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DC talks digital to retailers


While the whole Comic-Con thing was gearing up we totally missed this important column by Comix Experience retailer Brian Hibbs who recounts a meeting at the WB offices, where DC’s top executive team invited about 20 top retailers and went over the whole DC Digital thing with them. We’re going to give an extensive quote because it kinda explains Where Comics Are:

DC’s upper management team (Jim Lee and Dan Didio, Bob Wayne, Steve Rottendam, Vince Letterio, Hank Kanalz, John Rood and Diane Nelson) invited twenty retailers to the Warner’s offices in Burbank – the retailers were a good mix of single stores and chains, rural and urban, providing a fairly reasonable cross-section of stores and sensibilities. This was a fairly last-minute meeting, arranged with just about two weeks notice. DC paid all of our traveling expenses, as well as meals and lodging.

I arrived on Friday morning (being that San Francisco to Burbank is a short hop at an under-hour flight), while virtually all of my peers came in on Thursday evening. The entirety of the ComicsPRO Board of Directors was invited, as well as another thirteen major retailers – though, as it turned out, a full 75% of invitees were ComicsPRO members, something I don’t believe DC was aware of until we were all face-to-face.

I stroll into the hotel about an hour before the meeting start time and wander over to the restaurant to see who is sitting down for breakfast, and the very first people I see are…Marvel’s Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley?!? Turns out they were in LA for a completely unrelated set of meetings, and they just happened to be staying in the same hotel. Comics can be an insanely small world!

An insanely small world if that world is Burbank, the new headquarters of the comic book industry. (WB and Disney are just a few blocks apart, after all.)

There’s much more in the post, including the fact that the DC comics app has been downloaded 300,000 times. (although just what that means is open to question.)

As usual, there is one thing in the piece that kind of made me go hwa–

Here’s the thing: outside of a small wedge of “no brainer” kind of projects (e.g. Jim Lee drawing Batman for a year) virtually every other mid-to-long success that virtually any comics publisher has had in the last two decades has come from bottom-up with the “tastemaker” stores driving the buzz and initial success before the large chains get on board. That is to say that the remarkable numbers of, say, Sandman trades that DC has managed to sell is a result of stores just like mine adopting and promoting those titles – the chains do not want these products until after they’ve been “proven” in stores like mine.

Does that include Naruto, Crumb’s GENESIS and BABYMOUSE? Cuz I’m just wonderin’. I love you, man, but the idea that the rise of graphic novels in bookstores has not had an impact on how comics are sold and read in the US is just…not true.

Anyway, I advise everyone to go read this piece, because it shows The New World Order bringing The Old Guard into the fold, and This Is How Things Are Going To Be from now on.

  1. Despite the fact that Hibbs is the most outspoken comic retailer out there sure doesn’t mean he’s the brightest. Just the loudest. If there was ever a quote from him to show just how wrong he is about the importance of his small retail world to the comic or publishing industry in the 21st Century it’s the one above about selling ‘Sandman’ trades. In the ’90s this may have been a more accurate statement but in today’s world it’s the likes of Amazon.com that are driving the majority of sales of ‘Sandman’ trades for DC/Warner. Gaiman himself drives the sale of his trades, not Brian Hibbs, not even DC themselves. And just to go beyond a ‘Sandman’ example, it’s a good bet the new ‘Blackest Night’ HC has sold better on Amazon in it’s first week of release than Hibbs can hope it would sell in most single store comic shops all year. The point: the general, non-hardcore comic audience is not seeking out comic shops as it’s main source to check out product driven by buzz in pop culture (Iron Man, Scott Pilgrim, Green Lantern). Mass (online) retail and the tech device in the consumer’s hands are the perfered means by far for media consumption. Any argument Hibbs can come up with about how important he or his shop is to the comic world has become moot. His world is ending and he needs to focus his energy on what he will evolve into. Ask anyone who is in retail relating to the film, book and music industry where they think they will be in five years. The smart ones will not answer “right here”.

  2. Two more examples to add to the list of misses by the comic stores:

    – The Scholastic reprints of Bone
    – Diary of a Whimpy Kid

    Comic stores aren’t “taste makers” anymore, if they ever were in the first place. They’re just a place older people go to buy their antiquated pamphlets.

