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Nighthawk_Vol_2_1.jpgBy Brian Hibbs

I have been selling comics for a really long time now (for at least parts of four different decades!), and I have watched the market dramatically shift and change with culture along the way. When I opened the store in 1989 people used to walk past the doors, and I could hear them talk to one another. “Huh. A comic book store?” “Do they still make those?” and then they’d walk away chuckling to one another.

In 2016 it is a little different: “Look! A comic book store!” “Oh! Let’s check it out!”

I like 2016 much better.

I understand that lots of folks might not understand how it used to be, but it was a really really short time ago that the entire message of culture was “Comics are idiotic, juvenile things fit only for the consumption of children and the brain-damaged”. When I was growing up the single-fastest way to communicate that a character was mentally-deficient was to show them with a comic book rolled up in their back pocket. And, though I didn’t really know it myself personally (for I was but a tot), comics very much were on the brink of being a dying medium when I was a little kid in the 1970s.

So it kind of kills me in my heart a little when I read pieces like Jude Terror’s bits here and here, which precisely misunderstand the way that all of culture rejected comics-driven content and just what the commercial prospects were for comics at their nadir. Comics never walked away — the newsstand delivery method of comics was quickly becoming untenable as it was loaded with corruption (much of it was mobbed-up) and inefficiency on one side, and by a mass die-off of the primary newsstand market: mom-and-pop general store / pharmacies as they quickly were overrun by chain stores and mass-market retailers, on the other side.

Chain, mass-market businesses like that are extremely bottom-line detailed: they’re trying to maximize sales per square foot. And if they can make more profit from a rack of sunglasses than they can from a rack of comic books…. Well, where do you think the rack of comic books went? Do you think people willingly and deliberately stopped sales that were profitable enough by their standards?

A lot of the cultural baggage comics carried stemmed from the legacy of the Senate Hearings, the creation of the self-censorship of the Comics Code, and the radical dumbing down of the content that was then inevitable. The bulk of comics production at that point had narrowed down to a handful of “kiddie” titles and what was left of the superhero brands (which wasn’t so great: you know about The DC Implosion, right?) — DC and Marvel had some modest hits in the 70s like the Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, or Wonder Woman television shows, and the ‘78 Superman movie was pretty huge, but there was not anything in culture at large that would allow that comics were really a reputable thing for adults to be involved in.

This slowly began to change in the 80s, Maus, Watchmen, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns made big ripples in culture, but “graphic novels” were still a really new thing, let alone the notion that they might stay in print and become perennial. I opened Comix Experience in 1989, and back then if you had a mind you could probably stock every single intentionally in-print “graphic novel” on a single book shelf. So we had this cultural moment when people started thinking comics maybe, possibly, could be suitable for actual humans… but we didn’t have nearly enough available material to keep people’s interest for very long, and it all lapped back. We’d surge forward, maybe driven by a Maus, maybe pushed by the X-Men cartoon or the Tim Burton Batman movie, but then we’d recede right back because we just didn’t have the bench to sustain interest for any length of time.

It’s taken a long time, but we’re finally at a moment in history where we’ve matched stock breadth and depth with cultural relevance and acceptance. The Geek Has Inherited The Earth and it seems to me that much of culture is being driven by comics or comics sensibilities. If a customer comes in because of property X, I now have hundreds of other amazing choices for them to read as well.

So I get why people who grew up with much of the success already in place, who see the cultural victory, and look at the shape of the Direct Market, and decide that it is an impediment to the future — I really do! The DM has a bunch of stupid quirks and flaws, and the rapacious nature of corporate control (the drive for Profit as one of, if not THE primary goal will always coexist uneasily with the creation of Art) that has evolved over the last few years with Marvel and DC primarily being IP-generators and concept-generators for media where they can make some real money has radically deformed the market.

But that’s kind of the heart of our conundrum — comics are not really massive profit generators. The ROI (Return-On-Investment) is fine, but it’s hardly something that’s going to buy you mansions and yachts in most case.

quotehibbs1916.jpgHere is where I think Mr. Terror and his contemporaries go off the rails: they posit that if only we threw off the shackles of the Direct Market, got back into the Mass Market, maybe sold major advertisers on comics, and dropped prices radically (maybe by printing on newsprint again!), circulations would soar! But this ignores the fact that Mass Market stores don’t especially want comics (without slotting fees, of course) – selling a t-shirt with a picture of Batman on it is safer, more profitable, and less finicky to rack than selling a comic book with Batman in it; print advertisers are a vanishing breed, and the makeup of the audience isn’t especially attractive to major advertisers outside of the geek market; and switching to newsprint won’t appreciably lower costs, and anyway because you’ll have to allow for returns, the math of the newsstands actually argues for higher cover prices on the same goods as the DM.
Every comic sold in the Direct Market is actually sold. You can be a whiner and go “To retailers!”, which is of course literally true, but here’s the thing: Direct Market retailers that don’t sell enough copies to remain profitable and pay their expenses very very quickly become ex-retailers! Comics do not have such an amazing profit margin that you can keep buying things that you can not sell and continue to stay in business. It is my firm belief that if you’re not selling ~80% of your purchases on the average Direct Market retailer’s margins, then you’re probably not doing better than breaking even. And it’s a short time that you can stay in business and pay your rent and your taxes and your employee costs and not at least break even.

This is why there are not “100,000” readers of comics, like the pundits will declare – a typical month of periodical comics sells like 6.5 million pieces. Most of that is getting to end consumers, and I can assure you the average customer isn’t buying 65 comics a month! Maybe a tenth of that, at most – most stores have many customers who only buy 1-2 comics a month. And that doesn’t even include whatever digital is (about 8-10% we’re led to believe). No, it’s highly unlikely that there are less than, oh, one and a half or two million people who read serialized comics in America today.

As I said, I’ve been in comics a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of players come and go, and I’ve seen several publishers entirely crash their house of cards by entering the mass marketplace and getting just annihilated by returns.

It’s easy – and I mean, it’s so easy that a baby can do it – to blame the Usual Suspects about the “State of Comics”. Man, I’ve been writing scathing comics commentary about Ethics in the Comics Industry for a national audience since 1991, kiddo, and, yeah, Marvel and DC and Diamond do a ton of stupid fucking shit that makes comics less awesome that it could platonically be… but I don’t think you actually understand what the barriers are to making comics what your Ideal and Perfect Version are.

Do you have even the slightest idea just how nearly impossible the landscape is for all media in 2016? Whether you’re talking about fiction or not, the overwhelming majority of paths forward in media don’t make enough money in sales to justify their creation cost. This is not just comics – this is prose, and film, and television, and music and dance and theatre and man, you name it. People only sort of give a shit about Art and paying for it in our Brave New World.

And this is why I (and yes, I am a very biased observer!) think that the Direct Market is actually a pretty crazy good situation when it comes to the production of art and value-to-society – a paying-for-itself network of specialty stores that is entirely what-you-see-is-what-you-get? If you look at, man I don’t know, Poets maybe, they’d almost certainly murder people for the opportunity to have a well-defined and muscular market entirely dedicated to them! No, seriously, think about it. There are no (few) “Poetry stores”… and we’ve got almost certainly at total minimum 2000 stores that are dedicated to selling comics (though maybe more like 500 that are dedicated to the medium itself)

We should praise that network, despite its many flaws. If it didn’t exist, we’d be dreaming about it.

At the end of the day, the generalist, the newsstand, the corporate, the un-frickin-committed aren’t going to move the medium forward in the way that you want them to…. because they ultimately don’t give a crap about the medium. All they care about is money and how much of it they can make from comics. And when they find out the answer, in the real actual life that actual real human beings live is “generally not very much”, they move on to figuring out how they can exploit the IP to make the money they’re looking to make.

So, to the flashpoint of Mr. Terror’s rant: the very notion that if the comics industry were somehow focused primarily on the more general audience, that a comic like Nighthawk would inherently sell… well, you’re higher than I am, man, and I live in San Francisco and have access to superb legal marijuana.

