Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Why I Hate Free Comic Book Day

Saturday May 7 is Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) this year, and across the country comic specialy retailers will be giving away free comic books. It's a program designed to promote comic books by giving away special free editions to customers, presumably those people who don't regularly buy comics. How could anyone have a problem with that?

It's not the basic concept of FCBD that I have a problem with. Giving away comics as a promotional tool is, at its core, not a terrible idea. I don't think it's been very effective--it's been running for a few years now, and I haven't seen any sign that any significant number of new customers have been pulled in to comic shops. (Most of the growth in the comic publishing sector has been in bookstores who don't participate in FCBD.)

No, the problem I have with FCBD is the way that it is run in practice. You see, despite its name, the comics aren't really free, at least to the comic shops. The stores are required to purchase the comics that they give away (at a discount, mind you, but they still cost money).

Now a more enlightened comic store (and there are some out there!) will see FCBD as an opportunity to have a variety of different comics available to give away, both to bring new customers into the store, and to interest current customers in new comics they might not have tried before. There are after all 27 different publishers participating, with free comics from all sorts of different artists in many different genres. However, most stores, if they participate at all (my LCS didn't last year) will order comics for FCBD the same way that they order comics regularly, i.e. out of the front of the catalog. They'll get a limited number of the offerings from DC & Marvel, and maybe Dark Horse. They'll put them out on a table on May 7 with a ltitle sign, maybe with a sign in the store window; some of their regualr customers will wander in and pick one up, and that'll be it. Hardly a smashing success.

But my point here isn't to rip on bad comic stores. No, the reason I've really grown to dislike FCBD is the way in which some publishers approach it. Some of the publishers offer special FCBD editions with brand new stories not available anywhere else. And if your LCS either doesn't participate in FCBD or only gets the comics from DC & Marvel--a very likely scenario--well then, you're out of luck.

Renaissance Press has a special Amelia Rules #0 FCBD Edition, with an all-new story about the first meeting of the cast. Amelia Rules is one of my favorite comics, but if my retailer doesn't participate in FCBD or order Amelia Rules #0, I'm out of luck.

Top Shelf has the Owly Splashin Around FCBD Edition, with an "all-new, heartwarming tale". I haven't read Owly but I've heard good things about it. It would be the perfect opportunity to get me to try it, but if my retailer doesn't participate, then no dice.

Aracana Studios Presents #2 FCBD Edition has 3 all-new stories. But guess what? Sorry Charlie.

Dark Horse's Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith FCBD Edition offers a special prequel to the movie, but even if you're a huge Star Wars fan, you won't get to read this story unless your retailer participates.

Gemestone's Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge FCBD Edition reprints Carl Barks' first full-length Uncle Scrooge adventure, something I'd really like a chace to read. But sorry, no can do.

The worst offender is Beckett Comics. Last year they offered the first issue of The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty as their FCBD offering. Not a reprint of the first issue, the actual first issue. The only way to get the first issue of The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty was if your LCS orders copies of the FCBD edition. As I mentioned earlier, my LCS didn't participate in FCBD at all, and thus no copies of The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty #1 were available for customers. Amazingly, LCS ordered several copies of the regularly priced second issue, and unsurpringly they all sat on the shelf unpurchased. This year Beckett is doing it again, with the first issue of Ronin Hood of 47 Samurai--apparently they didn't learn their lesson the first time around.

That all said, there are some publishers approaching FCBD correctly. DC & Marvel are both offering reprints of first issues of their all-ages super-hero titles (Batman Strikes & Marvel Age Spider-Man Team-Up respectively). Bongo Comics has a sampler edition reprinting stories from their Simpsons family of titles. Image is reprinting selected stories from the Flight anthologies. G.T. Labs's offering showcases the frist 20-odd pages of the upcoming Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards graphic novel. These publishers are offering either reprints of previously published material or previews of forthcoming material. So you're not at the mercy of your LCS--there are other avenues available for you to read and enjoy these stories.

Frankly, I'd be perfectly happy to see FCBD go away. It was a good idea, at least for something to try, but it doesn't really seem to be working, and in some instances serves to alienate existing fans and customers. But if we're going to continue with FCBD in the future, I'd like to offer the following suggestions:

Publishers: Enough with the special FCBD editions with stories not available anywhere else--it only serves to alienate your existing clientele. Instead, reprint material you already have on hand, or showcase material from an upcoming project. Your target audience, people who don't read your comics, haven't seen this material yet (by defintion!) And heck, after FCBD is over, why not put your free comics online for people to read? That'll surely reach more potential readers than a few pamphlets scattered about a few comic shops.

