money. So I believe this list helps the big wigs in the comic book industry, but will hurt the overall growth of the comic book industry. All comic book publishers should have access to the comic book shops. However, they don’t. Comic Books should come from a number of perspectives.

DC & Marvel love the policy because their decades old comic books are always on the list and it takes attention away from any new comic book companies. The big two don’t want competition. I think Diamond sucks! They want small companies to sell as many copies as mainstream companies. That’s dumb as hell and is impossible if they only promote mainstream titles. If Diamond was smart they would promote all comics because when the mainstream companies are not hot they would have something else to pitch. That’s how Image, Black Independent publishers, Dark Horse & others held it down when the classic characters were not doing the job. However, we will see history repeat itself. DIAMOND SUCKS ASS!

Alonzo Washington is the creator of Omega Man and a noted black rights campaigner.


Scott Allie:

The question immediately craps on retailers for making conservative business choices in a dangerous and some would say dying direct market. It’s not shortsightedness if it’s the only way they can keep their doors open. If the retailers are shortsighted, so are the readers, the publishers, and, yes, even the creators.

I however don’t know any retailers who only order from the Top 50. Those who do only choose from 50 titles, have narrowed down the limitless and depressing selection in Diamond Previews to a list that’s still more than I bought at the peak of my reading, a list that still probably dips beneath 35,000.

Business As Usual in all its ugly forms is what will team up like the Fatalistic Fifteen to destroy comics. What will save it is publishers, editors, creators, retailers, marketers, and websites all expecting the best of themselves and those they control to present the best material and push it on the most people. I don’t think there’s near enough of that going on.

Scott Allie edits and writes for Dark Horse – a trade of The Devil’s Footprints is just out, and is not only a superb collection but is an excellent story too.


Rob Williams:

Retailers will say they’re just giving the punters what they want. Fair enough – they have to make a profit by going with what sells, and that means ordering boxes of the latest X-revamp instead of pushing fantastic books like Queen & Country or The Walking Dead. Comics aren’t alone in this. You go into a major chain record store and they’ll have 50 copies of Britney or Christina’s new albums and you’ll have to search really hard to find the one copy of a CD by a well-received new band on an indie label. But if you want real musical quality do you go for what’s riding high in the charts?

Occasionally, but not often.

From a personal point of view, this attitude is very frustrating. Cla$$war 4 came out recently and, as with 1-3, we heard from a lot of people that their comic shop had sold out. This initially sounds great, but then you find out that the shop didn’t order that many copies to begin with. My LCS had 15 copies. They order something like 70 copies of Ultimate Spider-Man. Retailers don’t want to take a chance and order that many copies of an indie book in case they can’t shift a lot of them, and you can’t really blame the store owner – this is their livelihood.

There’s a natural selection about this. If punters REALLY want more copies of these indie books to be available they should go into their shops and pre-order them. Vote with your wallets. I don’t think it’s always fair to just blame the retailers. Could retailers show more faith in quality indie books by ordering more copies and promoting them to customers? Sure. Diversity of subject matter is vital for an industry that needs to bring in new readership if it’s to have a long-term future, and that diversity isn’t going to come from another 90s-nostalgic X-title.

Rob Williams is the writer of Cla$$war for Com.X, Family for JD Megazine, a bunch of stuff for 2000AD, including the currently running Low Life, and Star Wars Tales for Dark Horse.


Jesse Leon McCann:

Retailers only order what they think they can sell. It’s not their jobs to take chances on unknown properties, or grow a title’s popularity for a publisher. Fans can help non-top 50 titles by reminding retailers that they’d buy them if they were in stock. Better yet, if a retailer offers a pull service, advance order through Previews. If a shopkeeper sees certain titles repeatedly ordered by pull customers, chances are they’ll order a few for the shelves.

Jesse Leon McCann is a New York Times Best-selling Author. He’s currently editing the fourth Simpsons TV Episode Guide for Bongo Comics/Harper Perennial, and writing stories for DC Comics’ Looney Tunes and Cartoon Cartoons.


Vito Delsante:

I don’t know that there are many retailers that order just the top 50, but that may be ignorance on my part. I think that if a store does it, you can’t blame them. I think that many retailers have had to deal with hit or miss titles or titles that they ordered in good faith (Kevin Smith’s Black Cat anyone?) and got bupkiss for their faith.

There are plenty of reasons for a retailer to not go crazy and go with what he/she knows. I think Brian Hibbs must have felt the same way when he sued Marvel, but only Brian can say. Taking chances is a hit or miss prospect, isn’t it? You can’t blame a store owner for being wary…but will it kill the industry? I can only say maybe with a strong lean toward definitely.

