Format Wars: Distribution and Marketing in the Digital Era II

Above - a scene from the "Abominable Charles Christopher" webcomic by Karl Kerschl

My CCBCAA associate Robert Haines posted an article yesterday re: the distribution of Sword of My Mouth, the follow-up series to the well-received graphic novel Therefore Repent, and I echo his sentiments — it’s an interesting solution to some of the problems the industry is facing during what I continue to call a “transition period”. The transition period began long before last fall’s pronouncements by the media that we are in the midst of an economic downturn. While there is no doubt that we are in a financial crisis, the situation has been made worse by the panic felt by consumers at daily reports of doom and gloom. It’s interesting to see that while the comic industry’s monthly Diamond orders have fluctuated only slightly lower since last fall, the consumers are continuing to make their transition from a periodical based model to one where the single edition graphic novel is the preferred format (hence the transition period…).

Of course, one of the issues that surrounds the transition is that periodicals have, in the old model, been the source of steady income for creators, with the graphic novel collection as the bonus for completing the work. At this time, very few companies are able to successfully carry a book through the periodical phase – we’re limited to the big superhero publishers (Marvel, DC) where the product is more character-centric than creator-based, and a few publishers producing material centred around movie and television concepts (IDW, Dark Horse, Boom!), video games (Udon) and, in some rare cases, creator-based (Dark Horse, Image).

When Diamond’s thresholds were lower, one could launch a periodical, sell enough copies to get you to the point where the book could be collected and hope that the graphic novel sells well enough to keep in print and generating income. Without the periodical phase, can creators and publishers remain financially solvent during the time it takes to get the story completed for the graphic novel publication? Well, it can when the creator and/or the publisher has a body of work out in the marketplace continuing to generate some revenue, but for those struggling to create their first graphic novel it’s probably not financially worthwhile to quit their day job.

And a few prominent Canadian creators (Seth, for example) have even gone out and said that they will no longer be producing periodicals. Darwyn Cooke is about to launch his first direct-to-graphic novel project (The Hunter from IDW), although he continues to do work for periodicals.

As Robert discusses in the chicken vs. egg debate, traditional thinking is that retailers are not taking chances and ordering the product. When retailers are presented with a monthly catalogue filled with potentially thousands of products to order from  they tend to go with what they know they can sell — hence the prediliction for recognized superheroes, movie, tv, and videogame concepts, as well as the work of certain proven creators and little risk taking. Some stores may build their reputation on risk-taking, but those are few and far between, most are just making sure they can pay their rent and Diamond bills and can’t afford to sit on unsold product. Certainly it is in the publishers benefit to get the word out there on new product, hence the benefits of previews and supportive websites to create demand, but unless the customer-base preorders the work, most won’t take a big risk on an unproven concept.

Which is why the graphic novel format works better, as the price point is higher, and while the order thresholds are much lower than periodicals they generate a higher profit margin for the distributor and have a better chance of reaching the consumer as they tend to have a longer shelf life.

I think it would be wise for some people to look at some of the Canadian creators who are receiving accolades for their internet successes. Matt Forsythe, for example, did Ojingogo as a webcomic long before it was collected as an award-winning graphic novel. Lar De Souza and Ryan Sohmer have two successful webcomics that are regularly collected in print. I think Kate Beaton has already discovered vis-a-vis TCAF that there is an audience out there for collections of her Hark! A Vagrant history webcomics. I think there is a future in print for all of the Transmission-X webcomics if they so desire.

And taking Jason Turner as an example, while Warlord of Io is not available for purchase through Diamond, you can get it download it online from SLG for a small fee, and perhaps if enough people like what they see there, they’ll go on a limb and purchase a print collection, when offered. Ditto for Sword of My Mouth, and kudos for the concept of using the digital investment as a discount towards the print collection.

Basically, what we are seeing is not the rise of a new independent distributor with lower order thresholds, but the option to use digital delivery systems as a means to create interest in print collections. Eliminating periodicals with digital downloads may be the solution, but it will still require a lot of promotion and effort to encourage people to take the risk directly to go and browse the site — but at least the decision to support or not support the creator is directly in the consumer’s hands (vis-a-vis their mouse), and not the retailer or the distributor. Plus, there are some potential ancillary benefits if you include merchandising to your mix with items such as t-shirts.

Kevin Boyd

Squidwool's Abominable Charles Christopher head
Squidwool's Abominable Charles Christopher head