Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson talks Direct Market at ComicsPRO
February 28, 2014
Below is the full transcript of the speech Publisher Eric Stephenson gave at ComicsPRO on Feb. 28, 2014.
I hope you don’t mind if I deviate from standard practice, but instead of talking about Image Comics this morning, I’d like to talk about you.
This is my fourth year at ComicsPRO, and one of the reasons I keep coming back is because I feel like the retailers who make up this organization have a genuine interest in improving this industry.
We get a lot of great feedback at this event, and I think you only have to look at the many changes Image has made over the last few years to see that it’s feedback we take to heart.
More than any other industry gathering, I feel like a lot of important work gets done here, and I’m proud to be involved in that process.
You talk, we listen, and I think that ongoing dialogue between publishers and retailers is one of the things that make the Direct Market so unique.
Simply put: You care.
As a result, while other stores – other comic book stores, mass-market bookstores, entire chains – have disappeared from the retail landscape, you’re still here, and in many cases, you’re stronger than ever.
Sales will always fluctuate, but given that print was being pronounced dead as early as 20 years ago, the comics market has remained remarkably stable.
It’s funny, when I first started working at Image back in 2001, the bookstore market was just beginning to take comics and graphic novels seriously. Some predicted this would have an adverse effect on the direct market, but you’re still here.
Not too long after that, when digital comics emerged as an alternative to print, there were even more gloomy predictions, but still, the Direct Market survived.
And the Direct Market will continue to survive, as long as there are people like you.
Every publisher here talks to your counterparts in the bookstore market, and do you know what they’re telling us?
They’re telling us graphic novels are one of the only categories of print publishing that is growing.
That’s something you should be proud of, because while a growing graphic novel section in your local Barnes & Noble might not seem like something you should be happy about, you can rest assured that even the largest of those graphic novel sections is smaller than your own.
Even though, on the surface, it may seem discouraging that sales for graphic novels are soaring on Amazon, what that really means is that the audience for comics is continuing to grow.
And it’s our job – yours, mine, all of ours – to figure out how to reach that growing audience and drive them to the Direct Market, because as bookstores continue to close and chains continue to disappear, the best place to get comics in the future will continue to be the best place to get comics now:
And I want to make your stores stronger.
Now, you probably already know this about me, but I’m not particularly content with the status quo.
We know what this business was like in the past, and it’s plain enough to see how it is now.
What we should be focusing on is the future.
We should all be challenging ourselves to make things better, and I want to challenge us all to build a better industry.
One of the first things we need to do is stop looking at the comics market as the “big two” or the “big three.”
There are only two kinds of comics that matter: good comics and bad comics.
Everything else should be irrelevant.
So stop letting publishers lie to you and deceive you and your readers so they can prop up their position in this industry in their craven attempts to appease shareholders.
That may help them in the short-term, and maybe it puts an extra couple coins in your change purse at the end of the week, but the reality of the situation is they have literally everything BUT your best interests at heart.
It starts with bi-weekly and weekly shipping and it extends into pricing.
Are $4.99 and $7.99 comics going to help our industry in the long run?
No, but they sure help the bottom line at the end of the year.
Same with gimmick covers and insane incentives to qualify for variants that will only have a limited appeal for a limited amount of time.
Everybody moans about variants, but here’s the honest to goodness truth:
You stop ordering variants; we’ll stop making them.
They are only produced to shore up market share, that’s it and that’s all, and when used in conjunction with quantity-based incentives, they don’t sell more comics, they just result in stacks of unsold books that send the wrong message to your customers about the titles, your stores, and our industry.
That type of marketing is built on short-term sales goals that do little to grow and sustain readership, and it’s a trick that’s been done to death in other industries, to diminishing returns.
If you want an example of how this works outside of comics – just look at the music industry, where they’ve nearly re-issued, re-mastered, and re-packaged themselves into an early grave.
Box sets, deluxe sets, double-packs, multi-packs, and premium prices for premium packaging. In an age where virtually everything is available digitally and for less money, the record companies chose to milk their nostalgia-starved customer base for every last penny, and look where it’s gotten them.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Beatlemania is only going to line their pockets for so long, and there are only so many “unreleased” Hendrix albums that are going to bring people in the door of the precious few record stores that are left standing in the wake of years of short-term thinking.
