Variety is the spice of life, according to poet William Cowper. The more the merrier, right?
Not necessarily. Over the last few years, the number of printed comic books being published and offered to retailers - and being sold in a very limited marketplace - has grown. Yet overall sales have only been holding steady.
"[The number of titles from comic book] publishers right now are higher than they've been in a long time," said Joe Field, owner of Flying Color Comics in Concord, California. "Are there too many? Or is the number helping the industry with variety?"
As Newsarama begins a series of articles examining issues affecting the comic book industry's direct market, we begin by talking to retailers and publishers about the growing number of titles being published each week.
According to some publishers and retailers, the growing quantity being pushed toward retailers is becoming a problem for the industry overall. Publishers releasing more series in a flat market means each title is less profitable.
"We noticed well over a year ago that the number of releases from virtually all of the top publishers had increased from 2014 to 2015," said Filip Sablik, president of publishing and marketing at BOOM! Studios. "We were certainly guilty of it ourselves. It's easy to get excited about a growing market, but when that excitement outpaces what the market can bear, sales get cannibalized."
To prevent that happening, BOOM! announced that it would make a 15% cut on its shipped titles last year. And it paid off.
"In 2016, [after decreasing the number of titles released,] we continued to grow our revenue in the direct market even as the year was flat overall," Sablik said.
Randy Stradley, vice president of publishing at Dark Horse, said his company also noticed the problems caused by a growing number of titles.
"Dark Horse went through a period where the monthly output crept up to double what it had been in previous years, but it became readily apparent that our profits didn’t also double," he said.
"One thing that’s for certain is that more is not necessarily more," Stradley said. "You can have the best market share in the world and still go out of business. Market share is not the same thing as profit."
Ryan Seymore, owner/president of Comic Town in Columbus, Ohio, pointed toward superhero publishers as the main culprits in the rising number of books each week. However, he said DC has backed away from their "52" fixation to drive their number of titles, concentrating on twice-monthly shipping instead. Marvel, meanwhile, has maintained a higher number of individual titles shipping.
"Marvel publishes three or four different Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man and Deadpool comics every month," Seymore said. "Where Marvel really takes things to the 'next' level is publishing additional big event and several ancillary mini-series multiple time each year. Guests have reached the point that they cannot keep up."
"Marvel is the only company guilty of over-saturation," said Charlie Harris, owner and operator of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Arizona. "Dynamite and IDW can get a bit out-of-control with their licensed titles and crossovers, but it's Marvel's countless first issues that are piled up, unsold at my shop. And lately Marvel has been shipping extra copies for free of their titles, often doubling my order! As I can't sell twice what I've ordered, I put these aside to give away on Free Comic Book Day."
Joe Field, who is the architect of Free Comic Book Day, said there are hard choices to make with every publisher.
"I can say that up until fairly recently, I could depend on selling a minimum of 35 copies of any Marvel first issue. However, there have been a number of titles released in the last couple of months that have had difficulty getting even 10 copies sold here, despite my ordering for potentially better sales," he said. "Marvel's answer to that was to ship even more copies of the comics that didn't sell the first time. While I appreciate their rosy outlook, things for me are quite different at street level."
Matthew Price, co-owner of Speeding Bullet Comics in Norman, Oklahoma, thinks the real issue is "there need to be some more hits in the market" to replace all the smaller-selling titles (or at least make them more affordable to ship).
"One book that sells 100 copies pays the freight for a lot of books that sell three or five copies," Price said. "At those small numbers, one unsold copy can kill the profits for the entire order. So I think what we are lacking right now are enough hits to help absorb any losses on the smaller lines."
Quality and Shelf Space
Seymore said that "quality wanes" when a company tries to release too many titles each month - something that negatively affects sales of each title at his store. On the contrary, he said, "some publishers like Image publish a relatively smaller quantity of comics and have maintained a high-quality product that is also incredibly diverse in feel, genre and style."
Dinesh Shamdasani, CEO and chief creative officer at Valiant Entertainment, said he believes that quality storytelling is best served by a "small, strategic line that allows the time to give every element of every issue the love it deserves."
The executive said he's aware of the competition for shelf space right now, with the growing number of titles.
"[Shipping too many titles] absolutely can cut into shelf space, and it certainly has the potential to hurt the industry if it results in lower quality books," Shamdasani said. "It’s extremely important that we pay attention to what other publishers are doing, because it’s our decisions, as a whole, that define the entire industry. Our goal has always been to focus on making the best comics we can, and to work at bringing in as many readers as possible to enjoy them. While limited shelf space is a problem every publisher shares, it can become a great motivator for quality."
Stradley of Dark Horse said that even if the big superhero publishers cut into his company’s orders or shelf space with their increases, he thinks any over-saturation "has to cut into their own profitability as well."
"Logic would dictate that sooner or later, someone would notice that overhead has increased at a disproportional rate to income," Stradley said. "Either that, or eventually the direct market becomes a venue of only DC and Marvel titles. I don’t think there are many forward-thinking retailers who would welcome that result."
However, some retailers are welcoming the growth in available titles because it translates to more variety from which to choose. For example, Jesse James, owner of Jesse James Comics in Glendale, Arizona, said from a retailer's perspective, the selection allows different shops to customize their orders to their customers.
"There can never be to many titles," he said. "In fact, I would be concerned if our industry wasn't finding ways to get more titles out and increase our viewership with a variety of genres for our older and new comic fan base."
Bret Parks at Ssalefish Comics in Winston Salem, North Carolina, agreed.
"Not every book will have an audience at every store, but isn't it nice to have that option?"
Field of Flying Color, who helped found the ComicsPRO organization of retailers, said that although he acknowledges the potential problems of over-saturation, increases in variety might better attract today's content-hungry customer.
"If you look across all entertainment media, content is everywhere," Field said. "Do people complain about having too many choices for TV, where we've got 500 channels, Netflix, Hulu, On Demand, streaming? Comics are no different."
"The barrier to entry in comics is as low as it has ever been," the retailer continued, "and we have so many tough choices to make. It's not just periodical comics, though, it's also graphic novels, toys, novelties, games, etc. It simply takes more titles these days to get the sales we used to get on fewer titles."
"Also, one of the tried and true axioms of comics retailing," Field added, "is there are always too many comics when they don't sell and not nearly enough when they do sell.
Besides, publishers will only increase their numbers if they can afford to do so, Price said.
"There seem to be too many [comic books right now]," he said, "but then the market will ultimately decide."
Check back with Newsarama as we continue this series, looking at how issues like price point, variant covers and other changing variables are impacting the comic book business as it heads into 2017.