The new comics rack at The Beguiling. Photo courtesy Photosapience
The problem with disagreeing with Brian Hibbs’ column, “Tilting At Windmills,” is that it always feels a little like telling a business owner “hey, you don’t know how to run your business” when really, you just have different ideas about the nature of how businesses are run.
For example, in Hibbs’ last column, he talks about how single issue comics (and specifically longer storylines which are serialised over any number of single issues before being collected in trade paperback), are necessary for comic shop owners…. not so much for their bottom line as for their cash flow. Here’s Brian talking about it:
In the micro, the periodical comic book provides a tremendous amount of cash flow to both publisher and retailer. Book publishing tends to be â€œburstâ€-y â€“ weeks will pass where nothing especially significant gets published, then half a dozen major books will all drop at once. Without the (relatively) steady week-in, week-out publication of serialized comics, your friendly neighborhood comics store will never be able to keep their doors open.
At Comix Experience, over half of our sales come from book-format material (as opposed to comics-format), but Iâ€™d have to shut tomorrow without the steady, and reliable cash-flow that the periodical provides. Periodicals provide cash-flow, books provide the profit.
This totally rubbed me the wrong way. Hibbs is right, of course, in saying that without periodicals “your friendly neighborhood comics store” would close their doors. This is because their operations, their business plan, all of it is rooted in this system of periodical comics serialisation and release. If everything that eventually would get released in trade paperback was instead only released in trade paperback starting tomorrow, yeah, the whole system would collapse.
But if you took the percentages Hibbs puts forth in his piece, ‘more than half’ of his gross coming in from book-format titles, and told him to try and operate under similar conditions 10 years ago, he’d have a similar system collapse. His observation that periodicals provide cash-flow is, while accurate, also irrelevant, because it’s far from the only method of generating cash-flow as a retailer and I don’t personally believe it’s the most effective in a market that is increasingly moving away from periodical production. It’s simply “how things are done because that’s how we’ve always done them” and if there’s one thing I’m tired of seeing in comics, it’s that. I’m not arguing that it’s not useful to have these comics for cashflow purposes, but again, it’s not the only way.
Particularly when the customers are telling you, in increasing numbers, that those comics aren’t what they want.
If the complaint is that Vertigo in particular have trained customers to wait for the trade, then developing systems to punish readers who do so is not the answer. Actually, that sounds a lot like you actually don’t like your customers very much, which… again. I’m not telling you how to run your business, we just disagree that making it harder or more annoying for people to buy things in my store serves me in the long run. Mr. Hibbs, if Vertigo can’t launch a series these days because their audience is either entirely divided or has massively switched to a different format preference, then Vertigo needs to follow the money, so to speak, and start publishing the way that their customers want. Their original graphic novel program has been doing fairly well as of late, so far as I can tell and so far as I’ve heard, with good word-of-mouth and press for SENTENCES, PRIDE, FABLES 1001 NIGHTS, and lots of buzz surrounding upcoming titles. If something like Crossing Midnight or American Virgin can’t catch on sales-wise in single issue format, which leads to poor sales on the collection, ‘enh’. Hibbs makes the argument that Crossing Midnight in particular is a good book, “as high in quality as Fables”, but Crossing Midnight was a book with an exceptionally, painfully slow start that crippled sales in our store. I’m glad that the series has (apparently) found its creative feet, but the most common compliment about the book that I’ve heard is that “it really took until issue 4 for the premise to become clear and for it to get good”. That’s four months, including a heavily-promoted first issue, for readers to encounter the series, not enjoy it, and either spread the word (negatively) or just skip it all-together. “I tried it, didn’t like it. On to something else.” If that book were an OGN and came together in the last third and then ended on a great, positive note? Great! A new series of books that we can sell! One that hadn’t been poisoned by consumer apathy after 4 months of mediocre comics!
Hibbs’ other argument is the cost of moving to trade paperback-only releases; are consumers going to try out a new title that will run them $20 instead of $3? They didn’t mind doing it for Pride of Baghdad, which may have been a fluke, but let’s look at Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm. It launches at 1,700 copies, which ranked it number 63 on the top 100 graphic novels for that month. Retailers are notoriously cheap about ordering OGNs, particularly hard covers, but those numbers aren’t bad. Particularly when, at $20 a pop, that’s the equivilent of sales of about 11,400 copies at three bucks a pop, placing it alongside DMZ and 100 BULLETS rather than American Virgin… Also, has a black lead character, which is usually sales death in the male/white/hetero-centric direct market. Actually, hah, if the MF GRIMM hardcover had its sales translated to the single-issue charts, it would be the top-selling book with a black lead character for the month. Sentences isn’t just a success for a Vertigo Original Graphic Novel, it’s a TRIUMPH for the comics industry.
