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

August 1, 2008

Reactions To IDW Potentially Ending Their Comic-Con Exhibition Streak

What follows is a bunch of reactions from comics industry professionals and observers regarding IDW President Ted Adams' declaration that his popular company will likely not be back at the show in 2009. In addition to those observations made below, a few folks like Colleen Doran talked about the piece through their own Internet vehicles.

imageOne notion that's in the responses that seemed to loom larger than I would have guessed is the idea that IDW will by not exhibiting suffer in terms of its relationship to various fans that count on a favorite publisher's presence or will take their absence as a sign the company is doing poorly. That doesn't mean that notion is a correct one. I would personally reject the underlying logic, in that I think people tend get mad on behalf of fans more than fans get mad at this kind of thing. Further, I believe Adams 100 percent when he says that he believes getting the books out serves their fans better than ensuring a personal encounter, and I think a lot of readers will follow him there as much as they care to make that sort of appraisal in the first place. Additionally, there are certainly those in what follows sympathetic to the idea of not exhibiting, folks that predict IDW doesn't lose a thing by not going. Still, I was surprised by the number of people that suggested that outcome, and if enough people mention it, it's definitely something to consider.

My thanks to those that sent me a link or a response, and to Ted Adams and his people for setting up the original interview. I received many more e-mails from folks that appreciated the piece as well as Adams' candor in talking through his current quandary.


Eric Reynolds, Fantagraphics: Well, I can completely understand where he's coming from. I know the fatigue that comes from the show, how much more exhausting it is than just the five or six days you're down there working. I skipped my first Comic-Con this year in decades and for weeks leading up to it I worried about what I would miss. What professional opportunities would be missed? What I would miss as a fan? But of course the world keeps turning.

imageI feel very strongly myself that sometimes the amount of effort and money expended on cons like Comicon and BEA is fairly absurd and might be simply better spent elsewhere. But no one wants to blink, including us. If everyone in publishing agreed to take a year off of a Comicon or BEA and simply not hold it, would the industry suffer? I doubt it. So I admire Ted's take on it.

We don't have any plans to not attend, and it really is an amazing show in most respects, but when you really sit down and add up all of the expenses of time and money at the end of the show, it's absurd. We spend so much money to potentially make a very little bit of money when it's all said and done.


Joe Greiner, CCI Attendee: Ted is right Comic-Con is a marketing expense. And with all expenses care should be taken on how to reduce them. I think their booth was horrible. Lots of wasted space, little if any exclusives, no early copies of upcoming books. Everytime I walked by their booth the staffers were either talking amongst themselves or with their artists with no acknowledgement of the conventioners.

Top Cow and Image, whom I consider to be equal to IDW in size, used their space more effectively, had very good fan interaction, and had simple cost effective booth designs.

The IDW booth had a feel of "had-to be here" as opposed to "we want-to be here."


imageJennifer de Guzman, SLG: I agree when Ted Adams said, "Looking at Comic-Con as anything other than marketing cost is kind of a bad way to look at it," but for us, retailing at Comic-Con is marketing. We're using product to sell more product, keeping existing readers happy and finding new ones, more so than we would if we were just there to promote stuff without selling it as well. I know a lot of our readers would find it disappointing, too. A lot of people don't have comics stores that keep our books in stock, so they look forward to coming to Comic-Con to buy comics and meet artists. Besides, if we didn't sell product at Comic-Con, there would be no way we could support being there.

At the same time, I understand what Adams is saying. Preparing for Comic-Con takes a lot of planning and late nights. We have to get extra people to help out in the retail space. We have to shut down the office for a week and work long hours at the convention.

We're thinking about making our booth a little smaller next year, especially considering that the rates are going to go up, but that's still up to debate. In fact, it's scheduled for discussion when Dan comes back from a much-needed vacation. Even if we do decide to make our space smaller, and as much as we complain about how it's not worth it, I just can't see taking Comic-Con out of the rotation.


imageChip Mosher, BOOM!: San Diego Comic-Con has been a huge supporter of BOOM! since the beginning. That said, our costs in doing the show go up every year, though we did see a 30% increase in sales this year. I can certainly sympathize with our friends over at IDW. Every publisher has to look at the signal to noise ratio of the show and make the decision for themselves whether attending makes sense for them. BOOM! will be attending next year.


Andy Khouri, News Editor, CBR: You're right, this is pretty interesting. What struck me most about Adams' remarks was that IDW is happy to attend trade shows and the Transformers-centric cons, but is in effect dissing their "pure" comic book fans by cutting off that convention access to the publisher.

