• Saving the comic book Industry.

Back in the early 90’s, the best-selling comic book was selling in the millions. Today, it runs about 150,000. Why the drop-off? Well the early 90’s were part of the “speculation market,” where companies would print comics with 10 different covers and collector’s would buy 10 of each cover thinking it would be worth something eventually. But it turned out that they weren’t worth much of anything and the bottom dropped out.

Now, comic books today seem to have it together. They are written and drawn a thousand times better than they were then. There are more independent comics infiltrating the market place. There are some amazing books being put out right now.

So, how do we get more people reading these great stories in comic books? I think a lot of the problem lies with the industry itself.

The comic book industry is very unique. The way it works is basically monthly comic books are sold almost exclusively at Direct Market Stores aka Comic Book Stores. Nearly all the monthly comic books are ordered through one distribution company called Diamond.

The Big Two comic book companies, Marvel & DC, keep these book stores alive as they create the vast majority of monthly comic books.

Comic books are also collected every 6 or so issues into Trade Paperbacks (TPB) or created originally in long-form books called Graphic Novels. Some of the terminology switches all around, but this is how I think of it, so this is how I’m referring to it. TPBs & Graphic Novels are also available at most major bookstores such as BN or Borders.

You can compare it to Television. If you wanna watch the Office, you can watch it weekly on NBC or purchase the DVD at the end of the year. NBC is the only place you can watch the Office weekly. The Comic Book Store is the only place you can read comics weekly. But you can still buy the Office DVDs at Wal-Mart. And you can still buy TPBs at Borders.

But, if no one watched the Office weekly, then it would never be released on DVD. In the same way, if no one read the monthly comics, they would never be released in TPB format. So, the Comic Book Stores are, in many ways, the life-blood of the comic market. Without them, the industry would be much more limited, as it’s more difficult for writer’s and artists to take off a year to create a Graphic Novel. With the monthly comics, it creates a source of revenue to keep them going.

Now, the problem is that a lot of times people are turned off to Comic Book Stores. Many of the stereotypes unfortunately turn out to be true. The snooty “comic-book guy” behind the counter. The disorganized floor. The fact that they are hard to find.

So, are there some ways to improve the Comic Book Store to better bring in new customers? Here are my suggestions:

A) Starbucks-ing Comics

As far as I know, there are no franchised comic bookstores. A guy may own one or two, but for the most part, they are individually owned and operated (funny that they all seem to look like though…)

What if someone had some capital and they took the initiative to start a comic book store franchise? As a franchise, they could negotiate a deal with Diamond for more of a discount since they would be ordering more books. Or better yet, Diamond should start their own stores, offering books at a massive discount to get people in the door.

More than just price though, a franchised store could set themselves up as non-‘comic book guy’ friendly. Where an average Joe (and especially average Jane) could walk into the store, be greeted by the friendly, knowledgeable, and hip staff who ask them if they need help finding anything. The staff could ask what other media they are into… “What’s your favorite movie?” Based on their answer, they find them the book that best suits them.

Maybe they have a Barne’s & Noble-style open policy, where the books aren’t bagged, but someone can come in and sit and read a comic if they want without the staff hounding them.

Basically we need stores that are all over the country where a normal person wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen in them.

B) Selling Out to Corporate America

As I mentioned before, BN & Borders both have sections for Graphic Novels & TPBs, but their monthly comic sections is VERY limited. What if these stores created a section for monthly comics that carried everything from the hottest Marvel book, to the most out-there indie.

Many of these stores, from what I understand, order through a variety of distribution companies, so by starting a good monthly comics section, they most certainly would rise up some competition to (near monopoly) Diamond, thereby dropping prices.

Not only that, but these are stores that are already accepted. If someone is walking through looking for the latest Stephen King novel and runs across his Dark Tower series put out by Marvel, then they might pick it up. Whereas, this King fan would never be caught dead inside a comic book store.

C) 50 Years in the Future

Digital comics are coming our way, just not very soon. One day, you’ll be able to get online, order a comic book, be able to download it immediately, copy it to your “digital book” device, and read it right there. This will, of course, change the way people receive and read their comics.

The problem is, right now, no one wants to read a comic on their computer screen. There is nothing that can replace the touch and smell and sight of reading a new printed comic.

But one day, as technology grows, we’ll have devices that will take the place of books and no one will be complaining. Comic books could very well herald this technology in, as I would assume, pictures with words will look better on these things than just words.

I, for one, will hang onto the physical books as long as possible. But, if one day, it would be this easy to receive comic books, it is possible that the industry could grow enormously as we take out any obstacle one might face of buying a comic, whether that be embarrassment or just not being able to find a place.

