San Diego Comic Con took place last weekend, and with it came announcements about everything from movies to television shows to yes, in fact, comics! My jaded feelings toward the reduction in comics-related events and coverage at the event aside, SDCC included one quote that got me thinking. Axel Alonso, Marvel’s editor-in-chief, took the stage alongside other notables at the “Death of X” panel to discuss the upcoming storyline that, to almost no one’s surprise, leads into yet another event known as Inhumans Vs. X-Men. When the floor opened for questions, a fan asked Alonso what could best be done to support the new series Death of X, to which Alonso replied:
“If you adapt the mentality that you’re going to wait for trade, what you’re doing is contributing to the cancellation of the series. Comics count on people being there once a month to pick them up. It’s important to support that small book. If we were to launch an ‘Iceman’ solo, support that book. Don’t go, ‘That first issue was great, I’ll wait for the trade.”
Trade-waiting, or the practice of buying a series once multiple issues are collected, is a common occurrence among comic fans. In fact, just this past week DC Comics announced that they’re seeing much higher sales via trades lately. For fans who don’t have a local shop, purchasing trades through bookstores or via online retailers provides an additional avenue for the comic experience. In fact, trades offer a great business for comic companies, allowing them to sell collections of popular series for years, and often decades, after the series saw its initial release. Just look at the top graphic novel sales through comic distributor Diamond each month and consistently classics such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns make the list.
Even more interesting is the fact that trade sales can actually provide the lifeblood of a series, particularly for creator-owned work. Jim Zub, a comic writer (and frequent supplier of review copies for our site) posted an intriguing article a couple weeks back about the effect of trade sales on the vitality of creator-owned comics. In the article, Zub posits that trades offer a “long tail” by which a series can sell through different avenues and thus boost overall profitability. Thus, trade sales can be the difference between survival and cancellation for creator-owned comics. Ultimately, investing a large print run of the first volume of Wayward allowed Zub and his collaborators to build the “long tail” and create a dedicated fan base via trade sales.
Alonso’s argument seems to contradict Zub’s: while one notes that trade-waiting can lead to series cancellation, the other asserts that trade sales drive profitability. Who’s right in this situation?
Both men are.
Alonso’s argument against trade-waiting comes from the viewpoint of a man employed by the most successful comic publisher today. Marvel, and their parent company Disney, have profit on the brain which isn’t a wholly surprising fact for any corporation. As a result, they’re more likely to cull titles that aren’t doing well, as their engine seeks to create the greatest return for the lowest investment. We’ve seen this tons of times before, as critically acclaimed series are cancelled after a year or less. Alonso’s argument makes sense from this viewpoint: it’s not that Marvel can’t afford to gamble by waiting to see how trades sell, it’s that they don’t need to, and likely don’t want to. Why prop up a comic that doesn’t sell when it’s just as easy to release a new series? The Marvel brand can bring in A-list talent, and thus it’s not hard to develop a new series with great potential to replace one that’s cancelled.
Zub, in contrast, is approaching the issue from the perspective of creator-owned comics. Companies like Image have a model that’s altogether different from the likes of Marvel and DC. With creator-owned series, it’s often the creators who have control, and thus they can choose to continue a series even with low or no profitability. Furthermore, in the case of creator-owned comics the economics are different than those from the Big Two, as creators generally reap most of the revenue from the series, with the publisher receiving a percentage of the take for printing and advertising costs.
But you didn’t read this article to see me say, “Hey, both are right!”
At the end of the day, while Alonso isn’t wrong from his perspective, I think his rhetoric is somewhat problematic. A series like Death of X won’t get cancelled: it’s a miniseries which ties into an upcoming event. With that in mind, every issue is likely already complete and is getting published one way or another. In fact, I’d argue that Marvel events often sell just as well, and usually better, in trade compared to single issues. Again, we need to look at trade sales over the long-term; these aren’t sales that happen in a single batch and then never occur again.
I can understand Alonso’s perspective, particularly as a company that’s seeking to maximize profit and promote its brand. But nevertheless, discouraging fans from trade-waiting isn’t the answer. Comics, like any industry, needs to evolve. I figure that, by now, Marvel has a decent handle on expected trade sales in order to project quarterly an annual revenue. With that in mind, it’s shortsighted to discount this revenue stream publicly, as such a statement may turn fans off.
I feel as if I’ve turned this article into an excoriation of Alonso, but that’s not my intent. Trade-waiting is as viable a form of comicbook reading and purchasing as any other, and over the long-term has the potential to reach more potential and generate greater sales. Fans shouldn’t feel pressure to read one way over another, while companies need to be cognizant of trades as a portion of their sales (which, as I mentioned before, I’m sure they are). Nevertheless, Alonso’s statement perhaps reflects an industry in transition, one that may need to alter its content delivery methods and series models if it hopes to continue growing in the future.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a hardcover of Fatale to finish.
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