This one is going to have a big grain of salt and grit in the proceedings. Unlike the columns where I said the comic industry was doomed to evolve or die. (I wonder how that’s all going.)
The world is a constant barrage of wildness. Somewhat locally, we’re entering a bad third wave of Coronavirus brought about by some sheer incompetence by our provincial government. Modelling (and this particular government’s form of ego) has us eclipsing our very worst peaks of COVID-19 contraction as vaccinations trickle out slowly. Individuals and municipalities have been forced to take point while our leadership follows. It has me a little stressed and a little sad.
I am tired, and a lot is happening. Despite the pandemic, the shop has had its best year ever, both in net and gross sales. We started closing on Mondays almost a year ago, and so all of this has happened while we’re at the store a little less often. On paper, this is phenomenal. In practice, we are so very, very tired.
We’re busy enough now we truly need to hire some help. We can afford to monetarily, but we can’t quite manage it morally. While we’ve been keeping our door locked to ensure anti-maskers can’t even get inside, our business opens up to exposure to COVID-19 on a daily basis. We haven’t had any brushes with it, but customers have come into close contact. Every time, their own test results have come back negative, but we have this feeling in our guts like we’re being circled by sharks.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a good problem to have. We’re finding exhaustion in the store’s success, instead of constant worry with the store’s failure. I am not dangerously skinny like I was in the early days when the month-to-month stress of hitting certain numbers caused any food taken in to be lost in short order. Now, I’m dealing with some comfort weight and the body issues that come with it.
As I write this, it is midnight. We’ve had our day, I’ve done our deliveries, and we did our Best of the Week streaming show. We ended the thing on a stress point as the day crashed upon us. I then went and figured out our final order cut-off numbers for DC books shipping in mid-April, helped feed some cats, and had a talk to resolve some stress. (Always put your stress into words when you can and help address the stresses of those around you when you can – you’ll carry far too much if you don’t.) And now I’m here. I want to sleep, but the business never sleeps, and it has been far too long since I’ve put one of these out.
And something happened today, and I’m just stressed enough to not let it lie.
Today, we’re going to talk about Bad Idea. You might have heard of them. They have an interesting approach to the business of comics. We’re going to dig into the good and the bad. It will not be my best work, though I truly don’t think any of us are killing it these days. (But hey, if you feel like you’re firing on all cylinders, good for you! Also, come closer so I can break you open and drink up your powers, please.)
By Brandon Schatz, with edits and contributions by Danica LeBlanc
Originally planned to launch in May of 2020, Bad Idea arrived on the scene in January of that same year, promoting a scheme where they’d be building a company that would deliver product in a scant 20 locations, worldwide. The initial idea nabbed quite a bit of buzz, and over an extended period of time (partly due to the pandemic) that scant 20 shops grew to a launching class of 200 locations (featuring 153 different shops and chains total).
In the early days of this, Danica and I pushed to see if we could become a part of this small group. We had been listening to interviews with Bad Idea co-CEO Dinesh Shamdasani about the venture and had a vetting call with Atom Freeman. In those conversations, we discovered a lot about the company that ingratiated ourselves to the “young upstarts”. We also discovered the existence of Bad Idea’s infamous “six rules for retailers” for carrying their product, which we’re going to go ahead and print below.
All stores participating in the Destination Program™™ agree to the following rules for Bad Idea product:
Rule #1: Limit one per customer.
Rule #2: Must be sold for no more than cover price for 30 day from street date.
Rule #3: Bad Idea comics can be offered for pre-order but cannot be shipped to anyone before street date.
Rule #4: Must be displayed in the highest trafficked section of your store.
Rule #5: Must prominently display promotional material for mandated time period.
Rule #6: Your order on the first issue of an arc is your minimum order on each subsequent issue of that arc.
Failure to comply with these rules will result in your shop’s removal from the program.
These rules are very important to keep in mind as we run through how the company has been marketing itself.
A lot of this goes back to the splash they made by announcing that they’d originally be available at a scant 20 locations. In early interviews, Shamdasani spoke about his experience running Valiant and how the majority of that company’s sales came from a very small pool of retailers. He talked about how the limitation of retail outlets might benefit a company that ran on the manpower of ones instead of tens or hundreds, and how marketing scarcity rather than limitation would work to their advantage.
As a small business owner, I found kinship in a person who recognized the marketing of weakness as a strength. It reminded me of a story that comics creator Sam Humphries once told when he was marketing the original printing of Our Love Is Real (which topped out at 300 copies). He said he had been talking with James Sime of Isotope Comics who told him about the difference between the phrases “I only have 300 copies” and “THERE ARE ONLY 300 COPIES”.
The Bad Idea model was and is that phrasing, writ large. They have a limited amount of locations so that their smaller staff can better manage orders that are placed directly with them. They don’t do digital because that requires staffing to handle those contracts, uploads and timing. They don’t do collected editions, because that would require a book store distribution contract that would ALSO require staff to co-ordinate and product to lock in and schedule months in advance. Instead of having these things in place, Bad Idea was just going to build some quality product. If someday they pushed their orders to an open system of retailers, along with digital and collected editions, so be it. But such things would not be in the plans to start.
In public, the company revels in the idea of scarcity, promoting the “there are only 200 locations” of it all rather than the “we can only supply 200 locations”. This isn’t a dumb move on their end. It plays into the molten hot speculator market at play and gives their content a certain gleam that is both extremely attractive and endlessly frustrating. A trip into their Facebook group reveals a den of die-hards and malcontents, some salivating at the lack of worldwide access while others lament the availability of product near them. This awareness creates a buzz within the comics community that pushes orders up to the point where the company vastly under-estimated the demand of their first release. But we’ll get to that a bit later.
