Trends to Watch: Comic Industry Forecasts for 2020") one of the things I had my eye on was the possible convergence of comic stores and independent book stores. That seemed possible to me at the time because graphic novels sold through the trade book channel were becoming such an important part of the overall business, and Marvel and DC’s relatively new emphasis on younger readers might force them to diversify beyond the traditional DM channel to take advantage of potential growth.
In other words, books would cross over into the comics channel in a big way, making some comic shops into independent bookstores.
One COVID year later, that forecast seems right for the wrong reasons. Yes, books continue to be important to the direct market. What’s new is the possibility of bookstores becoming a seller of periodicals: something that seemed unthinkable with Diamond as the gatekeeper. Marvel’s decision to move to Penguin Random House Publisher Services (PRHPS) could change that.
A few days ago at The Beat, retailer Brian Hibbs devoted a long Tilting at Windmills column to his concern that if PRHPS displaces Diamond as the main distributor of periodicals, it could hurt the lower echelons of publishers because it would not make financial sense to distribute low-selling titles to comic book shops, even factoring in the efficiencies PRHPS brings to the process.
"It'd be super swell if PRH was looking to become a 'take all comers' distributor for periodical comics," Hibbs wrote, "but I have a very difficult time envisioning anyone looking at the numbers from the outside and thinking that made any sense, rather than just 'skimming off the cream.'"
That would be true if PRHPS is only looking at the comic store market, where the sales power-curve drops off pretty steeply once you get past the Big Two and the front-of-Previews crowd. However, that focus might be a little too narrow.
Opening a second retail front for comics. In the course of making his argument, Hibbs did some back-of-the-envelope math based on the notorious retailer spreadsheet that leaked from Diamond a couple of years ago, calculating that there are roughly 2500 comic stores in North America, compared to 2400 independent bookstores according to the American Booksellers Association.
Hibbs was trying to make the point that the direct market is actually larger than the independent bookstore market that PRHPS current serves. But what’s really interesting is that when you add indie bookstores to the number of comic stores, you double the size of the market, to nearly 5000 total retail outlets.
Now you may ask, what’s the point of adding those two together? Bookstores are bookstores, comic stores are comic stores, and never the twain will meet. As Hibbs notes in passing, while comic shops can and do sell trade graphic novels, most bookstores don’t bother to set up a Diamond account to order and sell periodicals because they "appear to value returnability over margin."
Non-returnability has indeed been the historical stumbling block to selling comic periodicals beyond the direct market. But what if the real barrier to entry were Diamond itself, not the returnability issue per se? To a bookstore accustomed to dealing with Ingram or the distribution arms of PRH and Simon & Shuster, Diamond looks like an exotic specialty distributor. If you don’t sell comics and don’t cater to the comic fan audience, it’s not worth setting up an account, dealing with a monthly catalog the size of a telephone book, and a whole separate ordering process and set of terms.
But what if it were suddenly possible for bookstores to order individual comic issues through a distributor they already do business with, through a simplified process, on favorable terms that mitigate some of the costs and risks of non-returnability? Especially considering the attractive margins of selling single issue comics, it seems certain that some percentage of those bookstore accounts could become PRH comics customers alongside the other business they already do with the company.
Books in comic stores, Comics in bookstores. For some bookstores, just getting new Marvel comics through PRH might be attractive, given the huge fanbase familiar with Marvel through movies and TV. It doesn’t have to stop there, though. There’s a variety of excellent genre material, some with media tie-ins, coming out in single-issue comics from Image Comics, IDW Publishing, Dark Horse Comics, BOOM! Studios, Dynamite Entertainment and the many new independent imprints that have sprung up over the past few years.
In a universe comprised of 2500-ish superhero-oriented comic book stores, "off-brand" floppies are in a constant fight for survival. As Hibbs points out, many mid- and lower-tier comics struggle to sell even a few thousand copies through the direct market. A fair number of comic shops don’t bother to order shelf copies of many independent titles, or drop them immediately to free up cash for upcoming events or crossovers.
These titles are struggling because they share the same format (periodicals, or "floppies") as the superhero comics that the direct market and its customers prefer. Many of them exist as periodicals solely to get creators paid in a timely way, and only make economic sense once they are collected as trade books and gain access to the larger bookstore market.
But if you can get single issues in front of eclectic bookstore customers who are aging out of YA graphic novels, don’t live and die for superheroes and aren’t sticklers for mint condition, you could turn marginal or break-even sales into something resembling a profitable publishing enterprise: something that wouldn’t look like a loss-leader to PRHPS, but rather a growth market to invest in and develop, same as Diamond has done, but for different reasons.
Overcoming Bookseller Resistance. A lot of this hinges on getting independent bookstores to see the upside in stocking certain kinds of single-issue comics by mitigating the perceived downsides of non-returnability. Also, ordinary bookstores are unlikely to have the specialized knowledge to order properly or to hand-sell titles to shoppers based on their known tastes, so they will need some help.
Some of this will depend on how PRHPS would present comics to non-specialty stores, hopefully using some kind of abbreviated and less intimidating format than the Previews catalog. But publishers could also help by making it easy for bookstores sell comics to casual readers, with curated, prepackaged store displays combining the latest issues of periodicals with trade collections of recent storylines.
We already know what success on that front looks like. Back in the early aughts, Stu Levy pioneered a bookstore distribution strategy for Tokyopop, giving retailers like Borders, Barnes and Noble and Tower Books, who certainly were no experts on manga, fully designed and merchandised displays stocked with product designed to catch the eye of curious shoppers. They were, to say the least, a staggering success.
Tokyopop was technically selling "books" as opposed to "comics": the pocket-sized manga were perfect-bound with a spine and glossy cover, like paperbacks. But they were really a hybrid format that were as close to periodicals as trade books. The stories were serialized, the price points were relatively low and standard, and the content was meant to appeal to all kinds of readers, not just traditional superhero comics fans. They also sold well enough that the issue of returnability was purely theoretical in many cases.
Say what you want about Tokyopop, but this particular strategy did more than practically anything else to pave the way for comics’ march into bookstores, and created one of the biggest industry success stories of the century. Smart publishers could follow in their footsteps, especially with a bookstore-friendly distribution partner committed to opening up new markets for them.
Breaking the bottleneck. Independent bookstores will never replace the unique experience that comic stores provide for fans, and are unlikely to ever offer a depth of periodicals even if PRH removes many of the barriers to entry. They are particularly unlikely to ever seriously compete with comic stores for superhero fans. However, they could provide a new path to market for exactly the kind of non-superhero comics that Hibbs is worried could fall through the cracks.
Instead of going extinct in a post-Diamond world, some of this material could find new readers, while providing a profitable new source of content for independent booksellers. When you get a comics and book market that is segmented by content and audience, not by format, lots of great things become possible.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is the author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.
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