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

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.

North Wind #1

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.)

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:

MySpace logo

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.

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, as Jon Newman did.


19 Responses to “Free Samples: Boom!, North Wind, and Online Comic Releases”

  1. James Schee Says:

    Is it weird that I didn’t realize Boom! had moved on to be anything other than the home of Keith Giffen’s “Fun Justice League” like series? (whatever happened to those anyway?)

    It does seem weird that they’d offer it for free on the same day.

    Myspace does open up comics to an entirely new audience it seems though. I know I was surprised to see something about 2 million people voting for some comic thing on it the other day.

    I signed up last year to mainly keep in touch with some coworkers/friends (some of who went out of state) after our work got downsized. Yet it has been interesting to see how the comic companies use it.

    Some are creative and using it to really promote their work. Others are just as archaic as in any other thing online. DC being the biggest one at fault there, as they seemed to just slap up links to their “real” sites and left it.(even ignoring inappropriate posts in their comments)

    Marvel isn’t much better, their only art is for Civil War #1. Yet at least they do a weekly bulletin about what comics of theirs are coming out.

  2. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Jan. 24, 2008: Not so wimpy anymore Says:

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  3. Johanna Says:

    They ended the Hero Squared and Planetary Brigade series. I think there’s only so much you can do with them without already-known characters or a shared universe.

    Thanks for adding more mySpace comics info — I’ve never checked it out much, because I don’t like the random music. It’s like someone took all the “do nots” from usability guidelines and built the user toolbox from them. (Me? Fogey?)

  4. Cliff Biggers Says:

    Isn’t it a violation of your membership agreement in CBIA for you to post, even in summary, the points of view presented in this private forum without getting advance permission from the creators?

  5. Johanna Says:

    Cliff, retailers were talking about this all over the place. My sources for this story include the Newsarama blog pieces, the Boom! press releases, and private conversations with permission given to use them as background.

  6. al schroeder III Says:

    Personally, if I see at least a sample of a story on-line, I’m MORE tempted to get it rather than less. There have been many times sites such as SCANS DAILY prompted me to spend money on a comic I would have otherwise ignored.

    But your mileage might vary.

  7. morganagrom Says:

    1. It’s not like comic shop customers couldn’t come in each month and read the book for free in the store and put it back on the shelf anyway.

    2. It sounds like this promotion was a last minute deal, made months after orders were already placed. How could the publisher have notified retailers of a deal that did not exist?

    3. If same day concurrent release is bad, when would it be acceptable to give away digital copies in hopes that people will want to buy print versions later without having to tell retailers in advance? A week, a month?

    4. How do you tell if the promotion works or not anyway? Are retailers selling out of all their other Boom books? This book apparently sold out, where the publisher has other books in stock, so either the publisher printed this one extra tight or someone ordered those extra copies.

  8. James Schee Says:

    Johanna yes you (and I too!) are old when it comes to the internet these days it seems. We can remember when anything that caused delays getting the information to load was a bother.

    My niece has a page though, and she actually asked me what that noise was when I had to use my modem for something when my high speed was down. She has slide shows, flash movies and other things that she made on her page. (and she’s only 15!)

    The ease of use for creating there, plus the huge youth audience, is sort of what makes me a little annoyed that companies like DC and Marvel signed up but do little or nothing with it as it’d be so easy to keep up to date these days. (slide shows of the weekly comics, news letter bulletins and the like)

    Oh well…

  9. Johanna Says:

    Al, oh, I definitely believe in free samples. I think whether it converts to a sale depends on how interested the reader was in the first place and how good the work appears to be to them. Just putting up a free sample, you’re going to get plenty of looky-loos who don’t spend money — but many of them weren’t going to buy anyway, so what’s the harm?

    Morgan, some retailers are going to answer your #3 with “never”. Others are going to request that what you give away online isn’t as complete as as what you sell. Some may suggest giving away #1 a month or more after the print release in order to sell more #2. The answers will vary, and I doubt consensus will happen.

    James, good points. It may take getting “younger” people (if only in temperament) making decisions for some of these things to become accepted.

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