Re: Tilting at Windmills for 7-15-11

Friday, July 15, 2011

Brian Hibbs's Tilting at Windmills column today on Comic Book Resources examines difficulties in stocking and selling trades at comic book stores, and in negotiating the comics publishers' ever-growing backlists. I don't have to tell you Brian Hibbs is an industry expert and knows of what he speaks, and I take on faith all the difficulties he describes are entirely accurate.

Respectfully, however, I think Hibbs misrepresents the consumer interest in trades here (or, at least, my personal consumer interest in trades). Yes, as Hibbs writes, trade paperbacks used to just encompass major events, but the ubiquity of trades now doesn't necessarily mean periodicals are a means to the trade paperback end; I see them as separate entities.

As a alternative to the expanding list of collections that publishers offer, many of which sell slowly, Hibbs suggests publishers state outright they'll only collect stories that sell well in periodicals (let's not mistake, Hibbs by no means calls for the abolition of trades). But as a trade reader, I want to decide firsthand what I buy or don't buy based on interest, not availability. In Hibbs's suggestion, DC would only release a Weird Worlds trade, for instance, if the single issues sold well; periodical readers thereby "pre-select" what a trade reader gets to read.

I suggest the opposite: Publishers ought commit to releasing everything they publish in trade, no matter how large or small, with faith it's going to sell because it's quality work that they stand behind and support. Hibbs states that readers wait for a trade and then don't buy it because they no longer have an interest, but the solution is not to base the potential for a trade on periodical sales. A company shouldn't publish a series at all unless they feel it bears enough consequence that they're willing to chase after the reader both to sell the periodical and to sell the trade. Publishers shouldn't deny  a reader the manner in which they want to read a publisher's material; instead the solution is to make this material better so a reader feels compelled to read it in whatever form they see fit.

If not already, be sure to read Hibbs's column over at Comic Book Resources.
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17 comments:

  1. Where Hibbs is off-base is that he assumes that the guy who says "I'll wait for the trade" and then doesn't buy the trade is a lost periodical sale. I suspect it's more likely folks like that just aren't particularly interested in the material in any format.

    I agree with him, though, that the current TPB and especially the HC market is badly bloated. From a consumer standpoint, it's fine to say everything should be collected because more choices = happy consumers. But the reality is that both major publishers' backlists are completely out of control, and the infrastructure just doesn't exist (whether we're talking about shelf space in stores or warehouse space for online sellers) to manage all these books.

    I've been a tradewaiter a long time, and I've bought a lot of off-the-radar stuff, but even I can acknowledge that it's silly that there's a hardcover collection of Shadowland: Moon Knight. I'm sure someone somewhere loves their copy of that book and is thrilled to have it, but the notion that there's a significant, lasting market for that material is IMO absurd.

    The risk publishers run is that they bury the stuff people really want to read under an avalanche of Teen Titans: Deathtrap trades. Of course they run the same risk with periodicals, but trades present backlist management issues that periodicals do not.

    I've just gotta believe at some point people are going to lose interest in buying $100+ omnibuses of stuff like Atlantis Attacks. I think the collected edition market is headed for a crash unless there's a significant course correction in the near future.

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  2. To an extent I agree the collections market is bloated, but I would emphasize your statement that publishers "run the same risk with periodicals" -- if the collections market is bloated, it's because the periodical market is bloated, too.

    I think it stems from publishers and/or readers and retailers still viewing periodicals as "disposable," when the increased popularity of trades suggests nothing's disposable any more, periodicals or trades. Trades, you're right, "present backlist management issues that periodicals do not," but that only means the problem is more visible on the trade side, not that it originates there.

    Weird Worlds was one example, and let's take Penguin: Pain and Prejudice as another. I just can't believe a six-issue Penguin origin miniseries is going to sell gangbusters in periodical form, and neither will it sell as the inevitable trade. This is exactly the problem Hibbs is talking about, but I think the answer is not to not collect Penguin in trade, but rather not to publish it in the first place. That's where the bloating is happening.

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  3. The "Penguin" example definitely sums it up. Somewhat to my surprise, I am moving back to periodicals now that I can afford it (sorta), but I still prefer trades to some degree and I still hold a grudge regarding the cancellation of the last Manhunter trade (the material didn't even stand on its own in its original publication!). It bums me out that Hibbs wants them to do more of that, not less!

