Problems With Selling Comics Direct to Customers

With all the discussion recently about the need for changing sales models now that the only new comic distributor is changing policies, I did some thinking about reasons customers (whether readers or retailers) may not want to buy direct from publishers. I bring these up so publishers can be aware of them and work on addressing or overcoming the resistance.

1. With only one outlet, there’s no ability to shop around and perhaps find a better price. I like being able to choose to buy a comic from the place that gives me a loyal customer discount, or maybe I want to reward a place that gives me excellent service.

2. Similarly, you can’t use gift cards or store credit.

3. That leads me to feeling that since print-on-demand books have no economies of scale, prices can be higher than I expect or am comfortable with.

4. Plus, there’s the extra cost of paying for shipping, whether separately or included in higher prices. For a single comic, that can nearly double the price.

5. There’s a huge question of trust. Are you sure you’re going to get the merchandise you wanted in the published condition when you order from someone you’ve never done business with before? Who’s going to cover the loss when a package gets lost in shipping or bent in half by an uncaring delivery service?

6. There’s no chance to browse. Even if we’re talking about webcomic collections, you can’t see the paper quality, whether the binding will hold up, etc. (I wound up returning my first-ever webcomic purchase, $50 worth of books, because they were so sloppily trimmed that the pages were noticeably crooked, and I couldn’t see paying that much for inferior merchandise.) Where the material isn’t available ahead of time, it’s even more of a crapshoot as to whether the work will be worth the $20 or $40.

7. It puts a lot of work on the customer. With multiple orders from individual sources, there’s too much tracking involved to make sure you got what you ordered and were charged appropriately.

8. Most importantly, how do you find out who’s offering something new? Are you supposed to keep visiting various sites to see when something comes out? That’s a time charge to the customer.


30 Responses to “Problems With Selling Comics Direct to Customers”

  1. Ed Sizemore Says:

    The major concerns for me would be: 1) Getting new product information. I suspect the answer to that would be to sign up for the company’s electronic newsletter. I would expect at least a monthly newsletter to give me details of upcoming products. I would prefer a weekly newsletter with links to preview pages. Thankfully, Anime Insider does a great job of listing all upcoming anime and manga for the next month, so that is a third party I can currently fall back on. This makes me think there is an oppurtunity for the comic press to step up and once again be a viable part of the comic market. Magazines, either in print or online, can provide a one stop place for new product information from multiple publishers.

    2) Shipping costs. Really not much can be done here, except to offer free shipping on orders above a certain dollar threshold. I actually find Media Mail with deliver confirmation to be pretty cheap and quick. That may be one way to keep cost down.

    3) Product costs. Don’t really have any suggestions here.

    I definitely wouldn’t be buying pamphlets via direct mail from a company, I would wait for the trade.

    I’m not as worried about trim and binding quality because most of the companies I currently purchase from have a proven track record in both.

    Also, store credit and gift cards aren’t a big deal for me. It would be nice to have companies offer a loyal customer discount, but I could live without one if the product is good enough.

  2. Johanna Says:

    That’s some creative problem-solving! I like your suggestions about better newsletters and such.

  3. David Wynne Says:

    I think direct selling is workable (up to a point) for tried and tested creators, like Carla McNeil for example; and for companies with a specific niche (like say, Avatar); but it’s not going to be much good for up-and-comers, for precisely the reasons you’ve listed here.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see an online comics retailer/distributer type thing – I’m imagining something sort of like a bzarro version of Amazon specialising in independant comics – pop up in the near future.

  4. Rivkah Says:

    The shipping costs still aren’t so much a problem if you’re the publisher shipping direct to the consumer. A $15 book usually sells to a distributor anywhere from 40%-60% discount, but if you sell at retail to the consumer with free shipping, it’d take over $6 dollars in shipping costs to start cutting into your usual profits. More than likely, for a book weight under two pounds, you’re paying ’round about a dollar fifty for media rate (If I remember my shipping tables correctly. It’s been a few years.).

    And when you ship to a distributor, more than likely you’re paying for shipping costs then anyway, though it’s on bulk instead of individual items.

    Still, I agree with everything else you said. There’s so much to be said for being able to go into a store and hold the physical book and flip through it before buying it. There’ve been a few books I’ve been tempted to buy online (mostly Oni and First Second titles), but those have been books of exceptional quality, plus I know already the physical quality of their books. Plus, I would FAR rather get my 10% discount at Austin Books & Comics and help support a local business in the process. Customer loyalty is the core of the comics retail industry!

    Unfortunately, I agree with most everybody that this spells the end of floppy comics as we know it. I’d expect to see a boost in graphic novels which can sell for a higher price point and IMHO are an easier sale.

