“Let’s Play the Hits”: A Discussion with BOOM!’s Filip Sablik on the Comics Market and What’s Working for Them

While I chatted with five different publishers for my feature on the state of the direct market through the eyes of the houses in the middle, there were two I spoke with that made up the bulk of the feature: BOOM! Studios’ President of Publishing and Marketing Filip Sablik and Oni Press’ Publisher James Lucas Jones. They gave me so much for that feature, I wanted to highlight their comments in whole, as they had a whole lot of insight on subjects that I didn’t cover in the feature itself. 3

Up first today is my chat with Sablik, as we discuss the state of the market, how smaller publishers fit in, what they learned from the success (and everything that comes with that) of Once & Future), licensed books, and a whole lot more. It’s a good chat with the always honest and insightful Sablik. Give it a read, and stay tuned for my chat with Jones, which should be arriving Friday or Saturday.

From Something is Killing the Children, art by Werther Dell’Edera

The first thing I wanted to talk about was, like I said, there’s a significant focus on how the market looks from a Marvel and DC perspective and, to a lesser degree, from an Image perspective. When we’re talking about the broader comic market, how do you feel the market is right now for smaller publishers with more of a direct market focus, but also the other markets? Do you feel like it’s a healthy place right now?

FS: Oh, that’s a great question. First, I would say that looking at the numbers, the picture that seems to be evolving or emerging for 2019 is that the market is recovering from the last two years, but not significantly. It looks like it’ll either be up a little bit or flat in dollars, which is ultimately … I’m talking about the direct market now, so that’s ultimately a positive sign. I think the one point that is potentially a little concerning is that the recovery in dollars seems to be due to higher price points and not necessarily increased units being sold.

So I look at the direct market and I say it seems to be recovering in the sense that it’s not continuing to decline, which is good. The book market, from the numbers reported in Publishers Weekly, appears to be up a little bit, might end up flat, but publishing seems to be kind of in a steady place, in a broader sense. I haven’t seen the numbers for graphic novels as a category, specifically, but I suspect with Dog Man continuing to grow, a new Raina book this year…

Two Raina books.

FS: Right, right. That’s right. Two Raina books. So I would think that at the very least, middle grade graphic novels are going to show some growth this year, and that’s encouraging is as well. In terms of how the market is for publishers outside of Marvel and DC, and they’re kind of equivalent in the book market, I do think it’s crowded. It’s a crowded marketplace. So the biggest challenge I think publishers face that aren’t kind of at the top of the heap are getting mind share, and getting attention and getting on the board. So that’s easier for a company that’s been around for almost 15 years like BOOM!, and it’s going to be more challenging for a company that’s just emerging over the last few years, I think.

Absolutely. You mentioned it’s crowded. There’s more publishers coming on both sides. God, this is sad. I can’t remember the name of the Bill Jemas and Axel Alonso one that’s coming.

FS: AWA.

AWA. Yeah. I should remember that. It’s Artisans, Writers & Artists, which is kind of memorable, and then on the book side, you have Random House Graphic, which has the potential of just being another giant, and that’s adding two more to the mix. Even beyond that, you just look at the amount of comics that are coming out, and I know that BOOM! has adjusted in the past as to how many you’re publishing, but you look at it in the past month, and Marvel and DC had, I think, more releases by themselves combined in the direct market than the next 10 in November. Do you find that BOOM! is looking has been just trying to shift its approach because of the climate and the way that the market’s working, and trying to adjust to maybe fit niches that aren’t being spoken to right now because of that?

FS: Well, I think what you just verbalized has essentially been BOOM!’s longterm strategy. It’s always been part of our publishing strategy to publish material that we think speaks to an audience that isn’t already being serviced in the marketplace. So you can see that in KaBOOM! as an imprint, and properties like Adventure Time and Steven Universe really taking off at a time when there wasn’t a lot of material for kids and all ages readers in the direct market. You can see it in Lumberjanes, you can see it in even the types of licenses that we tend to pick up and try to explore. So I think to a certain extent that that’s the strategy, but it’s always been the strategy. I’m forgetting now, what the first part of your question was. I’m answering the second part.

Basically, I was just saying there’s just a ton of comics, so many publishers. I’m just curious if you find yourself having to shift because of market pressures.

FS: Well, I’ll tell you where we are. I feel, and we feel, like the problem isn’t that there’s too many comics or that there’s too many graphic novels. The problem is that there are too many comics and graphic novels that don’t sell well enough for retailers to invest in them. So the struggle for whether you’re talking about an independent bookstore or a comic shop, or even a Barnes & Noble buyer, is they have all of these choices, but there’s an element of risk in that they know that a large portion of these will not bear out for them. So part of our shifted strategy this year was looking at the market, acknowledging that we cut back 15% output, and essentially, what that was was, internally, a recommitment and a deeper commitment to “let’s play the hits.” Let’s do things that we know there is an audience for, that we can identify the audience for, that we believe is going to generate success for our retail partners.

