View Full Version : a retailer strikes back

08-18-2006, 05:29 AM

by Brian Hibbs

#147 – August 2006 – “Trifecta…plus!”

A couple of small, shorter bits that are worth talking about, but probably aren’t full columns in and of themselves. They do, however, seem to have a common thread, see if you can figure it out!

* * *

In the Q&A section of New Joe Fridays: Week 8, Marvel comics Editor in Chief Joe Quesada said the following:

“Chris Noeth” - Do you think printed comics will live for another 30 years?

JQ: I honestly don't think so. I think the future of comics is going to be via fans receiving our content in electronic form.

(To which Jeph Loeb, at the Chicago comics convention, riposted “As long as there are toilets, there will be comics.” Heh)

This leaves me with pause, because it isn’t like anyone wants to think that they’ve invested their future (like mine in retailing physical hardcopy comic books) in selling buggy whips for horse-drawn carriages, right? And it leaves me double pause that the creative head of Marvel comics is the one who is saying it.

(Parenthetically, Googling “Buggy Whip” shows a number of firms still in that line of business, so even the “least used” products still apparently have an audience)

I am, obviously, a big fan of print, but I also see a lot of the advantages that digital delivery brings. Certainly, I spend hours each day glued to my computer screen, rapidly flicking from page to page, obsessively refreshing sites to see if any new thing has been posted – I’ll hit Newsarama 2-3 times an hour, just to see if there’s a fresh story, and even that pales to how often I might check CBIA or The Engine to watch a good debate unfold – but ultimately, I think that “print” and “screen” are two different modes of viewing.

Part of it is attention spans – reading websites lends itself more to short thoughts, quick bursts of idea and concept, in-and-out viewing. As much as I love my computer, and as many hours a day I spend staring at it (way too much), long, sustained narratives just don’t work as well on the screen. Fifty thousand word essays that I would curl up with for an hour in a magazine or book, quickly leave me squirming to move on to something else on screen.

In some ways, the physical interaction with a book or a magazine dictates how you respond to the work presented within it. How many of us have gotten more breathless as we’ve approached the end of a story in a comic, thinking “now, how the hell can they resolve this when there are only a few pages left?” Or been reading a novel at way-past-your-bedtime where you flip forward a few pages to see how much is left of the chapter to decide if you’ll keep reading?

Physical objects are also fetish objects. I own books that I love as much for the packaging, presentation, and craftsmanship, as for the ideas that are contained within them. I also own ripped and stained and dog-eared paperbacks that have become physical examples of my love of a work. I have books that are signed by their creators, and ones that have drawings by writers, and inscriptions by artists.

I could possibly be convinced that digital delivery would slowly become more and more prevalent, assuming someone figures out the economic model and the reader (will the “ibook” be a paperback size? A magazine size? Multiple reader size formats?), but, even if they were I just don’t see print and physical objects disappearing entirely.

If anything, I see the possibilities for digital distribution as creating a wider audience for the permanent print editions. I mean, you can get Calvin & Hobbes free online, yet that doesn’t stop Bill Watterson from selling many thousands of books every year.

So, no, I don’t think the print object will ever cease to exist.

* * *

At Otakon 2006, Tokyopop announced that they were taking a number of print series, including The One and Neck and Neck, to purely in-house distribution. As Tpop’s website puts it:

Seriously, you can't buy this manga ANYWHERE but right here! We mean it: you won't find this TOKYOPOP manga at your local bookstore, comic book shop or anywhere else on the web! Pre-order these books NOW because this will be a limited printing and having these books will make your friends jealous!

This Tpop exclusive distribution begins with volume 10 of The One, and volume 6 of Neck and Neck. Bookstores and comic stores, have been able to carry the first nine volumes of The One, and now they’re not being given the opportunity to carry volume 10.

Now my interest in this topic is pretty academic: I’m not personally carrying either series. But doesn’t this seem to you like a pretty crummy deal?

Evidently, The One did well enough to do nine volumes of it, nine volumes that stores, apparently, carried and stocked. Nine volumes that have some measure of an audience, and audience that Tokyopop apparently wants to take in house and direct.

Tokyopop regularly tries to get consumers to order direct from them – they even put a blow-in card in their Free Comic Book Day title offering some benefit or another for customers to buy direct – and that’s a regrettable course of action.

