It's like an uneven marriage. One spouse wants to have more stuff around to look at and enjoy, but the other spouse is in control of the purse-strings.
That's the relationship most comic book readers have with their retailers -- sans the lovey dovey spouse stuff, that is. While subscribing to a comic will normally guarantee it's there waiting for a customer when it's released, the types and numbers of titles lining the shelves of a comic shop on any given week -- the things a consumer can browse and buy on impulse -- are completely controlled by the retailer.
In this month's Retailing 101, we take readers behind the counter to see how comic books are ordered at the retailer level. How do retailers order the comics they stock each week? When are orders placed? Can they ever be adjusted? And what influences buying decisions?
First, the easiest thing to explain in today's comic book market is that retailers rarely if ever buy comics directly from publishers. The vast majority of people and companies that publish a comic book in today's market sell it through distributors. And the one big daddy of all distributors is Maryland-based Diamond Comics Distributors.
Because Diamond is the exclusive distributor of comics from Marvel, DC and many other major publishers, most comic shops don't buy comics from anyone but Diamond, and almost all small press publishers depend on Diamond Comics for the majority of their distribution as well.
Information for Ordering
Because of the industry domination of Diamond Comics, the "bible" for comic book ordering by retailers is Previews, the catalog released by Diamond each month that details what comics are available in a given calendar month. Retailers use Previews as their guide when they are filling out their order forms or adjusting their numbers.
"The main thing Previews influences for me is the independent titles, giving me an idea of what they're about. That's where independent titles are really sold," said Craig Lopacinski, owner of Neptune Comics in Waukesha, Wisc. "Like if I see Terry Moore's Echo on my order form, I'm going to know the name Terry Moore, but what's the comic about? Who besides my Terry Moore readers might be interested in it?
"Previews isn't going to have much influence on how I order the bigger titles from DC and Marvel," he added. "I know what Superman is and how many I want to order every month. I might double-check Previews to see if it's a change in creative team or something, but I usually already know about that by reading it online."
Retailers are also influenced by information from internet news sources, communications from publishers and other things they read or hear.
"If I see a creator talking about a comic on Newsarama, that's going to help me decide what I want to buy," said Jason Pierce, owner of Alter Ego Comics in Muncie, Ind. "Most retailers are online. And another thing that is a big influence on me is when I get a phone call from a creator or publisher, or if they send a review copy or something in the mail. That's going to get me behind that comic a little better if I like it."
"I'll also hear about a comic from my customers," said Lopacinski. "If I have two or three people come in and talk about a comic, I'm going to want to check it out and I'll be more willing to take a chance on it."
Finding the right number to order for each comic book is a combination of science and educated guessing. "It's like you're playing the lottery every month or making a bet," Lopacinski said. "You're putting your money down on a comic and betting that it will succeed and by exactly this amount. You're risking your money because you have to buy the comics up front. Then you just have to wait and see how it does before you bet on it again."
Of course, it's not all a shot in the dark. Retailers told us the number is mainly determined by four things:
- Subscription numbers: A hard number that is easy to track, this is the basic number of any comic that a store needs to serve its subscription customers -- enough to cover the "pull lists." The way comic shops keep track of this varies, from paper checklists customers fill out to online or computerized subscriptions. But whatever the method, a retailer has to at least buy enough copies of Batman or New Avengers each month to cover the number of people who subscribe to that title.
- Shelf copies: Most retailers say the goal for a comic shop is to have enough copies of a comic on the shelf to sell through 95 percent of the stock of any given issue within three to six weeks, depending on the perceived "life" of the title.
"If it's something with a short life, like the middle of the run of a weekly or something, I'd want to sell out of it a quicker," Lopacinski said. "If you sell out of something on the day it comes out, that's probably not good, because you want it to be available for awhile in case someone adds it or comes less often. And you don't want empty shelves. And on something like Secret Invasion #1, you might be able to get away with it being on the shelves a little longer than other comics. But the real goal is 95 percent sell-through over six weeks."
"So if I have 80 copies of Justice Society of America, my goal is to be left with four issues or less at the end of four to six weeks," said Pierce, who said most of those copies should sell in the first week, with sales trickling off over time.
