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A Response To Brian Hibbs on the Issue of ComicsPRO's Position Paper on Convention Sales
posted January 22, 2008
 

This is a very boring response to this essay by the comic book retailer Brian Hibbs on Savage Critic. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, I trust that the following tidal wave of jibber-jabber is going to be enough to drive you away and bless your heart for making that smart choice. If you know what I'm talking about and are up on the latest back and forth enough to want to read the following, I can't imagine a clever introduction will be of much use to you. So let's jump right in.

In general, Brian doesn't seem to understand that the majority of what I originally argued is the effectiveness of his organization's position paper. More and more I've been discussing the position itself, but my initial post was about the effectiveness of the position paper, not the righteousness of any position. This is important, because in certain cases it means arguing different things than I'd otherwise argue.

With that understood, I still feel that to make their position paper effective, ComicsPro should have come at this issue with better support than Brian Hibbs and a few other retailers being able to rattle off anecdotes. Call me crazy. I don't think this was beyond ComicsPro. In the time that's been spent to post on comment threads about this subject, someone could have done a simple survey of membership. That would have been something, at least.

Better support is important because 1) without any better support than what we've heard in the past, one might suspect this is a made-up issue of the kind that gets people riled up on the Internet, 2) there are competing anecdotes that are equally if not more convincing for why the policy should remain exactly as it is 3) it provides a weak foundation for argued benefits to be weighed against the potential negative impact of changing policy.

Brian says they can't provide better support without naming individual publishers. This is insane. Let's make one up: "176 of 180 ComicsPro members report at least one lost sale of a pre-ordered book in 2007 due to convention sales." That's support with a number in it and nobody is named. Maybe it's not the most convincing number, but it's better than pissed-off, broad assurances and scattered anecdotal back-up. You can also can also mask publisher names and book names. It's not like most people don't know which publishers they're talking about anyway, and Brian's happy to name them in his follow-up defenses.

Brian's paragraph that they'll only be underreporting the problem is nuts, too. People understand what a sample is. This also stands directly against Brian's claims that ComicsPRO members are a significant percentage of these publishers' retail customers, so the sample would logically be weighted towards making the problem greater than it is.

Brian's finishes his argument about "evidence" by stating his perplexity that anyone would question him on this, and that it's obvious he's been done harm, and his fellow retailers know they've been done harm, so why won't you just listen to us when we say knock it off. It's very touching. Or annoying, depending on your point of view.

Some answers: 1) there's competing anecdotal evidence from publishers, 2) the anecdotal evidence from the retailers may be suspect, 3) the solution may be worse than the problem. That's why we don't accept your arguments for a policy change on their face.

*****

Brian asks: "Selling in advance of your primary sales force being able to do so seems foolish. Can you think of any other business where that would be considered acceptable?"

Sure. Three pop into mind immediately in the same "arts" category, even.

1. film. At film festivals, film fans sometimes get a chance to see films before their local theater are able to show the same films. Like comic conventions, people travel to film festivals, so it's not just the local theaters feeling the effect.

2. books. At BEA, countless hardcore book fans descend on the floor show and fill basket after basket with book that have yet to come out, book they will not be buying from a booksote. It's almost like the comics convention set-up, except a) at BEA the books are
FREE, and b) unlike comics, a lot of BEA books are re-sold doubling the business "lost" to the stores.

3. theater: plays often run previews, sometimes in a different house, sometimes for free, before taking the a show into its formal run.

*****

Back to Brian's essay. Brian's point that people not served by comic book shops are still going to buy books at the con once the shops have them and "there's no possible loss there" seems completely untenable to me.

For one thing, it paints an irrational picture of how commerce works, as if we all have our rigid wants fulfilled in calm, rational fashion at the first point they're available and will maintain these desires at an equal level until they're met. I wish! I'd own about 1/10 the stuff I have now if this were anywhere near the case.

I would suggest that consumerist impulses are much more synergistic and overlapping. Atmosphere drives sales of books. New books drive sales to other books. Sales of any kind drive further sales. Sales of exclusive books drive sales to other books from those authors. Exclusives on hand bring cartoonists to shows that drive sales to all of their books. The promise of exclusives brings people to shop that might not have come otherwise. And so on. Further, new books are attractive in and of themselves. I can't believe I need to suggest to a retailer that comics readers sometimes don't buy stuff even if it's new to them once it's not brand new.

Brian's response that Top Shelf wouldn't sell him books leaves out the fact that as far as I know Brian doesn't exhibit at San Diego and therefore he's talking not about getting books for a shows-sale situation but getting them for his store. That's a different thing, and more difficult to argue, but I have to admit: in general, I believe that publishers should work with anyone wishing to buy material any way they'd like to buy it, and as such I don't support Top Shelf's decision in this case (as Brian reports it) to restrict any merchant to any one avenue as long as they're willing to pay for it. (I sympathize, though, because of the demands Diamond places on the publisher.)

