A lot of people still want to buy comic books. Unfortunately, they can’t find them.
Why is it hard to find a comic book at a newsstand, drugstore, bodega, supermarket, or 7-Eleven? Simple. No one wants to sell them.
Why don’t retailers want to sell comics? When it comes to publications most retailers want titles to be returnable. That means after 30-90 days on the shelf if a title doesn’t sell, or is damaged, the retailer can return the title to the publisher in exchange for credit on next months’ titles. While genre paperbacks like romance novels are returnable for credit after 30, 60, 90, or even 180 days, comic books are nonreturnable. That means the retailer is stuck eating the cost of a comic if it remains unsold, or it winds up damaged on the store shelf.
The longer a comic book remains on a rack or a shelf and is handled by customers, the harder it is to sell to other customers. And when old dog-eared damaged comics remain on the shelf of stores for months on end, it makes a business look like it’s not taking care of business. Rather than risk alienating customers with a sloppy comic book display, most retailers just stopped stocking comic books.
When a product is nonreturnable in retail, it’s a huge risk to the retailer. That means they have to eat the cost on unsold merchandise from day one. Every day it doesn’t sell is a day they’re losing money. By the time a retailer has marked down a comic after 30 days or even 90 days from $3.99 to fifty cents they’ve lost money on the shelf space it occupies. By the time it reaches a quarter bin 180 days later, the business owner is taking a loss on that comic. In that time they could put other faster-selling products on their shelf space. Or they could have sold that same space to businesses that have no problem paying slotting fees to a retailer as a designated space for their products.
Thanks to comic publishers making comics nonreturnable, there are only two places where you can buy 32-page comic books these days: A comic shop or a Barnes & Noble if they have them stocked in their magazine section.
It wasn’t always like this. 30 years ago it was easy to find a comic book. They were sold at newsstands, magazine stores, supermarkets, drugstores, bodegas and big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target. However in the mid-1990s two events changed the distribution model for comic books. One was the collapse of the speculator market in the 1990s that caused over fifty percent comic shops to go out of business,
And Marvel Comics buying Heroes World in an attempt to distribute their own titles. With one of the big two attempting to distribute their own titles this led to most distributors in the depressed market going out of business. Worse, Marvel being a publisher they had absolutely no understanding of how the distribution business worked in publishing. And because they had no understanding of all the losses incurred by a distributor, they wound up filing for bankruptcy sooner rather than later.
Distribution in publishing is a tricky business. And you really have to know what you’re doing in order to manage it in retail. In retail like supermarkets and drugstores most titles have to be labeled as returnable in order to be stocked on a store shelf. If a title sells, a publisher gets money from the sale. If not, the cover is torn off and returned to the publisher as “unsold” in 30 to 90 days in exchange for credit on next month’s titles. The profit margin on titles distributed to retailers is razor thin and all it takes is one mistake to drive a publisher into the red. With 90% of all new titles failing in the first year, a publisher has to know how to manage its risks.
Unfortunately, Marvel was going into distribution just as the industry was collapsing. Combined with a slew of poor selling stories like The Crossing, Onslaught, The Clone Saga, and Heroes Reborn, they were incurring heavy losses as the speculator market busted. And thanks to Marvel changing the distribution market most other distributors were folding because they couldn’t order half their inventory. In the aftermath of the distribution debacle, there was only one distributor left for comic books in America Diamond Comics Distributors.
These days the Diamond has a monopoly on the comic book business. And thanks to their business model the comic book industry just can’t grow. While superhero films and superhero merchandise has been exploding at retail, comic books just haven’t been able to establish a foothold in that same marketplace due to the business model Diamond uses to sell comics.
Under Diamond’s model, comics are printed and sold to order to retailers and aren’t returnable afterward. And since most non-comic retailers won’t touch a product under those terms, the only ones to buy comics on the wholesale level are comic shops. Some comic shop owners don’t mind buying comics like this because they could speculate on the value of unsold back issues. However, in this age of reboots many comic shops are winding up becoming stuck with excess inventory they just can’t sell.
Thanks to Diamond’s archaic distribution model and many publishers fear of returns, the industry is stuck in neutral when it comes to sales. While film studios like Marvel Studios and Hasbro Toys Make billions selling licensed superhero merchandise those same comic fans can’t find a comic book on the same shelf next to the toys or at the theater where the movie is playing.
Many comic publishers fear returns. However returns are a good thing.
Returns are an accurate indicator of what sales really are to a publisher. Under Diamond’s current model publishers only know what’s not selling to a comic shop. They don’t know what is selling to readers. For example, comic shops ordered 300,000 copies of Ta-Neshi- Coates’ Black Panther #1. However, there’s no real indicators showing Marvel how many of those 300,000 copies are actually in the hands of readers. For all we know, tens of thousands of them will be in a quarter bins of comic shops six months from now.
However, when a publisher gets returns from a distributor it clearly tells them what books are being bought by customers. If a book has too many returns, it lets a publisher know something is wrong with a title. And they can plan a strategy from there such as tweaking the storyline, changing the artist or just hiring a new creative team. And if those avenues don’t work, they can just cancel the title.
Under the current distribution model most comic publishers have no real way to plan a marketing strategy to promote titles or to regroup and adjust to help a struggling title find an audience during a sales slump. This is why 90% of all new comic titles die by the eighth issue and the other ten percent end by the 36th. With comics printed to order, comic shop owners are sprinting for short-term sales of a single title, not a series.
However, publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. And comics are sold by the series, not the issue. In order for comic book distribution to work at retail, retailers need to minimize their risk. Unfortunately, most comic publishers aren’t providing a marketplace that minimizes the risk to that razor thin profit margin. A retailer like a drugstore or a big box retailer like Wal-Mart or Target has no incentive to stock comics when a comic book universe will be rebooted in two or three years leaving them stuck with thousands of nonreturnable back issues on their shelves. Back issues that take up valuable space and eventually become an eyesore on the sales floor alienating customers.
People want to buy comics. Unfortunately most comic publishers are so scared of losses that they’re losing out on the opportunity to reach a whole generation of new readers. Offering returnablity to retailers is a huge risk for a distributor like Diamond. However, most comic publishers could reap the rewards of more exposure in more retail venues if they took a chance and started letting making their titles returnable again.