This posture is likely inadvertent as Adams seems like a very pragmatic fellow, but despite what you and I and other industry insiders may understand about IDW's business model and how much or how little Comic-Con affects their bottom line, those who are simply fans of their books will perceive an IDW absence in their own way -- probably negatively. Like, "Oh, IDW's not at Comic-Con, I guess they're hurting for money like Marvel was a few years back" or something along those lines. As Ted Adams said, Comic-Con is largely a marketing exercise, and making sure fans know you're healthy and rocking it out in San Diego is the most important component of that exercise, surely?


Larry Young, AiT/Planet Lar: Well, of course, I don't have anything salient on Ted's decisions; I don't have access to any of the internal information he has... but I can tell you there are few folks in comics smarter than he is. He's just a canny, and yet pleasant guy, and I'm sure that whatever moves he makes are going to be the right ones for his company. Anything I might have to say about IDW's plans would be just from the standpoint of a big fan of their books.

I can say I sympathize about the logistical challenges that a shop like IDW has to face in putting together their presence. With the increased awareness and attentions from the "real world," our little niche market is obviously not a niche market anymore. Rich Starkings of Comicraft and I were reminiscing at the show about the time, only ten years ago, when not only were comics in bags taped to the support pylons considered a viable way of merchandising your wares, but that you could actually see other vendors down the floor. Now, of course, it's hard to see the guys across the aisle from you! And of course the recent influx of the Hollywood attentions makes some people a little wary if not outright jaded.

imageBut for us here at AiT, we see that there are still some folks who just flat-out love comics; the form, the rich history, the storytelling, the variety of art, everything. And it's these long-time fans of the medium who are infusing energy to the folks just discovering the form, whether they're new comics fans because of the Spider-man movies or Hollywood producers searching for IP. So, we're lucky to be at the level we're at; a ten-year old company with a broad spectrum of in-print books that doesn't have to compete for attention against... well, you know... the Owlship from Watchmen or the full-size Iron Monger costume or what-have-you. For us, San Diego is still an awesome place to do business; judging from the success of our panel, there are still people who enjoy quality comics and personal stories as well as the latest slugfest or big-budget summer blockbuster motion picture. As a fan, for me, that's the best bit about San Diego: that there's room for everyone to sit at the pop culture table.

Obviously, the comics industry is going through a major change. It's always been in a state of flux, if you ask me; it's the nature of a deadline-driven business. But like any industry going through growing pains to reach the next level of expansion, there are going to be people comfortable with that change and people that are going to be less comfortable. And of course, in these days where gas is five bucks a gallon, and what my dad would call "these uncertain economic times," comics is an industry with tight margins. So companies are going to have to make difficult decisions about where and when they invest their time and energy and marketing budgets. Giving up a San Diego presence might free up capital for new books or other more less-traditional experiments... I'm sure we'll continue to see moves by comics companies that, to the outside observer, may seem dire or otherwise not make much sense. But of course that's the move that's best made for the industry in general or that company in particular.

On the last night of the show when my good friend, the Pittsburgh retailer Pat Donley, asked me if I was ready to go home, I told him with high energy and complete honesty that I could do *another* five days! I mean, sure, I missed my young son, and sleeping in my own bed, but dang if San Diego doesn't get me all fired up and full of enthusiasm. I mean, who in their right mind would ever get tired of people coming up and thanking you for doing what you do? Me, I'm real grateful San Diego offers us all the opportunity to all get together in one place and celebrate the things we love.


imageChris Oliveros, Drawn & Quarterly: Yes, San Diego keeps on getting better for Drawn & Quarterly each year and we think the people organizing it are doing a great job. We plan to return next year for our 20th anniversary and hope to return for many years after that.


Sean T. Collins, TCJ/CBR: I think this is particularly notable because, as you pointed out, IDW proved they know how to successfully work the show with their Darwyn Cooke/Parker announcement, arguably the most widely disseminated comics-related announcement of the whole con!

I suppose they're stuck between a rock and a hard place in that they have the output rate of a minimajor but, I'm guessing, not nearly that level of staffing -- that's why coming to the con puts such a dent in their man-hours. And without being inside the company it's tough for me to evaluate how bad that really is for them.

That being said, pulling out of the Con strikes me as short-sighted. I wouldn't cite Marvel's early-'00s model of "a few guys behind a card table," or Dynamite's current model of not showing up at all, or Wizard's old model of the same for that matter, as paths to follow. Frankly, San Diego is the comics industry showcase, and though it's possible that this is simply comics-media-bubble thinking, I believe there are costs in terms of not being in front of media eyes and fan eyes and just hopping aboard the general buzz bandwagon that you pay for not being there. I also can't help but feel that if Drawn & Quarterly can travel from Montreal and make a go of it, a San Diego-based company that has the Transformers and GI Joe licenses shouldn't have any problem making this con financially feasible, and that before they drop the show altogether they should take a much closer look at how they're doing it and what they could be doing differently.