The way comic shops keep track of whether they are selling through their comics also varies. Some have computer programs or spreadsheets where they enter information. Others have a "POS" or "Point-of-Sale" system that utilizes the bar codes on the comics to keep track of how many sold. And many are still on a paper system; using something retailers call a "cycle sheet."
"The use of cycle sheets was something that pretty much saved the comics industry when it was failing in the '90s," Lopacinski said. "It used to be that comic shops would just order 200,000 of a title, then put it into the backissue bin and not worry about what sold when. But that had to change."
"A cycle sheet is a piece of paper for each title, and you mark down each week how many issues of that title are left on your shelf," Pierce explained. "It usually goes four weeks out, so when you sit down to order the next issue of that title, you can see exactly how that comic sells over time. You can adjust your order for the next month by looking at those numbers. I think most shops are on computers now and don't use cycle sheets, but a lot still do. And even the ones on computers or POS use the same basic principle."
Of course, on new titles or on comics where there is a change in creative team or a major storyline, it becomes a guessing game again.
"No piece of paper is going to help you figure out how many issues of a new title you can sell," Pierce said. "You just have to look at everything about that title and figure out if there's a comic out there that might be comparable. You look at whether or not there's another comic by that creator. Or another comic from that publisher that has a major storyline. Then you have to use that comic's numbers to determine how many you order or how much you want to adjust your numbers when something big happens to a title."
- Variety and Selection: Comic shops also want a variety of comics on the shelf.
"I try to have a selection of independent titles for people to check out," said Lopacinski, who said it's most common for him to try those issues out when they're at the #1 issue.
"It applies to stuff from DC and Marvel too, sometimes. Even if you don't have anyone subscribing to something like Simon Dark, you buy it because you want to let people know it's there and be able to pick it up and look at it. And who knows? Maybe you'll have a hit on your hands. So it's worth taking a chance," Pierce added.
The first step in ordering is "initial" orders. They're due at the end of each month on a specified day -- usually a Tuesday, which is traditionally the slowest sales day for comics shop owners and therefore the easiest day on which they could take the time to complete their ordering.
Initial orders are for comics released during the calendar month that is two months away. For example, the comics being ordered at the end of June will be for comics released in August. Most comic shops place their orders online through a special section of the Diamond Comics website that is only accessible to people with a Diamond account. Others have POS systems that upload an order form. Others may do it the old-fashioned way, with a paper order form.
"You can place your initial order early on Diamond's website," Pierce said, "and then you can go in and adjust that order all the way up until the initial order due date. But then it's done. Once you hit the initial order date, that order is locked in."
Final Order Cut-Off
While the initial order is the final chance for retailers to order comics, there is an opportunity to adjust those numbers.
The "Final Order Cut-Off" (or "FOC," as most retailers call it) allows a change on Marvel and DC titles up to three weeks before release date. Retailers are warned what Marvel and DC titles are at their cut-off point, and they can go into the Diamond system to adjust their numbers on those titles up until that point.
The FOC is usually three weeks before a comic comes out -- again on a Tuesday. For example, comics that are coming out on July 23 would usually have an FOC date of July 1 -- three weeks before, on that week's Tuesday.
"Image and Dark Horse have something similar where they let you adjust your numbers up, but it's only an increase," Lopacinski said. "But the biggest one is the FOC for Marvel and DC, obviously. And that helps a lot, because that way you can see how the last issue of a title is doing, and you can make a last-minute change if you didn't order enough of a title, or if you ordered too many."
Beyond FOC, there is still a chance that more comics are available, although it's a last resort that most retailers do no want to rely upon. Diamond will usually allow a retailer to request an increase on any title, although there is no guarantee that request can be fulfilled, and there will probably be an added charge if such a request is made.
"It all depends on if there is enough of an overprint. Sometimes, there just aren't any comics available even if you want an increase. So if you want to make sure you get a comic, you make sure your initial order or your FOC is right," Pierce said. "If you don't get it right, it can make or break your business. Ordering is the most important thing you do every month."
"The only thing worse than ordering too many of a comic is ordering too few," Lopacinski said. "You're never going to get every single comic just right. But you do your best to get as close as you can."