    I will say that it does strike me as absurd that there are plenty of great or pretty good comics (off the top of my head: Hourman, about half of Waid's Flash run, most of Young Justice) that are totally uncollected, while we get drowned in Terror Titans trades. But once agian, the solution is not to publish it in the first place. It's hard enough to get marginal books to fly without publishing books that are both marginal AND without merit.

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  4. Too funny that the Penguin series is written by the same guy who wrote Shadowland: Moon Knight. His novels are good, really.

    I think Hibbs would agree that the periodical market is also bloated, and actually I think he's made that very point in prior columns. And this shouldn't be interpreted as a defense of a bloated periodical line - it certainly wouldn't bother me if Flashpoint: Gimme Some More Money was never published. To some extent, though, it's easier for publishers to take risks with periodicals than it is with trades. When something's DOA, though, I'm not sure it's a sound practice to crank out a trade anyway. I do not defend DC's "We Were Only Kidding" trade solicitation strategy, but neither do I think they're obligated to toss out a collected edition of Great Ten just because someone somewhere might have enjoyed it. (Heck - I probably would've bought a Great Ten trade.)

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  5. Hibbs has many times in the past also said that too many different periodical titles are getting published; he's done articles explaining how it affects the economics of a comic shop, having to order fewer of many titles instead of many of fewer titles. So I'm sure he would agree with "don't publish it in the first place".

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  6. Hey, I was all set to buy a Great Ten trade. When it never appeared I was so disappointed I tracked down the issues. Is Hibbs tracking that kind of trade-to-issues-reversal in sales anywhere? NOT I'm guessing.

    DC should do what's viable and profitable, but it would make it a hell of a lot easier for us trade-waiters if they would clearly articulate their collections policy. I would like to know what I can count on seeing and what I definitely won't be seeing.

    And speaking of The Great Ten, it was very good. Look for my Uncollected Editions on that title in the new future.

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  7. I definitely agree that too many (unnecessary) books are being published. One look at DC's 'New 52' shows 4 straight Batman titles, and a further 4 Batman-related titles. I realise the character is popular, but doesn't that strike anyone else as overkill?

    Why not keep Batman and, maybe, Batman & Robin as the 'main' books, and then use Detective Comics as a monthly anthology title, rotating stories involving Batwoman, Nightwing, Batwing and occasionally Batman himself (maybe David Finch's Batman: The Dark Knight book could go here, as that seems the most superfluous and most likely to be hit by delays)? Batgirl and Catwoman can probably survive on their own; these others I'm not so sure about.

    Admittedly this wouldn't help the subsequent trades, which would no doubt be collected seperately. But if collected as Detective Comics: Nightwing, etc. then at the very least that might give uniformity to the collections. But DC could also be upfront and say that not every story was guaranteed a collection and so buying the monthly book might represent better value for readers over the long term.

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  8. "In Hibbs's suggestion, DC would only release a Weird Worlds trade, for instance, if the single issues sold well; periodical readers thereby "pre-select" what a trade reader gets to read. "

    Well, kinda.

    The issue is "how do you pay for the creation of the material?" The REASON that you're not seeing scores of Original Graphic Novels (that is: without serialization) from Marvel & DC is that they're haven't been able to do most of them profitably.

    Take something like NORTHLANDERS which is getting "ended prematurely" -- why is that? Because neither the serialization nor the collection was selling enough copies to keep the book alive. And I, personally, believe the main reason the serialization wasn't "carrying enough water" is because Vertigo (more than ANY other imprint) has trained their customers that there really is never any reason ever to buy the comics.

    MOST comics can't survive without a profitable serialization providing amortization.

    -B

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  9. @matches

    "Where Hibbs is off-base is that he assumes that the guy who says "I'll wait for the trade" and then doesn't buy the trade is a lost periodical sale. I suspect it's more likely folks like that just aren't particularly interested in the material in any format."

    As a guy who sells these things for a living, I will respectfully disagree. If it wouldn't be a horrible invasion of my customers privacy, I could give you scores of specific examples of works that customer x "should" be buying -- works that s/he HAS bought in the past, and have indicated that they enjoyed, yet they "waited" for the trade, then when the trade came out there was something else newer and shinier that took their money that week.

