Creating Comics: Distributing Comics in the UK

Distributing comics in the UK – especially new comics – can be a nightmare for would-be publishers. “Distribution costs and the take from shops are crippling,” says comics artist John Ridgway. There’s also the attendant costs of promoting a new comic – usually done through promotions and free gifts aimed at the vendor rather than the end buyer.

Achieving good sales is a considerable skill and prospective publishers would be well advised to take direction from someone familiar with the trade.

“I think what’s needed is someone that is good at that role to oversee things,” argues StarscapeOnline publisher Chris Smillie, “someone else that is good at project management, someone else that can do financing etc, rather than just creative types (although they’re not mutually exclusive).”

That aside, what distribution methods can be used?

 

A snapshot of WH SMiths Lancaster's childrens' comics and magazines section. Titles such as 2000AD, Commando and Titan and Panini's superhero titles are racked separately with film, TV and gaming magazines.
A snapshot of WH SMiths Lancaster’s childrens’ comics and magazines section. Titles such as 2000AD, Commando and Titan and Panini’s superhero titles are racked separately with film, TV and gaming magazines.

WH Smiths and Newsagents

WH Smiths is the largest distributor of magazines, newspapers and comics in the UK, although its hold is being chipped into by supermarkets, who are taking an increasing share of newspaper and magazine sales, but only “cream off” the best-selling titles (for example, The Beano, Simpsons Comics and Doctor Who Adventures).

Selling in a comic into WH Smiths usually requires a publisher to strike a deal with another company that will “sell in” their title to newsagent chains, including WH Smiths. These include companies such as specialist distributor Comag. It is a company like Comag that will take a new project – usually a dummy of the proposed title – to WH Smiths and others, together with a detailed plan of the title’s launch plans, including free gifts. etc.

The publisher takes the hit when it comes to supplying over and above the required number of copies for a launch, which can often, in the case of comics, run to over a 100,000, although that print run will be based on expected sales (based on the sales of similar titles they have published in the past). Often, early issues will be Sale Or Return, meaning that if a copy doesn’t sell, it’s returned to the publisher or publisher’s agent and the publisher makes no money from it. Most women’s and celebrity magazines are, I believe, SOR.

There used to be another tranche of sales in newsagents known as Firm Sale, where newsagents would place an order guessing how many copies they would sell. If they didn’t sell a copy, they would take the hit, not the publisher. However, with the big multiples such as WH Smiths and supermarkets, most of their orders are, I understand these days, SOR only – so a publisher is going to do their darndest to make sure they sell as many copies as possible.

Free gifts and promotions help sales, but they aren’t actually aimed at the consumer: they’re aimed at proving to the sales point that the publisher is serious about their title and wants to make it a success. Getting your title on sale in a newsagents is, therefore, no easy task and can take many months of planning and presentation if you do not have an established track record.

Direct Sale Through Comic Shops

Comics sold in comic shops are based on Firm Sale orders: the shopkeeper and staff solicit orders from their customers, then place an order with the only major comic distributor in the UK, Diamond. Diamond releases a catalogue three months in advance to enable orders to be gathered in plenty of time, which means a publisher has to know what they have planned for a particular issue sold via this route at least six to four months in advance – or at least some of the content.

Diamond does not distribute many mainstream British comics because they cannot deliver copies fast enough to comic shops to match the delivery speed of WH Smiths etc. So while you will see Doctor Who Magazine and Torchwood, for example, in comic shops, it’s unlikely you will see many copies of weekly or fortnightly titles such as The Beano or TOXIC.

Comics sold through Diamond have to go through a similar ‘pitching’ process to comics sold through distributors such as WH Smiths. There are minimum order cut offs which were increased in 2008 which has cut out many small publishers from this distribution method.

Some small publishers do approach individual comic shops and try and sell copies direct. This has had mixed results and requires a lot of work on the part of the publisher, chasing owed money, fulfilling orders and is not without risk, especially in hard times. There are plenty of horror stories of publishers being left in the lurch when a shop has closed, owed money from sold comics but not getting the revenue from them.

Computer Game Shops

“Today’s comics are sold in supermarkets but their demands are intrusive and their shelving system often crap,” notes Lew Stringer. “Why not get comics in places where kids go, – computer game shops.”

In 2014, DC Thomson’s 110% Gaming, which has some comics content, began distribution in games shops.

