Print Math

From: MARK WAID

Some very harsh truths about comics’ current existence and its future burrowed their way into my thick head about three years ago, back when I was Editor-In-Chief of a comics publisher called BOOM! Studios. I learned a lot at that job about the current state of comics publishing–not just from BOOM! but also from comparing notes with friends-turned-bigwigs like Nick Barrucci at Dynamite Comics or Filip Sablik over at Top Cow. Here are two especially big and scary bits of math.

One: American comics are distributed almost exclusively by one company, Diamond, which–whether you like Diamond or not–is, in a free market system, madness. Diamond has no serious competition (nor–given various distributor-publisher exclusives and the thin margins in the industry on the whole–will it likely ever). Therefore, it can pretty much set whatever terms it likes with publishers, particularly the smaller ones. The “Premier Publishers” –DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, IDW–can get more favorable terms because they account for so much market share, but the smaller ones have no negotiating leverage. Moreover, Diamond can decline to distribute any new comic it feels won’t make a significant profit or doesn’t show enough “promise,” as is their right. Now, none of this is a condemnation–Diamond’s built its business from the ground up and seems to be very good at what it does, and I’m not suggesting they haven’t earned their status–but because they’re a monopoly, this makes Diamond a very powerful gatekeeper in the industry, and that’s not changing. You want to sell comics to anyone, you sell through Diamond. (Newsstand publishing is a whole blogpost in and of itself, which I’ll do soon, but here’s the short version: it’s a dying racket deliberately designed to pay out less often than a slot machine. No matter how crooked you suspect it is, I’ve seen spreadsheets and can promise you that you’re underestimating by half.)

So…Diamond. Typically, a non-Premier publisher sells its wares to Diamond at 40-45% of cover price. Let’s say 40%. You’re one of those publishers. That means that if your comic is cover-priced at $3.99 (which, at the moment, seems to be the average bottom threshold), you’re making roughly $1.60 per copy. Which actually doesn’t sound too awful, right? Let’s say you’re not a Bendis- or Millar-level sales superstar but neither are you a total unknown, so you’re selling 5000-6000 copies of each issue, very respectable in this day and age. Less if you’re a brand-new creator with no track record among retailers, but for argument’s sake, let’s say 5-6K. That’s, what, eight or nine grand gross?

But here’s the big bite: at those print-run levels, that comic is costing you around a dollar a copy just to print. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. What’s that? You’ve decided to forego expensive color for cheaper black and white? You’d be surprised how little that lowers the cost. Printing, shipping, and various related charges–that’s where you’re spending more than half your income. More than half. Not on creative, not on marketing, not on advertising, not on all of that put together. On printing the damn thing.

And…and…as the printing industry continues to contract, the per-unit costs will–basic law of supply and demand–continue to escalate.

Big And Scary Bit Of Math #2: How many retail outlets nationwide does Diamond serve? If you’re a small publisher, how many stores can you hope to get your comic into? If you guessed more than two thousand, you’re dreaming. Maybe two thousand, and that includes every tiny sports-card shop or private individual who maintains an account with the distributor by ordering the bare minimum amount of merchandise monthly for their own collections, not for resale. It’s pretty sobering to realize that four regions–California, New York, Texas and the Chicago area–account for a jaw-dropping majority of comics stores across America. Last time I looked, for instance, if you live anywhere between Memphis, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi, there are no comics stores to be found. And that’s just one example of their scarcity. Those of us who live in major metropolitan areas lose sight of how hard it is just to find a damn comic book at all in, say, Prattville, Alabama or Tupelo, Mississippi. Distribution is awful, and it’s only getting worse as stores struggle.

More bad news: of those let’s-charitably-say-two-thousand, a high percentage of those won’t even order your book. They use Diamond’s monthly Top 100 listing as a menu and won’t even order most of the bottom 50. That doesn’t make them evil, just necessarily thrifty–they’re buying wholesale from Diamond at maybe a 45% discount if they’re a small store, 53% at best if they have multiple storefronts, and what they ordered can’t be returned to Diamond, so they don’t have a whole lot of leeway to take risks on “unproven” material. I don’t have concrete numbers before me, but I would make an educated guess that INCORRUPTIBLE, the lowest-selling of my monthly comics, gets shelved in maybe 500 stores across the world. And, as with most all print comics, fewer stores every month.

That’s the cold, hard math of print comics. I know that math. What I don’t know nearly as well–what none of us yet knows reliably–is the math of digital comics. I’m going to learn it the hard way over the next few months: face-first. I’ll report back with my findings.