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

February 12, 2006

CR Sunday Magazine

Mr. Hibbs Counts the Comics

For the last few years, the comics retailer Brian Hibbs has been doing annual reports on the bookstore market for comics based on Bookscan figures he collects for the last week of the year. Bookscan is a system used to measure sales -- actual sales, on site -- for book titles. It's believed to represent about 75 percent of total sales for coverage reasons -- not everyone participates -- although some people say that dips to 60 percent for certain categories that might specifically sell well in the non-Bookscan outlets, and it's granted that sometimes individual books can be even less accurately represented. There are certain structural caveats, too: for instance the figures are for the year in question, but to make the list Hibbs uses a book had to have sold a certain amount of product in the last week of the year.

What Hibbs' reports do very well is mitigate the hype on certain hard-charging assertions about the bookstore market as a sales panacea for a lot of different kinds of books. Some of the figures even with the most generous math considered prove fairly ordinary, even some books from big publishers. Numbers on Bookscan come with the built-in expectation that to get to the number of sales listed, there were probably some returns involved, too. Brian's reports also show off just how well the best manga books do, like those in the Naruto series. You can also make some logical guesses by what's absent -- for instance, various art-comics volumes and reprint books may not have an incredibly long shelf life. Hibbs' secondary assertions seem pretty spot-on, like Batman Begins helping to move various Batman books.

What I don't think Hibbs' reports do very well is serve as a springboard for direct market advocacy. Direct market figures come with their own sets of caveats and limitations, which he admits, but enough so that asked to take all of them into consideration at once -- or substitute a sampling method Hibbs throws out there at one point -- I can't help but roll my eyes. The information's just not good enough to my mind for a real tight comparison.

Further, I think Hibbs overstates his case. To point out that there is still value in the sales brought in by Direct Market retailers is I think obviously supported by the general numbers. But to assert that companies should therefore consider investing more actively in the Direct Market assumes that such investment will be rewarded. No figure in a bookscan or Diamond report supports that. Many players with an investment in both the direct market and bookstore market -- even the sales-by-hand convention market -- have a long history of being unable to make the DM respond to financial, marketing and sales support investment. If you expand that to "respond fairly," this applies even at the top of the market. Ask a member of DC's staff when they're a little tipsy if they think DC gets treated fairly in terms of their investment in the DM versus Marvel's.

That's the step that the Direct Market needs to take, to make it so that bad publishing practices are punished, good publishing practices are supported, and to make a system that will assure publishers that investment above and beyond the accepted minimum standards has a chance to be rewarded. I know this will take some effort, and my guess is that it will also require reform.

That doesn't mean that the Direct Market isn't valued, or that it should be abandoned. No one I know argues these things seriously except on the Internet. Every market is valuable to every publisher. No publisher in their right mind would refuse to do business with Bud Plant because comic shops sell more units than do catalogs. No one should have to choose between the DM and bookstores. And yet the fact remains that if you can grow your overall sales by 5, 10, or 25 percent by shifting your priorities around, you're probably going to do so.

Even with all the caveats and add-ins, the numbers available show that the Direct Market is still vital to the bottom line. There's no reason to think it won't remain an important market in the near future. And yet the numbers also show that some bookstore penetration is equally bottom-line crucial for many publishers. Perhaps most importantly, the bookstore numbers even when modest shatter the conventional wisdom around for years and years that sales on certain kinds of books were as high as they were ever going to be, that the direct market reflected the taste of the general consumer. The shift in thinking demanded of the DM isn't just re-asserting that they're a great market for comics, because they obviously still are; it needs to wake up to a world in which they aren't the only market not just in speech but in action, and show a willingness to compete on that basis.

Additional reading: Christopher Butcher looks at the numbers and comes to some strong conclusions about who's doing how well in what job.

Go, Look: Jeremy Eaton's Site


Third Thought of the Day

Get better, Mark Evanier!

Go, Read: Ditko Story from Tales to Astonish #9


Found via NeilAlien -- scroll down a bit to access.

Second Thought of the Day

I can't decide if it's funny or horrifying the US Grant remains closed until Fall. I walked through that lobby several times in 2004 and at no time did I think, "Man, this place needs 18 months of renovations."

Not Comics: Art School Confidential Trailer

You can start tracking what looks to become a love-it-or-hate-it critical response here.

Fantagraphics also reports they're doing a new edition of Pussey! in June, with a new cover and new author's introduction.

Initial Thought of The Day

I like comic book conventions. I like buying comic books, I like seeing and socializing people I know that work in comic books, I like hearing people talk about comic books, I like knowing that at just about any show a young cartoonist has been inspired to create more work, and I like watching people of all types enjoy the reading and even the collecting of comic books.

But looking out my window at 7:30 AM on a Sunday morning in February, I'm really, really happy for the ability to pick and choose which ones to attend for no other reason than that's it's February.

Ian Brill sure sounds like he's having a blast, though.
posted 1:39 am PST | Permalink

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