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

July 31, 2008

Was 2008 IDW’s Last Comic-Con?

Was the 2008 show just past publisher IDW's last Comic-Con International? President Ted Adams is leaning that way, and although he's continuing to hear from the other side of the argument in case he changes his mind, he's convinced to the point where he's comfortable saying about IDW's hometown show and North American comics' biggest showcase: "I think we're likely not to be at San Diego next year."

imageAdams allowed us access to some of his Comic-Con time to talk about the decision. This interview took place Friday morning of the show in IDW's reserved meeting room on the convention center's second level, about 20 feet away from their table of sodas and bagels, as other IDW staffers and I think creative personnel milled about. I mention all that to underline this isn't a company with a minor presence simply deciding whether or not they'll go next year, but a sizable company fully invested in the show thinking about a change in strategy.

Adams says a major reason he decided to talk to CR was to facilitate conversation and solicit opinions from the comics industry in general. I'm going to contact some folks directly but if anyone out there reading would like to venture an opinion on the following discussion, or IDW's decision whether or not to exhibit or, really, anything discussed here, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and I'll do my best to incorporate your response into a follow-up story as we recently did with the New Yorker/Obama flap.


TOM SPURGEON: Am I to understand you've come to a conclusion about your role here at Comic-Con?

TED ADAMS: I think so. I'm sort of waffling every day, but I feel like there's an opportunity cost associated with the San Diego Comic-Con. By that I mean we're a company that publishes books. We're in business to publish books. Frankly, we publish a lot of books. I think that people sometimes don't realize it, but we're doing about 35 to 40 books a month. We have a staff of about 20 people. We're very much a production-focused office.

SPURGEON: I would have guessed about half of that.

ADAMS: I think the reason for that is that there's almost no question that we're the most diverse comics publisher. I think people forget comics we publish because for fans of Transformers we're the Transformers publisher. For fans of Steve Niles we're Steve Niles' publisher. For people that like comics reprints we do Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie. So we do a lot of different things and people look at us for the thing they like the most. A lot of people think we're Ash Wood's publisher. And we are, and we're happy to be. People that like Ash Wood aren't necessarily buying Transformers. I think that it's easy to not see how much we produce on a regular basis.

We're doing out the door 35 to 40 books a month, which means on a weekly basis we're trying to ship eight to 10 books. That's just a lot of books. The opportunity cost of the comic-con, to put together an appearance at this show, even at the level we do it, requires a huge amount of time. The human resources associated with putting together our appearance here are pretty extraordinary. We plan six months out and start having weekly meetings, and start the planning process. By the time the Con actually rolls around, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say there are many hundreds if not thousands of man resource hours in the show.

All that time is time that's taken away from doing books. I have these mixed feelings about it. We want to be here for the people that like our books. The people who like IDW, we want to be here to let them know they're important to us. At the same time, I think there's something to be said about it being better for them if we focused on making the books they like instead of the convention.

SPURGEON: Do you do other shows? I'm trying to get a sense of whether or not your costs are spread across several conventions or just this one.

ADAMS: We don't. No, this is pretty much it. We've dabbled in other shows. We've done WonderCon. That's a much smaller show. We have a couple of pop-up booths, a couple of guys out of the office for a weekend. Those aren't immense. This is just a major undertaking for us.

imageThere are some specific Hasbro-specific conventions. They have a thing called BotCon for Transformers fans. We set up there. We certainly do trade shows in a big way. We're very prevalent at BEA and all the ALA shows. Those kinds of things we do in a big way. The nice thing about those shows, and I think something that works for us nicely, is that we're part of Diamond's booth at those book-specific trade shows. They have a pavilion they essentially divvy up between their publishers. So Diamond is handling all the things that are taking me so much time, all the labor. All we have to really do is have a salesperson there.

SPURGEON: How much has the way the show's transformed itself the last half-decade had an impact on your decision?

ADAMS: It's part of it.

