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

February 18, 2008

Retailers Speak on the Relative Strengths of the Comics Direct Market

* prominent San Francisco retailer Brian Hibbs goes over the Bookscan numbers for the year 2007. The Bookscan numbers are a vastly qualified measure of bookstore sales made available for purchase by industry analysts every month. Brian is I think using the year-end report.

imageI don't put much if any stock in Brian's manipulation of numbers, for reasons I've stated over and over and over again. In this case, I've grown to believe that drawing any conclusion using information from different measures that is off unit to unit anywhere from 35 percent to 75 percent may indeed do more harm than good. To buttress these kinds of figures with multiple layers of supposition and inexact comparison seems to me guaranteed to make for a landing miles away from the truth. At that point I don't even think the "well, this is the best analysis we can expect" defense should be applied.

I started to read Hibbs' article anyway, but almost immediately I swear Brian was a) comparing a Top 100-derived figure to a Top 750-derived figure and b) using a 75 percent figure despite his own pull quote stating the number was 65 percent, and at that point I gave up on a line by line analysis and went off to find some aspirin. Dirk Deppey soldiered on.

When I got back, I skipped to the end. So I can say this with some confidence. No matter how you get there, to state at your conclusion that the comic book Direct Market of comics and hobby shops sells more Western books "with only a handful of exceptions" is completely ridiculous. There are now publishers whose entire trade lines are believed to sell more copies book by book through their book distributors than they do in the DM. There are at least two well-known publishers whose trade sales through their bookstore distributors in aggregate have outweighed DM sales in aggregate for between a half-decade and a decade now. There's one major American comics publisher for whom more aggregate sales and greater sales by individual item has always been the case.

I also don't get why manga sales should be left out of any attempt at an overall picture, but maybe that's just me.

I'm a big booster of the DM, and an even bigger booster of its possibilities. It's a great market that does a lot of things well, and plays a crucial role in sales across the board, even in areas it doesn't excel. Still, this kind of self-interested, non-rigorous advocacy seems to me not worth anyone's time. Worse, it puts everyone on the defensive. To question such arguments (let alone counter them) is to come across as anti-comics shop or summarily dismissive of all the things that that market does well, sometimes for a few genres and publishers, frequently for all of them. Why should any publisher publicly counter such assertions when to do so risks the ire of opinion-makers in a key market? Why should they do so again when their past attempts at providing such information have been ignored?

Heck, I wouldn't blame any publisher for seeing a major current advantage of the bookstore market over the DM in the fact that prominent people from the bookstore market don't feel the need to aggressively proselytize for their relative worth compared to comics shops, let alone repeatedly agitate for and struggle with publishers over receiving their due or for specific concepts like the "lost sales" argument ventured recently.

The fact that Brian Hibbs shows his work in the midst of plowing ahead as opposed to an entity like DC Comics that publicizes things like single-issue sell-outs without releasing crucial contextual sales information first may make Brian more admirable than your average big-company press release writer, but it doesn't make him any more convincing.

* the writer and critic Alan David Doane interviews the San Diego-based retailer Robert Scott here. My name is brought up about an aside I made in an old posting about how comic book retailers should conceivably be able to sell all categories of comics better than a general bookstore can sell them. Scott claims this shouldn't be true, but doesn't provide a very convincing reason why this has to be so. DM comic shops seem to sell more superhero books and comics together than the general bookstore market, and certainly do so store by store. Therefore, none of the general reasons given -- there are more bookstores, the system is abusive -- seem to me to apply specifically to the problem of why certain categories aren't better supported. It's an interesting interview in general, though.
posted 9:00 am PST | Permalink

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