In the 1970s, comic books were widely available on newsstands as single issues and comic packs, plastic bags containing three comic books at a slightly discounted price, were a staple of variety stores. While the newsstand market isn’t likely to come back any time soon, comic books are starting to appear in the next biggest market: big box retailers like Wal-Mart and CostCo. And yes, comic packs have also returned.
Recently comic packs have been seen at both CostCo and Sam’s Club. Packaging a movie edition cover of Thor #1 with a recent issue of Uncanncy X-Men and Captain America, this comic pack had a list price of $5.99. Of course, CostCo and Sam’s both discount based on the cover price. At Costco, this comic pack was priced at $3.79. That’s spectacular deal, taking into consideration that each comic has a cover price of $3.99. And far below the wholesale price that a Direct Market Retailer could order those three issues for.
Walmart.com touts 2,933 “Supercenter” stores and 692 “Walmart discount stores” for a total of 3625 stores. With the Direct Market estimated at roughly 1800 stores, that’s twice the reach with the majority of those Walmarts in more rural areas that aren’t serviced by a Direct Market comics retailer.
While these comics initiatives are clearly in early stages – not every Walmart is stocking comics right now – if you combine Walmart, Sam’s Club, CostCo and Barnes & Noble, an approximation of the old newsstand distribution system starts to emerge. Arune Singh, Marvel’s director of communications, Publishing and Digital Media, describes this comic pack as a test that was also available at some newsstand outlets. He went on to say sell-through was high enough that Marvel was considering another comic pack around the opening of the Captain America film.
Sam’s Club, Walmart's sister company, has also started experimenting with comics. Recently seen at a Walmart just outside Des Moines, Iowa were a selection of graphic novels from Kickstart and several copies of an issue of Uncanny X-Men.
Kickstart is a recent publisher that has announced a line of standalone graphic novels that are specifically targeted at Walmart. But while Kickstart graphic novels, like The Blacksmith or Book of Lilah are listed in the Diamond catalog as $8.99, the Walmart editions have a cover price of $3.45 and are stickered at $3.00.
Observers spotted an issue of Uncanny X-Men #528, which makes it roughly a year old. While it’s unusual enough to find a year old single issue of X-Men in the book section of Walmart next to a row of Kickstart graphic novels, this issue of X-Men was stickered at $1.49. Peeling back the sticker reveals a $3.99 cover price and the words “Direct Edition,” not “Newsstand Edition,” suggesting this book came from a Diamond warehouse.
In both instances, Walmart is selling these comics for less than it would cost a direct market retailer to order them.
What’s really going on with Walmart? To borrow phrasing from Fight Club, the publisher’s first rule about Walmart is you don’t talk about Walmart. Singh acknowledged the X-Men issue, saying it was “part of a larger sales experiment involving a few publishers.” He would not elaborate on that or why the choice of such an old issue of X-Men. Kickstart declined comment altogether.
Comics in Walmart and Target have long been an ambition of comics publishers, but their efforts have often been slowed by several factors, including these mass-market retailers requirement of more family-friendly material than Marvel and DC regularly produce in their main lines. About 10 years ago, Marvel placed some of their Ultimate comics in Walmart but met with comics retailer resistence over the lower price.
While it cannot directly be linked to Walmart, Sam’s or CostCo, Marvel sr. v-p of publishing Tom Brevoort recently spoke to Comic Book Resources on the topic of marketing Marvel’s recently announced standalone Season One line of original graphic novels: “Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to give you the full picture of this because some of the information is still proprietary. But the long and the short of it is that we've got ancillary revenue streams for the Season One projects, and that's what makes it work in this case. We haven't announced everything we're going to do with these yet, and these ancillary uses don't necessarily have anything to do with the direct market, but it's a particular set of circumstances that allows us in this case to print these books first as OGNs and not start with a serialized format. And if they do well, there may be more things like this. We live in an evolving world where suddenly new opportunities open to us – whether those opportunities are in the digital landscape or things that being a part of Disney opens up to us, or what have you.”
Ancillary uses that don’t have anything to do with the direct market certainly sounds like what’s turning up in the big box stores. (Other have speculated he might be referring to the Disney stores.)
It is worth noting that Kickstart is exercising variable pricing, with their graphic novels retailing for $7.99 on Amazon, in edition to the $3.45/$3.00 price point at Walmart and $8.99 for the Direct Market. Large volume orders equate to large discounts and, occasionally, different pricing schemes in the world of CostCo, Sam’s Warehouse and Walmart. We’re seeing that with both Marvel’s comic packs and the Kickstart books. It will be interesting to see if the Season One graphic novel line has a different price for big box stores or is just heavily discounted from the cover price, should this turn out to be what Brevoort is alluding to. In the meantime, we can only wait for the emergence of the other publishers Singh referred to.
It is not clear how many other publishers are involved and Walmart is famous for their focus on inventory control and sell through, so this may end up only an experiment. For now this is a developing situation clouded in a certain amount of mystery.
[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and former adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. He also writes the Division & Rush webcomic. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics Week.]