How Much Support Can a Shop Give a New Publisher These Days?

Aftershock Comics logo

You’ve likely seen the piece where Jim McLauchlin complains about not being able to buy a new comic by a friend when it came out.

“Wednesday, September 27 was release day for Fu Jitsu #1 from Aftershock Comics. Not the biggest of debuts, but hey—it’s written by Jai Nitz, who’s a buddy.”

Now, the entire premise of this column shouldn’t have happened, because McLauchlin has been around the comic industry a long time, and he should know that if you really want a comic, you pre-order it two months (or more) in advance. Direct market comic shops are quite often catalog showrooms these days, because they can’t afford to stock material their customers aren’t going to buy, and most of the customers in those shops are either there for DC and Marvel or know to pre-order. But McLauchlin wants to make a point:

In this era of hyper-speed and hyper-specialization, can direct market comic stores compete and survive?

Short answer: Yes. Longer answer: Yes, but it’s tough.

There are more products going through the comic industry every week than in any other retail environment. And it’s no wonder that, as other retailers go on to say, that small shops don’t see the demand for relatively new releases like those from Aftershock or “similar small publishers”.

I’d have to agree. Not to pick on Aftershock — there are other publishers in the same boat without the name creators Aftershock has managed to sign up — but they’re not doing anything truly new or different. And if I want old-school comics, then I’ll stick with the ones I’m already familiar with. Unless I hear people singing their praises, and that doesn’t seem to be happening, at least in the circles I travel.

Publishers have to drive customer demand to the extent that those customers take the extra effort to make sure they can get the books from their retailer. And then the retailer (hopefully) takes notice and maybe orders an extra for the shelf. As one retailer profiled says,

“Conversely, if no one signs up for a new book, we assume there’s a reason for that, too. We gather data, and we base our decisions on data. It’s never personal. When our customers respond ahead of time, we respond.”

In this case, I tried Fu Jitsu, and while the premise — the world’s smartest boy is trying to get over a breakup — was interesting, I didn’t make it through the first issue. There are just too many other things I’m waiting to read (and expect to enjoy) to gamble on something that doesn’t grab me. We’re no longer in the days of quarter or dollar comics, after all, and one 20-something-page comic costs as much as a cheap fast-food lunch.

In short, the comic industry is a glut, and it makes it very hard to launch a comic or publisher these days. McLauchlin quotes Nitz describing what they did to try and build awareness:

“Aftershock sent a full .pdf of the first issue to all retailers on its email list, and Nitz personally emailed 200-300 retailers himself. He did interviews with comics media and participated in videos for Aftershock’s social media. He also handed out cards at cons with order codes for Fu Jitsu #1. The result? About 5500 copies ordered.”

That sounds darn good to me these days, but a publisher doesn’t work on self-publishing numbers, because they have much more in overhead cost. “Comics media” doesn’t mean much any more; the real thing is to get coverage in EW or the Hollywood Reporter or the other mass outlets that cover comics. The efforts described are basic, and they don’t reach beyond the core market, which isn’t particularly interested in new properties. (Look at the proliferation of licensed properties in comic books.) Did the publisher think about over shipping returnably? Or other financial efforts to reduce the retail risk?

I can’t blame a comic store that doesn’t see demand for a new small-scale company and so doesn’t invest in them. There are plenty of other products to fill their shelves.

A followup letter to that column makes two points: how they changed their reordering process to minimize wait time for customers, and that they made a choice to order almost every first issue. (I do wonder if their conclusion, “All of this being said: we have plenty of copies of Fu Jitsu for our customers to enjoy,” is a backhanded comment.)

A more pessimistic followup reiterates a key point: “When it comes time for me to add comics to our monthly order, I don’t make decisions about new comics based on what I’ve seen or read or reviews; I make decisions based on what our monthly subscribers order…. the money simply isn’t available to order extra copies of very many comics if we want to stay in business.”

All that said, comic customers shouldn’t have to preorder. They shouldn’t have to be the ones to take the risk in ordering sight unseen. And that’s why it’s easier to sample comics once they’re collected, since bookstores have more generous return policies. And perhaps why webcomic collections do so well, since readers already know that they like the material.

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