Finding a Balance: Oni Press’ Publisher James Lucas Jones on the State of Comics + Oni

Oni Press has had an interesting past year, and when I was putting together my feature on the state of the direct market from the perspective of the publishers in the middle, I knew I wanted to chat with someone on their team about what was going on with them. So that I did, as I got Oni’s Publisher James Lucas Jones on the horn to talk about his opinions on the state of the market, what they’re doing to navigate it, the things that are working, the big Lion Forge merger, their focus for 2020, and a whole lot more.

It’s the second of two jumbo-sized interviews with core people at publishers this week, and as per usual with Jones, it’s a fantastic conversation. Give it a read below, and if you missed yesterday’s chat with BOOM!’s President of Publishing and Marketing Filip Sablik, you can read that one here.

Let’s talk about the comics market, and when I say market, I mean the direct market, book market, everything. But to a certain degree, I want to hone in on the direct market. It feels like it’s a really weird time just because there are so many comics. The amount of comics that Marvel and DC are publishing is such an absurd amount, especially because DC went back to big numbers after taking a six month siesta of not publishing quite as much.

How do you feel the market is right now for publishers outside of the Marvel, DC, Image triumvirate? Is there space there?

James Lucas Jones: There is. I think it’s… For midsize folks, you’re battling at a disadvantage in both markets, so it’s trying to figure out ways to make each market work for you. Because in the direct market, it’s always going to be Marvel, DC, Image and then some outlier that is working, usually, a great deal of popular licenses at the time. So sometimes it’s Dark Horse, sometimes it’s IDW, right now it’s BOOM! in that number four spot. I never want to be that reliant on outside IP to drive stuff. And, yes, I realize I’m saying that as the publisher of the Rick and Morty comics, but even that…that was not us looking to secure a crazy giant hit, that was us working with some folks that we were fans of and thought we were doing something that was funny.

And then on the book market side, it’s the big traditional New York book pubs, who have spent a ton of money on project acquisitions this year. Whether it’s the new imprints at Penguin Random House or at HarperCollins or the existing comics stuff at Scholastic and First Second, there’s been a lot of competition, particularly with new publishers. It almost seems like on a monthly basis this year there’s been an announcement about a New York publisher or imprint making a graphic novel on it.

So, for us, it’s walking that balance. We’ve been really happy with our success in the book market with Simon & Schuster over the last year and I think we’ll continue to grow in that market in 2020. For me, personally, I see a lot of my efforts in 2020 directed back at the direct market, working with Devin Funches in our sales and marketing department to give retailers additional tools to reach new customers. Because I’m not worried about trying to steal market share back from Marvel or DC. That’s just not going to happen. Those readers are superhero readers and they’re following characters that they’ve followed for a long time and, for the most part, it’s a graying readership.

My focus for 2020 is really trying to help comics retailers and independent book stores both grow their graphic novel readership and hit age groups and demographics that they’re not currently appealing to. I think that a lot of direct market retailers, they want new customers. They see it. They know what the situation is. I think, a lot of times, it’s a new business model on a certain level and adapting and change is hard. I think the more that we can support them in finding ways to identify and attract new customers is only going to help us and only going to help the industry. But, again, I feel like we have such a breadth of material that we – particularly post-merger with Lion Forge – have so many great books for so many different kinds of readers and reader interests. There is an audience out there, it’s just the competition is fierce and it’s not just comics, it’s just content across the board. There’s so much all the time.

Yeah. That’s a really interesting point you made about focusing on the direct market for more of the graphic novel side. You look at the Bookscan numbers and then you compare those with what’s selling in the direct market in terms of trades and graphic novels, and it’s such a massive shift, such a massive difference and most of the time, people use that difference as an opportunity to kind of deride the direct market and say, “Look how backwards they are.”

But the thing is, as you pointed out, it is the nature of the market. It’s never been something that’s really developed on a broader scale outside of like your Big Bangs and like your Comics Experiences and your Isotopes and shops like that. The graphic novel side…do you view there being an untapped potential there for reaching not just existing direct market customers, but building that up as a channel for reaching those younger readers and those, I’m doing air quotes, “non-traditional readers?”

JLJ: Yeah, I mean, I think there absolutely is. Again, comics aren’t a genre, they’re a medium and if you are providing the right content… I don’t know, we’re already seeing it. You look at a book that we released last year, the Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris did, My Boyfriend is a Bear. That book is totally a post-Raina book. It’s not a kids book, it’s very much a young adult, adult book, but it is absolutely for an audience that read Drama when it came out. And that audience has aged up and providing content to them and keeping them coming into comics is important. There’s no reason that audience has to be as captured by bookstores as the previous generation was.

And, again… there’s just a lot that we can do and we can do together. And I understand. It’s hard because there are nice things, from a retail perspective, about the floppy market. Having a customer base that feels compelled to come in every week is awesome, but also, month-to-month serials in a binge content world is not a sustainable model.

