Over at the YABS message board at Comic Book Resources, Gail Simone (Birds of Prey, Villains United, Agent X) likes to ask questions. Lots of questions. Some are a little off-the-wall and some seem serious enough. A couple days ago, she kicked off a thread titled, “Okay, So You’re In Charge Of Comics” where she asked the question…

Let’s hear it. How would you ‘save’ comics?

There were some interesting thoughts in there, so I picked away at a response whenever I got a minute or so to spare and went to post a reply… but you’re reading it here instead because my little contribution to the discussion exceeded the CBR message board post limit of 10,000 characters (consider that fair warning that this is a lengthy post… the blog is called Dark Ramblings after all). So, here ya go. Some quick and crazy thoughts on “saving” comics.

What if comics doesn’t want to be saved? What if comics came back and sued someone for saving them like Mr. Sansweet did with Mr. Incredible? ^_^

Okay, let’s take a look at some of the issues…

Accessibility: Comic shops are the major outlets for comics. Sure, they carry some in Borders (and there might be a stray issue or two at Wal-mart), but those aren’t where you get a majority of your sales. Bookstore chains and newsstands don’t really want to carry comics for various reasons.

1) Returnability. They don’t want to get stuck with a lot of extra inventory that they’ll have to destroy or warehouse if they don’t sell it. It’s their insurance policy to make sure they don’t get burned by a product they can’t sell. Comic companies tend to shy away from returnability for the simple reason of… it’s too risky for them (print up a ton of books and have a ton of returns and you could be out a lot of money).

2) Shelf space. If they have to make room for a few hundred magazines AND a few hundred comic books, that’s a lot of store real estate to eat into. And when you get a magazine with a $6-7 price tag (giving you a return option) and a comic with a $3 price tag (no return option), you wind up having a better profit margin per shelf space ratio with the magazines. It’s tough to compete with that unless you’re a specialty store that sells comics where you have a lot of shelf space dedicated to displaying the titles, and a system set up for storing back issues of nonreturnable merchandise.

But even specialty stores have issues with making comics accessible because they might not have the book in the first place. They could miss a suddenly hot book in their ordering, be shorted issues from the distributor, lose a shipment (or have a shipment damaged), only carry books they know they can sell, sell out of a hot issue too quickly, etc.

Too many potential points of failure. In programming design and database design, it’s sometimes a good idea to look at the critical paths in your system. Break it down and streamline it to minimize the number of critical paths that could bottleneck or take down the system. Let’s look at the current paths involved in getting books from a publisher to a comic book reader (this is just an abstracted look at the overall system to break it down into the different processes that are dependent on each other):

Currently, publishers solicit their books, retailers read through the solicitations and order the books they want to carry in their shop (based on their experiences with selling books and sometimes in-store subscriptions), Diamond tallies the orders and invoices the publishers, publishers send the files off for printing, printers create the requested print run, printers ship the books to Diamond and/or the publisher, Diamond divvies up the books and ships them to the retailers, and retailers either sell all their books or toss them into inventory for back issue sales.

At a quick glance (so quick I’m probably missing something in there), that’s at least eight areas where something could happen to disrupt the entire system (causing delays, missed orders, etc). And overall, it’s very time dependent. If someone discovers a great book later on, they have to hope its been collected in a trade or available in back issue inventory somewhere nearby (or on eBay). This gets into some other paths of execution where someone could discover a series for the first time and not be able to pick up back issues at their store or an issue could sell out quick and the retailer would have to wait on reorders.

Now, there’s not much you can do to deal with these factors. Returnability will always be an issue with book stores (and retailers), and for what it does, Diamond is probably as streamlined as it’s gonna get. But what if there was another way to do business with comics? That article was something I wrote as a joke about people always talking about making comics cheaper… by developing a machine to access digital print files and print the comics yourself (the jokes in there… you just have to add up the numbers of the Marvel brand paper and ink ^_^).