If you want the market (all markets, not just the comic shops) to support you, then you need to support those markets yourself. This is as true if you’re a market leader like Tokyopop, as it is if you’re a Top Shelf, producing an exclusive signed version of Lost Girls. It’s not even necessarily a matter of a specific project or a specific sales opportunity, but of the general sense of “We’re in this together” that needs to be fostered and encouraged.

When it isn’t, when the relationship between retailer and publisher becomes adversarial, then you start to have problems (cf: Bill Jemas’ tenure at Marvel)

I think publishers should be using the internet as much as possible, I think they should be spending a lot of time and energy identifying and developing their audiences, but I also think they need to find a path to do that that enhances and strengthens their retail partners, not attempts to steal customers away from them.

* * *

There’s been a little wailing and gnashing of teeth about the announced cessation of print publication for Claypool comics – that, somehow, this is indicative of the Direct Market being broken.

The debate centers on the notion that it was Diamond Comics Distributors, the de facto monopoly of distribution, who cancelled the Claypool books – simply by saying they had dropped low enough in sales that they didn’t want to carry them any longer.

How low? Well, we really can’t tell because Diamond’s chart doesn’t even report numbers that low. This puts them below (in July 2006, at least) 1600 copies or so, and there’s a certain amount of evidence to say that preorders on Claypool books were below 700 copies.

Is Diamond to blame for making a business decision that the amount of space the Claypool books took up in the catalog, on their distribution lines, in their warehouse, of their accounting department’s time, and so on, didn’t allow them to make a sufficient profit on these low-and-in-no-danger-of-increasing level of sales?

Hell no.

There’s many of Diamond’s practices that I disagree with (long time readers can probably name ten without thinking hard), but this isn’t one of them – in order to survive, Diamond has to make a profit. Diamond is a business, not a charity, regardless of the lack of distribution alternatives that are available. Diamond doesn’t owe you shit, spunky, regardless of what you might think.

Claypool’s problems were legion, and, personally, I’m surprised it took Diamond’s action to make them see the writing on the walls. The books were poorly designed (that trade dress and cover design was like Eclipse Comics circa 1982), indifferently promoted, seldom advertised. The content was professional quality, but workmanlike in execution. Claypool never seemed to make any attempt to increase their readership base, nor to update their look, and so, of course they found no audience.

It isn’t like Claypool didn’t have chance after chance to make an impression – we’re talking about 166 issues of Elvira, and 82 issues each of the “Fear City” books. They never really put their best foot forward, I have to say, and they were given every chance to increase their readership – that they didn’t speaks more about the work they published, than anything about Diamond.

Claypool is about to go “web only” with Deadbeats, and I sincerely wish Richard Howell luck with that. Here’s hoping that he’s able to find a business model that will support his production of a work he clearly loves.

* * *

Now, up until about 8 hours ago, that was the column, ready to go to bed (psst, the secret throughline was “the internet”), but then someone had to go and get stupid.

My first instinct was “let the column stand as is, I’ll just post to my blog, and a few choice message board responses”, but since I made my initial statement, several different people have decided to chime in, and I think I need to be more specific, and slightly less fulminating (heh) about the scope of the problem with Civil War.

See, for all intents and purposes, Civil War is the Marvel universe right now. There’s something like eighty tie-in issues, and this storyline seems to directly affect each and every character in the Marvel universe. And that’s where the problem lies – not in that a single book (however big) is shipping late. That sucks, yes, but it also happens.

No, where the problem is that the cascade impact that this has on the entire Marvel line. Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four appear to be skipping their October and December issues, Avengers is skipping a month (or more?). Delayed releases of Punisher War Journal, Thor, Mighty Avengers, other titles they haven’t announced yet. This is all money we’re not going to get back.

How much? Just as a thumbnail, ASM, FF, and Avengers appear to be currently selling something in the range of 300k copies, combined. That’s nearly a million dollars in lost revenue for the DM just for a one month “hiatus” – not even counting the loss of Civil War itself, or Frontline.

Direct Market Retailers make their cash flow by having regular, dependable titles that are released on a regular, predicable schedule – this brings a steady flow of clientele and cash. Any interruption in the regular release of regular comics thus brings cash flow challenges. There’s a three store chain who calculates they’re going to be out by almost $12,000 from the delays on Civil War. That’s a lot of cheddar.

