Tilting at Windmills #286: The Era Changes – Part One

By Brian Hibbs

Everything is changing for the “Direct Market” – the roughly 3000 independent stores around the world who sell periodical comics – in ways that it hasn’t changed in more than a quarter of a century. Virtually everything that we know or understand about how the market functions is going to be entirely upended by the beginning of Penguin Random House’s (PRH) distribution of Marvel comics, and I, for one, take that as direct blowback from DC’s attempt to rewrite their own distribution in the wake of COVID. There’s probably not going to be another more momentous period in my professional lifetime, and the way that these changes are going to impact many of those roughly three thousand stores needs to be “read into the record”. Now that I have divested myself of our second location (in the end I found a buyer, so San Francisco won’t have to lose another comic book store, yay!), I’m hopeful that this marks a return to monthly columns for Tilting at Windmills for the foreseeable future to chronicle and analyze the new gyrations that the market is going to have to stagger through.

I’d like to restate that presumed number of DM stores – this comes from an excel file that a Diamond employee accidentally sent out as a mass email in November 2019 of every account that was buying Marvel comics (and the exact amounts as an aggregate number) for multiple months, so it seems a pretty rock solid and unimpeachable snapshot. What we don’t know is how many stores more or less we have because of COVID, but I’ve been told unofficially that the number is “steady” – slightly more three thousand store fronts worldwide. Compare that to “independent bookstores” which around the same time was reported as around 2321. Even if those numbers swing around a bunch since COVID, it’s pretty clear to me that the Direct Market has at least a similar kind of footprint as indy book stores. I think that is critical to remember for people who wish for the end of the DM, or the end of Diamond, to parse and process.

To the extent that the DM “works”, it is that as a general rule, there are significantly more human beings willing to lay down $3.99 or more for a 20 page serialization of a work, then there are who will pay $15 or more for that same work in a book format. We only appear to have a single month of officially released sales figures in 2021 so far – the July 2021 comics – but a supremely midlist comic like, to pick a random example, “Black Widow #9” was the 122nd best-selling periodical for the month, and was able to shift nearly 26k copies. The best selling “Black Widow” graphic novel that sold in bookstores via NPD BookScan reporters (which includes Amazon) was all of 873 copies sold in 2020. It’s super likely that this number increased a good amount in 2021 because of the film release (ask me again in four months when I get that data dump!), but I’m going to project that it won’t even triple that number. I’d like to give you an apple-to-apple comparison in the DM for “Black Widow” books, but we haven’t had a proper full year’s worth of DM data since 2019 because of the damned plague – and then the DM was only selling something like 1600 copies of the best-selling “Black Widow” book format comic.

The point of this observation is that the audience for serialization is large multiples of what the audience for the same material in book format is, in virtually any place where we have equal access. Certainly, over a multiple year period, collection can overtake serialization, but in terms of the math of amortizing the creative expenses of creating a work, a properly done serialization is going to outperform the book format material by a factor of somewhere between three and five times from the outset. That multiplicative impact of amortization-by-serialization that is the core health function of the Direct Market, and should not be discounted.

(I am so sure that someone is going to yell, “But Dav Pilkey! But Raina Telgemeier!” here, but let me try to make it clear to you that those ginormous print runs from the best-selling authors are not, in fact, the normal experience of “books” being sold – in point of fact, on the 2020 NPD BookScan charts, the average graphic novel sold just six hundred and sixty copies – and a tiny number of just fifty-one authors represent sixty-one percent of all bookstore reported sales)

(Further, I absolutely believe that if Pilkey and Telgemeier, et al were serialized in an efficient way, that the resulting comic would sell three to five times what the collected books do, though I can’t prove that notion.)

The DM is not a hyper-efficient market. It is decentralized through a network of “mom and pop” stores, and has many many competing operating theories constantly bumping heads against one another. But it does the thing that it does – providing steady and dependable sales for hundreds of cartoonists, month-in and month-out – well enough that any step to dismantle it or downplay it or end-run around it should first have a “Hippocratic” test applied to any such move: First Thing, Do No Harm.

But we’re doing harm, we’re doing general harm to all aspects of the market now as outside players try to change the rules. Whether that is the notion that collection trumps serialization, or that introducing more distribution options will improve things, or that the involvement of venture capital and tech-driven solutions will be improvements, all of these things, I think, should be looked at with a highly suspicious and critical eye as they chip away at the fundamental underpinnings of the market. Comics is an eco-system, and like any eco-system it is critical to make sure parts work harmoniously with one another.

For example, many people try to point to the success of Pilkey and the growth of the middle readers market as a priori indications that book-format = best format. And my countering question will be, “right, but where does the pay come from?” In general, book-only material is paid for by an Advance on Royalties. And as a general rule in overall book publishing is that only a quarter of titles ever pay back their advance; that in most cases, that “advance” you get is all you’re ever going to get. Said advances are usually paid out in chunks. Once upon acceptance of the deal, once upon some physical production milestone (say, acceptance of thumbnails), and the final chunk of actual publication of the work – this can be over two or three years because of the way comics are made! And it appears fairly rare at this moment that, given the labor-intensive nature of making comics, that the overwhelming majority of cartoonists are able to make anything even remotely like a minimum wage while they’re in production of their comics. This survey from the SFWA appears to suggest that the average Advance for a Writer/Artist is roughly $32k. That doesn’t go very far when it is spread over two or three years.