Let me tell you something about “Nighthawk”, and this has nothing to do with David Walker or Ramon Villalobos (who I find to generally be strong creators who are beginning to build their identifiable audiences) but “Nighthawk” is a D-list character that has almost literally no native and definable audience of its own, and is indisputably a rip off of Batman. The title was launched with no promotion, as the second spin-off of “Squadron Supreme”, a title that in and of itself is also a D-List property that hadn’t been given a chance for the new incarnation (which I like a lot!) to find its place in a market before being flooded by Marvel with two different spin-off books! No, actually, the real news story would have been “Nighthawk makes it to issue #13!” Then you’d have a real analysis of “How did that happen? What can we replicate?!?!?”

I don’t think you’d find a single comic book specialty retailer that was even slightly shocked by the cancellation of Nighthawk, and if you say “Well, that’s the problem right there!”, then I have to tell you the interest among the non-DM stores is almost certainly less than ours. All one has to do is to look at “off brand” super hero properties in the BookScan charts to see that almost all of them sell extremely poorly without name value – like “double or triple digits” poorly. The overwhelming majority of graphic novels simply don’t sell well to the mass market, by the way – read the annual BookScan reports! – about half of all GN sales in the Mass are from the top 750 titles. They sell about what the other twenty-two thousand sell, combined.

And book #750 sold less than thirty-five hundred copies in 2015!

In my Direct Market comic book stores, we stocked Nighthawk – and, guess what? It didn’t sell all that great. In my main store, we’ve managed to move all of eight copies of the first issue in about ten weeks on sale so far. That’s not the kind of number that screams “there’s a wide audience looking for this!” (comparatively, we’ve sold more than three hundred copies of the first issue of Black Panther in the same time frame), so it isn’t simply a matter of the market letting a work down – sometimes the market just doesn’t want what you have to offer.

Given all of comics history I feel pretty confident in saying that the Mass Market is no kind of savior for quirky non-mainstream projects. Quite the opposite, actually: creation primarily with the mass market in mind relies primarily upon well-known properties or things aimed at the great center – just look at every other medium to see this in action. Reaching the mass almost always means spending more to do so (be that through rack allowances or advertising or whatever), so as the risks increase, the desire for safe and sure-fire increases.

Further, merely stocking comics in a mass market outlet is no guarantee of any kind of success. Here’s an example: me and my 12 year old recently went to Disneyland. The stores in Disneyland are now carrying regular Marvel comics on their racks – both superhero stuff, as well as the Star Wars comics. I think we spotted them in a dozen different venues. In at least three of those stores I asked how they were doing, and I was given mild to negative responses by the staff on duty. It’s not a huge surprise to me, really – there’s very little reading material of any kind on display in the stores, and for the comics in particular it appear to me that the store was being racked by someone who didn’t give a lot of thought to what a civilian audience might be interested in. In one of the stores in California Adventure that had a giant selection of Marvel stuff (T-shirts, Legos, etc) the comics on display included insider-baseball stuff like Gwenpool and not, say, Spider-Man – it wasn’t an especially appealing or curated selection of material. I think you could successfully sell comics in a Disney park, but I think to do so you’d need to be focused on general audience familiar material, and stuff that skews towards younger kids (and, probably, in digest formats – regulation-size comics don’t seem like the kind of thing you want to carry around the park all day long?)

None of this in any way excuses the failures of the Direct Market to not match its platonic ideal, but I think it is safe to say that if it were that easy to reach beyond the DM, the DM-driven publishers would have successfully done so by now. They’re all trying hard to find new markets all of the time, I can assure you. Witness the news that Marvel’s largest purchaser of the new first issue of Champions is Scholastic books – how else is this anything other than trying to aggressively find new markets?

Comics (both the business and the Medium) are clearly in a better place in 2016 than they have been at any previous time in my career as a retailer – we’re a billion dollar business – but that doesn’t even begin to mean that every creative idea is going to be a commercial success. Despite our wishing for better, the market wants what the market wants, and trying to blame the market (or even worse, the mechanism that allows the market to purchase work in the first place) for that is pretty cutting-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face level stuff. Nighthawk wasn’t a success. That doesn’t mean the market is “broken”; that just means enough people didn’t want Nighthawk the way Marvel published it, that’s all.

Here’s the thing that the armchair philosophers and the Monday morning quarterbacks should probably understand: there are a lot of different motivations for publishers to publish a comic. Sometimes it’s because it’s a great pitch, sure, but sometimes comics are published to retain copyright; sometimes they’re published as a way to keep talent happy while they negotiate for something significantly more commercial; sometimes they’re published as a favor, or as a way to woo talent, or to stroke them; sometimes they’re published because they read the market wrong and they need to burn inventory to recover a cash outlay; sometimes they’re hoping that despite a failure in serialization, the collection will be strong; or digital; or library sales; sometimes they’re even published on just hopes and prayers that maybe it might catch on, despite every piece of evidence to the contrary – certainly, stranger things have happened. It’s easy to proclaim that “Well, they shouldn’t publish Nighthawk unless they have an actionable plan to make it a success!”, but I can name you fifty comics that looked like hits on the outside, and died-on-arrival when they met the market. It’s a market where consumers get to make free choices about what they buy and they don’t, and when the taste of the overall market doesn’t agree with yours you probably shouldn’t advocate for burning the market down.

I’ve been selling comics a long time. I value creators over IP; expression over expansion and I run and rack my stores with that vision in mind. I’m pretty confident that for the last four decades I’m probably in the top 10% of retailers in the world who are trying to Push Comics Forward in a way that the civilian audience would most appreciate, and that most benefits the comics creators themselves, so I’d like you to take it pretty seriously when I assure you that the market does what the market wants and that “quality” has far less than you think to do with what’s “commercial”. Good comics will fail sometimes – because of the choice of a single image, or bad IP, or just the mood of the market and whim. That doesn’t make the market broken – it makes it a market.

The DM can get better – no doubt about that at all – but let’s not blame the failure of Nighthawk on some overarching failure of specialist stores. Because in a world without the Direct Market, a world focused solely on Mass – Nighthawk simply would never have been published in the first place.

**************************

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing. You may also find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here, a list of columns from the CBR years here (New link as of 9/2016!), and also the archives here at the Beat. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

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Comments

  1. says

    “sometimes comics are published to retain copyright”

    I think you must mean trademark, not copyright. Unused trademarks can expire, but copyright terms are fixed and do not depend on use.

    This may seem like a nitpick, but copyright and trademark are actually very different areas of law, and discussions about them often get very muddy when people don’t understand which is which.

  2. Doctor Comix says

    Hear, hear. This rush to kill the DM is stupid and suicidal. Without the DM do you really think Disney and Warner Bros would continue sinking money into comics? Fans are delusional if they think comics are making a lot of money for these companies. At best, you’d see the Big Two go to a Digital/Trade model without the DM. Before the DM, Marvel would cancel any book that sold under 100K.

    I’m sick of hearing people bash the people who are in the trenches keeping this rickety industry going. Retailers are an easy target, but they’re the ones making the risks in this business. It’s a backbreaking way to make a living and bet your life that every retailer is bigger fan than you, which is really the only reason to run a store. Retailers are the ones putting their homes and life savings on the line whenever some new editing team wants to mess with the formulas in hopes some mythical new audience will come rushing into the stores..

  3. Chris Hero says

    No one is bashing the retailers! Retailers are the ones who are the biggest victims in this horrible system. Retailers who are barely breaking even have to guess and extend their lines of credit on stock they’re stuck with if they can’t re-sell it. It’s created an environment where most stores can only stock the most popular books so we end up with hundreds of Android’s Dungeon type stores where there’s only Marvel and DC and the store owners get really angry if you leaf through a book before buying it.

    The bigger point has always been it’s insane and entitled for Marvel and DC to expect consumers to buy a trade catalog, read every page, and tell the retailer what books to order. That should never be the responsibility of the consumer.

