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Moving the Goalposts

Brian Hibbs

For the handful of you interested in the back-and-forth over the BookScan issue, I want to point you to Heidi’s post, as well as Dirk’s first and second sallies.

For those of you only here for the reviews, you can stop reading now. In fact, I’d really urge you to!

If I have edited this properly, it continues after the jump:

For whatever it is worth, I agree nearly 100% with Heidi: my biases are both obvious, (and directly stated in the original piece!) — I believe in the Direct Market (as a concept, if not, necessarily, in the specific individual on-the-ground iteration) to be a far superior method of selling comics for the simple reason that a specialist, with a specialist’s passion, is more likely to be able to do a superlative job in selling a specialty product than a generalist. That would seem to me to be fairly self-evident.

(Does this mean that ALL DM stores are going to be better than selling comics than ALL bookstores? No, of course not — there are always going to be ends of the curve in either model which out/under-perform their opposite number)

I want to believe that I’ve been very specific and very exacting both about my biases, as well as the usefulness of the specific numbers. Certainly I went into great detail about how the numbers could be wrong and what they do and do not measure; part of the problem may be that on the internet (and who knows, maybe in life, in general, but we can track it on the internet…) people see what they want to see.

Look, I like me some “art comics”, when a new EIGHTBALL or OPTIC NERVE comes out, its usually a Top 10 book for Comix Experience, but the fandom/internet meme/hope of “if only we get into the bookstores, then they’ll all suddenly buy everything I think is good” really doesn’t seem to be the case. I wanted to believe it too!

But let’s stay on target when we look at retail sales — let’s not conflate them with other channels, let’s not take anecdote as fact, and let’s try not to move the Goalposts in the middle of the game.

By way of example, I point to Dirk’s latest, where all of a sudden he’s pointing to prose books; what does that have to do with anything? It should be pretty obvious that the math involved for both the publisher and especially the creator is very very different between prose and comics; the breakeven point for one is certainly very different from the other. I should know, I have a prose book in print, and I was involved in setting the print run, and the costs thereof; and I’ve got a pretty good idea of the physical printing costs of comics, and one is a fraction of the other.

Here’s what I said (that Dirk is even quoting directly!):

“Art Comics”, with the exception of a tiny handful of “anointed” books, do not appear to be selling in the bookstore environment. Remember that BookScan includes Amazon, and all major internet retailers as well.

It further seems to me that with approximately 7500 BookScan reporting venues, this indicates that most book stores aren’t even bothering to stock “Art comics” in the first place.

And this seems to be a fairly unassailable fact in relationship to what BookScan reports — with ~7500 venues (including the majority of the internet sales picture) if you’re moving under 4400 copies that means that you’re either not being stocked in the first place OR that the audience there isn’t especially interested in that material OR both. For the record, I strongly suspect the answer is actually #1, that IF that material was stocked and supported and racked it would probably sell better.

The Elephant in the Room, to me, is Amazon — Amazon is “bias neutral” in my opinion; that is that each book “displayed” at Amazon is basically equivalent to each other, and that “finding” a book on their “shelves” is a trivial matter, not influenced by physical “racking” decisions. It seems to me that if there was a deep, wide-spread market crying out for “art comics” material that Amazon would be capturing those sales in a pretty significant fashion, as Amazon is “the world’s largest comics store”. Yet THEY DON’T APPEAR TO BE capturing these sales in any significant fashion.

I have no problem with differing conclusions about the data — in fact, I specifically asked for it — but, please, let’s not move the goalposts by suddenly claiming that “Oh well, a small publishing house doesn’t NEED to sell as many copies”, as if that were even slightly relevant to matter at hand. NO ONE said anything about whether the material is PROFITABLE or not, just that it doesn’t appear to be selling in significant quantities in the bookstore environment, as far as that environment can be tracked (with all of the caveats and weaknesses of the numbers inherent in that tracking), relative to other comics material. Given the extant data, that appears to be true. If there’s OTHER data to show otherwise, I’m sure that everyone would be happy to see that, but since we can’t, we can only analyze what we have.

There’s a larger issue here, and it is one that Robert Scott has brought up several times — without marketing and advertising and general publisher support, it is very difficult for any material of any stripe or style or form or content to find its audience without direct intervention by the sellers of the book, be they DM or “bookstores”. But that’s almost certainly a topic for another day.

This will, hopefully, be my last comment on this (until it is time to write about the ’08 numbers)!


PS: to ADD: BONE is now “art comix”?! Buh-wha–?!?


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