Oh boy! Finally! After a few weeks off to relax and get acclimated, 2008 has its own brouhaha! And it’s a good one, exposing lingering animosities, nagging weaknesses in the retails system, personal sniping and the very core of where the business is now.
It all kicked off with the latest ComicsPRO position paper, whch you can read in its entirety in the jump. The jist of it is that ComicsPRO doesn’t want publishers selling comics at conventions before they are available to direct sales retailers since this practice costs retailers sales.
This issue has been around for a while. Selling at conventions has been a standard practice for all publishers except DC and Marvel — genie is way out of the bottle, but this strain of ire is aimed at the practice of selling books before they are available to the direct market. Notorious examples include Jeff Smith selling (and selling out of) his one volume Bone at San Diego; Top Shelf specifically ordering a skid or two of Lost Girls to sell with Melinda Gebbie on hand to sign it, and an earlier instance where Blankets was sold at MoCCA.
Of course, people go to cons to get books signed, but you’d think it was only a locally based problem. Nope. The ComicsPRO paper specifically states that not only is Melinda Gebbie at San Diego a problem for say, Robert Scott’s store in San Diego, but Rory Root’s store in Berkeley and Jim Hanley’s in New York because some of their customers may have travelled to San Diego to buy Lost Girls.
The oppositre argument is that most comics shops don’t support indie publishers to begin with, small publisher depend on convention sales to cover their bottom line — and generate tons of media buzz–and while ComicsPRO claims they will be stronger sales and marketing partners for publishers who don’t do this, no one seems to be able to figure out exactly what this means.
This is a battle many indy pundits have been having with retailers for a ong time now, and not surprisingly this prompted many pro-indy pundits to come out with their OWN position papers. Tom jumped out pretty fast, calling the paper “terrible”, for several reasons, one of which was that the paper doesn’t give any real evidence of the harm.
Johanna came out with more strong objections:
Asserts is the right word. Publishers tend to say, when I’ve seen this discussion before, “no it doesn’t, because we’re selling to people without stores” and “we have to, to make our budgets”. Retailers say “I’m not stocking your books, then” (if they even were in the first place) and we have a standstill, because then the publisher has even more incentive to go around the direct market. No one can conclusively prove their position, and with just-in-time ordering, retailers rarely stock ANY publication in depth at initial order. If the impact is that noticeable, I wish someone would post some figures.
Alan David Doane, himself a rather opinionated writer who once said “Die Direct Market Die!”also chided retailers for failing to acknowledge the reality of the multi-channel comics market. Dick Hyacinth and Frank Santoro also weigh in. (Doane follows up with a MUST READ on publishers response to the controvery.) And now I’m doing it too! Whoo, where to begin.
One of the problems here is that the opposing sides seem to take one example of less-than-perfect behavior on either side as a synecdoche for a lifetime of abuse. For instance, retailers will never forget that Jeff Smith sold out of the single volume Bone; likewise David Welsh’s special trip to a comic shop only to find it closed when it should have been open is a blaring symbol of everything wrong and stinky about every comic shop ever under the sun.
People in comics never forget anything, do they? I guess that’s why everyone loves continuity.,
Reality is more broad based. The comment thread at Johanna’s quickly becomes the town square for this issue as several prominent ComicsPRO members come to debate. The issue is a hard one becasuse the stores in ComicsPRO are, by and large, the stores that actually do a good job of carrying indie comics. This isn’t a case of superhero stores complaining about depressing, life-hating indie comics which they are never going to order anyway. But what really is the cost of the practice to retail partners? And how could the stores, even the good stores, help publishers sell more copies? It could be argued that the buzz generated from the sales of Lost Girls, Blankets and Bone generated at the show sales helped create more awareness and helped drive more traffic into the store to buy than created customers who went in to their shop and said “No, thanks. I already got that from Freddy Freelancer at the Mighty Mini Con, and he threw in a free blow job, too!”
Indeed, asked for concrete examples, the only one that one retailer can come up with is Sire: Revelation #1, which is published by someone named MikeComics. I’d love to know just how heavily Neptune Comics ordered on this obscure title and what they thought the demand would be.
Heroes Con’s Dustin Harbin sees both sides, a rarity in the debate:
Although it tastes funny in my mouth to say it, I think this is a free market issue–I do not think the future of comic books as a medium or art form is tied to the direct market, and I think comic retailers need to evolve out of the strange system that coalesced in the 70’s. The fact that comics are sold more and more in the mass market is great for comics, but not so great for the direct market. That doesn’t mean that forward-thinking retailers can’t figure out a way to survive and even thrive in this new market.
