Free Samples: Boom!, North Wind, and Online Comic Releases

MySpace logo

It’s tough to be a comic publisher these days. Superhero publishers are pumping out more connected comics to suck up more of the regular customer dollar. Art comic customers are switching to graphic novels. Retailers have hundreds of small press publications to choose from, and many don’t want to stock shelf copies without some indication of customer interest, driven by the publisher.

When one publisher tried a new method of building customer interest, through that perennial of marketing, the “free taste”, it achieved its goal, although relationships were damaged and the long-run effects are yet to be seen.

Boom! Studios’ North Wind #1, the first issue of a five-issue miniseries, shipped on January 4 with a cover price of $3.99. It was solicited in October for December release. (It was originally offered in April for June release, but Boom! had a lot of books cancelled and rescheduled when Mark Waid came on board as Editor-in-Chief.) It’s “set in a future Los Angeles after a new ice age has covered the earth [and] chronicles the rise of a new hero in a dystopian world where people burn books for fuel.” (Excerpt from Boom!’s description.)

North Wind #1 cover

The day before the comic was released, Boom! announced that the entire first issue would be available online at MySpace’s comic area. In the press release, Marketing and Sales Director Chip Mosher pointed out that the best-selling graphic novel of 2007 was Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which can be read online for free as well.

Clearly, Boom! expected this promotion to attract new readers, also stating in the original announcement, “To meet demand, NORTH WIND will be overshipped to retailers and BOOM! Studios will also be offering retailers an additional 3% reorder incentive.” However, many retailers hated this decision. Their concerns broke down as follows:

First: Retailers placed orders in October, when they thought they were ordering a standard genre miniseries. They didn’t know until the day before its release that the entire comic would be readable online for free (instead of offering 5 or 8 or 11 pages as a sample). As a result, they felt like the conditions under which they ordered the books had changed and the product they were buying non-returnably was devalued.

Second: Boom! also announced that “Each subsequent issue will be available on MySpace Comic Books and in stores at the same time.” Retailers had already ordered issues #2 and #3, and many of them wouldn’t have in this situation. They didn’t think they could sell something being given away at the same time.

MySpace logo

I admit, I don’t understand why Boom! is giving away all five issues, because I’m not sure how five samples provide more incentive to buy than one or two. When I asked Mosher to elaborate on this, he said:

NORTH WIND is a five issue series, so this promotion will last five whole months. That means five months of people being reminded about NORTH WIND and BOOM! Studios product. That means five months of people being exposed to writer David DiGilio ‘s and artist Alex Cal’s talents. Five months where people who may not have read comics before can read the series and have a satisfying reading experience in being able to read the whole serialized story. Most importantly, five full months of being told that this product is only available in the direct market.

Back to the retailers. They demanded a reponse from Boom! They wanted to be able to return any comics that didn’t sell. Some were treating this punitively, to the extent of holding onto copies other retailers wanted to buy in order to send a message to the publisher.

Boom!’s response wasn’t as expected: They announced that the book was sold out, followed a few days later by announcement of a second printing. Now, the usual caveat applies: without specific figures, there’s no way of knowing whether that means 3,000 or 10,000 copies. But it does mean that their goal was met.

Some retailers asked for evidence that a free online release would help sales. When reminded of immensely successful efforts like Phil Foglio’s Girl Genius, a webcomic that successfully sells collections of material available online, retailers said books didn’t count. They wanted evidence of a previous simultaneous release of serialized comics in print and online. Which didn’t exist, of course, since Boom! was the first to do it. And they wouldn’t have gotten so much attention if they weren’t. As with any promotion, it only works until everyone does it.

(More examples of successful promotions of this type are included in this interview with Chip Mosher. I can think of another simultaneous free release program. Turner Classic Movies often runs old films at the same time that DVD releases of them come out. Which is an excellent way to be reminded that you really would like to own your own copy of the movie.)

Boom! Studios logo

Unfortunately, due to this promotion, some retailers will cut Boom!’s orders in their stores, or even stop carrying the publisher’s product. Boom! doesn’t put out many comics. They don’t have any must-have creators or extremely high-selling books (two factors that allow other publishers to get away with similar retailer-disappointing choices). So for some stores, it’s easy enough to “punish” Boom! without disappointing customers. That may have an unexpected effect, though: if the direct market turns away from Boom! for trying this stunt, Boom! has more incentive to do even more creative marketing direct to consumers. If stores vow not to carry their comics, why not give away the content? The publisher can sell collections or movie options later. It’s not like interested readers would be able to buy the comics, anyway, if retailers boycott. This retailer choice winds up reinforcing the publisher’s actions in the long run.

Retailers say they want publishers to drive new readers into their stores instead of simply trying to make existing customers to switch from one title to another. This promotion potentially exposed the comic to hundreds of thousands of new readers. Whether or not that will drive sales depends on how you answer this key question: is an online comic the same product as a print comic?

Many retailers, based on responses to this promotion, clearly feel that the answer is “yes”, or they wouldn’t have been so vehemently upset. When it comes to the 22-page-or-so standard package, I tend to agree. As the product gets larger and contains more extras, there’s more obvious distinction between the free online story and the print product sold. And it is something of a bait-and-switch to announce such disruptive plans only a day before retailers got the comic to sell.

Some retailers called Boom! “arrogant” for choosing to stop responding to them in one forum and ignoring their calls for returnability. Based on my experience, backing away from an unproductive online discussion is a smart move, especially if you aren’t ever going to agree with what’s being said. Some retailers jumped to calling the lack of response an insult, but they wouldn’t have been satisfied with continuing discussion unless they got what they were demanding, which Boom! wasn’t willing to do.

I do think it’s unfortunate that publishers are treated so harshly when trying to experiment. We keep hearing about changing times and how the old ways aren’t working. Certainly, many aspects of this promotion could have been better handled, but overall, the general result is a chilling effect, a perception that direct market retailers hate trying anything new and will punish those who try.

As for the comic itself, I haven’t bothered to read it, even for free. For another view, Don MacPherson gave it 6 out of 10 but thought that this promotional effort would have been better used on a better title.

On a pure rumor basis, I’ve heard that Marvel recently polled retailers about how they felt about simultaneous releases for their digital comics. Retailers may have felt they needed to take a hard line with a smaller publisher before one they couldn’t influence or threaten to boycott tried something similar.

In future, I hope that publishers considering unusual or potentially disruptive (in terms of changing the usual way of doing business) promotions will be more inclusive of the direct market retailers who are the front line of sales. And I hope that publishers will continue to try creative ideas, and retailers will be willing to consider the potential upside.

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