Tidings of gloom #2: Brian Hibbs

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201012171419 Tidings of gloom #2: Brian Hibbs
Speaking of the party’s over, Brian Hibbs looks in the industry mirror and doesn’t like what he sees:

Even the Big Books are much less Big than they used to be. Our sales on what used to be dependable mega-hitters, like, say, “Uncanny X-Men” are at historical lows. We’re selling fewer copies in total than we would have sold just from pre-orders alone as little as five years ago.

What we’ve done, as an industry, is to break the very habit of comics collecting for a distressingly large number of people.

The thing is: this is a self-inflicted wound. Event marketing, line expansions, overproduction of minis and new #1s, price increases — these were all things that publishers chose to do in order to make as much money as they could. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se — we live in a system of capitalism, and capitalism demands greater profits. But we’ve systematically made what seemed like sound short-term decisions that largely gutted the long-term market for most of the product within it. Ooops!


Hibbs isn’t calling all doom and gloom — he says sales are up year over year for November and hopefully December. But are we really on the right track?

Comments

  1. Thefreakytiki says:

    Most businesses look to diversification for stability. If one does not pay attention, the diversity can become fragmentation instead. I do believe that is one factor in our beloved hobby.

  2. I also think the regional aspects of comic stores plays a factor here. As we march steadily to more Internet access of material goods we might consider some of that broken habit of comic store purchases. Some, not all.

    But diversify and play to the strengths of the local audience will be key for many retailers. One-size-fits-all no longer applies nor has it for many years. But the country as a whole is having economic problems, either real or just in confidence alone. This might be a perfect storm situation not a singularity of comics sales slipping. If such a report was made during the boom years of national consumer progress then I’m be more concerned (not to say I’m not concerned now, but hopefully you get my drift).

    No job = less comics.

  3. Wow. That Tilting The Windmills article was SPOT ON. Seriously.

  4. Wow – it sounds like we are on the verge of our own Home Mortgage Meltdown they way he’s described it…

  5. Tony Jazz says:

    Brian has to be one of the best comic store owners in the country, and I’ve always admired him.

    I agree that the product is key, and it seems overly diluted right now. In fact, most of what Marvel (and, somewhat, DC) seems formulaic, overpriced, and uninteresting….

    I believe we need more Jonah Hex’s, which are self-contained stories for a good price. Even though Jonah is not one of the industry’s best-sellers, it is more representative of successful series in the past—and westerns are certainly going to struggle in modern times.

    Give us quality content at $2.99 an issue, and many of us will continue to buy.

    ..and stop with the cover variants, the 20-issue stories, the links to Brightest Day!, the simplistic art that looks rushed….

  6. Jim Friel says:

    I’ve been saying some of this for years (event-centered continuity will kill us, too many related titles, too many titles period, too little attention paid to the mid-range titles that should be the industry’s meat and potatoes, etc.), as have a lot of other people, but Brian lays it all out. Nice job.

  7. X-fan says:

    It is upsetting to see publishers cut their own throats because they really don’t understand the business on it’s most basic levels. The industry has for 30 years steered in the wrong direction. When it switched it’s focus to a purely direct sale market model it forever said goodbye to the mass market by ignoring it and pandering to vocal fans who have never been in the majority until today as they’re the last ones standing.

  8. Steve says:

    >When it switched it’s focus to a purely direct sale market model it forever said goodbye to the mass market

    The mass market abandoned the comics industry, not the other way around. Due to low cover prices mass market retailers replaced comic book spinners with other, more profitable merchandise. Some industry observers argue that publishers should have raised cover prices to make the books more attractive to mass market retailers.

    Unfortunately, losing mainstream distribution meant the publishers had to adapt by selling more product to their core super-hero audience. The end result is four monthly Deadpool comics (for the time being).

    Steve

  9. I agree with X-Fan. The big 2 and the DM (and a lot of comic shops who sold their soul to them) have made their bed and they have to sleep in it. Comics are not going anywhere, and they’ll always find an audience. Superhero periodicals, maybe not.

  10. Just because the big two publishers went the way of mega events doesn’t mean the entire Direct Market had to follow their lead off the bridge.

  11. Thefreakytiki says:

    If I remember history correctly, the comic publishers did not “leave” the newsstands for the DM, but rather HAD to go to the DM because newsstands were dropping comics. Didn’t stores like 7/11 drop comics because they could generate higher income from higher priced products on a per sq foot / shelf basis?