I should make a point of saying that the people that put on San Diego Comic-Con are pretty extraordinary. This show, what they do every year is I think is flat-out unbelievable. You couldn't pay me enough money to take on any of their jobs. They've done nothing but treat us with respect. The decisions I'm weighing have nothing to do with the way we've been treated by San Diego or really this sort of perceived -- I see these things on-line about the perception that Comic-Con is getting away from comics and becoming an entertainment show, and there's no question that's true. But I don't have the angst over those things. I think we're just seeing the free market at work here with San Diego Comic-Con. The market is saying "We want to see Hugh Jackman." [laughter] I don't know how Comic-Con could make that not be. What are you going to do, go to Fox and say, "You can't have Hugh Jackman here"? [Spurgeon laughs] You're going to disappoint the tens of thousands of people that want to see that.

SPURGEON: I would imagine with the diversity of your line you might even be better suited than some to take advantage of having a lot of those people here.

ADAMS: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

SPURGEON: Do you have an idea of how you're going to make the final decision? Is there a time frame?

ADAMS: I think we're likely not to be at San Diego next year. There are people that work for me that think that's not the right decision. I'm trying to weigh what they're telling me, think hard about what they're telling me. Certainly for the freelance community that works for us, it's important to them that they have a place at this show. I'm trying to think about how can I accomplish those goals with drastically reduced cost to us. Not so much the financial cost, but the opportunity cost. How can I have a place where Ash Wood can meet his fans at San Diego Comic-Con without it requiring all this time?

SPURGEON: Have you looked at any past models for partial involvement? Marvel for years didn't formally exhibit and although I could be wrong about this I think that for at least one or two of those years they supported their creators that were here in some fashion.

ADAMS: I think that's what we're kind of circling around now. It's likely we won't have a big booth presence and we won't have a retail presence, and we may end up doing something more like Marvel did. I look at that, and I'm good friends with Nick Barrucci at Dynamic Forces -- they don't exhibit here -- and there are certainly examples out there of how to do this in a way that can work for everybody. We can make our fans happy and make our freelancers happy but we can still also publish and get the books out the door and ultimately make ourselves happy.

SPURGEON: Has Comic-Con had a measurable impact on the line that you might lose?

ADAMS: I don't see a big business impact from the show. I just don't. I can't say, at least for us, that we launched this particular book or made this announcement and that it resulted in long-term business ramifications for us. I wish that were the case. Maybe I'm doing it wrong. Maybe I need to evaluate that more. But we've never seen that happen. That said, our business is growing pretty dramatically the last couple of years. We've doubled our gross sales over the last couple of years -- we've reached a number where it's not going to be possible to double gross sales again, but we've had pretty extraordinary growth over the last two or three years.


SPURGEON: You Darwyn Cooke on his Parker books">announced on the Wednesday night of Comic-Con that you're working Darwyn Cooke on his Parker books. This was a very well-received announcement and there was definite publicity-type interest. Are you suspicious about the long-term impact of something like that as well?

ADAMS: Yeah, I wonder. I mean, it's awesome. I think that worked out really well. That was Scott Dunbier who came up with that idea. He and Darwyn worked closely on that for quite some time. I think that was great. That was something that did give me pause, is there a way to make this work? Because that worked, and there's no question that people are paying attention to that project. It's Darwyn Cooke, so no matter how he announced that people would pay attention it, us or somebody else, but Scott put together a good plan that got that message out there in an interesting way. It was really well-covered.

That said, is that going to affect sales when the book comes out next year? Probably not. We're going to have to keep doing those kinds of things up until the release of the book. But it definitely gets people thinking about it, and it gets us excited, and Darwyn excited. Our plan is to continue that promotion while Darwyn continues to create the book and ultimately when the books comes out.

It did give me pause. I look at that and say, "Here, this worked. Clearly." But I think we could have done that at Darwyn's booth. That could have happened there. It could potentially even happen -- say we have an IDW party, or we have some sort of event like that, and we pick a single message or two to communicate. We could do that at an event like that.

