I’m Thacher E. Cleveland, one of the Super-Fly Comics podcast hosts and until the end of November I was one of the two owners of Super-Fly Comics & Games. After a lot of soul-searching I decided it was time to hang up my Comic Guy license and move on to new adventures. Not only do I have a new job in a new city but I’ll be buying comics again for first time in almost 7 years instead of just reading whatever I want, whenever I want. With the comic industry at a turning point with price wars, “event fatigue” and digital distribution, I’ve picked a hell of a time to get…Back in the Game.
It’s been a particularly grisly month at Marvel. First, they lost the number one publisher spot for two months in a row, then there was a wave of lay-offs of various editorial and staff positions and then a wave of title cancellations began to accumulate (including books that had been solicited but the first issues had never shipped). I’m in no way implying that DC’s success has anything to do with any of this, but it’s clear that for reasons known entirely to them Marvel is, for lack of a better term, battening down their hatches. With continued economic uncertainty, a strong challenge from their closest competitor and a corporate parent to please it just makes sense.
The wave of cuts to Marvel’s publishing line got some folks up in arms about titles they care about getting (or potentially getting) the axe, and Brian Bendis mentioned on Facebook (which also posts to his Twitter account) “preordering with your lcs guarantees you a copy of the book and lets your retailer know theres something of interest for them to consider for the shelf.” It’s a sentiment that’s been brought up quite a bit as comic publishing becomes more uncertain, although there are some (including Super-Fly Comics Podcast co-host and PoP!-Star Jared Whittaker) that take issue with the notion that pre-ordering is a magic bullet that will keep a favorite title on the shelf.
Before we go any further, let’s get into what “pre-ordering” actually means. It’s fairly self-explanitory, but in the conversations that sprung up this past Friday on my Twitter feed about this when I threw in my two cents I think it could stand to have some clarification. Most comic shops operate with a “pull file service” (which I’ve talked about before) that exists not only to make sure that customers don’t miss any copies of a title they’re following but also so that comic shops have a better idea of how many copies to order of a title. Most comics will only order as many copies as they think they can sell. Some look to sell out as fast as possible (so they don’t lose money on “dead stock” hanging around the shelves to be marked down) while others are more liberal and willing to have copies on the shelf so that new customers can get a copy (or current customers can try something new at the spur of the moment). Most shops use the subscription number (or pre-order number) as a baseline, and then look at how many copies they’re actually selling and how many copies they think they can sell above that number. There’s a lot of factors that go in to determining how many copies “above pull” a shop will order and it varies from place to place.
Pre-ordering is important, mainly because comics purchased by shops in the direct market are non-returnable and that tends to make most shop owners fairly conservative in their ordering practices. Many shops will only order 11 copies if all they’re selling is 11 copies, regardless of how many pre-orders they have have for a title. For good or for ill, I tended to lean the other way when I was at Super-Fly. If we were selling 11 consistently, why not try ordering 12? There may be unmet demand since every time a customer came in to look for a certain title it was sold out. Now, you may end up with one copy sitting on the shelf until it’s marked down, but I felt like that risk was worth it if a new customer walked in the door looking for something and was able to find it.
When you don’t have any previous sales date to work with, a retailer has to make guesses about what they think the demand for a title will be. For some books that’s easy. If it’s another Batman/Spider-Man/Avengers/Green Lantern book you know generally what those sell (and if you’re real good at your job the people who are more inclined to get every title in a “family”) and can base your numbers off of that. For your smaller, creator owned and indie books it becomes much more of a gamble and this is where many shops simply order zero copies rather than take a risk. It’s these types of books that pre-ordering is most important for. The best example I can remember is when Top Cow did a Velocity limited series. I didn’t have much faith in the title’s legs, but when the Previews order books came in I had 4 people wanting to get it. Realizing that I might have been underestimating the appeal of the book I ordered a couple of copies for the shelf as well and they ended up selling also.
