13 July 2006

COMMENT: Under the Covers

Pop quiz: What's the difference between these three magazine covers?

Jessica Simpson Collage
If you said "everything", you get a no-prize! I purposefully made the images small so the copy would be hard to read and you'd first have to focus on the pictures.

On the Teen People cover, Ms. Simpson (good thing she kept her maiden name, yes?) has a big smile on her face, with "Sister Power" clearly visible, suggesting the story inside is a positive one, probably a fluff celebrity piece. The Maxim cover knows its target audience, commanding their attention to Ms. Simpson's two best features and printing her name large enough for their slightly more discerning readers who like to have their cleavage identified. You can be pretty sure that the accompanying story isn't about her charitable work with Operation Smile. Finally, there's the In Touch cover with a clearly displeased Ms. Simpson giving her seemingly clueless husband the evil eye and "IT'S OVER! printed large and loud so that there's no question what that story is about.

Assuming all three of these magazines were on the stands at the same time, they would appeal to three very different, though perhaps overlapping, audiences. (Excepting Jessica Simpson fanatics who collect every media appearance of hers they can find). Teen People targets "today's multi-cultural teens", primarily female; Maxim targets horny guys of all ages; and In Touch targets women, 18-34, who think People is too expensive.

Now, you're probably asking yourself, "What does Jessica Simpson have to do with comics?"

Nothing, actually -- though maybe Rosario Dawson's O.C.T. will inspire her to develop her own comic book properties for future movie deals -- but this isn't about her, it's about comic book covers and something Marvel editor Tom Breevort wrote yesterday about the decreased importance of covers in the comic book industry today.

It used to be, back when comic books were sold exclusively on the newsstand, that the cover was what sold the magazine. That's why so much attention and effort was spent on the cover image. There was no advertising, no promotion, no Wizard magazine or Previews catalogue or Newsarama [nice plug] to let people know what was coming out months in advance...

Sure, a really good cover may be able to hook a few extra people into picking up the book off the racks, assuming it's there for them to find, but the whole mechanism of our distribution and retail system makes the cover close to superfluous. Retailers order their books months in advance from the Previews catalogue, as do a great deal of the customer base through pull lists. And once you get outside the big coastal cities especially, the amount of display space a given shop has is relatively miniscule. I don't know what proportion of the average shop's books are sold off the rack as opposed to through pull list subscriptions and advance orders, but I'd hazard a conservative guess that it's probably half.
While Breevort's overall point is right -- for the most part, from the myopic perspective of the direct market as it is -- I think he makes an interesting miscalculation in his assessment of shelf copies as "probably half" of the average shop's total sales. Think about that for a second.

X-Factor #7In May, the modestly promoted X-Factor #7 sold an estimated 44,315 in pre-orders, featuring a pretty good Ryan Sook cover that was dynamic and relevant to the story, but lacked even the slightest bit of promotional text to clue in readers unfamiliar with the series or Jamie Madrox. (That was roughly a 21% drop from the first issue's debut of 56,053 copies pre-ordered, which sold out and was reprinted, featuring a new cover and moving another 8,808 copies.) Using Breevort's line of thinking, half of those copies -- 22,157 -- were ordered for the shelves at comic book shops across the country in the hopes that it might catch a new reader's eye, inspiring them to check it out and, eventually, add it to their pull list.

How many of those copies do you think hit the back issue bins because they weren't strong enough to attract the casual browser's eye? How many of those unsold copies influenced retailers to decrease their orders for X-Factor #10 when it came time to gauge how many shelf copies to stock this time? How does this vicious cycle lead to mid-list titles being cancelled and Crisis on House of M being seen as what fans want? Discuss...

While I think Breevort is wildly overestimating the 1:1 pull:shelf ratio -- my guess is it's closer to 10:1 for the best-sellers, 25:1 for the mid-list titles, and an exception for most indies -- the fact that he seemingly believes it and still underestimates the importance of a cover's influence is astounding, especially when the direct market is notorious for declining month-to-month sales as a rule. It's a symptom of the larger ills of the direct market's non-returnable distribution system, one which encourages maintaining the status quo over strategic growth by rewarding conservatism over calculated risk-taking.

In the traditional publishing world of returnable inventory, retailers always order more copies of a magazine (or book) than they think they will sell (they're not shouldering the risk and they know they'll lose that sale, and possibly future sales, to a competitor), and most publishers are comfortable with the returns, figuring on an average sell-through of 60-75% which ensures there's always a copy of their publication on the stands for someone new to come across and purchase, even if it's towards the end of that issue's fresh date.

You think People magazine wants to sell out of that issue featuring the first photos of TomKat's [non-existent?] baby? Hell no! They want everyone who passes by a newstand to see that issue and buy it, and they factor the returns into their budget. (Budgeting, like marketing, doesn't seem to be one of the comics industry's strong suits.)

It's the same concept as independent creators who are (understandably, to a degree) reluctant to commit to original graphic novels over serialization because of the lost mindshare that comes with being absent from the shelves (or from Previews) for several months at a time. Marvel (and DC) have addressed this somewhat with their willingness to reprint sold-out issues, but it's a half-step measure based in conservatism and, if we wanted to be a little cynical, a lack of faith in their product. Which, of course, in many cases, is understandable.


Emperor Nerd said...

Do you think that the comic industry should go to a more magazine or book-like return format? Could they even switch over? While it think it would be great for retailers I just don't see how ot would benefit the publishers, especially the smaller houses.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

I doubt they ever will, or even want to, go back to returnable distribution. There's no need for them to do so, and as long as the direct market is dominated by one distributor and two publishers, they'll never have to.

Unfortunately, that means they're effectively operating on a quantity over quality business model -- supported by retailer incentive programs that mandate increased orders on select titles that might otherwise flounder -- where building a sustainable audience and having a business plan for long-term success takes a backseat to quarterly sales projections and marketing gimmicks to ensure they meet their numbers.

Savvy indie publishers, who realize the vast majority of direct market retailers don't even look at the back of Previews, need to either abandon the serial format or approach it as a loss-leader for the eventual trade paperback. (They also should avoid signing exclusive deals with Diamond Books, keeping their options open now that the mainstream distributors are paying more attention to graphic novels, one of the few growth segments in the industry.) Most don't have the capitalization for that, though. Of course, most shouldn't even be in the publishing business, but that's a whole other post!

The Video Store Girl said...

I'm still suckered into buying new comics based solely on the cover art on a regular basis. As to whether the comic was really worth it, the ratio is about 50/50. I used to work as the assistant to the cover editor at DC and management always said that the covers were the "backbone" of the "product." If the cover sucked, the book wouldn't sell. But at some point I think hot creative teams trumped that priority.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Yeah, covers can still influence me, especially with comics I'm not familiar with. Dark Horse's ArchEnemies caught my attention with its covers that actually doubled as the first page of the story. Gave a good feel for the premise and execution right away, and was halfway towards coming home with me when I picked it up to flip through it as a result.

There's also the negative aspect to covers, though, with the use of "name" artists meant to attract the collectors. ie: I rarely buy comics with Michael Turner or Greg Land/Horn covers. She-Hulk fell victim to that.