Who doesn’t like free comic books? On Saturday, May 7th, 2005, participating comic book shops across North America and around the world will be giving away comic books from more than 25 different publishers absolutely free to anyone who comes into their stores, as part of the 4th Annual Free Comic Book Day, celebrating “an original American art form.”
“The selection of titles is a testament to the diversity in the industry,” says Diamond Comic Distributors Marketing Communications Manager and Free Comic Book Day Committee spokesperson, Barry Lyga. “More than anything else, Free Comic Book Day exists to show that there is a comic book for every age, reading level, and taste. This year’s variety of available free titles once again makes that point.”
While FCBD is undoubtedly a great concept, some have complained about its limited focus on the direct market, questioning its real impact on introducing new blood into the ever-diminishing gene pool of comic book readers. Others have complained about shops who simply focus on the titles offered by the publishers they usually order from anyway, failing to expose their customers to the greater range of independent titles that, theoretically, stand to benefit the most from the event.
I checked in with Joe Field, owner/operator of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, CA and the founder of Free Comic Book Day, to get his take on the matter.
Comic Book Commentary: What was the genesis of Free Comic Book Day? Its origin story, if you will.
Joe Field: When the comics market lost a lot of sales and energy in the mid-’90s, I was frustrated that the entire market had almost lost its primary reason for existence. That is, comics are primarily a medium of entertainment. Some publishers and retailers catered to the fools who speculated that comics were a get rich quick scheme. Here at Flying Colors, we always kept our focus on connecting readers to comic book titles that would keep them coming back for more entertainment. I made a promise to myself that when I saw the intrinsics of the comics market turning around, I’d do what I could to make sure the next rise in the market came from an increase in readers, rather than an increase in speculation. I’m always looking at other businesses to adapt ideas for my store, so when I saw another successful Baskin-Robbins Free Scoop Night going on next door to Flying Colors, I thought, “why not Free Comics Night?” I then wrote my next monthly column for Krause Publications’ Comics & Games Retailer magazine and proposed the idea to the industry. That led to the first Free Comic Book Day in May ’02, the day after the first Spider-Man movie opened.
CBC: What is FCBD‘s mission, and who is behind it?
Field: The FCBD mission is to give everyone a chance to check out all the great comics available at their local comic book store. FCBD is designed to be an introduction for people who’ve never been in a comic book store before, while also being a way to call back and reinvigorate former comic book readers. It’s also a nice “thank you” to our long-time readers and customers. When I initially proposed FCBD, I also proposed that Diamond facilitate the event since that company deals with every legitimate retailer of current direct market comics.
CBC: Is it a Diamond event then, or is there a committee of industry professionals directing it?
Field: Both! Diamond facilitates the event and there is a committee of industry pros guiding it. Those include Diamond management personnel, publisher reps from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, Top Shelf and Alternative, as well as a few industry journalists, along with retailers Amada Fishe from Muse in Montana, Gib Bickel from Laughin Ogre in Ohio, Gary Dills Jr from Phoenix Comics in Virginia and myself. But the Ace of Spades in our deck is Barry Lyga, Diamond’s point man for FCBD.
CBC: Is the primary goal to promote comic books, or comic book shops? To reach new readers, or expand existing pull lists?
Field: The primary goal is to get people—new readers, former comic fans and our existing base of readers— to visit their local comic book shop. Once there, I trust they’ll be dazzled by all the good stuff going on in the wonderful world of comics. FCBD works on a variety of levels.
CBC: How do local comic books shops get involved, how many participate, and at what level?
Field: The minimum “buy-in” for retailers is $50 worth of the Gold-level publishers’ FCBD comics. Retailers buy the free comics through Diamond Comic Distributors. There are 10 Gold-level publishers this year, along with 17 Silver-level publishers. We have about 2000 participating stores in something like 20 countries.
CBC: What is their expected return?
Field: I think the expected return is that for buying into FCBD, retailers are a part of the comic book industry’s only concerted outreach promotion. Individual retailers can customize their FCBD with an in-store party, with artist signings, with sales—or just go with the free comics. My hope is that all retailers use FCBD as a springboard to promote their stores to their communities.
CBC: I’ve heard complaints from some comic book readers that their LCBS doesn’t participate in FCBD, or only goes for the “minimum buy-in” on Gold-level books. Does this defeat the purpose of the event? What can be (or is being) done to encourage LCBS’ to more fully participate?
