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Monday, May 2, 2016

Frontlists, Backlists, Midlists, & The Comic Book Business Model

The comic book industry is in crisis. Unfortunately, most of the people running comic publishing companies have no understanding of the characters in their catalogs and fewer have an understanding of how the business model for selling comic books work.

Catalog management is an essential part of running a publishing house. Unfortunately, most have no idea on how to do it effectively. In publishing there are usually three lists in a catalog:

The Frontlist, which features new titles by popular creative teams that they believe will be top sellers. These include new monthly serials, limited series and original graphic novels.

The Frontlist is considered important for a publisher because these titles are considered the least risk cost wise and will turn a profit for a publisher after their release.

The Backlist, which features older previously published titles that have been proven successes. These include collected trades, omnibuses, and other reprint materials that were top sellers in the past and still have an audience of readers seeking them out.

The Backlist is the most profitable part of a publisher’s business. It’s how a publisher makes most of its money because customers are always interested in older popular publications in a publisher’s catalog. Backlist titles have the no risk and are considered “money in the bank” due to their low cost, high demand, and high return on profit.

And the Midlist where new talent and new characters get a venue to show their talent.  The Midlist is considered the riskiest part of a publishers’ business. The Midlist consists of new untested writers and artists who have not established an audience. And new untested characters and concepts that have not proven they can find an audience. 

The Midlist is the place where books take the longest time to find an audience. 90 percent of all new books published in the midlist fail due to poor sales. Hopefully, the 10 percent of comics that survive in the midlist will cover the losses of the 90 that fail in this part of the catalog budget in a given year. 

Over the last 20 years the comic book business has struggled because many who work in it don’t know how to manage all three lists in a publisher’s catalog. Nor do they know how to make them work interdependently towards making the comic book publishing business profitable. Thanks to the constant reboots at the Big Two comic publishers (DC and Marvel) the overall business model for publishing comics has been completely derailed. Most who work publishing comics today like Dan Didio do not understand how all three lists in a publishers catalog work together towards generating sales.

In serialized publishing, all three lists work together towards generating sales. Frontlist titles generate sales of backlist items like trade paperbacks. And trade paperbacks generate sales of Frontlist items like recent issues. When readers can follow a monthly comic book series in a straight line they can start buying backwards and forwards generating revenue for that publisher.

Midlist titles can help generate sales of frontlist titles when they feature a guest spot by a popular character or cross over into a storyline with them. When a midlist title gets a following with readers and builds a word-of-mouth it oftentimes gets a promotional push from a publisher. And if a character remains popular after that push, they’ll join the frontlist characters in a catalog, and the members of the creative team will get a push towards working with more popular characters in the catalog.

However, with a reboot, that interconnection between the lists in a publisher’s catalog is broken. Because readers of frontlist books don’t have a connection to the older series, they have no incentive to buy backlist publications such as trade paperbacks or back issues. And older readers have no incentive to buy frontlist publications because the character has been changed so drastically from the earlier version they knew.

Unfortunately, the midlist doesn’t exist at most comic publishers these days. Thanks to work-for-hire contracts denying writers and artists a part of the profits on licensing and merchandising, most creators don’t bring their new characters to a comic publisher for development. Instead they take their new characters and concepts and develop them in their own publications, or they take them to another form of more profitable media such as YA trade fiction, video games, television or film.

Worse, most publishers see next to no value in their midlists. However, the midlist is essential to a publisher because this is the place where they take risks on new talent like unproven writers and artists who are looking for their first job. Without the midlist New artists and writers have no place to showcase their talents or find an audience. The midlist is the place where guys like John Byrne cut their teeth on second and third tier books like Iron Fist, The Champions, and Marvel Team Up before going on to work more popular frontlist titles like The Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-men.

And the midlist is a place where a publisher explores new characters and new concepts. The Midlist is the place where creators have a place to try new ideas and see if they find an audience. It’s the place where new characters find new readers and build a word-of-mouth.  It’s the place where cult books like Amethyst, Sandman, Starman, and I, Vampire build an audience among readers.

Due to the lack of understanding of how the publishing business model works, currently there’s a heavy focus on the frontlist that is top loaded with too many titles. And thanks to the frontlist being overloaded, many titles featuring second and third tier characters in the catalog fall into the midlist zone where they struggle for months with no promotional support and get cancelled within a few months due to poor sales. Wasting a creator’s time and wasting money in publishers’ limited budget that could be better spent.

 Worse, with the new frontlist monthly titles not having any direct connection to the backlist titles due to constant reboots that start a series completely over from the beginning, readers don’t have that incentive to go out and seek out back issues or reprint publications featuring older issues.

That splits the audience in two.  

And instead of the two audiences working together towards building the word of mouth that sells the brand long-term, they wind up bickering and arguing with each other. Slowing the momentum of popular books and killing it on higher risk titles that fall into the midlist.

Most book sales are made through word-of-mouth among readers. And thanks to all the negative energy revolving around reboots and cancellations, the lack of positive buzz among readers early on pretty much kills the momentum a comic would get if all three lists in the publisher’s catalog worked together towards generating sales.

Comic book publishing is a business. Unfortunately, no one working at most comic publishers like Marvel and DC runs them like one. Many are so focused on doing what they want that they don’t focus on what needs to be done from an objective business perspective. There’s a desperate need for seasoned publishing professionals at Marvel, DC and the Indies. With the right managers in charge managing the catalog and the house, I’m confident that the comic book industry can reverse its 23-year slump and start being profitable again.


  1. Shawn, this is a bit off topic of your blog post, but I was wondering if you could maybe do a post on DC's Legends of Tomorrow, or perhaps, expand it to cover DC on TV. I'm really enjoying Legends, and find it be just good comic book fun, and I find it funny that DC on TV (from Legends, to Flash, to Supergirl) gets so much right in terms of story and respect for the characters, while the comics struggle just trying to tell good stories that aren't part of some giant crossover. Thank you.

    1. Can't say much about Legends. Watched one episode and I found it lame.