I'm writing today's column with bleary eyes, as I am still recovering from the jetlag that resulted from my recent trip to the world book fair, in Frankfurt, Germany. I've been attending the Frankfurt show for 30 years now, and have been exhibiting there regularly since 1986. That having been said, the costs of exhibiting in Frankfurt make it a cash flow train wreck, as the meager gross sales that we generate from our tiny 12 foot wide booth typically doesn't even cover the $2,900 rental charge. That leaves the combined cost of hotel, food, rental cars, and airfares as a total cash drain on Mile High Comics.
So why do I keep going back to Frankfurt? Well, the fact that I was born in a small Bavarian village just southeast of the city certainly has contributed to my desire to spend a week in Germany each year. As the older generation of my German family gradually passes away, however, and when the older buildings and gardens in my village that I remember with such fondness from my boyhood are steadily replaced with increasingly dense housing, that background motivation for my traveling to Germany greatly dimishes. In all honesty, at this stage of my life I would much rather spend each early October running our pumpkin stand at our organic vegetable farm in Boulder, rather than going through the hassles of International travel. If nothing else, I'd save a heck of a lot of money.
In the end, what keeps me going to Frankfurt year after year is a desire for maintaining a breadth of vision about what is happening in the worldwide market for comics. For most American comics dealers it may seem inconsequential to have an idea of what is happening in the other comics markets around the world, but I find that I can gain quite a few valuable insights in Frankfurt each year that become very applicable to my being able to bring success to Mile High Comics. Just as a case in point, the inspiration for our entire Internet marketing program came about as a result of several conversations I had in Frankfurt, in October of 1996. Ironically, those conversations were almost entirely with American publishers and editors, but the very nature of the Frankfurt show is that it attracts the best and the brightest publishers from every country in the world, so if you want to see the future, Frankfurt is an excellent venue for gaining perspective.
I wish I could lay out for you some of the specific ideas that I picked up in Frankfurt this year, but I've become a bit more wary in my old age about revealing too much to our competitors. Suffice it to say, however, that I now have at least one major program simmering in the back of my mind that may significantly alter the future of Mile High Comics. As soon as I am able to make some strides in bringing that program to fruition, I'll let you in on the specifics. It may be a while before that announcement is made, however, as this program will take a lot of time and working capital, neither of which is particularly plentiful right now.
In the meantime, I can report to you that I was on a panel in Frankfurt with six comics publishers from around the world (Spain, France, Germany, Korea, Japan, & Italy). At only one hour in duration, our panel was far too short for all of us to speak at any length about conditions in our home markets, but even the broad general overviews provided by each member of the panel were quite intriguing. For example, the Spanish publisher revealed that original material constitutes only 9% of the Spanish market for new comics. American reprints are 46% of the Spanish comics market, while Manga reprints are another 41%. The remaining few percentage points are spread among reprints of European material. In Korea, on the other hand, Manga reprints dominate, while home grown ManHwa fills in the bulk of the remaining market share. In almost all instances, however, print publishing is strongly augmented by Internet publishing in Korea. The lady who represented Japanese publishers on the panel reported that, for the first time ever, periodical sales of Manga in Japan were exceeded by Manga in book form. That's not necessarily good news, as periodical sales have dropped in half during the past several years, as electronic alternatives (such as video games) have steadily eroded the market for comics publishing in Japan. The Japanese new comics market remains, however, about five times the entire market for comics in the USA...
The two primary observations that I took from the panel were: 1) American comics publishing is but a microcosm of the huge worldwide market for graphic storytelling, and 2) Comics publishers all around the world are seeing an erosion in their markets, as fewer young people read paper stories, while more and more consumers opt for electronic entertainment alternatives, and the Internet. No one seems to have a good answer for how to halt this slide in consumer interest in traditional printed comics.
The diminishment of the European comics market was clearly illustrated in Frankfurt by the dramatic drop in the number of fans who attended the fair in costume on Sunday. To explain, when the comics section of the book fair was first conceptualized (in part through initiatives that I originally presented...) in 2000, the comics area staff was given only a five year contract. So it became imperative for them to draw as large a crowd as possible, so as to justify a renewal of their contract. To achieve this goal they came up with the idea of allowing comics fans into the fair for free on the last day (Sunday), if they would come in costume. This marketing worked incredibly well, as hundreds of fans showed up in costume (almost exclusively Manga and Anime inspired). By the second year of the costume contest, the number of participants increased to well over 1,000. This huge number of costumes, in turn, led to the tiny comics section (three rows containing about 80 booths) becoming the single most popular site in the entire book fair. Crowding was so ridiculous by 2004 that at mid-day on Sunday, the incredibly dense crush of bodies in the aisles prevented us from even being able to see the booth on the other side! It was estimated that well over 100,000 attendees of the book fair (out of a total attendance of about 350,000) worked their way through those three small comics aisles in 2004.
I had to miss the 2005 show, but going into Sunday of the 2006 Buchmesse, I was prepared for yet another crush of bodies. There was, after all, a prize now being offered for the best Manga or Anime inspired costume by a Japanese publisher of a free trip (for two) to Tokyo for a week. All other facts aside, that one great offer should have brought the German girls in costume back in droves. Well, it just didn't happen. For whatever reason, the number of costumes on display on Sunday barely exceeded that of Saturday. I have no idea if there was some sort of alternative venue in the Frankfurt area that day (such as a Manga specific convention...), but I was astonished at the dearth of costumes on Sunday. Without the costumes on display the crowds were also much smaller in the aisles. Still quite respectable, but not even 50% of 2004.
Another telling factor about the Buchmesse was the sudden inclusion of card companies in the comics area. To the best of my knowledge, card companies were not really considered "publishers" under the older, more strict, guidelines of the fair. I can't remember seeing even a single card company booth among the 4,000+ exhibitors who constitute the book fair prior to this year. Suddenly, however, over 25% of the booth space in the comics section of the book fair is taken up by card companies. Hmmm... That certainly doesn't speak well for the health and vitality of the European comics publishing community. I'll grant you that Frankfurt is a ridiculously expensive venue in which to exhibit, but my experience is that most European publishers are so determined to present themselves as being overwhelmingly successful, that they will spend their last Euro to make their booths in Frankfurt look great. The only other alternative is for them to not show up at all, which it appears to be the option that many took this year.
My final comment would be about the actual sales in our booth. Our display this year consisted exclusively of American trade paperbacks, with the majority being at least two years old. My daughter, Rowan, helped me run our booth, so we each brought one suitcase on the airplane, and one long box of new trade paperbacks and hardbacks. I had another 15 long boxes of trades in storage in Germany (shipping rates back to the USA from Europe are so prohibitive that it becomes completely nonviable to send leftovers back after the fair...), but all of my storage books were at least two years old, since I didn't attend the fair in 2005. All of the above having been said, our sales actually went up this year, as compared to 2004! Our new books sold well, but the older backlist also sold briskly. Had I have brought enough new product and restock books, I might well have covered the entire cost of our booth, plus maybe even our hotel cost. Given how dimished the rest of the fair seemed in overall, having such a positive result in our booth was quite a shock. My simple rationalization would be that while the Manga market is down in Germany, interest in comics from the USA is up. I find that trend to be quite fascinating.
In next month's column, I'm going to go out on a limb a bit by giving my answer the #1 question that I hear in Frankfurt: why don't European reprints sell in America?
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