In the last edition of “Tales from Counter-Earth,” I discussed the Previews Problem and the reasons why the current solicitation model for comic books is broken. Direct Market retailers and consumers have access to the same catalog for ordering comics and memorabilia and this leads to a few conflicts. This is unlike any other industry and often leads to fans being unnecessarily judgmental and harsh on titles that aren’t due to come out for months. The sheer quantity of content solicited each month is also a burden on the employee responsible for ordering the comics each month. I’ll go in depth on some of the possible changes that can be made to result in a “Solicitation Solution.”
An ideal solution to the problem would involve fans having access to only the creative team, price, cover art and a short one line synopsis for an individual comic. That’s really all the information they would need besides a creator interview or an actual preview of the book before it’s release date. Retailers should have all of that information and maybe even some spoilers so that they can adjust their orders accordingly. This obviously would be a difficult thing to maintain, as some in the comic industry would no doubt be willing to spill the beans on such sensitive information. This might raise an issue with some who like to read as much as they can before placing pre-orders on books, but I believe that would apply mostly to new series. The core buying audience for monthly superhero comics is consistent from month to month with a gradual decline in numbers over the course of each year. It’s mostly early on in a comic’s life span that the orders are difficult to manage.
Marvel has a habit of gathering mainstream press attention for specific releases such as Ultimate Fallout #4, featuring the first appearance of Miles Morales, the new Ultimate Spider-Man. The information that they provided to retailers about the issue did not reveal the main reason for the press attention (a new, ethnically diverse Spider-Man) but there were incentives to order heavy and warning that the book would be receiving mainstream press. There is a similar push by the Marvel marketing team to make retailers aware of the upcoming events in Astonishing X-Men, which is promised to feature a wedding that will “have major media attention.” This manner of specific and targeted promotion is a step in the right direction towards getting retailers to accurately promote and order comics. This is obviously not an option for every book that comes out, as they won’t all garner huge sales and media attention, but it shows a focus on Marvel’s part to inform the retailer far enough in advance that they can order accurately.
Basing orders for a new title off of pre-orders and solicitations is not enough information. One of the things that can get me to invest heavily in a new title is a full preview of the issue before the final orders are due. Marvel Comics gave retailers full previews of the Point One one-shot, Fantastic Four #600, Scarlet Spider #1, and a few others which allowed me to up my orders for the books and heavily promote them. It’s easier to order something if I know the quality of the title before it ships. We were able to heavily push Point One, Marvel’s anthology one-shot featuring many different creative teams, through various methods of promotion and achieved healthy sell-through. Fantastic Four #600 was Marvel’s big anniversary issue and featured a story about the return of the Human Torch. The preview that retailers were given did not feature the story pages that dealt with his return, but I didn’t need to read it to know what would happen. If you couldn’t figure out that Johnny Storm would return in the big anniversary issue, you probably haven’t been reading comic books very long. Sales on #600 were great and the heavy price tag of $7.99 for readers was alleviated by the promise of over 100 pages of all new content which was a major selling point in the solicitations.
Retailers were given the full issue preview of Scarlet Spider almost a month before it went on sale and I used that time to gauge interest in our customers. I really enjoyed the first issue and knew that this would be an easy sell to most regular Marvel customers and a good gateway into the Marvel Universe for new or lapsed comic readers. I increased my orders for the title by the Final Order Cut-off (when publishers set their print run). When the first issue was released, customers were already aware of how much I liked it and some were willing to give it a shot just based on my recommendation. Scarlet Spider launched after the “Spider-Island” event in Amazing Spider-Man and featured a title that invoked nostalgia in older readers and gave a fresh take on an older concept. Scarlet Spider #1 had the highest single issue sales for a new series since Wolverine & The X-Men #1 at The Fallout Shelter and the book has maintained high sales all the way through issue four. The extra time that I had to talk about it and build buzz, combined with a solid creative team and good marketing, contributed to the strong sales and made it easier to invest heavily in the first few issues.
It’s obviously not realistic to expect publishers to provide retailers with preview copies of all of their new books. I do think it would be in the interest of publishers to provide preview copies of new titles or existing books that have a significant place in their publishing schedule. This isn’t a perfect solution, as it runs the risk of spoilers being released or even the file being leaked by a disgruntled comic book shop employee. There weren’t any leaks involving the books that I mentioned being previewed to retailers by Marvel, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more big releases get sent retailers’ way in the future.
Image Comics has been going through a bit of a renaissance period lately, with a heavy flow of quality titles coming out each month and promptly selling out. This has been both a good and bad thing for publishers and retailers as it means more people are reading but there also people missing out on these titles. Image has been trying hard to get retailers to order heavy on their books by offering full return-ability on certain titles in their first few months of publication. At the Fallout Shelter, we’ve experienced a drastic increase in demand for new Image titles like Fatale, Hell Yeah!, Saga, and The Manhattan Projects. The extra sales have been great for us and these titles are still maintaining buzz after their first issues. However, the issue still remains with customers not knowing about these titles far enough in advance to guarantee a copy. In a perfect world, I would have ordered enough for everyone who walks in off the street to guarantee a copy.
The last few months have seen a concentrated effort from publishers to connect with their retailer partners in positive ways. The Diamond Retailer Summit held at Chicago Comic-Con and Entertainment Expo is one example of the interaction between publishers and retailers that needs to be maintained and nurtured to improve the quality of the industry for fans, creators, retailers, and publishers alike. The barriers between the guys at the top of the food chain in companies like Marvel, DC, Image and retailers are starting to fall. An increased emphasis on communication and collaboration will be key to advancing and growing the comics industry forward into the years to come. Increasing the amount of incentives for ordering, providing more full issue previews before final order cut-off, and reducing the amount of glut that a retailer has to deal with when ordering are all things that the industry can benefit from.