    The Tiki

  12. The part of this article that struck me is the part about publishers “breaking the habit” of customers. That’s a great way to describe the approach that focuses on events and “special” stuff while ignoring the ongoings. I’ve always enjoyed following a consistent creative team on a comic, over the long term. That’s where the goodness of monthly comics is, for my money. That is undercut by Events, not just in narrative, but creatively when talent is pulled off an ongoing to work on an event.

  13. “Just because the big two publishers went the way of mega events doesn’t mean the entire Direct Market had to follow their lead off the bridge.”

    I don’t understand this comment. Stores can only sell the product that the publishers put out. Its not like they could have sold Avengers issues that weren’t connected to Siege instead.

    And I don’t think DM stores sold their souls to the big 2. When they are 80% of the market, there is not much choice but to sell and promote their stuff. That is what the customers want. I carry just about everything Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics and the smaller publishers put out, but the total sales of their monthly output wouldn’t pay the rent.

  14. Julian: Marvel and DC pretty much ARE the direct market. At the very least, they account for such a proportion of it that what they do more or less dictates the direction of the market as a whole.

  15. Wraith says:

    It is upsetting to see publishers cut their own throats because they really don’t understand the business on it’s most basic levels. The industry has for 30 years steered in the wrong direction. When it switched it’s focus to a purely direct sale market model it forever said goodbye to the mass market by ignoring it and pandering to vocal fans who have never been in the majority until today as they’re the last ones standing.

    _____________________

    I agree with everything that you said. I also agree with everything that Hibbs said.

  16. Saying comics abandoned the mass market for the direct market is like saying shipwreck survivors abandoned the Titanic for the ocean.

  17. X-fan says:

    Julian, the other publishers haven’t followed the big two off the bridge, but as Paul correctly stated, they amount to 80 to sometimes 90% of the DM market.

    Thefreakytiki, yes, for comics to survive they had to sell to the direct sales market only. That market was doing well with the product but the publishers started to abuse both retailer and customer alike. Who can forget what Marvel did to the industry to inflate its stock offering?

    The industry does not need 4 Spider-Man comics a month that are all serializing different stories. Do you know how insane that would be to any other form of media?

    I believe we have crossed the tipping point. Not for comics but for the market as it exists right now. I don’t exactly know where it is going, but it will change.

    Too many people within the industry fail to remember even their own entry into collecting comics. When I was a kid I could but the entire Marvel line, most of DC’s line and still have change for Heavy Metal and some trading cards.

    When the lines expanded, the hardback graphic novels arrived, the prestige format mini-series, new lines, new imprints, new universes… Something had to break. Once broken I realized the insanity I was part of. Not breaking a run on a book when a team came on I hated just so I didn’t have a gap in the numbering. What an idiot, right?

    When Crisis after Crisis came creating changes in characters I loved, I dropped titles.

    With digital comics being the supposed new savior, what reaction do you think the mass market is going to have to the impenetrable mire of serialized continuity that is Marvel and DC? You really think Iron Man 500.1 is going to resolve it? I do think it is going to be a boon for the independents who can make themselves be heard like Alex de Campi.

    Fortunately it isn’t my industry anymore.

    Ah, it is a shame that the pr noise the big two makes stops more people from listening to people like Brian, Heidi and Tom.

  18. Even with the doom and gloom, there is still hope. I remember hearing Will Eisner tell of the many times the comics industry was thought to be near extinction only to make a recovery. I believe this can be one of those times, if those working in publishing and retail start working better together.

    One plug here: February 10-12 will be the ComicsPRO Annual Meeting in Dallas, where many of the best and brightest retailers will meet in the most focused business event of the year.

    All comic specialty retailers that consider their jobs a career really need to be there. Most, if not all, of the major publishers will be there— not to dictate, but to work and learn and respond to the concerns that retailers will pose. Given what is a fragile state for many in this business, it’s crucial to be there.

    Info can be found at http://comicspro.org/

    Like Eisner many times before us, we need the attitude, fortitude and perseverance to turn things around. The ComicsPRO meeting will be a time when Things Get Done, so retailers and publishers, make it a point to be there!

    Joe Field
    ComicsPRO President

  19. X-fan says:

    RJT, the DSM was a life raft for the comics industry. It had struck an iceberg and was superheroes first to the life rafts.

    There is a very good reason that Watchmen became the best seller it did. Alan Moore crafted an immensely deep, complicated and rich universe. Dave Gibbons clean, simple, style made it easy to follow for everyone. If Bill Sienkiewicz had drawn it, Alan would probably have got his wish and the book would have gone out of print and rights reverted back to him.

    I am mentioning this only because Watchmen was a self contained series that despite it’s complexities was easy to get into thanks to the approach it’s creators took to telling that story.