Subscription Sales

Most magazines offer a subscription service for regular titles. Depending on the size of the publisher, the discounts for subscribing vary. Big publishers use the number of subscribers to beef up their status when it comes to solicit advertising, capitalizing on their ‘captive market’ to encourage marketers to book ad space in their titles. The advantage of a subscription sale is that any monies earned go direct to the publisher and they earn more from the cover price than they would through a sale through a newsagent. It’s also money up front, funding the title’s editorial and promotional budget.

Retention of subscribers is vital, however. Estimates on the cost of retention – achieved through at least threee reminders of lapsing sub, free gift offers etc. – vary but it’s reckoned that it can cost anything up to £50 a subscriber to keep their loyalty. Of course, that cost is diluted with mass mail outs of reminders which reduce costs.

Very few titles have gone the route of being on sale via subscription only – in the comics world, only The DFC (published by Random House) and Look and Learn Magazine have tried it, with mixed results.

“Obviously it got The DFC a bit of flak, but I think the subscription model makes a lot of sense, especially if the comic a step on to the collected edition,” feels artist Paul Harrison-Davies. “It really depends on the content. If there’s enough appeal through the creator’s names, or the specif genre/appeal and the point isn’t to shift bucketloads it allows a chance to grow.”

An advanced subscription model is where a publisher offers a new title and encourages “founding subscriptions”, often on a deep discount. Not only does this help fund the new title, but it could help the publisher estimates likely sales and risk committing to print runs for not just one but several early issues: the storage of the copies outweighed by the potential cost saving by a larger print run, i.e. the publishers makes a considerable saving on print costs. Such a gambit could be risky if you print too many copies: printing too few could also be a problem, but Striker 3D, publishers of the Striker comic, got round this by printing back issues to order if there was demand and charging a higher price for them.

Internet Sales

Small publishers are increasingly using the Internet to sell their comics. “The internet means you can sell directly to people (Paypal can cover the payment) and then the important thing is promotion,” argues The Emperor. “It is also well worth exploring the idea of electronic distribution.” There is a guide to self-publishing thread on the 2000AD forum with a few ideas on that front. 2000AD itself is, for example, available at both Clickwheel and Drivethru.

“It’d be a cheap way for people to check out the comic before deciding if they want to read it on paper,” The Emperor continues. “If a way could be found to make it available on mobile devices then this would also open up a large market.

“If you are going for an anthology with an idea on albums/trade paperbacks down the line then getting an ISBN and ensuring it is stocked in Amazon would be important,” he adds. “I’ve been published in a series of anthology books that use Lightning Source which take less of a cut than Lulu (meaning contributors can all get a reasonable cut from the sales), it gets distributed to Amazon and Lightning Source now have print-on-demand machines in shops which means any book they have available can be printed while you wait (which smells of the future to me). The books are mainly text and full colour images are always going to be tricky but the option is there. With effective online promotion, sales and distribution it should be possible to bypass expensive and, possibly not that effective, newsagent distribution.”

OFFLIFE-10Selling on the Street

Kev F Sutherland suggests comics could be sold on the street, taking a leaf from the way The Big Issue is sold. Vendors buy copies at cost and sell them at profit. “This is backed up by an online availability, so you can get copies mailed to you,” Kev suggests. “But the street vendor and their attractive product – ‘Imagine if The Big Issue was interesting and you actually wanted to read it’ – is the starting point.

“If every copy is 75p cost to the vendor and sells at £1.50, and we could attract half a dozen vendors in 50 towns or areas taking just 100 copies each, our income would be £22,500 per issue,” he suggests.

This is not a new idea: football magazines are sold to spectators direct on the terraces and outside the grounds and command quite healthy sales. To be done on a large scale basis, such selling would have to be done after gaining a license from the local authority, in the same way that students selling Rag Mags are required to request permisison from local councils to sell their magazines in individual towns.

Taking this one step further, Lew Stringer suggests a “Comic Sales Van”. “It’s an idea similar to Kev’s but so barmy I’m probably a bit mad for suggesting it: buy an old ice cream van and convert it into a mobile comic shop. It’s so daft it’ll attract loads of publicity. Get a mention on The One Show or something then get out there and sell the comic. Perhaps start off with a Summer Special and flog it along the promenades of popular seaside resorts.

“It could work but I’d imagine you’d have to get a license to sell the comics in every town you drove around in, but that could be done I guess.”

The free comic, OFF LIFE, Britain’s only ‘street comic’, is given away free in selected venues in London and Bristol; and offered free as a digital download.

Compiled based on information supplied by The Emperor, John Freeman, John Ridgway, Chris Smillie, Lew Stringer and Kev F Sutherland

 

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