    Instead of attacking each other, why aren’t we united in attacking the rich guys at the top? The guys who are sitting back and laughing because we’re blaming each other for their shitty books failing?

  4. says

    I’ve said this before, but I’m very pleased with how clever I was :) , so I’ll say it again:

    Blaming the Direct Market for the death of newsstand sales is like blaming the Carpathia for the what happened to the Titanic.

  5. David Harper says

    Brian Hibbs, you are a glorious badass of a man and I love you.

  6. says

    I’ve never understood Marvel’s carpet-bombing style techniques of Marketing, where they launch an entire related family of untested titles all at once, it almost never works.

    Every time there’s a massive cross-over event (every 3-4 weeks) they launch 3 or 4 titles coming out of it, all inter-connected in some way. If it works – AWESOME – you have 3 or 4 hot sellers. If not, one will be gone within 5 issues, next one will hit 12 and go. The last will creep around until 18 are out, just enough to put out a 3rd crappy selling trade.

    And for the last few years, all the Batman rip-offs have unceremoniously done poorly. Moon Knight, Nighthawk and Midnighter – all rip-offs, all given multiple tries, none ever last for too long.

  7. says

    “It’s created an environment where most stores can only stock the most popular books so we end up with hundreds of Android’s Dungeon type stores where there’s only Marvel and DC and the store owners get really angry if you leaf through a book before buying it. ”

    Chris Hero, I think you have some things backwards. People who run Marvel and DC-only stores are doing that as a conscious choice, and ONE THAT IS NATIVELY MORE PROFITABLE; all of the rest of us making a different choice have to struggle harder because NON-MAINSTREAM MATERIAL IS HARDER TO SELL. Not “in the Direct Market”, but just, like, period. All you have to do is look at BookScan for some really solid evidence.

    DC and Marvel aren’t HANDCUFFS — they are, in fact, THE ENGINE for how you generate the cash flow to go spend on marginal and artsy books that have much much much much smaller audiences and need love and nurturing and TLC!

    The Superhero-only, don’t-touch-it-or-it-isn’t-mint! store is an easy ATTITUDE not a inherent consequence of the market — and I’m dead positive that by dollars-generated is the smaller segment of the market than the venues who are dedicated to the medium and not a single genre.

    And, Thad, thanks for the correction, that’s a dumb mistake that I was thinking I had made and said “I’ll go check that in a minute”, then the piece grew to 3k words and I didn’t go check it…..

    -B

  8. Chris Hero says

    Mr Hibbs, you know I love you and respect you, but I’m not going to agree the direct market is a good system.

    I’m not saying if not for Marvel and DC, Copra would be selling a million copies. What I am saying is with the current direct market system, stores are going to order more of the popular books and then not order as many copies of something like Nightwing or Solo. And then comic company people want to blame the readers for not ordering enough?

    I think we can still have good comic stores and radically change the industry to something less big-company-entitlement based. We should be united in fighting back against the comic companies with how they’re blaming readers for everything while keeping secrets from the stores taking all the risks.

    As for the Android’s Dungeon thing, I live in Brooklyn and see it all the time. The largest chain in Brooklyn is full of employees with unfriendly attitudes and weird quirks. I got yelled at a few months ago for touching the “wrong” book on the retail shelf. I’m a life long comic shopper, so it was water off my back, but it made me think…how does a person who doesn’t shop at store often feel when that happens?

    The unit sales have remained pretty flat for decades outside of DC’s relaunch sales stunts despite superheroes being way more popular and accessible than ever. There has to be a good reason why the median sales are almost always 35,000-45,000 every month. Could it be we’re going about this all wrong?

    I truly don’t think it’s the fault of the stores. I think it’s think skinned writers, artists, and editors mixed with extremely greedy executives who like to get us fighting amongst ourselves.

    This idea it’s somehow the consumers’ fault for not purchasing the products right from the companies is ludicrous.,

  9. Ray Cornwall says

    But…but…but I used to ride my bike to 7-11 and buy comics on a rack! And slurpees! And video games! As long as there wasn’t another kid, because you could only have 2 kids in the store at one time.

  10. says

    “What I am saying is with the current direct market system, stores are going to order more of the popular books and then not order as many copies of something like Nightwing or Solo.”

    Except that makes no sense — you buy 100 copies of BATMAN, and you sell 90 of them, and that gives you the profit you need to buy 10 copies of NIGHTHAWK (and only sell 8 of them) — you’re never going to buy 100 copies of NIGHTHAWK (or even 50), because there are not that many *customers* who have any interest in paying cash money for the adventures of NIGHTHAWK.

    You seem to think that the success of BATMAN is somehow taking away from the purchasing power to buy NIGHTHAWK? How? If you think that retailers are buying far too many copies of BATMAN and are thus tying up their resources… Well, just No. Periodical comics are ALL ABOUT creating cash flow so you can keep buying more comics — if you buy BATMAN and it doesn’t sell, and you do that so many times in a row that you don’t have cash flow to buy NIGHTHAWK, then you’re about to go out of business — that’s just how the math works.

    You appear to be implying that “popular” comics = “Poor Selling” comics, and that they’re bad investments, and I’m trying to tell you you honestly could not be farther from actual fact of how a market works!

    “There has to be a good reason why the median sales are almost always 35,000-45,000 every month. ”

    Yes, because there are too many comics being published by every size publisher in the market — almost certainly about twice as many comics as the market can ACTUALLY support — but, Chris, it IS NOT the popular and strong selling titles that is the problem: it is all of the other little comics that don’t have native markets or active and definable audiences and the death by 1000 paper cuts that they bring because they all sell so poorly that they divert resources that would be better served elsewhere.. NIGHTHAWK’s biggest enemy isn’t BATMAN or CIVIL WAR II… NIGHTHAWK’s biggest enemy is HYPERION and SOLO and MOCKINGBIRD and WEB WARRIORS and DRAX and HELLCAT and GUARDIANS OF INFINITY and PROWLER and and and and and and and and…

    “And then comic company people want to blame the readers for not ordering enough? ”

    Jebus, no, a thousand times no! No one is *blaming* shit — they’re giving PSA’s that you can help marginal titles by preordering. Because you *can* help books.

    Heck, NIGHTHAWK — my knowledge of my customer base, my understanding of the character, and the creators, and its commercial viability had me originally thinking that I should order 5 copies of NIGHTHAWK #1 at the main store. OH! But two people pre-ordered! So I increased my order to 10. Turns out I managed to sell 8…. but I ordered TWICE as many copies as I would have otherwise (and thus has a base twice as high from which to apply “Standard Attrition” formula for the next few issues — ordering 10, 8, 7) and it ABSOLUTELY gave NIGHTHAWK a better chance at surviving as a result in my store than it would have otherwise if I had ordered 5, 4, 3 like my personal gut said was right.

    Preordering is a normal and rational thing in all kinds of worlds: you buy tickets in advance for plays and sports and, increasingly, movies. Hell, you set your DVR for shows you want to watch (probably) — what’s so different or wrong or objectionable about telling the comics shop that you’re interested in comic X, Y, or Z?

    -B

  11. Tim says

    I’ve witnessed longboxes full of the same issue. And I’ve seen it in more than one place. Anybody else?

    What the heck’s that about and why does it make me think the direct market disproportionately runs on hype and bad habits?

    I welcome a more informative narrative to explain that phenomenon.

  12. Ralf Haring says

    “what’s so different or wrong or objectionable about telling the comics shop that you’re interested in comic X, Y, or Z?”

    The framing of “customers should always preorder” is the objectionable part. It directly and squarely places the blame on the customer that they didn’t do enough, that if only they had done X things would have been different. The customer who shows up with money in hand wanting to buy the thing has more than fulfilled their part in the process.

  13. says

    Yep.

    My shop is a store that tilts heavily in the direction of independent titles, but still a large chunk of the cash to take risk on new concepts are generated by the proven properties at Marvel and DC. Those, I don’t need to try and hand sell – they have their own engine.

