Chatting With Joe Field

By | Monday, May 25, 2009 1 comment
A couple weeks ago, I posted this entry about the future of comics distribution. Among the commentators was Joe Field, owner and manager of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, CA. He's also the current president of ComicsPRO and the originator of Free Comic Book Day. So, I think it's safe to say the man knows a thing or two about comics retailing. He had some great comments and I emailed him to ask for some further insights. It wasn't intended to be an interview, but he had some more great responses and has allowed me to reproduce them here (edited to resemble more of a conversation)...

Sean Kleefeld: My original post started from a "What if Marvel and DC went away" proposition. Admittedly, it does lead to a "the sky is falling" type of attitude, but one of the reasons I bring it up as a possibility is because I think many retailers rely a little too heavily on that one aspect of revenue which is beyond their control.

Joe Field: Looking at market shares, where Marvel and DC represent something along the lines of 80% of comic/trade sales in the direct market, it’s a short jump to say that retailers are relying "too heavily" on the Big Two.

That "reliance," though, is based on real world sales experience. More retailers every day are getting their information from the cold hard truth of POS (point-of-sale) data. And very few comic buyers come into specialty shops having to choose between buying this Marvel title or that one from, say --- you fill in the blank--- Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, Buenaventura, Viz. The world really doesn’t work like that. The majority of regular buyers, even casual buyers, have some idea what they’re looking for when they come into a specialty shop. It is my personal experience that more comic buyers than ever are less brand-conscious and far more creator-conscious and are willing to buy titles from a wider variety of publishers. If you want new Garth Ennis, you almost have to buy into Avatar or Dynamite, instead of just Marvel and/or DC/Vertigo.

At the end of the day, though, more buyers are choosing Marvel, then DC, then other publishers’ wares in some descending order. But they are NOT making those choices necessarily because a title has Marvel or DC branding, but because they like the character, the creative team, the event a title is tied into, the price, the cover… any number of things.

You see, what all this comes down to, in my humble estimation, is a lack of marketing fundamentals in the comics’ industry, especially from smaller publishers. Small press and indie publishers and creators have a few strikes against them when it comes to mounting effective marketing campaigns for lasting sales.

Indie comics, especially art comics, are not regular enough to make a sustained push into the consciousness of most buyers. The monthly inertia of regular titles from Marvel and DC give those companies a long head-start on their smaller publishing competitors. Periodical titles that come out less than monthly get lost pretty easily. And indie publishers can’t really afford to "bank" the necessary number of issues to get a series off on a regular monthly schedule. Regular buyers just seem to prefer titles that come out regularly.

Occasionally, the recommendations that many retailers provide can sway some buyers into moving out of their buying "comfort zones." But most retailers react to sales and order accordingly, rather than pro-actively seek out new titles from smaller publishers and push those in advance.

Some of that is related to the Previews’ mentality... if no pre-orders for an item listed in Previews are received by the retailer, the chances of getting that retailer to order any for stock is lessened. I’ll get backlash for admitting this, but honestly, if I haven’t heard anything about a new title by the time I do my Diamond order at the end of each month, my chances of ordering that title fall.

That means the publisher and/or creators have roughly 30 days to make a good impression on me --- send me a full preview of the title, get interviews on comic news sites, relay to me what your marketing and outreach plans are—something! Too many small presses have worked under the assumption that a Previews’ listing was the Golden Ticket and all that’s needed to get enough orders to break even or make a profit. The new Diamond sales threshold policy now puts the onus back on the publisher to actually have a promotional plan to back up a publishing plan.

SK: But when I talk about retailers who "rely a little too heavily" on Marvel and DC, I'm pointing to those retailers whose stock is 95+% Marvel and DC, despite their only holding 80-ish% of the overall market. (And, by the way, I'm fully aware that Flying Colors does NOT fall into this camp!) Granted, some geographic markets won't be able to sell anything but Marvel and DC, but there have been some shops I've visited (which are still open) that don't seem to be aware other publishers even exist! I wouldn't expect any given retail employee to know about every title, but I've talked to several who don't even recognize reasonably sized publishers like First Second.

JF: That is the Previews mentality I was going into earlier. From the mid-‘90s on, many retailers saw the way to mitigate their risks was to accept Previews’ orders and have those become the bulk of their comic sales. At Flying Colors, we do almost 90% of our sales off the rack, while many retailers do as much as 90% of their sales from subscription services. If only a fraction of sales come from the rack, and your volume is good enough and your location is cheap enough, that’s a viable way to run a comic specialty business. But it’s not necessarily a very good way to completely represent the breadth of great material in the whole of the comics marketplace.

