As most comic books fans know, comic book retailers cannot return the vast majority of the comic books they fail to sell - that's a unique arrangement of the Direct Market that other magazine outlets don't adhere to. For comic book stores, if they make a commitment to buy a hundred copies of a single title, it's their responsibility to sell them.
But that wasn't the case with "Rebirth," DC's 2016 summer event that restarted many of its best-selling titles and launched several new ones. The first six issues of all "Rebirth" titles were returnable, at no cost, giving retailers the opportunity to order big – or at least, as big as their budget would allow (with Diamond's usually quick-pay billing policies). In fact, DC has been experimenting with returnability quite a bit in the last few years, partnering with retailers to lower their risk and make sure that there are plenty of books on the shelves when new series begin.
But does it work? Do retailers sell more when they're given the opportunity to return unsold copies for credit? Or are there more returns than sales, potentially overwhelming Diamond Comic Distributors and making the process a hassle for retailers? Are sales figures temporarily inflated? Or even if they are, does it matter if comics sell better as a result?
As Newsarama continues a series of articles examining issues affecting the comic book industry's direct market, we now talk to retailers and publishers about "Rebirth" returnability, how that affected the way retailers ordered the event's comic books, and what's happening now that numbers on those returnable titles have come down.
As retailing columnist Brian Hibbs pointed out in July, in the first several weeks of "Rebirth," issues were selling out nationally - despite retailers being given the opportunity to order big.
"My gut instinct was that 'Rebirth' would sell well but not in as high of quantities as its predecessor, the 'New 52,'" said Ryan Seymore, owner and general manager of Comics Town in Columbus, Ohio. "Most titles we assumed that there would be a very low percentage of copies that we woyld be strip cover returning. Initially we were absolutely correct with almost no copies going to that big recycling plant in the sky."
All the retailers Newsarama surveyed said the initial months of DC's returnable program were hugely successful, with much higher sales after the "Rebirth" initiative started than before.
"Please remember that pre-'Rebirth,' DC sales were in the garbage dump - lowest point of sales in history, for us," said Hibbs, who runs Comix Experience stores in San Francisco. "Without returns, we would not have taken any kind of real risk or exposure on the new line. So, from our POV, the experiment was a wild success.
"We ordered such that we couldn't sell out, and maximized the number of eyes on the books," Hibbs said. "That paid off as DC sales are nearly twice as high on the superhero line as they were previously. Non-returnable comics get ordered dry conservatively, ordering to sell-out."
Bret Parks, owner of Ssalefish Comics in Winston Salem, North Carolina, has a new store opening in the spring in Greensboro. He said the partnership with DC Entertainment on returnable product was key to the success of "Rebirth."
"Thanks to the returanability deal with DC 'Rebirth,' my store had every issue in stock for a very very long time," Parks said. " I simply love the offer. DC is taking a risk so I don't have do. They are my business partner and I want to accept their help."
"We took full advantage of the returnability that DC was offering," Seymore said. "It may have tied up cash flow for a few months, but we were able to make sure that guests never missed out on the titles that they were interested in. Our goal was to welcome back lapsed DC fans as well as make sure our regular guests wouldn't miss an issue. Had they not been returnable, we would have been far more cautious and followed a budget as we do every day. With that in mind we would assuredly not had enough copies on hand for guests of the shop."
That said, some of the retailers admitted there were a high number of returns on later issues. In fact, several reported that on various individual issues, more than half the books were destroyed and returned for credit.
"The subsequent return windows were flush with copies we were sending back and in very high percentages," Seymore said. "That cannot all be blamed 'Rebirth''s sales. We had maintained orders that more closely resembled the early issues' sales. Our goal was to make sure that every guest that was interested in a title could get the most recent issues as easily as possible."
"With returnables, we had increased our orders by almost 50 to 60% across the board," said Jesse James of Jesse James Comics in Glendale, Arizona. "This is something that we will have to rethink the process in the future. If we would have ordered normally based on turn and sell through, we wouldn't have ordered or needed the books that we had to return. However, this is a great program for a new store or for a single title or series."
Despite high returns on some titles, retailers said that as long as DC is accepting the returns as promised - which retailers said they are - then there's no problem at the store side.
While one retailer said his credit took a little longer than usual, every other retailer said there was no problem with returns for "Rebirth" titles.
"We have an extremely efficient partnership with Diamond on returnable product," James said. "We did all the proper steps (tracking, signature, follow-up) and received our rebates in a very fast and timely manner."
"Diamond actually gave me too much credit on Aquaman," Parks said, "and vice presidents at DC called me wondering why I only 'sold' 23 copies of Aquaman: Rebirth #1. It has since been worked out."
Of course, the sales numbers for some months may also be skewed, retailers said, because they reflect comic books shipped to stores but not actual books sold. Of course, that's always the case - every month's sales figures are based on comics shipped to stores - but when returnability is involved, they may be even less accurate.
"We have to get updated and modernized on how we report sales," James said. "Wholesale numbers don't cut it."
Overall, retailers were enthusiastic about welcoming more returnability from DC - or even other comic book publishers, if they want to jump on the bandwagon.
"Targeted returnability was wonderful and helped boost our DC sales incalculably," Seymore said. "I am very grateful for DC putting the guest and retailer first by making that available."