Monday, January 19, 2004

Tilting At Windmills

Reading Brian Hibbs' column this week brought to mind a couple of random thoughts.

First, there's this quote:

"Some [publishers] are trying to eliminate the periodical comic from their mix as much as they can, preferring to issue "permanent" editions as a GN. This, I think, is probably a mistake, because frontlist drives backlist, especially as the sea of choices expands. Creators need constant visibility and "market presence" in order to develop as their own "brand". We'll talk more about this one in a future column, I promise, because I think that the rush towards "books-only" is a dangerous course for us to take."

This is an interesting notion, but I think its a bit reactionary given the shifting economic indicators. I think that the "books-only" model that Hibbs decries is probably going to become the standard format in five years time, if not sooner. So, talking about whether or not is should be the industry model is probably silly because if it happens its going to happen fast and its going to happen because the publishers - specifically the Big Two - want it to happen. As we've seen ad infinitum, the Big Two have a way of making their ideas industry standard. The only reasons the Big Two haven't already done this can probably be chalked up to ingrained corporate lethargy. If you go back and read this interview with Joe Quesada from a few days back you'll notice that when asked about the possibility of moving incrimentally toward the OGN publishing model, Quesada demurrs slightly by stating that such OGN's would cost somewhere in the region of $30-40, which would price the books out of the range of most fans and negatively impact the creators' (and Marvel's) pocketbook.

Now, first of all, while this may seem a negative forecast its worth noting that he's describing the exact same model that the regular publishing industry had labored under for hundreds of years. Second - if you're OGN's are going to cost $30-40 and be all of 90 pages, you're going to go out of business, its that simple. And third, all the little assumptions and inferences that go into this line of thinking point to the fact that the mainstream is still indellibly stuck in the periodical mindset, which could kill us if they're not careful. There's no money in comics as periodicals - its not a growth industry. I think a great deal of Tokyopop's success has to do with the fact - and I don't think I've seen anyone mention this before - that the Tokyopop books aren't periodicals. They come out regularly on a periodical basis, yes, but they are designed to have a long shelf life in the bookstore. I think this simple fact creates a far different impression on the minds of potential readers than anyone has yet taken into account.

Comic books = periodicals = not a good value in the mind of the consumer.

One day soon I think we'll start seeing manga TPBs racked next to paperback books in grocery chains and Wal-Marts.

Its probably going to be someone in accounting, a junior VP or someone who we've never heard of, who makes the final realization. Its going to happen fast when it finally does happen. One day soon someone at either Marvel or DC is going to realize that they're paying their creators too much on the front-end, and make the move to a more standard publishing model. When that happens, your favorite creators are going to have to learn to either work faster or work better in order to maintain their current standard of living - just like writers do in real publishing. (Not that I'm implying that mainstream creators are overpaid - quite the contrary - just that however much they are paid they're going to start getting paid a lot less.) Artists who work at a snail's pace will probably move away from the mainstream publishing and into smaller initiatives that will come to resemble the European album more than anything else (Brian Hitch, this one's for you). There's going to be a lot of upheaval but the smart retailers and creators should land on their feet.

Back to Hibbs - I was especially curious to read the last paragraph of his article:

"The Direct Market is back on a cycle of growth, for the most part, and if we want to accelerate it, it's time for Marvel to get back into the supply game."

Although he qualifies the statement with "for the most part", I have to wonder how he can parse the distribution numbers he cited earlier in his very own article to mean that there's anything resembling a "cycle of growth" currently at work in the mainstream industry. I think, although I have not yet crunched the numbers, that a great deal of the "growth" we've seen has been dependent on a series of gimmicky pushes from the Big Two - such as the Ultimate line, 'The Dark Knight Strikes Again', 'JLA/Avengers', and the Jim Lee 'Batman'. I think, although again I do not know, that a lot of the sales energy generated by these successful launches has come at the high cost of a dwindling midlist. The economics of scale in comics publishing are so small now that halfway successful books just can't cope anymore. How many people have had to put off buying books such as (just too name a few noble failures) 'Automatic Kafka', 'Sleeper', 'Outlaw Nation', 'Black Panther' or 'Spider-Girl' because they had to buy the new Jim Lee Batman? Since we don't have an infusion of new blood in the shops, the amount of money that can be spent in the direct market every month is effectively capped. The Big Two are robbing from their left pocket to pay their right pocket - and since smaller publishers can survive on smaller profit margins, its mainly the Big Two -and fans of smaller titles from the Big Two - who are feeling the burn.

Nice little viscious cycle, eh?

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