Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

February 20, 2011

CR Features: Ted Adams' Keynote Address From The 2011 ComicsPRO Conference In Dallas

imageThe following is the written text for the Keynote Speech that the IDW CEO/Owner provided the retailer organization ComicsPRO at their annual meeting in Dallas last weekend. He was nice enough to send it along. Adams and IDW had a very good year in 2010, breaking into the top five on multiple charts and becoming a Premier Publisher with Diamond for their sustained sales effort. Of all the head honchos at all the comics companies, Adams it seems to me has most consistently advocated for the direct market and its key role in comics sales while also openly pursuing digital initiatives, bookstore shelf placement and other sales avenues. His matter-of-fact approach has helped diminish the potentially damaging expectation that various ways of selling comics must do battle with one another. This equanimity may come from Adams' presence in the comics industry before and through what may be the most significant comics industry event of the last 25 years: the decision by Marvel in the mid-1990s to buy a distributor and attempt to move copies on its own. You'll get a sense of that history below. No matter its genesis, Adams' confidence in the direct market and his hopes for its future must have been an edifying thing to see in person, and I'm grateful he decided to re-share his thoughts here.

Adams asked for two things in printing this piece. The first is that the speech as given was a bit different than the speech as written: this is the written version. The second is that if you're so inclined you might think of following him on twitter. -- Tom Spurgeon


I spent the last couple of days in Pittsburgh with Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez on the set of the pilot for the Locke & Key TV show. I had a great time and the show looks amazing. When Joe came down for breakfast yesterday, I told him I'd be speaking with you this morning and I still couldn't come up with a good joke to kick things off and asked him if he'd help me come up with something.

About five seconds later he came up with this joke.
We all know that in the '50s everyone believed that all you had to do to boost comic sales was put a monkey on the cover. So, at IDW we decided to bring that back. I bought an orangutan for our artists to use for reference but it ran away. Proving that a fool and his monkey are soon parted.
I appreciate being asked to deliver the keynote speech this morning. I have great respect for the retailers in this room and the ComicsPRO organization. I love the fact that the direct market is made up of thousands of independent and entrepreneurially driven retailers, but it does make it difficult to communicate in a meaningful way with a group that large.

imageWhen I meet with licensors to discuss new properties, I often talk about how the direct market is our most important marketplace but there's really no way to do a nation-wide promotion in the way that we can with a bookstore chain. As an example, if we want to have front-of-store placement for the True Blood graphic novel at Barnes & Noble, we provide them with co-op money, and they can make that happen at every one of their stores in the country.

I would love to see a day where similar opportunities existed within the direct market. A day where publishers could have the ability to do national marketing and promotional campaigns that they know will be backed up with retail presence at comics shops all across the country. A campaign that would be financed by publishers and Diamond in a way that gives direct market retailers a financial incentive to participate. My hope is that with an organization like ComicsPRO those kinds of discussions can continue to be had.

So I'm a strong supporter of this group and I'm here to do whatever I can to make it succeed.

I've been thinking a lot of about the changes that we're seeing in the direct market today and it's made me realize that the direct market has, of course, seen changes for the entire 20-plus years I've been working for direct market publishers.

When I worked for Eclipse back in the early '90s, I was hired as their distribution manager. Think about that, an independent comic book company had a full-time employee dedicated to managing their distributors. And the reason for that is back in those days there were a dozen or more distributors spread out all over the country. There was no internet or email and so all communication had to happen by phone and fax.

And one poor decision by Marvel, when they decided to buy a distributor so they could self-distribute their product, changed the entire way comics were sold in America forever. The change that occurred from that decision impacted everyone and happened unbelievably fast but we survived. And if we could survive that event, I think we can get through anything.

I moved from Eclipse to Dark Horse in 1992 and as I think back to those days, I realize that was a time when an independent publisher could have the best-selling comic book in the country. Dark Horse had unbelievable success with Star Wars, RoboCop vs. Terminator, Sin City, and many other titles. The direct market in those days wasn't dominated by Marvel and DC in the way that it is today. One of the things that concerns me most about today's marketplace is that the Top 100 titles in any given month are almost all superhero titles by Marvel and DC. I'm concerned that we've lost the strength that comes from a more diverse product mix.

The other big change that started happening in the early '90s was the idea that graphic novels could be sold to bookstores. When I was at Dark Horse, I made the sales presentation to their first bookstore distributor. In those days there was no graphic novel section in bookstores, the books were racked in the humor or sci-fi sections.

And, of course, today all of the book chains embrace graphic novels and have sections devoted to them. To be honest, based on the news from Borders, I wish they'd embraced graphic novels a little bit less.

imageIn the mid '90s I went to work for Jim Lee and John Nee at WildStorm Productions. WildStorm was then part of Image Comics and the direct market was at an all-time peak. Individual comic books could sell more than a million copies and Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane were absolute rock stars -- guys who could draw thousands of people to a signing.

