A View From The Cheap Seats:
The Battle for the Bookstores
By Rich Watson
The July 12 SPLASH reported that the Cincinnati-based indie comics distributor 7 Hills closed its doors to business, three months after the repercussions of the LPC Group collapse continue to be felt. This news is even more disheartening for indie creators and publishers alike, who are now forced to retrench and regroup in order to gain footholds beyond the direct comics market. Within the past few weeks, notable independent publishers Alternative Comics and IDW Publishing, among others, signed exclusive book trade agreements with industry juggernaut Diamond Comics Distributors. Diamond’s recent move into bookstore distribution reflects the growing interest in the graphic novel and trade paperback format, in all its genres. As Alternative’s Jeff Mason told Newsarama, “Book stores and libraries have been increasingly catering to the public interest for alternative comic books. This agreement ensures our ability to provide the widest possible audience for our artists and creative works.”
One of the titles affected by 7 Hills’ collapse is Exhibit A’s SUPERNATURAL LAW, the horror comedy book by Batton Lash. SPLASH reported that 7 Hills had just signed Exhibit A prior to their shutdown. According to editor Jackie Estrada, whom I spoke to, they went with 7 Hills because “it was an established distributor in the bookstore marketplace. We preferred someone who knew the book business.” Also, they were already familiar with the book and were big fans, which meant to her a stronger level of commitment on their part.
Understanding the difference between the way the comics and book markets are set up is integral to begin to understand why these indie distributors are failing. “Bookstores tend to take in large amounts of inventory and then six months later realize it is not selling, and they return it and the distributor takes the hit,” says Wayne Markley, head of FM International, one of the few distributors left that specializes in indie titles. “Unlike the direct comic market, where it is sold non-returnable for a much larger discount, but the distributor is somewhat risk-free from the inventory return problem.” He also cited bad business management as another reason for the decline. “These smaller distributors tried to carry everything and stock large quantities, which ties up a lot of cash and quickly leads to cash flow problems, and you add returns on top of that, it will crush you…. The more volume you have, the more cash flow you have, and the easier it is to survive bad times.”
Diamond first made their move into the bookstores over a year ago, as part of their agreement with Marvel to get the publisher’s trade paperbacks outside the direct market. (Recently, Marvel announced they left Diamond in favor of CDS.) Last month, Diamond formed a separate division specifically designed to target the mainstream retail book market with TPBs, graphic novels, and related merchandise. Markley cited how FM tailors their outreach efforts to the benefit of the stores they sell to while avoiding potential pitfalls. “We wish Diamond all the best with this attempt, but from our point of view it is a high risk with a minimal return, if you are doing it in the traditional method, which is what it looks like from what we know of their plans.”
Are alternative distribution methods possible? Certainly the internet is one option, as more and more small press publishers with websites of their own are able to sell their product direct, either as paper books or e-books. Another option that has been bandied about within the prose book industry is print-on-demand (POD) technology, in which print runs are predicated on the orders they initially receive. Theoretically, one wouldn’t even need to physically print the book until it’s paid for. Costs are minimal, and nothing ever has to go out of print. According to PUBLISHERS WEEKLY’s article on this year’s Book Expo America this past May, Xerox has a digital color press in which text is stored digitally and printed for short runs at a rate of 60 pages a minute. Such a device could one day become commonplace in bookstores. The website iUniverse.com (49% of which is owned by Barnes & Noble) is one such example of POD in action. (Others include Xlibris.com and SuperiorBooks.com.) They, however, don’t accept returns if a book sells poorly, and if we’re talking about expanding outside the non-returnable direct market of comics, that is a concern. From what I’ve read on the subject, indie bookstores seem more receptive to POD books than the major ones.
Regardless of how self-publishers can get their books outside the direct market, there is still the stigma of comics in general to overcome. Practically all major bookstores relegate graphic novels and trade paperbacks into a single section, regardless of genre. So ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN and BONE and SAFE AREA GORAZDE and MAISSON IKKOKU are all together in one area, leaving the casual reader, no doubt, to wonder where to begin. I’ve advocated in the past, and still do, the idea of comics shops racking their books by genre. I believe the same should apply to mainstream bookstores as well. Casual readers need to begin thinking of comics in terms they can understand, and this would be a big step towards meeting them halfway.
The battle for the bookstores continues to be fought, but with only one big gun in comics’ arsenal – Diamond – it won’t be long before the field of battle will need to be changed in order to survive.
OFF THE RACK:
Some recent purchases: Y: THE LAST MAN (DC/Vertigo) is off to a promising beginning. The way the first issue is set up, it looks like it’ll have many different kinds of subplots, which should make for exciting reading… HIP FLASK: UNNATURAL SELECTION (Active Images) read more like a story outline instead of an actual story. For an origin, I thought it left quite a few unanswered questions. The art, however, was incredible… Tom Beland’s TRUE STORY SWEAR TO GOD (Clib’s Boy) continues to win over even the bitterest of cynics when it comes to romance. I should know, because I’m one… SIDEKICKS: THE SUBSTITUTE (Oni) was okay, though I liked the original mini-series it grew out of better… NEGATION (CrossGen) just may be the most underrated book in CG’s stable. I can’t believe hardcore superhero fans wouldn’t like this. It’s got everything… And if you’re not reading PATTY CAKE & FRIENDS (SLG/Amaze Ink) by now, you’re missing one of the funniest and most intelligent books out there. This is the true definition of “for mature readers.”
To those of you going to the San Diego Con, you have my deepest envy. One day I’m gonna make it out there. I hope… Until then, have a wonderful time!