    So yeah. The issue is complicated (hell, Nighthawk was one of my favourite books, and even my rigorous pushing didn’t amount to much), and will likely remain such – but Brian’s info cannot be denied.

  14. says

    Tim said “I’ve witnessed longboxes full of the same issue. And I’ve seen it in more than one place. Anybody else?”

    There are a few reasons– the retailer simply grossly over-estimated demand (least likely), the retailer reached massively for a huge 1-in-500/1000 variant (possible) or Diamond randomly quadrupled the retailer’s order and they’re waiting for a return (also, surprisingly, possible).

  15. says

    Me: “what’s so different or wrong or objectionable about telling the comics shop that you’re interested in comic X, Y, or Z?”

    Ralf Haring: “The framing of “customers should always preorder” is the objectionable part. It directly and squarely places the blame on the customer that they didn’t do enough, that if only they had done X things would have been different.”

    So I guess this is where we can agree to disagree — I don’t see “customers should always preorder” as a message that really anyone is saying? Most sources are just trying to explain how it helps.

    “The customer who shows up with money in hand wanting to buy the thing has more than fulfilled their part in the process.

    Er, no.

    There are simply too many objects potentially on sale in any given week for it really to be even conceivable of all but the absolute largest stores in the nation to even have the slightest chance of carrying everything.

    Not just in comics, either — there are hard physical limitations on rack size and the relationship to production in many many fields.

    If the customer wants something that few other customers are interested in, and which is marginally profitable, it is entirely reasonable to expect to have to ask for it. I’ve ordered books from book stores and records from record stores. Jeez, Ralf, I’ve done that at my local corner store with brands of beer they weren’t carrying. What’s the difference?

    But if you’re a fan of NIGHTHAWK? Well, sorry, man, you need to tell someone if you expect a guaranteed chance to see it on the shelf — because *history shows* that the character doesn’t have an innate native audience, nor were the creators crossed yet into the “I have x customers who will buy anything that guy does, no matter what” zone. No store, anywhere, is under any obligation to make sure that the sales of NIGHTHAWK are maximized to their platonic ideal.

    I also really really want to underline that, in my store at least, NIGHTHAWK was a relative commercial failure, and there is NO evidence whatsoever to suggest that there’s any significant number of people nationwide that were prevented from purchasing the comic. Marvel did NOT go to second print (and they go to 2nd *at the drop of a hat*), which suggests there was no reorder demand, Further, as far as I can see, you can purchase NIGHTHAWK #1 for wholesale costs on eBay right this second. This suggests that many stores did not sell through. Finally, the national sales data does not show any clamoring demand for the comic. I think that all the evidence suggests that NIGHTHAWK actually is a piece of lox that no one wants.

    And in that circumstance, and all of the other circumstances like it — if you don’t tell people you want a comic, why should they assume you will? Clearly there has to be a line, right, Ralf? You don’t expect stores to carry each and every possibility of flavor in absolute depth, do you?

    -B

  16. Simon says

    > When I was growing up the single-fastest way to communicate that a character was mentally-deficient was to show them with a comic book rolled up in their back pocket.

    In most James Ellroy novels, at least one lowlife is reading sci-fi and comics.

    When I asked him about it at a signing, he said that in the 1950s and 1960s (when his stories are set) only a few loners like him and mostly lowlifes would read pulp magazines and comics, and that he was merely reflecting that reality in the same way he reflected that era’s sexism and racism.

    > comics very much were on the brink of being a dying medium when I was a little kid in the 1970s.

    Just U.S. comics, not the medium.

    > We should praise that network, despite its many flaws. If it didn’t exist, we’d be dreaming about it.

    Europe and Japan neither have it nor dream about it. Comic books are in bookstores and supermarkets, and they can chose to get them returnable or nonreturnable like any other book. Maybe that’s what you should dream about?

    > entirely what-you-see-is-what-you-get […] what’s so different or wrong or objectionable about telling the comics shop that you’re interested in comic X, Y, or Z?

    Ah, there’s the rub. I agree with you the DM was a great machine to get idiosyncratic and art comics out there and help push the medium. Before digital, how else could books from Dave Sim’s CEREBUS to Jason Shiga’s FLEEP see the light of print without a pre-order market? But the DM’s pre-order game has long stopped being WYSIWYG.

    Surely you realize how publishers are baiting and switching like crazy? B&W books are unpopular, so many of them “just happens” to be listed as FC. Page count is puffed up in various ways. Hardcovers are shipped as softcovers. 7×10″ becomes 6×9″ or less. Some pubs set a “C: x-1-z” mousetrap on every book to add a veneer of legality, others avoid it because it’s telltale and switch anyway. And of course, a $10 pre-order can magically become a $18 book, such as Aftershock’s SUPERZERO (MAY161029) and many, many more across the board.

    Most of this aided and abetted by Diamond (who can’t ignore price changes and turns a blind eye to other specs switches) since most of these changes aren’t even posted on Product Updates. And what about retailers, who can’t ignore all of those crazy switches? But caveat emptor, so eff you, dear customer.

    Except you need the customers more than the customers need you. Once burned, they can walk and become trade-only elsewhere. Or quit. Or just download everything for free because eff you too, dear market.

    And the now-fewer suckers still left in the DM will have to pay $4 or $5 or soon $6 to make up for the loss of those who stopped being suckers. Doesn’t it sound like a pyramid scheme?

    That’s what’s so objectionable in the DM’s pre-order game: not so much the game itself, but the way y’all have been playing it these last years at the readers expense. So the seller can always justify the unacceptable, but the customer is always right to walk no matter what.

    Rome too was burned. Interesting times!

  17. Ralf Haring says

    Re carrying everything, you’d have to be Amazon to pull that off.

    Brian, I actually very much agreed with your post. There is no reason whatsoever to be surprised that Nighthawk didn’t sell. It’s in your comment that touched on pre-buying that I thought you were veering the wrong way. People choosing to prepurchase movie tickets or DVR tv shows are doing so out of convenience, not because they’ve been told there is an existential threat to the program and they must do those things or it will cease to exist or never have been. If retailers/publishers perceive such “how to help” messages as you say, then I think there is some tone deafness involved. The people lamenting the passing of a low-selling book shouldn’t be told they need to change their behavior at all. They’re the ones that actually bought the book! They did their part.

  18. Matthew says

    I think this is a great article making lots of valid points, but I also think that about Jude Terror’s pieces,

    The argument that has grown up around Nighthawk is that when the comic was eventually cancelled (which everyone one knew it would be after seeing sales on the first couple of issues) the message came out from several sources that it could have lasted longer if more customers had gone into their comic book store and pre-ordered it.

    Jude’s argument, that I agree with, is that customers can’t be expected to pay $4 or more for the first part of an on-going story, sight unseen. If you publish a title based on this expectation then you’re gonna have a bad time. Sell the first 3 issues for a dollar each, make the first 20 issues returnable (NB. returnability sounds like a pretty sucky incentive to me, a civilian, I wouldn’t want to pay up front for something on the basis that I’ll be able to claim that money back later if the book doesn’t sell), do *something* to reduce the risk for the retailer and the consumer.

    Bringing movies or plays or whatever into it is irrelevant because once you’ve seen a movie or a play it’s done, you either liked it or you didn’t. Comics can be more compared to TV shows, where the story develops over time. But the difference is that people don’t generally have to pay for each episode individually. They’re either broadcast once a week over the air, or more frequently added all at once on Netflix for people to sample. How many TV shows would make it to 12 episodes if you had to go and buy each one individually from a direct market ‘TV store’?

    If Marvel want to publish 5 issues of Nighthawk they should announce it as a limited series. If they want it be a long term success they should support it for the long term, regardless of how many copies the first arc sells. What if Image had cancelled Walking Dead because issue 4 sold 7000 copies?

  19. MBunge says

    Preach on, Brother Hibbs!

