The first month of 2017 brought with it the first batch of DC Comics’ Rebirth trades, including the relaunches of “Batman,” “Superman,” “Flash” and “Justice League.” On the surface, it seemed somewhat appropriate to kick off a new year with a new bunch of collections, but there was concern among retailers over why they were released in January, when December releases could have helped beleaguered comic shops with holiday sales. The question was perhaps a bit more pointed since, due to Rebirth’s double-shipping, most of the January trades collect issues that were published in August or September.
Of course, DC is not alone in delaying trade publications after the single issues have been released; almost every major comics publisher waits months—and sometimes over a year—to print trades. BOOM! Studios’ Eisner Award-winning “Lumberjanes,” for instance, is currently on issue #34, while the trades have only collected through issue #20.
As you might suspect, there are genuine reasons for this. Publishers might want to encourage single issue sales, since floppy sales through the direct market are more predictable and, because they are non-returnable, often more profitable. They might want to spread their book releases out evenly across the year, something that can help both consumers and the direct market. Or, they might want to time a book’s release to a major event, be it in the comics or real life.
But there’s a real cost to delaying every or almost every trade by months. While the delays might encourage some customers to buy single issues, they discourage other customers from making the switch to floppies. Depending on your local comic shop, it can be tough to find the 6+ months of floppies you would need to catch up, and, for many readers, it’s simply easier to just wait for the next trade in a few months. And, more often that not, that trade will be bought on Amazon instead of in a comic shop.
Delayed trades can also waste the buzz created at series launch. For better or for worse, the current market places the most attention on new series in the roughly four months between initial solicitation and issue #2. The bulk of media stories, interviews, reviews, etc. take place in this narrow period. By the time the first trade arrives, a year might have passed, with many potential readers having completely forgotten why they were ever interested in the series to begin with. The hardcover release of Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon’s “The Legend of Wonder Woman,” for instance, came out nearly six months after the final chapter of the digital-first series was released, long after most fans and critics had moved on to talking about something else.
Winning a major award like the Eisner or Harvey can sometimes help a book gain buzz long after publication, but it only helps if potential readers can actually get the book. When “Lumberjanes” won the Eisner for Best New Series in 2015, the first trade was between printings and the second trade would not be released for another three months. Meanwhile, the floppies were at issue #16… Without trades to be found, many a potential “Lumberjanes” reader likely gave up before ever reading the series.
While less immediately obvious, delayed trades can also hurt the development of an online community of fans, particularly for books with lower sales. Avoiding spoilers can mean avoiding the conversation altogether, and with no hope of ever catching up, newer fans can be discouraged from finding others who share their love of comics.
Finally, significantly delayed trades can also encourage some potential consumers to go switch to entirely different means of reading, especially digital. If you’re already waiting months for a series, it’s not too much of a stretch to wait for it to be on sale on comiXology or part of a Humble Bundle. (It’s a sad reality that the “Lumberjanes” trades only in the last month caught up to a Humble Bundle from December 2015.) Marvel readers in particular might be tempted to forego the trade entirely and read the series on Marvel Unlimited, while readers with access to high quality library systems might simply wait for a series to be completed and check out all the trade volumes at once.
There is, however, one stand out publisher that almost always gets trades right: Image. Image’s trades come out with minimal delay, often in the short hiatuses between the regular series’ story arcs. As a result, readers can catch up on the series and then jump straight into the next arc (should they desire) without having to worry about picking up a single back issue. The fact that Image’s trades are usually quite affordable, with most first volumes $9.99, is the cherry on top. The bottom line it, Image makes it extremely easy to jump on to ongoing series, which ultimately means more revenue for creative teams.
Of course, Image does on occasion fall victim to one of the industry’s other major problems with trades: a lack of consistent numbering between releases. It’s easy for a new reader to be confused by the “Saga” Volume 1 paperback (issues #1-6 for $9.99) and the Book One hardcover (issues #1-18 for $49.99), for example.
Marvel might be the greatest sinner in this regard, though, as not only does it use separate numbering for paperback trades, ultimate collections, oversized hardcovers, omnibuses, etc., it’s also released a number of “Volume 0” trades that have made recommending certain series, including “Spider-Man/Deadpool,” “Spider-Gwen,” “Silk,” “Howard the Duck,” etc., a precarious proposition. While it’s understandable in theory (it was a compromise for books that launched immediately before “Secret Wars”), it is incredibly confusing to new readers, and will have the effect of discouraging people from reading otherwise excellent books because they unknowingly start at Volume 1 and don’t realize why things don’t make sense.
Alas, reader’s shouldn’t expect more timely trade releases or a solution to the inconsistent numbering anytime soon. People have been predicting the death of single issue sales for decades, but they have proven remarkably resilient, in large part because publishers do so much to favor them over trades. Yes, anything that encourages trade sales does pose a very real threat to local comic shops, since they face genuine competition when it comes to collections, but trades and single issues can coexist, and better comic shops already make trade sales a significant part of their business. If publishers genuinely want to grow the comics market, they’ll stop deemphasizing trades.