And so as that population grays, it’s how do you attract not just first time customers, but repeat business and, again, one of the advantages that the direct market has over a Barnes & Noble or an Amazon or whatever is that direct market stores already know how to build a community. It’s just they have to be servicing more than one community. It can’t just be the superhero fanboys and girls, it’s got to be a broader base than that to sustain in retail in 2020 no matter what just because brick-and-mortar retail is hard across the board right now. And, again, I feel like comics, whether it’s adding sidelines like tabletop games, adding graphic novels and giving reasons for people to visit their shop for that material.

And as an almost community center, there’s just so much possibility there and I think that’s really why tabletop has boomed in the last few years. People want more excuses for in person contact and in person relationships and socializing. And I feel like, again, just knowing how every comic shop that I’ve been a regular at over the last 30 years has been a community center of sorts. You had your regulars, you had your folks that would come in that would talk about the nerdy crap and it was very water cooler talk. And I think that there’s opportunities to facilitate those kinds of conversations in a little bit more structured way and in a way that appeals to a different kind of consumer. And ideally, we’re just the business that brings in new customers that will come back on a regular basis.

Yeah, I mean it makes a lot of sense when you think about it because I know a lot of retailers are pretty upset with the current model for single issues, especially because it seems like kind of a race to the bottom, where everyone is repeating the same tactics and making it harder and harder to predict how many single issues to order and everything. And this kind of seems like almost like an escape hatch for them because they already are selling graphic novels, but the thing is is there’s just not as much of a focus on that. It’s like the single issues are a feeder system for the trade paperbacks and graphic novels and if they get to the point where…. I don’t know, it’s always just kind of like a secondary thing.

You’re saying to me that a focus for you in 2020. How are you trying to better work with retailers to accomplish that? Is that something that there’s real outreach on?

JLJ: Yeah, I mean, I wish that our plans were farther along…

Sure, sure, I know you can’t say too much.

JLJ: I think our intention right now is we have some ideas, we have some things that we want to do, we have a big list of things that we think can be effective and efforts that we want to make. We’re still… It’s comics. We’re not super flush with resources, we have a bigger marketing and sales team than we’ve had since I’ve been at the company and there’s so many talented folks on that team. And I think we all have a lot of ideas but it’s a matter of prioritizing right now. So I feel like, for us, it’s going to be like we have our big laundry list of things that we would like to do in 2020 and some are already moving and some will continue to develop over the next couple months. And then at ComicsPRO in February, we’ll take the opportunity to have a lot of direct face time with comic retailers to kind of prioritize. Okay, these are the tools that would be the most helpful to our biggest customers right now and this is what we should be focused one during the rest of the year before adding additional plans and projects that we want to do.

Sure. Well, one thing I wanted to ask about was…sometimes it’s like publishers don’t want to upset the direct market by focusing too much on other markets because it’s, “oh, they’re chasing the book market dollars” or things like that. How do you balance maintaining that faith with retailers while still developing other channels? Because it seems like it’s kind of you have to develop them in concert because, ultimately, the content will feed into all of them, right?

JLJ: Well, yeah. So right now, there’s like 4,000 Diamond accounts, there’s maybe 2,500 legit brick-and-mortar stores and then in terms of like full line comic shops, there might be under 1,000 in terms of like folks that carry a wide range of our stuff and not just a few titles here and there. All that said, it doesn’t matter whether you talked to the CEO of Penguin Random House or Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins or whoever, there’s not a single one of them who would not sign over a portion of their soul to have access to another thousand brick-and-mortar stores. So, anybody who thinks that we can just kiss the direct market good-bye is a fool and, again…

The business is changing. The nature of the books is changing. The breadth of the content is changing. Retail is going to have to change, too, and there will be some who don’t want to do it and some will survive still and some won’t. But it’s the ones that want to continue to grow their business… there’s so much potential there and it is hard. It’s hard, again, because I think that comic retailers haven’t always been treated the best by publishers and so there’s almost a little bit of a reaction to just anything because they’ve been beat up on in like predatory business practices so many different times that they’re… yeah, of course they’re going to be seeing the negative on everything.

But again… It’s hard. I wish I had a better answer because I think that it’s something that we struggle with. Particularly with what our line looks like right now and with a lot of our efforts being put into the Simon & Schuster transition over the last year and half. It’s definitely been an issue for us, where comic retailers feel abandoned on a certain level and that’s not ever been our intention but it is something that I know we have to fix. And I wish I had a better plan on how to fix it other than just doing the work and being as supportive as we can and continuing to throw our resources into the direct market.

There’s no perfect answer to this, there’s no perfect way to handle it, but I will say that it’s pretty easy to see who’s kind of actively working against them versus who’s actively working with them and as long as you continue to do the latter, I feel like they’ll feel pretty good with you.

JLJ: Yeah, but they might feel good about it, but it doesn’t mean that they’re ordering our stuff and not Marvel’s. They’re still ordering all those Marvel number ones because they have to, they feel like they have to. And that’s, again, that’s fine if they’re selling them. The customers that are buying that stuff are pot committed, like their retail dollars are committed to following those soap operas and those storylines and I’m not going to get them to leave that for the books that we’re doing no matter what the books that we’re doing are. And that’s not my goal. Again, I want to bring in new readers and lapsed readers and folks who are looking for different kinds of content that they maybe aren’t able to find elsewhere. And it’s hard because there is just so much content.

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