I do think that something needs to change in order for this industry to grow. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

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9 comments
  1. Daniel McD said:

    Hey Hudson, very cool blog. Your passion for comics is admirable. I also found your analysis and suggestions about the comic biz interesting and informative.

    I only buy comics when I get the urge for some nostalgia. It’s one of the few remnants of childhood that can be recouped with just a few bucks.

    However, I am usually disappointed with comic books (in their current state). Not because of the quality of art or writing. The story is barely a story. More like a glimpse of a story. A preview.

    When did that happen? It is because of the graphic novel and TPB? (or is my assumption another faulty childhood memory like… when I was a kid, ice cream cones were as big as my head.)

    My suggestion. Give the reader more to work with, in the comic book, then put the killer cliff hanger ending in the TPB.

    Congratulations on creating your own blog and much success with it.

    Daniel McD

  2. Hudson Phillips said:

    Thanks so much Daniel,

    I agree with what you’re saying about the brevity of comic books. Generally a story arc lasts 5 or 6 issues, so each issue of that story arc doesn’t contain too much of a story.

    I liken it to an hour long TV program equaling about 6 issues of a comic book. So one comic book is like watching for 10 minutes before the commercial break.

    This is due mainly to the fact that an artist can draw about a page a day… so most comic books are 22 pages (also due to printing issues). This can limit the story.

    The comics of a few decades ago may have had more story to each book, but they were poorly written and crammed exposition and ‘thinking out loud’ into every page so that they could get a full story out of 22 pages.

    Comics today are a lot more cinematic… they take some time to get the story going, which isn’t a bad thing.

    A good comic book has those cliffhangers at the end of each book, much like a good tv show does before each commercial break.

    I personally only read a couple of monthly books because of this. I prefer to read full stories all together. But I do enjoy the monthly books I buy because they are good portions of stories that have me wanting for more. It can be done well, leaving you feeling fulfilled from issue to issue.

    For better or worse, this is just the nature of the comic book industry.

  3. mellon said:

    good thoughts, and unfortunately no easy solutions

    star-bucking is made nigh impossible due to the nature of the direct market.

    everything is non-returnable. so everything comics-wise that a store orders, is going to sit on that shelf till it sells. there are very few options for returning unsold product. which is how bigger chains can carry books and mags in the quantity that they do. they don’t care if it doesn’t sell, ultimately. they get their investment back after a certain amount of time.

    comic stores are somewhat unique in that they are buying the product and have to live with whether or not they made a bad choice.

    it’s kept the industry going since the collapse, but it’s kept the industry from growing outside of the DM because no one wants to invest in such a speculative thing. cus no one is ever sure what will sell and when.

    BN’s and Borders have the same problem, while there is a bit more returnability seeing as they can choose to get SOME things from outside of Daimond, they still are beholden to Diamond for most of their GN orders. and again, non-returnable. which in a bookstore is not a good thing. so they rack what sells, and what sells well. they’re also very driven by the market that they live in. urban bookstores are more likely to carry some more “hip” GN’s, whereas Suburban stores will mostly carry top 20 GN’s and manga.

    people aren’t afraid of comic shops because comics are foreign to them, they’re afraid of comic shops because the people that run and frequent them make them feel out of place for being there. it’s a vicious cycle.

    as far as digital goes, what a lot of people don’t get is that digital comics have a completely different audience than print comics. as a creator you’re not marketing to the same audience right now. they are two completely different audiences. understanding that, and then understanding that the people who already do web comics are light years ahead of us print guys in how to market and promote that way will better help you to understand the divide when print guys go online.

    just my 2 cents.

    -mellon

  4. Hudson Phillips said:

    Kevin, thanks for the comment. You bring up some issues seem to be at the heart of the problem.

    Have comics always been returnable? How has this kept the market going?

    It seems like Diamond is keeping the market alive for the time-being, but at the same time killing it in the long run.

    Obviously it’s a win-win for Diamond to force comic stores to purchase non-returnable books, but how hard is it for new stores to open and existing stores to stay open?

    So, would Diamond ever have any motivation to change this policy? If not, is it even possible for a new distributor to enter the business with Diamond’s near monopoly? Is the industry doomed because of this?

    The smart thing for Diamond CEO Steve Geppi to do, since he truly seems to love comics, is to open his own chain of comic stores. If anyone could do it, it’d be him. He has the money, resources, and can take the risk.

    And it would be an opportunity to completely re-brand comic book stores. In the same way that Apple has re-branded computer stores.