    This reminds me of nothing so much as the “Kill the floppy and the graphic novel will rise” nonsense of days gone by.

    Mike

  20. says

    “Europe and Japan neither have it nor dream about it. Comic books are in bookstores and supermarkets, and they can chose to get them returnable or nonreturnable like any other book. ”

    Europe and Japan are very different kinds of markets than the US, with very different things driving them. Comics in the US would do significantly worse in the US without the Direct Market, in my very considered opinion — we’re inherently a tastemaker market for the adult segment and the by far number one driver of eyeballs to actual books.

    “Most of this aided and abetted by Diamond (who can’t ignore price changes and turns a blind eye to other specs switches) since most of these changes aren’t even posted on Product Updates.”

    I can think of only the tiniest handful of occasions where I wasn’t able to get Diamond to agree to taking returns on a mis-solicited buy-and-sell title. They suck at some things (like being the actual gatekeeper and shield they actually should be), but they always come through on their obligations as far as I have ever seen in four different decades of doing business with them.

    “And the now-fewer suckers still left in the DM will have to pay $4 or $5 or soon $6 to make up for the loss of those who stopped being suckers. ”

    That does not even slightly comport with the reality I see every day — we’ve been steadily gaining customers for years and years and years now.

    You do get that NIGHTHAWK or WEB WARRIORS only selling 18k copies doesn’t mean there are less people buying comics overall, right? The market is fragmented because of over production! There are absolutely, no doubt, without a question significantly more people regularly reading comics in the US today than there were 5, 10, or 20 years ago.

    -B

  21. Aro-tron says

    I think some American comics fans over-estimate how much better comics sell overseas.

    It’s true that you can buy comics off of newsstands and at supermarkets in Europe, but they’re limited to a small handful of anthology titles aimed that have been running for 50+ years, or reprints of older material (often from the US). There are specialty shops that look a lot like the American direct market, tee-shirts and Magic cards included, and with a lot of Marvel and DC product. European comics fans do tend to support more experimental work and expect a higher standard of paper quality, etc, but a lot of that wouldn’t be possible without their version of the DM.

    A wider variety of comics are sold in convenience stores in Japan, but that market has also been shrinking for the past 15 years.

    In both Europe and Japan the newsstand comics are either reprints or anthologies of new material that will eventually be collected into TPBs and sold in bookstores and specialty shops. DM-style specialty shops are still vital for the comics industry in these countries.

  22. DT89 says

    Just a reminder to armchair philosophers and the Monday morning quarterbacks, unless you have decades of experience selling comics your opinion will not be valid.

  23. says

    There is also the history of comics to consider in Europe and Japan. They never had a Fredric Wertham, Comics Code and an entire generation (or two) that wouldn’t be caught dead reading a comic beyond the age of 14. I think the US/Canada is now starting to catch up to them in that regard, which is great for the industry.

    Also factor in the environment, particularly in Japan. Where there are a lot of people jammed together, most needing public transportation which was beneficial for selling comics. Then there is the attitudes of the publishers who examine what demographics aren’t reading their books, figure out what those demographics like and then making comics to cater to that demographic. Which is a strategy that publishers around the world ought to be emulating, instead of doing the easy job of selling more to your current demographics or only trying to reignite a former demographic into reading comics again (kids).

  24. Kermit Frog says

    DT89, thats how it should work. Opinions and “I think this is how it should be” type statements should always be invalid compared to cold hard FACTS.

    I will always appreciate an Informed opinion over an Uninformed opinion, and the tendency these days of media consumers suddenly insisting they know as much or more than those who actually work behind the scenes (content creators, retailers, etc) is dramatically “dumbing down” the level of discourse.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but don’t insist that your opinion has more merit over actual fact. Life does not give everyone a gold star for participation.

  25. says

    Ralf:

    “The people lamenting the passing of a low-selling book shouldn’t be told they need to change their behavior at all. ”

    But I don’t see anyone being told to change behavior?

    Even those Bendis quotes, which I’m not clear if they’re a direct response to anything having to do with NIGHTHAWK or not, certainly begin as general statements about how lots of books are struggling?

    Speaking as an actual front-line person here, I don’t think anyone needs to change any of their behavior… And I also don’t think that anyone should listen to Bendis on just about anything having to do with the sales or production of comics because he’s proven himself to be deadly awful at that side of the business.

    Matthew:

    “If Marvel want to publish 5 issues of Nighthawk they should announce it as a limited series.”

    It would have sold half of what it did (or less — as a mini, I would have gone “subs only” on the title)

    “If they want it be a long term success they should support it for the long term, regardless of how many copies the first arc sells. What if Image had cancelled Walking Dead because issue 4 sold 7000 copies?”

    First off, I think there’s a substantial difference between every other publisher in the universe, and Image, whose central business operations are not built around profit or loss of any individual comic — if TWD #4 sold 7k or 700k, Image gets exactly the same dollar amount (not so much now, I understand, because Kirkman is a partner, but then fo sho)

    Second, no one is entitled to x issues of y *unless the people creating it want it to be so* — Marvel can publish any damn thing any damn way they like… and if the market doesn’t approve, the market will punish them for it. Which, when you look at individual Marvel title sales, I think they are?

    -B

  26. Chris Hero says

    Mr. Hobbs, you’re reading my comments in the exact opposite way I’m intending them.

    If all comics are unreturnable, and if your best seller is Batman, it’s more economically advantageous to order 100 copies of Batman and eat the 15-20 you don’t sell then to order 10 less copies of Batman and order 10 copies of Night-whatever and eat the 7 copies of that you don’t sell. Hell, it’s more advantageous to not ever order Night-whatever at all. How is it the stores’ fault or the readers’ fault if Night-whatever isn’t selling?

    Corporate comic people are *always* blaming the consumers, both store and readers, for everything. I think those of us who are sick of the industry are sick of how often Dan Slott or Steve Wacker or Brian Bendis or whoever are constantly crying about how everyone isn’t buying enough of their books and loving them exactly the way they want them to.

    My biggest problem with this “pre-order or fuck you” mentality is I don’t have to do that with anything else. The only other thing you have to do that for is plays or concerts, but those are live performances in spaces with limited space.

    You never see book authors blaming book readers for not pre-ordering books or musicians blaming listeners for not pre-ordering albums or singles and no one expects you to read an industry catalog and come in with a complete order form so you might get a book or record I the store happens to feel like ordering it for you.

    I’m definitely not saying there is any problem with the stores or that ordering too many of Batman is what’s causing Night-whocares to fail. I’m saying the system is set-up so it would be economically foolish for a store to stock a book they don’t know if they can sell. It’s doubly foolish when Marvel and DC aren’t even marketing or promoting anything outside of comic news sites.

  27. says

    “If all comics are unreturnable, and if your best seller is Batman, it’s more economically advantageous to order 100 copies of Batman and eat the 15-20 you don’t sell then to order 10 less copies of Batman and order 10 copies of Night-whatever and eat the 7 copies of that you don’t sell.”

    Acccccccctually Chris, it’s more economically advantageous to order 90 copies of BATMAN if you’re only selling 90 copies. If I am somehow magically limited to ordering exactly 100 comics total (How and why, you’ve not explained, but let’s go with it!), then CLEARLY it is smarter to order 90 BATMAN and 10 NIGHTHAWK if I am selling 90 BATMAN and 8 NIGHTHAWK then it would be to order 100 BATMAN and only sell 90 of them. In the first case I’ve sold 98% of my 100 copy order, in the second, I’ve only sold 90%.

    I’m not really sure WHAT you mean, honestly, because you *seem* to be thinking that stores order on STRICT, unmovable budgets, and I don’t believe that’s how 98% of retailers.order? Most cats I know order based on INDIVIDUAL TITLES’ SALES — if this month I sell 92 copies of BATMAN, I don’t just order 100 of the next issue (probably) — I order 92 (plus some to grow on)

    Similarly, I’m not ordering 5 (or 10!) copies of NIGHTHAWK “just because” — I am ordering what I believe that I can sell, and adjusting orders at FOC to comport with reality.