That’s all well and good for Velocity, but what about everyone else? Sure, I got 4 Previews order forms back subscribing to the series but at the time in any given month I only got maybe 6 or 7 forms back from the 50+ subscription customers Super-Fly had at the time (and that’s with offering Previews FREE to all of them). If people aren’t going to pre-order or look through Previews then other methods have to be taken to make a customer aware of a series that they may enjoy, whether it’s from Marvel, DC or another publisher. Hopefully the folks who work at shops take note of what their regulars are reading and can make suggestions for new material based on that. Like adventure horror comics? Try The Sixth Gun. Like literary fantasy? Try Unwritten. Like crime fiction? Try Scalped. There are even times when Tony or myself would pick up a comic like Morning Glories, read it and then put it in the hands of almost every customer and say “This is really good, you will enjoy it. Trust me.” As long as that trust isn’t violated, customers will respond to that.
That’s the best way to sell something but it’s fairly labor intensive and requires a shop to have actual active salespeople and not monkeys that just sit at a register ringing up whatever comes in front of them. I’ve seen more of those shops that I’d like, and I’m always hearing about more. Even when you’re putting Previews in the hands of a customer it’s a little intimidating, and I can imagine not every comic reader wants to sit for a couple of hours each month putting in a lot of work so they can spend more money. At some point publishers have to do a little outreach to let the readers know that a book is coming out and find ways to convince them to buy it. For the most part that outreach consists of preview pages in comics a reader is already buying or on a news site, as well as some interviews with a site about the creative team. If a reader is a fan of a creator, they’re probably following them on some social networking site and that writer/artist will mention that they have new work coming out.
Those are all effective ways of getting the word out about a new title (or a new team on an old title), but they also require active work on the part of the reader to find out about it. Fans of creators or characters are going to seek out those things they’re into, but if someone doesn’t know who Marjorie Liu or X-23 is, what’s out there tell them “Hey, here’s this book and this is why you should buy it.”? This is where the “if you don’t pre-order your books they’ll go away” argument begins to falter. What is out there convincing people to pre-order those books in the first place?
Comic readers have been hit by the economy as hard as the publishers have. With the costs of books rising it’s becoming harder and harder to convince a reader to spend their money on something they’re unsure of. For good or for ill, a customer may go “Hey, I’m a Batman fan and I only have enough money to buy the Batman books that are coming out.” Publishers know they’ve got customers that feel this way and voila, more Batman books start coming out. Even then, a customer may end up going “Wow, I like Batman but I can’t get all of these so I’m going to pick and choose, even though now I feel like I’m missing out on things.” That “missing out” feeling, as silly as it may seem to some, can be a pretty big factor in making someone leave comics altogether. We saw this with the Deadpool explosion and contraction just a few years ago. There were people that said “I want all the Deadpool books!” and more and more titles kept coming out until they felt overwhelmed and dropped them all. It’s a short term gain, but more often than not those customers dropped books and we far more reluctant to try something new for fear they’d be pushed to buy beyond their means again.
I’m not saying that pre-ordering books or utilizing a store’s pull file service won’t make a difference. At best, it will help your retailer continue to order responsibly and make as much money as possible (so as to ensure that they can still do fancy things, like pay their rent and eat). At some point the burden of salesmanship has to be shared with the publisher and the publishers need to look beyond a “we built it why won’t they come” mentality. Not only that, they need to take a closer look at what they’re publishing and set realistic goals for it. While it’d be great for all parties involved (publishers, creators, retailers and fans) Alpha Flight most likely won’t be selling in the amounts that the Avengers books are. That’s not a knock on the Alpha Flight, but maybe the Avengers reader and Alpha Flight reader are two different audiences and treating them as the same isn’t the best idea. You may not be selling as many copies but maybe you’re selling them to different people, which means there’s more people in the marketplace. The more people in the marketplace, the more comics we’re going to sell.
There’s a bit more to that, we’re going to be taking a closer look at that, as well as a comparison between Marvel’s January and February solicits to see what kind of changes they’re actually making.
Filed Under: Back in the Game