Field: Sadly, some comic book dealers don’t see the benefits of reaching out to potential new customers. I would encourage current readers and customers to ask their retailers to participate—maybe even volunteer to help make the event special. Some retailers are simply under-staffed and don’t want to deal with the potential crowds, so volunteering might be a way to get your local retailer to participate. I know Diamond works to get full participation and there is more cooperation with FCBD than there is with any other promotion done in the comic book industry. Stores that don’t participate run the risk of losing customers to stores that do participate. It’s just that simple.
CBC: How do publishers get involved, how many participate, and at what level?
Field: There are 10 Gold-level sponsors that offer full-color, full-sized 32-page comics, at their cost, to sell to retailers for the giveaway. There are 17 other Silver-level publishers that create special FCBD edition comics and sell them at-cost to retailers.
CBC: How does Diamond benefit from the event?
Field: A healthier comics market means a healthier Diamond. FCBD also gives Diamond a strong promotional hook to use with vendors and retailers.
CBC: What kind of marketing is done to support the event?
Field: The Gold-level publishers and Diamond all work the PR angle vigorously to get stories placed in various media. There’s a small fee built into the price retailers pay for the comics that funds a marketing and promotion budget for FCBD.
CBC: Beyond press releases and timing the event to coincide with the opening of major comic book-related movies, what sort of marketing is FCBD doing to reach the non-comic-book-buying audience?
Field: Free Comic Book Day 2005 is not situated near a movie opening, for the first time in its 4-year history. Besides the PR push from publishers and Diamond, and ad swaps from publishers and Diamond to publications outside the comics market, the marketing of the event is really directed by individual retailers.
CBC: Has it garnered any attention in the mainstream media?
Field: There have been stories over the last three years in most major media. A quick Google search shows close to 50,000 hits for FCBD. Take a look at FreeComicBookDay.com for more links to media coverage.
CBC: How does the new reader, the average Joe (or Jane), hear out about FCBD?
Field: Well, for instance, we do cable TV ads to promote the event. we ask our “regulars” to bring in new people who aren’t current comic readers. We send out press releases of our own to get coverage for our local event. There are many ways to reach new readers with FCBD.
CBC: Are there any plans/intentions to expand the event beyond the direct market, ie: Barnes & Noble, EB Games, Toys R Us, places that sell trade paperbacks and comic book-related merchandise?
Field: Absolutely no plans or intentions to move FCBD into B&N, EB, TRU or any mass market, big box stores. All those companies already have their own multi-million advertising and promotional budgets. That would be like inviting Galactus in for a quick snack! FCBD‘s goal is to get people into stores dedicated to comic books and graphic novels, to get them in touch with retailers who know what it is they’re selling because they love and understand the comics themselves. FCBD is a way for the whole direct market to join forces, taking all of our individual efforts and weaving them into a larger whole. So far, so good, in my estimation.
CBC: Is the direct market still the most effective approach to selling comic books?
Field: It’s by far the most effective way to sell periodical comics. And it’s the only market I’m interested in promoting since it’s the only comic book market I’m in!
CBC: Has it become a detriment to the vitality of the industry, though?
Field: The fact is our industry could use a whole lot more stores. There’s room for many more stores all across the direct market. There are so many places that are currently under-served by a lack of comics shops. By the way, the comic book market is more vital than it’s been in years, both on a creative level and sales.
CBC: What has FCBD accomplished in its short history, relative to its goals? Has it been considered a success?
Field: I think it’s up to each individual retailer to deem FCBD a success. In the first three years, FCBD has generated more than 1.5 million store visitors for comic shops. That’s pretty stellar, don’t ya think?
CBC: Are there any aspects in which you see room for improvement?
Field: I won’t be satisfied until everyone–kids, adults, seniors–finds the comic books and graphic novels that will keep them coming back to their local comic shops for more.
Joe Field is the owner/operator of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, CA, and the founder of Free Comic Book Day. He is also a columnist and industry analyst for Krause Publications’ Comics & Games Retailer magazine. He is currently Interim President of the Comics Professional Retail Organization (ComicsPRO), a retailer trade group. Field was the recipient of the 1995 Will Eisner “Spirit of Comics” International Retailer of the Year Award. The award recognizes retailers for support of a wide variety of comics’ material, for ethical business standards and for innovation in the field of comics’ specialty retailing. He lives with his wife Libby and three daughters in Concord, California.