    But Watchmen should not have been the book that every title should aspire to. DC decided to darken all it’s titles up because of the success of Watchmen and Dark Knight, yet it also kept it’s characters wearing costumes of yellow, green, purple or yellow and red. There was a contradiction in every comic. Garth Ennis is probably the only creator to have shown a character going through such routely daily chores as taking a s#!%. You want to get real, but you have no one allowed to smoke, can’t have sex but can rape, eat but can’t s#!%… oh, yeah. They have a bright yellow and red costume and are totally comfortable wearing it in public.

  20. X-fan says:

    Steve, I didn’t mean to imply the comics industry had willingly left the newsstand market and drug stores for the DSM. I just presumed that everyone knew that they had no other choice.

  21. I’m with you Joe. If others want to lament while tying their noose, let them. Change does not = doom, if you are smart and don’t throw in the towel. Where there’s a will there’s a buck.

  22. As a reader/consumer, I am an example of Mr. Hibbs opinion. I avoid “events”. Typically, if a title I buy becomes involved in a cross over, I stop purchasing the title.
    I have made some exceptions and almost always regretted it.
    This means that my monthly “spend” in comics has collapsed.
    4-5 years ago, my LCBS was pulling 30-40 titles a month for me. I’m down to 6 regular titles. Not all of the my decline is due to event nonsense, but that and endless reconning of titles has made me indifferent to alot of mainstream comics.

  23. Colin: what I don’t understand is that if customers WANT the big 2 products why are sales of those products going down?
    I agree that Marvel/DC products sell big but maybe if more comic shops were selling a variety of books from other publishers (including manga) they would attract a bigger and more diversified custom base over time and then wouldn’t so completely depend on the big 2 decisions. So many comic shops don’t even stock anything that is not super mainstream; you know stuff that doesn’t sell like Walking Dead, Scott Pilgrim, Chew, Mouse Guard, Buffy… Does that make commercial sense? It doesn’t to me.
    But I’m not a LCS owner.

  24. Joe: I hope what one of the thing retailers understand is: diversify. And be open to take a little risk on little titles. If a lot of little titles sell well it’s better than one big title selling well. Archaia, Boom, Radical, Ape, to name but a few, also have a lot of great books.
    Diversify!

  25. >Change does not = doom, if you are smart

    Christopher, Joe said (and I agree) that a recovery is possible, “if those working in publishing and retail start working better together.” To me that means both publishers and retailers need to change their business practices. Retailers need to diversify and find other sources of revenue. However, Marvel will continue to drive the repeat business that stores need to survive in the short term. Unfortunately, Marvel’s current products and price points obviously are not applealing to many of their long-time customers. Otherwise, their sales would not be plunging. Marvel’s recent announcement that they are planning another huge, line-wide event is another indication that their current strategies are not working and that they are desparate for a short-term “fix.”

    JM, Marvel’s sales are going down because of high prices; non-stop events; line extensions; needless, cash-grabbing spin-offs and cross-overs; poor art and writing; muddy, monchromatic coloring; decompression; almost zero marketing and advertising; and the many store closings that have occured in the last 12 months.

    You’re right that Archaia, Boom, Radical, and other publishers produce some good, sellable books. Unfortunately, their sales are only a fraction of Marvel and DC’s; most comic shops simply cannot stay in business without sellable books from the “Big 2″.

    Steve

  26. X-fan says:

    Lateness of product is something else that is hurting the industry. I read an interview by one publisher recently who could only defend the lateness of his books by saying that every company had late books.

    With the amount of titles being published by Marvel and DC it would be amazing if they could all ship on time, but it is practically impossible.

    Lateness is one area where small publishers could make a difference that would be a real benefit to themselves.

  27. X-fan says:

    I do agree with everything that Joe said, but with Marvel in particular only caring about number 1, it is difficult to summon up the energy each time we get to this position of battling uphill.

  28. comic guy says:

    You guys ever hear of the internet? You’re on it right now. This is what people are doing instead of buying and reading comics.

  29. comic guy: I’m reading a comic right now on the INTERNET.
    I just blew your mind!

  30. SvenJ says:

    “Too many people within the industry fail to remember even their own entry into collecting comics.”

    that is so NOT the case…

    instead, everyone holds that burnished memory close to their fevered little heart—as if it has any relevance to how new readers TODAY—not yesterday—will find comics…

  31. Jesse Post says:

    X-fan — it’s not exactly true that the newsstand was a shipwreck and the industry had no choice but to leave it. The more complex truth is that the newsstand evolved and comic books chose to stay the same, which the advent of the direct market enabled.

