Monday, 11 February 2013

Things I Worry About: Tradewaiting

Or things I would love to know the actual answers to.

The main idea of this blog is that I'm trying to read the best comics I can on a somewhat responsible budget. Part of this is setting a limit on how many magazine format comics I buy a month: I follow 10 and only 10 mainstream (Marvel and DC) comics at a time. The other part of my comics budget plan is to buy 1 tradepaperback/graphic novel a week with a focus on creator-ownederish comics. I think it's a great system because it allows me to maintain a reasonable comics budget, enjoy the communal elements of magazine format comics, and I get to enjoy a huge variety of great comics this way.

Which basically makes me, for creator-ownderish comics, a tradewaiter.

Instead of reading independenterish comics as they are coming out in magazine format, I wait and buy the collected editions when they are released. These collected formats tend to be slightly cheaper in a content/dollar sense which lets me pack in more comics on my budget which is pretty great. But it's also, I think, a better format: a more complete reading experience in a format that looks nice on a bookshelf and can be conveniently shared with friends. As both a comics reader and consumer tradewaiting is great.

Trouble is, I'm concerned that this approach to comics consumption might be contributing to the cancellation of books I really like.

For a lot of independent comics the creators essentially have to pay for the manufacture and printing themselves. With magazine format comics, if they generate sufficient sales to exceed print costs, the creators can recoup those costs to some extent and, you know, buy groceries and pay rent and such. While creators can certainly realize profits from collected editions, these come out only once every five or six months which is a pretty big stretch to wait for paycheques and especially fraught if the creators haven't covered the costs of individual issues. (This is especially hard on pencillers who can only really work on one comic at a time.) In an ideal world independent comics creators would make enough sales off of monthly magazine format sales to live off of which would make royalties on collected editions bonus profits. An unfortunate ramification of my comics buying habit is that the only monthly magazine comics I read have labour paid for by corporations, while the amazing creator-ownederish trade paperbacks I read do not see my custom during their production. I might be leaving the creators who need it most hanging.

And against this there is the kind of inscrutable way publishers determine which comics get made. I mean, I understand the way magazine comics sales are calculated and tracked: comics are solicited to retailers who guesstimate how many of each comic they will sell (they can't return them), and these guesstimates define a comics "sales". From these quais-sales comics publishers decide whether a comic is selling well enough to justify there being made. Of course this is all a model that assumes comics are only sold as magazines in the direct market, which is not the case. Clearly comics publishers and creators factor in digital sales and the sales of collected editions in both the direct and book store markets when deciding which comics are actually marketable. But to what extent and in what ways isn't so clear to me.

Now, when people ask comics creators about this they generally give a polite answer along the lines of "it shouldn't be the consumers responsibility to save a comic" or "however you want to purchase and read a comic is fine". But contrasted with this is the cancellation of frankly amazing comics like Saucer Country and Phonogram just after tradepaperback volumes entered the market. It makes me wonder...

Which all leads to me worrying about how my comics purchasing habits are affecting comics. It would be really great to know how exactly trade sales factor into the publishing viability of creator-ownederish comics. Is there a certain period, a window, when the sale of collected editions can determine the fate of a book? How do these things differ from publisher to publisher? How do the earnings of trade sales compare to magazine sales for creators? Is one significantly more lucrative than the other? Is one more helpful? Or does it not really matter, as long as the comic is actually bought regardless of the format? I'd like to have more information so I know exactly how my consumption habits work and whether it would make a significant difference if I, and other tradewaiters, changed our behaviour.

Now, I'm not necessarily advocating that we all run out and start a save-the-comics crusade. But in this age of sustainable consumption in pretty much every other facet of our lives, I think its reasonable to think about how our media consumption affects the people who make the content we all love. If nothing else, it would be great to have the information needed to make an informed decision.

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