I LOVE IT WHEN ERIC STEPHENSON SPEAKS
Sometimes, the Internet gets boring.
The same old boring debates get rehashed, or everyone tries to be civil to the point of skirting debates and being friends. It's not so much that I want to see mud slinging and name calling, but I do want more honest points of view not being squelched for the sake of being peaceful. When someone sticks their head out and says those things that others don't bother with in an intelligent way, I want to cheer them on. That goes for whether I agree with them or not. Challenging conventional wisdom is fun!
We can always rely on Eric Stephenson to give an interview or a speech in which he doesn't qualify every statement he makes. He gives his honest point of view, maybe names some names, and throws a few fireballs.
In response, lots of people go crazy.
Since his statements are so pithy and quotable, they can blaze across the blogs and the websites and Twitter before you can blink, with a trail of tears and balled fists left in their wake.
It's so much fun to watch.
No doubt you heard that Stephenson gave another one of his so-called "barn-burning" call-to-arms at the ComicsPRO meeting last week. In it, he discussed the need to expand the Direct Market, particularly from the point of view of the retailers who were his audience. Instead of berating the bad retailers, he pointed out the group's importance to the comics industry -- not just the Direct Market, but the industry -- and how he wants to work with them to make the world a better place.
He went on to point out that the biggest problem with the Direct Market is its continued reliance on The Big Two, who now operate at the whim of their much larger corporate masters, putting the Direct Market in a bad position.
In the world of computer programming, we refer to this as the bus factor:
The bus factor is the total number of key developers who would need to be incapacitated (for example, by getting hit by a bus/truck) to send the project into such disarray that it would not be able to proceed.
If Marvel or DC go down, how much trouble would the Direct Market be in? Here's an even scarier thought: If Diamond goes bankrupt or if Steve Geppi were lost, what happens to a Direct Market reliant nearly solely on a single distributor? There's another good term: "Single point of failure."
The Direct Comics market has a bus factor no greater than three, and very likely one. That's scary to me, because nothing is forever.
Putting aside cataclysmic events, though, the Direct Market, in general, is too reliant on being a superhero industry. It pays the bills today and I don't blame retailers for that, but I hope more of them have a long term plan to use that as a foundation to build their audience and customer base. That's not just good for their local business, but good for the entire industry -- not just the Direct Market.
That's something you should be proud of, because while a growing graphic novel section in your local Barnes & Noble might not seem like something you should be happy about, you can rest assured that even the largest of those graphic novel sections is smaller than your own.
Even though, on the surface, it may seem discouraging that sales for graphic novels are soaring on Amazon, what that really means is that the audience for comics is continuing to grow.
That's a smart point. The trick is to overcome the pricing disadvantages and the general "inconvenience" people see in having to leave their house to buy anything. Still, the Direct Market stands poised to be the authoritative source of knowledge and service to a growing market of readers whose eyes are opened by what they see on-line or at a bookstore. The market is only growing because of the larger number of outlets for comics. More readers have more choices. It's the whole rising tide lifting all boats thing.
The best of the stores will not just survive but thrive in that market. It will require them to do more than just open on Wednesdays to sell the latest issue of "Batman" or "X-Men." It's time to stop waiting on Marvel or DC or Disney or Warner Bros. to make some huge financial gamble to "invest" in comics infrastructure, and time to be more pro-active.
Yes, there are lots of active retailers doing all the right things, but whenever you hear numbers about comics that don't even get one copy orders from 80% of the Direct Market, it gets disturbing. Honestly, it makes me angry. There's so many other comics out there I want to read that just don't stand a chance in the Direct Market. Look at the European comics I review here from time to time. Those are made for the bookstores, not the comic shops. They are aimed at either an international audience (Cinebooks are imported from Great Britain) or are aimed at kids (Papercutz), who don't care what the origins of their comics are and who aren't the main patrons of the Direct Market.
And the biggest growth part of the book market is graphic novels. That growth isn't coming from the latest compilation of six issues of whatever random Spider-Man/X-Men/Superman title you might want to name.
You can see the scales starting to tip, at last. I hope the Direct Market doesn't get left behind.
Here's the part of the speech that some took personally, as Stephenson started talking about comics derived from TV and movie licenses:
And that's because the show ("The Walking Dead") made people aware of the comic -- and those people came to your stores to get that comic.
Because they want the real thing.
TRANSFORMERS comics will never be the real thing.
GI JOE comics will never be the real thing.
STAR WARS comics will never be the real thing.
As I read it, "the real thing" doesn't refer to being "real comics," but rather real versions of the things people love.
Stephenson is right here. People want the next "Star Wars" movie. You know, the one that "counts." They don't want another novel. Not in big enough numbers, anyway.
They liked the original "Transformers" or "G.I. Joe" cartoons. Or, if they're not in their late 30s or older, they liked those movies and see those as the real thing.
The comics are just off-shoots of that. They fill in tiny gaps that the most ardent fans might appreciate with art that has to be mangled to keep the licensors happy, but they're not the real things. About the closest one that is these days is probably Dark Horse's "Buffy" comics, which are overseen (to some degree) by the show's creator with his blessing to carry on the adventures from the TV show, often using the same writers as the series.
To reverse it, that "Tin Tin" movie that came and went a couple years back isn't the real thing. The comics are. That's the comparison being made here.
I'd bet that more new people came to comics thanks to "The Walking Dead" in the last ten years than "Star Wars" or "Transformers."
It's not that those comics are "bad" or "not real comics." It's that they aren't in the form of the properties that people really want.
Back to Stephenson:
Those comics are accessories to an existing interest, an add-on, an upsell, easy surplus for the parent products -- icing on the cake.
In reality, they sell in relatively large enough numbers (for this tiny corner of the publishing world known as The Direct Market) to keep some people working and employed and to satisfy a number of fans. Good for them. Like I've said before, I'm happy when a comic makes someone happy. I'm not here to ruin their fun.
If there are people in your community who aren't comfortable going into comic book stores, ask them why. Ask what you could be doing that you're not.
And then take down that poster in the window of the half-naked superheroine with D-cups spilling out of her barely-there costume, and the pissed off Superman scowling at potential customers. Heck, take down most of those posters and let the light in.
So that's Stephenson's speech to retailers:
- The Direct Market is important.
- It can help revitalize this industry.
- Stop seeing the industry as superhero-centric.
- You're a better place to shop for comics than bookstores.
- Be a community.
- Sell new things, not a rehash of old things designed to separate people from their money rather than entertain them.
Doesn't seem so controversial to me.
In particular, the Young interview struck me for two things he said:
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