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Monday, January 25, 2016 

Smaller publishers earn business through adapting other mediums

CNBC wrote about the success of IDW, Dynamite and Boom Studios, which have made significant gains for independent publishers, though even their sales, much like the majors, pale next to the sales of movies and music:
Over the last 10 years, Dynamite Entertainment, IDW Publishing and BOOM! Studios have done what few mid-size comic book publishers have been able to do: survive.

The trio put out a wide range of series owned by their creators, but key to their success has been licensing well-known media properties — everything from "Transformers" to "Game of Thrones," "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" to "Sons of Anarchy." In a North American comic book market estimated to be at least $800 million, independent titles draw in fresh audiences, excite old fan bases hungry for new stories and underwrite the companies' original series.

The publishers have proved successful at identifying licensed characters that would move about 5,000 or 10,000 issues per month in comic book stores, said Jonathan Jackson Miller, a writer who analyzes comic book sales.

To be sure, sales can exceed that range, but they generally fly below the level that comics titans Marvel and DC target. Selling through bookstores, book fairs, mainstream retailers, and digital storefronts has allowed smaller, more nimble publishers to sell tens of thousands more copies beyond the comic shop, publishers and experts said.
Rather predictably, they don't mention that DC/Marvel sales aren't much better, if at all, with very few selling over 100,000 copies, most of which are on retailer level only, and end up being bought by collectors only interested in the monetary value, especially when there's multiple variant covers involved. And with today's nearly 4 dollar prices, that's why selling beyond the shop isn't guaranteed success. Few today want to buy a mere 22 pages of story or less for that much money.
Indie comic book success is something of a rarity, as no publisher has achieved sustainability at that scale since a batch of Marvel's most popular artists struck out to form the creator-owned Image Comics. That took place at the height of the comic book bubble in 1992.

The phenomenon that spelled doom for many small publishers was known as the rule of eight, said Jackson Miller. "Anyone that got past eight titles died," he said. "There isn't a surviving company that started in that period that published more than eight titles until you get to IDW and Dynamite" in 2005.
Well that's because the titles sold at the time weren't marketed based on how well they were written; it was mostly just the aforementioned variant covers. As I've argued before, the medium could be doing itself a big favor by switching to the much more durable paperback/hardcover formats, yet they vehemently stick to the outmoded pamphlets.
The explosion of television and film content over the last decade is part of what has made the business sustainable, said Joseph Rybandt, editorial director at Dynamite.

That has allowed Dynamite to put together a diverse portfolio that includes pop culture smashes like "A Game of Thrones" and "Terminator," literary classics such as Sherlock Holmes, and pulp comic favorites Vampirella and Red Sonja.
So that's how they're surviving...for now. But even those licensed adaptations don't sell very high, and if prices go any higher, which is bound to happen sooner or later, then sales could wane even more.
Ideally, publishers want to partner with rights holders that generate big, recurring media events — namely film releases, he said. Without that regular infusion, the core fans will stick around, though overall interest will wane, he said. Titles fitting that bill include Dynamite's newly released James Bond series and IDW's "Star Trek," "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" comics, he said.
Judging from how low they sell - often just several thousand (in these recent charts, the new Star Trek: Starfleet Academy only sold 9,519 copies) - there isn't much wider interest to begin with. Yes, the above franchises have core audiences, but they clearly don't find many more interested readers, and some of the present audience could be people who'd read the adaptations in the past from different companies (Star Trek comics came out years before from Gold Key, DC and Marvel before IDW got the latest license). However, there is an argument made here for why name value alone isn't enough:
Still, publishers shouldn't treat licenses like cash cows and saturate the market, he cautioned. Until recently, comics based on licenses were often seen as inferior to those featuring characters born out of the medium — in part because publishers weren't always good stewards, he added.

"Why put out something sub-par?" Sablik asked. "At that point it just becomes parasitic on the license and you're just trying to extract whatever money you can from the fans and the audience."
Well that's a reasonable argument. Even comics based on other existing mediums like movies and computer games work much better with a script that's written well, by writers with talent. And that's exactly why DC and Marvel's modern output are such a failure: they're basing their marketing approach on name value alone, assigning untalented writers who aren't qualified, and relying much of the time on "outrage culture", counting on aimless collectors to keep their business and sales afloat. And if the smaller publishers want to avoid that, one of the best ways they can prove it is to avoid banking on variant covers for the pamphlets. That way, they can save money and avoid overspending. But better still, they could always make the shift to paperbacks and hardcovers instead, and prove a far better example than DC and Marvel are.

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10,000 issues a month sounds pathetic compared to the Golden and Silver Ages, but by today's standards (and for a small independent publisher, as opposed to DC or Marvel), it might be adequate.

I remember talking with the manager of a local comic shop in the mid-1990's, and he mentioned that Hamilton Comics' Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was not selling well. And that was when the TV show was wildly popular with kids. I suspect that the kids who watched the TV series were not into comics, and did not go to comic book stores. Conversely, the collectors (and investors) who frequented the comic shops wanted the latest DC and/or Marvel issues, and were uninterested in TV/movie adaptations.

If I were in charge at IDW, Boom! Studios, or Dynamite, I would try to get my comics distributed in outlets other than comic book stores. Titles like Transformers and Power Rangers (My Little Pony, The Regular Show, Adventure Time with Finn & Jake) might actually sell better in supermarkets, drug stores, and convenience stores than in comic book specialty stores. They would be available to customers who are not comic book fans (and who don't go to comic shops), but who know the characters from TV.

Re: the "rule of eight," I remember the 1980's, when the independents boomed, then busted. Pacific Comics and some others may have bitten off more than they could chew. First Comics (Jon Sable, Nexus, American Flagg) had a self-imposed limit of seven or eight titles for a while, and lasted a little longer.

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