Friday, 5 August 2011


Something strange, and not all together healthy, has happened to magazine, and therefore comic book, distribution in the UK. I suspect, but admit I am no expert on the matter, that it has something to do with the supermarkets. These huge corporations attract suppliers with the vast numbers of customers who pass through their well-stocked aisles, but exact a heavy toll from those suppliers (a Faustian pact if you will). Unless a supplier has another form of distribution which it can rely on it is soon at the mercy of the supermarkets which exert their influence ruthlessly.

UK comic weeklies, and often US monthly imports, used to be available in any UK news agent. A fan of a UK comic could place a regular order with their news agent for that periodical, I had a weekly order for TV21 when I was young. Free gifts were limited to the first three issues of a comic book, or attempts to boost circulation. I have heard from some sources that IPC’s policy was to constantly cut the print run of their comic books, anticipating the drop in sales. This goes a long way to explaining why comics were so devilishly difficult to collect unless one placed the above mentioned standing order.

It does not take a genius to realize that constantly cutting your print run will not just anticipate a drop in readership, but cause a drop in readership. It was decisions such as these that I never dared to question as a youngster, believing that others were experts who knew far better than I. Such is not the case today, the costs of overprinting any nationally distributed magazine are minimal, and it is the most basic exercise in logic to compute that you cannot increase sales if there is no surplus product to sell.

Now in the UK hideous amounts of money seem to be paid over to distributors and supermarkets to carry, or “promote”, periodicals. Supermarkets seem to cherry pick the most profitable comic books, as they do with books, computer games and DVDs to stock, thus keeping their workload down and denying stores which deal primarily in such items valuable sales. Due to their massive buying power supermarkets can often offer these items at far lower prices. In the long run this will lead to books, DVDs and computer games etc only being available through supermarkets on the high street, and they will still only carry the most popular items, all other trade will inevitably be carried out on-line.

The UK comic book has unfortunately become part of this equation, with supermarkets accounting for a significant percentage of their sales. For my mind UK comic publishers no longer have a dialogue with their readers, instead they have a dialogue with supermarkets, who demand that there be a free gift and demand that they be in full colour, and demand that they have a promotion every six months, and if they don’t comply then they’ll be dropped and the supermarket won’t even notice because they carry 14,999 other goods in their stores and that one item is insignificant.

Of the six originated comics still distributed on UK news stands, Dandy, Beano, Commando, 2000AD, Judge Dredd Megazine & Viz, 50% are in black & white, so colour is no guarantee of longevity. The Italian and Japanese comic book markets are also primarily black & white and suffer no ill effects because of it. Black & white reduces costs and allows publishers a greater degree of experimentation, and as I have stated previously the UK market must work its way through a great many failures before it can find a success.

The entry level for new publishers seems to be prohibitively high on UK news stands. Alternatively in France I understand that if you can afford to print 30,000 copies of a periodical you are guaranteed distribution by law, which democratizes publishing to a great extent.

While we’re looking at Europe I’d just like to extol the virtues of the Italian system of edicolas, which are small kiosks on almost every other corner on Italian streets. They carry newspapers, magazines, comic books, puzzle books, part-works, DVDs, etc. One cannot walk for longer than 5 minutes without stumbling across one in any major Italian town. It is this ubiquitous system which has led to Tex and Dylan Dog clocking up a whopping 800,000 combined sales every month, a total reached with a new edition of each title plus a couple of re-prints and occasional specials, but impressive figures nevertheless for a country with a population below 60 million.

It is the publication of comic strips in periodicals, which are then collected into book formats which has underpinned the success of comics in both the European and Japanese markets, therefore it is essential for both the UK and US comic book industries to have effective distribution. I believe that neither the US or UK comic industries have that effective distribution, although, even with its problems, the UK industry is still on news stands.

The US comic book has retreated almost totally from news stand sales, although titles such as the Simpsons and Archie Comics are still released to both news stand and direct sales markets.

At one point, a few years into the direct sales revolution, the future evolution of the comic book market seemed set on a steady course. Marvel and DC released comics to both news stands and direct sales shops attracting new young readers, and an ever-growing number of them would stick with comic books as they saw older readers continuing to buy comics from direct sales shops. There would no longer be the stigma attached to buying comics from a news stand when you were a grown up, a feeling many of us older readers still remember.

The direct sales shops allowed much smaller companies (indies) to produce work aimed at a more comic savvy audience, that had grown up with and was committed to the medium. More adult material could be explored and niche product still be made available due to the firm sales policy of the direct sales market.

In many cases Marvel and DC would let the indies like Eclipse, Pacific and First establish markets and creators before launching their own attempts. The more lucrative deals offered to creators by the indies also led Marvel and DC to grant royalties and creator rights.

Regional direct sales distributors sprang up across the US and one was set up in the UK. A books’ print run was established after the publisher phoned all the distributors, which at one point was over a dozen, and got their firm orders. It is no surprise that during this period indie hits sprang up, titles such as Elfquest, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Cerebus. These were self-published black & white comics which made a tidy profit for their creators thanks to the formal distribution network established by the direct sales market.

When the market began to be flooded by cheap, low quality books, which were ordered on firm sale months in advance and sight unseen apart from a cover, the distributors were asked to carry out a limited form of quality control and ensure the book was actually finished.

It was a time of expansion, and informal rules being agreed by consensus, with distributors realizing that it was the comic shops that were at the sharp end, and the ones who would be left with unsold comics. This risk was diffused however, as most books were regular items and had a guaranteed following. New comics were treated cautiously and a “hit” comic could be re-ordered (TMNT#1 had several printings as what started as a joke title turned into a huge comic juggernaut).

