While the comics medium advances in prestige and material success both in fairly dramatic leaps and encouraging steps , physically moving things around and getting people to reach into their pants pockets, find money and hand it to someone else in exchange for a comic remain the most problematic areas of the business. While the webcomics model does away with all messy papers and trucks and roads for moving things, not everyone is ready to embrace the electronic wonderland. Not everyone will. Or should.
And so we are left with brick and mortar comics shops and bookstores and all the wonders and blunders associated with the same. They are the merchant class. They are not the dreamers and poets. They aren’t the well-coifed actors or the heroic warriors. They’re just the men and women who make money selling us things we want and need. And they have their own wants and needs. Because they deal with numbers all day, these wants and needs are exhaustingly technical and incremental for a non-number cruncher such as myself.
By cosmic coincidence, while Tom Spurgeon was writing his essay on why comics shops matter, I spent two days eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a few hundred of the most enlightened members of the merchant class. While I would be cold-hearted and callous not to say that Tom’s essay was idealistic, heart-felt and included a lot of common sense, it was also, to my mind, almost hopelessly idealistic.
I don’t think anyone is attacking the GOOD COMICS SHOPS. It’s the crappy ones which are being pilloried. The problem of course, is what’s the difference between good and crappy, and THAT is where the discourse must lie.
Chatting with people at this year’s Diamond Retailer Summit, you would hear even other retailers dissing the Bad Comics Shops. I hope Tom maintains his idealism, because even he might have been a little annoyed by the summit attendee who put Garth Ennis Baltimore Retailer Summit M&Ms on eBay. Or after listening to Tuesday morning breakfast Q&A session.
This open mike allowed retailers to ask questions of three of Diamond’s most powerful burghers: VP of Operations Cindy Fournier, VP of Sales and Marketing Roger Fletcher and VP of Purchasing Bill Schanes. What searing questions did these folks have to ask? Most of the questions involved shipping — comics with bent corners. can’t they make the boxes stronger? Material needs indeed. One fellow complained that the inventory slips in his packages were at the bottom of the box instead of the top making it difficult — DIFFICULT I SAY! — for him to keep track of what was in the box. There were what I was made to understand were perrennial questions, along the lines of “Why can’t we get our Marvel Legends at the same time as Toys R us?” apparently a question that has been asked so many times its now a (coffee) drinking game.
Even among the retailers at the summit, a distressing number are fans and not really merchants. Spend a little time among the merchant class and this becomes clear. Even if it wasn’t the swarms of Diamond accounts who brought along wives and kids and employees to get as many of the retailer exclusives as possible. (Last year reached a nadir when one of the attendees actually STOLE an item meant for a charity auction.) At Monday’s dinner presentation, DC gave away a Booster Gold variant with a black and white cover. Within about an hour, there were 18 copies for sale on eBay.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t many many good retailers — they are as distressed by the behavior of the bad ones as anyone, and organizations like ComixPRO exist to separate the wheat from the chaff. At the breakfast Q&A there were good questions asked, too, and I personally had a number of fabulous comversations with smart, commited people who care about the medium and their bottom line.
One retailer asked about discounts, which raised the much-rumoured elimination of Diamond’ reorder penalty. (Basically, in order to encourage as many upfront orders as possible, Diamond lowers its discount on reorders of even such things as graphic novels, leading retailers to increasingly reorder through Baker & Taylor.) While this change wasn’t announced, per se, Schanes hinted strongly that it is coming, although he warned equally strongly that some other services would have to be eliminated in order to balance the sheets on this.
The move is one that is necessary in the changing landscape. I wanted to go to the summit because it’s clear that “it feels like a very cuspy time” as one attendee put it. If there’s one thing the recent posting explosion here showed me it’s that people don’t really know what’s going on or how to capitalize on emerging markets for comics. While Tom writes quite accurately of this macro:
The two biggest problems facing the Direct Market have little to do with some notion of quality and a failure of will from certain shops to achieve this, but instead 1) that the system does not do enough to encourage and support the best models for sustained success, and 2) the system does not do enough to keep itself from being manipulated and exploited for the sake of gains different than or even opposed to sustained, long-term success.
The micro is that retailers are overjoyed that Diamond now lists the first volume of Sandman as Sandman Vol. 01: Preludes and Nocturnes and not Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes. It’s a world of microns and 1% incrementals.
I’m going to get into some more news bits and observations from the summit in a bit but first a few more reactions. Stuart Moore has his own thoughts:
I’d add a couple notes to the “scheduling” section. This issue tends to get heated very fast because it’s actually two very different problems with related, self-reinforcing reactions. Fans hate late comics because, well, they want their comics, and because many of them grow to adulthood with the gradual realization that institutions they’ve trusted (parents, Presidents of the United States, DC and Marvel) aren’t perfect and, in fact, sometimes do bad things. Late books are a very simple proof of a broken contract. And because the draconian newsstand distribution system of the ’70s and prior made late titles almost unheard of, their current presence is evidence of a Decline in Overall Professionalism. (Which it’s not, really. It’s just that when Gil Kane or Neal Adams was late, the company would slap in a fill-in or a reprint.)
Which leads us to the question: how do we properly inform retailers? This gives me a segue into Tom Spurgeon’s excellent post that touches on the very topic of getting information to publishers, or the lack thereof in the direct market. Diamond doesn’t provide any retailer information to publishers, unless publishers pay a fee. Even then, the process isn’t very easy. We don’t know who out of the 3500 retailers out there are buying a lot of our products, who buy a little bit (so there’s room to improve sales), and who refuse to sell adult publications at all… and this is a particular problem for us. It’s really bad form to cold-call retailers to sell porn.
And Panel and Pixel devotes an entire thread to discussion.
And while I’m at it, while I’m pleased that Dirk gives me credit for “breaking” the Diamond POS system, Brian Hibbs has been blogging about his POS system for months, and mentioned it back in July, and it’s been a hot topic of discussion among most business people in my bubble since BEA. As Cheif Wiggum put it so eloquently in THE SIMPSONS movie. “I thought it was a body, too, until he said yard trimmings, Ya gotta learn to LISTEN.”
We’ll be back with some more observations as we type up our notes. But the overwhelming feeling we came away with was excitement and enthusiasm for all the great things that are now becoming possible, and the arrival of even more smart and dedicated merchants who are business people and not just fans — of any genre. Historically the comics medium/industry is a medium/industry of creative geniuses and business…strugglers. It’s been a double edged sword: there has rarely been enough money involved to draw in actual business visionaries. But this same lack of pressure has left creative people free to create unfettered by commerce. But at some point people need to be able to eat off their talent, and finding the balance that allows that without a wholesale selling out is the cusp we now find ourselves at.