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Thoughts on convention sales.
Written by Eric Reynolds | Filed under comics industry 25 Jan 2008 8:55 AM

Left to right: Josh Simmons, Jordan Crane & Paul Karasik sign while Mike Baehr looks on.

I've been reluctant to weigh in on the ComicsPro position paper that has been generating a lot of discussion of late but since we have been one of the publishers who have sold advance books at shows, several folks have asked us for comment so here we are. I know it's probably difficult for retailers to believe, but I actually do very much see both sides and have never quite been able to reconcile them. I will try to explain this...

 

We do about six or seven shows a year. At any given con, there is usually one or two books that we are "debuting," usually because of an attending author. San Diego is a bit different, given the scale -- we usually debut more items there than we would at other cons, and usually have more authors in attendance than anywhere else (but the expense of exhibiting is also through the roof at Comicon).

To give you a specific and rather average con example, our most recent show was SPX, and at that show we debuted two new books: New Tales of Old Palomar #3 and the Beyond Palomar TPB. We airfreighted copies to the show because Gilbert Hernandez was a special guest. Oh, and also the corresponding Jaime book that shipped with 'Beto's but we had considerably fewer of those since Jaime was not in attendance. In the case of these books, there's no way we could have shipped these books to the DM before SPX, they just weren't ready in time. But it was important for us to have new books for 'Beto to sign because he was making a very rare appearance on the east coast that we were footing the bill for. Should we have not debuted those books? If we had been unable to, I guarantee you we would not have footed the bill for Gilbert, and he would not have come. Would the industry be better served if Gilbert wasn't at SPX? The only other new book I believe we debuted there was R.C. Harvey's bio of Milt Caniff, MEANWHILE, I think Gary Groth physically carried three copies of to show off because he was so excited about it.

Besides the promotional value, we sell these books to help afford attending the shows we attend. I don't know about other publishers, but we're lucky to break even at almost any show we attend except for regional ones we can drive to like Emerald City and Stumptown. What we sell the most of at all shows are newer books. In most cases, not having those debut books would likely be the difference between turning a profit or breaking even and actually losing money. That's a big difference. I'll address this more in a bit...

One solution that has been proposed in regard to this situation is to include retailers in con debuts if they are willing to have books direct-shipped to them at the same time. We already do this with several retailers. Rory Root, for example, routinely teams with us every year to stock up on convention debuts at Comicon. I think we would be happy to cooperate in a more formally organized system, but I get the impression that that won't placate the entire retail base, much as I wish it would and think it should, which begs the question of whether anything will ever really placate everyone. I know Brian Hibbs doesn't do shows, and he not only doesn't want me selling books in advance, but he doesn't want any retailer exhibiting to, either. I respect that opinion and can see where he's coming from in theory, but I think we disagree over whether what the direct market would gain in his ideal would be enough to overcome what publishers would suffer, financially, promotionally, and competitively. If we were making a really healthy living at this, I would probably feel more generous. But we're talking fairly slim margins here in most cases.

I should also add that I know retailers who flat-out tell me they aren't concerned with this issue at all, including two who are directly affected by it because they exist in cities we exhibit and sell books at during cons. What am I to make of that?

I have been asked what incentives retailers could offer to publishers to cause us to go about things differently. I really don't know how to answer this. I wish I did. A compelling case for street dates? I think the basic problem is that from the publisher p.o.v., most of their con debuts rarely have a measurable affect on things on a per-title bases. That said, I realize there almost has to be some aggregate affect of all of it across this industry. But without being able to quantify it, it's difficult to know how much of a concern it is. It's going to be difficult to get publishers to budge on this because there's no hard data and debuting books at cons is widely perceived as a valuable promotional tool and very crucial part of the bottom line for an event. Also, let's face it, it will likely be hard to get one publisher to do it unless everyone else were to, because these businesses are competing with each other and vying for attention at shows. There needs to be a better case for how not engaging in this practice will improve the situation appreciably for everyone in spite of missing out on an excellent promotional opportunity (how many review sites and blogs write column after column about what the 'buzz' books of every show are?) and a hit to the bottom line.

The Direct Market is important to us and there's no reason it won't remain so. So I hope we all remain interested in working with each other to grow. I believe that our con sales serve to promote our artists and books more than those sales have an adverse effect on the industry's bottom line. I can't prove this, but no one can supply any hard evidence to the contrary, either. I really need to see some harder figures before I can really believe otherwise and start considering doing fewer shows or considering giving up much-needed revenue at those that we do attend. We debuted 50 copies of I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets at Comicon last year (to 100,000+ people!) because we thought it would be worthwhile beyond just the cash value (after factoring in airfreight from asia and other comicon overhead, it's not all that) -- there was an unquantifiable promotional value. Paul Karasik was there and did a hugely popular presentation. We sold out and everyone wanted a copy and blogs were writing about the book and creating demand. When the book hit stores a few weeks later, we had an immediate sellout of the 1st printing and have had two subsequent printings in the seven months since. How can you tell me everyone would have been better off if that book had not hit cold there and knocked people out the way it did?

Let me put it another way. I see cons as an opportunity to market Fanta to comic book fans. We're competing for their attention at shows with other publishers, other exhibitors, and new books are a major way to get them into our booth and looking at our books. It's one of the few avenues where we get that kind of one-on-one experience with fans. It's hard to imagine giving that up. If we didn't sell these new books at shows, in some cases we may well have to give up attending at all, because we likely won't have a profitable show or be able to generate the necessary 'buzz' (oh, that word).