So that seems to have worked out. This year, we’re up both at Diamond and at Simon (& Schuster). We’ve seen growth in both places at a time where, like I said, the market is either flat or down at the end of the year, and that’s with putting out less material. So when you think about it as those two things happening at the same time, it means that there’s exponential growth on a per item level, which is really, really exciting. I think we have the right strategy, which is our partners that are buying and the fans want to know that when they pick up something from BOOM!, that it’s going to be curated, that it’s going to be something that we’ve really worked on to make sure that it’s a satisfying read, that it sells well, that it’s packaged well, all these different factors that I think both readers and retailers want.

From Once & Future #1, art by Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain

Yeah. It’s instilling in readers that the BOOM! logo, when they see it on a cover, it means something, and that seems important. I had you on my podcast, basically, explicitly to talk about the Once & Future plan because I was such a big fan of it. The thing I liked about the Once & Future plan was that it fit what you’re talking about where you reduce the line, you’re focused on hits and you’re trying to amplify those, because one of the things that I’ve talked to a lot of retailers about is there is so many comics, yet there’s almost no push behind them on a per comic basis. The event comics will get a push if there’s a massive name on it, but on average, there’s almost no push.

So this year was an aggressive effort with retailers with the whole Once & Future plan. You did a whole lot for Something Is Killing The Children. That was part of Comics Omnivore, which I think is a really great program. Obviously, your numbers are up, so it’s working pretty well, but is that something that you think you’re going to not just continue to do, but continue to see how you can employ on a regular basis going forward?

FS: You mean specifically Once & Future?

Not just Once & Future, but really just … Because like I said, Once & Future you had that whole plan, Something Is Killing The Children, you did with Comics Omnivore, and then there’s the general returnability, the BOOM! Guarantee. It seems like you’re finding the right answers for specific projects. Is that something that you’re looking to do, trying to find what it takes to be able to enable retailers to sell the project?

FS: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think specifically with the originals this year, starting with things like Ronin Island and Faithless at the beginning of the year. Ronin Island launched 50% higher than Mech Cadet Yu, and then Faithless was one of our biggest launches in the company’s history until we got to Once & Future, and then that became the biggest launch in the company’s history. Coming towards the end of the year, when looking at our sales through October, when you look at the publicly available data, we were up 71% year over year on original launches, and I think it comes from being really focused, really concerted in our efforts so that when we come to the fans and to our retail partners, they know that if we’re launching, whether it’s Once & Future or Something Is Killing The Children or Folklords or Red Mother, that we’re putting our all behind it, and the trick is giving that maximum effort every time and having a clear message about who this is for as a project and why it’s going to be successful, but varying the incentives that we offer retailers, the tools that we give them to maximize their sales.

So if you look at all those books, we applied slightly different tools and incentives to make them successful, and some of it I think is … success begets success, right? The market definitely loves a buzz book, definitely loves a hot book. So once you have one of those, if you can continue to deliver against people’s expectations, that’s a thing that builds, and we certainly saw it with Image. From 2012 to 2015, 2016, there was this kind of rolling thunder as you have Saga, and then you have …

The Wicked and the Divine.

FS: The Wicked and the Divine, and Monstress, and we’re skipping a bunch of amazing books in between there, and a bunch of really talented creators that delivered gigantic hits for the market. The point is that once you have that attention, as long as you’re able to continue to deliver the goods, I think readers respond to that, and I think retailers certainly respond to that. So that’s, I think, what we’re seeing. I think what we’re seeing right now is both the retailers, particularly the ones in the BOOM! Guarantee, and the folks over at ComicsPRO that’ve been supporting us for many years, they doubled down this year and really put their backs into trying to grow their business with BOOM!, but I think the other thing that happened this year was we broke through. With Once & Future, what happened was we broke through to a group of stores that, historically, had not been ordering BOOM! titles. That’s the tremendous accomplishment.

I think roughly, we increased our store count by about 50% on average, and so that’s game changing for a publisher like us, because it means that we have more places we can sell the books, and I think that ultimately has a cumulative effect as you keep going. So I think to answer your original question, we’re definitely thinking about this and being really mindful of it as we head into 2020. We announced the first couple original projects for next year. In February, we have a new Si Spurrier project called Alienated with Chris Wildgoose that I think is shaping up to be really amazing, and we got that on the cover of Previews, so hopefully that’ll be another opportunity for new fans and new retailers to give us a second look. We’re following that up with King of Nowhere with W. Maxwell Prince, who had Ice Cream Man over at Image, which was a real buzz book last year, and we teamed him up with Tyler Jenkins, who had previously worked on Grass Kings for us. So those are the first two out of the gate, and we’ve got Faithless returning, and then the middle and second half of 2020 are just filthy with hits in terms of originals. We’re really excited and, and I’m chomping at the bit to talk about some of them, but unfortunately it’s a little premature yet.

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