Comic Retailer LinkBlogging: Learn From Examples

The wide wonderful world of trying to make money in comics these days…

Vertigo Outsells DCU

Brian Hibbs looks at his Vertigo sales (computerized data is cool!) and concludes that “Vertigo books are far more important to my book-format bottom line than DCU books.” He even cites sales figures! Based on those, Vertigo-branded collections make up 48% of his book-format sales from DC; DC universe titles are 37% (of which 11% is Watchmen alone). DC titles also have a much better chance of never selling, and their releases are of less interest to his audience:

I have to purge somewhere between 10-15% of my DCU books each year when they go 12 months without selling (and we’re racking, at this point, maybe 60% of each month’s brand new DCU TPs?) — I’ve purged like five Vertigo titles ever for lack of sales (and I rack 100% of what they release). … More V books have left my shelves by slipping out of print than I have cut from lack of sales, that’s a certainty.

Now, part of that is very likely due to his San Francisco location, but I also think it’s true that Vertigo does a better job of deciding what to collect, considering long-term readability, than the DC universe does.

Retailers in Trouble

Last month came news (well, blog posts) about two stores in trouble. The first is online retailer Khepri Comics, whose “gross ‘summer’ revenue [was] down 43 percent versus 2009″. Heidi and her commenters have additional information.

Online retailing is a tough thing, because of the customer audience. Speaking generally, your buyers are either people who can’t get comics in traditional store fashion — such as those in remote locations or the incarcerated — or those seeking a discount in buying large quantites, and willing to put up with the shipping delay to get it. I suppose there are also those underserved by the local shop — those who are interested in reading more than just superheroes from DC or Marvel — but they’re likely to be more satisfied with graphic novels or webcomics these days. Anyway, if you’re not willing to buy customers with deep discounts (and those buyers won’t be particularly loyal, since they’ll jump for the next better deal), you’ve lost the second group. And those in the first group have their own issues as customers. People say that they want good service, but they’re rarely willing to pay for it. And shipping comics — which are inherently subject to damage, raising costs as you have to replace dinged issues or pay for additional packaging and the people to do it — costs money to do well.

So what’s the TL;DR short version? Mail order comic retailers are an artifact of a different era and may not be able to stick around as customers for the traditional stapled issue age out and die off.

The lesson to learn from the second retailer having problems in that article is also about an old-fashioned approach, in this case one that deserves to go the way of the dinosaurs: pull boxes with no customer payment information on file.

Messinger lays blame on subscription customers who abandoned their accounts without notifying the store, leaving him “to write off more than $30,000 this year in neglected subscription files.” In the Facebook plea, titled “State of Evolution: Save Our Store,” Messinger asks for subscription customers to bring their accounts up to date or at least notify the Comic Evolution that they’re unable to do so.

That’s exactly backwards. A store should not agree to lock up potentially valuable inventory for a customer without current contact information, and the store should refuse to hold books beyond a reasonable time period (a month or so) without payment. A store owner should have cut off customers way earlier than the amount he’s citing. But a lot of retailers don’t want to be the bad guy, and they keep hoping that that money’s coming in. They really don’t want to call and say “you have a week to pay me or the books are going out for sale” because a) that’s an unpleasant call that takes a lot of gumption to have and b) they likely won’t get the books sold now that they’re old stock, so they’d rather keep hoping than realize how much of a loss it is.

Others have suggested that credit cards be kept on file and charged in such cases, but that approach has its own problems:
* Legal issues. You have to have the right agreement signed to do that.
* Deadbeats (and that’s what people who neglect to live up to purchase commitments are) may not have space on the card left once this happens anyway.
* Then the books are the property of the customer, and they become a different kind of storage problem.

A lot of store owners count on predictable, consistent sales for the core of their business, and good, heavy, reliable customers are a godsend. Don’t get me wrong — when that relationship is going well, it’s a great one for getting buyers the comics they want and retailers the sales they need. But a store owner has to be reasonable about these debts and inventory obligations before they run the risk of capsizing the business.

But Wait! There’s Worse News

Brian Hibbs (again) is the canary in the coal mine, predicting a dire future for the traditional serialized superhero comic. He’s bored with what the core companies in the direct market, DC and Marvel, are putting out, and so are others:

I guess what I’m saying is that if you’ve lost Mark “I’ve never met a Marvel/DC trivia question you can stump me with” Waid and Kurt “…and I can answer the ones he can’t” Busiek, then that’s a pretty large cross-section of your putative demographic right there. … Over the last two years or so (and particularly accelerating in the last six months), I’ve been watching as my customer base seems to be thinking the same things — there’s a marked reticence amongst our subscriber (pre-order) base to try or embrace new titles.

… what I’m seeing and feeling now is a mood that reminds me of previous catastrophic crashes in the market — the B&W Bust of the late 80s, the speculator exodus of the 90s. … But, today, at the end of 2010, the rot appears to be woven deeply in the warp and weft of Marvel and DC’s core output, and it appears, from the outside looking in, that their very business plans are built upon unsustainable tactics, so that if it does come to a full-on crash, they’re going to find it difficult to be able to retool quickly enough to avoid catastrophe. …

I fundamentally believe that the new customer patterns I’m seeing aren’t strictly related to the economy or employment status, but rather to content and pricing.

