Chaos in the Multiverse

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Chaos in the Multiverse

There are times that test a man’s soul; times that push their ability to reason far past the bounds of rationality.

This spring and summer both Marvel and DC are doing extraordinary stunts that are fundamentally opposed to the Direct Market’s system of non-returnable ordering — ordering non-returnable goods only makes sense when the majority of them are stable, ongoing series that have predictable and dependable customer bases that can be clearly and readily identified. By and large one knows how to order, say, “Superman” or “Amazing Spider-Man” — these are long-term, stable books that are published month-in and month-out, and barring something truly unusual happening it’s not that hard to hit the “right” number of copies ordered. As we’ve recently discussed, the overwhelming majority of “mainstream” ongoing titles are driven by subs and preorders in most stores.

As perhaps you’re growing tired of hearing me explain, the nature of buying non-returnable means that retailers need to sell roughly at least 80% of what they purchase just to break even and to pay their fixed costs (like wages, rent, electricity, and so on) — typically, you’re not making any kind of a profit unless you’re selling at least 90% or more.

Inherently, and I don’t think this is something that is stressed anywhere near enough, this means that ongoing and continuing comics are natively better for the market than miniseries or “original graphic novels.” Why? Because ongoing series can build a meaningful subscription base over time, and because there is at least some notion of “collectability” in things that continue.

That subscription base is super-important because the overwhelming majority of purchasers are not “super users.” They don’t buy “Previews” each month, they don’t search on-line for comics news, they don’t spend all of their free time thinking and acting and dwelling on comics. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of comic book purchasers only interact with comics when they see them each week on the shelves of their home store.

So what happens is that while the hardcore “super user” will sign up for a new ongoing series months before it is even released, the “average” customer is much more likely to sign up for that new series a few weeks after #1 has been released. It really isn’t at all that unusual, if a new comic is really good, to see subs double or triple after release (even if the number of copies being ordered by the store stays stable, or even decreases — because putatively “rack” copies are being converted into “subs”).

But with the miniseries, that’s pretty much all for naught — you’re usually placing initial orders for issue #4 by the time you have any actionable sales data for #1, and on a four-issue miniseries, that means you’re essentially ordering 75% of the entire thing “blind.” OGNs are effectively worse because you never have any sales feedback of any kind, until after the fact.

Because there’s another unspoken truth that’s a corollary to that, and that is that the shelf life of your average piece of entertainment can be measured in weeks, if not days: because of just how many choices consumers have, across all media, and given that now “etewaf” is now firmly ensconced, any given work is only likely to sell as long as there is market awareness of it. Ongoing work tends to sell on an ongoing basis, self-contained work tends to sell for a very short window. Certainly there is a long-tail on some self-contained work, be it “Smile” or be it “Watchmen,” but those are very much the exception that proves the rule.

(This is even more so for OGNs — the vast majority of them have their opening month’s sales, then go on with few even barely trickling any meaningful amount of sales each year.)

The other thing that happens in the Direct Market, because we’re leveraging serialization, is there is a certain amount of “collectability” happening. I don’t actually mean in the monetized sense where comics are selling for more money (though, natch, that happens too, sometimes), but in the “Oh, it will be fun to collect this regularly” sense. A comic on issue #7 and succeeding, has reasonable odds that people will still be looking to “jump in” and buy the first six. Even at issue #13, or #24, or #88, if a title is good, people are still getting into series by buying back issues.

What this means is that retailers inherently (even if, in some cases, subconsciously) are more likely to buy “long term” for ongoing series, because there is less risk. miniseries, OGNs, these are inherently risky investments.

So, with this in mind, let’s take a look at what Marvel and DC are doing for the next bit. DC starts in April and May with “Convergence,” a two-month event designed to let DC’s staff move from New York to Burbank. A fair enough reason, I suppose, but it means that two month’s of DC’s superhero output are being built solely on miniseries: “Convergence” itself, an eight-issue weekly miniseries (so the entire thing has every issue’s order placed before we’ve seen consumer reaction to any of it), backed with forty two-issue miniseries.

Two months worth of comics, 11 books a week, absolutely zero valid and contemporary sales data on most of it, and the entire thing has to be ordered before we have any idea of how much it could sell. And we don’t have any of our normal dependable revenue.

You can see why this might be a problem?

At least with the weekly “Convergence” comic itself DC decided to make it returnable (at a really crazy high number, I think; but, eh, that’s really more risk for them than it is for me), but all of those two-issue minis? Man, that’s almost the least commercial format in comics of all. At least if they were one-shots we could sell that as a thing, but two-parters implies a commitment that I don’t think the audience has much interest in making.

Our initial preorders were horrible — with most of the minis only getting a single- or two-copy commitment from the body of subs, which is just terrible. I ordered most of the first issues at just five copies each as a result of that anemic response, and, since I don’t think that I want to have any copies of these in my stores starting on 5/31, as the June solicits don’t sound like any of them have any follow-up of any kind.

The only one that got any preorder bite at all from my customers is Greg Rucka’s “The Question” — but I truly fear people coming back for issue #2 when they realize that the plot is about being trapped in a battle world, and fighting off “What if?” versions of characters from “Flashpoint.” I don’t think that’s what people want?

