We’re a little over a month away from Free Comic Book Day, the annual bonanza where stores across the continent give out free books in the hopes of getting people back into shops. What started as a sampling of six books from the big publishers back in 2002 has become, for many stores, an annual festival. The six freebie books have ballooned into somewhere around fifty, and many stores give out merchandising, hold sales, and bring in creators for signings. Many comic shops do bonanza sales on FCBD and it’s become the equivalent of Black Friday for the comics industry.
I’ve been going to the same shop for FCBD for the past five years. I love it…however, I’ve also started to notice the same regulars year after year waiting for the books and the sales. Which is great—customer loyalty is a big component of FCBD.
However, the goal of FCBD isn’t necessarily us, the regular readers. It is to the extent that maybe we’re strictly Marvel and DC readers and the industry is offering us the chance to branch into a different publisher or genre. But the larger issue is that FCBD is intended to get new customers into stores and books into the hands of new readers. Current readers offer a limited lifespan for shops and publishers alike. We grow older, our habits and our finances change, or we move away. We’re contributing to the industry now, but we don’t contribute forever. Shops and publishers alike need a new crop of readers to come in and take over where we leave off. Businesses need to adapt and grow.
I personally push for FCBD on my social media every year. I seldom see my friends and family—even the ones who have an interest in comics—take advantage of it. I’d think that the offer of “HEY KIDS, FREE COMIC BOOKS” would draw in somebody, but it doesn’t seem to work.
I’ve wondered if the content is the problem. Right now, the comics industry is remarkably diverse. Superheroes still dominate, but the kid-friendly market has expanded greatly, and the number of genres available are incredible. There’s plenty of licensed adaptions, horror, sci-fi, history (see John Lewis’ March or Hip-Hop Family Tree as great examples), so no, it’s not all hard bodies in spandex.
And yet, the comics publishers have to think very carefully about FCBD. Unless they release an anthology title (which has its own limitations), they need to pick their one book that represents what they want to push to the market as a sampler to get people into the store. If it doesn’t grab the right people, it won’t get picked up, and subsequently, readers won’t come back for more.
I ran Diamond’s FCBD catalog past several non-comics readers to get their impressions: would any of these books get you into a store? Note that these readers are all parents of comparatively young children who are probably the right age to be getting into comics. I asked if they’d be interested in any books for their kids, but moreover, whether they’d want any for themselves. Here’s what I got from a limited sampling of customers.
“Lynn” (not her real name) is a mother of two from Indiana who is concerned about what her kids are exposed to. Her concern with even setting foot into a comic shop is that there’s no clear gateway: “There is at least an impression that there’s so much back story and hidden visual language that there’s no easy place to begin…I also don’t trust a priori the content….Comic book places are also intimidating. There is a deep sense that ‘I don’t belong here’—either feeling too female, too un-initiated, or something.”
Biting the bullet, Lynn says that if she had to pick, she’d go with Colorful Monsters from Drawn and Quarterly and Underdog from American Mythology because both looked innocuous enough for kids. She’s aware of The Legend of Zelda from Viz even though she’s never played the games and Disney Descendants from Tokyopop because she’s familiar with the source material. Weirdly, Lynn didn’t pick Doctor Who from Titan even though she’s a Who fan herself.
Samantha is a mother of two in Oklahoma, and she was a little more open to picking some comics. However, she mostly gravitated towards the familiar. She picked Wonder Woman because she grew up watching the Lynda Carter show as a child, along with DC Super Hero Girls because both DC books had overtones of female empowerment. Papercutz’ Barbie is a current favorite for one of her children, and Archie’s Betty and Veronica at least appears to be an accessible, girl-friendly comic. Samantha’s only odd pick of the batch was Red 5’s Keyzer Soze, apparently because the time-travel and 1930s elements had some personal appeal to her.
Derk is a father of two boys who, unfortunately, doesn’t want to set foot in a comic shop at all. Or rather, he did, but didn’t like what he saw when he walked in. “[I[f you want me or my sons into a comic shop, clean the place up. I recently went myself to check the local store out to try and get my sons interested. I was greeted by something called Grizzly Shark on prominent display….it depicted a gory picture of a boy that had been bit in half being carried by his father as the shark looked on. Not going back and my sons aren’t going. Don’t need to see that.”
Unfortunately, all of the above is only a limited sampling of non-readers who Diamond, Shops, and Publishers need to be reaching out to. But we do at least get two takeaways from our limited response:
- New Readers Like The Familiar. Where potential readers did respond to me, their interest lay with what they or their children already knew. Franchise books, for better or worse, are a draw. Marvel and DC have known this for awhile, as their FCBD titles often thematically connect with their big summer release movies. But the smaller presses also have a chance at grabbing readers with recognizable characters, so Barbie is probably going to get taken before Fresh Off the Boat.
- A Lot of This Rides on the Shops. I go to a good store for FCBD. A lot of people don’t have that option. If the closest or only comic store is a stereotypical hole in the wall with a rude, misogynistic staff, they’re going to blow their chances at picking up new readers. If women and children are intimidated, they’re not going to come in. Even an “accidental” encounter can go badly (I once had to warn a prepubescent kid in a shop to put down a copy of Watchmen).
Clearly, this is a balancing act for stores. They want to sell to a broad range of readers, so while not every parent wants to see Zombie Tramp on the shelf, there’s still a market for Zombie Tramp readers. Some stores (like mine) make a point of doing a kid’s table where the junior books are available separately from the more mature ones. But not every shop may have the space for that, so they’ve got to think carefully about what goes where or even which FCBD titles to order.
So, with FCBD rapidly approaching…well, the books have already been selected and possibly even printed. But the clock is still ticking for the stores, and right now, it’s on them to figure out how to make themselves as accessible to the public as possible. Accessibility means new customers, and customers means continued sales, and that means the industry gets to continue to live for another month.