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Brian Hibbs on My ComicsPRO Position Paper Analysis Concerning Advance Sales and My Response
posted January 18, 2008

Editor's Note: Because of the sprawl involved, I'll answer point by point.

Wow Tom, I'm really surprised at your reaction.

Hey, I was surprised by the position paper. In fact, I almost sent a note to Joe saying "You forgot the attachment" before I realized that it was there in the body of the e-mail.

By your numbers:

1) I'm not at all sure that ComicsPRO's mandate is to exclusively stake out new positions when there are plenty of "old" ones that still need to be resolved. Further, just because there's some "common knowledge" does not at all mean that all participants in a market are aware of them as clearly as they should be. Finally, my hope is that position papers will be fairly "timeless" and help set some marks for FUTURE publishers who will enter the market.

Well, we'll disagree there. I think if you're going to put out a position paper and have people like me see it as effective you need to advance an argument -- otherwise you're preaching to the choir. An old sermon, at that. You could at least offer up a better version of the argument. This reads like something an intern wrote. Brian, you can do whatever you want to with your position papers, but I'm allowed to gauge the effectiveness of the end result and will do so at every opportunity.

2) I'm not sure what kind of numbers you want to see here, nor I'm sure that I see the relevance of trying to specify the exact percentage of loss might be (if we could even do that, which we probably couldn't) - I don't want any retailer, anywhere, to lose even $1 if it is for a reason that is outside of their own control, and fully preventable by the actions of another. It shouldn't matter if the harm to the market is to the tune of $10 or $1,000,000 - there's harm being done. I know that, personally, I'm done a couple hundred dollars in sales each year in the aggregate because of my suppliers selling debut material at conventions - that's from individual customers specifically telling me "ah, sorry, I bought that already at [convention]", not just guessing. And I can say that, anecdotally, virtually every retailer who does significant volume outside of the "big four" publishers tells me the same thing - in other words, all of the "best customers" of the offending publishers.

What kind of number I wanted to see wasn't the point, so the rhetorical ploy of suggesting that I'm okay with a certain amount of damage to retailers is nonsense and beneath you. What I'm saying is that in presenting your point, you've given us no numbers at all, and therefore no reason to believe you. I'm sorry, this isn't an argument on some message board or an essay on your own web site, Brian. You guys need to step it up and provide better evidence than anecdotes. If nothing else, the publishers you're trying to reach have anecdotes of their own. If this enterprise is really damaging, it shouldn't be hard to find evidence as to how much.

I assume that behind that number of people who specifically told me that they bought it at a convention, there's some significant, but unguessable number who DIDN'T tell me.

Right, and a publisher can assume with equal special mental force that there are people who heard about the book because of the buzz generated at the con, and that they have a better relationship with their artist because of providing him with a good show, and any number of things. Why should your assumption hold more power than theirs?

I think that the fact that this passed the voting membership of ComicsPRO, showed that this isn't a "phantom issue" at all - if it were, the vote would never have passed.

Then you should be able to prove it, or at least feel it's of enough importance to make the attempt. At any rate, I don't think a non-binding vote on a position paper that potentially provides an advantage to someone is a very good indication of significance for any measure. If you'd like to provide a list of multiple, equally contentious issues that have failed to become position papers because of your retailers' good judgment in voting them down, you might have the start of something. But "it's legitimate because we decided it is" is just silly.

3) I'd happily be positive that most "show sales" go to people who are not served by comics shops - but we're not talking about "show sales" as a general concept, we're talking about the specific case of releasing a book at a show before it's made available at retail. And I'd be far less sanguine in believing that the majority of "new books" are to people without comic shops.

As for the "haven't held up our end" bit, man, you sound like Allan [sic] David Doane right now! Look, I defy you to say that Comix Experience or Comic Relief or Starclipper, or hell, for that matter the majority of ComicsPRO's membership hasn't supported exactly the publishers we're talking about, and done so over the long term and with a great deal of consistency. The fact that there's a large mass of stores out there who don't support "small press" does not negate the fact that there's a core that DO, and that undercutting your core base is something that shouldn't be done.

Brian, I hope you're just being disingenuous, and you're not so angry you can't tell the difference between my suggesting something is true and endorsing a position and criticizing your position paper because it fails SPECTACULARLY to bring the goods against arguments that are out there. You know I need no lecture about great comic shops, which I've supported for 15 years without it being beneficial to my bottom line. What I was saying on that point is that you're asserting the power of a compact that a lot of publishers may not see the same way that you do. It's bad argumentation.

Are you honestly trying to imply that because Billy Bob's Comic Hole doesn't sell Top Shelf, I should sell $225 less LOST GIRLS because it was available at San Diego weeks before I got access to it? Or, for that matter, that the calculation to DEBUT (not merely sell, but to put great time and expense into getting the book to SDCC in the first place) LOST GIRLS was in concession to Billy Bob's customer? Quite the opposite, I would say!