In June, DC returns to “normal,” with just twenty-four titles returning from March, and twenty-one brand new #1s. The new #1s all (well, except that Midnighter is not on the official list as of my writing this?) have the potential for full returnability, which is good to help us find the right ceilings. The returning titles all have an increased discount that mathematically foolish to not hit (they’ll be paying you to order extra copies that, at least in theory will have some modest curiosity about them). One question, of course, is whether or not a two-month gap will hurt the existing titles — especially the ones that are still not quite established (like, say, “Secret Six”).

The other question is if the customer base is willing to give that many new titles in such a short window a reasonable shot this soon after the New 52 reboot. This amounts to an average of five new #1 launches every week for the month, which is just a brutal amount in the market right now, especially when you consider how many other publishers are also trying to launch new #1s in June.

Like Marvel.

Marvel is in the throes of “Secret Wars” in May and June (and beyond). In May, Marvel is launching fifteen new #1s — nine of them miniseries and six of them as “ongoings.” Except that I have a really, really really hard time picturing things like “Inferno” and “Planet Hulk” existing past the duration of “Secret Wars.” And not just from an editorial point-of-view, but from a commercial one — these are not long-duration ideas, as pitched.

June brings another twenty-two putatively ongoing new #1s, and we’re told that thirty-three other titles are being “cancelled” which may mean that June may end up with more new #1s from Marvel and DC than dependable ongoing series. That’s not an especially dependable economic environment to be operating in, and it is fraught with huge amounts of risk to make the math work to continue operating retailer’s small businesses.

Most of the new material from Marvel in May and June (and, presumably in July and August as well, the assumed length of “Secret Wars”) appears to effectively be “what ifs?,” which is somewhat all right as a fun story idea, but which are fairly scary from an ordering position. I don’t know who the audience for these comics might be. Certainly, early sub results are the same as the forty “Convergence” minis — low-to-nil responses, which led me to place what I consider marginal and token orders, at best, for the May titles. June isn’t looking any better at first glance. While this all may or may not be entertaining, they don’t look to my eye to be commercial. I’m ordering 5s of most of the involved books, which is hardly a recipe for success.

Marvel, like DC, has sales incentives, but to this retailer’s eyes, Marvel’s look beyond preposterous — Marvel is asking for retailers to double sales (or more) on most books to hit higher discount levels. I can’t see that happening, for my initial numbers are all fractions, not multiples.

What I’m looking for, as a retailer, is BIG books — I want things on my shelves that sell fifty or more copies, and virtually none of these “Secret Wars” tie-ins (excepting “Secret Wars” itself) looks to me to be a comic that I’m going to manage to sell even double digits of, especially not by issue #3; much like “Convergence,” this mostly seems like an exercise in rack filler to get “The Marvel Universe” from point A to point B. But unlike “Convergence,” it appears that this is going to last four months, rather than just two.

I also utterly despair for stores that have relatively rigid rack plans — my main store has a very fluid plan with books overlapping as wanted, we don’t keep periodicals for more than 90 days, and so we can be super-flexible in moving around titles, and eliminating books that aren’t current. My secondary store, though, has fixed full-cover displays and pockets that hold up to a year back for each specific series. It can’t change its title count, they’re fixed pockets and positions! So, how does that store possibly display the two months of “Convergence” or the four months of “Secret Wars?”

No, I am seriously asking that.

The best we’re able to figure is that we’re going to do some sort of hybrid “equivalence” during that period, so that we’ll rack “Planet Hulk” (which begins with a “P”) where we currently rack “Hulk” (“H”), and try to preserve our ability to sell inventory to some degree. But it’s going to be messy, and it’s going to be awkward, and it’s going to generate a whole lot of extra work each and every week, almost certainly for no meaningful gain.

I sell roughly 15 copies of “Hulk” at that store (Why? Because: 9 subs), and my initials for “Planet Hulk #1” are sitting at 5 (Why? Because: 1 sub); and if I rack it under “H,” can the customer even find it? Can my staff? The splits on X-Men titles are hysterically worse (like from 50s to 8).

The thing is, if Marvel does the thing in September that we’re all expecting them to do (i.e. relaunch the whole kit and kaboodle a la the “New 52”) (Except… doing it right, and not launch a lot of titles without a viable premise or articulable direction), then I think they could potentially have ten or more titles that reliably sell nationally over 100k a month (the “BIG” book thing I was talking about earlier), so the goal is a wonderful one to try and get to — but this four months of interregnum is going to be pretty difficult to get through.

Obviously, we hope that no retailer is solely dependent on Marvel and DC to pay the bills, but I think that we all know that some stores are far more dependent than others. Taking a big position on the kind of interstitial material like “Convergence” or the “Secret Wars” tie-ins appear to be is an irrationally risky thing to do with non-returnable goods. From April, at least through June, it appears that publishers are asking me to take that irrational risk for ten or more titles each and every week.

That doesn’t seem good for the market. The point of fact that Marvel and DC really need to adjust to right now is that, as a retailer, I am much less likely to take a risk and a long position on a new release without some form of mitigation like returnability. If IDW and Image and BOOM! and Dynamite can all offer it, then surely Disney and Warner Bros. can as well

The market doesn’t have enough capital within in to risk exuberance. Which means publisher have to step up.

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.