I have a story to tell you. Actually, that’s not true. It’s a story about one of my stories, but I’m not the one telling it.
If you’re even faintly familiar with the comics market, and in particular the direct market comprised of local comics shops, you know it’s a tough market. It’s an especially tough market for non-Big Two publishers (and these days, pretty much everything not from Marvel or DC is deemed an independent). The vast majority of creator-owned books fight just to break even, and maybe generate a few bucks for their creators to buy Ramen noodles.
The reasons are myriad and complex, but chief among them are the ingrained buying patterns of readers and retailers. And I understand that. It’s easier and less risky for a lot of readers to keep consuming the comfort food of superheroes. You know Batman and Spider-Man are going to be there next month, probably multiple times. But that indie book you’re thinking about trying? That might go away at any time, because its creators can’t afford to put it out anymore.
That hesitance on the part of readers to pick up something new translates into hesitance on the part of retailers to order heavily (or at all, for some stores) on a new indie. Again, it’s understandable. Retailing comics is a business with a razor-thin margin, a niche business at the best of times, which these definitely are not. Unsold copies sitting on the shelf are the bane of a retailer’s existence. Blowing through all the shelf copies by Thursday or Friday afternoon means the retailer has avoided taking a loss on those books.
But it also means at least a month of no shelf presence for those books, and therefore no chance for those books to gain readers. It’s a short-term win for the retailer (no money lost on unsold copies) that ultimately becomes a long-term loss for readers, the retailer, the publisher and the creators. Best-case scenario: a customer plucks a new title off the shelf, and likes it enough to read it every month. An impulse buyer becomes a regular reader (and a regular purchaser). Worst-case scenario: the book’s not there, the reader can’t buy it, the regular reader is never created.
Which brings me to my story — which is really Russ Burlingame’s story. Russ is an interviewer and reviewer I’ve spoken to any number of times. We do a regular Q & A about my creator-owned book “Shinku” over on ComicBook.com. Here’s the story Russ told me, in his own words:
I shop at a very small local retailer. Frankly, he’s pretty conservative in his ordering. Granted, everyone in this business is a bit conservative, but his is the kind of store where he’s been known to carry only box copies, nothing for the wall, even with popular Big Two titles. The week “FlashpointÂ #5 andÂ “Justice League”Â #1 came out, I was the first customer there in the morning, and when I asked forÂ “Flashpoint,” he told me he might not have one to spare since I hadn’t subscribed to the miniseries.Â
The worst experience I had, though, was when I tried to getÂ “Echo”Â by Terry Moore in the store. Not only did my store owner not carry any for the shelf, but it took him some months to catch up on his ordering to where it ended up in my box. I feel guilty for saying it, but eventually I was getting it from an online retailer and my copies ended up being dumped from the box and sitting on the shelf at my local shop. I had decided that when Moore’s new book,Â “Rachel Rising,” hit the stores, I would be on his ass about it. Since I was meeting with Terry at a comic book convention in October, I asked the retailer if he would be willing to enter into a covenant of mutual risk and reward. He would order a half-dozen copies ofÂ “Rachel Rising” and, by the time New York Comic Con was happening and the second issue was a month old, I would buy all remaining copies, get them signed by Terry and then give them away as promotions at ComicBook.com, where I’m a reporter/reviewer.Â
With risk removed from the equation, my retailer happily ordered the extra copies, and sold through most of them. By the time the show happened, he told me I didn’t even have to buy the last couple, because he had already turned a profit based on the ones he’d sold and new readers were findingÂ “Rachel Rising”Â every issue.
In the meantime, the first issue ofÂ “Shinku”Â had come and gone. Again, he’d had only one copy, and it was reserved for someone. He was able to obtain one for me by backordering it and having it delivered weeks later, but not everyone is a reporter who gets free PDFs. Very few people had read the book before they decided to check it out, and I knew that people who didn’t know Ron Marz personally would likely be less likely to go out of their way to order a book they’d never read. (Do sell-outs help to generate buzz and interest? Of course. But when it “sells out” because only one copy was ordered, I think it has the opposite effect, suggesting to readers that the title doesn’t have retailer support and may not be here to stay.)
“Shinku” is not only a great comic book. It’s also got a terrific “high concept” as they like to say these days, and it’s the kind of thing that, if you pitch it to somebody, they’re likely to think it sounds cool and pick it up. And if they pick it up, they’re likely to keep doing so because (say it with me), it’s a greatÂ comic book. That’s how it worked for me — just the concept, and Ron’s enthusiasm in interviews (if a man who’s had the opportunity to work on a lot of exciting stuff tells you that this is his best and most exciting, you really should stand up and take notice) sold me onÂ “Shinku.”Â And the quality of the work on #1 kept me there.
So I offered my retailer a deal: In addition to my box copy, pick up five copies ofÂ each “Shinku”Â issue for the shelf and I would buy the remaining copies after three months (which, because of the vagaries of scheduling, turned out to be three issues rather than months). The week after #3 showed up in stores, though, I was in the store picking up my books and I noticed something: In spite of the increased ordering, and the schedule delay (which is often considered a kiss of death for small books), all of the copies ofÂ “Shinku”Â #1 and #2 were gone. Only a single copy of #3 remained on the shelf behind me; the other two issues were completely sold out.Â What this means, to me, is that four or five additional readers were able to pick up the book just in this one store, because it was actually, physically there to be browsed, discussed and purchased.Â I’m guessing at least one of those readers caught onto the buzz a little later, because I remember a copy each of #1 and #2 being in the store as recently as the week or so before, suggesting to me that at least one of the five people may have come and snagged all three issues when #3 hit the stands.Â
So the retailer made an additional $40 or so (10% discounts notwithstanding), and I’m out of pocket exactly zero dollars, but have helped to spread the word of a great book at very little risk to myself (a maximum risk of $45 or so, had absolutely none of the books moved).
Shelf space is something digital can’t replicate. Yes, they’ve got everything under the sun on a small handful of websites now, and most books (includingÂ “Shinku,” I believe) are released same-day digital. But when everything is there, almost nothing feels as though it’s featured, or different, or special. If I go into a store I think I know, and that I know is conservative in its ordering, and I see a half-dozen copies of a creator-owned, non-superhero book with a female lead, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. It’s going to generate discussion; why would this retailer order so high on such a niche item? And that opens the door for the retailer to discuss what he (or, in this case, a regular customer) finds so appealing about the title that he/they are willing to take a risk on it.
Comics are a small, close community. If you care enough to put your money where your recommendation is, people hear about it and respond.
Obviously, I’m grateful to Russ for his enthusiasm and willingness to go to bat for “Shinku.” The scenario is a microcosm of what’s wrong with the direct market, and what one person can do to help push back in the other direction. Yes, it’s five copies of each issue in a small store. But when you’re talking about creator-owned books, every issue counts. Every sale is important.
Comics is a small enough industry that grassroots actions can make a difference. If there’s a book you love that needs some help finding an audience, you could do a lot worse than emulating what Russ did. If that book is “Shinku” — issue #4 hits stores January 4 — so much the better. But really, the important part is supporting a book you love, in whatever way you can support it.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts,” “Witchblade” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, “Voodoo” for DC and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com