    And yes . . . POD still pretty much sucks. But I think it’ll get there eventually. Canon is coming out with some pretty darned nifty relatively inexpensive digital presses (plus cutting, binding, etc). The problem with most POD presses is they tend to print their books on the same paper you would use for a color copy: extremely bright and smooth. It’s a poor kind of paper for reading and even though it’s more expensive, it looks cheap, especially since it doesn’t bend softly like a good book should. Hence higher cost for what seems a lower quality product. And the POD people don’t catch on because book printing is typically the lesser of their print on demand jobs.

  5. Rivkah Says:

    Binding is still a huge problem with POD as well: most of the machines I’ve seen use thermal binding with cheap glue strips, which explains that cracking sound you often get opening one. It’s probably the number one sign a book was printed, cut, and bound on a digital press.

  6. Jamie Coville Says:

    One idea I’ve yet to see tried but might work is a online distributor that doesn’t distribute comics, but money.

    They set themselves up as a one stop shopping cart with extensive previews, news, interviews, etc.. (like CBR). People can select the comics they want and make one paypal payment for them all. Shipping costs would have to be figured out in advanced for the publisher to the creator based on location and size/weight of the products for sale. It would be very convenient for the customer and publishers could potentially sell more through similar product associations and simply having more eyeballs looking then your own dedicated fans at your own website.

    The site takes a small cut, then delivers the rest of the money to the various creators with the customers order. The creator then ships the book to the customer.

  7. Johanna Says:

    Oh, Jamie, there seems to be a lot of ways that can go wrong, mostly with people not doing what they say they will.

    And there’s been a number of online ventures that want to be “Amazon for comics” … in this case, if they’re willing to do all the work of individually contacting publishers, they could really add value to the customer.

    Rivkah: Great info on POD, thanks — but media mail is now $2.23 for the first pound and going up again in the summer.

  8. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Jan. 21, 2009: A Utopian view of human nature Says:

    […] Johanna Draper Carlson lists several reasons why customers may be resistant to buying comics directly from publishers… just in case you imagined that there might be some kind of escape hatch, or something. […]

  9. John Steventon Says:

    Johanna,

    As a small self publisher, the points you mention here are things I think about every day, and of course, someone like me is limited in what I can do.

    Prices for printing keep going up, including those for print on demand. I struggle constantly with how I can lower prices, but the best I can do is eliminate my profit (joy), and try to either buy in bulk from a POD printer, or buy in bulk from a real printer. The latter is the best price, but leaves me with a considerable amount of inventory.

    As for competition and browsing and coupons, etc, it would be great to have an online distributor (or two)who can present a choice in comics to save on shipping costs, etc. This would be great for a small press like myself, but that would require a considerable startup cost if the company actually paid for the comics, or considerable trust if we were to send them comics for free and ask for a commision on what sold. Too many times have I been burnt on the latter.

    Also, shipping charges add to our burden. The solution to that would be print on demand in house, but I haven’t seen that kind of system work on a scale large enough.

    As for trust, you often come across as very cynical, but I suppose you must, as a public service. For me, it’s abysmal to think that someone would sell books of poor quality, or not come through on promises. As a businessman, my reputation is on the line, so customers get the best quality I can deliver, and I ship right away, etc. I must concede, however, that other publishers may not be as professional, or may not be as experienced. There is a huge learning curve in this business, but that is a poor excuse for mistreating a customer.

    Lastly, you speak of a time cost for visiting several different sites. You must be very impatient, or else cover a great deal of sites. For me, I enjoy visiting sites of creators I like. If there aren’t any changes, I go on to the next site. Kind of like browsing a bookstore to see what’s new.

    One problem is we are looking at an industry that coves the gamut. For the individual creator not linked to a larger group of creators, our website is our link to you. Of course, a newsletter is best, to supply updates, so everyone should have one. Also, I suppose some leeway must be given to the individual.

    We’re trying our best to get our material out there, without the benefits and cost savings of a large publisher. You may pay a little more in time and shipping, but in a way you’re supporting the arts, and encouraging individual thought and creation. Each sale to a small business means a world of encouragement and inspiration.

    I am still considering distributing my next comic through Diamond, although it loks like it will be an upward struggle. Hopefully something good and useful will come out of all the current discussion.

    I sit here everyday trying to see what I can do alone, but it will take the entire industry, and some industrious business people, to pull a fluffy bunny out of this hat.