There’s another more subtle, and more pernicious affect this can have, as well: because Marvel has their FOC system, where quantities received can be adjusted three weeks before shipping, Marvel calculates retailer discounts based upon a rolling average of total sales. What this means is that it is likely that a statistically significant percentage of retailers may find their discount on all Marvel products (not just the delayed ones!) drops by a percentage point or more. This could result tens of thousands of dollars of capitalization being removed from the market, in addition to the cash-flow losses from the delayed titles.

Big “event” stories work largely on “momentum” – with the excitement building as events unfold. Delays in those events unfolding slow down, and can cripple, the momentum of the underlying story. Dismiss it as anecdotal, if you like, but it is clear that plenty of people are saying that they’re done with Civil War because of these delays. Over at the CBIA, several stores have mentioned they’ve already had subscribers drop the titles from their pull lists just in the immediate fall out from the announcements of the delays. Will this be an ultimately significant number of people, or just a few? No way to tell, but there will be some percentage of regulars who walk away from the story because of the delays. It is a fairly consistent historical pattern in the sell-through of late comics.

Will that be 2% of the audience? Or 30%? No one knows, is the problem, but it is the retailer who will end up holding the bag on whatever unsold comics there may be. Hell, maybe Brevoort is right, and no one will leave. I sure as hell hope he’s right, and I’m wrong. The difference is, I’m not particularly enthused to stake my money on Marvel’s bet.

There is also the problem of the “lapsed” reader: Comics’ recent increasingly high media profile has brought back a lot of readers who had walked away over the decades. And a goodly portion of those readers are coming back in for Civil War. I was just talking to a returned customer the other day who, in part, left comics due to the delays on (he specifically mentioned) Dark Knight Returns; he’s come back for Civil War. Can I keep him from bolting again? Well, we’ll see – I’ll certainly be trying my level best – but I don’t really need my vendors throwing up roadblocks to what might be the most important demographic out there (we bring back all of the lapsed, and periodical sales could potentially triple)

Then there’s the wasted promotion and publicity. We’ve definitely had people come in asking about Civil War because of Quesada’s appearance on the Colbert Report. New readers like this aren’t sympathetic to these kinds of delays. Then there’s the vast swath of customers who walk in with their Civil War checklists – between the promotional material DM retailers handed out, and the bound-in material in virtually every Marvel title, there are millions of impressions making specific promises of shipping. Hell, just this very week, Marvel’s comics promote Punisher War Journal “New Ongoing Series starting September 2006” – except that’s not true. It now starts in November. Obviously, elements of Marvel knew it wasn’t going to hit that September date – and yet those 4 page glossy ads ran anyway.

Three weeks ago Marvel put Civil War #4 on FOC – the “Final Order Cut-off” – for arrival in stores Wednesday 8/16. The FOC is meant to be “here’s the stuff we’re going to press on this Friday”. Clearly, Marvel production knew that Civil War #4 wasn’t imminently going to press – so why was it FOC’ed? This is what gets me about Brevoort’s “we waited to tell you until we had the whole solution” – three weeks ago, we were told something dramatically different; that Civil War #4 was imminent. And that was information we passed on to our customers as well.

And there’s really nothing worse than being made out to be a liar – especially when it is easily preventable with a little communication.

Look, I get the aesthetic reasons Marvel took this course. And, generally, I applaud them – artistic integrity is a noble goal. But something like Civil War is different. Sorry, this isn’t Watchmen we’re talking about, or Dark Knight, or even The Ultimates – those are self-contained projects whose appearance or non-appearance only affects themselves. That’s not even close to the same thing as the lynchpin of a multi-month universe-spanning crossover.

Civil War is a good comic, yes, but I’m reasonably sure that history will show a decade from now, that won’t be regarded as one of the most important comics of all time any more than any other crossover does. I turn several copies of Secret Wars or Infinity Gauntlet or Crisis on Infinite Earths or Death of Superman every year – but the sales of all of those books, combined, is still an insignificant fraction of what I’ll sell of Watchmen. Long Term, “event” comics have weak legs.