Okay, seriously, 1705 sales is pretty mediocre through the direct-market, but it’s still better than a 10th of the top-seller of the month, The Walking Dead Volume 7, which moved around 13k during the month, and which shows you that these aren’t vast gulfs of numbers we’re talking about here, like the 150,000 copies and 8,000 copies that mark the top and bottom of the top 300. Speaking of the best-selling graphic novel of the month, although it wasn’t listed as part of Hibbs’ thesis (being as it isn’t a Vertigo book) TWD sells about 23k in serialization and that 13k in collection, which (while not at par) is pretty interesting. It’s another one where the collection comes out directly on the heels of the serialisation, quicker than any Vertigo collection, and usually following a much more eratic serialisation schedule. And yet? It totally works, there are distinct audiences for both formats… The series gets stronger and stronger in collection, with new readers funneled into the collections stream, and yet there are a ton of readers who still find the single issues incredibly compelling. Why is this, do you think? Maybe it’s because EACH ISSUE IS INCREDIBLY COMPELLING. I don’t even care if you think it’s “good” or not, but you can’t argue that ending each issue on a “literally anything can happen” cliff-hanger makes for a compelling read. This is a characteristic that it shares with the successful titles in Vertigo’s line; Fables, Y The Last Man, 100 Bullets, DMZ, these are titles with compelling larger narratives as well as individual issue-to-issue reads that reward the reader for coming back every month (the exact opposite of wanting to punish the reader who only wants to come back every 6 months…). Maybe the problem with series like American Virgin (recently cancelled) or Un-Men (unspectacular launch) is that through both execution and concept, they just aren’t grabbing people! You can argue that Army @ Love is as high-quality as Fables all you want, but Vertigo’s had a long, successful history with fairytales and fantasy that enabled it work to find an audience for that series. They’ve got no history at making something like Army @ Love work… hell, I’m actually not sure who the audience for that series is other than “Vertigo readers” and “Fans of Rick Veitch”, who’re both lovely groups of people, but quite a bit smaller as a prospective audience than Fables’ “Fantasy/Fairy Tale Readers” and “Fans of Neil Gaiman” demographics.
Also: Quality doesn’t mean fuck all when it comes to sales. They cancelled The Invisibles twice for low sales, and that’s better than anything Vertigo is publishing these days by a good solid measure.
Getting to my eventual point: Vertigo is training readers to wait for the trade: Fantastic! I don’t know why they’ve decided to take the financial hit to do so, but someone needed to do it to clear out some of the clutter of single issues that dominates the Previews catalog. There’s between 20 and 40 book-format comics being released to the direct market every week, at $10-$50 a pop. It’s nice when we get to build an audience for something over a couple of issues, but it’s just as nice to build an audience for something like NAOKI URASAWA’S MONSTER by selling them the first $10 trade, and then having them be hooked on a series of $10 evergreen books, rather than $3 periodicals with a 30 day shelf life. We’re not hurting for product to sell outside of the single-issue format, I don’t think any other forward-looking retailer is facing that problem either…
If the readership is seriously moving towards collections on the Vertigo titles, lets support that and get behind it sales-wise rather than trying to do anything to cripple it. Follow the money, not the past.
Oh, and I outright don’t-buy the argument that readers won’t sample a new IP (intellectual property) when it’s $20 rather than $3… They do it in every popular medium including dvds, cds, video games, movies, oh and BOOKS, like from bookstores. Between internet previews, magazine previews, advance reader copies, POP material and more, there’s plenty of ways to get the customer interested in your project well before it arrives in stores, and rather than instituting an earnings-cap at Vertigo by telling them how infrequently they’re allowed to publish trade paperbacks, I’d rather they used any money they’re making by pumping two FABLES trades out a year (thanks, DC/Vertigo!) to print up previews and promotion for their OGN program, like that preview the published of the forthcoming CAIRO Original Graphic Novel (that generated quite a bit of advance interest in the book for us…). Sounds like a better use of everyone’s money to me.
My two cents.
Sorry for the delay, I’ve been sick.