Friday, February 12, 2010

Responding To Hibbs' BookScan Analysis

I'm sure a lot of people will be pointing to Brian Hibbs' analysis of BookScan results. I am, as always, very appreciative of the work he puts into these and I recommend you read through his essay if you haven't already. There's a lot of data to sort through, but Hibbs does a good job of summarizing what's going on with the numbers.

However, I don't always agree with all of his analysis.

Mind you, Hibbs does raise a number of good points and ideas in his analyzing. But I think his position as a comic shop retailer is skewing his perspective a bit. The most notable issue, I think, stems from a significant difference between comic shop patrons and book store patrons who buy comics.

Although people sometimes joke about comic shop patrons being "the Wednesday crowd" or something to that effect, it does speak to a certain mindset. Being a comic book fan is only partially about getting the comics themselves; it's also about interacting with other comic book fans. That's kind of the whole point of my book. People continue to hit comic stores on Wednesday afternoon not only because that's when the new comics are available, but also because that's when they're most likely to run into the other comic fans that they regularly interact with.

Furthermore, it's also been joked that buying comics is an addiction like buying drugs. This isn't entirely off-base as I've known people to continue their purchasing habits despite whatever economic hardships that might cause. It's not unique to my circle either, as I've heard the same thing from other sources. "I have $25 allocated towards comics as a weekly budget expense. I can cut my food expenses by not going out to eat as much if things get tight." I'll admit I don't have hard data to back this up, but there's strong anecdotal evidence.

By contrast, book store patrons -- at least those purchasing comics in a book store -- are buying comics to read them. The socialization aspect is severely diminished (not eliminated entirely, mind you, but certainly a great deal less notable than for comic shop patrons) as are the regular ongoing purchases. What this means is that book store customers are more likely to purchase comics on impulse. "Hey, I've got an extra $20; I wonder if there's anything good in the graphic novel section."

That difference is key. It's people differentiating between wants and needs. The book store customer wants comics; the comic shop customer needs comics. (Obviously, I'm putting this in perspective of the consumer. No one truly needs comics. Certainly not when compared to food, shelter, etc. But as far as individual priorities go, comics are MUCH higher on the list for regular LCS patrons.)

So what?

Well, what happens when people don't have as much money to spend? They start making cuts, right? And what gets cut first? The wants. It should, therefore, not be surprising AT ALL that a consumer group who views comics with less necessity cuts back their purchasing of them during the worst recession since The Great Depression. Hibbs does make passing reference to this, but I think he VASTLY underplays its significance. Keep in mind that all the numbers he's looking at here do not include comic shop purchases. It's primarily a group of casual comic book customers. Undoubtedly, some of those customers include people who are big comic book fans and hit their LCS every Wednesday as well, but most of this group buy comics if/when they can afford them, not regardless of it.

I think a great deal of the declines in BookScan numbers seen over the past two years can be attributed directly to the economy. Sure, there's other factors and Hibbs notes some of them. But I think he's sorely underestimating the recession's impact here.

A few other minor things I'd like to note...

Hibbs says, "the notion that the bookstore market for comics might offer limitless growth seems to be on the rocks." That sounds suspiciously like what people were saying about the housing market just before it tanked.

I don't think Hibbs' point here...
It’s funny, because a lot of hot air is expanded in our industry between “mainstream" vs. “indy" or “corporate" vs “artcomix" or whatever tool we use to try and imperfectly get our point across, but in a way, I think that the real conversation is between “new" vs “old." As a fan, as a retailer, as a patron, I get more excited by new things I’ve never seen before than I do of iterations (even great, well done ones) of the already familiar.
... really expresses his meaning very well, especially in light of how much he praises Jeff Smith's Bone reprints elsewhere in the article. I think what he means to delineate is "new to me" vs. "variation on what I've seen before". Bone is, of course, a great series -- I highly recommend it to everyone -- but Smith finished it in 2004. Though many of his stories have been in circulation in various forms, Smith hasn't published any new Bone material since then. So I think trying to delineate "new" vs. "old" is decidedly misleading and not really what Hibbs was trying to get to.