As for Brian's argument that publishers are lying by omission, I've been on the record saying that retailers should have the right to transparency. I'd also suggest that most retailers know what's up at this point with certain publishers at this point, and that the ones that are a true surprise are rare and should be dealt with as a hazard of the business.

I'm not suggesting any kind of order/adjustment or special policy be put into place; I'm suggesting transparency.

Brian then attempts through rousing rhetoric to compare this situation to Marvel's policies of late and mis-solicited comics by declaring Nobody Puts Hibbsy in a Corner. I have no idea why he decided to do this, but it was really funny. And yet, spectacularly irrelevant.

Brian then re-states his original thesis that all channels should have equal access in terms of timing. I'll re-state my own response: different markets work in different ways. An argument to level them is only convincing if 1) an egregious harm can be shown, 2) a potential advantage can be shown, 3) those advantages can be reasonably understood to outweigh potential negatives.

Brian Hibbs has shown none of these things. ComicsPro didn't even try!

What's worse, Brian punts on the problematic existence of an equally compelling counter-narrative. The counter-narrative whereby a publisher Top Shelf stays in existence because of a convention sales program 1) depending on, and 2) just as significantly BUILT AROUND, exclusive books. The counter-narrative where advance buzz about debut books becomes a storyline in nearly every single piece about the show and exists as a commodity for many sellers to seize and use in moving more copies. The counter-narrative where selling books at a show allows a publisher to stay in existence by helping cement their relationship with talent. The counter-narrative that aligns them with the book industry where more of them are doing business they were assured ten years simply didn't exist, a book industry that doesn't make similar demands of them. The counter-narrative where retailers have decided to press this modest advantage with no protection against a potential downside and have decided this is a better overall plan for their company, and are willing to accept any negative reaction. A negative reaction that hasn't come.

In the end,

1) I think ComicsPRO made a crappy case, and that a better articulated, better supported case either in the paper or ready to go in support of the paper once released would have done a lot more for their side of the issue

2) Now that I've heard from Brian, I'm not sure the retailers CAN make a case on this subject that's 1) convincing in and of itself, 2) more convincing than the counter-case, 3) seems significant in terms of the potential disadvantages of the policy change

3) Despite rhetoric to the contrary that boasts of looking to overall maximized market, the retailers' rhetoric sounds like -- and may actually be -- it's stuck in an era looking at sales they're owed.

4) I fully support transparency in what will be brought to sale.

5) I fully support publishers working with any and all merchants to sell them books in any way they wish and are willing to pay for.

6) Unique markets should be open to all, celebrated for what they offer, and pressed for the advantages they can provide one another. They should not be leveled on the basis of anecdotes, assertions and promises.

*****

Update:

Brian Hibbs responds to this post here. He punts on most of the arguments raised. This includes any argument that provides significance or importance to the issue. He also admits the paper could have used work.

He argues a pair of general issues.

He uses a "sense of the room" on Internet giveaways whereby ComicsPRO retailers have decided not challenge Internet giveaways to dismiss the counter-examples from other art forms altogether. 1) This isn't very convincing given the reaction to the BOOM! giveaway that preceded that sense of the room, compounded by the fact that this is equivalent material. 2) I frankly don't believe him that most retailers would be into publishers giving away equivalent material in advance of sales at comic-cons, but it's safe for him to say so because the economics are such it will never happen. 3) His analysis that when agents in other art forms sell to customers directly it's something else, but when comics does it it's competition is more arbitrary labeling than pointing out a qualitative difference between the transactions identified and the type of "loss" he claims is incurred in comics.

Brian argues against transparency as a solution because no publishers want transparency. 1) This is a weird argument, because they don't want to stop convention sales, either. I'm not convinced that pressured or cajoled or talked or coerced into one position or the other, they'd opt for the elimination option over the modification option. 2) As I've indicated before, transparency largely exists to a certain extent because of history. If Marvel and Top Shelf both have books scheduled for August, it's pretty clear which company has a chance of selling copies at MoCCA and San Diego. In fact, what we have now is over-transparency: entire publishing lines labeled this way, not just certain books, and a limited number of publishing lines at that.

I still think a key point is that if this were an issue of any importance, there would have been some sort of correction by now or it would have become clear to publishers that they were selling better in stores with certain books than they were with the books they used in convention sales or they were convinced their overall bottom line was served by eliminating the practice. It seems to me a dubious practice to support policy that has a more convincing life as words on the Internet than as actions in the marketplace. And even then, not so convincing.