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My Response to Brian Hibbs On Issues Raised by the RRP Summit
posted November 27, 2005
 

I half-promised Brian Hibbs I would comment on his essay about the RRP summit in Montreal a couple of weeks back. As I understand it, the RRP summit is an invite-only series of meetings with retailers DC Comics holds every so often in order to touch base with the front lines of the direct market and get feedback for their upcoming editorial plans. Brian Hibbs used the occasion of this year's meeting to muse on DC's commitment to the direct market given their ongoing editorial re-position of their product and a shuffling of their marketing and sales division. Industry watcher Heidi MacDonald replied to Hibbs' essay here (she's switching servers, so that might be unavailable); Hibbs replied directly here. MacDonald wrote a longer piece on the general direction of the market that ties into some of the same issues and posted it here. There has been some discussion of the overall issues in chat venues like Warren Ellis' The Engine.

The two things most frustrating about the issue, which I see as the bookstore market's growing impact on the Direct Market-dominant sales landscape, is that one the one hand it's argued in really broad, unhelpful terms, and on the other hand I don't trust any of the numbers bandied around. To the latter frustration, I'm not going to use rough Bookscan numbers or comic shop numbers or even some publisher's assertions here; nor will I respect any argument that does so. The numbers are underreported, rarely verified and generally don't match up to what I hear off the record from various people. Whenever I hear someone say "you multiply this by this and I'm this percentage of this market with sales of this in a standard month so this means this," my ears turn it into the wah-wah sound of the adults talking from the Peanuts cartoon. The truth is, the numbers are almost too poor to be taken for what they are, let alone manipulated for effect. Luckily, there's a lot to be said for arguing more general points on this matter.

To the former frustration, the broadness of the argumentation, let me say I don't think there's a whole lot that's helpful in categorizing this as a bookstore vs. comic shops argument except in some very specific cases where the allocation of marketing resources is called into question. Most people who argue the bookstore vs. comic shops argument demand to speak in these Superman Vs. Incredible Hulk terms and often bring a lot of emotional baggage to bear that they tend to toss into the debate like so many abused children. Everything from "I can't go into comics shops" to really broad complaints that make you think comic shops somehow invented shitty service. "All they want is to play their games and watch TV." Personal preference is a fine barometer for qualitative change, but it makes for a bad measuring stick, and frequently confuses any issue into which it's dropped.

imageSo let me start by suggesting we jettison this DM vs. Bookstores thinking except where it directly applies, and even then not take it as a given. Each comics market is different, and of the vast majority of resources and contributing strategies that are aimed at each market, my feeling is relatively little comes at the expense of another. Now, with that in mind, the most useful way to read Brian Hibbs' essay is as a pretty dead-on description of how the comic shop is routinely undervalued, and the second most useful way is a direct criticism of DC's moves regarding their investment in the direct and bookstore markets. As Hibbs makes clear, the Direct Market's value should be obvious at this point. The Direct Market makes a much wider array of voices available to the market because the threshold for publishing becomes a lot lower than under any other system. The Direct Market makes it a lot easier for urban and suburban comics readers to spend more money on comics than they would otherwise (in other words, until I moved to the middle of nowhere I certainly bought more comics because of the existence of comic shops, and I think this is true of a lot of people). The Direct Market in many cases allows for a concentration of sales and marketing resources through a few outlets, such as clerks and owners that know their product and how to move it. Although the future is a variety of consumer outlets of all shapes and sizes, a Direct Market that works is one of the ideal places for some of those readers to end up doing a bulk of their comics shopping, both from the creative/publishing community's perspective and the consumer's. If comic book shops didn't already exist, we would dream about them.

That only a small number of DM stores come close to meeting these ideals is not an indictment of the Direct Market but, I would claim, proof the retail portion of the industry has suffered years and years of abuse. The big companies, with by far the most power, have long been the most egregious abusers, but almost no one in the comics business can claim to be guilt free on this matter. The most obvious period of direct abuse came in the early days of Image, when late-shipping policies were stretched to play such havoc with the capital outlays of stores many were crippled if not mortally wounded. But if you see the goal of the DM as growth over the long-term, a lot of common industry practices are bathed in an unflattering light. Over-publishing to win market share is an abuse, one that I think both of the big companies habitually practice. Setting release schedules that don't allow a retailer the room to sell individual titles free from an avalanche of similar titles that same week is a form of abuse. Routinely not keeping promises to publish at the time you say you're publishing is yet another form of abuse. Although some may disagree, I believe the practice of variant covers acts in opposition to goals of sustained, long-term growth. Worst of all, Diamond Comics Distributors policies that reflect a competitive distribution marketplace where none exists – things like exclusive contracts, locked-in catalog covers, any paid-for display space at shows, and the sale of marketing information -- are all, I think, impediments to long-term growth, are thus all fundamentally antagonistic to the retail community. It's amazing that there are any good stores, frankly.