  5. mellon said:

    comics have been non-returnable since the inception of the direct market in the late 70’s early 80’s.

    up until the crash, they were returnable in book/mag/convenience locations. but non-returnable in the DM.

    having returnability now would kill the bottom of the market.

    as in, no more indy books.

    everything from image, dark horse on down that wasn’t selling (by my guess) the upper 10k range would probably be dropped, and an increased dependence on straight to trade OGN’s would happen. but you would see less put out every year that wasn’t big 2 generated.

    the level of difficulty of new stores/existing stores is very dependent on where they open and how they run their business.

    a lot of stores barely stay open, and a lot of stores are cash cows. it just depends. returnability would help the stores in the long run, but right now because of non-returns, it forces stores to be more picky with what they order, so therefore they mostly only order what they can reasonably guess will sell and not much more. in a returnable market, stores would order like crazy and not care if it sold and then ship it all back. which would kill the market from the other end.

    diamond has no, and needs no motivation to change this. the same reason it’s good for publishers is the same reason it’s good for diamond. guaranteed sales. money in pocket.

    is the industry doomed? dunno. depends on who you ask. i say no. esp. not in light of the way the internet is changing how we function on a daily basis. diamond’s a little slow to catch up, but they’re doing their best.

    they’re instituting several changes next year that will hurt some people in the short term, but help all in the long run.

    1. they are instituting a POS system. point of sale is at every fucking store in the world except most comic shops.

    what is point of sale? basically a computerized system that scans the barcodes and records what is sold and has the capability to report those sales to a central system. in my LCS, that central system is the owner’s home. in Diamonds case, i dunno. but it’ll help things definitely.

    2. considering the POS being instituted, Diamond will now require everyone who solicits through diamond to have a bar code/isbn number.

    shocked, eh?

    that’s right, most indy books DO NOT have an isbn. this costs money that most indy pubs/creators do not have.

    this is bad for them in the short term, but good for the industry as a whole in the long term.

    books with isbn can be carried in more places besides comic shops.

    like amazon.

    steve geppi does have a chain of comic shops that do well for him.

    they’re called diamond distributing warehouses. it’s not fancy, but they seem to be doing well.

    whether or not he has the resources… there’s grumblings and rumours. i don’t know much other than that.

    apple re-branded computer stores based on the simple notion that people wanted smarter and better and were willing to pay for it.

    that’s not true with comics.

    comics are a pop culture medium akin to music and tv. while a fringe medium, they ultimately thrive on mass appeal.

    apple, until recent years, has thrived on being smarter than the competition. and i would wager that is still true, but with the added bonus of making even idiots feel like they’re in on what’s hip and cool even though the rest of us know otherwise.

    how does that translate? it doesn’t.

    comics aren’t getting cheaper, and they’ve already priced themselves out of being disposable entertainment.

    hence we need to rebrand them as music, and novels and movies… things you want to own and re-read and pass on.

    -mellon

  6. Oinkman said:

    The problem I see in the comic book industry is mainly about the distribution of the product, advertising, and their demographics. By the 90’s the comic industry internalized shunning away anyone who was not a “hardcore” fan by only distributing to comic book stores that only previously sold old issues.
    The industry needs an aggressive nintendo/apple type business plan to lift the veil of exclusion that it put on itself for almost 20 years.How do they do that? While making a Starbucks type store would by a major draw for hardcore to moderate fans for convenience sake it would still have a bit of a stigma from the everyday person. The key is to distribute to the grocery stores and other more public venues again and get their product to a wider audience.
    Advertising in the industry is hard for me to understand. They put ads for comics in other comics.They’ll only attract people who already read comic books who were probably going to buy the book anyway. The specialty magazines (video game, movie, technology, and even lifestyle magazines) are prime territory for advertising to new customers who might have an interest.
    Now that the product is out their you need to attract the masses. One of the many reasons manga blows the American industry out the water is because they got girls to read comics again. That in itself isn’t special but it showed that if you give customers the ability to pick a story from a huge range of genres they’ll by hook on one of them. After the comic book hearings in congress that ran the same time as the McCarthy hearings comics involving horror, crime drama, and other things were banned , severely cutting the demo. The current industry has those sort of comics now but regulate them to imprints and indie comics. If more genres were put in the forefront along with the superhero comics it would bring more people. I’m not saying kill the cape and cowl but give it some support.

  7. Hudson Phillips said:

    Great thoughts you guys! I’m really enjoying this conversation…

    If bookstores could order knowing they could return un-sellable books, wouldn’t they order a lot more quantity? Giving a lot more choice to the consumer? Especially in places like BN & Borders?