    My Point-of-sale system lets me granularly look at my customer's buying habits, and I'm fairly certain that my assertion is largely correct.

    @hix

    "Is Hibbs tracking that kind of trade-to-issues-reversal in sales anywhere? NOT I'm guessing."

    Its much more difficult to track that direction because, generally, it is happening "off cycle" for a book - primarily through the back issue bins rather than from racked stock. Such sales are generally invisible to any national tracking mechanism.

    -B

    -B

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  10. Brian, I appreciate the visit and the clarification of your views. On this forum, you're really in the heart of trade waiting territory and in some cases there are economic realities that clash with our preferred approach to comic reading. Sometimes we might be inclined to shoot the messenger.

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  11. Brian, thanks for your comment.

    I understand most comics can't survive without a profitable serialization, even with popular collections (see, in my estimation, Manhunter, Gotham Central, and so on). As someone who prefers the trade format to periodicals, however, I simply bristle at the idea that it's the consumers' responsibility to support the periodical format in order to be able to enjoy the trade format, which I felt you suggested in your column (I understand, of course, you have no specific objection to trades).

    As I said above, I want the publishers to make their books available in as many formats as possible -- periodical, trade, digital, back of cereal boxes -- as long as there's a market who'll buy it. I dislike the idea that a publisher might not release a book digitally, for instance, because they think it will poach their periodical sales; I don't want to feel pigeonholed into a certain manner of reading a book if it's not what I prefer.

    But that's the consumer perspective, of course; I neither have to publish the books nor sell them, and I'm sure the landscape is different on the other side. And I also know that things are tough enough for the comics industry in general that yes, maybe trade readers do have to pitch in on the periodical side on occasion, but I wouldn't want to hear that expressed by a publisher as an expectation, as I felt you suggested.

    Ditto what Hix said -- no doubt "there are economic realities that clash with our preferred approach to comic reading." Thanks for sharing the retailer perspective and chiming in, Brian; we all appreciate it.

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  12. "As someone who prefers the trade format to periodicals, however, I simply bristle at the idea that it's the consumers' responsibility to support the periodical format in order to be able to enjoy the trade format"

    Let's try it this way: it is SOME consumers' responsibility to support serialization in order for there to BE a collection at some point. It doesn't *have* to be YOU, but if *someone* doesn't do it, then you get what you pay for (as it were)

    I know a few people who ONLY watched "Lost" on DVD boxset. Thankfully for them (er, maybe) there were enough people who watched the show weekly to keep the production profitible so that the box sets COULD come out, and CONTINUE to come out.

    Meanwhile, I know at least one person who wanted to watch "FlashForward" like that, who was extremely pissed off to find out that season 1 ended in a cliffhanger that would never ever be resolved. "Well, did you support the show?" I asked. "I bought the boxed set!" he said. "Yeah, not really the same thing," said I, "unless you're talking about 'Family Guy', I guess?"

    ***

    I didn't directly address your point about "too many comics, in general" as other posters seemed to make the point pretty well, but, yeah, clearly "too many comics" are being published -- and ironically that's, IN PART, because there's another revenue stream from the TP release. Overall, I'd like to see our largest publishers kind of stop chasing pennies and try to only chase dollars... that will make things healthier for everyone.

    But, at the end of the day, mathematically, "trade waiters" are just a tiny fraction of the market; yet they appear to be having a breaking impact on periodical sales far out of proportion to the actual size of that segment.

    -B

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  13. Honestly?

    I think the companies would do themselves and their customers a world of good by producing better trades.

    I'm inclined to buy the PENGUIN TPB, but since it's DC, it won't show up as a HC for 6 to 8 months, and then, forget about a TPB until 12 months after that (if it shows up at all).

    And it'll be kind of thin when it finally shows up.

    So, how am I- the consumer- supposed to get excited about a story that is almost 2 years old when the TPB hits?

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  14. I'm part of the problem, and I recognize that. I enjoy comics, but I don't enjoy them in their primary monthly format. I only buy trades, and yet I'm the guy who scolds people for waiting for a DVD box set when they could be supporting the show in real time. I just prefer a sturdier book with more content. I'd like to be able to support the titles I read in the original run, but I want to read them in my preferred format. It's an annoying catch-22.