But that’s the music industry.
We can do better than that.
If we seriously want a better comics industry, the number one priority of every single person in this room should be the sustainability of this medium and the vitality of the marketplace.
Constantly re-launching, re-numbering, and re-booting series after series, staging contrived events designed to appeal to a demographic destined only to a slow march toward attrition, and pretending that endless waves of nostalgia for old movies, old toys, old cartoons, and old video games somehow equals ideas or innovation will not make us stronger.
Nostalgia has its place, and I’ll admit, there can be a certain sepia-toned appeal to fondly looking back on our younger, more innocent days, but if we want this industry to outlive us, we have to start looking at things like grown ups.
Superheroes are great.
I grew up reading superhero comics.
But over the years, when the writers and artists and editors and publishers I looked up to talked about advancing the medium, about producing more challenging content, and creating comics that appealed to adults, never once did I mistake what they were saying to be, “We need to find a way for superhero comics to appeal to more adults.”
This is the comic book industry, not the superhero industry, and if we want to stick around for the long haul, we need to recognize that and capitalize on that, because as much as I fond as I am of the superhero comics I read when I was younger, the full scope of what comics are and what comics can be is what will ultimately bring the world into your stores.
Right now, the fastest growing demographic for Image Comics, and I’m willing to speculate, for the entire industry, is women.
For years, I’ve listened to people talk about bringing more women into the marketplace.
Over the last few years, with your help, we’ve been doing exactly that.
You’ve seen the audience that’s building up around SAGA. You’ve seen how female readers respond to books like SEX CRIMINALS, LAZARUS, VELVET, PRETTY DEADLY, ROCKET GIRL, and RAT QUEENS, and one of our best-received announcements at Image Expo was Kelly Sue DeConnick’s new series BITCH PLANET.
We’re not the first to put out material that appealed to women – there’s a whole roomful of incredible people I wouldn’t be able to look in the eye if I made that kind of ludicrous claim – but I think we are among a select group in this industry who realize that there’s more to gain from broadening our horizons than by remaining staunchly beholden to the shrinking fan base that is supposedly excited about sequels to decrepit old crossovers like SECRET WARS II.
It is comics like SAGA that get new readers in your door.
I know this, because I have met SAGA readers.
They read SAGA, they read RACHEL RISING, they read Julia Wertz, they read FABLES, they read Nicole Georges and Kate Beaton, they read Hope Larson, Jeffrey Brown, and LOVE & ROCKETS…
They read all of that and more, but even better still:
They are hungry for more.
There is a vast and growing readership out there that is excited about discovering comic books, but as long as we continue to present comics to the world in the Biff Bang Pow! context of Marvel and DC, with shop windows full of pictures of Spider-Man and Superman, we will fail to reach it.
The biggest problem with comic books is that even now, even after all the amazing progress we’ve made as an industry over the last 20 years, the vast majority of people have no idea whatsoever about how much the comics medium has to offer.
As an industry, we still cling to the shortsighted and mistaken notion that presenting ourselves to the world as Marvel and DC, as superhero movies, is the key to reaching a wider audience, and it’s just not.
People know what Spider-Man is. People know what Superman is. They know Batman. They know the X-Men.
And you know what? They’ve already made their mind up about that stuff, and that’s why the success of those movies has yet to translate into an avalanche of readers into our industry.
We have trained the world to think of comics as “Marvel and DC superheroes.”
And the world has stayed away.
We need to fix that.
If we want to reach out to new readers, to different readers, we need to look at what we’re pitching them.
More than that, we need to look at who our customer base is – not just who is coming into the stores, but who ISN’T – and ask what we can do to make our marketplace more appealing to them.
ANYONE who isn’t currently buying comics should be our target audience.
THAT is who we want coming into comic book stores, and it is new creativity that is going to pave their way to your door.
We talk about being obsessed with expanding our audience, but if publishing lesser versions of people’s favorite cartoons, toys, and TV shows is the best we can do, then we are doomed to failure.
Simply reframing work from other media as comic books is the absolute worst representation of comics.
We can invite readers to innovate with us, but repurposing someone else’s ideas as comic books isn’t innovation – at best, it’s imitation, and we are all so much better than that.
