There have been some hearty proclamations recently that everything's coming up Milhouse for the sales end of comics: "the best quarter in a decade" and "everyone up [in sales]," celebrates expert numbers-cruncher John Jackson Miller. ICv2's recent market white paper concluded they were "bullish on the business." I'm not denying there have been some encouraging signs. But when a highly acclaimed and savvy publisher like Archaia Entertaiment nearly disintegrates right under our noses because it switched bookstore distributors last year, then clearly not everyone is up. And not everything is quite as rosy as is being suggested.
Comic Book Resources' recent interview with new Archaia President Jack Cummins should've turned more heads. This should have been a cold, hard reminder that small- and even medium-sized publishers frequently dance along a thin line between success and failure.
"There's no question that the company was in a really tough spot for about six months. Last year, we changed out book market distribution from Diamond to PGW," Cummins explained. "Unfortunately that partnership didn't turn out as fruitful as they had hoped. "That contributed, in part, to us having a lot of challenges because our revenue decreased in the book market even as it was increasing in literally every other segment of the business."
That may be one of the most troubling aspects. Despite success in virtually every aspect of its business, the hit to one distribution channel crippled Archaia. The publisher eventually ran into payment problems, had to reduce its number of releases, and had to make some cuts, such as not renewing the contract for well-regarded editor Paul Morrissey. Meanwhile, from the outside everything seemed to be going great: Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand, a graphic novel by Ramón K. Pérez based on a lost Henson screenplay, won three Eisner Awards and two Harvey Awards. Acclaim was also dished out to books like Cow Boy by Nate Cosby and Chris Eliopoulos, and Rust by Royden Lepp, which won ForeWord's Silver Book of the Year Award for Graphic Novel. The Gold award went to Tale of Sand. Archaia's foray into digital with comiXology, including digital-first launches, appeared to be a success. But even with all of those things going right, one wrong move might've crippled the company.
Fortunately, Archaia looks as if it's on track for a rebound. But it's probably not the publisher's last challenge. And it won't be the last publisher to face such a challenge. One or more publishers could be going through something similar right now; maybe one more more won't make it to the other side.
So what can be done? "[T]he industry as a whole has to look at how we're trying to grow interest in the book market and with broader consumers rather than simply trying to pitch things to the Direct Market over and over again and relying only on that for our survival," Cummins cautioned. "I think for this business as a whole to thrive, the question is, 'How can we meet a bigger consumer need?' And that's a long term question for the whole industry."
The answer isn't just modestly better sales. Publishers and the industry as a whole need stronger sales from a more diverse pool of customers. Any business major will tell you that if you diversify your income sources, you strengthen your stability because a source that temporarily weakens or drops out entirely is more easily covered by the others. That means continuing to transition comics into a viable option among mainstream entertainment, instead of retreating back to the corner as a niche interest. Regardless of the good news we get, comics should never stop looking for new readers, and new kinds of new readers.