Essentially, they are the left-over un-saleable “remainders” from book stores. Many book chains have moved into the “graphic novel” as a growth business and a new avenue of profits. They can easily sell recognizable product to the mass market (i.e.: Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Batman, Superman, Terminator, Transformers, etc.) in a pricey upscale format. See, it turns out that books have become commonplace gift items once again. Families are concerned for the reading skills of their children and teens, and adults are looking for something beyond the spoon-feed spectator audience of movies, television, and the Internet. Many decades ago, receiving a gift of a book from a colleague was quite common. It seemed to fade as a trend for a few decades (about the time that Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal this Book!” was published is a chronal turning point).
The upscale graphic novel (a single, illustrated story) or graphic album (an illustrated collection of different stories) was seen as the savior of the comics industry in the 1980s. The past decade’s sales figures of the 100-page plus collections of pamphlet material has indeed proven that to be true. Without these pricier collections, the comics industry would probably have completely failed as a business model. My proof you ask? Well in 2002, Marvel Comics was just plodding along battered by their bankruptcy filings, and trying to revive their bottom line. They hired Mr. Robert Greenberger formerly of editorial administration at DC Comics to round out their management team. Bob in his infinite wisdom pointed out that DC was doing a brisk business with their back-list of graphic albums and upscale trade paperback collections. It was the comics industry golden goose that kept on giving. Marvel, due to their financial woes had let many collected editions fall out of print. The bankruptcy left them without the financial resources to create new printings, which resulted in a shrinking back-list of collections. Concurrently, Barnes & Noble and Borders were getting heavily invested in these trade editions from other publishers (DC Comics, VIZ, CrossGen, Dark Horse, Image Comics, etc.). DC Comics had been only too happy to offer more varied genres and keep their editions consistently in stock.
The new management team recognized that one of the most important areas of Marvel that needed to be fixed was the whole backlist and trade paperback production department. Mr. Greenberger focused a great deal of effort to make this happen. Bob hired former Harris Comics editorial director, David Bogart to handle his expanding role at Marvel. So it fell to these two men to create a workflow that actually worked and to discover who still had the film, Photostats, or anything from which to reproduce these editions. I can tell you with certainty that there were massive problems. The Marvel archive of Photostats had been moved. Much of it was either lost, thrown out, or damaged. Wilson Ramos who was a key person for the archive had left Marvel, and without the right people…well, things can deteriorate rapidly.
So what could they do if they had the art for pages 1-16, and 20-22 but not pages 17-19? Well, I’m sure many of you have seen the reprints that contain High Resolution scans from previously printed books. They jump out because they often contain poorly-screened images that look rough in nature. This solution is not perfect, but even developing its use was a marketable breakthrough for Marvel and DC. I remember discussing some of the problems with David on my train ride home from Manhattan. Seems they had printed a Golden Age Masterworks archive edition (hardcover book) and the art had appeared all choppy and full of artifacting. No one understood why as the Photoshop file was crystal clear. I related to David my experience with Quebecor and their prepress department’s lack of knowledge about QuarkXPress. They essentially made a mistake in the formatting of their book template, and the book was saved as a lower format to be more compatible with their out-of-date RIPing software. It was stunning to see my former colleague furiously scribbling notes about our conversation. Seems that a month later in their next edition the mistake was corrected and, well…having worked with Quebecor, I wasn’t at all surprised.
David made a real priority of getting that area working well. It’s become a massive cash cow for Marvel since then, and it’s no surprise that he’s now a Senior Vice President for the out-of-bankruptcy Marvel Enterprises. It’s become such a massive part of their business that Marvel front-man and Editor-In-Chief, Joe Quesada has stated repeatedly that their monthly books (the pamphlet format) serve to create slices of a larger graphic novel stories. The whole idea of the Marvel house-style of extended storytelling is a direct result of the growth of the book market. Need some proof? Well comics for the preceding six decades always started on a Right-hand page. This allowed for an impactful opening (splash-page) which as a story-beat could led into a massive 2-page spread. That’s no longer the case. Marvel’s books now start with the “Story so far” text page, and then start on a Left-hand page. Why? Because, it makes the trade collection easier to assemble, and the stories can be sewn together without any break pages in-between the slices of pamphlets (chapter pages for you novelists).
So now onto those fire-sale prices of high-priced trade collections and hardcover editions. How did it happen? It seems that as a reading public has been saturated with these novelty editions, they’ve become commonplace. They aren’t really all that special anymore. So with a downturn in the economy, and reckless ordering policies from the bookstores these same stores are stuck with an overage of these products. So much so that they need to keep the cash-flow of these mega-bookstores rolling along. The extra unsold copies (regardless of the quality of the work or nature of the storyline) need to be sold—but sold CHEAP to keep the cash-flow machine rolling. They get sold at drastic price reductions as remainder copies (possibly for $1-$2 on a previous retail price of $20) to business bargain seekers who buy them as a entire lot of various books (called “remainders”). Then these small businesses weed through them, and re-price them for 50% off retail cover price. They pack them up and go to local conventions and have long boxes of specialty hardcover editions and trade paperback collections for fire-sale prices.
So when you purchase the Limited Edition Hardcover of “Planet Hulk” for $20 bucks and the cover price is $50, you are buying a “Remainder” from a mega-bookstore like Barnes & Noble or Borders. I know it’s a great deal for little cash, but those fire-sale prices have an effect of consumers passing on a sale. They used to buy the pamphlets, but started passing on those and “waiting for the trade” as it was coined. Now it’s all about passing on the newly-released hardcover edition and “waiting for the fire-sale pricing.” It’s not good for the publishers, the creative talent, the book market, or the future of the business model for comics. I know it makes for great reading, and I can totally relate…but it does have a financial impact on our very future.