20 December 2006

Indie Bookstores Bailing Out; Bad Sign for Comics?

[UPDATED: 9:55 pm]

PW Daily has a sobering article about several independent bookstores shutting their doors thanks to increased expenses and competition, and I can't help but think about how it parallels the current state of the comic book industry, both on the publishing and retailing side, and how it could potentially affect graphic novel sales, one of the few growth categories in publishing right now.

In New York City, after 34 years serving Manhattan's Upper West Side, the independent mystery bookstore Murder Ink will close on December 31. Owner Jay Pearsall also announced that the attached bookstore, Ivy's Books and Curiosities, will also close.

"We've been able to weather many storms, like having a Barnes & Noble 10 blocks away, but I'd have to say our rent is the number one cause for us going out of business," Pearsall told PW Daily. The current rent had been increasing by 5% each year, and has risen to $18,000/month. "At $18,000, there's nothing left," Pearsall explained.

Over the years, Murder Ink had changed with the times. "The Internet drove us out of the used and rare market about seven years ago," said Pearsall, who bought the store in 1989. "In many ways there's no such thing as a rare book anymore." There are no plans to keep the bookstore going as an online entity. "We used to do a big catalogue and online business, but we don't do much business that way anymore," said Pearsall. "It was pretty soulless sitting in front of a computer and running to the post office. I like to talk to people about books."

Trying to find another location for the store is not an option. "Now is not the time to open a new bookstore," Pearsall said. "I'm just going to take a little time off and try to write a book about things that happened here at the store and about how things have changed in the book and publishing world over the last 20 years."
Two of the other three stores covered in the article are also specialty outlets -- African-American and Mystery/Fantasy/Science Fiction -- which makes me wonder whether or not brick-and-mortar stores simply aren't a viable option for the specialty market anymore, especially as more and more people are comfortable with shopping online nowadays, and/or are satisfied with the limited selections available at chain bookstores.

I also wonder what this all might mean for graphic novels in general, whose exponential growth over the past couple of years has seen Marvel (and to a lesser but growing degree, DC) cranking out hardcover and trade paperback collections of almost everything they publish, while mainstream publishers have begun to sip -- or in some cases, guzzle -- the Kool-Aid, launching imprints to capitalize on the trend. (Or is it a fad?) All of the major distributors recognize the growth potential in graphic novels, and at least one has built an entire initiative around selling more of them.

What happens when there are fewer outlets to sell these books, though? When what gets widely distributed is primarily dictated by a handful of mega-chains (where I group Amazon.com for this particular discussion)? Does it mirror what's happened in the direct market, where one distributor holds a virtual monopoly and two publishers control 70-80% of the market?

On a related note, while I believe there are plenty of good superhero stories to tell that can't, or won't, be published by the so-called Big Two -- check out Kurt Addams' proposal for one intriguing possibility -- I've always felt the route to breaking into comics these days, as either a creator or publisher, is to use the B-to-B model, focusing on an underserved genre and/or niche, and working it as hard as possible. Cross-Gen and Speakeasy, among many others, have proven that the broader approach doesn't work, no matter how well-financed or well-intentioned, and most people tend to forget that DC and Marvel became DC and Marvel over a period of a couple of decades, with both publishers falling on lean times now and again.

Meanwhile, boutique publishers like AdHouse, Viper and several others have successfully carved small but sustainable chunks out of the [direct] market, allowing them to continue to publish quality material, building a solid backlist that will keep them in the black as long as their reach doesn't exceed their grasp.

In the context of the main point of this post (which I'm less and less clear on right this second), it makes me wonder if the niche approach to comics isn't the only answer, or at least not in print. I clearly need to pick up a copy of Reinventing Comics and get hip to the whole webcomics thing the kids are all about these days!

*****

For most of my 14-year career in and around periodical publishing, I've worked on the Business-to-Business (B-to-B) side of the fence -- in circulation, marketing, and now sales -- and the approach there has always been similar to a specialty store: niche publications for a niche audience. I've worked on magazines targeted towards co-op & condo board members, stage lighting designers, independent financial planners, CPAs, etc., and those are some the least surprising niches out there. (Sanitation World and National Hog Farmer are two of my favorites.)

Over the past few years, there's been an oft-noted shift as marketing budgets have steadily shrunk and print advertising has taken the biggest hit, staying flat, at best, or decreasing dramatically. I have several clients and prospects who have removed print advertising from their plans completely next year because only the big brand marketers are able to justify the cost of such difficult-to-measure efforts. Everyone else is shifting their budgets towards more cost-effective, lead-generation vehicles and integrated online advertising.

"Return on investment" (ROI) is king these days so online marketing has become all the rage -- too often mistaken as a magic bullet -- thanks to the immediacy and relative measurability of its results. Another comic book example can be seen in the concurrent decline of Wizard magazine and rise of Newsarama. The internet has dramatically changed reading habits, and most people now go online to get the kind of information niche consumer magazines like Wizard, and the vast majority of B-to-B publications, used to build its relevance around.

Even brand marketers are forced to make tough decisions, though, as not every product line has an equal budget or priority in the overall plan. You can see this in comics, specifically at Marvel and DC, where the likes of Civil War and Infinite Crisis get the most marketing attention, while anything not directly connected to them gets launched with minimal support, left to fend for itself in a hyper-competitive market and effectively doomed to failure.

While very short-term oriented, not to mention self-prophetic, the bang for the buck is a lot higher for a marketing campaign that pushes, say, Infinite Crisis from 100k to 150k copies vs. one that gets Son of Vulcan from 16k to 25k, as IC, in theory, will lift more boats overall. Not for long, of course -- check the figures for DC nine months after OYL gave them a theoretically clean slate and across-the-board sales boost -- at which point the cycle repeats itself ad infinitum until the bottom falls out completely and the game starts all over again.

One company I'm particularly curious about in this context is Virgin Comics, both to see how committed they are to comics themselves, and whether they can successfully leverage their brand's cache to broaden their reach beyond the direct market. I'm thinking it will be a combination of the inevitable movies based on their titles, complemented by high-profile trade paperback releases, but that's not particularly innovative and won't bring about any significant paradigm shift.

Any thoughts out there in the blogiverse? Is this thing on?

1 comment:

Kurt Addams said...

The news regarding the independent booksellers is sad but not surprising. As to the impact on graphic novel sales, I’d guess negligible. I haven’t noticed the independents I’ve visited giving much, if any, shelf space to graphic novels. Generally I’ve only seen the more critically acclaimed indy titles, never anything from the big two. I’m sure that’s not the case for every one, but equally I think Marvel and DC are far more interested in what happens with Borders, B&N, Amazon, WalMart, Target, etc. than they are with independents.

I could see where the smaller publishers who rely more on hand-selling might be impacted, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that when the seller goes away the sales go with them. The Internet fills the knowledge/referral/recommendation gap nicely in addition to making it much easier to locate and order hard-to-find titles.

As to distribution, rather than B2B, I see more of a DTC market in the making. The products aren't an exact match, but if you look at the direction the music industry is heading you can see comic books – outside the big two – tacking there, particularly as the webcomics format continues to mature.

Branding is a bit out of my wheelhouse but I think more and more Marvel and DC are setting up these big events not only for the short-term bump in floppy sales but for the long-term TPB market. All these event books will be on the shelves for years and will sell much better than the collected editions of the popular titles of the day. If you’re new to comics or someone only peripherally interested (are there such beasts?) you’re far more likely to pick up a Civil War TPB than the New Avengers Volume 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 or…