  3. Ah… but chain bookstores do have the ability to “make” titles as well. Yes, the initial order will come from a centralized buyer, but each store will have the power to select and promote titles to suit each store’s clientèle. (Those corporations which don’t allow a bit of local autonomy tend to go out of business; see: Tower Records.)

    It’s not uncommon for a bookstore employee to assume responsibility for a specific section in a store (path of least resistance for managers… “You want to do that? Good. One less problem for me.”) These employees then offer recommendations to customers, and, if highly motivated, order specific stock for the category in that store.

    Do bookstores actually look to comics shops to “prove” a title? Or do they look at their own data, or at BookScan, and order based on possibility? Maybe Neil Gaiman’s prose books are selling en masse, so the store decides to order the GNs as well. Or perhaps Pokemon game guides are selling, so the store decides to do a display. Or maybe Tintin sells, so they decide to stock Asterix.

    And… what role did comics shops have in making Maus so successful?

  4. From the DC brass (as reported by Hibbs):

    “Digital is not currently a game changer.”

    Right….20 people are flown in on DC’s dime to say digital is no big deal.

    From Hibbs himself:

    “…digital’s best potential really is in driving people to print and to brick-and-mortar stores. That is to say, digital functions largely as the New newsstand.”

    Non-sensical. It’s like saying digital music sales will drive people to buy more CD’s at a brick-and-mortar store. Why would anyone expend time, gas money, and patience (and pay taxes on) something they could get at (literally) the click of a single button?

    Hibbs continues (emphasis mine):

    “One thing that DC has committed to is to take a portion of the revenues they’ll make from digital and to put it back into the retail environment to try and both keep customers in the print space, as well as drive new customers in our direction. Sadly, the meeting ended before we were able to have any real substantive conversation about the exact methods and mechanisms that this would take…

    Which, I imagine, was exactly how the DC brass wanted the meeting to wrap up. Because (in my belief) such a “program” will never, ever be implemented. It’s simply a sop…a smokescreen…a delay tactic….to placate vocal figures like Hibbs until the digital pipeline really starts flowing.

    Dealers subsidies will never happen.

  5. Robert Crumb doing the Bible is about as “no-brainer” as it gets, Heidi!

    And, yes, sure, one can name a narrow wedge of titles that are driven by bookstores, but given the 100k-ish SKUs of books that are available it is clear that a lot of dollars are being left on the ground by Big Box stores.

    Y’know, I was just on another High Level Conference Call with another Major Wholesaler (rhymes with “Shmaker & Shamlor”) where they view the DM as a huge possible growth market because (as they said, paraphrasing) “Big Box is purely hitdriven, and they’re not at all interested in anything that isn’t already proven out”



  6. “Why would anyone expend time, gas money, and patience (and pay taxes on) something they could get at (literally) the click of a single button?”

    1. The item is not available digitally.
    2. The store offers community, expertise, and is a destination.
    3. Serendipity. By browsing the shelves of a comics shop, consumers discover the unexpected.
    4. An excuse to leave the house/office.
    5. The book is easier to operate, and not everyone owns a computer.

    Why do fans visit comics shops every Wednesday, when they could order the comics online and have them shipped at a discount?

  7. Torsten-

    I was speaking more to Hibbs’ theory of digital comics’ potential, meaning its function in a future where it’s fully implemented and has achieved a level of mass awareness (much like music and iTunes). In other words, I reject Hibbs’ notion that, in that “potential” future, digital comics customers will NOT be driven to book and mortar stores…especially if the digital “portal” was how they were introduced to comics in the first place.

  8. Mark, you are so very correct that the publishers (and distributors) will never substantially subsidize the traditional comic retailer.

    The publishers and distributors have always had similar discussions about creating marketing programs or subsidies that will drive traffic to the comics shops and nothing truly meaningful or long lasting has every come from any attempt. (I’m talking real long term marketing, planning and investment, not “Superman is dead, again!” blips). Every year (since the early ’90s) the direct market shrinks. Despite everything that makes shopping in your favorite comic store enjoyable.

