In which I finally get around to my rambling answers to those DC Comics retailing questions.

§ September 6th, 2011 § Filed under retailing § 13 Comments

REMINDER: let me know what the ONE new DC title you’re looking forward to the most is. I’ll probably comment on your response tomorrow, assuming I don’t die tonight while breaking down the comics order, doing pulls, and suffering from flu symptoms.

Anyway, those questions a couple of you asked about DC’s current publishing plan, and how it affects me, Mike Sterling:

Boosteriffic says

“It seems to me that DC has been telling us that part of the reason for this whole rebootalaunch is because retailers aren’t doing their job finding new customers (probably true: I don’t live in a major city, but all the comic stores I know of are really gaming stores with some reading material for between matches), and it seems I hear retailers saying it’s because DC’s business model and storytelling are alienating their readers (of which I am certainly one: now I have to wait six issues to finish a story the bronze age Batman would have tackled in one?). Do you have any insight into the validity of this back and forth argument?”

There are a lot of reasons for sales reaching the point that triggered DC’s newest publishing hoohar, but I don’t think it’s as easy as saying “retailers fell down on the job” or “DC alienated its readers.” Not that either assumption is necessarily wrong: we’ve all been to comic shops that seemingly didn’t go out of the way to encourage business, repeat or otherwise. And what Boosteriffic says about DC applies to Marvel as well, with extended storylines intended to keep readers coming back month after month, and designed for republication in trade paperbacks or hardcover editions, which can in some (but not necessarily all) cases result in story-padding and less satisfying reads.

But there’s also the death-spiral of lower sales = higher per-unit prices = higher cover prices = even lower sales = even higher production costs, and so on. And there’s the economy in general, which, at the moment, isn’t exactly facilitating the generation of disposal income. Plus there’s also the usual explanations of increased competition for the entertainment dollar, the lack of an audience turnover for comics, the insular nature of superhero comics, the difficulty of even finding comics, and so on. You’ve heard all the reasons before.

Boosteriffic adds:

“…Will you be closing the doors if this whatever-DC-is-calling-it doesn’t take off because your comic sales have flatlined?”

In our case, comic sales have been increasing…slowly, but steadily. And judging by demand for the new Justice League #1 and the interest we’ve seen in DC’s next batch of first issues, we’re expecting a bit of a bump in sales over the next few weeks. Whether that bump sticks, even as a slight net gain after the initial excitement over the new launches peters out and we see what the sales levels on these titles will actually be, remains to be seen. But I’m optimistic. My fear was that our upward store sales trend may have been derailed by DC cancelling everything and starting again, alienating the readership we were building, but for the most part that doesn’t seem to be happening. But, you know, in six months or a year or so, we’ll know for sure.

Now, that’s what’s going on for us, but if other stores end up with a net loss in readership for their DCs, to the point where Warner Brothers tells DC “nice try, kids, but we’re handing all your properties over the movie and television development departments,” and DC Comics as a publishing concern goes away…that’s bad news for everybody. Not that I think that will happen. But let’s say it does, and DC Comics are no longer on your local funnybook store’s rack. That’s a pretty significant chunk of income lost for your comic shop. And some comic shops wouldn’t survive that loss…and when those shops close up, that means fewer venues through which the other comic companies can sell their wares, which results in lower profits for them, and comic publishers going out of business, and lower profits for shops…I hate to use the phrase “death-spiral” twice in one post, but you get the picture.

And, as folks have noted in the past, the death of the comics market as it is now doesn’t mean the death of comics. As long as people can tell stories through sequential images, there’ll be comics. They’ll just be sold and / or distributed via different means. Like through this “internet” I’ve heard so much about.

Not that the very concept of “comic book store” would go away if there were no longer any periodicals as we know them now. After all, there are still record stores. I can see our shop holding on, downsized significantly, still dealing in old comics to an increasingly specialized clientele. And there will still be some publishing holdouts and novelty press, putting out limited runs of staplebound entertainments for the discerning reader, that we could carry.

Also, in this post-apocalyptic future, we will fight each other to the death in Thunderdome, but that probably goes without saying.

Dallas has a few questions as well:

“Does it make any lick of retail sense to be out of a fairly big comic after 1 day?
Is/was there a program through Diamond/DC that could get you more comics as quick as Fri/Sat or Monday 9/5?
I assume that you won’t get the reorder till the week of September 12, so how many sales are lost?”

I’d rather not be out of a Big Title after one day, but when you’re ordering three months ahead of time…and even getting a chance to adjust orders about three to four weeks prior…sometimes you just can’t predict how something’s going to go over. We ordered five times on this Justice League #1 what we normally order on Justice League of America, and up until about a week or so before the #1’s release, that seemed like plenty. And then the media attention hit, and lo and behold people seemed to care, and the demand jumped upwards. I tried to place a reorder ahead of the comic’s release, but by that time all available copies of the first printing had sold out.

I did get a number of requests for the comic over the weekend, so yeah, I could have sold quite a few more copies. Now, had DC had more of Justice League #1 available, I suppose it could have been theoretically possible to receive more copies by Friday via Diamond’s two-day air shipping on reorders, if we had the time to put an order together and we get in it to Diamond early enough for them to process it right away. I could plan ahead, prep a theoretical emergency reorder a couple of days before, and then send it in Wednesday morning if necessary. But then again, even if demand seems high, pulling the trigger on a significant reorder before actually seeing if the demand pans out could be an expensive mistake. About halfway through Wednesday it looked like we’d have enough JL #1 to meet the immediate demand, but later in the day, and through Thursday, sales and demand picked up and we blew through our copies. But it easily could have dropped off completely, and getting another pile of copies on top of the ones we already had warming the shelves would be a problem.

