The Curious Case of The Boys

Due to what are apparently creative rather than business reasons, The Boys has been cancelled by DC Comics. Or, more likely, the creative team (who own the rights to the work) refused to make certain changes to the content and therefore DC decided to stop publishing the title immediately.

This is pure speculation, but I suspect that the transition of
The Boys from DC's Wildstorm imprint to another publisher will be an excellent example of the current iniquities of the comic book industry. There are a thousand variables that will affect the success of the series when it lands with another publisher, not the least of which being just what publisher it ends up with. Sales will almost certainly drop off to some degree, although re-launching with a new #1 and incentive gimmicks would likely defray most of that decline. Even so, a title that sells over 30,000 copies per issue from DC will likely be lucky to sell in the 15,000 range from a publisher like Dynamite (one of the title's rumored landing places). While the several month delay that is almost guaranteed to proceed the series' re-launch will be a factor in this decline, what will really hurt is visibility, or rather, lack thereof.

We have a local competitor that carries almost exclusively Marvel & DC -- they just began carrying Walking Dead within the last 6 months, only the second Image title they stock (Spawn being the first, likely a holdover from this store's success in the early nineties). For whatever reason, those in charge of this particular store are not willing to look past Marvel and DC to even the other brokered publishers except when their regulars require it (which is surprisingly rare). I suspect that they, and stores like them, will treat this series as if it has completely disappeared rather than shifting to a new publisher. It's behavior like this that will harm the only numbers that we can see, and ultimately, the only ones that matter -- sell in to comic shops.

Assuming that we could track such things, I don't expect that we'd see much drop off in the number of actual readers purchasing the title from retailers. In fact, there might even be a jump in such numbers, especially if the new publisher was savvy enough to use the trade paperback to build momentum. Unfortunately, the book's real customers are retailers and they will have several reasons beyond simple laziness to cut orders, the most important being money. This was a title that was seeing month to month sell in growth, a rarity among singles. Generally single issue comics see a boost in numbers from an event, a crossover or a creator change and then the numbers begin to dwindle until the next
event, crossover or creator change. Month to month sales growth shows that retailers are under estimating demand on a monthly basis (possibly because demand is increasing). It also means that as that title becomes more readily available (i.e. more copies on shelves, even if they're the same shelves) it sells better. If a product is good enough, word of mouth will drive sales, assuming the customer can find the product.

So, retailers were ordering more copies because they were seeing sales growth beyond their estimates, meaning, if they were willing to take a small risk and increase orders beyond guaranteed sales levels, there was the potential to make more money. Now, however, the odds are good that The Boys will be published by someone other than Marvel, DC, Image or Dark Horse, meaning many stores will see anywhere from a five to ten point drop in margin on this title, with reorder penalties to further hamper growth. I suspect that within six months of a re-launch, The Boys will have settled into declining numbers below the 35,000 or so the last Wildstorm issue based solely on standard retailer ordering behavior. Right or not, margin is king for most comic shops and with a reduced margin most shops are going to take much less of a chance on improved sales without a variant cover or some other gimmick to back it up.

Of course, all things being equal, The Boys is in much better shape than it would be had it gotten it's start with another publisher. The last title to make such a switch, Fallen Angel, had declined to the 10,000 range in sales at DC and was cancelled for that reason. It debuted with slightly higher sell in numbers at IDW (thanks most likely to variants on the first few issues) and has now settled down in the 7,500 range a year into its second run. What was cancellation level sales at DC was a resounding success for IDW, whose best sellers are the Transformers books which sell in the 15,000 range. Had The Boys debuted there, it would likely never get close to the numbers it will have based on it's debut at DC.

The one other factor to consider is stock levels. The first six issues of The Boys have been continuously in stock since publication, something that can't be said for titles from most publishers. When a good store sees growth potential in a title like this, they'll reorder earlier issues to help new readers get on board as early in the story as possible and make themselves as much money as possible (especially without the reorder penalty that is covered by the brokered publishers). Because Diamond essentially acts as a storage warehouse for all single issues of Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse comics, they are much more readily available to stores than title from other publishers that only send additional stock to Diamond's warehouses when Diamond buys it from them. The built in advantages for the "Big 4" are such that growth is much, much easier for their titles than for those of other publishers.

With The Boys we can see a near perfect illustration of how the reality of an industry dominated by a single distributor can lead to restricted creativity and competition that can only lead to ever diminishing returns in the single issue comics market.

UPDATE: The Beat has another breakdown of a potential sales drop as well as the reaction of a few other retailers.


Blogger Brit said...

Sobering stuff. It pains me to imagine my local comic shop only carrying titles from the "Big Two". Today I bought 5 titles, and not a single one of them was Marvel or DC.

I picked up the 2 new launches from Fantagraphics Ignatz line (Calvario Hills and The End), C.B. Cebulski's "Wonderlost" (Image), the first issue of the Se7en miniseries (Zenescope), and in honor of the cancellation of The Boys, Garth Ennis' new series for Avatar Press, "Chronicles of Wormwood".

I am spoiled to have these options to try out new things; I realize this. Over my holiday travels I took a trip to the closest comic store to my fiancee's parents house. They did not even carry Crossing Midnight, one of DC's newer Vertigo titles.

I understand the economic realities that drive this, of course. You have to carry what you think will sell. I'm just amazed that apparently the bulk of comics readers prefer to stick with titles that are well-known, and I suppose therefore "safe" in some way. Personally, I'm excited to grab something I've never heard of. I acknowledge that on average, the offerings of smaller publishers are pricier, and I have come across a few things that were amateurish in quality, and not worth that added cost. But in general, the reading rewards have outweighed the risks.

The idea that a title that is actually showing a rare increase in monthly sales, by the author of a "cult hit" like Preacher, could lose sales after leaving the protective cocoon of DC...that just boggles my mind.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

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11:22 AM  

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