PopCultureShock >

Stop the Presses! (No, really. Stop.)

Posted by: Guy LeCharles Gonzalez on May 16, 2007 at 3:18 pm

Print ain't dead...unless you're a newcomer.

Periodical publishing is a tough business, and the Internet has only made it tougher over the past decade, with newspapers and magazines of all types suffering circulation decreases as more and more people prefer the immediacy of getting their information online. Coupled with the maturation and increasing adoption of social networking and other Web 2.0 technologies, many publications, especially business-to-business and consumer niche magazines, are shifting to an online model or, in more competitive spaces, are simply calling it quits.

No matter the size of the publisher, though, online has become a key component of any sound business plan, and increasingly, it’s being seen as the main component. In the current issue of Folio: magazine, Don Nicholas, Chief Information Architect & Managing Director for Mequoda Group, LLC, has an enlightening article on a few publishers’ efforts to transform their well-known print brands via major online initiatives, noting that “the concept of a single-title magazine publisher, delivering a single printed magazine to a single audience in 2007 seems almost quaint.”

With multiplatform publishers delivering content through magazines, newsletters, books, reports, live events, radio, television, CDs, DVDs, RSS, podcasts, PDF downloads, mobile phones, software, seminars, e-mail, and more, the Web has become a nexus where every consumer expects to find a publisher’s entire suite of content.

In years past, when publishers created brand extensions or ancillary products, they were usually another print product. The Web burst onto the scene and changed everything.

Now, every media company doing business in the digital world needs three critical characteristics: A robust user-centric online presence; a multiplatform approach to information products, and a database-marketing machine powered by the Internet.

In light of this [not terribly new] reality, only in the bass-ackwards world of comics would you find a fledgling, single-title publisher not only attempting to swim upstream by leveraging a low-profile web presence into a monthly print magazine, but one that’s doing so by targeting the superhero-centric, monopolistic Direct Market with a mission and vision that’s defiantly anti-Wizard. No, I’m not talking about UVC, which clearly acknowledges Wizard‘s appeal while recognizing its blind spots, and is targeting a very specific one of them; at least they’re seemingly being realistic about their prospects and the uphill battle they have ahead of them to achieve their rather modest distribution goals.

Publishing's not for the weak.I’m talking about Comic Foundry and Tim Leong, its fledgling publisher, who since the end of last year has inexplicably been attempting to move CF from an online magazine of minor repute to print (and on a monthly frequency at that!) and has just learned that it was rejected for distribution by Diamond Comics Distributors.

Why was the magazine rejected?
According to Diamond: “a B&W title at the price you’re using just won’t work well in the current market we believe.” Fact: our cover price is $6.25 for an 80-page B&W magazine. Now they might not think that will sell, but it isn’t consistent with what they’re already approving. Such as Issue 14 of Draw! magazine, that’s 80 pages, B&W and retails for $6.95. Same with issue 15 of Write Now! Both same specs, but 70 cents more.

I called Diamond for more clarification and spoke with Tim Huckelbery, who let me know the news in the first place. He said, among other things, “When I was looking though it and reading a magazine of that type, which is about comics, which has lots of images of comics characters, that is looking to be timely and topical, I was expecting color. That, just for me, is how my brain is wired.” So, to be a timely magazine with topical content (and feature images of comic characters) it has to be in color? I’m sorry, I’ve thought about this all afternoon, and I don’t really see how this makes sense. What about The Comics Journal or Comics Buyers Guide? Neither of those are full-color, right?

Is this yet another shocking example of why Diamond’s direct market monolopy is bad for comics, or is it just another unsurprising example of the comics internet being completely out of touch with reality?