[Editor's Note: I was the one who brought up Marvel's card-table presence, not Ted Adams]


Chris Pitzer, AdHouse: First off, I'm not sure if everyone knows Ted Adams' background, but I consider him one of the smartest business-minded people working within comics today. He has worked at Eclipse, Wildstorm, Todd McFarlane Productions, and has a Masters in Business from Notre Dame. So, when he is questioning whether SDCC makes business sense for IDW, it's not a knee-jerk reaction to a good/bad show. He is actually thinking about this from a strategic angle, which your interview showed. Heck, just do a search on how IDW has grown over the years, and you have to figure he's made some good decisions. (disclaimer: Ted is also a friend of mine since our days at Eclipse way back when.)

I found the announcement rather surprising since I had been emailing Ted during most of the show, congratulating him on what I thought were good moves on their part. Things like the Cooke press conference, their bigger/better booth design, and their location made an impression on me as I viewed the show through the internet.

In regards to my decision last year to give up exhibiting at SDCC and Ted's questioning whether to exhibit or not, it's mostly an apples/oranges comparison. (Off the top of my head, the only apples/apples I can think of is that we both had great shows when we did exhibit.)

imageThe obvious apples/oranges: Ted runs a business. I run what some could consider a "hobby." As a one-man small press operation, AdHouse could be considered just above vanity or self-publishing. So, when I voiced my future exhibiting concerns last year, it was mostly because of that. The planning/shipping/printing/exhibiting/operating tends to take it's toll. Without the help of my brother, creators and friends I could not have done what we did in 2007.

The other difference is the West Coast vs. East Coast thing. Because of the expense of getting out there, I've followed the "every other year" approach to SDCC. This "seemed" to work out, but one of the things I noticed was that we seemed to get bumped down the que to which Ted refers. In 2007, I had hoped to be placed near the Fanta/TopShelf/LastGasp-land. Instead I got placed in the Indy Pavillion-land. Which I guess was OK, but when one exhibitor was surprised to find me there, and then commented that attendees were asking him where AdHouse was, it did put a concern in my head. In hindsight, I should have probably joined a like-publisher collective, to help ensure location. (I'll disclaimer this thought with my appreciation of the amount of work the organizers do put into the show. They do a fantastic job, and my location woes should not be considered a slight to them.)

And one other: expense. Yes, I know that we all can't expect to make money every single year we exhibit at SDCC. But I would hope to at least take the sting out of the cost of exhibiting with the help of a new hot book that might debut near the time of the show. As a small presser, more times than not, I don't know for certain what we'll have out a year in the future. Back in 2007, I didn't really have anything planned for 2008. (The one thing I did have planned, the Skyscrapers of the Midwest collection, wasn't much of an option since the creator told me that the show had taken its toll on him, so he didn't have plans to return any time in the near future.)

But you know what? I found myself itching to exhibit in 2009. Watching the show from back East, seeing the huge lines for James Jean, winning an Eisner award, it all made me contact James to see if he thought we could possibly get PR3 out by then. However, after talking it over, he's not all that interested in exhibiting at the show, and I'm not certain about our schedules. So I cooled my jets.

I do want to go (attend), though. There is that one problem where my wife will never be able to get that week off in July, do to office seniority. So, unless the Con moves the week, or we get creative in how we get out there, the chances of my getting there seem slim. Like I mentioned to you in another email, I'd like to go out and treat it as a working vacation, so that I can skip the show when it gets too crazy.

I could go on and on about this thing we call SDCC, but looking back, I think I've already taken up enough space. I wish the show well in the future hurdles they encounter, and hope I get to make it back at some point.


Chris Staros, Top Shelf: While Comic-Con definitely seemed more 'Hollywood' than ever this year, it's still the most important comics event of the year -- a place where every aspect of the comics world is under one roof, at one time, and everything that needs to be done with the public and press (and behind the scenes) can be done. This year we were able to have a few thousand comics fans meet all of our cartoonists face-to-face, sample their work, and generally remind the public and press that we're here and doing interesting things.

imageWe also were able to meet with key comics retailers and have sit down meetings with the key buyers for Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and Waterstones (UK) -- which is something I couldn't even pull off at the Book Expo America. And, of course, there's the Hollywood angle -- which only exists at San Diego -- where you can introduce your creators and graphic novels to the studios and producers that might be interested in animation or live action development of the stories.

And even though I arrive stressed out from the massive orchestration involved, and return completely drained, it's an amazing event that I can't ever see us not wanting to participate in. The press value alone can help kickstart books into a much wider appeal. This was true for From Hell, Blankets, Owly, and Lost Girls in years past -- and this year it was true for the likes of Alex Robinson's Too Cool To Be Forgotten and Jeff Lemire's conclusion of the Essex County Trilogy, The Country Nurse.


Hervé St-Louis, Comic Book Bin: It's funny that IDW is considering dropping the SD con. I posted an article two days ago about how I really did not like my experience at their booth. I thought that they were not there for the fans who flew or drove in from far away to meet them. I discussed this with other people during the convention after writing my article (It was written way back last Friday) and I got similar response from them about IDW.