    So, like if Marvel suddenly ONLY tried to do “sure fire hits”, and stopped producing SOLO and WEB WARRIORS and MOCKINGBIRD and DRAX andandandandand…. I’m NOT suddenly going to order 50 copies of NIGHTHAWK because it’s all that’s left. I’m going to order the number of copies that I think I can sell based on past history, current understanding of customer tastes, demand for the creative team, and all of the factors THAT I ALREADY USE TODAY…. and I would have ordered the SAME 5 copies (well, or 10 once I saw there were two preorders)

    Comics aren’t widgets — just like I’m not ordering “TO a budget” nor is any customer out there BUYING “TO a budget”. Yes, sure, if NIGHTHAWK was the sole comic out next Wednesday then I’d need to rethink my fomulas a teensy bit…. but (the majority of) people who *don’t want* NIGHTHAWK are not going to magically buy it because it’s the only thing out — they just won’t buy comics that week! NIGHTHAWK, in this highly preposterous and unlikely scenario might need to be ordered at 12 copies, instead of 10…. but that’s STILL not a sustainable number that’s profitable for me or Diamond or Marvel, and the book would STILL have been cancelled…. BECAUSE (enough) PEOPLE DON’T (natively) LIKE NIGHTHAWK.

    I can’t really be any clearer than this?

    “Hell, it’s more advantageous to not ever order Night-whatever at all. How is it the stores’ fault or the readers’ fault if Night-whatever isn’t selling? ”

    Why *are* we trying to assign “fault”? That won’t sell any more copies, which is what the complaints all started as — Jude’s piece is absolutely “NIGHTHAWK didn’t sell as many copies as I think it should have, so let’s burn the entire Direct Market down”

    But to the first point, it’s ALWAYS advantageous as a retailer to DO YOUR BEST to meet EVERY CUSTOMER’S DESIRES the best you can — that’s how you stay in business and grow, which is what *most* of my contemporaries are doing. Are some “Android’s dungeons” flat out shitty at the job? Sure, stipulated! But it’s essentially impossible that the ENTIRE Direct Market is so catastrophically run by idiots who don’t know their jobs as you seem to be implying…. BECAUSE YOU CAN’T PAY YOUR RENT if you suck that hard.

    Straight up.

    Given that more stores are opening than closing, and that sales are continuing to go up year-over-year, I’m going to go with the notion that most of my contemporaries AREN’T mouth-breathing fools who don’t have any clue as to how to run their business. And I would encourage you to do the same!

    “Corporate comic people are *always* blaming the consumers, both store and readers, for everything.”

    I almost certainly listen a lot harder than you do, and I actually have a real my-child-doesn’t-get-to-eat level stake in this and I have never ever ever EVER felt “blamed” by “corporate comics people” ever in the history of anything.

    You know who I DO feel “blamed” by? No-nothing lovers of not commercial comics who appear to believe that their individual taste trumps everyone else’s. And, given how I support small press material way way way way outside what the actual sales ARE….. well, forgive me if I do nothing but dismiss that, thanks!

    “I think those of us who are sick of the industry are sick of how often Dan Slott or Steve Wacker or Brian Bendis or whoever are constantly crying about how everyone isn’t buying enough of their books and loving them exactly the way they want them to. ”

    So, my very first piece of advice would be “Don’t listen to Bendis and Wacker and Slott, then!” — I sure don’t, and, again, my child literally doesn’t get to eat if I get things wrong — in most things relating to the mechanics of the real market those guys are not what I would consider the frontline brain trust.

    My second piece of advice if you’re “sick of the industry” is to stop worrying about “the industry”. Just talk about the stuff you LIKE… not the stuff you DON’T! Unfollow people who make you crazy, or who say irrational things, and just focus on the good stuff. Otherwise, it’s kinda your problem — not the Market, and not “corporate comics guys”

    “My biggest problem with this “pre-order or fuck you” mentality is I don’t have to do that with anything else.”

    Besides defying you to find anyone (!) ever (!!) who said anything even remotely like “pre-order or fuck you” (!!!!!!), I literally JUST said that I’ve had to do it with books and records and even a specific brand of beer from the corner store. Just because YOU don’t do it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

    “I’m saying the system is set-up so it would be economically foolish for a store to stock a book they don’t know if they can sell.”

    OK, so while you’re “right” in that there’s more risk in some kinds of books more than others, what I don’t think that you understand is that the market is generally really good at risk-control; retailers who don’t have a good grasp on the kinds of things their customers will natively buy generally don’t stay retailers for very long. And most retailers that I know use preorders as Helpful Predictive Tool more than anything else. We’re not clinging by our nails, utterly beholden to Preorders or Bust, we’re not blind and sightless and without taste nor sense. The overwhelming majority of customers pretty much get every comic that they want with minimal effort, and, shit, when we talk about preorders, usually to some pretty substantial benefit like extra discounts and things.

    NIGHTHAWK sells what it sells because that’s all the market wants; the market is not “letting down” NIGHTHAWK, and I don’t see the actual people who actually sell actual comics to other actual people acccccctually saying “Preorder or else” (or whatever) — don’t blame the entire Market or even Marvel comics because Brian Michael Bendis writes a tweet you disagree with!

    -B

  28. says

    Brian,

    Very interesting article as usual. Presumably, many of your customers who pre-order Marvel and DC comics also pre-order a few indie titles. When DC or Marvel increase the number of releases by adding a bunch of new titles/#1s or by double-shipping titles, does that significantly impact the number of indie titles you or your customers pre-order? Basically, does evidence support the belief that the Big 2 are trying to crowd the competition out of retailer/consumer pre-order budgets?

  29. says

    I think the question being posed might be: What would happen if absolutely all comics were sold on a returnable basis? Or even more far out: On a newstand like basis, where the retailer only pays (three months later or something) for what they actually sold, and returned the rest?

    That would mean that comics retailers could just order as much stuff as they had room for in their stores, and customers would have access to everything, be able to flip through comics before buying them, and Nightwhatever would find its audience.

    The small problem here is that this would probably mean that Nightwhatever would never have been published in the first place: It would be too expensive for the publishers, I think. And for smaller publishers, the cash flow problem would mean that publishing would be impossible. (That’s part of why the direct market started in the first place, isn’t it?)

    It’s a nice fantasy, though.

  30. Simon says

    [Comment went to Spam, retrying.]

    @Brian Hibbs:

    > Comics in the US would do significantly worse in the US without the Direct Market

    Seems to me you’re saying that comics have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot, and would walk significantly worse without the DM crutch? But because y’all have not significantly tried to heal that foot all those decades, comics now seems in the process of dumping the crutch for a wheelchair from Amazon, or a motorized one from Comixology.

    > we’ve been steadily gaining customers for years and years and years now.

    You’re known to operate one of the few quality stores. That’s good for you but seems bad for your argument, as your anecdotal evidence is unlikely to apply to 90% or 95% of the DM. Why would pamphlets now be $4 and $5 and soon $6 if the DM as a whole was gaining customers?

    And why are most trades getting into $20 territory for 150 pages (often with only 100-odd story pages plus unannounced backpadding) and a lamely glued “perfect bound” package — while in bookstores, a 200-page FC thread-sewn OGN is $11 from Amulet, Graphix, Harper, Houghton Mifflin, Scholastic, etc.?

    > There are absolutely, no doubt, without a question significantly more people regularly reading comics in the US today than there were 5, 10, or 20 years ago.

    Aren’t these people “civilians” getting GHOSTS or ATTACK ON TITAN from bookstores and Amazon, not from the shrinking DM that was the topic?

    > I can think of only the tiniest handful of occasions where I wasn’t able to get Diamond to agree to taking returns on a mis-solicited buy-and-sell title.

