Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Comic Book Indsustry State of the Union

We all wish we could say it's stong, but just like everything else, it's in turmoil. From rising prices, to key changes to distribution, the weak economy, and the crossroads in format, there's a lot going on in the comics industry right now... Here are a rundown of some news and notes:

Perhaps the biggest development currently, are the changes at Diamond Distribution, increasing sales thresholds and potentially driving away a good percentage of independent offerings, and the fallout from those changes.

Two potential distribution options are attempting to fill the void this move will create, since idependent comic sales were already in turmoil.

- First, is Haven Distribution, a company in existence for about a year, that took over for the former Coldcut backlist distributor. Haven announced their arrival, relocation of operations to Chicago from California, and abolishment of the "no superheroes" policy, and then pretty much faded away (or at least went to work behind the scenes, and/or under the radar). However, with the move at Diamond, their virtual only rival, Haven is at least attempting to make a play to capture more of the independent market, by now offering advance order material as well.

As an independent publisher myself, I can share some insight here.

When I started out self-publishing in late 2005, there were then 3 distribution options, Diamond, ColdCut, and FM International (at least on paper, Coldcut and FM were very small by comparison). Within six months of publishing my first book, and attempting to get setu up with FM International, having met a couple of the key players there at Comic-Con, FM closed up shop, and I was quickly down to 2 options. Having already setup my book Super Real with Diamond, that only left Cold Cut as another avenue of distribution. However, they only took previosly released, or backlist material, so after sending samples in once I had some books published, twice, and never receiving a response, they eventually folded up in late 2007, early 2008, and then became Haven Distribution. (I don't know if I was just a victim of their policy for not carrying "superhero" material, or a symptom of their decline.)

Once Haven was established, I'd also contacted them via the publisher contact area of their website, with no response. Fast forward quite a few months and I try again, upon publising some more product, and do get a response this time. Actaully from someone I know and used to work with at a comic website, who was a reviewer, and bit of a fan of my book. But I'm informed that they're not currently accepting any new product, until November. So I check back in November and am told that unfortunately things are still on hold, and that it's now looking like January before they'll open up again. Of course when January rolls around, the game has changed, and Diamond has announced their changes in policy. So Haven is accepting new material, and also scrambling to take advantage of the new landscape, by also offering preorders or adavance product solicitations.

I'm currently working with them, and am hopefull that they can build another outlet to the direct market for independent material. They have a catalog system of sorts in place, that is a bit promising, if retailers and the market will embrace it and be able to utilize it in addition to Diamond. Those are some pretty big questions though. Certainly some marketing on thier part, and/or independent publishers listed by them, is key to help spread the word, and grease the skids.

There are of course many other hurdles, so time will tell.

Along the lines of getting the word out though, I will talk at more length about Haven and their product catalog, Comics! in the near future. Suffice it say, they plan to have a new catalog out this May.

- Second, is, a POD (print on demand) printer. POD printing is an affordable option for digital printing of comics, where by leveraging technology, a creator can print small quanties of a book, from as little as a single copy, for the same mostly affordable price. POD printers are widely used to supplement web content, or for direct sales at conventions and online. They are not vialbe as a mass market solution, as although the costs are reasonable, they are not low enough, nor do they lower, when print at higher quantities. This has been the main hurdle to utilizing POD technology to offer products to retailers, as retailers buy at wholesale pricing, which is only a fraction of the cover/retail price of a product. The average cost to print a standard sized black and white book via POD is around the $2 range, or $3 range for full color, so you can see, the margains are pretty small, and thus only work for direct sales from the creator/publisher to the reader/fan.

However, as with Haven, Diamond's change in policies has brought about a change to Ka-Blams's services as well, with their announced Comics Monkey POD distribution service.

Without going into too much detail, Ka-Blam is looking to offer any content they print, to comic book shops, via a new pricing model, where they still take their standard cut via printing fees, but then offer product to retailers at discount (starting at 60% of retail), and a small cut to creators/publishers of the sales. And "small cut" is the key here, as I mentioned before, with POD costs being what they are, they're not really condusive to wholesale pricing, at least in line with the current direct market price model, so instead of finding a way to lower their costs and share percentages with publishers more in line with what they'd find from full run printing and distribution, Ka-Blam is offering 10% of the retail to the publisher.

I'm not suggesting Ka-Blam is short changing the creator in any way here, they're simply trying ot make the POD model work on a wholesale level, and these are the first efforts of this kind. So, they're moving forward while admittedly breaking new ground, and trying to find what works for all parties involved. Not the least of which is the reader, because if you simply raise cover prices to offset the difference in cost associated with the POD model vs standard comic distribution, the cover prices could climb steeply. It's a new way of looking at print sales, that also has a completely new set of challenges.

So, between the two, there are efforts already in place to improve direct market independent comics distribution. But, it's very early, and hard to tell how any of it will play out.
Or, I think, more to the point, if anything can even be done at this point to salvage independent print comics as we knew them, most certainly digital is the future, and increasingly more so by the day. So, is there enough demand, and/or time before the paradigm shift, to maintain a print market? Or are we already past the tipping point?

Now, here are some links on related stories:

- Steven Grant notices that independent comic sales are growing, not trending down... at least direct con sales that is... in his column HERE

- Tim Seeley ask questions about how to make comics cheaper, but doesn't find many answers over on CBR HERE

- The Beat highlights some Kindle comics play HERE
(And don't forget, Amazon has partnered with Apple to offer a Kindle app on Iphones)

1 comment:

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