Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Trade-Waiting: Why Make It Hard First?!

Raise your hands if you intend to buy the "Thor: Balder the Brave" Premiere Marvel Hardcover, 176 pages for $25. I...don't see much interest. Collecting Balder the Brave 1-4 and Thor 360-362, seven issues from the mid 80s, Marvel has decided to sap your wallet of its meager cash supply, insisting these issues require fancy treatment. Yes, Walt Simonson, author and co-artist (with Sal Buscema), tells a very epic tale and his style has definitely influenced the current generation of "widecreen" artists, not to mention the recent slate of Matt Fraction-penned Thor tales.

But $3.57 per issue for seven, 20+ yr-old comics that no one's beating down the door to buy in deluxe edition? Is this the best we can get collect? Thinking on Thor, what about Dan Jurgens's run that, more recent and "relevant" to modern audiences, remains only collected piecemeal?

While these old comics are great, and Simonson's Thor run deserves to be fully collected, why not choose omnibus trade paperbacks that are affordable? For $24.99, DC reprinted the whole of Superman's "Our Worlds At War" saga - 20 issues! - and fulfilled the two "A+A" principles of comic book trade collecting: Affordability and Availability. Yet even DC has been failing, with Marvel, on the first principle, probably the most important.

Because publishers love it hard.


Release a popular story, and you know it will sell in trade in today's market. A great example is the Sinestro Corps War in the Green Lantern titles over at DC. Several one-shots and months worth of both Green Lantern and the Green Lantern Corps, the "SCW" was admired by fans and non-fans alike for its effective, clear, self-contained storytelling. Three collections (vol. 1, vol. 2 and Tales of the "SCW") hit stores after the hardcover. The prices were $24.99 for vols. 1 & 2 and $29.99 for Tales...; the softcovers (or what we traditionally think of as "trades") are $14.99 for each.

So let's break that down looking at vol. 1. It collected the one-shot that started the story as well as the next four parts. The HC prices out at ~$5 ($4.998) per issue. To be fair, that's how much the GL: Sinestro Corps Special cost, and it was 64 pages. The other issues carried a $2.99 cover price, a $2 mark-up in HC. Of course, materials costs in a hardcover are greater than an SC.

Over in that SC, each issue costs you $3 ($2.998). So it's a $1.96 savings over buying the issues as they were released, while the HC is a $8.04 mark-up over the singles.

Which would you choose?

This is but one illustration of a trend that's gripped the Big Two over the last several years. Before 2000, trades were rare to begin with; only the biggest stories were collected, or those by the better-known creators. Titles were sporadically gathered into trades, often leaving large gaps between storylines (tragically, in the 1990s there was no DC or Marvel title fully collected among their best-sellers - that goes for Superman, Batman, Spider-man, the X-Men, etc. - when such a practice would've probably revolutionized comic collecting). The back issue business boomed (well, then busted, but it boomed for years before that!).

Over the last ten years, publishers have realized the revenue potential of the bookstore market, which means you need collections, square bound if softcover or just HC, to fill shelves. And because we're dealing with capitalist organizations, they want to make a buck. Thus, overpriced hardcover collections are released, followed months later by softcovers.

It used to be that HCs were reserved for the best a company had to offer. Neil Gaiman returns to The Sandman with "Endless Nights," released first as an oversized HC and then later, an oversized SC. It was a big deal, and the HC made that apparent; it even broke into the NYTimes top 20 fiction bestsellers (HC) when it was released. Now, you get every so-so X-Men arc in "premiere" HC shortly after it concludes, with the SC still half a year away. The pizazz of the hardcover collection is diminished.


Let us not deride collecing in trade every issue of an ongoing series. There's nothing wrong with creating such a backlist. Personally, I think it's great to be able to check out a year's worth of a series from the library or "trade-waiting" (the practice of not buying singles and only getting trades) and not missing anything. But Marvel and DC are missing the point. People buy these things for convenience/availability, yes, but due to the financial breakdown of the trade allowing for better affordability than singles.

Single-issue ads pay for large chunks of a comic's cost as does the cover price itself; trades then, ideally, are closer to "pure profit," produced after creators are paid their gross fees with just royalties owed now (if any) as well as production costs. Therefore, trades can be priced less than the sum of the single issues they collect. That's the logic that governs softcovers, but HCs are priced higher (in the case of vol. 1 of Sinestro Corps War, ~ 47% higher) to capture more profit. The economic logic is simple - understandable, in today's highly competitive market - but long-term deadly.