• Readers could get any comic at any time with a static area of store “shelf” space (a place to put one or multiple terminals/kiosks) and inventory/storage (for paper and ink). Returnability becomes less of a factor because the majority of their inventory space for this system will be used for paper and ink (which can be used for any comic printed).
• With a downloadable system for print files, ANY issue would be available. Need a back issue? No searching through bins. You just do a search for a kiosk/terminal, swipe a credit card to pay for it, and print it up.
• If a publisher discovered an error with their book after it was available for sale… no need to recall and reprint an entire print run. Just make the changes in the files and upload them and all future printings will be correct.
• Want to start up a comic shop but don’t have the back issues to really support it and would like to get up and running quicker than what it would take to place orders and wait for your initial shipments of books to arrive (a couple months later)? Buy one of the systems and start selling.
• It’s international! Don’t want to deal with overseas shipping? If an overseas store has one of these, they’re in business… just connect to the digital file service and sell some American comics. Want access to original manga or European comics in the U.S.? Let foreign publishers upload files.
• Reader niceties. If the people want future convenience for comics, they could sign up for a service that gives them a “comics card”… card with an id key that will let them know what books they’ve purchased and allow them to set up a “subscription” of series they’ve flagged where it will point out any issues available since their last purchase of that issue (and allow them to pick up the series as their budget allows without losing track of any missed issues).
• More reader niceties. Willing to pay extra to have the advertising put in the back of the book? Publishers could offer that option. Want your choice of available variant covers on your book? That’s an option, too. Want to add some options to your purchase like concept art, artist sketches, a few pages of the original script, or even something like a choice of extra short stories/previews for other series? It’s your book, you can print it up the way you want (and the publisher can pad out to even pages with extra ads).
• Deliver comics to the people whenever you want. Is your book ready early? Send it out now. Is it late? Get it to the fans as fast as you can.
• Retailers set their percentage of profits. The publisher/distributor sets a base fee for each comic and lets the retailers set their price in the system itself. They can set different percentages for different books or publishers. Set sales prices (today only, everything’s 20% off), provide an extra discount to long-time customers (flag their machine to give a discount to that customer’s identification key), and similar sales strategies.
• Self-publishing the easy way. Self-publishers can just upload files into the system or go to any nearby machine (maybe in a local print shop or their local comic shop) with a cd/dvd and print a copy of their book (paying a set fee for paper/ink and a surcharge for using the retailer’s/printer’s machine). This could be a side business for some places… low print run comics or magazines. Stores could even have the option to carry mini-comics or indy comics from local creators that might not have been picked up by the distributor (and if the distributor sees good sales numbers on the book from a retailer’s system, they might reconsider distributing it).
• Wondering what’s hot? Can’t decide on what you want? Just look at what the top sellers are from right there at your terminal. The company serving the digital files (for a percentage) could easily build in a system to provide preview pages, creator bios, and more information for each issue. All available at the terminal/kiosk.
• A similar system could be developed to print magazines. And could provide a new revenue stream for book stores with the system… selling idle cycle time on the terminal screens to show the cover of a publisher’s latest issues (in store advertising).

• Expensive initial investment for both developing the product and for stores to put it in place. Developing a machine for print on demand comics would take a serious engineering effort to ensure it could produce a quality product with minimal upkeep hassle (easy to maintain, easy to add paper/staples/ink, easy to use). Also, a system for storing and serving the digital print files would be needed, which could go to a distributor type of company like Diamond. This would require a big investment in servers, software, development, and bandwidth.
• Standardization. All comics developed to be printed on this machine would either have to be all the same size or be from a limited selection of sizes (digest/ashcan, standard, and/or magazine size) and be restricted to an upper page limit (probably 64 pages or less). But these could be templated to help get publishers going with it.
• Opposition. Sure, it would be a convenient system for readers, retailers, and publishers, but you’d be making enemies with the big printer companies and possibly Diamond. Unless a big printer and Diamond worked together to develop this system in the first place.
• Quality control staff. Each book would need to be printed on a test system and proofed prior to the files being made live. Some of this could be offset to the publishers by providing them with a machine designed for proofing the files. A company would probably also need to put together a team that would regularly audit machines to verify quality of printing (and schedule maintenance and such).
• Limited broadband access in certain areas. Would need to develop a method of dealing with limited broadband capabilities in some areas. Possibilities could include built-in satellite download access (like the Sirius or XM satellite radios) or shipping out weekly update DVDs stores could use instead of downloads (could provide them with an optional DVD jukebox system for convenience instead of constantly swapping out DVDs).
• No matter how good the quality turns out, you’ll have your skeptics and whiners. “The cover’s too thick” or “The interiors are too thin” or “That staple’s slightly crooked” or “It doesn’t smell like a real comic”.
• Speculators. The collectors will always be there to complain that this type of system could devalue the market, but you could throw in some extras just for them. Maybe have a finite amount of special variant covers that can be printed out (X number for each retailer with those numbers rolling back into the system for access by any machine if the retailer doesn’t sell all their variants within a specific time period). Stuff like that. But for hot issues or standard issues, there would be unlimited supply, which would hurt a collectible market (and potentially companies like CGC… although the chances of getting a high grade on a book printed in a machine with all the different variables involved might make those “mint” books a little harder to come by).

… Yeah, Gail’s question produced a few thoughts. And yes, this is outside of what a publisher could do… it would probably have to be initiated by a big company with resources for developing that kind of system (a printer/copier/electronics company that could make money off sales/maintenance of equipment or a paper company looking for a new market) or a distributor (Diamond or someone new) looking to “revolutionize” the way things are done now.

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