    With “regular” magazines and mass market paperback books selling well at many times the cover price of a comics magazine, newsstand retailers sensibly winnowed their comics orders down to only the best sellers. With the exception of Archie and maybe a few others, no comics publisher opted to raise prices and page counts, change up the format or content, or otherwise create a product that could sell in the changing environment. (Lack of store-level fulfillment was another problem that, again, regular magazine publishers and book publishers were able to overcome.)

    I’m definitely not arguing that this was a bad choice or a good one. A strong argument can be made that publishing two entirely different products for two different audiences and channels would have been costly and burdensome. I’m just saying that publishers did have a choice and they chose to focus on the direct market.

  32. I think there can be a case made that the DM left comics. At my day job, I work for a publishing company and can attest that it’s a fight to get shelf space–let alone premium shelf space, let alone a single-purpose rack–at certain outlets. It’s something many publishers experience, and it seems that Marvel and DC’s response was to walk away rather than play that game.

    It’s hard to say whether that was the proper move or not–right now, it sure doesn’t seem like it, based on sales. If the big two are guilty of anything, it’s pandering. They give readers what they want, which is more of the same titles, in the same format, that they’ve been doing for however many decades.

    One fundamental thing that gets ignored in all this is not just the market bankruptcy, but the creative bankruptcy as well. I’d say that plays a large role in this as well. I’m not going to come out and say that all the Wolverine, Deadpool, etc. titles aren’t any good–they just aren’t necessary. And hey, writers and artists need to eat, so talented people end up doing rote work on a rote book. And consumers are responding, it seems, at least to a degree.

  33. Sorry, meant MM above, not DM.

  34. X-fan says:

    Jesse, yes, the truth is the details are more complex than this forum really allows, but the reality is that once comics started on the Direct Sale market path, they didn’t look back until it was too late. There are so few publishers/editors with any experience with the mass market at the big two that I do not see them making a significant course change. This will hopefully be an advantage the smaller publishers can and will take advantage of.

  35. Wraith says:

    X-fan — it’s not exactly true that the newsstand was a shipwreck and the industry had no choice but to leave it. The more complex truth is that the newsstand evolved and comic books chose to stay the same, which the advent of the direct market enabled.

    With “regular” magazines and mass market paperback books selling well at many times the cover price of a comics magazine, newsstand retailers sensibly winnowed their comics orders down to only the best sellers. With the exception of Archie and maybe a few others, no comics publisher opted to raise prices and page counts, change up the format or content, or otherwise create a product that could sell in the changing environment. (Lack of store-level fulfillment was another problem that, again, regular magazine publishers and book publishers were able to overcome.)

    I’m definitely not arguing that this was a bad choice or a good one. A strong argument can be made that publishing two entirely different products for two different audiences and channels would have been costly and burdensome. I’m just saying that publishers did have a choice and they chose to focus on the direct market.

    ____________________________

    You bring up a very good point Jesse. IMO, I think that a near perfect middle ground solution to get comics back on the newsstands and in other non DM venues, is to have 2 separate formats for comics. The DM will continue to get comics in the standard regular single issue format, and a month later the newsstands (and other venues) will get those same monthly comics as part of a line of over sized magazines at a higher price. These magazines will each contain five or more full comic book series each month. Each magazine would contain related books. For example, an X-MEN magazine would contain monthly issues of X-MEN,UNCANNY X-MEN,X-MEN LEGACY,X-FORCE ,and ASTONISHING X-MEN.

  36. X-fan says:

    Wraith, I think you are on the right track. Would people be willing to buy 1 X-Men book a month, but it would have the equivalent of three or four issues worth of material for $6? This would mean some great variety like a whole graphic novel one month, three separate stories the next, two separates stories and a continuing story the month after.

    Anyone game for that?

  37. And what about the Manga format that sells at newstands in Japan: a lot of pages, black and white, cheap paper, very cheap cover price?
    And then a nice collected edition on better paper that can sell in bookstores?

    The big 2 don’t want to change things because they have a model that makes sense for them and that works, at least for now.

    But indie publishers are already trying different things like Radical with their new model of like 90 pages per issue for 6 dollars, or Kickstart making deals with big retailers outside of the DM. And I’m not even talking about digital.
    I think whatever happens to the big 2 and the LCS will be of their own making. They can hardly criticize customers for not buying books that become irrelevant or for a system they have created and jealously guarded.

  38. “And what about the Manga format that sells at newstands in Japan: a lot of pages, black and white, cheap paper, very cheap cover price?
    And then a nice collected edition on better paper that can sell in bookstores?”

    Manga creators get four to six hours of sleep a night. They pay a team of support artists out of pocket in order to make their sixteen to twenty pages per week deadlines.