SPURGEON: Now, as you just said: you're here. Your company is in San Diego. Does that give you opportunities for doing something outside the show but maybe during the show, the kind of thing that wouldn't be there for Nick and Dynamic Forces, say?

ADAMS: I think there is that opportunity. Clearly we're San Diego based. We know the city, and it would be much easier for us to prepare something like that. I've thought about those kinds of things. We don't want to do anything that's going to be disruptive to the comic-con. We'd be very careful about that, and would want to be respectful towards them. There might be an opportunity for that. We typically have a party here at the show every year. Our party was last night. It was well-attended as usual. At the party we had a trailer running with all of our announcements and those kinds of things. We're sort of having our message there. We could have done the Darwyn Cooke announcement at our party. And it probably would have been just as well-received, and so there is that chance. But: the fans can't meet Darwyn at our party. That's our challenge.

SPURGEON: Is there anything to be said about the value of the face to face meetings and in-the-flesh announcements in the social networking era? Publicity is different now... one thing that struck me about the Cooke announcement was that it was really old-fashioned. It was a guy and a book and an announcement and a deal and there he is.

ADAMS: There were reporters with microphones in front of his face!

SPURGEON: I expected to see a guy with hat with the word "press" in it. Which would have perfect for Darwyn, come to think of it.

ADAMS: I thought the same thing.

SPURGEON: We're in a 24-hour hype cycle now, and I wonder if there's something about the value of connectivity efforts over the value of a big splash from an announcement or an appearance and if this shift in the way publicity works changes your outlook.

ADAMS: No question. Absolutely. The Internet has changed the way messages are communicated. As a result of that, what happens with a company like us is that we start holding announcements for Comic-Con. Everybody wants to have you announce their project at Comic-Con. Everyone we're doing business with from six months out from Comic-Con wants to have their announcement happen at Comic-Con. Even a company our size, we end up with too many announcements.

My fear is that none of them become special. That's why we went out of our way with the Darwyn announcement, to try and make that special. But we have six to ten additional announcements we're making at our panel tomorrow, to get our message out in a big way. I keep trying to encourage people that I really don't think that Comic-Con is the place to make these kinds of announcements. You just get lost in the shuffle. There are so many announcements being made, so many publishers coming out with things. So it's better to do it in a different way. Save an announcement for two weeks after Comic-Con. Or do it two weeks before.

SPURGEON: That's also something where movies might have an impact. It's Friday and there have really been only about five or six major publishing announcements that have made an impression thus far.

ADAMS: It's all studio-based. Yeah. We've had some luck this year. The thing with Darwyn was well-received. The Tuesday before Comic-Con the New York Times announced these presidential biographies that we're doing. So we got that pick-up there. That's kind of avalanched into additional media. That was intentional. We have a very good PR person that was setting up that story to happen the week of Comic-Con for this to happen.

That being said, we have a bunch more announcements that we need to figure out how to get attention to all of those. The way I look at it now is that we're going to make the announcements here and follow up later with full-bore press and do the kinds of things we typically do.

SPURGEON: Let me ask you about the retail aspect of your presence here, so I don't forget to do that. I didn't know until you told me that you guys did a full retail set-up. I know in general that seems to have really changed at these shows. There was a time not too long ago where folks went to conventions to buy stuff they routinely couldn't get, just buy books, and that this was a way publishers really connected with their fans from places not a New York or Chicago or Los Angeles.

