I'll Trade Ya

A large part of my living room at home is taken up by a collection of 30-some comic-book long boxes. I also have a bookshelf full of graphic novels, collected editions, trade paperbacks and whatever other term is currently used for comics with a spine. Given a choice, I'd rather have more of the latter. Collected editions are my format of choice, for a number of reasons.

They take up less space. It's a lot easier to store six issues' worth of story in one package than it is six actual issues.

They feature complete stories, meaning that I can pull one at random off the shelf and get a satisfying read, whereas digging into my boxes often means an armload of comics to get the same result.

They are often a more impressive package. There's just something aesthetically pleasing about shelves full of spines that have the titles of my favorite comics on them.

Those are my personal reasons, although there are a number of more important ones.

The most important reason why I think collected editions should be the norm is because they're a lot easier to sell to non-comics readers. They look and feel more like the books that people are used to. I've given Sin City and Whiteout trades to my father for Christmas, and he enjoyed both of them. Handing someone the first trade paperback collection of Strangers in Paradise and then pointing out that there are more collections of the story has proven to work very well at bringing new fans into comics. Telling someone about a great story I read in the early days of my comics reading and then being able to point them toward a collected edition that's still in print also goes a long way toward bringing in new fans.

Ideally, I'd like to see the industry publish its work in trade paperback form first, just as the publishing industry publishes novels as their main product. However, I recognize the large hurdles in this type of strategy. There are obstacles in cost, logistics and fan perception to overcome.

Cost-wise, such a publication plan requires a whole different payment structure. Very few creators can go for three months without a paycheck, but that's exactly what the payment structure would be if a system roughly analogous to the way creators are paid now were set up. Upon publication of the completed story, the creators would get their paycheck and royalties. Even if it were upon reception of the entire story instead of publication, it's going to be too late. Publishers would basically have to pay out money to creators before they have the entire story, risking a situation where the creators would never give them the finished product that they had already paid for.

The logistics are a larger problem, although they're also the most easily solvable. DC Comics is the closest, in terms of logistics, to working at this kind of structure anyway. They have warehouses, they keep their trades in print, and they ship them out to bookstores and other mainstream outlets as well as specialty stores. Most other companies, including Marvel, print their trades to order, and once the initial orders are sold, they are out of print. Reprints are always possible, but there's no guarantee you can get a trade. This is a huge problem, because one of the functions for trade paperbacks should be to let anyone get into a series they've heard a lot about immediately.

There are plenty of other logistics problems to solve as well. Retailers would have to restructure their entire schedule, because although Wednesdays would still be the day when new trades came out (if things were to stay relatively the same), they're less likely to have as many customers who buy new trades every week. Instead, they would have a revenue stream that was more balanced across the week, with occasional spikes when someone got the idea to pick up an entire series or came into a little extra money. Fans would have to make decisions not based on first issues, but on the first trade paperback collection. It would make new series a really hard sell, because dropping two or three bucks on an issue is a far cry from spending ten to twelve dollars on a collection you might hate.

Ignoring all the other potential logistics problems, there's also the problem with fan perception. The 32-page stapled comic is a long-standing tradition, and if there's anything that publishers and retailers have learned by now, it's that comic fans are traditionalists by nature. They're not going to take kindly to giving up their weekly fix in pamphlet form for collected editions. They're conditioned to cliffhangers, to stories in bite-sized chunks with an ending that keeps them coming back for more, and although there has been a shift recently toward limited series and more self-contained arcs, that shift is not complete.

So that's why collected editions can't become the default publication standard anytime soon, or at least a few reasons why. However, that doesn't mean there shouldn't be a shift to more collected editions. Publishing the standard version, with guaranteed trade paperback collections, has proven itself to be very valuable for DC Comics. Transmetropolitan has been riding the bottom of the sales charts for a long time, but the trade paperback collections sell well, and sales increase on the standard version. The trades allow people to get caught up and jump on to the monthly version if they can't wait, and even though fans know a trade collection is coming, they'll still buy the regular version of the comic so they can get the story as soon as it comes out.

That's the secret, and I think it's going to be a big part of the future of comics. Viewing the regular comics as a transitional form, and the collected edition as the form comics should be in, is just a perception shift, but it's an important one. It means that publishers wouldn't panic when the numbers on a series they find creatively promising aren't high enough to warrant continued publication. Instead, as long as sales aren't plummeting, they could put together a collection of the material and sell it. Even if that collected edition money doesn't make up for the loss of money on the monthly title, they could cancel it and keep the material they've already paid for in print as a collection. When one of the creators gets big on another project, they've got a guaranteed seller for completists, all for just royalty and printing costs. The original creative was paid for long ago.

I'm well aware that there are a lot more logistics and perception and cost details to be considered here. But it's worth taking a look at how comics are printed and the form we expect to see them in, because the format we're seeing is suffering, and I'm not the only one who thinks that collected editions are the way of the future.

Randy W. Lander wishes Marvel would adopt DC's trade paperback philosophy, because he has serious holes in his Marvel back issue collection.

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