Robot 6

The Middle Ground #131 | The numbers game

For some reason, I keep reading and re-reading Jim Zubkavich’s breakdown of indie comic economics, as if at some point it’s actually going to make sense to me. It’s not that I don’t understand the math as he presents it, but more than my brain refuses to comprehend the scale of the unfairness of distribution of wealth when it comes to comic books.

In case you haven’t seen it, Zub’s breakdown for a $2.99 comic goes like this:

$1.00: Approximately 1/3 of that cover price goes to Diamond, the distributor who solicits orders and ships comics to retailers. This varies based on shipping, gas prices, amount ordered and who the publisher is but it’s a good approximation. Diamond deserves their share for soliciting, storing and shipping comics to retail outlets.
$1.00: Approximately 1/3 of that cover price goes to retailers, the people selling the comics to customers. This varies based on the publisher and amount ordered, but is a good approximation. Retailers deserve their share for selling comics to their local customer base.
$0.50 to $0.75: printing (which varies wildly based on the amount printed, paper availability, and press availability) 50 to 75 cents is a pretty good benchmark for small print runs, which means 1/2 to 3/4 of the remaining money is now gone.

The remaining money — 25 to 50 cents or so — has to be split between promotional costs, publisher costs and the creative team. Which is to say, the people actually responsible for making the comic manage to make almost nothing for their work. This isn’t exactly news; Kieron Gillen’s 2010 interview on the then-end of Phonogram, in which he famously said “There’s a difference between making only a little money and starving. We’re very much in the latter [category],” remains one of those things that breaks my heart and makes me angry every single time I read it, after all, and it’s not as if there’s been any massive shift in the direct market in the two years since that would change things in any meaningful way.

One of the worst parts of reading Zub’s post is the realization that, well, there’s no immediate fix to this situation. It’s all well and good to declare “Diamond should take less money!” or “Retailers should take less of a cut!” or “Digital comics will change everything!” — and I’m not arguing for a second that any of these things are bad ideas or untrue — but sloganeering and righteous indignation don’t actually change anything; if you’re wanting to make print comics to sell in the direct market as it stands, you’d better be doing it out of love, and not as some kind of get rich quick scheme.

(Actually, that’s the one silver lining part of this thing, in a perverse way: The realization that those who do do this kind of thing longterm? They really are doing it out of love, because that’s the only explanation that makes sense other than masochism.)

Of course, just because there’s no immediate fix doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be looking for/working towards a long-term solution that is more than “Digital comics, right everyone? Right?” It’s obscene that the American comic industry is so resistant to supporting new ideas, new creations and especially creators throughout the entire thing. Maybe the thing we should be doing now as individuals is that “voting with our dollars” thing that everyone always talks about, and demonstrating to publishers and retailers alike that there’s value in their investing in creator-owned work. Higher demand means higher orders means higher chance of higher sales, after all, and that’s the fastest way to ensure that the people responsible for the work see more reward for everything that they’ve put in.

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Comments

11 Comments

Thanks for the article, Graeme.

Look, I know those numbers are insane, but let’s be honest about this. Diamond Distribution creates line items and puts manpower behind selling tons of individual line items that probably lose them money, when you calculate the cost of solicitation, accounting, storage, separation, shipping and cutting checks. The very fact that they sell stuff with print runs so ludicrously low (which, believe me, I’m thankful for) is weirdly impressive.

It’s the equivalency of browsing ToysRUs and seeing handmade craft show toys in the catalogue beside major commercial-release toys and games. My comic is a line item beside Superman, Batman and the X-Men even though it sells less than 2% as much as they do. It’s depressing, wonderful and bizarre.

The current digital breakdown isn’t much better. It’s practically the same pie chart. Once Apple/Google, comiXology and the publisher take their cut, creators are left with almost the same percentage left over, even when their digital comics are priced on par with the printed versions. The fact that digital is currently anywhere from 5-15% of print sales means it’s not really a viable outlet right now anyways. Skullkickers sold like crazy when there was a 99 cent-per-issue comiXology sale, but that also meant we made 1/3 as much.

I’m thankful for the opportunities creating my own comic has opened up for me. I’m hopeful about future projects. I’m telling stories and working hard, hoping it will all work out down the road. I really appreciate the kind and supportive comments I’ve received today. It means a lot.

Jim

And this is just part of why I continue to buy Skullkickers. You’re the man, Jim!

