What Advance Solicitations Are and Why You Should Care
"What are the Advance Solicitations?"
"Why do the comic companies tell you what they're doing 3 months in
"Why aren't comics on sale at newsstands any more?"
I've seen these questions asked a few times, and answering them requires some history about how the comic book business works. While this isn't essential knowledge for anybody, and grants no additional insight as to who would win in a fight between Superman and Thor, a little knowledge of the business can grant a lot of insight on decisions and trends of the industry. So, in my never-ending efforts to explain, enlighten, and look like I know everything , I present:
What Advance Solicitations Are and Why You Should Care
(Or, Everything You Never Wanted to Know about Comic Book Distribution)
Disclaimer: this is information gathered over time and through empirical observation. I'm not attached to the business in any way except as a consumer, and freely admit that I may have details or motivations wrong. Feel free to ask or question -- the only answer you will never get is to the question you never ask.
Before the 1970's, comics were sold like magazines -- after printing, comics were sold from publishers to wholesalers, who distributed them to the vendors. Comics that didn't sell could be returned for credit, which works out well for the vendors and the wholesalers, but not so well for the publishers, who are the ones ultimately left paying the bill for the unsold product. This is also sort of how books are sold, as I understand it.
Once the 1970's hit, a few different people got the same bright idea more or less simultaneously: stores dedicated to selling comic books. The reasons are varied, but the success of sci-fi and comic book movies (Superman and Star Wars in particular), the growth of underground comics, and the rise of older comics as collectable commodities all played a part in the rise of the comic book shop.
The deal these shops struck with the publishers was to buy NON-RETURNABLE product directly at a large discount. The vendors made their money from the discount in return for the risk of getting stuck with unsold product, while the publishers got a surer return on investment and, as a side benefit, quicker knowledge of when a comic was a hit or not. This is the "direct market" model, as opposed to the older newsstand model. When people say "Direct Market," they really mean the market of comic stores that engage in this behavior.
(For what it's worth, a lot of people point to reputed organized crime connections between a lot of existing newsstand distributors as another reason why comic companies were hot to try something different.)
The direct market didn't take off until 1981, when Dazzler #1, of all things, became the first direct-market-only comic book from either of the Big Two (meaning you couldn't buy it at newsstands). It sold more than 400,000 copies, double the amount of an average Marvel book of the day, and made a lot of people a lot of money. DC followed the next year with Camelot 3000 and got similar results. And almost just like that, the comic book direct market was off and running. The early successes of the direct market, and the continued insistence of newsstand distributors on returnable product, is why comics aren't around in drugstores and newsstands any more, and (more importantly) why they aren't coming back, no matter how much we think putting them there will "save" comics. If every newsstand sells 50 comics a month, but sends back another 100 unsold ones, the comics companies will have huge circulation numbers, mountains of unsold comics, and deep, deep debt.
The mechanics of the direct market are relatively simple. Comic companies send out lists of what they're publishing a three months in advance. These are the "Advance Solicitations" that you see all over the comics Internet, and this is why you know what's going to be published in May in the middle of February.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Comic Shop looks over the list (now published in a very big catalog called Previews) and sends in their order based on what's selling now and what they think will sell 3 months from now. Needless to say, this entails no small amount of risk -- if Carl's Comic Shop orders 200 copies of the sure-fire hit Big Bicep Man #15, but everybody suddenly notices that #12-14 are just reprints of old Thunder Thighs Man comics and skips #15, then Carl is going to be out a whole lot of money. Get it wrong too often and Carl's Comic Shop will be Sue's Sewing Circle in no time.
This is why decent comic book shops will LOVE you if you advance order comics, and are sometimes even willing to pass along extra savings if you do. They aren't stuck ordering books that won't sell, and even get some market research for potentially hot titles. This is also why Marvel and DC will load up on Batman, Superman, Spidey, and the X-Men until people stop buying them. All the icons are known sellers, and a much safer bet for comic shops than more experimental titles. Finally, this is why it's important to pre-order something that looks interesting but doesn't have a guest appearance of Wolverine in it -- there's really no other way to tell your comic shop or the publishers that you're interested in something, and low pre-orders can doom a book well before it even hits the stands.
It's worth noting that a lot of comic companies, like Archie, Disney, and the manga companies, are not as dependent on the direct market as Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, or Image are. In some cases, they have newsstand distribution outlets of their own. Manga companies tend to use bookstore distribution models because of the nature of their product. The fact that manga companies are making money hand over fist is what is driving the move for more and more TPBs, even though bookstore product is returnable.
The ultimate moral of the story is: Follow the money, and a lot more stuff becomes clear.
There is much, much more to the story here (like how DCBS can sell stuff at 50% discounts, what Marvel's "no reprint" policy REALLY means, and what delayed comics do to the system), and possibly even more questions that arise as a result, but I've babbled on long enough for now.
Chuck Rozanski Tells it All, and he should know. He's been running Mile High Comics for 30 years.
As always, the ones who REALLY know things on the Internet have all the answers in a FAQ.
The ever knowledgable Don Markstein, the similarly knowledgeable Jim Henley, and, um, somebody else who knows way more about this than I do also slice and dice the same material.
Edward Liu | Disney Forum moderator | Toon Zone News Interviews Editor
"What I believe is that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: Curious and teachable."
-- Roger Ebert, 1942 - 2013