ADAMS: I go back to Eclipse. I started at Eclipse, and 1990 was my first Comic-Con. The show was substantially different back then. The retail was important to Eclipse in those days. The goal was to make money from the show. As we fast-forward to 2008, that's just not possible for IDW. There's no way we can recoup the costs of the show -- I'm talking the pure financial costs of the show -- from the sales of our books at the show. It's just not going to happen.

imageThis year we've done a better job with exclusives, which is really what drives these sales. To your point, if you can get a book on Amazon and at Comic-Con you're probably going to buy it at Amazon. That's why everybody does these exclusives. If there's only one version of the book and only one place to buy it, then there's an incentive. Those kinds of things work well for us. We've gotten a little smarter about that. But this isn't a profit center for us by any stretch. We're trying to recoup a little bit of cost.

The show has never been a profit center for us. It's a marketing cost. I think it's reasonable to expect that a comics publisher has to have a marketing cost associated with attending Comic-Con. I don't expect it's reasonable to expect that the show is going to be a break-even or a profit center.

I think it's reasonable to question whether or not it makes sense from an opportunity cost standpoint. Can the marketing money be spent in better places? Can the human resources be spent in better places? Those are questions you can have.

Looking at Comic-Con as anything other than marketing cost is kind of a bad way to look at it. Certainly some of our peers have a different approach. And I know that I've spoken to some of our peer publishers, and this is a retail opportunity for them. I think in some cases that may be because their products are maybe not as well distributed. So it's not as easy to get. Although with Amazon, you can get anything.

SPURGEON: Who have you floated this decision by thus far?

ADAMS: I've floated it internally. We've been having these discussions the last couple of months. As we've seen what the show's cost us, we've been having the discussion internally for some time. I've started floating it externally. I've had discussions with some of our freelancers, and getting some different perspectives there.

Before the show I was really set at "We're not going to be here next year." Now I'm saying I have to figure out what that means. How can we make everybody happy. Because we publish so many different books, and we have so many different initiatives, we want to try and make everybody happy and we only have a booth that's so big and we have such a diverse line and so many different things we're doing, so many people want to communicate their marketing messages through us, and that's difficult. If we're not here, I don't have to have those conversations. Since I haven't seen any long-term benefit from the marketing that happens here, I have this giant question mark in my life of whether or not we can do this without alienating everybody. The booth can't be everybody's booth. We have to communicate all these different messages. And maybe we can figure out a better way to do that. I think as I go more external with the decision, maybe somebody's going to slap me up the side of my head and tell me I'm out of my mind.

SPURGEON: If that happens, can you take it back?

ADAMS: I think so. It's not like the San Diego Con lives and dies by IDW. They've always worked with us, and I think those opportunities will be there. One of the challenges is that you lose your line in the queue when you stop exhibiting. That's a very fair thing for the Con to do. They have way more people who want space than they have space. So it's reasonable for them to say, "If you didn't exhibit last year, you move to the bottom of the line." It would be something, that if it were a bad decision, if I realized it was a bad decision, it would be difficult. We'd have to work our way back up the queue as far as getting space. The con has done nothing but work with us on giving us more space every year, and giving us a good location.

imageSPURGEON: Do you have an ideal outcome in terms of re-allocating your resources?

ADAMS: It's being able to do more books and better books. It's as simple as that. It's just increasing the volume of books and putting more energy into those books. To give you an example for this week. Our discipline is to approve to print eight to 10 books a week. Just looking purely at this week, I have most of my staff here in one way or another working on Comic-Con. Those eight to ten books didn't get done this week. I've either got to stack up the week before -- which wasn't practical because of the preparation for the con -- or, what's going to happen, those books are going to trickle into next week's production schedule. For the next couple of weeks we have to do 12 to 14 books a week. That's difficult. It puts a real burden on the people that work for me, and everybody's life is more difficult. And that doesn't even account for all the hours before that.

SPURGEON: It almost sounds like you're wanting to deal from a position of resource strength more than you have specific plans -- in other words, this isn't a move preceding a planned expansion.

ADAMS: No, no, no. It's not that. There's no grand expansion other than our natural expansion. It's just allocation of resources, and the economic cost of putting those resources towards something that doesn't directly generate revenue.


IDW logo and various IDW publications

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