Considering the way comic book retailers have been expressing their frustration with their publishing partners lately, you don’t have to be whoever the smartest person in the Marvel Universe is this week, to know that what the direct market desperately needs is a reboot. No, not another half-baked continuity reboot – a reboot of the entire comic book industry.
Take the back issue. No, please, take it because if it’s more than a couple weeks old, nobody's ever gonna buy it. 20 years ago, as long as a comic book series could keep putting out new issues, its back issues retained or increased their value. This steady rise in back issue values was a key financial perk retailers enjoyed in exchange for ordering more non-returnable copies than they could immediately sell. And since over-ordering by retailers was the main reason many series were able to stay ongoing, those additional profits seemed only fair.
Then in the early 2000s, publishers decided that they deserved a piece of all that sweet back issue action. So instead of limiting trade collections to only those back issues that were too expensive for the average fan to track down, they began collecting everything. And who can blame them, since trade collections required no new creative content and allowed publishers to sell retailers the same non-returnable story content twice in the same year -- but at a much higher price point! Instead of rejecting this brazen double dip into their ordering budgets, retailers actually embraced it.
Because creative teams had begun decompressing every story into six issue arcs and comic shop customers were growing fed up with paying an increasing amount of money for a decreasing percentage of story. Thanks to trade collections, these disgruntled readers no longer had to keep buying new single issues, much less piece together a consecutive run of back issues. And once month-old issues of their favorite series started popping up in the dollar bin, the folks who still wanted to read single issues had far less incentive to pay cover price on release day.
To make matters worse, instead of trekking to their LCS six times to buy six single issues, devoted comic book fans can now stay home, click a couple buttons and have trade collections (plus exclusive bonus content!) delivered to their doors at a bigger discount than their local independent retailers could offer.
In response to declining rack sales, retailers cut back their single issue orders. To get stores to continue subsidizing their monthly output so those new higher-margin trade collections could keep coming, publishers started renumbering their ongoing series and created rare variant covers which could only be acquired if a store ordered way more copies of the standard cover than it could ever dream of selling.
Calculated scarcity has become the key ingredient to direct market success in 2019 and if a new single issue is not considered to be hot, key or rare, it is effectively worthless two weeks after it goes on sale. When a new single issue does manage to heat up, retailers have cut their shelf copies so severely that they can't benefit from these suddenly spiking values. Which means publishers get to look like heroes by selling retailers non-returnable 2nd, 3rd or 4th printings of the same story content, adding more risk for even less reward.
By now you’re probably wondering when this depressing article is going to start delivering the solutions promised in this article’s clickbait headline. Sorry, folks, but that’s being saved for part two of this article, available next month for only $3.99!
Okay, not really. But if this article were a comic book, most publishers probably would have held back the good stuff until issue 2. Which brings us to the serialized comic book's number one problem which is actually its “number two” problem: the dreaded issue 2. Forcing retailers to order non-returnable second issues before they’ve even seen how their customers react to issue 1 is without question, a terrible way to sell entertainment. The percentage drops in sales between issues 1 and 2 tell that story better than this writer can.
Any story that's told over more than one issue requires its audience to be, by definition, collectors since they have to collect 2, 4, 6, etc. issues to get the complete entertainment experience. Back when drug stores, supermarkets and convenience stores sold comics, collecting didn’t really require much effort because most people already had to go to those places anyway. Unfortunately, once comics began to be sold exclusively at shops where people didn’t already have to go, most casual readers simply dumped comics for a less needy hobby.
Today's Binge Age audiences don’t want to “collect” their entertainment. They sample it and if they enjoy the sample, then they binge. Sitcomics' new, print-exclusive format called a Binge Book owns this new reality by giving readers a 64-page, self-contained story for only $3.99. The unique Binge Book format eliminates the perishability problem by offering standalone stories that provide the reading satisfaction and corresponding shelf-life of a trade paperback at the cost of a standard single issue.
But since the economics of a hybrid format like the Binge Book aren’t feasible for all publishers, here’s another solution: the Series Sampler. Under this system, publishers could still solicit their single-issue number ones in Previews, but the solicitation for issue 2 wouldn't appear until the month after that Sampler issue hits shelves.
While issue 1 still fresh on the minds of their customers, retailers would be offered the choice of either ordering issue 2 (as well as re-ordering issue 1) or just ordering the trade paperback that collects the entire story arc.
If pre-orders for issue 2 meet a pre-determined threshold (say 65% of issue 1's sales), then the trade paperback is canceled and resolicited after the release of all single issues in that story arc. If issue 2's pre-orders fail to meet that 65% threshold, then all pre-orders of issue 2 are canceled, and the series goes straight to trade.
In a way, Series Samplers are the comic book equivalent of the TV pilot: if issue 1 takes off with audiences and retailers, it gets green-lit to ongoing series. If not, the solicited trade collection would still enjoy guaranteed comic shop distribution, giving the publisher a completed product which can then be sold to other markets. With its serialized survival at stake, publishers would be encouraged to beef up the story content in every first issue to give it the best possible chance of hooking readers. The higher the quality of that lower-priced first issue, the easier it'll be for the retailer to convert that customer enthisasm into orders for the more expensive collected edition or the subsequent single issues.
With fewer non-returnable copies of issues 3, 4, 5 and 6 eating up their ordering budgets and shelf space, retailers would have more money to invest in buying more copies of the far less risky Series Sampler issue 1s. And higher orders for a hot issue 1 is never a bad thing - unless of course you're a speculator.
Publishers who still insist on soliciting issues 2 and up before the release of issue 1, could be required to observe a new Single-Issue Exclusivity Window wherein they would have to wait a certain number of months after the release of the last issue of that story arc before soliciting the trade paperback which collects it. This exclusivity window would give those retailers who invested their money into the non-returnable single issue format more time to sell-thru their remaining shelf copies before the inevitable trade collection makes them all totally obsolete.
Exasperation about the state of the comics industry is nothing new and history lessons on past mistakes are useless if the industry insists on repeating them. Whether you want to call it a reboot or not, it's clear that drastic new solutions are needed to reverse comic book publishers’ ever-increasing reliance on gimmicks that boost sell-in without boosting sell-thru. The Series Sampler, the Single-Issue Exclusivity Window and Sitcomics' Binge Book format are three possible solutions to the single-issue's perishability problem.
Retailers repeatedly ask publishers to change, but the current system benefits the biggest companies so much that they will never change until a smaller company proves that those changes can be financially successful. When a retailer sees a smaller publisher trying something that he or she wishes the bigger companies would try, they need to invest in that innovation. If enough retailers united to promote those innovations to their customers and each other, the comic book business could actually look very different one year from now. Until that happens, it'll be business as usual and unless you're lucky enough to be a multi-billion dollar corporation, that's definitely not a good thing.