Art from Batman: Wayne Family Adventures on Webtoon

Digital comics appear to be even worse. The Webtoons model, unless I deeply misunderstand it (and it is entirely possible I do!), appears to be that you feed your work into the machine for absolutely no pay whatsoever, and only start earning your first pennies once you cross certain milestones. It’s all opaque, so it’s not especially possible to tell who earns what and when, but this reads like a pyramid scheme to me where the vast majority of participants get exactly nothing from their work, while a tiny number of folks at the top get rich.

The Direct Market, despite its many many flaws, has a clear path to amortizing your production costs and providing a steady income during production. It has a fairly clear and dedicated sales force that is genuinely approachable about expanding your audience. It has a direct and understandable pathway to just how you monetize that serialization, and it appears to me at least to reward craft and effort. While at the same time keeping your name and career visible through regular production that appears on the shelves of a dedicated network of seller’s shelves. And I think that every effort that doesn’t support that system right now, ultimately ends up taking away from it. Not, perhaps, in ways that are cataclysmic on an individual decision basis, but when you collectively add up each little chip away at the edifice, the whole thing starts to fall into doubt.

In the end, I think that if you went to, say, Science Fiction authors, or Poets, or Romance authors, or whichever subset you wanted to point to and said “Hey, how’d you’d like a loose network of roughly 3000 stores who are laser-like focused on what you produce, and have a functioning and profitable system designed around selling that fifty two weeks every year”, all of those folks would, after they picked up their fallen jaw, would go, “How do I sign up??!”, and yet we seem determined to piss it all away.

Really, the most scary and pernicious effort right now to this observer is the “Substack” movement, where that organization is offering top tier creators buckets of money to go and make comics in a newsletter format for a monthly fee from consumers. While most creators appear to be promising that the material will eventually “see print”, the net effect will clearly be a reduction of serialized work inside the DM for at least some period of time, which is absolutely the most dangerous to happen from those same top-tier names that draw the biggest audiences. Further, it puts creators in direct competition for the limited pool of dollars with the very retailers who helped those folks build their career. And most importantly, we can see in the DM that most of the time “unserialized” (in print) material both lowers the profile of the work (because it isn’t in front of the primary audience month-in and month-out), and is then perceived as an “original graphic novel” which virtually always sell many fewer copies than serialization-plus-collection. Now, while it is entirely possible that this may mean more short-term profit for the creators involved, it ultimately will contribute to the hollowing out of the network of independent stores as we have fewer things to sell (because yes, WE depend on those serializations as much as the creators do), and it would seem logically not able to be a sustainable long-term model because the laws of gravity already tells us that most advances never earn back out in mechanisms were “how do I make a profit?” has a model scores of decades old — but outside of one, maybe two people in comics, I can’t even imagine how “newsletter-based” serialization can possibly earn out.. While there may be vast sums involved for these opening stages, the most likely result for the average creator is that those numbers are not going to be sustainable in the second and third frames.

And if we’ve hollowed out the retail market in the meantime, where will they have to come back to?

So that’s the stage we’re on now: one where everyone is running away towards what appear to be pipe dreams, rather than shoring up the fundamental infrastructure that so many have invested their lives into building. And in the meantime, costs for the DM retailers are doing nothing but increasing.

It’s easy to say, “Ah Diamond deserves to die for being a monopoly”, but the net effect of having to order the same number of comics from three distinct distributors, none of which interface with one another, each of which that have radically different systems, rules, and structures, is that our costs go up, while our profits (which were not all that swell in the first place) get eaten away. My overall discount on Marvel will be dropping with the switch to PRH. My overall discount on DC will be dropping with the newest terms of sale. My costs of labor (to order through three different sources, to receive and manage products from three different sources) are going to skyrocket – and none of it, not one thing, does a thing to help me sell a single more comic book. And when Diamond goes out of business and PRH becomes the new monopoly in 2022, it’s going to be that much harder for small and independent comics and creators to have the slightest chance to crack the market.

This week I had to turn in my first FOC order (which fundamentally isn’t – “Final Order Cutoff” is a system in which we can freely open and close orders, as many times as we like, up until a final date…. PRH’s current system is weekly deadlines with no chances to ever revisit them any direction but upwards) and it was a mess for me, and most retailers who were trying to adjust. PRH will certainly get better, I am sure, but it surprised me that they did a worse job than DCBS did in inventing a new distro from nothingness than the largest book distro in the world did with six months lead time. In the meantime, those hundreds, if not thousands of retailer work hours that were wasted this week…. Well, it comes out of our collective pocket. I’ll have more on PRH next month, along with a look at the first receiving on new comics product.

Right at press time for my deadline, we received notification that IDW is also making the move to PRH. Within less than an hour on Facebook groups I saw at least four different (older) comics retailers saying out loud “Hm, maybe I should just retire now?” They weren’t being ironic. The system is leaving many of my class of trade far behind.

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Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

 

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The changes to comics distribution may be harming the ecosystem of the direct market, and that is not good.
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