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Interview with Dark Horse’s Mike Richardson, Part 1

The Market, and Digital

Published: 12/14/2009 12:00am
ICv2 recently interviewed Dark Horse CEO Mike Richardson.  In Part 1 of our two-part interview, we talked about the comic and graphic novel markets and the impact of digital delivery.  In Part 2, we talked about the manga market, Dark Horse’s movie deals, and why Watchmen wasn’t a game-changer.

The first thing we like to do in these annual overviews is to get your sense of the market.  What kind of year was 2009?
I think it was a tough year, particularly the first part.  There were a lot of returns from bookstores and a lot of places trying to figure out they’re going to get through a decidedly down market.  But we see signs in the second half of the year that it’s slowly coming back.

What are those signs?  You’re talking about sales specifically?
Basically through sales.  Some of the months have registered some good sales.  In September we had a great month.  It’s sort of up and down from month to month now, but we are seeing strong months.

How would you differentiate the comic and graphic novel markets?  Have those been about the same this year versus a year ago or are they changing at different rates?
I think the comics market has dealt with the downturn in the marketplace in a different way.  It seems like retailers are going to tried and true books, which means a lot of Marvel and DC titles.  Although we still have our strong titles, they seem less willing to take chances on new material.  That element’s always been there but it seems to be even more in play right now.  
In the bookstores on the other hand, some of the chains are trying to figure out how to stay in business.  Obviously everyone knows the problems Borders has had and the fact that the Waldenbooks chain is being shut down.  It’s contracting (as it has for years I suppose).  There’s a lot more competition from other areas for the traditional bookstores.  It’s going to be tough for them.

One of the areas we’ve been hearing more positive things about in the bookstores is kids books.
We’ve always thought that that was a potential market.  Just before this downturn one of the big retail chains was even talking about putting in a graphic novel section for kids.  Many of the chains pulled back some of the big ideas they had for expansion because of the economic situation.

The conventional wisdom in the past has been that comics weren’t as affected as much by the economy and perhaps even affected in a counter-cyclical way.  Are you seeing that play out that way this time around, or are things different because of the graphic novel mix?
I think we’re seeing a lot of changes in the comics business.  Obviously there’s less interest in the pamphlets than in the past and more interest in having a book that people can put on their shelves with the other books that they enjoy, so you see a growth of the graphic novel business.  I’ve said it a billion times, I’ll say it again:  for many people it’s probably a better reading experience to have an entire story in a book that they can put on a shelf than to get a story in 20- or 22-page installments 30 days apart over the course of a year that they end up putting in a box in a closet somewhere.  As time goes on and as comic readers age, we’ve seen more and more strength in the graphic novel market.  There are a lot of economic factors that play against the traditional pamphlet.  Certainly cover price is probably the strongest and biggest factor.  At one time comics were a dime.  Comics are $4.00 now; many of the comic book companies are now charging four bucks, $3.50, even $4.50 I’ve seen.  And so at some point you wonder what the perceived value is.  There are a lot of commercial objects out there vying for that same dollar that used to be spent on comics.  

One of the things that seems to be a big trend this year is the growth of comics as iPhone apps, and having them being sold both as individual aps and now there are several stores that are selling apps from within those larger store apps.  Tell us where Dark Horse is and where you see this going over the next year.
Over the next year certainly the download business will increase.  It’s hard to predict over a long period of time where things are going to go because the technology changes so fast.  Just in the last couple of years we’ve seen MySpace to Facebook to Twitter.  It seems like each new electronic application or social network that is for comics continues to evolve.  As you know we were big in MySpace so we’ve always been interested in the possibilities, basically because of the audience you can reach electronically and the implications that has for our brand.  Confining speculation to the next year, certainly we’ll be seeing more and more downloading going on, more titles available.  We’ve done a deal with iTunes and have begun putting titles up, available for download.  

In the past we’ve always felt that people like to have the paper, like to hold the books.  Certainly you and I feel that way, but I’m not so sure that the youngest audience feels that way.  They’ve grown up in an age where they read on their computers and visit the Internet regularly and are not as attached to paper products, so that plays a factor in our business particularly.  

We’re also fighting illegal downloading.  I don’t quite understand why so many people think that’s okay.  Basically these artists make their living off the sale of their work and why people would think that it’s fine to steal that work off the Internet I’m not sure.  It becomes a bigger problem as time goes and we’re doing what we can to fight that.

On the sale of digital content for phones, some of the titles that have been most successful have been licensed titles where an audience that might not be aware there’s a comic comes across it in the iTunes store and takes a shot at it.  Have you had that experience at all?  Do you think there’s more potential those kind of media tie-in books than there is for less well known titles?
Well sure.  When somebody’s being asked to pay for something on their iPhones, pay for an app or a download, obviously if they know what it is that’s going to be more comfortable to them when they’re spending their money.  Many people inside the comic industry know who Concrete is, but outside he’s probably not very well known.  Star Wars, of course, has a much wider brand recognition.  Certainly people who love the movies might take a chance on a Star Wars app and I think that all of the licensed IPs, because of the recognition of the title, have a much better chance of being selected as a download.

Have you released any Star Wars content?
We’re offering Star Wars right now as an iTunes downloads.

New issues or backlist?
Backlist, and obviously we’re talking about new material as we see how successful it is.

Are you getting any results back yet?  
One Star Wars title hit number one.  

Click here for Part 2.
 
 
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