Shotguns Versus Sniper Rifles

Last month was the annual ComicsPRO meeting, and, as always, it was a wonderful event that really helps retailers and publishers work together for our common future. Normally, I'd do a whole write up on the meeting, but this year, because of the timing of the show, and my deadlines, it is now weeks in the past and no longer feels "current" to me.

So, rather than a recitation of what I saw and thought, let's talk instead about my takeaways.

The 2011 meeting was (kind of sadly), mostly about digital, digital, digital, with every publisher rolling out their big plans and trying to sell us on our place in the brave new world. The tenor of 2012 was a bit different as digital hasn't played out like anyone seemed to expect.

See, in most other industries that have moved to digital, the traditional consumers seem to have actually led the move in format -- music consumers largely decided, en masse, that they'd rather buy MP3s ala carte than entire CDs (and, kind of, who can blame them?); film watchers seem to feel that, as long as you have adequate bandwidth, there's no practical difference between, say, getting a DVD in the mail from Netflix and streaming that same film over the internet.

But comics? Not so much.

What's intriguing about comics is that the traditional comic book reader seems, in the main, wedded to the paper format. Clearly this isn't true for all readers, but it appears the largest majority of comic readers prefer their comics on paper.

In point of fact, I think that the "money quote" from this year's ComicsPRO meeting was from DC's John Rood who said something very close to "We were surprised to find out that the conversation we're having about digital is about aiding physical (format) growth, not managing physical decline; this is utterly different than any other media's results" (Actually, that clause after the semi-colon might be my own thought, and not a quote, I can't quite tell from how I wrote it down. A reporter I am not!) -- when DC rebooted their entire line at the same time as going full day-and-date digital, physical print comics saw a substantial rise in circulation, and, more importantly, have kept a really significant portion of that growth now seven months later.

More than that, I'd like to put into evidence that when it comes to print comics with digital codes included, the redemption rate on those codes was tremendously low -- only around 20% for Justice League #1, and down to half that or under on the current issues. The comics market actually appears to be buying the "combo packs" as a collectible variant cover, rather than because they have any interest whatsoever in the digital.

Some statements from Marvel reps would also seem to indicate that the redemption rate on their books with digital codes are similarly small (though that's more like trying to parse out multiple different statements than any kind of direct declarative word like DC provided us)

We're told from multiple sources in multiple ways that it appears that the majority of digital buyers are actually from consumers either without a direct source for comics, or where they are limited to poor stores. The mass exodus towards digital that some publishers appeared to expect, and that most retailers appeared to fear simply hasn't happened, and, to the contrary, there appears to be more interest in print comics than at any point in the last 3-5 years.

Go figure.

I'd say there are a couple of logical reasons that this might be the case. First and foremost in that the traditional comics reader is, in large measure, a collector of comics, not "only" a reader. I run a store formatted as a book store, rather than a collectible shop, and we still sell just a tremendous amount of "supplies" like bags and boards and boxes to a wide variety of readers.

Second, the core-est of our "core product" -- that is, specifically, the serialization of ongoing stories set in superhero universes of Marvel and DC -- really are a niche product. It isn't that new readers can't jump in to those worlds and product streams (though, realistically, the major successes among "civilians" in the last three decades have not been serialized stories of superheroes, but either serialized non-hero books [Sandman, Walking Dead] or self-contained hero books {Watchmen, Dark Knight, etc.]), but it seems to me that the very nature of the Soap Opera style of our dominant genre would mitigate against significant numbers of truly new readers "jumping on" to serialization in the first place.

What we have seen, in store, is that the lapsed readers are starting to return -- people who read comics years ago getting drawn back in, some from the overall greater media penetration of comics culture in the mass market; some from the specifics of the DC reboot. And the potential of that "lapsed" readership would certainly appear to me to be several multiples of the current readership. The lapsed already have "the serialized gene"; they already get the ground rules of the super-hero universe, of the never-ending soap opera -- they're our low-hanging fruit.

(Let me digress a little here and say that I personally think that if Marvel did a DC-style reboot, and committed to things like a lower price point, and a predictable publishing schedule -- and those two things were at least as important components of DC's success with "New 52" as all of the new first issues, IMO -- that we could see at least a few monthly serialized comics zoom up to steady circulations of over 200k. "Marvel" simply is a better and better-known "brand" than DC)

But, either way, the growth that the market seems to be well in the middle of appears to be driven by print. Digital appears to primarily serving the underserved existing audience, and the majority of the growth that this channel is showing seems to be maintaining proportionality with print and behaving generally in reflection of print.

