4 Takes On the Role of the Direct Market in Growing “Comics” (Or Not)
This article is a part of a blog carnival hosted by Women Write About Comics, and is a collection of responses to this question, posed by Nick Hanover of Loser City:
“Is it possible for comics to grow sustainably if the direct market continues to dominate distribution?”
Kat Overland: I think it’s hard know, first, if “mainstream” comics is looking to grow rather than just sustain sales. I think a status quo audience would be maintainable, at least for a while. And the potential for a wider audience is there: more people are buying comics from major booksellers and outside of comic shops, eschewing the traditional model of being a comics consumer with a pullbox. The advancement of digital readership is also growing seemingly exponentially. So there are ways to increase readership simultaneously with the direct market, but it definitely hinders audience growth because it makes publishers hesitant to take risks. If books have to immediately sell in order to make it past issue #10, then it’s going to be a continuing churn of Batman and events.
So if comics wants to grow as an industry with new, more experimental titles coming out of mainstream presses then it needs to expand its vision of success beyond the direct market. Because I’m perpetually flummoxed by the math behind what constitutes a best-selling floppy, I’m not sure how new distribution models are being considered along with “how many pre-orders do we have.” But it seems like the market should consider making comics more accessible to a casual reader — cheaper digital issues and more consideration of trade paperback readers, for one. For those readers to count as “success” or “growth,” though, the direct market system accounting has to change, at the very least.
Claire Napier: I don’t know. I find it hard to get around the unwieldy and vague phrase “direct market.” What is that? I don’t care, so I have trouble working it out in order to answer questions I do care about, such as “why is it so annoying to try to buy a damn magazine story.”
Here’s where I keep sticking: if people could buy their comics ahead of time — pre-ordering them but paying ON THE SPOT — what would be the problems then? The problems would be that books are touted and advertised for pre-order so far ahead of time that sometimes decisions change and they don’t come out at all.
There’s another problem too, which is that monthly comics are ephemeral but also given the illusion of intense importance. The story happens in chunks, so if you miss an issue you’ve missed it; if you get a month where nobody buys any of the Rock Corps #1 you ordered, you have a bunch of backissues. You won’t buy in issue #2, because nobody “seems to want them.” In a bookshop, a book is a book, forever: novels, I mean, do not tend to age. There’ll be some leeway on this but a book that came out in 1999 is still a new story waiting for you now. I’ll be surprised if any more than outliers refuse to read anything that’s not a new release, in the world of novel retail. Monthly comics designed to be kept (that’s the freakish thing about them: they’re expected to be bagged, still, not chucked, recycled, and substituted with reasonably priced trades) are a terrible product! They go stale, but they’re not the purchasing staple that fruit or bread is.
This isn’t my sort of problem.
Ginnis Tonik: The easy answer to this would seem to be: no. The stock argument we hear against diversity in comics is: “well, there’s not an audience for that” even though we know that is often not really the case. The direct market gives the illusion that these titles may not move even though there is so much more going on when it comes to utilizing a direct market. Small businesses are so fucking hard to sustain, and I don’t blame LCS owners for trying to appeal to the presumed (and totally fucking mythic if you ask me) white male audience. When you run a small business, risk taking is a lot harder, and when you can’t return the back issues, then that can really be a struggle for LCS owners. But, I don’t know if the answer is as simple as “no” though.
Kate Tanski: The direct market distribution system for comics reminds me of the patronage system of ancient Rome, with the comics companies as the patrons, and the consumers as the clients. When I was a young classics student, my professor took great pleasure in describing the salutatio, or morning greeting ritual, that the clients and friends would do every morning. The lower your rank, the earlier in the morning you had to wake up in order to greet your first patron, and then you and the patron would move to the next patron, and so, on, and so on, en masse.
Now, I can’t help but wonder if the direct market is the new salutatio, with certain comics having to be pre-ordered earlier and earlier, sight unseen, based on the insidious concept of “support;” the flawed premise that these direct market pre-sales are a demonstration of your dedication “to the cause,” especially if that cause is underrepresented demographics. If you want to see more comics like this one, we’re told, you need to buy it. Otherwise, you’re proving that comics “like this,” (featuring women and other underrepresented groups) don’t sell.
What would this financial commitment look like for Marvel comics, for say, supporting comics about or made by women?
Of the 45 All-New All-Different titles announced for the post-Secret Wars Marvel lineup, around a third are solo titles led by women. This number does not include team books with women as team members.
- Angela: Queen of Hel
- Black Widow
- Captain Marvel
- Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur
- Ms. Marvel
- Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat
- Scarlet Witch
- The Mighty Thor
- The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
Supporting these titles–because, the economic logic of the direct market dictates that purchases are the only way to show support–requires a financial investment of $70 a month, just for Marvel.
If you support titles that have women as part of the creative teams, the list is shorter, at only 10 titles, which is a $50 investment.
- Willow Wilson (Writer, A-Force, Ms. Marvel)
- Marguerite Bennett (Writer, Angela: Queen of Hel),
- Kim Jacinto and Stephanie Hans (Artists, Angela: Queen of Hel)
- Tara Butters (Co-writer, Captain Marvel)
- Chelsea Cain (Writer, Mockingbird)
- Amy Reeder (Co-writer, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur),
- Natacha Bustos (Artist, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur)
- Kate Leth (Writer, Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat)
- Brittney Williams (Artist, Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat)
- Stacey Lee (Artist, Silk)
- Sara Pichelli (Artist, Spider-Man)
- Erica Henderson (Artist, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl)
If you only support titles that have a woman lead and at least one woman on the creative team, you’re down to eight titles to support at $40 a month.
That’s on top of whatever comics I want to read for my own enjoyment from other publishers, as well as digital copies, since those have to be purchased separately. And what does this tribute to the comics companies buy me? If you find out, let me know.