    I’m saying they’re stealing from us, you’re saying you can return the books if and when we can catch them doing it? Why should we accept to be lied to all the time and have to find it out and return stuff? Because caveat emptor is the best strategy to retain customers who don’t need the DM any more?

    Pre-orders should be a fair trade, a compact where what we order is what we get. In the face of the large amount of traps and bait-n-switch and outright thievery in current Diamond listings, it seems to me that your answer amounts, in practical terms, to saying that would-be readers should either:

    (1) pre-order most of what they want
    (2) accept to be blissfully unaware of being bilked

    or:

    (1) pre-order most of what they want
    (2) watch out for “C: x-1-z” mousetraps on the order form
    (3) note alleged specs (price, contents, size, page count, etc.)
    (4) watch Diamond’s weekly Products Update to cancel in time
    (5) compare all shipped products to their alleged specs
    (6) refuse (or ask a refund) on what was bait-n-switched
    (7) be fair losers when they miss one step and get bilked

    When at worst, readers should only have point 1 to mind, itself no small task already. (And even that chore seems too much for many, even if they could trust Diamond and all pubs.) In the end, burned customers won’t read your justifications and will eventually stop being suckers no matter how wrong they’re told they are.

    That’s also what “The customer is always right” is all about.

  31. Simon says

    Heidi or Brian, my comment went to Spam instead of mod. (I tried to repost half of it, then later, to no avail.)

  32. says

    @Sitcomics: “When DC or Marvel increase the number of releases by adding a bunch of new titles/#1s or by double-shipping titles, does that significantly impact the number of indie titles you or your customers pre-order?”

    No, as I indicated we generally judge commercial sales potential individually, and not viewing the market as static pools of dollars — there’s no “indy dollar”, per se, People just want to buy what they view as good comics.

    “Basically, does evidence support the belief that the Big 2 are trying to crowd the competition out of retailer/consumer pre-order budgets?”

    Well, sure they’re “trying” (though, realistically, it’s Marvel that’s publishing significantly more SKUs than they were 20 years ago — they’ve gone from 55 comics in 4/97 to jeez…. 94 in 4/16!) — but I think the more important question is are they succeeding? The big three have exactly the same combined marketshare in April 2016 as they did in April 1997 (77%) — and Marvel’s only shifted 6 points despite publishing 71% more series…. So, I realistically think that that answer is “No”.

    @Lars RE: returns. Returns also have costs for retailers — incoming freight, handling costs (racking, and processing returns), Opportunity Costs, etc — they’re not free. I like the tool, and I always try to support books with stronger orders as a result, but one still has to “order rationally” even if you’re not worrying about murdering forests.

    Simon’s longer, let’s give him his own post….

    -B

  33. says

    @Simon: “You’re known to operate one of the few quality stores.”

    I think that’s extremely insulting to my peers, many of which own stores that are way better than mine.

    “Why would pamphlets now be $4 and $5 and soon $6 if the DM as a whole was gaining customers?”

    Prices are not mandated by circulation, they are mandated by what the publishers think the Market Can Bear. And that, my friend, is known as “Capitalism”

    Marvel kind of seems to be right that prices for their goods are generally inelastic — they’re making a ton more money than they used to (Even if, yes, I agree that it is generally harmful to their long term loyalty to the brand… but the market will eventually teach that language. Witness the post-52 DC Comics!)

    “And why are most trades getting into $20 territory for 150 pages …..etc etc”

    Again, “Capitalism”, not “Market Forces”.

    “Aren’t these people “civilians” getting GHOSTS or ATTACK ON TITAN from bookstores and Amazon, not from the shrinking DM that was the topic?”

    Not to my eyes, or the eyes of my contemporaries I discuss such things with — but a lot of it is from “Civilians” getting GHOSTS and ATTACK ON TITAN from our Direct Market stores, sure….

    Look, you guys understand that just because DC and Marvel and Image (et al) all have advantageous deals with Diamond that give us favorable pricing from buying from DCD, we’re in no way handcuffed to the company? I buy direct from publishers when sensible, I use multiple wholesalers. And my orders for books like GHOSTS, where, even without our signing with Raina Telgemeier (Blatant plug: http://www.comixexperience.com/raina.html), it is likely to be my #1 or #2 book of the year…. and not a single penny of that is going anywhere near Diamond.

    I have to imagine that all of the biggest stores are also looking to maximize profit and buy from the cheapest sources, and that, as in ALL things, the largest accounts move the majority of the dollars, and so that sales for any “bookstore book” (ugh!) is going to be under-reported in the “Direct Market” charts because those only show what we buy from DCD, not what we *sell*….

    Anyway, “Civilian” money spends just as fine as “fan” money, and the DM gets more than its fair share of those dollars as far as I can tell.

    “I’m saying they’re stealing from us, you’re saying you can return the books if and when we can catch them doing it?”

    Well, I don’t think it is “stealing”? Solicitations are mostly GIGO, and I think Diamond really does the best job that they can with the sheer number of SKUs they have to handle each month. When they (rarely, in my experience, as a total percentage of what they do) make a mistake, they’re excellent about fixing it, and while, sure, we’d all like a 1% OCD rate be a 0.000025% one, I can sure live with a 1% one as being within my Margin of Tolerance. And, again, my kid doesn’t eat if I get this stuff wrong.

    It sounds like you have gotten burned far more than average, and I am empathetic to that, but the level of problem you’re trying to suggest does not even slightly comport with the reality I face every day, nor the experiences of the vastly overwhelming percentage of my customers as far as I can see.

    “That’s also what “The customer is always right” is all about.”

    Yeah, but I’ve really never thought that aphorism was actually correct. The customer is, in fact, demonstrably wrong a significant portion of the time, I can confidently say as a retailer!

    “Heidi or Brian, my comment went to Spam instead of mod.”

    I’m a user exactly like you and have no control, but I find that going to spam is usually triggered by more than one hyperlink or by using brackets, or those pointy ones what’s name I am spacing on, instead of quote marks, FWIW.

    -B

  34. Chad says

    “I think you could successfully sell comics in a Disney park, but I think to do so you’d need to be focused on general audience familiar material, and stuff that skews towards younger kids (and, probably, in digest formats – regulation-size comics don’t seem like the kind of thing you want to carry around the park all day long?)”

    Ding ding. When my son was younger, we bought him a digest-sized Clone Wars comic from Dark Horse at Disney World, and he was riveted — walking through the park while reading, and begging for more. Last year, we returned, and all they had were Star Wars floppies, and random issues at that, first issues missing of minis, etc. It’s a missed opportunity, and a mistake in the format they’re carrying — just stock the trades!

  35. Claudio says

    I´m don,t know in the United States, but here in Mexico, there are at least like 10 companies that sell products with catalogs and you preorder from them, (i think the most famous its Avon, but there are others companies that sell shoes, clothes and other things) and depending on the company you recieve the products from 1 day to 1 month later

    so preorder things from a catalog its very common here, but this catalogs are better designed and have a lot less products that the Previews Catalog.

    i dont know why some people thing that preordering from a catalog its something that consumers dont do

  36. Simon says

    Brian, sorry about my inability at brevity. And trying to be terse seems to backfire on me. For instance, “quality store” was intended to mean one where customers don’t have to pre-order most non-franchise books and can sample a large and diverse, curated cross-section of what comics can offer.

    (But I now realize how inadequate a qualifier “quality” was. If some books never sells in one store, even a quality retailer will just have to stop getting them, right?)

    Anyway, isn’t a new reader much more likely to find something to make them come back in stores such as yours, than in stores with little beside superhero comics? Which is why I was wondering how your anecdotal evidence of gaining customers could be extended the DM as a whole.

    — About prices, isn’t it surprising how they stayed relatively low for that long and have just suddendly gone all hockey-stick across the board? Please forgive me for being unconvinced it’s just “what the publishers think the Market Can Bear”.

    (Also, I think that’d be “short-term, burn-down-a-forest-to-get-a-miracle-crop Capitalism” rather than just an unqualified “Capitalism”.)