If you ask me, a company like IDW that thinks it can escape its responsibility to meet with fans, is not doing the right thing. San Diego, is not about selling a few books or tuning a clear profit. It's about giving back to the community that supports you all year round, by being there for them and not being annoyed by their presence.

The attitude that IDW should not meet with fans or even have a booth next year, strikes me as a product based approach and a lack of understanding that soft people skills are as important as making sure books are shipped on time.

It tells me a lot about a publisher that thinks it's above it's responsibility -- and it is a responsibility to meet the people that support them. My impression about their lack of care for fans is only reinforced by the public musing of their publisher.


Rick Marshall, ComicMix: First off, my frame of reference for conventions and convention history is relatively small compared to people like yourself who've been attending them long before I began covering the comics industry -- so I can't claim to have the sort of long-term familiarity with the changing face of conventions that you and other reporters can draw upon. However, I can tell you what I've seen from the news side the last few years and how the efforts of publishers like IDW are being received by the outlets they're hoping to reach.

I think Adams has a great point about publishers' announcements drowning in the flood of news coming out of San Diego -- and how he wants to rethink the decision to "go big" on Comic-Con. It always amazes me that any publishers feel they should save major announcements for San Diego, as I think that 90 percent of those announcements would be viewed as much bigger events if they occurred at any other time throughout the year, or during smaller shows like Heroes Con, Emerald City or, as much as I hate to say it, any of the Wizard World shows. While you're a bit more likely to get some mainstream attention for the announcements you make during Comic-Con, that's a big gamble you're taking with your most important projects, and more often than not, I feel like publishers tend to waste their "best stuff" at Comic-Con just because they're trying to compete for attention with the movie studios and television networks. And nine times out of ten, that's not a fight they're going to win.

Adams also seems to recognize the fact that, with Comic-Con as big as it is (and with the type of programming it now provides), the mainstream news outlets with the big news teams will always put the movie/tv side of the show first and the comics second, while at the same time, the smaller, more comics-focused outlets and their news teams end up having to choose between covering the movie/tv news and publishing news -- creating a situation in which publishers' announcements and mass media news often become mutually exclusive content for comics-focused news outlets. In this environment, publishers already have the odds of receiving coverage against them going into the show -- yet for some reason, they keep betting their biggest announcements against the spread.

However, I really respect Adams' resistance to faulting news outlets for making these types of decisions and acknowledging that it's really a free market system at work. If comics news websites didn't receive so much more traffic for movie news than they did for publishing news, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Comics sites would focus on the publishing news, movie sites would focus on movies news, and so on...

In the end, I think the best option for publishers is something hinted at by yourself and Adams in the interview. For publishers, the time for reorganizing your presence at a show like Comic-Con to focus on your creators and the projects connected with them, as well as rethinking the way you approach announcements, is way past due. Comic-Con International is a unique beast, and instead of treating it like a bigger version of all the other conventions (as most publishers seem to do), I think publishers would be wise to start recognizing it as something altogether different from any other event in the comics industry and rethink their strategy accordingly. It seems like Adams is doing exactly that -- and I'm glad to see it. The more thought publishers put into their Comic-Con presence, the better of a job we (as comics-focused media outlets) will be able to do in covering it.


Craig Johnson, Editor-In-Chief,; Group Editor, Markosia: The big disadvantages with SDCC Ted identifies are the opportunity cost (i.e. the manpower cost) and the financial cost of the show. As for the latter, I don't think that's a huge deal: as SDCC is a trade show, all costs of attending should be written off against tax. Unless of course the US tax system is different to the UK in this regard, which is a definite possibility.

Regarding opportunity cost, I think Ted should address why SDCC requires so much, and Wondercon so little -- and see if he can leverage the Wondercon setup into a SDCC template. If it's just that SDCC has to be "bigger! better!! louder!!!" to get attention, then he may have to go the route we have to take: in that SDCC is pretty much irrelevant in terms of marketing comics, and absolutely not worth the effort. You make far bigger impact- at a far lower opportunity cost -- if you cover a half-dozen smaller conventions -- being a bigger fish in a smaller pond -- instead of doing SDCC.

For example, the Bristol Expo in the UK each May has been running ten years, and is growing in attendance each year -- with a very savvy, intelligent and knowledgeable audience of fans. The cost to IDW of a booth and a panel would be miniscule compared to SDCC, yet the impact this would have on promoting their books (especially as they have the Doctor Who and Transformers licenses) is immense.

So I would actively encourage Ted to think outside the box -- everyone does SDCC because everyone else does, but if you make the active decision to wind down your expenditure there, can you get more bang for your buck elsewhere? Absolutely, I would say!

posted 8:25 am PST | Permalink

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