New creativity that is native to comics is what makes this industry stronger. It shows what comics do, what comics can BE.
Look at THE WALKING DEAD.
I know, I know – it’s a hit television show.
But before that – long before that – it was a hit comic book.
THE WALKING DEAD came out of nowhere one October, and it increased in sales month over month, year after year, for a full five years before there was a television show.
THE WALKING DEAD is one of the most successful franchises in the history of comics – we have sold millions of units of comic books, trade paperbacks, toys, statues, apparel, and hardcovers – and it is completely homegrown.
It started right here, in the Direct Market, with new creativity – with your support of new creativity.
THE WALKING DEAD is a towering achievement, an incredible success.
And YOU helped make that happen.
YOU helped build that success.
Robert Kirkman, Image Comics, you – we did that TOGETHER.
And we’re working together to build the next WALKING DEAD as we speak.
If you look at THE WALKING DEAD’s sales pre-television show, back in the days when sales were just great, as opposed to phenomenal, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ SAGA is just kicking the shit of those numbers.
The trade paperbacks, the comics – SAGA is a massive success.
And I will say it once again: It all started with new creativity and your support of new creativity.
Both of those books – THE WALKING DEAD and SAGA – have brought a lot of new readers into your stores.
It is not a coincidence that both of those books are published by Image.
And we publish a lot more books that can help you expand this market.
New creativity is the future of this industry, not the latest SPIDER-MAN #1.
People come to comic book stores looking for original content, because it’s what we do best, not for comic book versions of things that are done better in other mediums.
If we seriously want to expand the marketplace and appeal to new readers, different readers, we can only do that by developing new things that only exist in our market.
While the rest of the entertainment industry lays back in the cut and churns out sequel after remake after reboot after sequel, we need to be on the frontline with the biggest, boldest, and best of the new ideas that will keep this industry healthy and strong for years to come.
Let the rest of the world come to US – let them make movies and TV shows and toys and cartoons based on what WE do.
Their dearth of ideas and their continued fascination with our unbridled creativity will only make us stronger.
THE WALKING DEAD is proof of this.
Like I said, THE WALKING DEAD comic book was selling great before it was a television show.
Now it sells even better.
And that’s because the show made people aware of the comic – and those people came to your stores to get that comic.
Because they want the real thing.
TRANSFORMERS comics will never be the real thing.
GI JOE comics will never be the real thing.
STAR WARS comics will never be the real thing.
Those comics are for fans that love the real thing so much, they want more – but there’s the important thing to understand:
They don’t want more comics – they just want more of the thing they love.
Those comics are accessories to an existing interest, an add-on, an upsell, easy surplus for the parent products – icing on the cake.
Comics are so much more than that, and this industry has existed as long as it has because of the ingenuity of men and women all over the world who yearn to share the fruits of their imaginations, not simply find new ways to prolong the life of existing IPs.
So much of the comics experience is about sharing.
We share our thoughts and feelings about comics with each other; we share the comics we love with our friends; writers and artists share the worlds they’ve created with their readers.
Something that sets the Direct Market apart from the rest of the retail world is the amazing communal experience you can only find in comic book stores.
That communal spirit has been part of the Direct Market’s success since its very inception, and now is the time to foster that spirit so that it continues to grow.
Do more signings. Plan more sales. Throw parties. Invite writers and artists to speak at your store, or in your community, as an adjunct to regular signings.
A lot of stores are hosting book clubs – we need more of that, focused on as many subjects as your customers can think of.
Host workshops and help foster new creativity yourselves, so that you’re directly involved in cultivating the next generation of comic book creators.
Be more inclusive – one of the best sales tools at your disposal is your ability to build a community around your store. Make your store a destination for everyone – men, women, and children of every background.
I’ve been to a lot of your stores, and some of you are doing amazing work already, but there is always more that can be done.
Ask yourself what you could do better, and what you could do to reach that one person you’re not bringing into the store.
If there are people in your community who aren’t comfortable going into comic book stores, ask them why. Ask what you could be doing that you’re not.
Comic book stores are one of our industry’s most valuable resources, and we should all be doing everything we can to make sure that continues to be the case for years into the future.
We don’t want people buying their comics in Targets or Wal-Marts, or as a giveaway with a toy. We want people to come right here to the very heart of our business.
We want them to come to you.