For one thing, you CAN'T PROVE that you lost $225 sales in Lost Girls. You haven't done the work to prove this. So stop it. If I'm a publisher, I can just as easily suggest that you sold an extra $400 in Lost Girls because of all the resulting buzz. I'm beating you by $175! Victory! Personally, as I said before, I believe that all you're owed is the information how it's going to be sold before you place your order. That seems fair to me. I know that's tough, but I don't have to tell you that you have a tough job. There are multiple venues that may provide quicker or otherwise qualitatively different service than a comic shop.

Also, to flip it around, are you saying that the publisher should sell $4000 fewer copies of Lost Girls overall to people not served by good comic shops because a couple of your customers may prefer to buy it from them directly? And to stretch it out to an absurdity, should a publisher not allow their artists on hand to sign any book unless they also schedule that artist for a signing in your store?

4) I don't see anything asking for specific market fealty. All we're asking for is equal access to product because we place non-returnable non-cancelable orders. That doesn't mean "we come first" -- it means "we come equal."

But you aren't asking for we come equal. I can't imagine any publisher is going to deny you if call up right now with your credit card and say you want to start air freighting books out from the printer whenever they do for whatever cons. The DM system isn't like any other system, and you can't make things equal by shooting the legs off of other system. You're working a different system with specific advantages and disadvantages. Clearly what you're asking for is that someone abandon a type of sale in favor of another type of sale that benefits you. Or, more accurately, the faint promise of a sale that benefits you.

Have you ever been denied the chance to buy books at a con at a direct-order discount? Have you ever been lied to about a book being made available at a con? If so, I'd support your cause there.

I don't believe think I've ever once seen a publisher state that they'd have a "drastic effect on their bottom line" is they didn't sell pre-release books; the argument I most commonly hear advanced is that it's a "marketing tool" (as it were), in order to create buzz, not to directly generate profit. In fact, what you usually hear is how time consuming and expensive it is to airfreight the material. If we were calling for a ban on ALL convention sales whatsoever then I'd buy it -- but we're not; just on selling it to our customers before we even have a chance at it whatsoever.

I've heard differently. And what do you have against marketing tools?

In terms of "concrete reward", I don't think we're in position to offer one in a paper because of anti-trust concerns, and because the commercial viability of work isn't necessarily transferable from one project to another, I'm not sure that anyone can offer a guarantee either way. I can't say for a certainty that I can order x% more copies of publisher Y's wares next month if they don't undercut me this month -- I don't KNOW what next month's wares ARE yet.

You're being a little more literal than I intended. I'd settle for some sort of figures that said, for instance, the books in the past that weren't sold in advance sold better than those that did. Anything at all, Brian, beyond anecdotal assurances and message board-style outrage.

I'd originally considered adding language about advance notification of pre-release sales something like the standard boiler plate that Diamond uses of "this product may be on sale in other venues before being delivered to Direct market retailers", but I have to say that every publisher I've ever spoken to, ever, has absolutely rejected that idea out of hand, fearing it would dramatically cut their orders from stores that won't be impacted by the practice.

Wait: so some stores aren't hit by this practice? Which ones? Why? Why if you have this information isn't it a part of your position paper?

As to the main point: I don't get this at all; are retailers really less amenable to being transparent about their sales practices because it might cost them a few sales and more amenable to eliminating that sales practice altogether and all of those sales? That makes no sense. Which publishers have you spoken to that indicated this? If publishers don't want to stop selling advance copies, and reject THAT idea out of hand, does that mean ComicsPRO drops this position paper, too?

(Also: allowing after-the-fact adjustments on orders generally delays books even further)

I wasn't talking about that.

That's what I think, at least.

Thanks for writing, Brian. I do sympathize with the retailers in general, and feel for them having to compete with material that's widely available in other venues. I support the retailers' right to transparency when it comes to what they're ordering. I really do. However, my sympathy ends when it comes to advocating a system where people can't pursue whatever commercial means they wish, particularly when they're more than happy to reap the whirlwind when it comes to the results. I've never seen a publisher beat his chest in public that it isn't fair that you shouldn't adjust your orders to whatever you think is the likelihood you'll sell something.

More importantly, I thought your position paper was pathetic given the supposed passion that retailers have for this topic. It screamed "phantom issue" because we're supposed to take your word for the losses, not take the word of the publishers about the gains, and the significance is vaguely asserted.

(In fact, here's a question: if you guys are all in agreement on this, and the position breaks down so cleanly like you say, why hasn't there been economic consequence? It's been years. No publisher I know has complained that they've been punished by stores even one little bit, and if you're losing orders, why the hell wouldn't you make adjustments? Are we supposed to believe you're just all really nice? Slow to react? Didn't realize it was happening? What?)

ComicsPRO should have been able to do much, much better.