Retailers: Think outside the box. Don't just order those FCBD titles that appeal to your existing customers. If the non-customers in your community were interested in super-hero comics, they would have found you already. Use the oppornity to get cheap editions of comics maybe you don't ordinarily get, and promote the diversity of comics to both your existing and potential customers. (And then be sure to have the regaular merchandise avaiable, so that mother of the kid who liked the free Owly can come back and purchase the Owly GN!)

As for me? Heck, I'd be willing to pay for some of those FCBD editions; but as an individual consumer, that's not an option for me. So I'll be sitting at home on May 7, thinking about all those wonderful free comics that I'll never have a chance to read.


Anonymous said...

I'm certainly willing to pay for my chunk o' FCBD, even though my store owner wouldn't take me up on the offer.

But your first point is what interests me. What is the PURPOSE of FCBD? To get new comics readers? Honestly, how would people who don't already read comics even hear about FCBD? How many comics stores can afford to do any advertising outside of their shop?

Another minor quibble. I shouldn't bitch about stuff that's free, but it IS called "Free Comic Book Day". Not "Free Booklet of Ads Day".

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Why does every single hobby I'm passionate about - comics, D&D, poetry - suck at marketing? I had no idea retailers had to pay for the FCBD books. That's just stupid! As is only distributing the comics through the direct market. FCBD should be about promoting comic books, not comic book shops, and should be taking place in Barnes & Noble, EB Games, Toys R Us, movie theaters and anywhere else people come into contact with comic book-related properties. Grrr...

David Norman said...

Good points well made, Dave. What is the point of FCBD? I've never really seen it in action much here in the UK, but it does seem a futile exercise. And then to see publishers stiff the people who keep them in business seems ludicrous.

Hope you manage to get Amelia Rules #0....

Anonymous said...

Wow, your complaints are the opposite of what I usually see. I'm used to hearing people cheer on efforts like Beckett's Ballad of Sleeping Beauty, and complain that Marvel and DC are missing a big opportunity by only reprinting a mediocre kids' title.

FWIW, both of the comic book shops I went to for last year's FCBD had a healthy stream of people coming through. At least one of them had a prominent sign visible from the street to promote the giveaway. And the guy at my regular shop (which became my regular one BECAUSE I found it that day) said he picked up a lot of new customers from it.

I think that publishing new stories through FCBD is a good idea for publishers. I guess results varied from store to store, but I've heard a lot of anecdotal evidence that Ballad of Sleeping Beauty became a surprise hit thanks to their exposure. It makes sense -- even people who are open to trying new titles aren't going to be able to pay to try them all. This brought the title to the attention of a lot of people who wouldn't have every tried it otherwise. (True, I'm sure there are also people who missed their chance because their store didn't order the book, but most of those people probably wouldn't have bought it anyway.) You say that the fact that Beckett is doing this again this year is proof that they didn't learn their lesson. I think it's more likely that they are doing it again because BoSB was a huge success. (For example, if your retailer didn't order any of the "free" copies, then they probably only ordered #2 after hearing about the buzz that FCBD had generated.) And by the way, they did post the entire issue to their website a couple weeks later.

I agree that if a store is entirely focused on Marvel and DC, then FCBD is not going to do much for them. But then again, nothing is going to help them. From what I've seen, I can say that it is handled correctly by some stores, and they benefit from it when they do.


Greg said...

Part of the reason I'm going to go to FCBD this year is because of Beckett -- I'm interested in their new book, and I missed the boat on Ballad of Sleeping Beauty last year (I'm still looking for a copy of issue #1). I always skipped FCBD because of the crap that was offered. I like Beckett's tactic, I just wish FCBD had been promoted differently last year -- "Hey -- it's not all crap this time!" It would be nice if DC and Marvel used the day to launch new titles. I might be tempted more to pick something up.

Dave Carter said...

Ah, but Greg, do you know if your LCS will have the Ronin 47 FCBD? If so, great! If not, then tough luck.