Amanda Fischer , one of the friendliest retailers out there, explains why here, why now, and Brian Hibbs confirms that this is more of a “you make me feel bad!” thing than a “here are the stats” thing:
And I don’t think we CAN offer macro-examples, because there’s no effective way to poll a wide swath of customers about behavior that they may have engaged in — that is to say “Comic shops would have sold 1.7% more copies of BONE ONE EDITION had Cartoon Books not sold it before it arrived at retail” is sort of essentially unprovable in a macro sense. 2) “Noticeable” is a weird word, because I pretty much don’t care if someone takes $1 from me or $1000 — in the end I’m making less money (regardless of scale), which makes it harder to run a “good” comics shop.
Brian and Tom Spurgeon are currently engaging in a blog war over these issues, and while I’m tempted to let them slug it out and have the utmost respect and fondness for Brian, this idea is not one that’s very defensible. In a dollars and sense world, there is a HUGE difference between $1 and $1000. If costing Brian Hibbs $1 makes Top Shelf $20K, then you need to just suck it up, man. The health of an ENTIRE INDUSTRY is the question here — put it the other way. Would Brian Hibbs donate $1 to keep Top Shelf, Cartoon Books or Fantagraphics alive?
Further down the thread devolves into what I can only characterize as retailer petulance and resentment. Hibbs gets a little whiny — “it ISN’T FAIR and ISN’T RIGHT” — and CBIA’s cantankerous Robert Scott warns:
Ultimately they don’t owe us anything but the reverse is true as well. If they don’t feel that the DM is an area that they need for their success, trust me, there are plenty of books out there for us to sell.
He follows this up with an epic yawp that’s a model of defensiveness and hostility. Eventually he gets banned for sending Johanna an email reading ““F*** you and your hyocritical ignorance.”
Leaving behind the steaming battleground for a moment, there’s this quiet little comment from
I should have something to say about this, since I’m a new publisher in a position to debate a book at Wonder-Con before the official street date. I don’t have the time to devote to commenting at the moment however. Hopefully this will change over the course of the weekend.
And there’s the rub. What SHOULD Matt Maxwell do, ComicsPRO? Diamond isn’t going to help one little man with a book on any significant level. Comic shops aren’t going to order an almost unknown self published western by a creator best known as being an intelligent blogger in numbers that are going to impress anyone. Maxwell’s only business strategy is to raise awareness of his book by the means available to him — internet postings, selling directly to fans at shows, media outreach and, yes, talking to retailers.
The sad thing is that no set mechanism exists for the latter. New publishers arriving on CBIA are inevitably met with suspicion and the equivalent of a “Are you now or have you ever been a publisher who might have sold a comic outside the direct market?” threshhold that just isn’t logical in today’s day and age.
ComicsPRO is a much, much needed organization whose input into all of these issues is vitally needed. However, this position paper is really just a hurt retort against a co-worker you’re stuck with. They can’t rail against Amazon, B&N, B&T, the internet, libraries, manga or anyone else, so they just lashed out at the nearest person. Solutions are needed but this is just a band-aid.
Direct Market retailers purchase their inventory under a non-returnable arrangement. With very few exceptions, Direct Market retailers are obligated to pay for the material they purchase from a wholesaler, regardless of their ability to ultimately sell that material. This non-returnable arrangement is one of the cornerstones of the current distribution system.
Some Direct Market-oriented publishers gain a significant portion of their sales from direct-to-consumer sales at conventions and other fan-driven gatherings. ComicsPRO acknowledges that publishers should have access to as many revenue streams as possible in order to become and remain profitable. ComicsPRO asserts that direct-to-consumer sales of material prior to their release to retailers adversely affects potential sales in Direct Market stores belonging to our membership. When customers have already purchased products directly from a publisher before the retail channel is even able to stock these items, the cash flow and bottom lines of Direct Market retailers are noticeably impacted.
In order for a market to function efficiently, all market participants should have equivalent access to the goods offered. If one or more participants has early access to market offerings, all other participants in that market are affected, whether through realization of full sales potential, or from less tangible concerns including reduced consumer confidence in a product line or a manufacturer.
Conventions, even regional ones, will have national sales impacts. East Coast-based customers frequently travel to West Coast conventions (and vice-versa). It should not be assumed that sales impacts are limited to the region where the event is hosted.
Request for Action
ComicsPRO requests that publishers refrain from selling direct-to-consumers in any manner until the same product is received and available for sale by all members involved in Direct Market retailing.