October 4, 2015
CR Guest Editorial: Christian Hoffer On The Direct Market’s Role In General Comics Market Growth
The following was written by Christian Hoffer as his contribution to a series of blog posts at different sites about the sustainability of comics sales with the Direct Market playing a central role. I'm happy to put it here for him. -- Tom Spurgeon
By Christian Hoffer
The following post was written as part of WomenWriteAboutComics.com's "blog carnival", answering the question "is it possible for comics to grow sustainably if the direct market continues to dominate distribution?"
For decades, comics' primary point of sale has been the specialized comic book store, which receives its comic stock from one vendor, Diamond Comics Distributor. For many mainstream comics fans, the direct market represents the "be all, end all" of their comics buying experience. These fans go to their local comic store on Wednesday, buy new issues of their favorite monthly titles and theÃ¥n repeat the routine the following week. For both retailers and publishers, the "repeat customer", the fans who visit a store 30-50 times a year, represent the backbone of their business, keeping the direct market viable.
Although the direct market allows the casual reader access to a wider variety of books, offers better stock quality for collectors and allows retailers the option to provide a more catered and intimate customer service experience, the system also has some very major flaws. The direct market places an emphasis on existing readers and indirectly inhibits potential new readers from getting exposed to comics. As the newsstand has died out and there's no longer a place for comics in groceries, corner stores and pharmacies, comics are no longer an impulse buy for casual readers. There's also Diamond's no-return policy to consider, which forces retailers to order conservatively on new monthly titles, putting many on the brink of cancellation before they have time to find an audience. Due to the conservative ordering atmosphere created by Diamond, mainstream creators and publishers often ask their devoted fans to "game" the system, encouraging them to pre-order comics from retailers in order to push their sales figures and get more stock on the shelf for other readers.
Industry trends suggest the direct market isn't going anywhere. Diamond's sales figures has shown five consecutive years of growth, moving more stock and generating more revenue than at any point since the 1990s. Even the concept of the comics store is engrained in the consciousness of mainstream culture. Thanks to television shows like The Simpsons or Big Bang Theory, comics has become tied to the image of the specialized comics store, filled with posters and merchandise promoting their favorite superhero store. Common sensibility suggests that the direct market is here to stay, with all of its limiting flaws and warts.
But despite the sentiment that comics are forever intertwined with the direct market, more and more creators and publishers are finding ways to circumnavigate the system. The comics medium has never been more accessible, thanks to the almost limitless supply of web comics available on the Internet. Creators and publishers have discovered that crowdfunding can be used as an alternative distribution service, allowing fans to support comics projects without ever having to walk into a comic store. There's also a growing market for comics in traditional bookstores and the rising popularity of digital comics from services like Comixology to take in account, as well as the growing convention circuit that allows creators the chance to hand sell their comics directly to fans. And, that's not even factoring in that the largest retailer in comics probably isn't a comic book store chain, it's Amazon.com.
With all the increasingly accessible options available to purchase comics, it almost feels like a second market for comics is growing outside of the direct market. That's why the New York Times Bestseller is filled mainly with books and creators that have a relatively minor presence in comics stores. The mainstream comics industry might rely on the direct market to drive sales, but maybe the "mainstream" isn't so mainstream anymore. After all, many of the biggest creators in comics, people like Kate Beaton or Raina Telgemeier, are barely impacted by anything that happens with the direct market. The alternative comics scene is also thriving, in part because more and more creators are looking away from comics stores as how they get their comics into the hands of consumers. And it seems like more and more creators and publishers are able to make a comfortable living outside of the grind of the direct market and its limitations as they can build fanbases through social media engagement and the Internet.
asking whether comics can grow under the direct market is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should ask if the direct market can tap into the immense growth experienced by other areas of comics in recent years. I don't think that people will ever stop buying their comics from a comic book store, but one day, that system could also be more conducive to distributing zines, alternative comics and graphic novels to "mainstream" audiences. The comics medium is evolving outside of the direct market; it's the direct market's decision whether to help comics grow or get left behind in its wake.
posted 5:10 pm PST
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