Imagine I'm a new comic book reader. I decide to collect X-Men in trades, as there's no comic book store nearby, but I can get the collections easily at my local Borders. I decide this after 1) seeing one of the X-movies on cable and checking out the first Astonishing X-Men trade from the library. Going whole hog, I choose to get all three main X-titles (adjectiveless, Uncanny and
Astonishing), as it will cost less in trade than in singles, so I can afford all three. I follow along online with what's going on in the singles, when stories end and when I can expect trades. Much to my disappointment, however, my financial situation does not allow me to pay 40%+ more for the issues in HC and that is the only way I can get the titles once the arcs have finished. I could
wait for half a year (at least) for the SCs and realize my 10%+ savings, but I am disillusioned that for entry-level titles at the biggest comic publisher in the US, I have to pay a premium to get what is essentially the second go-around of the offering plate. I am punished for buying the collections. I make another decision and choose not to get the HCs. In time, I forget why I wanted to buy these in the first place and just...drop comics. Then, I go on a shooting spree.

While a bit extreme, the above does illustrate the problem of releasing HCs so far in advance of softcovers. There is no incentive to buy HCs if you're watching your wallet and SCs are down the line; but then again, there is much rage when forced to wait close to a year after a story's wrapped up to buy said softcover. Much rage.


How does the "HC-first" policy help titles? Are the companies claiming it's better for business and helps grow the customer base? If anything, new customers will abandon bookstores and comic book shops (the former matters less than keeping the latter alive and prosperous), heading for discounts online at Amazon or DCBS. This hurts the industry, long-term, by destabilizing brick-and-mortor retailers like a Comics Galore or Graham Cracker Comics or Asylum Comics.

So it's no only the consumer who is punished by the edict to issue trades in HC first, softcover later, denying them affordability (you can't argue that the quick publication denies availability; in fact, they publish collections - incl. HCs - so quickly now for a lot of titles, that availability of a story is almost better than during the hey-day of the "comic book shop" pre-1994); now the comic book store that kept the industry alive* during the bleak mid- and late-90s loses business to the online retailer because it can't offer the same level of discounts.

What sort of companies deliver their primary (or most visible) delivery system? With the newsstand market long gone and other distribution methods still in growing pains, it becomes more apparent to me to provide beneficial pricing opportunities to comic book stores to keep this "direct market" afloat. Perhaps this can be done by releasing softcovers to them at the same time as HCs, though not to bookstores or online retailers (they can get them six months after the HC is released, or whatever the timeline is). The HC market exists, but not in the size to justify every single story getting it's own select or premiere or deluxe oversized HC treatment.


The best example of a series' collection is that of Dark Horse's Conan (the Cimmerian) by Kurt Busiek, Tim Truman, Cary Nord, et al. When it comes time to release a collection and they are prompt, the release comes in both hardcover and softcover almost simultaneously. The printing of the HCs is even far lower than the SCs, owing to the smaller market, higher price and desire to create an aura of "collectibility." Perfect. If you want to release everything in HC, this is the way to go.

Another good example is how Marvel treats their "Ultimate" line and DC their "youth" books (such as Titans-related, including Teen Titans and Blue Beetle): no hardcover releases at all of one arc. You might get a big HC, as with the "Ultimate" line, that covers three or so trades; what a great idea! And Teen Titans? Those stories are great for younger readers, good hooks, but HC collections would be like putting a electrode on a gerbil's food pellet. The shock to the system (cost; a sense of...fiscal violation) conditions one not to do said action again.

The big hurdle for publishers is to realize that not every arc is worth putting out in such deluxe format. Most of the mainstream titles at the Big Two would see brisker trade sales in paperback (conjecture) if released when the HC normally came out. Save the HCs for omnibus-type collections, like Marvel did with the first two years of Brubaker's Captain America run, or DC currently is doing with Starman (six deluxe HCs covering the whole series plus supplemental material...released long after the trades). Enchance their impact.

Long run, this method will be better for the comic book industry: more titles out in cheaper formats sooner to create and hook readers with a steady supply of material that will make said readers more apt to purchase the higher-cost items in the future.

And by Odin's beard, get some the lead out and collect Dan Jurgens' Thor run!


*An argument can be made that comic book stores, specialty shops that bloomed into existence over the 1980s, grew beyond their means in the 1990s and that the eventual closing of more than half nationwide over the late 1990s (continuing through today) was a market adjustment. The newsstand market gave comic books the mass media status they've enjoyed since the 1930s, though the days of the spinner rack are long behind us.

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