    @sdcinerama
    I agree that the lag from DC is a problem, at least for me. I wanted to pick up Blackest Night but I wanted it in softcover format. It only just came out, and now I won't be buying it for a while because other titles have gotten in the way. I definitely will buy it, but it'll be a while before I get there.

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  15. @Brian Hibbs, correct me if I am wrong but your article’s basic supposition is that most trades do not “turn” at a rate sufficient to justify their existence. Isn’t your real problem identifying profitable titles? You state for example that you have ~4000 titles in stock with ~750 that actually turn more than four a year. My question is why do you not simply stop ordering the non-turning titles? You mention that that Marvel could add over 600 unique TPs to the market but failed to mention why you would ever need to order all 600 non-returnable titles. It seems to me that your conundrum is simply one of inventory management through identifying and ordering only profitable books. By asking publishers to pare down what they offer to a level that is profitable for you, you are asking them to make your business decisions for you.

    The publishers make and print books because they think they can sell enough copies to earn a profit. I only purchase trades from my local stores or Amazon so presumably you are the publisher’s real market. Publishers require you to buy non-returnable books, which shifts the risk of the book being a flop to the comic book retailer. If a publisher knows that it needs to sell 2000 copies of a book in order for it to be profitable to print and create that book and 2000 comic book stores are willing to buy 1 non-returnable copy then that publisher should make that book. If those 2000 retailers stop buying the publisher’s trade because they exercise good business discretion or because the market exercised the retailer out of business then the publisher will stop making the trade.

    It sounds like you should be talking to your fellow retailers about inventory management and expectations. My local comic book shop did not order the most recent Red Robin trade. I asked if it was in stock and they kindly offered to order it for me. I will admit that I merely went to a different store but the shop made a business decision that the Red Robin title would not be profitable enough to stock and sell in house. In my case, they were wrong by one copy, but the store is thriving so overall their business decisions are correct. They have decided that they are not going to be an Amazon-like mega store with every single title but are going to focus on what their market wants to purchase. I know that if I am looking for the “Superman: No Limits!” trade I am not likely to purchase get it there but I still get my weekly new releases and browse their not unsubstantial backlist titles. I am sure there are retailers with a large enough market to support the "we care everything" business model. Any retailer in any market has to be able to identify what profitable products their customers will buy or face going out of business.

    You and your fellow retailers can probably exert as much if not more influence on the publishers as the consumer. Additionally, the retailers that purchase trades that are less likely to sell are skewing the market towards more trades from publishers. Consumers assert influence on to retailers who in turn assert influence on the vender. It is the retailer’s job to make the kind of market change you are requesting.

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  16. To simply copy something I wrote over on the Savage Critic blog...

    The first thing to consider is that even things that one doesn’t carry, carry a cost. For example, when I do an order every month, I have to look at, weigh and consider even things that I end up not ordering. It doesn’t take me less time to do the order just because I ultimately choose not to order a fair chunk of the books available each month.

    By the same token, Diamond is CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGATED to list and stock every single thing Marvel DC Dark Horse and IMage choose to publish, regardless of whether it is profitable for Diamond to do so. As the number of SKUs have increased, so has Diamond’s OSD (Overage, Shortages, Damages) rate, and things get increasingly misbinned. I don’t love Diamond with all of my heart, but I’d very much like my distributor to be profitable on the items they carry, otherwise they start doing things like cutting off other books so they can Pay Paul.

    Each and every new product steals a little eensy bit of the oxygen of the books around it, making it harder to sell ANY of them.

    As customers have been TRAINED to EXPECT the TP, it reduces the URGENCY to make a purchase now and today — that is not an ideal situation for ANY leg of the DM stool because it means less sales today, and that means even less tomorrow.

    It seems pretty obvious to me that publisher’s ROI on comics has dropped pretty precipitously over the last decade, and I think that *one* of the culprits (though, probably the largest) is over-production — and I don’t think that’s healthy for them, distributors, creators OR my brethren.

    There are HUNDREDS of small impacts that overproduction have, even when you’re opting out of carrying the least commercial portions of output. Nothing exists in a vacuum.

    -B

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  17. Dijonase, I'm thinking of framing your words about DC's non-urgency with regards to TPBs.
    And the worst part is that BLACKEST NIGHT is an example of them getting a TPB quickly.

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