Distributors began to merge until the US was left with just one distributor, Diamond. The entire US comic industry is now just a part of one company’s turn-over, which includes DVDs, tee-shirts, toys, role playing games, books, magazines, trading cards and novelties.

To a large extent Diamond decides the shape of the entire US comic book industry. Of course it doesn’t control Marvel, DC, Dark Horse or any of the established companies, but I think it is no surprise that the direct sales market has not had a bona fide self-publishing hit since Diamond became the sole distributor.

I believe that the long term well being of the entire industry depends on lots and lots of people all putting their idea of what a comic should be out there and letting the shops and readers make up their minds if they’re right. It is only this way that innovation will occur.

Marvel and DC both publish a huge number of titles which eats up most of the comic shops’ budgets. Any money left over is mostly spent on Dark Horse, Image and the other larger indies, which leaves very little money left for the self-published books, so no new Cerbus, TMNT or Elfquest.

This means that as Marvel and DC’s sales drop (ten years ago the top selling comic sold 300,000 today it sells 100,000) so do the sales of the comic shops. Over the years there have been a succession of new products which comic publishers and comic shops have used to bolster their sales; graphic novels, trading cards, role playing games, action figures, manga and statuettes. Many fall by the wayside, only lasting as long as it takes for a collector to try selling the first action figure or statuette they bought and realizing they’re not going to be able to retire on the proceeds. Comic shops should be proud of supplying reading material, as ordinary bookshops are disappearing from our high streets faster than you can say Amazon dot com!

It is the mixture of monthly comic books and graphic novels, and a core audience addicted to comics, that allow many of these shops to keep going. How long they’ll be able to do this without a massive injection of new customers is of critical importance. Now hardly seems to be the time to be putting up barriers to new product.

After thirty years of pontificating that “comics aren’t just for kids” the industry seems to nearly be waking up to the fact that it is producing little material which is child friendly. This brings few new readers into a market which has a dwindling customer base, most comic readers are 40 plus.

Despite the large number of comic books and graphic novels which comic shops complain they have to wade through I would struggle to put together a line up of books that would allow customers to seamlessly move from one type of book to the next. There are major gaps in the market, primarily at the younger age range of the market.

Readers are suddenly expected to get turned on to comics at the age of sixteen, having grown up on a steady diet of tv, internet, computer games, movies and CDs. With all their disposable income probably already allocated we feel that they’ll suddenly stop and pick up a comic and start reading it. Well I have no doubt that some of them do just that, but it’s obviously not as many as when kids grew up reading comics. Some of us stayed with comics even when there weren’t direct sales comic shops, and some of us remember feeling faint when they walked into a shop filled with nothing but comics.

The direct sales market, and primarily the distribution network, needs to find a way to allow the maximum number of new, indie comics on to the market without breaking under the pressure. Simply raising the bar for orders has led to an increase in graphic novel collections, and new readers are justifiably reluctant to pay £8/$12 for a book by a complete unknown. It seems another step towards a model which is replicated nowhere else in the world, one in which graphic novels replace comic book periodicals.

At one point I used to think that if comic shops simply dropped the lowest selling Marvel and DC comic and switched over to an indie comic that might gradually improve the situation. I now believe this idea to be wrong (there I admit I get things wrong). I believe that the lower selling Marvel and DC comics are ordered at just the right levels by comic shops, and offer a steady, reliable source of revenue, which is what every business needs.

I believe it is the “multi-part big event” comics which take up large amounts of a comic shop’s budget, and can often leave retailers with stacks of unsold copies. Marvel and DC know they just have to put out as much publicity about these books as possible and retailers will be worried about missing out on “the next big thing”. I have seen multiple copies of the first issue still on the shelves as the last issue comes out, and unless the publisher shipped out free extra copies of that first issue it’s the retailer who takes the financial hit, after all once the comic shop has placed a firm order on non-returnable books it’s their problem.

Comic publishers now have to sell to comic shop owners, not readers. If they can convince the retailer, who for their sins is completely immersed in the comic world, then they will sell large quantities of the comic book, and a couple of months later also sell a collected graphic novel version of the mini-series which the retailer still has unsold copies of!?

Most, if not all, comic shops are run by comic fans as opposed to hard-nosed business men, although they very soon have to develop some business acumen or go bust. For an sector which is mainly run by former fans surprisingly few comic shops do fold, whether this is down to good management or an insanely loyal customer base is open to discussion.

The comic shops are definitely at the sharp end of the business, and if they get their ordering wrong they are stuck with 3 months worth of stock which they cannot sell (as they order firm sales 3 months in advance). If they under order a book they can always re-order but too many copies of a book that isn’t selling are their problem.

Ultimately the comic shop owner who realizes it’s not about the comics he, or she likes but what their customers want that succeeds. Recently many owners have extolled the virtues of the graphic novel and proclaimed the death knell of the monthly comic book. It is only the regular sales of those monthly comic books that stops a comic shop becoming a niche independent book store, and independent book stores are unfortunately dropping like flies.

To help comic shops stay in, and hopefully grow their business, distributors must offer them as wide a range of material as possible, to supply the needs of long term comic fans and also new customers. With the hundreds of titles on offer it may seem that there is all the choice one could wish for, but when you actually break it down there are less choices than you might imagine. Also, quite logically almost all comics are aimed at the existing fan-boy market, as that is the profile of comic shop customers.

It seems very difficult to produce a comic for the direct sales market that appeals to the general market (the 99.99% of the population which doesn’t collect comic books) when the direct sales comic market is specifically geared over generations to cater to the 0.01% of the population which does collect comic books.

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