He also touches on the power of creator's name/celebrity status, highlighting Alan Moore in particular. It's a valid point, I think, emphasized by some other areas Hibbs didn't focus on as much, notably Dark Horse. The Buffy and Serenity franchises are strongly associated with Joss Whedon, for example, while Star Wars and Indiana Jones are inexorably linked with George Lucas. Despite neither creator being as directly involved in comic production as, say, Gerard Way is with Umbrella Academy, I think their name cache is still relevant.

Along those lines, though, I'll point out that while comic fans generally love Neil Gaiman, he doesn't have quite as much name recognition outside our circle as we like to think. Wasn't it just a few weeks ago at the Golden Globes that he was referred to as "and guest" in a well-circulated picture with Amanda Palmer?

One final thing I'd like to emphasize, since it was a point I was trying to make just a few days ago...
The 21st best-selling book is Jennifer Holm’s Babymouse v9, another comics series aimed at kids – it comes in at 15k. Ten volumes of Babymouse make the chart, in fact. It isn’t big as Bone (what is?), but it shows there is a thriving market for “comics for kids." In point of fact, there are sixty-three books in the “Everything Else" section that are primarily aimed at children. You might not have heard about Babymouse, or the Lunch Lady series, or Dragonbreath, or Stone Rabbit BC Mambo or Black is For Beginnings or Club Penguin, but kids clearly have, and they’re selling well.

And what I love, too, is that Hibbs hits on exactly the reason WHY "traditional" comic fans haven't heard of these: "It might also be worth noting that most of the titles that I just mentioned haven’t been carried by Diamond, whatsoever."

For the handful of issues I do take with Hibbs' analysis, I'm thrilled that he's able to report on all of this and provide his thoughts/commentary. I don't always agree with him on everything, but the discussion that it brings up is important and useful. Here's to the great debate!

4 comments:

Brian Hibbs said...

"That difference is key. It's people differentiating between wants and needs. The book store customer wants comics; the comic shop customer needs comics."

And yet, in terms of percentages, the Book business in DM stores is off by a much larger percentage than in bookstores, so I'm not quite sure how relevant that is?

(I also don't think I'd agree with that argument as much as you do)

"I think what he means to delineate is "new to me" vs. "variation on what I've seen before". Bone is, of course, a great series -- I highly recommend it to everyone -- but Smith finished it in 2004. "

Sure.

However, to people who have never read/encountered it before, it IS "new", regardless of how old it actually is.

"I'll point out that while comic fans generally love Neil Gaiman, he doesn't have quite as much name recognition outside our circle as we like to think."

I think that's incorrect -- he's a MUCH bigger deal in book circles than in comics. Heck, he has nearly 1.5 million people following him on twitter -- that's not comic people!

"And what I love, too, is that Hibbs hits on exactly the reason WHY "traditional" comic fans haven't heard of these: "It might also be worth noting that most of the titles that I just mentioned haven’t been carried by Diamond, whatsoever.""

I do, however, think it is fair to say that even if Diamond HAD listed them, odds are their sales would be poor through the DM. How many stores have dedicated children's sections? (I do)

-B

David said...

BH makes all the points. At some points (e.g. the New thing), the misreading seems almost wilful.

This blog used to be about careful. patient analysis. Let's go back to that!

Rick Worley said...

Although he already dropped by and defended it a bit, I'll just say that it seemed pretty obvious that what Brian meant by the old vs. new comments was, partially, that he's more excited to see something that's developed originally for comics, as opposed to something like Star Wars that's begun in another medium and expanded into comics, or a comics adaptation of a pre-existing story. It seemed like he was arguing for things that were born as comics, and original stories as opposed to expansions of properties and franchises and actually, in general, his column in general seemed more to me about looking for things that recognized a change in level of appreciation for the medium of comics as a whole, as opposed to comics sold in bookstores vs. comics sold DM, so I'm a little confused by all these responses I'm seeing which seem to read so much into the column about Brian's DM bias which, in that particular column, I really didn't detect much of. Some of these responses feel kind of like they're going off opinions based on past actions or columns by Hibbs as opposed to looking at what this one particular column was trying to present...

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.