Vito Delsante is currently pitching his creator owned mini-series, “The Mercury Chronicles”, with artist Jim Muniz. He can be seen in June’s “Batman Adventures Vol 2: Shadows and Masks” from DC Comics and in a forthcoming issue of X-Men Unlimited.


Brandon Thomas:

Oh man, you want us here all day, don’t you?

I doubt you’d find many people that support the homogenizing of the industry’s output, which is the most immediate byproduct of Top 50 tunnel vision. It makes chart placement that more relevant, because if you can’t launch a smash hit right out the gate, then the title might not even reach double digits. Besides, we all know what genre makes up the vast majority of that Top 50, now don’t we? And while this is very similar to other forms of entertainment where the most “commercial” is sometimes the most hollow and unmemorable, comics are significantly smaller than say, the movie industry, and creatively, can probably not afford to be stacked top to bottom with “blockbusters.”

But yeah, a lack of diversity is something that needs to be immediately addressed, and I guess I’ve probably been spoiled by good retailers, because I’ve never encountered a comics shop that only ordered books from the top half of the sales chart, but I’ve heard these strange places do exist…

Brandon Thomas is one of the writers of Spider-Man Unlimited #3, scripter of Youngblood, creator of Cross and long-time Ambidextrous columnist.


j.hues:

This could definitely be argued. I would add that the short-sightedness of retailers not even knowing what lies beyond the Diamond Top 50/100 spells more doom. The bottom line is that retailers need to take a risk to grow their business. Diversification is that risk. Hanging onto one genre is the safe route as it guarantees a certain amount of sales each week, but the future that way doesn’t look really promising. It’s hard to make it as a speciality niche shop in the first place but being a speciality within the speciality (IE comics is a speciality and superhero comics is a speciality within the speciality) would logically be more challenging.

It’s a hard thing to do, though. Pushing these stores with marginal profit lines that are struggling to get by to take a risk on diversification is a risky venture. For all of those that would find they could grow their business, just as many would probably go under entirely. Could that be blamed on poor management? Are comics retailers as a whole savvy business people? This could be a whole other discussion. Can an industry survive when it exists solely in speciality shops? Sure it can, if the general public knows it is there.

Most of the retailers in my area order predominantly from the Top 50 or Top 100 at best of the Diamond sales chart. I would assume most stores do, after all that’s why those are the Top 50 books. It’s the guaranteed sale they need to make it. The problem, as they explain it, is when they order what falls below that marker, no one buys it. So can they be blamed for not ordering books that no one in their stores want to buy? Does this mean they have the wrong clientele? They need to find a way to reach out to other types of customers (of course their windows are plastered with superhero posters so who do you think they’re enticing). It’s a cycle of destruction. The problem is what’s in the Top 50 and then the problem is that retailers are short-sighted looking at the quick fix and the here and now and the problem is the people who go into the comics shop are narrow-minded. Certainly they don’t represent the types of people who are on the Internet because the most talked about and hyped books on the Internet sell for crap. The latest ICv2 estimates put True Story Swear To God selling below 1,000 copies while Superman sells over 200,000. So clearly, the people who need to be reading columns such as this one aren’t doing so, and no one is doing enough to diversify the industry. Is that even on topic anymore?

j.hues is the Public Relations & Marketing Manager for FUTURE ENTERTAINMENT. Creator of the daily webstrip “Rolling With The Punches Volume 2”, he has at various times in the past been a columnist, news editor, and manager of Missouri’s largest comics shop. His current shop is available online at his link.


Bob Layton:

It’s killing me and most Indy publishers. No one can blame the retailers, most of which are hanging on by their fingertips. However, that practice almost insures that the same “cookie cutter” products are going to be jammed down their throats on a monthly basis. Look–as a former executive of a shareholder-run company, the bottom line is “units sold”–regardless of what those units represent. Fifteen monthly X-Men books guarantee a certain amount of units to the company’s bottom line. So, it becomes a vicious cycle that eventually will eliminate product diversity.

Bob Layton was writer/artist of the first comics mini-series, re-imagined Iron Man, and co-architect and editor-in-chief of the Valiant Universe. Now he’s masterminding the mass market launch of Future Entertainment, as well as their developmental movie projects.


Donna Barr:

They keep saying that. I keep waiting for that to happen. Somebody let me know if that ever happens. In the meantime, I refuse to be part of the 700th panic or discussion of this subject. Been there, done that.

Donna Barr has books and original art at www.stinz.com, webcomics at www.moderntales.com, www.girlamatic.com, and has POD at www.booksurge.com Nothing she won’t try, at least once.

 

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