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

February 27, 2008

The Bookstore Vs. Comic Shops Nerd Blather Cage Match Post-Game Show


There are a few what look like final writings on the subject of Brian Hibbs' use of Bookscan numbers to make points about the Direct Market compared to the bookstore market for comics popping up. Dick Hyacinth muses on the implications for how readers come to comics and how their tastes change within their comics reading habit, Alan David Doane argues further that superheroes aren't mainstream, Brian Hibbs sums up by accusing Dirk Deppey of moving the goalposts and re-stating some of his original conclusions. Heidi MacDonald has what looks like one more post as well.

I stopped having a horse in this race a long time ago, when the subject matter turned to the indy/alt/mainstream nature of various comic book properties and what that means. As far as that goes, I don't know and I don't care. Concerning the rest, I stand by my original take. These numbers vary much too wildly from a) the actual numbers and b) from book to book that they render useless anything but the broadest of broad claims, and make silly any kind of comparison that involves applying assumptions to mitigate those shortcomings -- let alone a conclusion drawn from such a lumpy stew.

I also find the thrust of the argumentation on both sides depressing, and the nature of the apparent advocacy wrong-headed.

Ten years ago we used to hear from a significant number of Direct Market retailers and their advocates that the American comic shop was an ideal marketplace for comics and as a result they reflected with a great deal of accuracy the national appetite for specific creative offerings. If ACME Novelty Library sold 3500 copies and X-Men sold 120,000 copies, this was a fair and relative measure of the grasp each had on the pop culture consciousness. The fact that ten years later top alternative comics publishers and creators can show me royalty statements and sales sheets that say they sell more through their book distributors than they do through Diamond, and the fact that what I've seen is generally reinforced by statements from company officials with unimpeachable industry reputations, indicates to me that this line of thinking was wrong.

Hashing out issues raised by Brian's original article over days and days may have redefined the word tedium, but it's been useful for me in one significant way. I realize now I'm about as interested in "who's stronger -- the DM or the bookstore market?" as I am in my late 30s to know the answer to a similar question about Superman and the Incredible Hulk. All of the noodling about various factors that feed into who wins that argument are about as compelling to me as whether or not we're talking Weisinger-era or Byrne-revamp Superman, or if the Hulk gets access to a kryptonite light saber.

Both of these markets are vitally important to comics. That's because all markets are important to comics. These markets -- and all markets -- can be improved upon.

I suspect what's deeply frustrating to many publishers and their advocates is that they now see comic shops through the lens of their recent experiences with bookstores. Despite the lack of saturation in the bookstore market and the fact they're competing with so much product and it's tough there and all the many, never-denied problems with book sales, over the last decade they've been made to feel much more welcome in that market than they have ever felt in the comics market. Their bookstore distributor probably hasn't signed massively unfair and restrictive contracts with their other clients that puts them at a structural disadvantage. They're treated with respect and enthusiasm at BEA compared to the disdain or begrudging acceptance that greets them at comics conventions. Their bookstore distributor doesn't try to sell them services as much as it seems to work with them as a partner in selling as many books as possible. Their retailing partners at the bookstore level don't spend hours trying to convince them that they're doing better or at least as well as another market. There is no framework by which the idea that anyone owes anyone anything is ever floated. No one from has ever to my knowledge publicly ripped into a comic book publisher for allowing a comic shop to take one of their sales. Can you blame many publishers for simply making room for a market that has in the last decade moved so many books, treated them professionally in doing so, has been the avenue for their biggest hits, and whom their records now indicate serves more than 50 percent of their bottom line? I can't.

The thing is, there is very little keeping these companies from serving all of these markets and serving them well. Publishers don't make decisions on where and how to promote and what to invest based on people ranting on the Internet; they make decisions based on returns from past experience. And there is certainly nothing in any percentage breakdown that should keep any of these markets from growing independently of one another.

In fact, there are huge obstacles ahead in both bookstores and comic book stores for those publishers that have come to count on both.

In bookstores, comics may cycle off of their current public goodwill and stop being a hot category as soon as a few months from now. Competition for bookshelf space continues to be fierce and will only get worse. No one really knows what will happen to the manga market. It takes more money to operate within the realm of book publishing than it ever has to enter and thrive in comics, which may have a drastic impact on who enters the field. Major book publishers are beginning to push some really shitty, thrown-together or otherwise uninspired books that may over time pollute that marketplace and the public's perception of it. Print by several measures is in overall decline and traditional avenues for selling books could therefore be in jeopardy. No one really knows if the economies of the Internet will have a positive effect on that sales avenue or how that positive effect may make itself known.

In comic book shops, it's distressing that five years of sustained, positive press for many publishers hasn't had a similar sales effect in comic book stores or even much of an effect at all. It's depressing that saturation levels remain so low with the quality of certain books so high and that significant percentages of the market can wear as a badge of honor a limited selection and fealty to a rigid definition of the medium. Diamond is broken in that scary, daunting and systemic way that we see when our national power grid sometimes stops working, and there is nothing in the way the market operates that makes an incentive of acting in a manner that facilitates slow, overall growth and general health. Manipulating the market and cynical publishing ploys that burn away goodwill are consistently rewarded; unprofessional behavior is almost never punished. This becomes reflected in industry values, and thus more people in comics proper know Scott Rosenberg's name than know Chris Oliveros'. Core economic injustices are more frequently defended than they are moved against. Adding more elite stores hasn't yet had the effect that conventional wisdom once suggested it might.

Those who proselytize on behalf of their favorite market by pointing out the mini-comic stuck in the eye of the supposed competitor have several longboxes in their own they might be urged to concentrate on instead.

I love comic shops -- they're entire shops that sell almost nothing but comics! -- and I love the fact that comics are available in bookstores and that an additional market has opened up in the last decade for many artists I admire. I think manipulating admittedly wildly inaccurate numbers and implying that a market sells more copies of certain kinds of comics when valid testimony of better numbers supported by many numbers known outright says otherwise is ridiculous. I find equally ludicrous front-running statements about comic book shops being worthless or declarations related to that notion -- such as saying that spending time in the pursuit of ways to make that market grow somehow isn't time worth spending. It's hard to imagine a more useless dialectic, including Superman vs. the Incredible Hulk. At least in the case of the big S and the green goliath we might get a decent comic out of it.
posted 8:55 am PST | Permalink

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