Lessons from 25 years of selling comics

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201408060348 Lessons from 25 years of selling comics

Since I was just picking a fight with Brian Hibbs, now I’ll quote him extensively. His latest Tilting at Windmills is an anniversary post, looking the original Diamond catalog from when he started in 1989! We’ve lost some soldiers along the way, but the Diamond catalog is now a bloated thing,

In 1989 there are just fifty “other” publishers with products in the catalog. Only six are still in business today and have published continuously in that time (Archie, Fantagraphics, NBM, Slave Labor, Titan, and Viz) — the small publisher putting out the most number of titles appears to have been Eternity Comics, who offered 25 comics in 1989. Eclipse ties with Archie for second place with 20 items offered. Viz back then published nothing but periodical comics — eight of them.

In July of 2014, there are one hundred and eleven “other” publishers — more than twice as many! And they’re publishing more comics: the publisher with the largest number of SKUs appears to be Dynamite, with a whopping 119 line items offered (34 of them individual new comics), while BOOM! has 87 SKUs (37 new titles), and Avatar has 65 SKUs (12 new titles), while Archie has 29 line items offered, but only 20 of them are new non-variants, so they’re pretty much the only publisher selling exactly the same number of titles a quarter-century later. Viz has 65 titles listed — all of them books — but only 17 of them are new — still about a doubling of releases.

First off let’s give a hand to Archie, Fantagraphics, NBM, Slave Labor, Titan, and Viz for surviving all this time! (I know SLG is in rough shape but they are technically still here.)

Hibbs goes on to make many salient observations, including the relentlessly ticking clock of standard attrition and how publishers have to try to jump start it with variants and stunts:

I’ve been selling periodicals in some fashion for at least thirty years now, and I can tell you one thing that hasn’t changed at all in all of that time: there is generally a month-by-month drop in sales with all ongoing books, and that makes it incredibly important to launch a book as high as it possibly can — to find the highest possible “ceiling” for that title — so that as the numbers drift downwards, they take longer to fall into the “not profitable” column.

To reduce it to a simple (but unrealistic — things are never this simple) formula you can understand: if “Dweelzeman” sells one fewer copy a month at the average store, then getting stores to stock/sell 50 copies of #1 as opposed to 30 copies of #1 extends the life of the periodical by nearly two years.

Comments

  1. Charlie Ryan says:

    Well, this seems to connect a dot from yesterday’s discussion about cartoonist Mike Dawson forging ahead on a path of diminishing returns. It seems amazing that any one graphic novel, comic or magazine can break through the Tower of Babble that is the present-day, monthly Previews catalogue. Thousands of listings from over a hundred publishers, page after page of ads from those who are better financed — the odds seem almost insurmountable for the little guy. And it starts all over again the following month. Yeesh!

  2. I’d have to say that it isn’t just “Previews” (since, actually, there are more comics/GNs being published every single month than DIAMOND bothers to list) — this is true for all art in all formats in all channels, and is likely to be such forever now.

    The other dot is what Patton Oswalt called Everything That Ever Was – Available Forever (I discuss it here: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=30428) -since you can get everything, all of the time, it isn’t enough to be “good enough”. You now have to be “as good as” MAUS and WATCHMEN and….

    This is one of the reasons that I believe the best way to manage your brand as a creator is to regularly be in front of the audience — OGNs are a difficult way to do so because it only puts you facing out 1 week of a year (or two or three, depending on how slow you can comic) before you disappear into the Sea of Spines.

    And adult-intended OGNs fare generally poorly compared to serialized work in that environment.

    This is just as true in bookstores as it is in the DM.

    -B

  3. This has also been bothering me for some time. From my side of the fence (as a creator) it has become increasingly obvious.

    I commonly used the analogy that I’m not an A-lister who can hit a home run, but I can still get a base hit, or possibly a double. However, even getting on base doesn’t mean much nowadays. My only saving grace is that I’m a writer & artist so I my cut off point is lower than other books who rely on a *team* of people to produce it.

    But I love comics and it’s in my blood. I will continue to swing for the fences.

  4. “I can tell you one thing that hasn’t changed at all in all of that time: there is generally a month-by-month drop in sales with all ongoing books, and that makes it incredibly important to launch a book as high as it possibly can ”

    Well, yeah, that’s a given. Comics are a form of entertainment no different than movies, TV, records, etc… If a movie has a bad opening it’ll start losing theaters the following week and soon disappear altogether. And how many network TV shows have you begun watching over the last few years only to get upset when, because it didn’t get big ratings for it’s first few episodes, the network abruptly cancels it.

