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Interview with Dark Horse CEO Mike Richardson, Part 1

On the Market, and Licensed Titles

Published: 01/07/2008 12:00am

ICv2 recently spoke with Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson.  In Part 1, we talk about the state of the comics and graphic novel market, Dark Horse's history with licensed comics, and the new trend toward omnibus editions.  In Part 2, we talk about Dark Horse's role in bringing manga titles to the States and its long-standing relationships with top creators.  In Part 3 we talk about Webcomics, comic ratings, and plans for 2008.

 

From Dark Horse's perspective, what's your take on the comics and graphic novel market at the end of 2007 and looking forward into 2008?

We're seeing strong sales.  We're having our best year ever, which is the second time in the last three years.  The state of comics, graphic novels and illustrated fiction is great right now.  Comics are in more formats than ever; they're probably in more markets than ever; and they've definitely made their way into mainstream consciousness; so that's all good.

 

With that said, some of the traditional formats seem to be less desirable.  We see a softening--I wouldn't say collapse--but a continued softening of the pamphlets and that's for a variety of reasons.  As we see the age of the average comic book reader move upward, I think people who read comics and graphic novels are less interested in getting 20 to 22 pages of story once a month over a period of months as opposed to picking up a book that has a complete story and is in a format that they can put on their bookshelf.  From our standpoint, the market for pamphlets continues to soften.  That doesn't mean it's still not strong for certain titles, but it's harder and harder to break new titles onto the comic shelves.

 

With regard to the bookstores, manga still remains strong.  We're seeing more shelf space than ever before in the bookstores, and it seems that the buyers now are paying more attention to non-manga titles.  It represents a broadening of the subject matter contained in the graphic novels on the shelves in bookstores.  So that continues to be a strong market.

 

Hasn't Dark Horse always had a good presence in bookstores because of your licensed titles?

Yes, I think that's a strong reason for our presence there, but I'll also say that before anyone was paying much attention, almost from our first year, we were going back to the old ABA and talking to people about graphic novels and talking to everyone who would listen about their potential, so I think a lot of those relationships built over the years helped us later on.

 

What do you see in the comic store market vs. book store market?
We've seen over the years that comic book retailers have gotten more and more sophisticated.  Many of the stores have expanded their product base, which is very important today.  It's hard to survive these days as the hobby shop that we remember, and I think that unless a store owner is looking to run his business just as a hobby, they need to be aware of the trends in the market and which books are selling.

It's amazing when I look at particular stores, when I look down the list of retailers and see the number that don't order Buffy or Star Wars, and it's just lost sales.  From the old days some retailers have their ideas of what can and can't sell in the store, but I think today in order to be successful the stores that are doing well are the ones that are paying attention to the trends.

Before Dark Horse, there wasn't much success with licensed comics.  People did them and sometimes they sold, but it doesn't seem anyone has had that degree of success over a long period that Dark Horse has.  Why do you think that is, and what do you see as the future of that business?

Media tie-ins seem to be the thing across all businesses these days.  Before Dark Horse, I don't think many companies had that much success with what we call licensed titles.  I think the reason for that is that it was basically a financial move on those companies' parts and I don't know that the books were always good.  They could have slapped a logo on the cover and expect that to sell, and often the work inside the cover wasn't that great or inspiring.  We didn't approach it that way.  Being fans ourselves as opposed to business people, we decided to find properties that we were enthusiastic about.  In those early days, Randy [Stradley] and I would plot out stories and bring a writer in, and we'd basically create sequels to the movies and try to do it in an intelligent way.  Obviously the fans responded because our licensed books sold huge numbers and still do years later.

I think many publishers do licensed titles for financial-only reasons, and I think we have a different approach.  We pick titles that we are enthusiastic about and that we think we can create good stories for.  We pass on a lot of them.  The studios offer us pretty much everything because no one does them as well as we do, and I think it's because of our traditional approach to that type of material.  It will continue to be strong.

You'll see more and more creative control and contributions from the creators of some of these licensed titles.  A great example is Joss Whedon, who writes or oversees the writing of the characters that he creates for other media.

We see Dark Horse and other publishers starting to publish omnibus editions to try to get more dollars per sale per pocket, and see that as a reflection of perhaps increasing pressure on the amount of space in bookstores.  Do you see that trend?

Certainly the omnibuses are doing well in the bookstores and we've built a whole program around the larger editions.  I don't know if it has so much to do with publishers trying to build a package to build more profit, although that's certainly a prime motive, I think it has to do with a couple of other factors.  First of all, when we first started to talk about doing the combined volumes, it was because of the size of our backlist.  We had no idea that the market would accept the omnibuses as well as they have and oversized books as well as they have.  We have over a hundred Star Wars titles now, and it's just too many books to try to keep on a backlist; so the idea of doing the oversized books was to try to combine three or four of our Star Wars trades into one book and cut the number of books we had to keep on backlist.

Certainly Marvel with their success with their oversized books was a motivation for us, and then there was DC's showcase program, which was also a success, so we've started our own program of omnibus and oversized editions.  Readers have embraced that particular format because I think they see great value in it. In today's marketplace with so many books out there, that's a great inducement for a consumer to pick up a book.

The lower cost per page is the inducement?
Yes.

Click here for Part 2.

 
 
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