    JOHN :0)

  10. David Bird Says:

    Working in a bookstore in a city with a major vanity press, I get to see a lot of hopeful authors with self-published works. I am very thankful that I am not the one who has to say yes or no. Some are very good, and I appreciate being able to sell their works. Most are not. They suffer from a lack of editorial supervision, inexperience of the part of the author, and self-publishing companies who have no interest in developing their authors.

  11. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Another thought is how relevant shows like SPX are going to be. These shows look like the best way for publishers to let buyers browse the comic, see the quality of the book binding, promote upcoming material, get people on their mailing list, and make people aware of your website. Just a reminder for publishers, please have plenty of business cards on hand with your website address. Better yet, have a small catalog prepped. When I got back from SPX I had at least three or four business cards from people whose comic I couldn’t remember from just seeing a name and web address. If I had an image of the cover, I know it would have helped motivate me to check out the website. For buyers this is the best way to see several publishers in one location.

  12. John Steventon Says:

    David,

    there’s a difference between Vanity Press and Small Press, but you are right, we all need editors. Some of us don’t have that option, so appreciate it very much when people take the time to write and tell us what they think of our work. This is another time cost, as Johanna says, but helps everyone in the long run. There’s nothing worse than someone looking at your website for 30 wseconds, and judging you.

    Ed,
    That goes back to the Professionalism that I had mentioned. Everyone in this biz needs to act professional, and wear the hat of a businessman. I have a slew of business cards and other promotional material, but unfortunately I cannot attend conventions.

    Apparently, conventions are the best resource for a small press comics company, and may play a bigger role in the future.

    JOHN :0)

  13. Gary Reed Says:

    One of the big stumbling blocks in the past on selling directly to consumers and trying to deal with the shipping costs is that you can’t discount the product directly to the consumer (although you do to stores and distributors) because if you are dealing with the retail trade, you can’t undercut them…it just wouldn’t be fair. You can’t expect a comic shop to try and sell your product at full retail while you’re discounting it.

    Obviously, you can compensate the direct consumer by offering free shipping but that can be taken advantage of (ordering one title at a time, for example) so the preference would be to discount the title.

    If the books don’t go through the distribution channels, well, then that obligation you had is no longer a concern.

    I use priority mail for shipping as it is easily traced, you can include other information (flyers, etc.) which you can not on Media Mail. Although likely not to be subject to inspection, I’ve had some that were and thus, returned. With media mail, although the first book will carry a rather expensive charge, there is none for additional books…depending on whether you’re doing the envelope or box.

    I think a lot of publishers, well, me for one, have not really pursued the direct mail route (although offered) because there is a sense of responsibility towards stores that are carrying the product. Of course, that is certainly subject to change now.

    I have not been contacted by Diamond regarding the minimums but will start exploring options such as developing a newsletter.

    And as most people have stated already, this applies mostly to books, not floppies…that is a whole ‘nother matter mainly because of the cost versus shipping ratio.

  14. Rivkah Says:

    “media mail is now $2.23 for the first pound and going up again in the summer.”

    Holy cow! That went up fast. A standard manga weighs no more than half a pound, but books like “Blankets” weigh almost three! I’m guessing the weight of a book is going to become much more important as well. And it’s difficult to find lighter, high-quality paper if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Not many printers offer the option of newsprint like they use for manga in Japan. That’s something I’ve been searching for myself (from some place in at least a decent distance) for some time now.

  15. James Schee Says:

    Just a quick question. Why does everyone say there needs to be an Amazon for comics site. Isn’t Amazon already that for comics?

    Anyway,I’ve ordered directly from creators twice, Paul Grist and the Love & Capes guy. They were nice experiences but I already knew I would enjoy the books.

    I would be hard pressed to do that with unknown work, and I wouldn’t want to do it too often.

    It looks like its going to be really hard for new works to be successful. It’ll take a lot of promoting through various avenues. Plus creators will really have to get out to a lot of shows.

    I hope none will be relying on the comics as a means to support themselves while they do this though.

  16. Kenny Says:

    I’ll be honest: I’m only browsing the comments here so excuse me if I’m missing something huge. Why do we need an “Amazon for comics?” Why can’t we just use Amazon instead? With Amazon, I can use my Amazon gift cards, I can return anything I’m not comfortable with, and I can get absolutely everything I want at an amazingly great price.

    I guess I don’t understand what need going to a retail store or selling direct to customers is filling that Amazon isn’t.

  17. Jason Thibault Says:

    I guess this is going to force everyone to up their game.

    Smaller publishers will have to start adopting tactics used by smaller music labels. And I’m not referring to webcomics in place of mp3’s.

    Small press companies may start to develop “book of the month” systems or annual subscriptions. For a set cost you’d receive the entire annual output of a label.