    Hibbs and others in his position have been around long enough to know better. But they don’t, for whatever reasons. The response is to rage against the machine or sit placated by lip service and ignore reality, real world retail history and economics. This was a “calm down” meeting that ultimately means nothing to the comic retailer.

    This topic for today’s media retailer (books, comics, DVDs, music) is not an argument or battle or debate. It’s evolution. Some will be able to figure out a way through the changes and many won’t.

  9. It really is difficult to predict how consumers will react if digital comics become widely available upon publication. Reading something requires active involvement with the material, whereas music can play in the background while you’re doing something else. Will DC’s and Marvel’s endless serialization model survive digitization, if obtaining the comics becomes indistinguishable from doing a dozen other things on a PC? If digital comics are significantly cheaper than paper ones, I’ll get those instead. It’s nice to think that readers of digital comics and the Wednesday crowd are two distinct groups of consumers, with some overlap, but — what happens if paper issues become unaffordable? If the market consisted of OGNs, then the situation would become much different.


  10. “but — what happens if paper issues become unaffordable?”

    I would venture to say we’re at that point now. This is why I think Marvel is flooding the zone with more and more titles…most of which are at the $3.99 level. There seems to be a recognition at the publisher level that the party’s almost over, and it’s time for “profit taking” while there’s still a willing and compliant population of addicts…er…buyers.

  11. Brian, I agree the DM is a HUGE potential growth market, but (and here is my credo) mostly because the bookstore revolution of the past decade has made it possible for more and wider variety of material and audiences.

    If it weren’t for bookstores there would be no comcis for girls or kids now. I would hardly call that a “narrow wedge.” I’ve seen the Bookscan numbers, and last time I ran the charts comparing Diamond sales to bookstore sales, bookstores were at least 66% of DM sales. How is that a narrow wedge?

  12. @Mark Engblom

    Thank you. That is exactly the opinion I have, but you just said it better. The party’s wrapping up, so the publishers are trying to grab every last dollar before the lights go out.

  13. Nate Horn…what the frak are you on about? Comics are having the greatest period ever artistically! And they are already well established in digital. (“What are these…”web comicks you speak of?”) I’m critical of the direct sales market but they are not “dying” as far as I can see. marvel and Dc will adapt to their new Burbank business models and Spider-man and Batman will continue to adorn the sleepwear of your children.

    I’m all for healthy skepticism but your “the end is nigh” attitude is just lame.

  14. Heidi, I’d still say that’s putting the cart in front of the horse; locally (and sorry for universalizing!) what I see in the bookstores is an EXTREMELY small number of titles, outside of the manga racks (and those are shrinking fast), relative to the output of GNs in general. I see the “home runs”, and the occasional “triple”, but I don’t see in-store support for the “base hits” or the “doubles” (let alone the foul balls)

    Obviously, this is to be expected — they’re generalists, not specialists — but it would appear to me that without the DM there are huge swaths of comics material that simply aren’t getting racked at all. (insert some sort of caveat about “not all DM stores..” here, if you like)

    That’s what I mean by “a narrow wedge”.

    It seems reasonably clear to me — and YMMV, au natural — that the vast majority of content, in any media, never gets an honest chance at retail, and it further seems clear to me that the monetization of that content, digitally, lags far behind the monetization of the physical object in almost every case.

    I don’t think that Digital is “the land of milk and honey” for most publishers (or creators, for that matter), in almost any media, though I certainly think that it can be wonderful for the consumer — I’m not seeing m/any publishers crowing about how great digital is for their bottom line… and, really, quite the opposite.

    In comics there is one fairly vasty advantage — Marvel and DC, at least, can start making money off “back issues” in a way they’ve never really been able to capitalize on in the past… but I suspect this will make them very small amounts of money compared to their front list. (Not talking “Sandman”… I’m talking about “Batman #126”)


  15. @The Beat:

    I’m sorry, Heidi. I guess I’m reading too much into the monthly sales numbers (y’know – 35k average monthly sales) and Rocketship crashing…as well as no other non-superhero comic store being able to exist in the country. I mean, yeah, the content is top notch nowadays and digital is going to be a lifeboat of sorts, but the industry has not grown in over a decade and is getting smaller. I understand the comics industry is your meal ticket and it’s scary to think that industry is dying – I’m sure I’d feel the same way if/when my industry begins to crumble – but it’s happening. You don’t have to like it and you can tell me I need a “time out” or ban me or whatever, but an industry without growth or change that’s clinging onto a certain customer isn’t really in line to survive.