Just based on Leong’s version of Diamond’s feedback (I’ve emailed Huckelbery for comment but have not heard back from him yet to confirm or clarify), I can understand why they rejected CF, and no, my first instinct is not the conspiratorial “Wizard had something to do with it!” that I’ve seen suggested in a couple of places. While they’ve got several problems of their own to deal with (not the least of which are some high-profile transitions and a rather ugly site redesign), worrying about potential competition from Comic Foundry is undoubtedly not very high on Gareb Shamus’ list.

Notably, Leong makes a very telling mistake in comparing CF to some of TwoMorrows‘ publications that Diamond does distribute, which suggests to me that his business plan wasn’t very well researched because a) TwoMorrows isn’t a single-title publisher with no direct market track record; and b) all of their publications are hyper-targeted to very niche audiences, most of which are right in line with direct market sensibilities. Ironically, TwoMorrows is in the midst of some online initiatives themselves in an attempt to grow their subscriber base and expand beyond the limited and generally unresponsive direct market.

Over the last three months, we did a mass mailing to over 1500 comics shops (1523, to be exact), offering a free TwoMorrows Sample Kit, containing one free copy of each of our mags for them to display, to see how they sell. You’d think a lot of stores would jump at getting $40 worth of free stuff to sell, no strings attached. Exactly 60 of them took us up on the offer (that’s less than 4% of shops). In 2006, we did a similar offer by phone, calling 500 shops, and got 18 stores who wanted the freebies (3.6%, so roughly the same percentage).

Hopefully those will result in some new regular customers for them (and us). But if only 4% of the country’s comic shops display our wares, we’re never going to increase our circulation that way. (And yes, more than 4% of shops sell our mags, through pull lists; it’s just that most of them don’t also DISPLAY copies, out in the open for potential new customers to discover.)

…So we have to get creative in finding other ways to build our audience.

This, of course, is the same direct market into which Leong wants to launch Comic Foundry, and in yet another sign of him/it being not-ready-for-prime-time, it appears he’s put most of his eggs into the direct market basket, stating that: “Without being in Previews means a serious hurt in circulation. Can the magazine survive without Diamond? I certainly hope so. I’ve got a will, I’m just looking for a way.”

One “way” that’s most unlikely is side-stepping Diamond and going with a traditional magazine distributor, whose feedback would likely make Diamond’s lack of confidence seem almost complimentary in comparison. It’s a segment of the industry that, while not yet monopolized, has experienced significant consolidation over the years, to the notable detriment of many independent publishers, as well as some larger ones.

Another mistake Leong seems to be making (and again, I’m speculating here) is that, in the non-returnable direct market, the retailer is the primary audience for publishers, especially newcomers, because “reader demand” usually won’t get you any further than pull list orders and if the retailer isn’t convinced that you have a saleable product, it’s dead in the water. While a handful of orders each from 200-300 comics shops who ever bother to look in the back of Previews may be enough for a single creator to justify self-publishing a four-issue mini-series as a loss leader to a potential collected edition, it’s definitely not the foundation for launching a successful monthly magazine.

Not having seen the mock-up of the print version myself, but accepting the word of others who have said good things about its visual presentation in response to its rejection, I can only speculate as to what kind of advertising support Leong’s been able to drum up. CF‘s $6.25 cover price — approx. $3.13/copy for retailers, and non-returnable — suggests there’s not much and they’re working on thin margins, and its positioning in that nebulous space between Wizard and The Comics Journal leaves it without a clear group of potential advertisers. As a new publication with no track record and an unidentified audience, they’re going to have sell on price as opposed to value, which I can speak from experience is never a good place to be in.

Leong’s desire to offer “brand new concepts, ideas, formats and presentations… [and] to find new ways to cover comics and create something the readers deserve” is an admirable one, but completely delusional from a print perspective, much better suited for the Internet where, like the webcomics that have built a solid enough audience to justify the occasional trade paperback, it has the best chance for long-term success and profitability.