imageWhat I would find galling if I were in Brian Hibbs' position about the possibility DC Comics might move resources away from my business to find new customers is that DC has over the long-term failed to do enough in terms of building a customer base through existing mechanisms. Instead, they've been playing market share games, and trying to beat the competition in the short-term, and seeking to maximize profit right this very moment. DC's move to potentially divert energy into solidifying a place in bookstores is even more alarming in that this seems more of a command decision than a company placing emphasis to reflect where sales are going of their own volition. DC has enjoyed a few hits in bookstores, but not enough that their current, seeming adjustment in marketing priorities wouldn't in some ways have to be labeled a leap of faith. To point out that mainstream outlets have made hits out of Mad Magazine and Dilbert means that it's a market to pay attention to, but step past the dizzying world of gee-whiz possibility and a second look reveals there are fewer comics humor magazines than ever before and only the top comic strip properties manage even one percent of their daily audience in book sales. Bookstores by themselves are not a panacea. Market myopia doesn't work; the future demands multiple venues.

That doesn't mean bookstore sales shouldn't be chased. They should. They must. Comics have a mainstream appeal that demands attention. But the thing is, all markets have to be pursued right now. Fighting over what percentage of resources goes where, even in the abstract, is the same kind of thinking that has retarded comics' growth over the years, that has kept few stores from doing anything other than falling into those habits that best satisfy the big companies' various, perverse goals. You don't need to cut off your existing market in order to serve the new one. If the market is sound, new investment will pay for itself. At the same time companies, and particularly the big ones, add resources to pursue a bookstore market, they should be reminded at every opportunity of the causes of 1) Direct Market Reform and 2) Direct Market Growth. If reform takes place and long-term growth is adopted as the goal, there will be enough in the way of manpower and financial resources freed up a few markets' need can be met -- this is even before additional investment can be made. Just as some smaller publishers have gained discipline in terms of publishing and advance marketing from their experiences in bookstores and have become better partners for the Direct Market, so can American mainstream comics publishers take this opportunity to learn how not to crowd a marketplace, to appreciate merchants who don't make you pay for display space, to see the value in directing catalog information to help people sell books, and so on.

In other words, the comics industry's major and minor players need to think in terms of becoming better partners for the greater goal, which should be participation in overall industry growth. This will eventually demand a lot of retailers, too. Brian Hibbs is lucky in one sense in that he's speaking at an historical moment in comics retailing when a lot of the uglier sides of the retailing experience have been made temporarily irrelevant by somewhat thinning ranks and locked-into, comfortable publisher/distributor/retailer relationships. I agree with Hibbs it's important the various companies get behind plans to aid in the opening of new shops, but given my memories of comic shop interaction 1994-1999 I have doubts that existing retailers are going to see new potential competition getting aid as a positive development. I also doubt that the retail community has the necessary backbone when it comes to rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, both in terms of demanding more from their biggest suppliers or, really, demanding much of anything from a lot of bottom-feeders that are left to linger around, drain capital, and use the backs of small business owners as an on-ramp for some Hollywood pay-off. The most compelling argument that publishers have used in the past for not always being good partners for comic shops is that comic shops don't reward such behavior on any signficant level -- in fact, I bet there's an element at DC that feels they've been carrying Marvel's portion of day-to-day working with stores without resulting orders reflecting this "extra" investment, and feels this partly justifies a shift in priorities. This will have to change.

The very good question in Brian Hibbs' original essay is why there's little to no investment in growing the number of comic shops that fulfill the Direct Market's promise of long-term growth in a variety of areas of expression, the promise that greets us when we walk into one of the really good comic shops out there. The short answer is that the bigger companies have manipulated the Direct Market so that it strives for goals that have nothing to do with that promise. It's not just a matter of investment; it's a matter of orientation. The only thing changes in investment can do at this point in history is leach the Direct Market of its potential to a point that when we finally realize its value and its promise, it's too late to do anything about it. Let's not repeat the missteps of the very early 1980s and see two markets as competitive when they can, with proper attention to reform for the sake of goals loftier than the next round of numbers, act in complementary fashion. DC and the other power players in comics, such as they are, can't with every action over a fifteen year period demand that the Direct Market act to fulfill one set of goals and then switch investment to another market as a corrective to behavior they've legitimized. Well, they can, but it's stupid.

*****

Meatcake probably wouldn't be published at all without the direct market, proof of its ability to provide some support to a wider variety of titles than would exist otherwise.

Bookstore sales have been good to Pearls Before Swine, but try finding a jpeg of Tom Toles' Curious Avenue collection.