Tuesday, 26 April 2011

King Of The Jungle - Comic shops and the Direct Market

Comic shop stock ordering is a strange beast.

Other retail markets work by generating interest - through TV shows, advertising, sales representatives, promotional tie-ins, etc. They then manufacture product based on projected interest and the cheapest trade off between production run and projected sales. Then they take and fulfill orders on said products. If demand is high they do further production runs as deemed appropriate.

From natural yoghurt to natural pine furniture this is pretty much true. Some industries however, prefer to work solely on pre-orders. Special edition sports cars for example.

Comics now work in a similar way. A process called the Direct Market. Comic shop owners/managers receive Previews catalogues in the last week of the current month. They have until about the third week of the following month to draw up orders and place them with Diamond.

For the bigger publishers, these figures are then relayed to them some six weeks before the comics will hit the shelves (known as the FOC or Final Order Cutoff) and print runs are produced accordingly - often with some extra copies to cover restocks, but not always. Retailers can add further guaranteed copies to the order up until a title’s FOC, then after that it’s pot luck based on restocks. Other, smaller companies get their figures almost straight away, allowing the retailers no time to increase their orders.

This means that when you see issue #1 of a comic on the shelves - orders have already been placed for issue #2! And the figures for #3 are about to be sent in, if they haven’t been already. So retailers must place orders for up to the first three issues of a comic without knowing how well issue #1 sells! Many cope with this by ordering say 10 of #1, then cutting it to five for #2 and three or less for #3, hoping that they can get increases in before the FOC. A Direct Market retailer who has stock left on the shelves is stuck with them - they usually cannot get a refund.

If every comic enthusiast bought a copy of Previews each month and placed orders based on what they like in that month’s catalogue, retailers would have things a lot easier. But most people seem to forgo Previews these days. Instead they place orders for #1 maybe the week before or pick up #1 then add the rest to their reservation, not realising they may not get issue #2 if luck is against them.

Reservation customers are a blessing though. A customer who wants the same title every month gives a retailer almost guaranteed income and makes it much easier to gauge how popular a title is. If the creative team on a comic changes, retailers can see a massive drop or in turn a large increase in copies required. Difficult when orders were locked between three months or six weeks before the comic’s release date.

It is also disheartening to a retailer when a customer cancels his or her order. The shop has between two or three months worth of comics on order for that customer that may well be impossible to cancel. Suddenly the shop has instant negative equity moving forward unless someone new picks up those books.

All in all, the Direct Market is a mixed bag. It does give higher profit margins on comics than the magazine distribution model, but it comes at the price of a higher risk and a need to be a little bit cliarvoyant when it comes to placing orders.

I’ve been placing Previews orders myself for almost five years consecutively now and whilst I have a better insight into what can happen, you can never get it perfect.

Perhaps if people understand the inner workings of the process, it will be easier to understand why sometimes you have to wait whilst I source your missing issue of Nonplayer #1 from somewhere else!

The new Previews catalogue comes out tomorrow. The previous month's items (due out in June) can be viewed at Comixology.

Ben Fardon is wishing his life away.

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