Free Comic Book Day Free For Whom?
Free Comic Book Day is scheduled for May 5 this year, its sixth. At this point, it’s a fairly well-established promotion for direct market comic book shops, designed to entice new customers into stores where they can be reminded comics still exist and see the variety of stories now available.
In order to benefit them all, publishers create free comics (which may be new material or reprints) and offer them at reduced prices to retailers, with Diamond Distribution also pitching in their services. This year, however, some retailers are questioning how the burden of costs are being split. (All quotes below are reprinted with permission.)
Robert Scott, owner of San Diego’s Comickaze, made his concerns public on the invitation-only Comic Book Industry Alliance forum (with a majority membership of retailers). He pitched this post to educate participating publishers:
A handful of you got zero orders from me. Those that did had books with prices at $0.35+. Actually this really goes out to any publisher over $0.20 too. These were, for the most part, ordered but capped at no more than 100 copies.
Sorry, I just can’t afford to buy these books to give away. Unfortunately, most of you are marginal sellers for us and need all the eyeballs you can get but as much as I’d like to help, I can’t afford to. In fact, I feel so strongly about this that I have to pass entirely on your books, rather than placing a token order, so that you will take my position seriously.
I made particular note of his concerns because my retailer had recently said something similar to me. For the first time, he wasn’t planning on ordering all of the titles this year because he was concerned about cost vs. demand. Some of the most popular, familiar titles, like those from DC and Marvel, may have additional uses after FCBD is over, but for many of the other books, his goal is to have enough for the day but none left afterwards.
Chris Powell, general manager of the Lone Star Comics chain, agreed, but he was confident that the problem would fix itself:
If you’re a publisher trying to promote a line, you must recognize that it’s gonna cost you some money. I budget for FCBD and organize it to promote my stores, not particular books. That means the publishers have to earn rack space and $$ in my budget by putting out an affordable product AND putting out salable product the rest of the year. Many of them fall short on one or both of those, so they don’t get the orders.
I think that so long as the number of gold (required) books doesn’t get out of hand, the number of books offered at the silver level isn’t an issue. This is a promotion to show the breadth of what comics have to offer, and different stores want to promote to different demographics. Those 2 goals demand a certain level of selection, in my opinion. I think that publishers that see there wasn’t demand for their books will drop off, anyways, so it’s somewhat self-correcting.
Chapel Hill Comics‘ Andrew Neal was even more blunt:
I ordered 26 of the 44 books available for order. Price was certainly a consideration, but I ordered some books which were more expensive than a quarter because I think they’ll bring me sales, credibility in the community as an indy comic shop, or just satisfy the readers. For example, I ordered Peanuts, Comics Festival, and the Lynda Barry thing (though it was pricy enough I didn’t order many) for these reasons.
I’ve always carried all the free stuff, but I’m done with that. If it doesn’t promote something I can sell, it’s probably gone. If it’s the first issue of a new series from a new publisher, it’s probably gone.
Having said that, if I think a comic will be really entertaining and make people happy even if I can’t sell them something directly based on it later, I may order some. I don’t think there was anything that fell into that category this year, though.
It doesn’t help when TwoMorrows sends out messages to their customers that say
WE NEED YOUR HELP! Each retailer pays a small fee per copy, and we need retailers to order as many as possible to cover our expenses. So help us, and help yourself, by asking your local comics retailer to order your FREE copy of COMICS 101 for you.
The phrasing “to cover our expenses” makes it sound like they’re expecting not to lose any money, which is the wrong attitude for promotional costs. Fantagraphics’ Unseen Peanuts was also of particular concern, with its 31 cent per copy price and the general love/hate attitude between that publisher and many retailers. Other problematic titles are webcomic samplers (which have no product retailers can cross-sell) and publishers whose FCBD book is one of only one or two comics they put out in a year.
Personally, I’m all for comic diversity, but I think 34 silver-level titles are too many. It’s hard to be familiar enough with them all before the day to be comfortable in knowing the appropriate audience for them, and it becomes a physical problem of stocking and managing the handouts. If a book is from a little-known publisher, especially a publisher who doesn’t put much else out during the year, and it’s high-priced per issue, then what’s the point in giving away issues? Better to put the money into more copies of a more recognizable book that’s easier to convert into future sales.
Might help if I put in some price information, hmm? The Gold books are 12-24 cents a copy. DC’s new Legion comic reprint is cheapest at 12 cents, with Image and Archie’s books following at 16 cents each. Marvel’s is 20 cents. The others climb gradually to Dynamite’s 24 cent comic.
Now, as for Silver books, we’ll start at the top: Both Antarctic and Boom! want 50 cents a copy for their Pirates vs. Ninjas and Hunter’s Moon/Salvador flipbook, respectively. Arcana and Keenspot are asking 48 and 49 cents for their samplers. The next tier of books are 35 cents or more: CastleRain Entertainment, Drawn and Quarterly, Top Shelf, Viper, Ape Entertainment, Aspen, and Comic Genesis (another webcomic collective).
There’s a whole bunch of titles at a quarter — Digital Webbing, Heroic Publishing, Impact Books, Maerkle Press, and TwoMorrows — or more — Blatant Comics, Legion of Evil Press, Oni, Sky-Dog Press, Renaissance Press, and the Fantagraphics discussed previously. Nexus and Wizard are 22 and 23 cents, and the rest are 20 cents or less.