Comic Con International 2014: A publisher’s perspective
Another Comic-Con International has come and gone, and just as with the previous seven shows that I have attended, this year’s version both thrilled and horrified me. Most of us in the comic book industry already have heard ad nauseum arguments about how Comic-Con is no longer a “comic” con. The big studios have taken over the show, and comic publishers, dealers, and fans have become much less important in the grand scheme of the show. Attendees are there to sit on panels, catch a glimpse of celebrities, show off their costumes, people watch, and, if they are lucky, pick up an exclusive or three that they can flip on eBay. The crowds are huge, the space is difficult to broker, and everything is incredibly expensive. Because much of this has been discussed previously by people more qualified than I am, I am not going to focus on that. Instead, I want to look at it at the micro level, from the perspective of the smaller comic book publisher.
For those of you who don’t know, as the President of Action Lab Entertainment, my primary functions at the show each year are to maintain our booth, sell our products, and (hopefully) network in hopes of developing new relationships, brokering new deals, and finding new talent. This is my third year at SDCC with Action Lab after five years manning the booth with Ape Entertainment.
I feel fairly safe in saying that, for most publishers of Action Lab’s relative size, Comic-Con is not a “sales” show. That is, you can’t expect to generate a profit at this show. A corner booth in the less-trafficked Independent Press Pavilion (the red carpeted area for those of you who have been there) runs about $3,300. This gets you a 10’ square space, two 8’ tables, and one outlet. A middle booth, with only one table, still runs $2,700. Adding my $600 airfare, five nights in a hotel at roughly $200 a night, food, shipping, and other miscellaneous expenses, you’re dropping about $6,000 to set up at this show. Granted, I shared in these expenses with others, but the point is still relevant.
And as a whole, business for us was decent. We moved quite a bit of product. We had exclusives. From simple observation, I’d say we were doing a hell of a lot better than many of the booths around us. But it is still a losing endeavor. But we understand this. As I mentioned, this isn’t a sales show. For people and companies like us, this is predominantly a marketing and networking event. And as a result, given the sheer size of Comic-Con, we could make the argument that we HAVE to be there. More on this momentarily.
Sure, some of the more recognized comics publishers like Boom, IDW, Marvel, Image, and the like have larger budgets, paid employees, and corporate backing that allows them to buy big spaces in prime locations, ship thousands of books, offer extensive exclusives, and get media coverage that smaller guys like us can only dream of. Comic-Con becomes a giant advertisement for them—advertisement that creates demand for their product.
Action Lab and similar publishers, on the other hand, have to claw for every nickel. We don’t have the name recognition, and have to earn it the hard way. Sure, those other guys were like us at one point, but times were a lot different back then, and creating your niche was a little easier (and less expensive). Competition for entertainment dollars has increased multifold, comics have become very expensive, and convention goers only have so much money to spend and so much time in which to spend it. And most of that money is not being spent on comics.
Comic retailers are feeling this heat as well. Chuck Rozanski, the owner of Mile High Comics, has gone on record saying that this very well could be his last Comic-Con. He simply does not make enough money to make the show viable. He mentioned that he can make twice the money at smaller shows with less overhead. Why? Because not only is he competing with every other comic book vendor on the floor, but also because he is competing with the publishers as well, who pull out all stops to make the quick buck at the convention. This doesn’t even mention the large percentage of people at the show who have no interest in purchasing comic books whatsoever. I am happy to say that we, as a publisher, have worked very positively with Mile High and other retailers. We offer them our exclusive covers at wholesale prices at the show. We offer to have our creators sign books at their show. We understand the relationship that exists between the retailer and the publisher, even at a convention like San Diego. While I am not here to laud Action Lab, the point is that everyone seems to be competing with everyone else at Comic-Con for limited dollars. Many retailers and dealers have decided to go elsewhere because it is no longer profitable. I don’t necessarily think this is the right thing to do. The comic book industry is small and incestuous. Market share is small enough that it behooves all of us to work together rather than begrudge everyone else.
But back to my earlier point. We HAVE to be at San Diego. Why? For one thing, not being at San Diego creates, at least on the surface, the belief that you aren’t a big enough player (and as such, not important enough) to compete in the comic book market. Simply being there sends the message that you DESERVE to be there. Second, it is a massive marketing and networking show. There are creators, distributors, digital vendors, agents, entertainment moguls, retailers, media, and other industry professionals there with whom a positive relationship can help you. If you are lucky enough to get selected for a panel (which we have been the last two years), you can show off your work to a captive audience and generate future interest, publicity, and hopefully business. What this ultimately means is that you have to write this show off as a business expense. It is advertising. It is publicity. It is the ability to touch a few thousand people in one fell swoop.
All of us who are a part of Action Lab are very proud of the product we are producing. We have an amazing array of talent producing some of the best comic books out there. The staff we have here are incredible in their own right, doing all they do for love rather than profit. We all still have day jobs. Most of us cover our own expenses at San Diego and other shows like it. But we endure. We endure in the hopes that the right people will discover us, and tell the industry what we already know about our product. Spending thousands of dollars at Comic Con maximizes our chances of this happening. And it will.
I invite all of my friends in the industry to share this and spread the word.