The world of online graphic-novel retail has changed dramatically over the last few months, as two of the biggest players have gone under. Fandom.com, better known as Fandom Shop (a spinoff of Another Universe), was generally recognized as the biggest online outlet for comics and graphic novels; in early April, it stopped shipping. Over the last year, Fandom Shop's dominance had been challenged by upstart startup NextPlanetOver.com, which took out some tacky ads on the back covers of monthly comics; a few weeks after Fandom collapsed, NPO quietly slipped away. (Its URL now takes you to parent company EHobbies, a Yahoo!-affiliated store with none of the old editorial or user-generated material.)
Why did they fail? "To the best of my knowledge, because they were dot-coms," according to Paul Harrington of TheComicStore.com--essentially, because they spent beyond their means. Harrington's site isn't repeating the same mistakes: TheComicStore.com emphasizes its editorial content, but it's kept its promotion low-budget. And it's getting ready for a big change, as its parent company, CMI Holdings, has recently acquired what's left of Fandom Shop, which it's planning to relaunch soon.
Meanwhile, there are more than a few other online retailers rushing in to fill the void. Some are just Web branches of long-established traditional comics stores, like Milehighcomics.com (spun off from Denver, Colorado's mail-order pioneers Mile High Comics) and Mycomicshop.com (affiliated with the North Texas chain Lone Star Comics). Others are dedicated e-commerce sites, like the rather cheesy-looking Graphicnovels.com, or specialists like Marsimport.com, which focuses on translated and imported comics material.
Despite the high-profile implosions, there's a sizable online market for graphic novels that's distinct from the traditional retail market--both comics stores and booksellers. Milton Griepp of Icv2.com, a Web site for pop-culture retailers, has watched the sea change in the comics industry over the last decade: "The number of U.S. comics specialty stores has shrunk from around 10,000 to 3,000. There are large numbers of fans of these products that don't have easy access from a store near them--and a lot of stores don't make much of an effort to appeal to a female audience." Harrington agreed, "We've had orders at TheComicStore.com from people who lived five blocks from a Comics & Comix store. You're getting to a much broader segment of the population."
The bread and butter of dedicated comics stores is still monthly comics and back issues of monthly comics, but most of the Internet trade for those happens on eBay. Online graphic novel retailers have their own bestsellers, and they're not necessarily the same as bricks-and-mortar retailers'. At press time, for instance, Mars Import's bestselling graphic novel was the first volume of Stan Sakai's funny-animal samurai epic, Usagi Yojimbo (Fantagraphics), from 1987. And Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's dark, fearsomely complex Jack the Ripper meditation, From Hell (more than 40,000 copies in print), is the Energizer Bunny of online graphic-novel sales. (Harrington said, "It's a brilliant book, but... I have no friggin' idea why it keeps selling.")
Therese Littleton, the comics editor at Amazon.com, attributes From Hell's legs to word of mouth; her site's perennial graphic-novel bestsellers also include DC/Vertigo's Sandman titles and the Ranma 1/2 books, helped out by pages devoted to each series, so customers can find every volume. Recent releases that are doing well at Amazon include Peter Blegvad's way-out-of-left-field Leviathan and the translated Akira manga series from Dark Horse, and Littleton is looking forward to DC's forthcoming Bizarro Comics anthology, a alternative-comix-artists-meet-super-hero-properties compendium. She also noted that it's much easier to put promotional content online when graphic-novel publishers provide catalogues for upcoming releases, with cover artwork and descriptions, well in advance. That's doubly true for traditional retail, Littleton said: "At the $14.95-- $17.95 price point, you have to watch your inventory and do things really fast."
It means a big shift from comics publishers' familiar down-to-the wire deadlines, but even the immediacy of online retail relies on advance planning