SK: When Diamond changed some of their policies recently regarding what they would and wouldn't carry, a lot of people cried foul, but few seemed to recognize that's the direct result of putting all their eggs in one basket. If Marvel were to similarly change their policies (for example, not publishing any book they didn't think would sell at least 30,000 copies in the DM) that would have a notable effect for many retailers for similar reasons.

JF: This could be a "chicken vs. egg" argument. For the most part, retailers respond to the wishes and purchases of their customers. It’s not that retailers want to have a market in which Marvel and DC have an 80% share, it’s that consumer orders and purchases have dictated that to retailers wanting to remain profitable.

Many retailers still make a strong effort to stock wider than the Big Two. And I’d also argue that it’s the sales and profits derived from Marvel and DC that have allowed some (but probably not enough) retailers to branch out their purchases to many other publishers.

I also prefer to think the Diamond order thresholds are a real opportunity for smaller publishers to forge alliances with alternative distribution sources like Haven (or deal with retailers directly, in a few special cases). But even in those cases, publishers of all sizes and shapes still need to have a plan for marketing new titles. It’s not good enough to "create it and they will buy." Marketing and promotion are the gas in the tank to put new projects into the hands (and buy-piles) of consumers.

SK: I understand that Marvel and DC both announced ongoing commitments to the DM in the recent ComicsPRO meeting, but I guess I'm still left feeling pretty skeptical about such statements. I don't doubt that everyone at the Quesada/Didio levels on downwards has such commitments, but I can't help but think that some executives beyond that are going to make some strong arguments to the respective Boards about getting out of the comics-making biz to focus on more lucrative profit centers. "Hello, Kitty" is a wildly successful character, after all, and the market's not exactly glutted with new comics or cartoons about her.

JF: There’s no doubt that a lack of Spider-Man comics wouldn’t stop the character from being licensed and sold in many other ways. But at their core, Marvel and DC are idea factories and like occasional chemical accidents, it’s hard to tell what combination of character and creator will make for a viable media spin-off. The publishers may deny it, but comics are cheap "R&D" for other media.

I do have concerns about Marvel and DC, though. Part of their game plan with periodicals is to sell advertising---and everyone knows print ad sales are way down now. That likely is putting the pressure on Marvel & DC to raise prices on periodicals. I don’t know where the "tipping point" is between cover price increases and falling sell-in numbers, but I don’t think we’re too far from it.

SK: Part of my skepticism here is that many companies tend to underestimate the value of R&D. They look at the bottom line and see that they spend $X on R&D, but earned substantially less than $X in revenue from what R&D began that year. Companies like Proctor & Gamble or Pfizer have been at this long enough that they can see the long-term potential, but Marvel and DC, despite having been around for decades themselves, have really only been creative R&D for licensing for maybe ten years or so, and I'm not convinced that anyone in the publishing arms recognizes that yet or, more critically, that anyone higher up the executive chain has enough long-range business savvy to see how a single year's balance sheet doesn't reflect the true benefits of R&D's expenses. Especially if you look at Marvel and DC's non-publishing successes of the past few years -- none of those properties were created in the past 25 years. I think Cyborg is probably the newest creation that's had any non-publishing success lately (via the Teen Titans cartoon) and he debuted in 1980.

Now that's not to say there's been nothing of potential value created at Marvel or DC since then, certainly, but it's too easy for me to see an executive seeing those dates and saying, "Well, why bother paying for people to come up with new characters? We've got enough ideas out of Jack Kirby alone to make movies and cartoons for decades!"

Coupled with a loss in ad revenue -- to your point -- I don't see any assurances that Marvel and DC will continue publishing comics. Certainly not as they have been!

JF: Understand, though, that both Marvel and DC publishing have been profitable on their own---without spinning off movies or video games or whatever. So when "R&D" isn’t costing corporate on the bottom line, it’s all good.

Things do change, but currently, there is no better financial model for Marvel & DC (and Dark Horse and IDW and Image, etc) than to continue producing periodical comics, maybe making some profit with them or maybe just breaking even, while amortizing the production costs of their book publishing programs.

SK: I'd also be interested to hear your thoughts about legal digital distribution. I'm inferring from some of your previous statements that Marvel's digital subscription program hasn't had an adverse effect on pamphlet sales at Flying Colors. Would that change appreciably if Marvel were to offer their new digital issues more-or-less concurrently with printed ones? (They're... what? Like a year behind right now?)

