Friday, March 7, 2014

Three Things Image Publisher Eric Stephenson Got Right In His Speech at ComicsPRO (And Three He Got Wrong)

SOURCE: Image Publisher Eric Stephenson Emphasizes Direct Market Importance in ComicsPRO Speech

Earlier this week, Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson gave a speech at the ComicsPRO annual membership meeting in Atlanta.  It would be an understatement to say that the speech was decisive and has spurred a lot of counter-commentary.  Indeed, the publishers of Dark Horse and IDW felt the need to write their own rebuttals.

Personally, I found most of Stephenson's speech to be inflammatory.  Then again, that was probably the point.  Still, the man did have a few good points among several others that I found to be short-sighted and self-serving.


1. The Direct Market For Comics Is Doing It Right!

"Sales will always fluctuate, but given that print was being pronounced dead as early as 20 years ago, the comics market has remained remarkably stable.  It’s funny, when I first started working at Image back in 2001, the bookstore market was just beginning to take comics and graphic novels seriously. Some predicted this would have an adverse effect on the direct market, but you’re still here.  Not too long after that, when digital comics emerged as an alternative to print, there were even more gloomy predictions, but still, the Direct Market survived.  And the Direct Market will continue to survive, as long as there are people like you.  Every publisher here talks to your counterparts in the bookstore market, and do you know what they’re telling us?  They’re telling us graphic novels are one of the only categories of print publishing that is growing."

Stephenson has the truth of it here.  Even as Borders is declaring bankruptcy and Barnes and Noble is closing stores, the comics industry as a whole is doing well.  It will probably take several years of study to determine how much of that is due to an increased public presence through other cultural media (i.e. movies and TV) but it can't be denied that the graphic literature publishing houses are doing well.

2. A Call For Lower Prices And Less Gimmicks

"Are $4.99 and $7.99 comics going to help our industry in the long run?  No, but they sure help the bottom line at the end of the year.  Same with gimmick covers and insane incentives to qualify for variants that will only have a limited appeal for a limited amount of time."

This is one of the factors that is driving away the fan-base faster than new-readers can make up the difference.  The current movement by some publishers to boost sales numbers by offering rare variant covers may be increasing sales numbers and profits in the short-term  but catering to the speculators is what caused so many publishers to go under in the 1990s.

3. Now, More Than Ever, We Need To Win Over Female Readers 

"Right now, the fastest growing demographic for Image Comics, and I’m willing to speculate, for the entire industry, is women.  For years, I’ve listened to people talk about bringing more women into the marketplace.  Over the last few years, with your help, we’ve been doing exactly that...

...We’re not the first to put out material that appealed to women – there’s a whole roomful of incredible people I wouldn’t be able to look in the eye if I made that kind of ludicrous claim – but I think we are among a select group in this industry who realize that there’s more to gain from broadening our horizons than by remaining staunchly beholden to the shrinking fan base that is supposedly excited about sequels to decrepit old crossovers like SECRET WARS II."

I don't have anything else to add to that, my own opinions upon how asinine it is to drive off over half of the population of the world because they don't buy action figures being well known to my readership at this point.


1. My Company Is Awesome And Everyone Else Is The Problem!

"Both of those books – THE WALKING DEAD and SAGA – have brought a lot of new readers into your stores. It is not a coincidence that both of those books are published by Image. And we publish a lot more books that can help you expand this market. New creativity is the future of this industry, not the latest SPIDER-MAN #1."

Granting that shameless self-promotion is hardly unusual coming from a comics publisher (see every damn thing Stan Lee has ever been involved in), Stephenson crosses the line from winking-to-the-camera and moves into territories usually inhabited by very serious men in military uniforms with dozens of medals on their chests.  Image über alles!

2. Comics Based On Other Properties Suck!

"Like I said, THE WALKING DEAD comic book was selling great before it was a television show. Now it sells even better. And that’s because the show made people aware of the comic – and those people came to your stores to get that comic. Because they want the real thing. TRANSFORMERS comics will never be the real thing. GI JOE comics will never be the real thing. STAR WARS comics will never be the real thing. Those comics are for fans that love the real thing so much, they want more – but there’s the important thing to understand: They don’t want more comics – they just want more of the thing they love. Those comics are accessories to an existing interest, an add-on, an upsell, easy surplus for the parent products – icing on the cake."

Granting my own bias as a librarian causes me to view anyone reading anything as a good thing, I still have to call bullshit on Stephenson's argument here.  I understand it being better for his business if the kids were reading all of the wonderful children's books published by Image Comics instead of My Little Pony or Adventure Time - published by IDW and KABOOM Studios respectively.  There's just one problem - Image doesn't have a children's line!

I'll avoid going off on a rant about how too many publishers are obsessed with proving that comics aren't just for kids anymore to the point that they're forgetting that creating comics for everyone includes creating comics for kids.  I will note, however, that many of the greatest comic creators in history got their start doing work with licensed characters. 

Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Grant Morrison, for instance, both did some work on Doctor Who comics for Marvel UK.  The Doctor Who comic most recently published by IDW boasted work from a number of great modern artists and writers, including Andy Diggle, Mark Buckingham and Paul Cornell.  And when the likes of Stephen Baxter and Michael Moorcock are writing Doctor Who novels... well, you'll forgive me if I don't think that not every single adapted work is completely devoid of merit. 

I look at it this way.  I hate Twilight.  I would be happy if not a single teenage girl ever read Twilight again.  But I can use the love of reading that Twilight inspired to get them reading other things.  What we need is for store owners to start pointing the kids who are coming for more Adventure Time and My Little Pony swag towards Baby Mouse, Amelia Rules! and Owly. 

In the end, it benefits us more to cultivate readers - not fans.

3. "We don’t want people buying their comics in Targets or Wal-Marts, or as a giveaway with a toy."

... why not?

Okay.  I know why not.  Because that would take money away from the brick-and-mortar independent shops that make up the direct market and everyone Stephenson was speaking to.  But what is so bad about give away comics with the toys? 

When I was a kid the only comics I had were the ones that came with my action figures.  And sure - the adventures of He-Man, The Super-Powers Team and MASK in those little books weren't always the best... but they were my first exposure to comics.  And here I am now some thirty years later - still reading.

Look, I know we're not about to get Saga toys with our Happy Meals.  And an independent-focused publisher like Image isn't about to go falling over itself trying to get its name out there when they pride themselves on exclusiveness.  But we can't build the market as a whole by hiding in our comic shops and waiting for the people to come to us.  We have to go to them.

I say we because I used to work for a comic shop.  And I spent a goodly number of weekends camped out in movie theater lobbies handing out comics and demoing the Heroclix games to passing children in order to get them interested in reading and games and (please please please) to come to our store and buy stuff.  Your more successful comic shops do this sort of thing and that is why they are successful - because they reach out to the people.

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