    Besides, do you think that Abrams, Amulet, Graphix, Harper, etc., are any less Capitalistic than Disney-Warner? But they may be more about “long-term, sustainable Capitalism” and “expanding a minuscule market”.

    — About bait-n-switches, I suspect most pre-orderers simply don’t notice most changes, which could be why most of them don’t complain to you. Doesn’t mean those changes aren’t taking place, or aren’t deliberately exploited.

    — “not a single penny of [my orders for books like GHOSTS] is going anywhere near Diamond.”

    Tangential but fascinating. Are you saying DCD can’t even offer the best discount on nonreturnable GHOSTS? (Or am I missing more complex factors, such as damages?)

    I mean, I would have imagined a thought process not unlike, “I’m sure I can move X copies of GHOSTS in the next six months so I’m getting them from Diamond because it’s nonreturnable but with a bigger discount, plus Y more copies from another source with a smaller discount but returnable, so that I can maximize sales and sate customers on this hot item.”

  37. says

    Brian Hibbs said: “Well, sorry, man, you need to tell someone if you expect a guaranteed chance to see it on the shelf — ”

    That statement reveals you are not looking at this from the customer standpoint. It is the responsibility of the producer of the product to make me want it. I don’t want to deal with unfriendly clerks just to have them screw up my order. It happens all the time and if you feel differently, you don’t know how shitty LCS can be.
    Make it good. I’ll buy it.
    Keep it up. I’ll continue.
    Pre-order? Fuck that.

  38. says

    @Simon

    “But I now realize how inadequate a qualifier “quality” was. If some books never sells in one store, even a quality retailer will just have to stop getting them, right?”

    Yup. There are plenty of things I (and my staff!) think are AWESOME that don’t sell for shit, even with extensive and aggressive hand selling; and there are things we hate that the general audience buys in droves from us. C’est la guerre.

    “Besides, do you think that Abrams, Amulet, Graphix, Harper, etc., are any less Capitalistic than Disney-Warner?”

    In this? Yes.

    http://www.bleedingcool.com/2009/06/01/marvels-john-turitzin-on-price-increases-%E2%80%9Cwere-just-looking-to-maximise-our-profits-for-business%E2%80%9D/

    “Are you saying DCD can’t even offer the best discount on nonreturnable GHOSTS?”

    It isn’t even CLOSE. As a brand new book, I can buy GHOSTS non-returnable from Scholastic directly for 50%. Max discount from DCD is 45%. Add in the FREE SHIPPING (about another 2%), and the “reorder penalty: of 3% that Diamond charges on restocked copies (!!), and you can be talking about 10% difference in wholesale costs. And that doesn’t count the 2x a year extra-2% specials that Scholastic runs.

    Even buying from a different wholesaler (Like Baker & Taylor), Diamond is AT BEST even stevens on brand new titles, and 1.5-2% behind on reorders.

    Or take the news about IDW (a “DM” Publisher if there EVER was one!) moving “bookstore” distribution to Penguin Random House… that means that, come April 2017, I will be switching ALL of my bookformat backlist IDW business to PRH — they will offer 50%+free Freight on all IDW backlist, while DCD will be 47%+shipping.

    Buying direct from Scholastic with free shipping is some sort of crazy low # — like $200 retail or thereabouts.

    @Chris Wallace
    “That statement reveals you are not looking at this from the customer standpoint.” Yeah, kind of ALL that I do is look from shit from the customer perspective. I know I think about it more than you do, or the pubs, or Diamond. Its LITERALLY my job and what I do all day long.

    Try this: my wife just wanted to buy a new car. She wanted a specific make and model and color. Not one dealership in the entire Greater Bay Area had that exact car… and it had to be (*gasp*) ordered. This is NORMAL. This happens EVERY DAY.

    And the profit on cars is a whole lot more than it is on some $4 periodical comics!

    “Also, I’m 49. Don’t insult us all by calling us ‘kiddo’.”

    In my opinion people who don’t understand the basics of supply and demand and do not understand that they’re not *entitled* to [whatever] are reasoning like children, regardless of their chronological age.

    -B

  39. C. Hall says

    I think there were good points in both the B. Hibbs and J. Terror pieces (and thanks to Mr. Hibbs for continuing the dialogue). As a customer, I didn’t love pre-ordering and pre-paying for a product, sight-unseen, 2 months in advance. I have been a patron of other stores where they allow you to pre-order without pre-paying. Then when a book gets “hot” and they realize they have under-ordered, they don’t fill the subscriber bins but instead sell the hot books for more than cover price and fill the bin weeks later with the second printing (while of course allowing you to buy the current print off the shelf for more than cover). It is also easy to suggest that people take their business elsewhere but in many small and medium sized towns there is no competition. And, yes, at some stores, if you raise a concern or ask a question about your order, the customer service is less than adequate. I have also visited stores with great customer service but sadly they have not been in my hometowns. The bottom line to me is that, in some areas, it is difficult to be a customer. I have to jump through more hoops to consistently get the comics I want than I do for most other products. Yes, there are huge advantages to the direct market, but in earlier times, if they didn’t have your book at the drug store you could probably get it at the 7-11 or the bookstore. I think that is why there are frustrated customers who blame the direct market system. They are probably frustrated, as I am, with their LCS and feel that they have few options.

  40. Simon says

    Not sure whether that Marvel link was candid or a smokescreen, but wouldn’t the latter mean a shrinking audience resulting in price increases, and the former merely the other way around? Both would be short-term, pyramid-scheme Capitalism, as opposed to the long-term, smarter Capitalism of mainstream pubs trying to recreate a sustainable mass market for graphic novels.

    Gosh, if Doctor Diamond can’t even broker a deal on such hot dope as GHOSTS, one could wonder what they’re good at or needed for. (Beside milking Disney-Warner zombies and bilking pre-order suckers, that is.)

    Mr. Hibbs, you don’t need me to say this, but you’re a gentleman and a pro to have fielded my flippant questions and flipped my field questions. However things turn out, I wish you good luck.

  41. says

    I ONLY have the customer point-of-view. It may be interesting for all sides of this debate to actually get a perspective from a foreign market.

    I live in Australia, and my LCS is All-Star Comics, winners of the Eisner Customer Service award a while back.

    These are the rules re prices / ordering and subscribing.

    1. The initial price is NOT cover price. Due to the comparative Australian$ vs US$, a $2.99 US comic will cost you around $5.60, and a $3,99 comic will cost you around $7.50.
    2. If you are a subscriber, you get the following advantages :
    (a) 10% off prices of your subscription comics.
    (b) If you are a customer of long-standing, and don’t abuse this, you also get 10% off comics off the shelf and trade paperbacks.
    (c) Again, if you don’t abuse this, you have a general discretion to not purchase certain ordered comics or to amend your order up until the date they come in.

    I can’t speak to the business model of the store, but their customer service is second to none, and they’ve expanded several times in the last 5 or so years, so they are doing something (ie. a lot) right.

    One example of their initiative is this : (1) You can literally bring in ANY trade-paperback and, as long as it is in fair condition, they’ll pay you $5.00 for it. (2) These trades are then placed in the ‘used trades’ box and are sold for 1/2 of what the original price would have been, if new. All three parties in the transaction are happy!

  42. Justin S Davis says

    The only thing I have to contribute regardis pre-orders in other media.

    I’m a fan of quirky soundtracks and offbeat bands, and pre-ordering material is a staple of the biz. Many LPs, singles, and CDs are limited in quantity, and pre-ordering assures you actually get the item. (And, no, not everything is eventually available on digital. Take soundtracks–many are only licensed for a physical media form, and not any kind of digital format.)

    And many DVD companies (particularly of cult horror and obscure weirdo flicks) are shooting for the limited-edition pre-order crowd, instead of mass-market.

    Many, many things are becoming “niche” out of pure necessity, as the producers can’t afford to shoot for the Walmarts and Best Buys any more.

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