Comics, FYI

By Graeme McMillan

Random, But Intentional



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Comics, FYI
Random, But Intentional
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #45 • View online
Penguin Random House is up to something, even if that something is just trying to get more Marvel product in more people’s hands safely.

This was the week where Penguin Random House was quietly making some moves, it seems. 
On Wednesday, it was announced that Marvel with expanding its relationship with Penguin Random House Publisher Services, with the latter company taking on exclusive worldwide sales and distribution rights for Marvel’s bookstore and book market customers starting in April 2023. The move ends Marvel’s longstanding deal with the Hachette Book Group, which took over bookstore distribution from Diamond Comics Distributors back in 2010, and arguably drops the other shoe that people have been expecting since Marvel announced that it would be exclusively distributed in the direct market by PRHPS back in March last year.
While the new deal has seemed an inevitability for the last year – after all, why not consolidate all distribution with one company, especially when that company has extensive bookstore experience? – I’d be shocked if Marvel’s historically poor performance in the bookstore market reaching a new low last year didn’t play some kind of part in the decision to try and shake things up in terms of distribution.
According to NPD Bookscan figures, Marvel didn’t actually place a title in the top 800 best-selling graphic novels in the book market from 2021; in fact, they didn’t even place in the top 890 best-sellers – the first appearance of a Marvel-published title was at #892, where The Infinity Gauntlet shows up. This isn’t the first appearance of a book featuring a Marvel character, because both Scholastic and IDW chart higher up with licensed product, but still, come on. This is one of the most dominant pop culture brands, and arguably the most dominant comic book brand, on the planet right now, and it gets outsold by 891 different titles? That’s just a disaster.
Also a disaster is the long term bookstore performance of Marvel in the book market. While the publisher’s overall sales rose in 2021 compared with the previous year – it bumped up an impressive 46.55%, in terms of dollar value – last year was also the first time Marvel sales had risen in year-on-year comparisons since 2018; that’s right, in 2020 and 2019, Marvel’s bookstore sales fell compared with previous years. They fell by a lot, as well; 2020’s bookstore sales were 20.77% down on the previous year, which was itself down 11.47% on the year before*. By comparison, 2020’s overall bookstore sales were up 21.18%, and 2019’s 36.46%. 
You know all this, anyway; I wrote about it a couple of months back, wondering what was going to change if Marvel wanted to salvage its bookstore presence**. Perhaps switching its distribution options is the answer, in the short term. At the very least, it almost certainly couldn’t hurt; PRHPS currently handles bookstore distribution for a number of other comic book publishers, including DC, Archie, Dark Horse, IDW, Seven Seas, and Kodansha, all of which outperform Marvel in the book market. It would suggest they have at least some idea of what they’re doing, and maybe some of that luck/experience [delete as applicable] can rub off on Marvel.
It wasn’t just the bookstore market where PRHPS was switching things up, though; retailers who use the company for direct market shipments of Marvel and IDW comics received an email this week letting them know that there’s going to be all-new new packaging for comics starting next week, in the latest attempt to rebuild retailer trust after a series of unfortunate packaging errors early on in its direct market exploits***. As the email put it, “The feedback we received expressing concerns about our original shipments last Fall has been immensely valuable in evaluating the effectiveness of our fixes. Since then we have been continuously looking into packaging improvements.”
That’s an understatement. The announcement of a new shipping solution is the second such announcement since PRHPS took over distribution for Marvel last year. On October 8 – just a week after it had started distributing Marvel’s comics – the company announced that it was already revising its packaging with shipments later that month, and released a statement that said in part, “We expect to widely implement material packaging improvement with the shipments arriving for October 20 on sale, and to keep continuously evolving the process.” I’d been told that PRHPS had been quietly experimenting with other options across the past few months, something the company admitted in the email to retailers when detailing how it arrived at its new solution.
“First, we worked to design several different carton configurations which were put through rigorous UPS testing, including drop testing and vibration testing,” explained the impressively detailed message. “We then chose the best packaging to conduct an initial round of testing with a subset of both domestic and international customers in the direct market. Our team met with these testing partners to understand each customer’s unique inventory review process and received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the packaging solution. After these results, we broadened the test to ship the new cartons to an additional 500 retailers around the world and requested feedback via an online survey. These survey results were also overwhelmingly positive.”
On the one hand, this likely feels like much ado about nothing to many people reading this; why should they care about boxes and shipping, as long as the titles arrive on time****? Bad packaging and bad shipping can render issues unsellable for retailers and fans alike, though, and if distributors and publishers don’t accept that product as officially damaged, then it becomes dead stock that the retailer has to shoulder the cost on… and it’s not as if many comic retailers have a lot of money to waste at the best of times. 
That PRHPS had to do something to correct its admittedly flawed shipping packaging was unavoidable, and it should be applauded for continually exploring potential avenues to the best possible outcome. This week’s message to retailers said that the company’s “handling and package-engineering practices will continue to evolve, as necessary and appropriate,” suggesting that experiments will keep going until morale improves.
I cynically wonder if the company is also trying to get everything in order before trying to reach out to other publishers for direct market distribution deals in the near future. I mean, you don’t really create an entire shipping apparatus, and specific web portal (and catalog), for comic book retailers just for two publishers alone, do you? 
Somehow, we’re back to waiting for the other shoe to drop… or, at least, wondering how many shoes are up there, in the first place. 
* While 2018’s bookstore performance saw an increase for Marvel on the previous year – up 5.14% – it’s worth noting that, in 2017, Marvel’s bookstore sales had dropped 10.19% compared with 2016’s numbers. 
** In response, a handful of retailers suggested that Marvel’s overall approach to collected editions was changing as evidenced by the number of reprints and “new editions” of out of print collections that have been solicited in recent months. There was even a suggestion from some that this might have been at the behest of PRHPS, which might have been quietly pushing Marvel to increase its own bigger ticket, evergreen selection in addition to outsourcing such things to other publishers. 
*** How bad was it? “Most books in every box is damaged because it’s shipped UPS with no protection” bad, as retailer Ryan Higgins tweeted in the first week of PRHPS shipping. 
**** Indeed, many PRHPS shipments have been arriving early, from what I’ve been hearing, which likely falls under the “nice problem to have” header for everyone except stores that have little space to keep embargoed material in the back, unseen and unsold.
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Graeme McMillan

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