One could make a reasonable argument that in rejecting CF, Diamond is actually doing Leong (and his contributors and advertisers) a favor by forcing him back to the drawing board to get things right, but I don’t imagine that will be the popular angle on the story. Predictably, the usual suspects (several of whom are contributors to the magazine and/or personal friends) are responding to his plea to contact Diamond on CF‘s behalf, asking that they reconsider their decision, and based on similar instances in the past, it’s quite possible they will ultimately give him the rope he needs to hang himself.

If he does, that will not only be unfortunate for Leong, but it will make it that much harder for the next well-intentioned but underfunded publisher who comes along to be distributed by Diamond.

Speaking of, what ever happened to LoFi Magazine? I’ve emailed former publisher Greg Narvasa to find out. Stay tuned…

del.icio.us Digg Facebook Technorati StumbleUpon TwitThis Yahoo! Buzz

14 Responses to "Stop the Presses! (No, really. Stop.)"

1 | Jon Haehnle

May 16th, 2007 at 3:49 pm

Avatar

Personally, I really don’t understand how bad not being in Previews can be. I don’t know the oft-quoted numbers, but as we know the majority of retailers don’t flip past the Image section, and a good number of them don’t even order all (or any) Image books. I don’t get how being buried in Previews is even a factor.

Granted, I realize I have a very colored view on this subject seeing how I live in NYC where there are numerous comic shops who could potentially carry CF — and on top of that I’m webmaster for Midtown Comics online, which does a good amount of business shipping books that other stores don’t carry to people who don’t live near a store (or whose LCS doesn’t carry said books).

All of which just makes me think that Tim could make just as much a go of things keeping CF.com going (if for no other reason than for the visibility) and just telling people to buy the magazine online from Midtown, or any other online retailer. Seeing how he lives in NYC, he could make a personal appeal to the buyer about carrying CF (which I imagine should go over better than appealing to Diamond) and maybe even work out some kind of fulfillment deal with Midtown if he wanted to use them exclusively.

Diamond’s not going to make people notice his book — he has to do that himself. And he already has a site with more visibility than a lot of people trying to get their books into Previews and more importantly into the hands of readers. Plus he has some exposure from doing the NYCC podcast, etc. He’s ahead of a lot of people in getting the word out.

I guess all I’m saying is, does he even need Previews?

2 | Jon Haehnle

May 16th, 2007 at 3:51 pm

Avatar

I should add that I like Tim, I like Laura (and if I knew who else was working on CF it might turn out I know & like them too), and I do wish CF success!

3 | Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

May 16th, 2007 at 4:40 pm

Avatar

Being in Previews is, among other things, a resource issue as it means Diamond is handling the order processing, warehousing and distribution of your publication. Also, for most retailers, not being in Previews basically means you don’t exist. At least in the direct market.

CF presumably doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle direct distribution themselves beyond maybe a couple of major retailers, which isn’t a bad suggestion for getting off the ground while maintaining the web site which, judging by the lack of activity in its forums has seemingly lost most of its audience. I didn’t notice a subscribe option on their site, either, so it’s yet another sign that Diamond’s probably making the right call here.

While I might have been a little terse, I’m not trying to bash Leong or any of CF’s contributors; but you know how I feel about fly-by-night attempts at publishing. Grrr…

4 | Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

May 16th, 2007 at 7:39 pm

Avatar

Ok, you know what, I kind of take that back a little bit. I hadn’t watched Leong’s melodramatic video blog until just now, and I’ve changed my mind; I am bashing him a little bit.

The self-righteous tone; the ill-informed references to other magazines; the attempted guilt trip; the f’n typos…!?!? Not-ready-for-prime-time, indeed!

5 | John Morrow

May 17th, 2007 at 2:17 pm

Avatar

I feel for Tim Leong; magazine publishing’s a tough road to travel, and it’s gotten harder over the last couple of years. I do want to clear up one thing, though. Draw! magazine is partial color, as is (last time I looked) Comics Buyer’s Guide, and the Comics Journal. All have long track records (Draw’s the baby of the bunch, with only about 5 years in print). But he’s right; Write Now (our mag on writing for comics and sci-fi) is all B&W, and 80 pages for $6.95. It’s also our lowest seller, so maybe Diamond has a point. But again, it’s about WRITING, which is really black letters on white paper, so the illos aren’t the focus. Just my $.02.

