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Indy Publishers Stop Whining About Retailers Buying What Sells

Over on Facebook, I saw an indy comic publisher friend post a bit of a rant on how retailers are foolish for only ordering books from Marvel/DC. About how buying comics (or “over-buying” as the poster puts it) from the Big Two just because they sell is a bad idea. He also goes on to complain a bit about the problem with tons of variant covers (although the publisher himself is one whose business is very much based on selling variants and exclusives). Somehow he links the variant cover “problem” with the “Before Watchmen” titles selling for very cheap at some shops…although, I’m not sure what one has to do with the other.

He goes on in a follow-up post to say something to the effect that digital sales are starting to steal print sales and so retailers should be smarter and buy more indy books.

As a guy who was a retailer in the 90s (and has run comic conventions, published and worked as a freelancer), I have to heartily disagree with his statements.

I had planned to post the below in a comment to the Facebook status update, but thought it might be better to just toss it here on my site to see if I could get some conversation going.

The reason retailers support the big two is because that product has enough demand BEFORE orders are placed to support the time/effort/cost ordering/stocking takes. There’s a built-in demand with established properties: Walking Dead, Spider-man, X-Men, Batman, Star Wars. Any retailer with a little time in the business will know about how many fans will come in each month looking for those titles. He’ll have some “pull boxes” but the majority of the sales will flow naturally through the shop. There will be enough demand to support the cost of those books (cost in terms of cash outlay AND work involved).

With indies, there’s almost never any sort of demand at the time of ordering and there usually isn’t a built-in base that a retailer knows will buy them – there’s also generally poor marketing/sales support from indies on top of that. Most indies feel having a website, getting in Diamond and doing conventions is enough – or feel like “marketing” ends at retailer support (schmoozing retailers and getting them to buy). Unfortunately, unless a book is able to drive sales in advance, it’s tough for a retailer to take a chance on something with such a low price point and tiny profit margin. It’s not up to a retail outlet to generate demand, that is the manufacturer’s job (in this case, the publisher). Generate higher demand and you’ll see retail sales increase.

Even worse for indies are those books a retailer “takes a chance on” that remain unsold. With an unsold Marvel or DC book, there’s at least a chance it’ll sell down the road for a buck or two in a discount or convention box. Most indies won’t. An unsold indy book is money that has been wasted completely with nearly no hope of recovery.

The outlook isn’t much better for indies that get moderate sales. Think about it this way: why take a chance on a vendor who is going to generate $50/month in profit for you when Marvel/DC generate thousands or tens of thousands of dollars (for larger stores) in profit AND come with a built in demand? And, keep in mind, a $50 profit for a shot means they’re selling 150-200 copies of a comic per month.

It sucks, but when you look at it from a purely business standpoint, supporting indies doesn’t make as much sense as sticking to that of larger companies – and that includes some of the material from IDW and Dark Horse, and the Walking Dead from Image. The rest of the stuff is pure speculation — hoping an indy book takes off in a way something like Walking Dead did and that back issues will spike up in what they can be resold for. Really, buying indies is about two things: speculation/gambling and a fan’s love, not about solid business choices.

When you compare profit versus cost (in time and resources), what indy can compete with the Marvel/DC/Walking Dead? Realistically, why should a retailer take that risk with his money and resources?

Of course, it’s cool when a retailer goes out of his way to support an indy title or company and helps to grow demand, but that’s a retailer going above and beyond what should be expected of them. It’s awesome and sometimes it works out for them. But it isn’t their job, it’s the publisher’s job to generate the demand and a retailer’s job is to fill it.

What I’m saying is: the issue isn’t with retailers, it’s with the smaller publishers wanting someone else to build demand for them. A lot of them place blame on retailers and fans instead of themselves. It’s not a retailer’s fault they aren’t buying a book no one has heard of or that no one is requesting (or a very small percentage). If a product has a demand, retailers will make sure they make it available. The goal for an indy should be to create that demand and make their product more sell-able for their retail partners.

The name of the game is building and growing your brand and your own properties to the point where they become commercially viable. That’s YOUR job as a creator/publisher to do not a retailer’s. Start doing your job.

And, please don’t complain about how awful retailers over-buying variant covers is if your own business is based on that very practice.

(UPDATE: I forgot to mention NECRA and the Phantom Variant. Publishers big and small should be incredibly thankful to guys like the group doing the Phantom Variants because they are going out of their way to help build up comics with their work. Love Larry’s Comics or not, the guy and the stores he works with do an amazing amount of good for the comic industry in general and small publishers in specific. Complaining about their use of variants to sell is ridiculous.)

-Mat Nastos, Super Genius

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Mat Nastos
TV, Film, comic book, fantasy & steampunk writer/director, known best for bad horror movies about giant scorpions, killer pigs & dinosaurs in the sewers. You can find his work on Smashwords or at his Amazon Author Page.

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