    Brian Hibbs is, of course, off his rocker, because what comic store not in a major city has ever recommended any non-superhero book to anybody? I’ve been in stores that think Vertigo is alternative, indie comics and have been scolded by comic shop owners for requesting “weird indie shit” like Madman from Previews. I know you live in NYC with stores that sell all sorts of indie comics, but that’s not what it’s like in the MidWest. In the rest of the country, outside of magical places like NYC or SF, it’s superhero comics only, which means a crowd that only goes to the store on Wednesday, and that’s not sustainable. Comic stores can’t survive without the Wednesday Crowd and the crowd is dying. These are people who are typically mid-age overweight smokers who eat really poor food. Their clocks are running out fast.

    I’m not a digital detractor, but thanks for assigning that straw man to me. I think ebooks are the best thing ever and when iPads and comparable devices are commonplace, it’s going to make print obsolete and I want that day to come faster. I absolutely hate print and I’d rather read everything digitally. I just know I’m in the minority – the guy who would like to read Love & Rockets on my iPad.

    What empirical proof is there Marvel and DC will survive? The way they sell comics to kids? The kids think superheroes are from video games and movies, they don’t even know the comics exist. With the superhero decadence content, would you want them reading the comics anyway? At some point, Marvel and DC decided it was more profitable to keep selling to the old folks already going to comic stores and give up on kids.

  16. @Nate Horn “…because what comic store not in a major city has ever recommended any non-superhero book to anybody? I’ve been in stores that think Vertigo is alternative, indie comics and have been scolded by comic shop owners for requesting “weird indie shit” like Madman from Previews.”

    Now whose off his rocker! C’mon now Nate, you know that’s not true. I’ve have a relatively small 1k ft store in NJ about 20 miles from NYC and we have a very healthy section of indie stuff (that’s not Vertigo) and we’re always recommending those for people looking for material outside of the superhero genre. And I know a number of my fellow retailers in my area who do likewise. Listen, the general level of professionalism for comic stores may not reach of the level of a B&N, BORDERS, or other big box stores (and it certainly should be better) but most retailers I know are working hard folks who WANT to provide their customers with everything they want to read. Unfortunately, not everyone has the resources to do so, so they must pick and choose and buy what they perceive as most sellable. We’re not all bad guys out here [I swore I wouldn’t get involved in another one of these discussions….].

  17. “DC and Marvel aren’t dying, they only deserve to.”

    Nope, their original business model is, which is why they’ve been whoring themselves out to Hollywood money men.

  18. I spent 2 years in Michigan, and the several comic shops I visited all had plenty of non-superhero stuff in stock. In fact, in my experience the best place to find the weird, esoteric stuff is in smaller towns (perhaps because they take longer to sell there?). In any case, I saw plenty of evidence that shop owners support much more than superhero titles.

  19. @Everyone

    The plural of anecdotes of a store here or there pushing an indie book isn’t data. Look at the insanely shitty sales of indy books. Obviously something is wrong. Either they are not being supported or are not selling. Either way, they’re not hitting sustainable numbers. I’m guessing that the few indy acts that are pulling in a livable wage are doing so via the trades, which move through Amazon anyway.

  20. We’re on page 3 of the site now, so I doubt you’ll see this, Nate, but I can tell you that what I’ve seen of the BookScan numbers (which positively includes Amazon sales) says that “indy books” typically sell EVEN WORSE through that channel than they do in the DM.

    No offense, but you seriously, completely, have no idea what you’re talking about.


  21. “what comic store not in a major city…?”

    “I’ve have a relatively small 1k ft store in NJ about 20 miles from NYC”

    If you’ve gotten in a car and left Manhattan, but you haven’t gone through any farmland yet, you’re still “in a major city”. You’re just in the suburbs.

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