6 | Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

May 17th, 2007 at 3:26 pm

Avatar

Yeah, that was my point about Leong’s references to other magazines being misinformed, if not misleading. It’s always easier to stir up a mob when you’re light on the details.

BTW, I’m a regular reader of Back Issue and Write Now. Keep up the good work finding interesting niches to exploit!

7 | Katherine Dacey-Tsuei

May 18th, 2007 at 9:57 am

Avatar

If Leong wants to garner more support (or find another outlet for distribution), why not post some PDF files at the Comics Foundry website and let us see what it would look like? For those of us without a personal stake in its success, it’s hard to know if this is a project worth supporting. I’m all for a more intelligent approach to comic coverage than what’s on offer at Wizard. But I wonder if The Comics Foundry would really be offering something that isn’t already available online through dozens of good websites.

8 | Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

May 18th, 2007 at 10:15 am

Avatar

Considering their primary contributors are all bloggers and/or frequent contributors to other comics web sites, the sense I get is that the big difference will be CF’s visual presentation which is, presumably, Leong’s forte.

They do still have the archives of their past issues up on the site, and other than a few creative cover designs, the content doesn’t really match up with his hyperbolic promise of “brand new concepts, ideas, formats and presentations”. It’s mostly the same ol’, same ol’ in a prettier package.

ETA: But yeah, sample PDFs would certainly help his appeal for support.

9 | Joe

May 18th, 2007 at 10:52 am

Avatar

Working in publishing myself, I agree with much of what you say in this piece. But conspiracy theories aside, I think you still sidestep the basic issue that Diamond has the privileged position through its monopoly to act as the sole gatekeeper to what would be this magazine’s primary audience. While ideologically I’m not normally a free market cheerleader, but in this instance I think Diamond needs to step out of the way and simply let the market decide. Diamond (and Geppi) is not in such a precarious financial position (again, they’re a monopoly fer crissake) that they can’t afford to take the risk of distributing this magazine for a few issues in order to see if it has an audience.

10 | Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

May 18th, 2007 at 12:12 pm

Avatar

I sidestepped the Diamond issue primarily because we only have Leong’s version of their reasons for rejecting the magazine, with no idea what the vague “among other things” he says Huckelbery pointed out to him. I’ve contacted him and their PR contact, Elisa Lynch, for comment and clarification, but haven’t heard back from either of them yet.

While I am inclined to agree with you that they should let the market decide — and figure they ultimately will — let’s not discount their sense of the market; they do pretty much own it after all!

BTW, I find the idea that some people have floated (not you), that they are somehow morally obligated to distribute Comic Foundry, a laughable one; and I’m a bit of a Socialist!

11 | Erech Overaker

May 18th, 2007 at 1:20 pm

Avatar

I’ve found that most of the times Diamond has decided not to carry a book, it was with good reason.

From what little I have seen of this instance, I stand by that perception.

12 | Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

May 19th, 2007 at 3:32 pm

Avatar

That’s because you don’t understand that Diamond is part of the Illuminati’s plan for world domination, intent on keeping true art from the unwashed masses by sending the Hulk off into space and pissing him off. You need to free your mind, capitalist swine!

13 | Erech Overaker

May 19th, 2007 at 5:25 pm

Avatar

You’re lucky Diamond hasn’t allowed me publish my manifesto on you yet. It’d send you packing right back to the cornfields, it would!!

14 | Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

May 21st, 2007 at 11:06 am

Avatar

I like it here in the cornfield. No asses to kiss, egos to stroke, or quotas to fill. ;-)



Also Check These Out!
Latest from PCS COMICS