Two years ago, DC launched the latest iteration of their Batman Adventures comic for FCBD. While it was running, the comic based on the animated Batman was one of my favorites, the this new series saw the return of Ty Templeton as writer, which really had me excited. But guess what? Either my LCS didn't get any copies, or they were all out by the time I got there. (Luckily DC did make that issue available for purchase at regular price, but only through newsstands--I found a copy at Borders a month or so later...)

If the purpose of FCBD is to attract new comic readers, then what purpose is served by launching a new title and having it only available to consumers if their LCS deigns to order it? If you are a new comic reader, then all comics are new, even reprints!

Dave Carter said...

Hmm, I see that this year Beckett is one of the Gold Sponsors, which I believe indicates that if a retailer wants to participate in FCBD, they *have* to get copies of Ronin 47. I'm unclear as to how many a retailer has to get though...

Christopher Butcher said...


I love your blog man, but suck it up. If you really want the books, why don't you at least ask the proprietor of your local comic shop to see if he's participating? I think his minimum cost to participate is $50 or something. Anyone choosing not to participate at $50 simply doesn't want new customers (or lives overseas, which makes shipping the books cost-prohibitive).

I also know that all through last year at every convention appearance, Beckett was giving away "BOSB#1" if you stopped by their booth. AND there were at least a couple of online retailers selling the comics too.

I don't think "alienating existing customers" is quite the same as "there are thousands of comics produced each year and last year you couldn't get one (1) of the ones you wanted". Seriously. If it's that big a deal, I will _send_ you whichever books you want. Contact me through Blogger with your e-mail address, any of the FCBD comics are yours.

I've got problems with FCBD, but the fact that you don't think it works because your LCS chooses not to participate is not one of the larger problems with the promotion...

Dave Carter said...

Chris: I'd be interested in hearing what you, as a retailer, think are some of the larger problems with FCBD...

I have no doubt that there are retailers who make good use of FCBD, but I"m willing to bet that that number is small, probably the same 10% who bother ordering out of the middle of Previews.

Johanna said...

"I had no idea retailers had to pay for the FCBD books. That's just stupid!"

What do you propose instead? Asking for a small buy-in isn't a hardship to a good comic shop with a marketing budget (which the good stores have).

"As is only distributing the comics through the direct market. FCBD should be about promoting comic books"

Except that it was dreamed up by direct market retailers to promote the direct market and attract new readers to comic stores. So of course it only happens through the direct market.

My retailer puts a little effort into it, gets in a good selection of comics (all the titles, last I checked), and usually has one of his best sales days of the year as a result, with plenty of new customers.

I didn't realize how lucky I was.

"Luckily DC did make that issue available for purchase at regular price, but only through newsstands"

Not so -- retailers could order copies through the direct market as well.

Dave Carter said...

"Not so -- retailers could order copies through the direct market as well"

I did not realize that, probably because I never saw the regular version at any of the LCSes. But I shouldn't have assumed.

James Meeley said...

As a retailer myself (we'll I help the retailer, but it's close to the same), it astounds me how so many here are putting down the event (and the retailers involved) with little to no idea what they are talking about.

Yeah, the event hasn't got the marketing pull of the Super Bowl. But it has slowly grown over the years since it started. I certainly agree more could (and should) be done with this. But then, the media is sort of funny in promoting comic related events. Also, i see a lot of people complaining retailers and publishers need to do more marketing (which is true), but what about the fans themselves? What, trying to get a friend or two to come with you that much a hardship for you? Maybe you should stop looking to OTHERS on this and try doing more yourself.

As for some of the smaller titles not being ordered, as Dave noted retailers have to PAY for this stuff (not the fans and readers). They don't want a huge stack of a small press book that cost them money just laying around. I'd suggest you talk with your LCS and let them know this is a title you are interested in. Tell them what it's about and why it's cool. It might make all the difference in them ordering it or not.

FCBD isn't perfect, but it certainly isn't lacking due to retailers efforts. If fans want this event to keep growing, they are going to have to help. Picking up your free comic(s) on the day of the event just isn't enough, guys. And if you don't want to give any more effort than that, then you really lose all rights to complain about how "lacking" the event is. Put up or shut up, gang. Comics are a community, of sorts. It's times for fans to start doing their part in making events like FCBD continue to grow.

- James

Anonymous said...

what did you think about Slave Labor's free comic? they just did like a compilation of short bits from all their main comics like Serenity Rose, Bill & Ted, Street Angel, and some others i can't think of right now.