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.

Update: 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.


  • Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

    This is a great peek behind the curtain of the direct market’s biggest (only?) major promotional effort. Any publisher approaching FCBD as a break-even proposition simply doesn’t understand marketing and is probably putting out a product that most retailers won’t bother ordering anyway.

    Ideally, participating retailers shouldn’t have to pay anything for any of the comics themselves; publishers should be providing them at their own cost and Diamond should be covering the shipping.

    What retailers should pay is a modest co-op fee to cover promotional materials for the event itself, supplied by Diamond, that’s scaled according to their level of participation. Figure a range of $50 to $500 gets you a selection of banner ads, posters, bookmarks, postcards, display ads, video ads, etc.

    Something like that would guarantee a stronger selection of titles from publishers with actual business plans, and a higher level of participation from retailers as the benefits would be weighed in their direction, which seems like a no-brainer seeing as FCBD is supposedly meant for them anyway.

  • I don’t see how making the promotion cost the publisher more would “guarantee a stronger selection of titles from publishers with actual business plans”; it would seem to make the promotion more expensive for those publishers and discourage them. You might see fewer other books, but retailers already have the ability to not order those silver-level books (an ability I expect they’ll strongly exercise with some titles this year.)

  • Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

    Yes, you might see fewer books, but the ones that make the cut are more likely to have an actual impact on the marketplace and generate future sales for all involved.

    Really, part of FCBD’s problem is that the current model is based on Diamond’s relatively low barrier for entry into the marketplace to begin with, so by limiting the day to titles publishers are actually making a marketing investment in, by providing them for free instead of subsidizing their cost, it will ensure higher “quality” of titles; ie: comics from legitimate publishers who are likely to ship enough comics over the next 12 months to leverage the promotion.

    Why should retailers have to take on even more risk than they already do to promote a title/publisher that may not ship more than 6 issues over the next 12 months, if that many? Where’s the benefit to retailers there?

    On a related note, by limiting the overall selection of titles, smaller retailers won’t get stung by the perception that they’re not fully participating because they don’t carry every single title, a problematic issue for a promotion that’s supposed to be celebrating their existence.

  • Over on the Impact Books side, we don’t try to recoup our investment. We know we’re going to lose money on the deal, but it seems to me to be worth it as a promotional piece to get readers introduced to our line of comics and manga related writing and art instruction books. If retailers are stocking our books — as they should — they’ll see some mighty fine books by Peter David, Colleen Doran, Jessica Peffer and many others.

  • Simon Jones

    Per Diamond’s own FCBD supplier sheet, vendors are to charge print cost plus 3 cents (Diamond’s distro fee). For the silver and bronze publishers who are working with smaller print runs, they naturally charge a higher price for their books.

    That’s not to say I don’t think that’s wrong… the books should be free to retailers, period. This is coming from someone who cannot participate in FCBD, and *had to pay Diamond* to distribute our own promotional books to retailers at no cover cost…

  • Charles, I’m not seeing your logic at all. What publishers would be more likely to supply relevant books if they had to cover all the costs themselves? And why?

    You might see some less-relevant books not offered, but unless they are gold-level books, retailers are already free to not order them if they feel they aren’t relevant to their customers… an option that they seem quite willing to exercise this year. And becoming a gold-level publisher requires a greater financial involvement, so you already have that to scare away the smaller fish.

    (Simon: unless something has changed radically since last year, the bronze-level publishers don’t charge print costs or anything at all. Bronze level means that you’re supplying books that aren’t FCBD editions… basically, you’re throwing in some of your overstock.)

  • I’m rather surprised that the TwoMorrows book is taking some flak. From my understanding, they’re offering a “Comics 101” book with original content about how to create comics. That sort of book should prove popular on FCBD, as parents love to find kid-friendly material about creating comics (one of the reasons that “How to Create Comics the Marvel Way” is a perennial best-seller).
    TwoMorrows isn’t as marginal a publisher as some of the others mentioned; they usually solicit at least one new magazine or book a month, and their material is always top-notch. I’ve got a bookshelf full of their books. And the price difference between their book and Marvel’s offering is 5 cents a unit. I can’t believe this sort of book at this price point doesn’t have some place in a store’s FCBD plans.

  • Kevin Lighton

    Simon: unless something has changed radically since last year, the bronze-level publishers don’t charge print costs or anything at all.

    Simon’s company (Icarus Publishing) only publishes adults-only material, which isn’t allowed in FCBD.

  • Ray: I wasn’t commenting on the TwoMorrows book but on the apparent publisher attitude towards the event. They are the same ones who, in a previous year, missed the point by giving magazines away at their website. That’s a lovely gesture to get more attention, but the purpose of FCBD is to get new readers INTO comic shops. Saying “we need our expenses covered”, if that’s really what they meant, misses the point of promotional expense.

    As for the material, at least in the shop I’ve worked in the past, people on FCBD want comics, not text, even if it’s text on that subject. Impact did the same thing last year, creating a “how to create comics” sampler, and while it was a great publication, it wasn’t in demand by customers.

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