    I know Fantagraphics already has their 20 / 20 program but there’s room for more elaborate schemes. I’ve seen small punk and metal labels offer different levels of fan club memberships. For $200 / year you get every CD, t-shirt, poster etc… Burlesque of North America (a screen-printing collective that has a rapid fanbase) offers up a yearly sub for $1200. They mail out a package every 6 months with every poster, print, t-shirt and variant that they produce.

    A company like Avatar Press could capitalize on this. $500 / year gets you every variant cover, trade, t-shirt, print, coffee mug or whatever gets released that year. To save on shipping a package could be mailed 4 times a year. Only their “1000 true fans” (made up number) would engage a publisher on this level, but it sure as hell would contribute to the bottom line.

    I think you’ll see a lot of business owners trying out innovative ways to sell comics. Some will fail but the ones who test and learn quickly will likely survive and prosper.

  18. Rivkah Says:

    “Just a quick question. Why does everyone say there needs to be an Amazon for comics site. Isn’t Amazon already that for comics?”

    I was thinking the same thing. Anybody know the profit margins selling through Amazon? I know that in some cases, they even reimburse an amount on shipping, and they have the option to have your books stocked in their warehouse or to ship it yourself. But again, it’s been several years since I last dealt with them.

  19. Rivkah Says:

    Perhaps a better solution would be for us to get together and petition Amazon.com to include a comics category. Comics and graphic novels are currently listed under “books” but honestly, I’ve always seen it as a completely different type of media altogether. And there’s certainly enough of it now to warrant the distinction!

  20. Simon Jones Says:

    A slightly tangent bit of info regarding shipping…

    Starting this month, the United States Postal Service will begin offering a *small* flat rate box at the $4.95 rate. It’s perfectly sized for smaller trade paperbacks, and should have enough depth to fit two or three thin ones.

    All of the flat rate cardboard envelopes and boxes that USPS offers can be ordered and delivered to your business at no charge.

  21. Jason Thibault Says:

    Amazon pays you 45% of cover price which is better than most comic distributors but they’re ordering much lower quantities (in the beginning).

    Amazon does offer a complete fulfillment service but you get slaughtered in warehouse, picking and packing and service fees. You’d have to be moving a lot of product.

  22. Kenny Says:

    I just wanted to add something about Amazon’s return policy. Amazon will reimburse your shipping on a return if the book has paper stock that you weren’t expecting or the contents were different than what you were expecting just to name two examples. Basically, if what you receive is in any way different from what you were expecting from the solicitation, they refund the original shipping and the shipping cost from the return.

    The cost of the complete fulfillment is a shame. It sounds like a barrier to being a solution to the Diamond problem.

  23. Rivkah Says:

    Hmm. I think I can see the flaw with Amazon that you both pointed out now. They are still essentially a distribution company, ordering and keeping on hand your books before shipping them to the customer–which explains the rather high discount for not being a brick-and-mortar store. The only people who can ship direct to the customer are those selling through Amazon Marketplace for already-listed products. As far as I can see, there’s no way to be BOTH the publisher and a reseller without getting around the 55% discount and order fulfillment service. Unless you set yourself up as a reseller and undercut Amazon’s sales, which isn’t something that’s entirely ethical, plus your books would be listed as a resale item and therefore not registered with Bookscan nor in the Amazon.com ranking system.

    I think I read that all correctly, at least.

    Amazon Marketplace: http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=1161232
    Amazon Advantage: http://advantage.amazon.com/gp/vendor/public/join-advantage-books

  24. Johanna Says:

    John, you’re right, I am sometimes a bit too distrustful. I know there are plenty of professionals like you out there, but there’s also the well-meaning young man who gets in over his head and just stops dealing with it, letting orders drop and emails go unanswered. Or the woman with an unexpected family crisis who can’t get back to the business for a month.

    I think you’re right about conventions becoming more important, just at a time when some are shutting down. And it’s an expensive way to shop unless you also consider it a vacation.

    Gary, excellent points about the problem of competing with retailers. Some get possessive of their customers and not order titles when they feel slighted. Others legitimately are concerned about price disparities.

    Kenny, Amazon doesn’t carry everything. Lightspeed Press (Finder), for example, no longer offers books through them, nor do many webcomic creators who use POD. Maybe more will start, since they need to seek more alternative markets.

    Jason, sounds like something Donna Barr does, an “everything box”. A reasonable price gets you everything she’s got in print.

  25. James Schee Says:

    Johanna, I don’t think there anything wrong in being cautious about wondering about quality or even if there will be a project.

