Martha Thomases: The Comic Book Fan as Retailer

The New York Comic-Con is this week, which is hardly about comics at all anymore. It attracts more than a hundred thousand people to the unbearable Javits Center, all of them drawn to a celebration of pop culture, fantasy, and science fiction.

With all these people clearly interested in the genre, why do so few of them buy comics?

There isn’t one single answer, of course, but today I’m going to discuss the way the comic book publishers market their wares. Specifically, I’m going to talk about how they sell their books to retailers.

Comic books used to be distributed to the marketplace like other periodicals. The publishers would print and ship many more copies than they thought they could sell, ship them to newsstands and other outlets, and accept returns on the unsold copies. Because most comics and graphic novels are now distributed through the direct market, retailers order (and pay for) only the quantity they think they can sell.

Therefore, the primary customer for the publishers is the retailer and not the reader. The publisher does not care, in the short terms, if the retailer sells all the copies ordered. The publisher still gets paid. Of course, a thoughtful publisher will realize that selling the retailer too many copies will eventually cause the retailer to go bankrupt.

Too many publishers are not thoughtful. And too many retailers get into the business only because they love comics, not because they understand marketing. Or business.

If you read the (brilliant, I think) post in the link, you’ll see what information retailers are given to make their ordering decisions. He cites the example of Superman Unchained as a tragic lost opportunity. The book began at the same time the Man of Steel movie was released. It had Scott Snyder on script and Jim Lee on art. It should have been a huge hit.

Instead, it’s dribbling to a close.

The writer of the original post gives a lot of good reasons why he thinks this happened (bad title, unreliable scheduling). I think, if we step back, there are even more reasons.

The biggest problem is that the publisher thinks every possible customer is just like the retailer.

I love Scott Snyder as a writer, and I think Jim Lee’s art is dynamic and appealing. That said, I don’t think very many of the people who went to the movie know who either man is. Therefore, any new series designed to take advantage of the buzz about the movie needs to stress the character and the story more than the creative team.

The same is true for this summer’s bit Superman event, the Geoff Johns/John Romita, Jr. team. To comics fans this is great, but to the average person, a complete enigma. This is especially sad because I think Johns does a great job when he focuses on the most human and engaging aspects of the characters. His Superman is open and appealing to everyone, not just people who have been reading comics for decades.

And those people won’t ever know it, if the only way the title is promoted is to hype the creative team.

One of the biggest changes to happen to comics in my lifetime is that we now celebrate the talent. Fans know their favorite writers and artists, and will sample many different kinds of books because their favorites are involved. This is a terrific development. It shows the marketplace has matured, and allows creators to leverage their popularity into actual money.

The downside is when publishers think hiring great talent is all they need to do. Writers and artists can do fantastic work, but if the publishers don’t market these creations so that customers know what they are buying, it won’t matter.

Retailers have a responsibility as well. A well-promoted and designed store will invite in new customers and display merchandise in a way that is both fun and informative.

Consider other entertainment options that you purchase. When you decide to go to a movie, for example, you might consider the cast and, if you’re more involved, the director and the screenwriter. But first you want to know if it will make you laugh or cry, shiver with terror or clap your hands with delight. You want to know what kind of experience is being offered.

Comic book stores and comic book publishers who rely only on customers who are already customers will fail. We, as an industry, need to create new customers every day.

Or at least every Wednesday.