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February 14, 2010

A (Very) Few Notes On Brian Hibbs’s Analysis Of 2009 Bookscan Numbers

1. Brian Hibbs' yearly analysis of Bookscan numbers is interesting in that someone has received that expensive report and put some of its results out there for folks to look at. I know I'm grateful. No one sends me that report. It's fun to see how certain books did on the chart, which books that are sort of like comics get thrown in the mix, which books potentially -- potentially -- underperformed with a super-anemic number.

2. At the same time, Hibbs' qualitative analysis is so infused with this highly insistent defense of the Direct Market -- a group for which Hibbs is a major, self-interested advocate -- and makes use of arguments and lines of analysis Hibbs has been lacerated for making for years now as if he just came up with them for the first time, that's it's difficult for me to recommend it to anyone. I've formally withdrawn this year's CR post recommending it. The framework overwhelms the content.

3. There are three big, sweeping problems to Hibbs' general approach. The first is that I can't figure out who on earth holds the positions he insists on dismantling. For example, at one point he says, "But, regardless of the specific reasons why, the notion that the bookstore market for comics might offer limitless growth seems to be on the rocks." What? Nobody rational or in a difference-making position argues this! Limitless growth? Come on! A few goofy bloggers may have gone over the top five years ago when their own perceived influence and bookstores' initial surge cast a slightly heroic/romantic sheen on an emerging market in a way that generated a torrent of bluster, but no one followed their hysterical "quit throwing good money after bad" advice, nearly everyone I know rolled their eyes at them, and, most importantly, I'm not aware of any of those people arguing that kind of thing anymore. We don't live in a world of bookstores vs. the Direct Market. We live in a world of bookstores and the Direct Market and whatever else works. Everyone that matters knew this years ago.

4. The second is that Hibbs admits the numbers are untrustworthy in a lot of ways -- he doesn't get to all of the ways they're untrustworthy, but he gets to some of them -- and then compares them anyway and goes on to make sweeping statements about the state of the industry based on those comparisons! This is just crazy. Saying some measures are better than none is true. But it's also true that taking two bad numbers and then using them one against the other stands a good chance to compound the distance each resulting measure is divorced from reality.

image5. The third sweeping problem is that the bookstore vs. DM argument takes over those sections even when it's not brought up. This is likely a personal weakness on my part, but there it is. When Hibbs brings up the fact that the bookstores will be losing these staggering sales on Watchmen after this surge they enjoyed in 2008 and 2009 leading up to the movie, there's little to no substantial analysis of what this might mean in the bookstore beyond the loss of sales on an imaginary scoreboard. Could this leave bookstores open to someone suggesting they have the next Watchmen in the form of some Green Lantern book? Will they favor the shelving of DC books for a while? Will this make it that much harder for Marvel to kickstart their post-Disney purchase bookstore program? Were stores stuck with Watchmen copies as the cycles worked themselves out? Are they asking for new Watchmen material? I have no idea. Instead of these questions or much better ones, my first thoughts were, "Yeah, but the comic book stores lose that sales surge, too. And they lose the Obama stunt covers!" A business story festooned with nuances gets turned into Thing vs. Hulk and I'm not mature enough to resist the pull.

6. I think Hibbs vastly underplays the recession. It makes perfect sense to me that a market serving relatively casual readers and with deep wounds hampering a market leader is going to be hit hard in a recession. And if everything must be a market to market dick-measuring contest, it also makes perfect sense to me that a market serving relatively casual readers is going to be hit harder in the first 12-15 months of a recession than a market serving the most devoted fans. One thing that made me feel positive about the recession going in is that comic book retailers are hardcore survivors with years of clawing their way across a vicious landscape while their suppliers occasionally throw cinder blocks at them and bookstore owners are basically shareholders with years of unrealistic, walk-in-the-park suburban expansion. If anything, I'm amazed the overall dip was that light.

7. I think Hibbs underplays the effect the quality of books has in a lot of comics' sub-markets. For example, maybe it's just me, but I look at Tokyopop's offerings and nothing really jumps out at me as something that should have sold so much better that Hibbs should be compelled to float the potential of behind-the-scenes chicanery.

8. I think Hibbs overplays a manga "freefall." I've been reading for years that there were potential rough periods ahead for manga. One of them would come at the time when the most popular, crowd-pleasing series finished their initial publication runs or moved from the sweet spots of those series. One of them would come when the first generation of readers aged into another buying-habits stratum. It wasn't unheard of to suggest that they might come together or one right after another, and that they might arrive in the midst of a recession. And here we are. Hibbs acts like he made up this line of thinking that the first manga audience may have aged past certain buying habits, but, again, I've been hearing that for years and I'm not exactly Mr. Plugged-In when it comes to the right to left world.

That's really all I have. I'll try to look at the numbers later on this week as divorced from Hibbs's yearly jeremiad as I can muster, but for now it's difficult to say anything about a framework that just seems all wrong to me when it comes to getting at what these numbers mean. I challenge Hibbs in the years ahead to at some point go an entire year without a single mention of the Direct Market or his own retail work, summoning for these numbers a thorough work-out that doesn't depend on a comparison to another set of numbers. I think the results could be quite compelling.
posted 8:00 am PST | Permalink

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