In the comics industry, there’s a tendency to get tunnel vision about distribution. The direct market has been top dog for quite a while. Bookstores are an up-and-coming market for collected editions and replace the old newsstand for monthly issues in a few cases. Other than that, publishers have a tendency to stand pat and not explore new options.
If you step back and look past these traditional outlets, new worlds exist that can, in some cases, be just as large a market as the direct market (and/or the direct market’s near-monopoly distributor, Diamond ). The most storied out-of-market experience is probably SLG Publishing’s arrangement with the Hot Topic chain of stores.
“I didn’t even know that Hot Topic was a chain when I saw that first local store open up at a nearby mall,” Dan Vado, publisher of SLG and possibly the open-minded businessman in comics, said of his relationship with Hot Topic. “I did it pretty much the old-fashioned way, got the names of the buyers, sent them samples. I was fortunate in that, at the time, they were carrying a magazine called Carpe Noctem, which Jhonen Vasquez drew a strip for, so not only were they already carrying magazines, Jhonen was kind of already in there." (Vasquez drew the hugely popular Johnny the Homicidal Maniac for SLG.)
"I got them to sample some and after that it was just plain old good customer service on my end and staying on top of their needs as a customer," Vado continued. "A chain like Hot Topic requires a lot of management on the paperwork end. Shipments have to be done exactly to their specifications or they will either reject your shipment or charge you money for sending goods that are not packaged to their instruction.”
While Hot Topic no longer carries SLG’s comics, Vado reports that Hot Topic outsold the direct market by a wide margin on the titles it carried. Not only that, but if the chain merely chose to sample a title (carrying it in an unknown portion of its stores), it would still double the sales of the entire direct market.
If you figure there are something like 2,500 direct market comic retailers and Hot Topic has somewhere in the vicinity of 700 stores, you can argue that Hot Topic was a lot more successful at placing Vado’s comics with customers. You can also speculate that if sampling a title doubled the direct market numbers, formally carrying a title should have been at least four times the amount of the direct market.
An extreme example? Perhaps. Since Hot Topic ceased carrying his product, Vado has been replacing it with other boutique stores with similar demographics and diversifying who he sells to.
“Lots of music stores [will carry] things like Milk & Cheese and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, gay and lesbian bookstores when we were publishing Ariel Schrag’s work,” Vado explained.
Is this more work than a single shipment to a single distributor? Definitely, but in Vado’s case, there’s no comparison in the extra sales.
SLG isn’t the only company having success outside the traditional markets for comics. Ever heard of Knights of the Dinner Table? This comic about role-playing gamers began as a feature in Dragon Magazine and has spun off its own line of comics, published by Kenzer & Company. Much like the publications of SLG, you don’t see Knights of the Dinner Table very high on the Diamond sales lists. If you look at the Diamond sales estimates, you’ll see Knights of the Dinner Table selling around 4,300 copies a month. What does it really sell? According to president David Kenzer, 9,000 to 15,000 copies, depending on the month. In comparison with those Diamond charts, Kenzer reports his trade collections sell the same numbers as the monthlies, but the trades don’t show up on Diamond’s charts.
Quite a discrepancy, eh? So where are these comics selling? Kenzer tells us the three channels he sells through, in order of size, are direct to consumer, game stores and the “normal” direct market.
Direct to consumer takes various forms: sales from the publisher’s Web site, subscriptions and sales at conventions.
Game stores are a category that used to be a lot closer to the comic shop. Indeed, if you go back to the '80s, Dungeons & Dragons was often sold side by side with comics, but the two things have since split off a bit. Kenzer tells us that many game stores do carry some comics, and that some of them do order through Diamond. Not all, though.
So it would appear on a slow month that one-half of Knights of the Dinner Table sells through Diamond and the traditional direct market, but on a good month (presumably during convention season) a bit over 60% sells through other channels.
This raises a few points. First, gaming as a secondary market for comics has a strong history. While the company declined to comment on the matter, Boom! Studios publishes comics based on the Warhammer game, which are believed to sell much better in the game store market than in comic stores. Gaming is also a very popular setting for Web comics. PVP is a popular strip revolving around computer gaming with some role-playing aspects, for instance. Penny Arcade, while more firmly on the video game side of the equation, also fits broadly into the gaming genre of comics. It’s not an unnatural combination, and it comes with built-in retail markets.
Publishers selling directly to consumers has some controversy attached. A lot of retailers in the comic book direct market take a very dim view of direct sales to consumers, especially at conventions. While it may not be a realistic view, it is not uncommon for retailers to view attempts to sell to the consumer as a direct attack on their store, regardless of whether they actually stock the product or if the sales generated actually come from their zip code. Many larger publishers shy away from this avenue, and the reluctance to be seen engaging in it too publicly is exemplified by the lack of emphasis DC and Marvel put on subscription sales. Monthly comic books are probably the only type of periodical where single issue sales are considered more important than subscriptions. Yes, logically, it follows that the publisher would rather take the chance of you not buying an issue next month than locking you in for 12 issues. Such is the sense of channel conflict that exists in this market.
If you take another step back and look at selling directly to consumers in terms of the Web comics market, you’ll find that it’s the primary market. Studio Foglio sells Girl Genius paperbacks to the direct market. Powerhouse strips like Penny Arcade and Perry Bible Fellowship may publish reprint collections to the direct market and mainstream bookstores through Dark Horse Comics, but it will still ship other merchandise to you directly. You also see Web cartoonists attending conventions with increasing regularity. Why? Because many of them are making money selling directly to consumers at the shows, just as Kenzer does.
The moral of our story? You don’t have to be dependent on the comics shop distribution method. There are other venues to sell your wares; it just takes a little more work. While it helps if your subject matter meshes with an existing market, as in the case of gaming comics, it is possible to reach the audience through means other than the theoretical weekly trip to the comic shop, be it to reach out directly or engage them in a different commercial establishment they frequent.
Todd Allen is a technology consultant and 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. His further comics industry commentary is available at Indignant Online. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those ofPW Comics Week.]