I think the decision made was wrong, but there’s really no changing it now, just living with it. Still I would strongly suggest that Marvel take the following three steps:

1) Freeze all retailer discounts (Calculated, if you didn’t know, by the rolling average of 12 months worth of sales) from declining until December 2007. The fact that bread & butter books like Amazing Spider-Man are being held back to accommodate Civil War itself shouldn’t penalize the retailer. Especially those who are right on the cusp between discount brackets. I don’t see any practical global way to recompense retailers who are on the verge of raising to a higher discount bracket, but there must be a program to not decrease retailers discount levels for something they didn’t have anything to do with.

2) Assuming already solicited titles aren’t resolicited going forward, all Civil War-related titles solicited through to November should be made fully returnable, in addition to any FOC changes. I know that I will lose some percentage of my Civil War readers due to the delays in both #4 and #5. Will it be 2% or 30% though? I don’t know. Since Marvel is so confident that uninterrupted creative team is more important than uninterrupted schedule, it is up to Marvel to cover that bet, not the retailers.

In a similar vein, I think when this is all over, the already published issues should then be made returnable. Many retailers take inventory positions (especially with low-overprint Marvel) based upon what they think the long-range sales of title are going to be. If Civil War bottoms out because of the delays, they’re left holding inventory that was ordered under a different set of premises.

3) There needs to be some immediate print saturation-bombing promotion of the revised schedule – at least as much as was done originally. I know all the post-10-messages-a-day Newsarama regulars have a hard time believing it, but the majority of my customers don’t get comics news and information from the internet. They need a new, physical, checklist to replace their old wrong ones. They need something they can be handed to make the “So where’s Civil War?” conversation I expect to have 127 times with customers at least somewhat easier.

Those steps, while they won’t replace the lost opportunities for sale that the delay represents, will at least help mitigate some of its more unfair byproducts – lower discounts, leftover inventory, and consumer communication.

Going forward all publishers need to start getting more responsible with their schedules – and, yes, I’m looking at you DC with your All-Star line, and the regular Wonder Woman series – solicitations are promises, and they need to be kept. We all understand that, occasionally, shit happens, but when high-profile book after high-profile book goes bust, you can understand why people begin to think there’s something wrong with the system itself?

* * *

Anyway, that’s how you turn what you thought was a short quick column into 3100 words! See you next month.


Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An index of Tilting at Windmills on Newsarama can be found right here.

08-18-2006, 05:50 AM
Seems like reasonable requests. I know it would make the owner of my LCS happy.

08-18-2006, 09:32 AM
As the medium changes, so does the market. Direct-to-print is becoming less and less feasible. Without the Internet, it's difficult to get the word out about your comic in a timely fashion.

The new model is this: run a webstrip for a year, reprint in a collection with some new stuff and sell T-shirts. It's a lot more stable for everyone. The collected edition will have a high price point and already be a known commodity to the consumer.

What is probably dead are the single issue pamphlet-sized comics. Too small and too expensive. Their previous function was to bring "timeliness" to the storyline and the fandom via a letter column. Now, the Internet does that through immediate service and things like message boards.

And by the way, you can take tiny computers or your cellphone into the bathroom and read stuff there. Just like we're doing with Comflix: http://www.comflix.net/


08-18-2006, 09:41 AM
Letting CW go late is bizzare and incompetent beyond reason. How can that happen?

08-18-2006, 09:43 AM
I don't think printed books or comics will ever die.

08-18-2006, 09:46 AM
I don't think printed books or comics will ever die.
I agree. Print is just too convienent.

08-18-2006, 09:46 AM
I agree. Print is just too convienent.
I like Jeph Loeb's comment about how as long as there are toilets there will be comics.

08-18-2006, 09:50 AM
I agree. Print is just too convienent.
it's only as convenient as the right technology

Olivier E.
08-18-2006, 09:55 AM
cw would have come out 3 weeks earlier if it didn't need to be printed...

Joe Henderson
08-18-2006, 10:07 AM
His requests/demands seem pretty reasonable--I wouldn't be surprised if Marvel acceded to most if not all of them.

08-18-2006, 10:50 AM
It was delayed because it is being re-written hence all of the just announced tie-ins and one shot specials. I mean how can they even pretend that it is anything but when previously unsolicited books are flying out the wahzoo and now they are announcing titles jumping on the bandwagon with after-math events??? Guess what 2+ 2 still = 4:scared: