Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Trade Paperbacks: Threat or Menace?

This is another comment from somewhere else repurposed as a post here, but it needs more context than most. First, Diamond -- essentially the only distributor to the Direct Market of comic-book stores in North America -- declared in January that it was tightening its minimum sales requirements for products it carried, as part of a general cost-control project.

Since then, news has dribbled out, one project at a time, about things that Diamond has declined to distribute. And this has led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. On the one hand, it's justified, because Diamond really does have an effective monopoly on this market. On the other, it's hard to argue seriously that a business must continue unprofitable lines of business. So the discussion has run round and round in the same tightening circles.

The current issue arose late last week: SLG publishing announced that Diamond had declined to carry a mini-series called The Warlord of IO by James Turner. The report was picked up in the comics press, which led to an essay by Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter about this particular case and the larger problem, and that led Brian Hibbs (a comics retailer of long standing as well as a blogger and writer about comics) to examine the issue at The Savage Critics. Hibbs has what I consider an unreasonable attachment to the necessity of regular periodical distribution for the comics form, so I commented on that post:
"ONCE YOU BREAK THAT PURCHASING HABIT, it is extremely hard to get it going again. If you're only looking once a year for something, then you're just as likely to only think of it every 18 months, 24 months, whatever."

You've just described the world in which "real books" have operated for at least two hundred years. (And which movies operate in. And music. And stage plays. And just about every other art form other than superhero comics and TV shows.) Most creative types, in most media, don't provide a steady product month after month. And yet Stephen King, Stephen Spielberg, and Stephen Sondheim all manage to have successful careers and fans who follow their work. The Wednesday Crowd might be your main current audience, but it's not the only possible audience out there -- and it's an audience that has been shrinking and getting ever more ossified for a generation now.

Yes, there is a need to make the buying public aware that a new project by one of their favorite creators (novelists/bands/directors/graphic storytellers/etc.) is available. We call this publicity and marketing, and other media have learned many lessons in doing this that comics could pick up very easily...if they only realized that they needed to.

There's nothing uniquely snowflake-special about the comics form that requires it to be delivered weekly in thirty-two page packets; that's just an accident of history. And the business model based purely on that weekly delivery is already damaged -- probably beyond repair -- by the actual preferences and behavior of current comics readers. Those consumers are not going to go back to buying a huge stack of cheap comics every week like they did in 1985, and wishing that they would is not a viable business strategy. Figuring out how to profitably provide them with stories they'll love in the formats they prefer is.

1 comment:

Joe Sherry said...

As someone only just beginning to read comics / graphic novels / whatever, I pretty much refuse to purchase individual issues. I gleefully await new volumes of the stuff I do like right now, but I want to feel that it is worth my investment - and the only way I feel that my investment is warranted is when I'm picking up a trade paperback and get 4-6 issues worth, 100pgs of content.

Not to mention I'm hearing that the price of single issues is rising to close to $4. If true, that's half a MMPB of a novel. Different mediums, I know, but value for content?

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