28 March 2012

SELLING OUT


There's been some talk lately about how many of our new series have been selling out and going back to press. When I talk to various people, they always assume I'm thrilled about that, and I can't lie: It is nice to have that kind of publicity.

But it's nicer to actually have books in stores.

The best advertising for any product is its availability. With comics – there's no better sales tool than actually having it there on the rack. Whether a customer is specifically looking for a given title, or casually browsing the new releases, it's being there that matters. If it's not there, on that rack, it's a missed opportunity. Even if more copies are on the way, or a new printing is planned, there's no guarantee the opportunity to make that sale is going to come around again.

Selling out – it's great PR, but ultimately, it's not exactly great business. It creates a roadblock between readers and the material they want to read, and between retailers and the books they want to sell. In short, it does more harm than good.

It's been suggested that the simplest way to avoid selling out is simply to print more, but it's actually not that simple, otherwise every publisher would would do exactly that on a regular basis. Generally speaking, though, we don't do that, because printing more means spending more, not just in terms of the basic printing costs, but in terms of freight and storage, too. Printing more involves taking a risk. It's a calculated risk, because orders allow us to gauge interest in our titles, but it's a risk nonetheless, especially given the vagaries of the ordering process as a whole.

See, the way things work right now, is we get initial orders for a title about a month before it ships. As I write this, orders for titles shipping in May are coming in. Later, about three weeks before a title goes on sale, we get a second set of numbers, based of the Final Order Cut-off, or FOC. Those orders can go either up or down, and those are the orders we base our print runs off, because that's really the last chance to order before we go to press. If there's a huge fluctuation in orders, then we'll adjust our print run accordingly.

The problem we're currently encountering, though, is that even though there is Final Order Cut-off date, orders continue to come in after that. Some might say that's not a bad problem to have, but in reality, it leaves us scrambling to fill those orders, or to do a second printing.

Second printings are tricky, for two reasons: 1) The primary goal is to make the sold-out material available again as quickly as possible, and 2) There's no real way of telling how much actual demand there is for a second printing – even if a book sells out, it's entirely possible it's meeting most if not all the actual demand. Sometimes second printings are printed and sell only a few hundred copies, making them a huge waste of time, trouble, and money for everyone involved.

But we often do second printings, and in the interest of that first point – getting them into the market quickly – we typically have a standard quantity we stick to so that we can go back to press proactively the minute we know demand has exceeded our expectations. When books are selling out before they reach stores – as in the case of things like Prophet or Saga or The Manhattan Projects – we pull the trigger sooner and sooner.

When we went back to press on Saga #1, we printed double what we normally do on a second printing. We figured by going well over the amount of our standard second printing, we would circumvent an immediate sellout of the second printing.

We were wrong.

When orders came in for the second printing of Saga #1, not only did our print run – and again, this was a print run that was twice what we normally would have done – fail to meet demand, it didn't even meet that demand by half.

A couple retailers have made what I consider to be a fair comment: We should have known a new series by Brian K. Vaughan would do well and could have printed way more than we did.

But using that exact same logic, here's the thing:

They also could have ordered more.

Especially since we offered an incentive for Saga #1 that made it returnable for retailers willing to order more copies. In fact, that incentive was available to retailers for Saga #1-3, along with the first three issues of books like FataleThe Manhattan Projects, Secret and Thief of Thieves.

We set our print runs based on the information we have at press time, and that information comes to us via orders. As much pride as I have in the talent we work with, and the books we publish, I'm not a mind-reader. I also can't predict the future. If I could, I guarantee you, our print runs aren't the only thing that would be a lot different.

I go on the information I have at hand, and as it happens, I deal with that information cautiously, because Image Comics is not owned by Warner Bros. or by the Walt Disney Company. We don't even own the comics we publish. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples own Saga. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips own Fatale. Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra own The Manhattan Projects

I kind of look at what we do here at Image as something akin to managing an investment. Each comic we publish represents individual money for the creators involved – there's not some huge corporate slush pile that guarantees everyone a page rate. Decisions on things like overprinting and going back to press are made on a case-by-case basis, because given the variety of material we publish and the wide array of talent we work with, there's no way across-the-board thinking could ever apply to each individual title. So I try to be as prudent as possible when making decisions regarding the comics we publish.

It's not all that different from how retailers run their stores, I'm guessing, because we're all in the same business, and we all have more or less the same concerns, whether we're placing orders or setting print runs. At the end of the day, none of us want to get stuck with comics we can't sell.

By the same token, though, being placed in a position where we can't sell comics that people actively want is not in our mutual best interests, either.

The best we can do here is respond to the information we're given as fast as possible, and honestly, I don't know that we're getting the most accurate information. At the very least, we're not getting it when we need it.

To drive that point home, consider this:

Unfilled orders for Saga #1 – across three printings – are over half of the initial orders for that title.

That means that while strong in the overall scheme of things, initial orders were actually too low for a title that by all accounts, everybody knew had tremendous sales potential. Orders were low enough that even when we generously overprinted on both the first and second printings, we could not meet demand – on a title that various retailers are now using as an example of how we should have known better.

But the only way we can know better, is if we actually have orders that support that knowledge.

I don't advocate retailers ordering with wild abandon anymore than I am in favor of blindly overprinting in large quantities, but the best way to avoid these constant sellouts and multiple printings, is by supporting titles that legitimately deserve it, by getting behind series and creators that are going to help grow a more sustainable direct market. 

There's not a single title we currently publish that is part of some event-oriented marketing scheme. We are not out to create short-term spikes. We lived through that war, and we've learnt our lessons well. That's why we're committed to publishing the absolute best comics we can, with an eye not just to selling them month-to-month, but over the long haul – as trades and hardcovers that grow sales and keep readers coming back for more.

Bottom line: We all lose when we sell out.

Sure, it gets Image some nice PR, and there's a lucrative secondary market for sold out books with high demand, but that stuff is fleeting. 

We've all got the same goal – and that is to get books in the hands of readers.

So let's do more of that.