    Face facts folks, when it comes to nearly all forms of entertainment these days unless you grab those eyeballs/wallets/attentions FAST and BIG, you’re lost.

    Now if only someone could figure out how to fix this, if possible.

  5. Swampy says:

    “Face facts folks, when it comes to nearly all forms of entertainment these days unless you grab those eyeballs/wallets/attentions FAST and BIG, you’re lost.”

    I was just thinking about this very trend this morning and how it has altered basic FM radio. With radio, you have HUGE costs to entry/production that need to be recouped almost immediately. This probably applies to comics, movies, TV, and AAA video games. They cost way too much to produce (in the traditional formats). It’s cheaper to send a rocket to space than to produce a Hollywood movie. The internet has done much to helped correct this.

  6. I agree. You can see the effects of diminishing returns in several fields. It’s nothing new, it’s just sped up in today’s market. Without hitting hard and fast a talent can easily fall off the radar.

    But many of us continue to try to be that indy band to make it to the concert hall, the lucky Youtube talent to hit the right nerve and go viral, or whatever. Much of it is to be at the right place at the right time with the right product. Even the great titles like Watchman, Maus and others would have a hard time today in this seas of noise. I’m not saying they would fail, I’m just saying they would be among the several other GOOD titles out there and not the trend setters of the past. They came at the right time and place and they *delivered* greatness on top of that — when we needed it.

    It’s hard to break that nut now. I don’t think we can “fix it”, we just have to have the love of the art form in us and the ability to continue on and *be there* when possibly our chance comes along. And even then it might only be a fleeting moment. But also, I AM happy to connect with the readers who do like my work. I’m not clocking the big numbers, but I’m still finding an audience — and there is very much something that can be said about that.

  7. “Much of it is to be at the right place at the right time with the right product. ”

    Hello, My Friend Dahmer. Yeah, cultivating an audience over time seems to be a grueling business. I wonder if Derf’s book would have had the impact it did if he hadn’t been spending all those years in the trenches with The City and his smaller works. I think what needs to be mentioned in this depressing line of thought is that the years of seemingly thankless toil allow an artist to develop the discipline and creative chops to capitalize on that magic “right place, right time” moment. Getting the spotlight too soon can crush a creative spirit just as much as being permanently sidelined.

    I took a look at the Foglio’s early Buck Godot a day or so ago and was taken by how rudimentary it looked compared to their work today. They have just about the most serialized work on the market (Girl Genius could be 3,000 pages before they’re done), and they’re building an audience to be reckoned with. Longevity in any creative field is an act of both heroism and willful blindness.

    I don’t share Hibb’s take on OGNs though. It’s just a slower drip, drip, drip of creative output – an alternative creative/market choice that works for some and not for others. I find it hard to believe that Matt Kindt would be having the success he’s having today with Mind Mgmt if he hadn’t laid the groundwork with his often brilliant single-release books. Super Spy was a hit, if you recall. Plus, if you gain fans with your sixth book, doesn’t it mean more people will be looking back at your previous work? Even in the “sea of spines” there is such a thing as catalog sales, giving another reason for following one’s most powerful creative path, even when you’re not getting the slam bang immediate gratification success with every release.

  8. Well said, Allen. And I agree (in regard to cultivating an audience over time), there is a LOT to be said about that. Some simply coin that as, “the ten year overnight success”. Haha!

  9. Torsten Adair says:

    Guys, go read “Five Weapons”!
    It’s a great middle school book, with a great plot!
    (Image should reprint Evil and Malice as well, sell it to schools!)
    (And Jimmie, I owe you a drink, since you didn’t earn a royalty off the review copy I read.)

    It takes a lot of time, and a lot of hard work, to become an overnight sensation.
    Look at Grant Morrison. He started in 1978. Got some buzz for Animal Man and Doom Patrol in the late 80s. Then got some buzz for JLA in 1996, and slowly built up achievements consistently since then.

  10. Torsten, thanks for the shout out. Sadly… Five Weapons is no more. It was cancelled due to low sales.

    But I’m still swinging. I have a couple of new books I’m trying to launch late this year and early next year. Just another example of this very discussion; sometimes a person has to take the long road to get somewhere. Just *where* that is and what it will be is anybody’s guess. Haha! I just know that I’m going to keep making comics, finding any audience and working on my skills.

  11. Torsten Adair says:

    Both volumes of “Five Weapons” are still available via BN.com!
    Order now!
    Limited edition!

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