The subject of the future is on the minds of quite a few writers about comics these days, and Women Write About Comics is hosting a Blog Carnival based off of a question posed by Loser City’s Nick Hanover: Is it possible for comics to grow sustainably if the direct market continues to dominate distribution?
My take? Yes.
Is that all? Is that all I have to say here? Maybe I should elaborate some; I’m just so used to a 140-character limit on my comics thoughts these days.
Maybe I’m still high on comics from SPX, but I think it is totally possible for comics to continue to grow in sustainable ways without any help from the direct market. Of course, this doesn’t include Marvel and DC, which frequently have their books ordered out of convenience and guaranteed sales at shops frequented by the cape and tights crowd.
The direct market is clearly most beneficial for superhero comics as well as comics that are superhero adjacent that might get a few orders from small shops on the hope they will break even or make a small profit. Basically, if a store owner is flipping through Previews and sees a comic from some smaller publisher that has a heavy sci-fi or horror bend, they know there is a chance they can sell at least half of them and break even, if not sell all 4 issues they order and pocket a few bucks. But many of them don’t make enough money to justify going out of their way to take risks on books they don’t know will sell with their customers, and it’s hard for me not to sympathize with that. I worked in a shop for 3 years, and while I loved it, it was tough to sell some people on really good comics. Now imagine having to go to a small press’s website because they aren’t even in Previews. It doesn’t usually happen in a small town, small comic shop environment.
But the readers are still getting their hands on comics that go against the superhero grain. There are people going to SPX whose books do not show up in Previews and are making a living in comics. John Porcellino is the first that comes to mind, but there are certainly many more. For the last 15 years, webcomics like Penny Arcade have made a ton of money and they only approached the world of comic shops and book stores when they started putting their stuff into print, long after reaching huge audiences. The same goes with XKCD and Dinosaur Comics. And then there’s manga, something that burnt a ton of comic shops in the late 90s and early 00s, which seems to be doing quite well in both print and digital despite many comic shops having decided not to carry manga because it “didn’t sell” when they stocked up during the Tokyopop boom.
Did I mention digital comics yet? I remember hearing rumors that when Dark Horse proposed their day-and-date digital releases at lower than print prices, they had done the math and found they could exist without the direct market. Books like Ms. Marvel don’t make too impressive print numbers, but it’s hailed as one of Marvel’s better selling titles due to their ambiguous and unreported digital sales numbers. That’s another distribution channel that circumvents the direct market entirely (and is ridiculously overpriced, considering it’s the same as print).
So I guess I find myself disagreeing with Nick’s question just a little bit. I think the direct market does dominate a certain kind of distribution, but that comics have ways around that, even mainstream comics. And while it’s possible that some comic shops may not be doing as well as they did in the 90s boom, comics themselves seem to be doing quite well. Now, Diamond Comics Distributors is another story. Having been on both sides of the comic shop counter, I have never met anyone with good things to say about Diamond, and their stranglehold on the physical distribution of comics is good for no one, particularly those books that don’t meet their minimum numbers to be included in Previews. But I think that may be a topic for another blog carnival?
For more insightful perspectives on the question of the advancement of comics and the involvement of the direct market, check out more of the Women Write About Comics Blog Carnival on the subject.
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