    And like the American industry did so long ago, they’ve decided that since geeks (otaku) are the ones who buy no matter what, they’ll focus on them to the exclusion of other demographics.

    They’re losing sales as well. In the current weak global economy, both countries comics industries are feeling the bite of their own short-sightedness.

    ….

    “The more complex truth is that the newsstand evolved and comic books chose to stay the same, which the advent of the direct market enabled.”

    *ding*ding*ding*

    All of the industry’s wounds are self inflicted. All of them.

  39. Steve says:

    >I’m not going to come out and say that all the Wolverine, Deadpool, etc. titles aren’t any good–they just aren’t necessary

    Agree; they’re only necessary for Marvel to meet ther quarterly sales goals (which is extremely important to a corporation). I’m sure the Marvel editors would rather publish a mix of Western, War, Romance, and Super-Hero comics (among others). Unfortunately, those first three no longer sell.

    Steve

  40. Agree; they’re only necessary for Marvel to meet ther quarterly sales goals (which is extremely important to a corporation).

    That’s the inherent issue though. Marvel has backed themselves in a corner–creatively and financially–where they have to follow the market, rather than create it. The tail is wagging the dog here, which is never a good thing. The point is that Marvel, and DC, have a slew of creative, smart, and talented people at their disposal, just waiting and wanting to do work for them. And the best they can do is toss them on the umpteenth variation of a Wolverine story. That’s creative bankruptcy, and you can’t even use sales as a defense–the numbers prove that even these books aren’t selling like they once did.

  41. X-fan — it’s not exactly true that the newsstand was a shipwreck and the industry had no choice but to leave it. The more complex truth is that the newsstand evolved and comic books chose to stay the same, which the advent of the direct market enabled. With “regular” magazines and mass market paperback books selling well at many times the cover price of a comics magazine, newsstand retailers sensibly winnowed their comics orders down to only the best sellers. With the exception of Archie and maybe a few others, no comics publisher opted to raise prices and page counts, change up the format or content, or otherwise create a product that could sell in the changing environment. (Lack of store-level fulfillment was another problem that, again, regular magazine publishers and book publishers were able to overcome.) I’m definitely not arguing that this was a bad choice or a good one. A strong argument can be made that publishing two entirely different products for two different audiences and channels would have been costly and burdensome. I’m just saying that publishers did have a choice and they chose to focus on the direct market. ____________________________ You bring up a very good point Jesse. IMO, I think that a near perfect middle ground solution to get comics back on the newsstands and in other non DM venues, is to have 2 separate formats for comics. The DM will continue to get comics in the standard regular single issue format, and a month later the newsstands (and other venues) will get those same monthly comics as part of a line of over sized magazines at a higher price. These magazines will each contain five or more full comic book series each month. Each magazine would contain related books. For example, an X-MEN magazine would contain monthly issues of X-MEN,UNCANNY X-MEN,X-MEN LEGACY,X-FORCE ,and ASTONISHING X-MEN.

  42. Steve says:

    >the numbers prove that even these books aren’t selling like they once did.

    Yes, I’ve long wondered why Marvel and DC refuse to revive a monthly War title (e.g., Howling Commandos or Sgt Rock). Surely a War comic couldn’t sell worse than Hit Monkey or Azrael. (I know DC recently published some War one-shots.)

    Steve

  43. William George: please read my post. I’m talking about the FORMAT not about Manga.
    A lot of pages could mean a lot of different stories, like an anthology, not necessarily a lot of pages by the same creator.

  44. Steve: “I’m sure the Marvel editors would rather publish a mix of Western, War, Romance, and Super-Hero comics (among others). Unfortunately, those first three no longer sell.”

    It’s hard to say something doesn’t sell when nobody is selling it. That’s my big problem with a lot of LCS. They ‘assume’ something will not sell, don’t order it and then rejoice in their self-fulfilled prediction.
    Who would have thought that zombie comics would sell before the Walking Dead came along?
    How many potential big-sellers have been killed in the nest before they even had a chance?

  45. And food for thought: sales numbers for best selling Japanese manga in 2010:
    http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2010-11-30/top-selling-manga-in-japan-by-series/2010

    Incredible numbers for creator-owned books!

  46. JM, pretty much in agreement with you. As to Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman did the opposite of what all the other Image creators did. He took what he was doing at Image and copied it at Marvel.

    Steve, Marvel and DC’s biggest sellers are all core universe material. That is where they use their marketing dollars and expend their pr muscle. They promote what is likely to sell and ignore what isn’t. Surprise, surprise,when a war or western comic won’t sell.

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