    If books were returnable, stores could take more chances in what they order, and therefore order more, and therefore some of those image, dark horse, & indy books that are selling poorly could sell in the 10K range. It would force the publishers and creators to do more marketing and throwing a wider net to gain new readers.

    it seems like the returnability of books keeps the market alive, but just barely. It acts as a crutch. Indy books can sell a few thousand copies, just enough to keep them alive, and it doesn’t matter if the end consumer buys the books or not as long as the Direct Market stores are ordering them.

    The books are either going to sell or not. If the books are returnable or not, it doesn’t affect the end consumer either way.

    Right now, publishers spend all their marketing budget on marketing to Direct Market stores… leaving very little to market to the target consumer, much less new readers.

    And if the independent comics stop selling in stores, then they can publish & sell their work online in the same way that independent bands do it. I see no problem with this. If Direct Market stores only end up selling the Big 2 books as a result of returnable books, then so be it. The consumers should dictate the market.

    That’s how it works in movies. People complain that so many movies are big and dumb… and they keep churning them out… but people pay to see those movies. That’s why they keep making them. The audience demands it. But that doesn’t mean that great films aren’t made on the independent level.

    As far as an Apple-ish branded comic book store. I think all Apple did was A) make computers cool and B) make them available to mass-audiences. The stores were part of the re-branding of computers.

    Comic books need to re-brand in the same way. Publishers are already making comic books cool. They just need a way to make them available to mass-audiences. And not just make them available, but make them available in a way that is cool… And right now, as cool as comics are, there are very few cool, comfortable places to purchase them.

    I’d love to hear everyone’s ideas on what a re-branded comic book store could look like….

    Maybe it’s not strictly comics, but it’s a pop-culture store with an emphasis on comics.

    Maybe it’s a mini-Barnes & Noble, where you can come in, and sit on a couch and browse a few comics before buying something.

    Or maybe we do need to get rid of the Direct Market all together and put comic books where they belong… right next to the movies, books, & music at your local media super-store.

  8. mellon said:

    you both say that they should dump a bunch of money into different marketing and new ways of getting a wider audience, which is fine in theory, but only minorly successful in practice. contrary to opinion, there IS NOT a lot of money in comics, and even at the big two the majority of the money they make if off of licensing and NOT comics. so it doesn’t behoove either of them to take money they don’t really have and to funnel into ventures that would only garner a few percentage points of upswing for a short amount of time.

    DC doesn’t break even. they operate in the red because they are essentially an IP farm for warner brothers. Marvel has only recently been posting profits, most of which due to the movie and licensing arms of the company. the comics at both are doing okay, but nowhere near what the movie and toy shit is doing.

    as far as re-branding comics goes, that’s a generational thing that has to happen with us and not the companies. the companies can only sell to the audience they have and not to a hypothetical audience that hasn’t been created yet.

    you both talk of cutting out the DM as if that was an option at all. it’s really not. i’m ALL for comics being as widely available as possible, and in as many locations as can be. but if you cut out the DM anytime before that happens, you cut out your core buying audience. half of being a comic fan these days is being a part of something that not as many other people are into. you don’t have to like that it is that way, just understand that it is and do what you can to work within that perception to change it.

    GN’s are already available in most mass market stores, so it’s not a matter of making them available. it’s a matter of making people WANT to even look at them. and that starts with us. it has nothing to do with publishers or DM stores. it has to do with creators making people aware of their work and making people feel like they’re missing out if they don’t have it.

    music analogies work better than movie analogies, simply because the comics industry and music biz are 2 of the few places where you can reach such a mass audience with barely any go between. youtube is changing that for movie shit, but i wouldn’t recon by much. yet.

    as far as re-branding stores? look at isotope in san fran. james sime runs the future of comics shops, and has been for years. but it can only succeed in places like SF right now. the midwest couldn’t handle a place like isotope and make any money to keep it open for long enough to make it a brand. at least not from my vantage point. i’d love to see that not be the case though.

    okay, i’m tired of typing.

  9. Hudson Phillips said:

    I’m certainly not blaming the publishers re: marketing. They have no choice but to market to the existing comic book stores, because they do have limited marketing budgets and without the “bread and butter” of the direct market, they couldn’t stay alive. But because of the nature of this, they have no money left over to market to “general audiences.” That is no fault of theirs. They have no choice.

    And all of these ideas are just theories. Yes, you can’t get rid of the Direct Market, because that IS the comic book industry. All I wanna do is put a magnifying glass on it and figure out why comics are looked at the way they are from the outside public, and figure out ways to change this.

    And I totally agree with you… I do believe that if anyone is going to change the comic book industry, it’s not the publishers, or stores, or distributors… it’s the people they read and make comics. Everyone who reads comics needs to make it a point to share them with others. To show that comics can be cool and that comics are a viable art form and medium. To make comics sexy… Changing the public perception begins with the creators & the consumers.

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