I'm guessing that most retailers would agree that having a publisher exhibit at a show has some promotional value to consumers that trickles down to them. So, would retailers rather we simply not exhibit at all than sell new books at a show we're bringing many authors to and generating interest in the artform? That's what it boils down to for us in several cases. We won't go out of business if we don't debut books at cons, we just won't do as many cons. I'm not willing to do that, though, because we do so few already (only the real essentials: APE, Stumptown, SPX, MoCCA, Comicon, and our own Emerald City) and worry that if we don't exhibit at those key shows, we will not be "keepin' up with the joneses" (our fellow publishers).

Retailers need to understand that selling books at a show does not inherently mean we do not support them. Really! That would be like me saying a store doesn't support us because they don't carry every single one of our books. It's just not that B&W. I read this quote from Robert Scott that disturbed me:

"Ultimately [retailers who debut books at shows] don't owe us anything but the reverse is true as well. If they don't feel that the DM is an area that they need for their success, trust me, there are plenty of books out there for us to sell."

We absolutely need the DM, and very much want to support any retailer that supports our line. It would be silly and self-destructive not to. But it's not fair to say that because we debut certain books at cons (and it's a small percentage of our overall output) that this is proof we believe we don't owe anyone anything. The suggestion by Robert is that if we continue to sell books at cons, he won't order those books, which I would argue is cutting off one's nose to spite your face and benefits nobody. Debuting books at cons can benefit the publisher, fans, media, and yes, even retailers.

For example, one of our biggest successes in 2007 was the aforementioned Fletcher Hanks book. It's possible that a couple of the customers who bought one of those copies from us at Comicon might have bought the copy from Scott's shop if we hadn't been there. But I find it hard to believe that every single customer of Robert's who might have bought that book from him bought it from us instead, which would really be the only reason not to carry it. In other words, I would hope for his own sake as much as ours that he would not deny those customers that did wait to buy the book from him, just because we sold 50 copies at Comicon. I Shall Destory All the Civilized Planets had so much buzz at Comicon that I'm confident its presence (and Paul Karasik's) actually created new customers (and probably repeat gift buyers) and that the book sold through a bit better when it hit shops a few weeks later because of Comicon. The immediate sellout and subsequent two printings support this belief. Whether Robert lost two sales and gained three, lost four and gained two, lost five and gained ten, I really have no idea. But my point is that no one really does.

There are so many permutations to this argument. I can't tell you how many people come to us at cons, see a new book, and make a note of it in their moleskine to buy later from their LCS, telling us something like "I'm out of cash" or "it's too heavy, I'll pick it up at home", or sometimes even, "Wow, I didn't order this through PREVIEWS but now that I've seen it I'm gonna pick it up when it comes in". All of which is great, and when this happens, I will always compliment that customer for supporting his or her local shop and encourage him to continue to do so.

I know that our attendance creates sales beyond what we sell, so if we're going to talk about siphoning sales, we need to at least attempt to better quantify both sides of the equation and discuss more compelling reasons as to how publishers should go about phasing out debuts but engage in other equally effective ways to promote a brand new book.

All of this is to say that there's still a lot of things to consider here.

Before posting my thoughts on this topic, I asked Gary Groth to read my essay and see if he had anything to add. Here's his two cents, to flesh out my own thoughts (it's safe to say that we see eye-to-eye on this topic):

There is so much misinformation floating around this "controversy" and so many leaps of logic, that I can't resist the impulse to make just two points:

1) Fantagraphics Books doesn't make a penny's profit exhibiting and selling at comics conventions. Once expenses are factored in -booth space, flights, hotel rooms, meals, freighting books and fixtures back and forth, paying the costs of the books that are sold (printing, royalties, etc.), I can't -and won't- speak for any other publishers, but I seriously doubt any publisher (with the possible exception of Top Shelf) makes a real profit selling at shows. (According to a quote from Chris Staros I've seen floating around, selling at shows is absolutely instrumental to keeping Top Shelf flush. I don't doubt this, either, but I suspect it's because Top Shelf does 20 cons or so a year -compared to our six, for example- and that Staros is more willing to endure the punishment to mind and body that convention-going inevitably exacts.) So, if we don't make a profit, why do we do it? That brings me to:

2) The only reason we do it is because we think it will turn on exponentially more readers to our books. In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, we're doing it because our presence there, our selling books there, our authors signing books there, constitutes a form of promotion that ultimately will sell more books in the future and help us, our authors, and, ironically, the very same retailers who are complaining loudest about this - because those books and those authors will be sold in their stores!

As Eric pointed out, we air freight about 14-18 books a year to conventions every year. I don't mean to beat a dead horse because retailers have already contested this point, but notwithstanding that, we still believe that spending the extra money to air freight books in before they arrive on our shores generates enthusiasm among those few people who buy them, who bring them home, leave them on their coffee tables, tell their friends, etc., which in turn creates more readers who will go to a comics shop (or, admittedly, a Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com) and buy copies for themselves. It takes a substantial effort for us to prepare for conventions, create an inventory, handle the logistics, and then put in the time and effort to attend and work it. The main reason we go to all this trouble is for the long-term promotional value it has for our company and our authors - and for all the retail channels that sell our books. If I was persuaded that we a) sell no more books short- or long-term due to our convention appearance, and that b) retail stores were losing sales because of it, I'd be happy to refrain from all that work, believe me. However, I'm convinced of exactly the opposite. In the event, I think ComicsPro's "position paper" is short-sighted and provincial. This may be a case where we have to continue promoting our books in this fashion for the good of retailers despite their wishes that we stop the practice. Which is pretty damned weird, but there you have it. — Gary Groth

We may yet kickstart our fledgling comments section.

Thanks to everyone for listening, and apologies to those who are utterly disinterested in "industry issues" and just want to read about good comics, but I hope this post contributes something healthy to this debate.

Top (background to foreground): Josh Simmons, Jordan Crane and Paul Karasik sign books for Fantagraphics at the 2007 Comicon.