And, again, the direct market in those days was a place that had tremendous success with more than just Marvel and DC superheroes.

During those days, I remember a meeting that John Nee called at WildStorm. The WildCATs TV show was on CBS and we were going to publish a comic called WildCATs Adventures that would be done in the style of the show. John had just received the pre-orders for the first issue and they came in at 120,000. So, John sat down all of his senior staff and told us that WildStorm could not publish any comics that sold less than 200,000 copies.

So, in the last 15 years we've gone from a marketplace where an independent publisher would cancel a title that sold less than 200,000 copies to one where the best selling comic in December 2010 sold less than 90,000 copies.

I went from WildStorm to Todd McFarlane Entertainment and helped Todd run his comic division. He had the Spawn TV show on HBO and the Spawn movie had just come out. And, again, in those days the direct market was a place where the Spawn comic book was regularly the #1 selling comic book in the country.

The success of Spawn shows how one person in our business can create a property that can reach around the entire world.

Our impact on pop culture is astonishing. Just looking at this year alone there are huge movies coming out based on Green Lantern, Captain America, and Thor. The Walking Dead was a monster hit for AMC and, as I mentioned earlier, Fox is shooting the pilot for the Locke and Key TV show. There's no question that there's a huge audience for the content we create.

Our challenge, publishers and retailers, is to get more of those people into your stores. Publishers have to create better comics and we have to do a better job of bringing customers through your front door. And comic shops have to be places that sell more than superhero comics. If we don't we're going to niche ourselves into irrelevance.

And the most recent change we've seen over the last couple of years is the digital distribution of comics -- whether it's via the illegal pirating of content or via iTunes or PSP. There's a new way to read comic books and it's something we're all trying to figure out together. Diamond made an announcement this week of a program that will include direct market retailers and I'm very glad to be working with them on it.

Most of the changes I've talked about this morning have been situations where we've responded to the change instead of initiated it. But there are plenty of examples of individuals or groups within our market creating positive changes for all of us.

Robert Scott started the online forum CBIA, a place where retailers and suppliers can have private and spirited conversations. It's almost always the place I go first when I want to see how retailers are responding to something new.

Joe Field started Free Comic Book Day and has brought huge numbers of new people through the doors of the stores that participate.

Diamond and their premier publishers put together the FOC program, helping to remove some of your ordering risk.

And Diamond and all of their suppliers worked together to make Tuesday delivery a reality, which we all hope has improved the quality of your life and given you more time to merchandise new product.

So, in that spirit I have a few suggestions for changes that I believe could benefit us all.

I already discussed my hope for a national co-op program that is financed by publishers and Diamond that requires a front-of-store or endcap commitment from retailers.

imageRobert Scott and I have often discussed the possibility of creating a national coupon program where customers could get something exclusive at a direct market retailer. As an example, a customer brings in his movie ticket for Transformers 3 and gets a free comic or a discount on Transformers comics and toys. For the last two Transformers movies, we've done promotions with Target and K-Mart where they gave away millions of our comics at movie theaters and those comics included coupons that brought people into their stores. I would love to do something like that with the direct market.

But my biggest suggestion today is going to be met with skepticism. I know a lot of people, including myself, are preaching about creating a direct market with more readers who want to buy a diverse mix of comics. But, that is going to require a change in the way you buy products. If publishers and creators want to launch new titles, they're going to have to share in the financial risk with you.

You have to be risk averse when you place orders for something new because you're assuming all of the risk for unsold product. For there to be growth in the direct market, that's going to have to change. Publishers are going to have to accept some form of returnability for new titles that they really believe in. The burden of getting new people into your stores has to be an equal one between publishers and you.

My last suggestion is that ComicsPRO consider adding a publisher representative and a representative from Diamond to your board. They could be non-voting members but I think it's important that you include publishers and Diamond in your decision-making.

imageI know I've been hard on superhero comics this morning and I don't mean to come across as an elitist but I believe we're at our best when we're selling more than the latest super-hero crossover. We're at our best when we're all part of bringing titles into the world like Watchmen or Kick-Ass or Sin City or The Walking Dead or Scott Pilgrim or Darywn Cooke's Parker books.

I'm going to conclude by telling you the same thing I did a year ago at Diamond's retailer summit in Chicago. I believe in the direct market. I believe in you and your ability to sell product. You wouldn't be here if you weren't serious about your store. You've spent the time and money to be here so you can meet with your peers and share ideas with them. You're here to tell your suppliers what's working and what isn't.

You're here to make your business better and I'm excited to learn what I can do to help. I see a lot of old faces in the room this morning and I'm looking forward to catching up with you. For those of you I haven't met, I hope we'll have the chance to speak over the next two days.

I appreciate your attention. Thank you.


* ComicsPRO
* Ted Adams on twitter

posted 8:30 am PST | Permalink

Daily Blog Archives
June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
Full Archives