Now, like I said, once we got closer to the release day, JL #1 started to seem like it was really going to take off, so a prerelease reorder seemed like a good risk. But for the other titles…well, here’s your next question:

“Have you done anything to change the orders for the rest of September now that this happened?”

Yes, I’ve gone through and bumped up some numbers, keeping in mind that, even if some of the titles are returnable, we still have to plan our budget to pay for these books. I’d love to order a thousand of everything, and return what we couldn’t sell, but we’d still have to cough up the cash to pay for all those copies.

“Does the system of ordering/printing comics just not compute?”

Most of the time, the way we order comics through the direct market is fine. We see what we’ve been selling on the books in the past, we plan our orders accordingly, we send them in. Even on new first issues, we can make reasonably educated guesses based on the store’s sales trends. But this new DC initiative is fairly unprecedented. We have to guess at sales on these new series vis-à-vis past sales trends, customer interest in first issues, possible bleed-over interest generated by real-world publicity for Justice League #1, and, maybe most importantly, the “first issue fatigue” I discussed before.

I mean, let’s take All-Star Western, starring Jonah Hex. On one hand, sales on the Jonah Hex series were pretty terrible. On the other hand, All-Star Western is a new first issue, which can expect a slight bump in sales. On the other, other hand, it says “Western” in the title, and westerns aren’t big sellers in the superhero comics market. On the other, other, other hand, it’s tied in a little more closely to the DC Universe, taking place in Gotham City an’ all. But it’s not like Batman’s going to show up. But it could ride that “hey, it’s a new DC #1, let’s buy it” wave. But it’s still a Jonah Hex comic. But it’s returnable. And so on. Again, love to order a ton of them, and just return what we don’t sell, but we have to operate within a realistic budget.

“Is it too much to ask DC to have a pile of extra copies of JLA ready to be shipped out. Or does a reprint business model and the new, variant covers make more sense for all parties involved, including the general public getting their greasy hands on this over-priced, under-written 4-color superhero funny book.”

Like us, DC has to operate within a realistic budget. I’m sure they would have loved to have looked at the initial orders, said “hmm, better print up ten times that number to meet reorder demand” and sat on the copies ’til retailers asked for them. But that costs money, and again, there’s no guarantee ahead of time, when the decisions are being made to actually go to press, that there would be that much demand. Publishers generally do some overprinting to allow for replacement shipments on items that are lost or damaged, plus some allowance for reorders, but within reason.

That they announced a second printing, and a third printing, so quickly means that they were staying on top of things, at least. Economically, this makes more sense for DC than tying up money in a stockpile of extra first printings. And it’s good for us, because it’ll meet the demand for customers who just want to read the thing, and couldn’t care less about “first printing” or “investment opportunity” or what have you.

…That was a lot to read, I realize. Also, I’m on the cold medication, so if something doesn’t make sense, ask me to clarify.

13 Responses to “In which I finally get around to my rambling answers to those DC Comics retailing questions.”

  • lankyguy says:

    Thanks for the information, sorry to hear you are sick.

  • curiosity says:

    Just two questions, which maybe you can’t answer due to whatever reasons, but (a) how concerned are you about digital piracy? and (b) what the hell is going on with Diamond and do you, or does anyone, have a contingency plan if it fails?

  • ExistentialMan says:

    A future where comic retailers battle it out in the Thunderdome is oddly appealing to me. Employee Aaron as Pig Killer anyone?

    The DC title I’m most looking to? Why Jeff Lemire’s Frankenstein, thanks for asking.

  • Dwayne the Canoe Guy says:

    Jonah Hex in a Western?!?!? What kinda drugs are you ON?

  • Jon H says:

    If comic publishing goes away, you can always open “Mike’s Mini-Busts, Catgirls, Replica Wooden Stakes, and comix”.

  • De says:

    If Employee Aaron is Pig Killer, would that make Mike Master or Blaster?

  • Dallas Senosco says:

    Thanks for answering. 2 things–> DC/Time Warner probably could have scrounged up some extra ducats to make a print run and a mini storage depot for this “initiative (that) is fairly unprecedented”. Also, I know for a fact that printing extra copies is tremendously cheaper than starting up the presses again and doing a 2nd and 3rd?!? (fourth coming???) print run. Not that you control any of this nonsense.

    2nd) You said the rest of Wed and Thursday completed your sell through. If the extra/bonus customer spigot was turned off, what would looking good up until mid-day Wednesday have meant? If/Would looking good mean selling out on Sunday at closing time? I don’t know your business, but using it as a flagship book, shouldn’t you have copies of this baby until Turkey-day/Xmas?

    My vote for DCnU –>Frankenstein & the get fresh crew.

  • Andrew Leal says:

    Sympathy on everything, Mike.

    My vital question: Which do you prefer on cold medication, syrup or tablet? Is it time for Nyquil to drop the “Vicks” for rebranding? Do you miss the days when Sudafed boxes had checkered designs and gorillas on the back?

  • Bully says:

    Mike, who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?

  • Bear says:

    I don’t have a question, I’d just like to say how much I appreciate these occasional insights into the retail side of comics.

    Also, get well soon.

  • robcat says:

    Swamp Thing humor to make you feel better.

  • Boosterrific says:

    Hmm. I guess I need to start hoarding my gasoline so that I’ll be able to pick up a copy of DETECTIVE COMICS #1,000 when it hits the stands in Bartertown. Thanks, Mike.

  • davidb says:

    As soon as I have the money I will bulk buy All-Star Western in a way that will artificially kickstart the next Western comics boom.