JF: While it’s difficult for me to quantify any loss in sales from consumers migrating to digital subscriptions, I certainly would not be in favor of concurrent print and online publication. I also don’t have any information that Marvel is planning to make that move, except in certain cases where it might do them some promotional good.

SK: Semi-related, how often do you hear comments from customers that say, "I
downloaded some issues of Heroman and wanted to buy some books about him"?

JF: I don’t believe I have ever heard that.

SK: Does what you see, again as a retailer, support some of the anecdotal claims that free electronic comics (from any venue, legal or otherwise) promote the sales of printed books, either pamphlet or TPB/HC?

JF: I have heard some say they saw an online preview and then wanted to buy the book.

SK: For that matter, do you hear from customers who read books online illegally but still support your store by sales of ancillary items? (i.e. Does someone who regularly downloads/reads Green Lantern from a torrent site buy GL statues and action figures, despite not actually purchasing the comic in question?)

JF: Illegal down-loaders aren’t usually the types to brag about getting the comics for free online while buying other cool stuff.

It’s my experience that there’s a great disconnect between illegal down-loaders and comic buyers. One doesn’t mind stealing, while the other wants to own the item, support the creators and be able to sleep at night. One is a pox on the comics’ market and the other is helping to keep the comics’ market solvent and healthy. Illegal down-loading is stealing, after all.

The comics specialty market is quite resilient. In my 20+ years in this business, there have been a number of ebbs and flows, a number of game-changing upheavals, lots of "sky is falling" talk, but still the market perseveres. I attribute that to a core of professionals in the publishing, creation, distribution and retailing sectors. We’re not in a widget business--- most of us love what we do, love what we create and sell... and there’s really nothing we’d rather be doing than making a living doing something we love.

SK: So the question, it seems to me, isn't so much where exactly that tipping point is, but what happens after it tips? Do Marvel/DC go all digital? Do they drop the monthly pamphlet format for TPBs and HCs? Do they stop publishing entirely? Do they continue publishing sans advertisements and jack up the cover price? I guess, ultimately, this is where my current skepticism about the industry comes from -- I can't think of a situation where things change without having a devastating impact at the retailer level. (Apart from, perhaps, Marvel and DC publishing their books at a loss, which doesn't strike me as realistic.)

JF: That’s what makes the future so fun--- no one knows! It could all of the things you mention. It could be none. As much as retailers have to make today work before being worried about tomorrow or next month or next year, publishers are largely in the same boat.

SK: Like I said, I don't doubt that everyone at the Quesada/DiDio levels on down have a deep commitment to retailers and the DM, but what happens to Diamond and the retailers if/when Marvel and DC change the industry out of necessity for their own survival? Why wouldn't Marvel and DC change, and how could that change (regardless of what it actually is) not dramatically impact the distribution and retail portions of the industry?

JF: I think you might be over-estimating the enthusiasm EICs have for the direct market while under-valuing how much the publishers and sales executives are committed to the specialty market.

As much respect as I have for both Quesada and DiDio, their primary constituency seems to be the creative community, more than their retail colleagues. And as much bean-counting as you might guess happens in the executive offices, there are a number of executives who know they wouldn’t have jobs without the support of specialty market fans and retailers. It cuts both ways.

I don’t see that as a cliff that we’ll all fall off of, but rather as a long slow slide that will only seem painful at the end. It might not end with a bang, but a whimper. My goal, though, is to try to help this scenario from ever happening! I’m sure I can count on the support of my retailing compatriots to help with that work. Our livelihoods in the long-term depend on it!

Simply put, in order to survive long-term, all companies have to change--- and that means retailers as well as publishers, distributors, everyone in the business of comics. If Flying Colors looked the same as it did in 1988---and stocked the same stuff it did in 1993, there’s no way we would have made it to 2000, let alone 2009 and looking forward. Things change, evolve and we need to adapt to the current surroundings. Hopefully, each of us will make some good evolutionary choices to keep the comics specialty market alive and thriving.

Let’s hope, OK?
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Matthew E said...

I always look at it like this:

There is a demand for comic books.

There is a supply of comic books, by which I mean, there are lots of people who want to make comic books.

Therefore there is a market, and it doesn't look like it'll go away.

The details of the market may change, maybe even violently, but as long as there is a supply and a demand, there will be a market of some kind.