What about a website where someone like Jim could line up beside other recognised, talented, yet underpaid creators and sell their new, creator-owned titles as DRM-free downloads (PDF and CBZ)? No Diamond. No retailer. No publisher. No Apple. No Comixology. Even a reader-friendly 99 cent cover price would see those creators receiving more reward per issue than this current model.

If six or seven creative teams could put out quality monthly books at a dollar each, I would buy every single one. And I’m pretty sure some free publicity on news sites such as this could quickly find 4999 others willing to do the same.

Let’s be honest, the only reason it wouldn’t work is if all the comic fans and commentators, like you Graeme, who are so stunned and outraged by this bit of news didn’t take the opportunity to support such an endeavour.

Oh yeah, I forgot… everybody likes the feel of paper and the smell of ink and God forbid someone do a job they love AND make a profit!

I would be happy to spend money in the system Ricardo Mo has proposed !
I am curious to know what the breakdown of sales are for a site like Monkeybrain, who have their own comics available for download at 99c. Given there are limited distribution costs I imagine the creators woild get more bang out of their buck.
Also curious about apps like Madefire and Four Star Comics, who I suppose would have the costs to iTunes etc and so would be paying less to creators.

It’s a shame there is no distribution system for creators to sell products directly to consumers. I would have no problem buying Skullkickers directly from Jim if it meant more of the money I spend goes directly to him, rather than someone else like Diamond. Maybe Adhouse books (who I have picked up a few comics and OGNs from) are more reasonable with their distribution ?

Ah, so many questions, and I have answers to none of them !! To be not-so-young and ignorant !

@Brett

As far as I know, the Monkeybrain books all go through ComiXology, so – depending on how much the company itself takes – the pecentages are probably similar.

Thanks to input from several people (chiefly Chris Butcher and Ryan Dunlavey) I’ve updated the figures and pie chart to more accurately reflect the “real” numbers involved:
http://www.jimzub.com/?p=1953

It doesn’t change the result for creators much, but if this article is going to keep propagating I want to try and get it right.

I think the issue lies in single issue comics themselves. This has turned into an unsustainable business model for anyone but the big guys…and even they are having problems these days!

I’m a beginner at this side of things and I’ve already ruled out single issues for the time being except for mini-comics I print off on my laser printer for conventions and short runs in local shops to keep in front of people while I work on my bigger project. Looking at the cost involved in printing a 150-200 page GN I think one sees better profit over all…mostly due to the fact a GN might sell for years to come whereas a single issue has a few months at best.

Jim and others know better than I but I think this might be where the issue is but I think the industry itself has latched onto an unsustainable tradition for most indie creators.

That last sentence can be blamed on the fact that I’m posting at work :P

Delightful read.

If we’re tossing around ideas for reform, I think improvements can be made in the retailer and distribution segment. Competition in distribution and more reliable market penetration in retail, if possible through free market or plain ‘ol magic, would be my preference to streamline things.

As much as I love buying my single issues, TP’s and hardcovers, I would change all of that for a 22 page $1 digital comic.

$1 digital comics still aren’t going to make things much better unless you can get more people into the market. I don’t think $1 digital is enough to really make that happen. ComiXology has sales at $1 all the time and while I’m sure those titles see bumps. I don’t think there’s any significant market expansion. Even at $1, comics end up being priced the same as going out to the movies, and that isn’t something most people do on a regular basis (and they complain about how pricey it is).

$1 comics would have to sell 3-4 times more copies than what the current $3-4 books sell to keep everyone currently in the industry making the same amount. Where are all those new customers going to come from? (Actually this is a huge issue, because any solution is going to require more customers, so this isn’t a unique problem). I just don’t see $1 being inexpensive enough to entice those outside of the market. $1 music worked so well because everyone was paying $10-18 for a CD to buy just one song on it they heard on the radio and many people weren’t willing to pay that much for a single song. $1/song cut the cost by an order of magnitude, that’s a big price cut. Saving 65-75% is nice, but it isn’t going to blow people’s minds and pull them in en mass.

If you look at Netflix, the reason it worked was it took the video rental model of $4 for 2 nights and turned it into $8 for as much as you can do in a month. Even if most people don’t use it for much more than 2-3 movies, the perception of the customer is I’m getting a great deal AND not hassling with going out to the store. I think the same thing can work in comics, which is why I’m building exactly that.

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