What this says to me is, we're looking down the wrong end of the telescope.

The giant rush towards "day and date" was, to me, a total red herring and a tremendous waste of resources for almost everyone involved. Civilians need to be trained in order to embrace serialized fiction the way that comics does it (people watch serials all the time on television, but each episode almost always has a beginning, middle and end to itself); in fact, they have to be trained to even read comics in the first place, and that's much harder to do remotely on the internet as opposed to the personalized experience in a quality store. Therefore, only the already-exposed readership would care about day and date release.

Clearly, if someone already knows what they want, either digital delivery or online ordering is often the simplest way for a customer to purchase, but I can assure you, as a seller of goods, that only a small number of customers walking through my doors every day (civilian or not) know exactly what they want when they walk in. Usually, seeing a comic or book, holding it in your hand, browsing a selection, getting a personal recommendation from staff, is what sells the most numbers of comics -- even among the existing readership! It is in every publisher and creator's interest to have "showplaces" for their work.

The comics industry has long suffered from grass-is-green-ism, always thinking that a different market, a different clientele, just something else a little bit farther away than the thing that grew up spontaneously around it, and all of a sudden we can be a mass medium like music or film!

And yet it doesn't seem to work, does it? We got comics into bookstores, and there was no quantum leap of an increase in circulations -- sales grew pretty much limited in proportion to the amount of the new rack space they now enjoyed. What else could you expect?

And so will it be with digital -- yes, it's possible for comics to reach, egalitarianily, to considerably more consumers, but those same consumers have nearly infinite array of choices when they open their smart phone/tablet/computer. And most of those choices they have they are already familiar with the form and the medium. Why do they pick comics over all other media, without showcases, without curators, without ambassadors?

What we need are more embassies, not just being another leaf in the wide river of the internet.

Here's the problem, I think, with most of the marketing in comics -- we wield it like a shotgun. Think about, say, the Comic Shop Locator Service. Now, really, this is a needed and wonderful tool as general outreach, and if we didn't have it already, we'd need to invent it, but of something of specific value in specific cases, the CSLS is generally weak.

There are two real problems with the CSLS, the first being that it is really only indifferently maintained -- there are places listed that aren't actually stores, there are places that are out of business, and so on. So, even if a customer is sent to a location to buy comics, there are no certainties they'll actually find a store there.

The second problem is that even if there is a valid store there, there's no way to see what kind of a store it would be, or if they're even likely to have the things you might want.

The CSLS is a shotgun: "Need a store? Call the CSLS!", and if I'm, say, hunting ducks then I suppose I might find that I want a shotgun. But in terms of making connections to consumers we don't need shotguns, we need sniper rifles!

If a customer goes to a publisher's website looking for something specific, then I want that publisher to give the option to the consumer to send them to specific stores where they can buy the book. If I have the book, I want that list to include me, but, just as importantly, if it isn't a product that I stock and support, then I'd actually prefer they send the customer to a competitor. You sure don't want to talk to me if you want to buy Pokemon cards!

Here's the thing: at least the four brokered publishers (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image -- otherwise known as "about 80% of the volume of the direct market") have at least theoretical instant access to all retailer's ordering records. Someone searching those publishers' wares ideally should be able to be seamlessly referred to local stores where there is a reasonable likelihood that the specific search can be found.

All retailers have ever wanted from publishers or creators, in our non-returnable environment, are directed attempts to move customers to where the book is actually in stock. If I know that a customer is being steered to me I am much more likely to order more copies for my rack because it's now a much safer bet.

Every day, in every way we should be using digital to help forge links and relationships between publishers and retailers and customers -- the retailer is the embassy to the entire world of comics, and the best thing about using precise targeting of interests to match retailer and consumer is that it largely eliminates the "but most stores suck" argument -- if you're only sending consumers to locations that are affirmatively ordering the related material, you'll have considerably more chances of making that sale.

There are as many reasons that a consumer might want to buy in print as they might want to buy in digital; and, by all means, let's give them both of those options -- this isn't either/or! But, unlike any other medium that's had the floodgates of digital thrown open, we're currently managing a powerful growth of the print category -- February 2012 Direct Market sales were up by double digits from the year before (and I can tell you that my individual YTD performance right now is up an astonishing 47%). You're not hearing that about other media.

While the DM certainly isn't a perfect system, the mechanism of ordering non-returnable, the generally thriving individual ecosystems, the passion and knowledge of the individual curators are all things to be embraced, to be strengthened, to be focused on with the shining intensity of a laser beam.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization, even if this column and every other one is purely and entirely his individual viewpoint as an individual retailer! 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.

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