If he’ll forgive my paraphrase, people are being asked to pay too much for crap. Or, as he has it, “bad value”. It’s something everyone’s heard in the past few months and years, and it appears that people are doing something about it by no longer buying stuff they don’t enjoy. Only with a greater emphasis on universes and crossovers, it’s easier to drop a company’s output than a handful of titles. There’s almost an encounter group in the followup comments, as others share their similar experiences.

So what do we do? Digital comics clearly aren’t the answer — a bad read is a bad read whether you paid $4 (too much!) for paper or $2 (too much!) for pixels. Is it time for comics to give up serialization?


8 Responses to “Comic Retailer LinkBlogging: Learn From Examples”

  1. DC Drops All Standard Comic Prices to $2.99 Next Year » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] as I was blogging about too-high prices comes this shocking news: Beginning January 2011, DC Comics will implement a line-wide pricing [...]

  2. Evan Says:

    I think super-hero franchise books will reduce in numbers. We don’t need more than two monthly x-books, spider-man books, batman books, whatever it is. I feel like the biggest issue isn’t the quality of the books (many are quite good) or the price (yes 3.99 is a lot) but the proliferation is the primary problem. I love bendis’s writing. Would I pay 3.99 a month to read his avengers book? Sure. I’d rather pay $3, but I’d suck it up. Would I pay 3.99 three times a month to keep up with all his avengers plus twice more to keep up with his ultimate books plus twice more for powers and scarlet? Getting all this stuff means pretty much never buying a comic by another author. The problem for me is really right here. When you have a high cost plus high output, it burns me out. I need low cost high output or high cost low output.

  3. Richard J. Marcej Says:

    So many subjects that deserve extensive comments, so little time (and space) so I’ll just tackle the last item.

    The serialized comic (most notably the superhero comic) began cutting their throats in the late 80’s-early 90’s by jacking up the price to ridiculous amounts compared to the content it was offering.

    The serialized and monthly/bimonthly comic (in America at least) was always designed as a “quick” read. A purchase that a parent could make for their children or kids/teens could make for themselves. They were priced so that several comics different could be bought and given to kids to read on long car trips, rainy days, etc… something that was reasonably priced and gave a decent amount of entertainment.

    The industry (specifically the large companies) along with specialized comic shops, have only themselves to blame by turning the serialized/monthly comic from a easy, affordable entertaining format into some slick, overly illustrated, decompressed story telling, collectible.

    IMO, this was never necessary. There’s been a lot of discussion about “Why aren’t there comics for kids” an the answer is usually about some lack of all ages books, but I’ve always found that was the wrong approach. There aren’t any AFFORDABLE comics for kids. There aren’t the easily purchased, easily to follow form of entertainment for kids to buy. To buy and hopefully enjoy and wish to return to again. And they would, if they could afford it.

    The comic companies should have offered graphic novels/TPB of their characters that would be high end, high cost, that would entail the decompressed slick stories they’ve been offering in monthly dribs and drabs (with ridiculous high cost per issue) and a monthly/serialized comic, at a reasonable cost (¢75-$1.00) that would allow the Wednesday crowd to continue their habit and hopefully get the next generation hooked.

    (sorry to rattle on so)

  4. Chris Howard Says:

    They need to stop the Campbells soup approach. Stop trying to cram more and more onto the sheleves each month. No one wants cream of watermelon. But they’ve been trying to take more and more real estate in Previews and on store shelves for years.

    And knock off the variants. We did that nonsense and it helped the last major crash along.

    Comics and hollywood need to focus on a good story well told.

  5. James Schee Says:

    I think Brian pretty much hits the nail on the head, as do you Johanna. They have reached the point where the big shocks and slash stories don’t even get me (and I’m guessing many others) mad. I just plain don’t care anymore.

    That’s something that was evident to me clearly by the death of Lian, Roy Harper’s daughter, recently. When I read about it, it got no reaction out of me at all as I didn’t care.(and I liked Lian back when I used to read their comics)

    Add in that there is just something inherently in me that won’t pay $4 cover price for a regular comic and its hard seeing them get my money back. I know they’ve dropped prices, but still with the not caring. I liked some of Marvel’s recent stuff that I sampled, but figure I’ll get those in TPB down the road if I am so compelled to do so.

    I honestly think that comics as they are now will completely disappear shortly and I don’t think even digital will prevent that now. I was down a little to think that soon all we’ll likely get are the occasional GNs of Superman, Batman and other other big name cash cows. Yet then, really, isn’t that basically all we get now anyways?

  6. Johanna Says:

    I think comics and graphic novels are fracturing even further — periodical serialized superhero stories may end up disappearing, as you predict, but I think comic stories in book format with more diverse subject matter still have a bright future ahead of them.

  7. James Schee Says:

    Yeah I think there will always be a place for those who do comics, because they love doing comics. I think we’ll see publishers take a turn to doing things more like the Vertigo books whose success you point to.

    Outside of Sandman, Vertigo hasn’t really had a franchise at all. Their success was talented creators doing a story, then getting off the stage. So there was no getting worn out by the same thing over and over again.

    That approach is one I expect to see more of as time goes on. It could make for better stories with even the big franchises too. I mean All Star Superman has been heralded as one of the best Superman stories in decades. I think being its own beast, by one creative team in a short easy to get form, helped make a lot of that happen.

  8. James Schee Says:

    Looks like Hibbs, Waid & Busiek aren’t the only ones not exactly thrilled by DC’s current books. I laughed some while reading this coverage of the DC panel at NY where they invited a young female fan on stage.

    http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=28769

    Ah the ability of youth to not have that “oops shouldn’t say that in public”….

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