    I look around the industry and even the companies who have been around forever, like DC and Marvel. Are having problems getting products out on time, if ever, and the quality can be found wanting. So wondering if “Jane” Delaware, might be able to deliver is reasonable.

    Can I be a little Pollyanish on this though?

    Perhaps in the long run this will mean a whole lot less of the dreck. There won’t be as many people just going “heck that looks easy, I’ll make a comic too!”

    It’ll take people who are both really dedicated and talented to make things work despite the obstacles. So feelings like your common shared mistrust may dissapate as time goes on, and the ones left are the ones who really belong to be doing what they are.

    (of course I’m hopped up on antibiotics and such from a BAD flu bug strain, so what do I know)

  26. John Steventon Says:

    Whoa, James! Does anyone really think this is easy?!

    Okay, maybe I’ll concede the point… I do know people who think my job is not a real job, or Wowee, that must be fun, and I’ve even met people who think Cartooning is an easy path to fame and fortune. Fortunately, I think the latter get weeded out real soon.

    Honestly, the hard work and dedication get to the best of us, and self publishing just adds to the headaches.

    Johanna, you do make a good point about people’s reasons for not meeting expectations, and no, I’m not criticising the desire for quality product. Honestly, the customer should get what they pay for, and has the right to expect a reasonable amount of quality. I have tried several print on demands, print shops, and small presses, and so far have had little to complain about as far as quality of paper or printing so it hasn’t been an issue to me.

    The fact that a small or independent publisher is usually working alone just makes it more difficult to guarantee on time delivery or delivery at all. Unfortunately, not enough people know me to make that an issue, but there have been times when I’ve been laid up and unable to get to the post, so I understand.

    The entire publishing industry is changing, from newspapers and comic strips to anyone printing on paper. Diamond’s new policies are just adding to an ever increasingly difficult problem.

    The problem exists on several scales, so the problems of a small press are going to be different from the problems of a bigger publisher. We need to look at the entire industry and see if there are solutions for all of us, or at least some of us.

    There have been rumors that some large bookstore is going to become a vanity press ,or print on demand place. I’m not sure about the details, but perhaps a central location that has many books on file can print them out on demand for the customer? If books are stored in files, perhaps a store like this can afford to carry a wide selection?

    This is just dreaming, but at least shipping would be eliminated, samples would be available to show quality, and many publisher’s products can be offered.

    The biggest problem would be the same problem we’ve always had… getting our names out there. :0)

    Cheers, JOHN :0)

  27. Joao Says:

    Well, I’ve been buying exclusively on-line for a long time. Things like Fantagraphics 20/20 club with free shipping and 20% off or Amazon’s ridiculously high discounts on TPB’s make me wonder why should I take the trouble to go to a comic book store and hope that they do carry whatever I want… And even for other stuff I tend to buy directly from publishers (bodega, adhouse, sparkplug…) without ever having any problem or of other on-line stores like Atomic Books or Mars Imports.

    I tend to have very pleasant experiences in all my transactions, and in the age of Amazon and e-bay it’s hard to imagine why would the average comic reader be any different than the average book reader, or film viewer, or game player or whatever, and fear the e-commerce incertainties that don’t seem to stop any other business to thrive there.

    Having said this, of course that loosing a major part of the sales venue will seriously hurt the more comic book store dependent publishers, as forcing their public to change buying habits might be hard. But it’s been many years now since the alternative / independent comic book is dying, and being replaced by the alternative / independent trade paperback. With more or less impact, this will probably do little more than accelerate that natural trend.

    Or I might be totally wrong as people that know much more than I do about this things seem to be making it a much more important event than that.

  28. David Bird Says:

    John,

    Thanks. I do understand that there is a difference between a small press and a ‘vanity’ press (ie, self-publishing). I guess, in comics, we have a tendency to run all the non-DC/Marvel together under one roof.

    And I am willing to support self-published works. I ordered volume two of Ed Piskor’s Wizzywig just this week. But I do fear that this new policy will prove an insurmountable obstacle for many.

  29. eczema Says:

    my 2 cents… Both are ok, but I would prefer to have the option to shop around. Sometimes, the best part of reading is making my way to the shop, having a smoke on the way there, then anticipating the read on the way home. I also like seeing some of the same people on a regular basis. It just entertains me. Price isn’t always my #1 issue, so even if prices are initially lower or go up, I don’t mind that much… I guess I’m kind of in it for the ritual.

  30. Strip News 1-23-09 — ArtPatient.com Says:

    […] ideas to them,too. But… Say Diamond implodes in the next few years, what hurdles are there in comics going direct from publisher to reader? And what other options are there for distributing your comic? Or finding a way to profit from the […]




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