While originally intending to launch ENIAC #1 in May of last year, the pandemic pushed things backwards. In the stead of product, Bad Idea did a few interesting things. The first thing involved sending a total of $250,000 directly to “every one of the 100 retailers in the first wave of our Bad Idea Destination Store program, as well as those already committed to our yet-to-be-announced second wave.” This wasn’t anything they had to do, but they did it anyway, and it was greatly appreciated.
They also stealth released their first title to shops by sending a copy of a comic called The Hero Trade to stores, including material that featured an unnamed creator asking for shops to place orders for their independent work. A short time after a stated deadline for orders had passed, Bad Idea revealed the release to be the work of Matt Kindt and David Lapham with a press blast that went everywhere, stating that a Bad Idea comic was already at your participating retailer and ready for you to ask for. The only problem? There was no warning to retailers of any of this. So over the course of a few days, we spent quite a few hours fielding inquiries and wondering what to do with a comic that we soon discovered had a prohibitively small print run (somewhere south of “THERE ARE ONLY 300 COPIES”), and that we weren’t entirely sure we’d see more than one copy of.
It was at this point that we lost a “customer” who had (1) never spent a single dollar with us and (2) demanded to know what we were going to do with the copy of The Hero Trade we had in hand. We informed the person that we weren’t quite sure WHAT we were going to do until we knew whether or not we’d see more copies from Bad Idea or not, but if we were only to have the one, we’d end up selling it for charity, at around what the book was going for in the market – as we were told the “Must be sold for no more than cover price for 30 days from street date” didn’t apply because the book wasn’t an “official” Bad Idea release.
We received a curt message informing us to drop his orders, and in short order, saw him posting in the Bad Idea Facebook group about how he “dropped his store for another” due to shady practices. This was when our first bit of counter-marketing took place, when we decided to take the comic we had, and cut it in half (along the spine) so we could laminate the thing and have as many people as possible read it without getting sick. We took something built with an inherent limitation of experience and made sure we had something to market Bad Idea’s upcoming line, instead of cashing in with one somewhat sizeable payday.
(In the interest of full disclosure, we DID end up receiving one extra copy, which we sold to a voracious Matt Kindt reader for FAR FAR FAR less than “market value” to thank him for his support.)
After that, things died down for a time. We attempted to further our counter-marketing by asking Bad Idea to help facilitate a situation where the creators would sign the pages of The Hero Trade we laminated so we could auction them off for charity. Bad Idea agreed, but logistics have conspired against this from taking place thus far. (Here’s hoping!)
In January of 2021, we were finally able to place our orders for ENIAC #1 (the first Bad Idea release) properly. We sent out an order that we thought would keep us in stock for quite some time, playing a bit of the long game. Being very mindful of Bad Idea’s rules (particularly the one that stated “Your order on the first issue of an arc is your minimum order on each subsequent issue of that arc”) we required anyone signing up for ENIAC to commit to the full four issues of the story upfront, either with a pre-payment, or an agreed-upon commitment from long-standing file customers. This would ensure we wouldn’t be holding the bag from unsold copies of issues 2-4 of the series when the speculators disappeared. It was a pretty solid plan on our part… only Bad Idea apparently underestimated what demand for their first release would be and announced that they’d be allocating stores at a rate of 51% to their orders.
This didn’t sit well with us at all, and public communication was cagey as to why something like this happened. At the same time, BOOM! Studios had a similar issue with the first issue of BRZRKR, so they delayed the release of that particular title. Bad Idea chose another tactic and gave retailers the option of filling out the rest of their initial orders with copies of what they were calling the “Not First Printing” version of the book.
In conversation online, Shamdasani spoke about the situation in a frank manner. The covers for the first and “not first” printings were produced at the same time as a cost-saving measure. They were also printed long before the interiors as the spot varnish effect took quite some time to “cure” properly. Retailers put in their orders AFTER this point in time, and while the interiors could be produced to satisfy the full orders, producing more covers would have taken at least three extra weeks. While BOOM! opted for a delay (two weeks for the regular-style covers of BRZRKR and 5 weeks for the foil versions), Bad Idea barreled forward by affixing their already-printed run of “Not First Printing” covers to the initial print run instead.
The results were a bit of chaos, especially for a store like ours who pre-sold this book by the arc, with the assumption that first prints were what we’d put in the hands of those customers. We will say, Bad Idea was receptive to our problems and worked with us to solve some minor problems this caused for us, and we are grateful for that. However, the situation also caused a wild spike in inquiries from folks all over North America looking for copies – many of whom had a whole lot of “friends” who were interested in signing up, but who didn’t seem to like the fact that we required their “friends” to sign up with their own payment information if they wanted any copies of Bad Idea materials (see Rule #1).
To this day, we have people signing up for the full arc of ENIAC, only to ask to delete their order when we double-check that they read the description of the product, and how we only have access to “Not First Printings” to fill for issue #1. This is a lot of extra work that could have been avoided. However, Bad Idea continues to play their weaknesses as strengths and used the scarcity they provided as a marketing tool. They’re working with what they have, and while I can’t blame them, I’m truly getting tired of how glib they act while they heap spoonsful of work onto the retailers they’ve chosen to work with.
This brings us to their most recent announcement, and the new set of headaches that have arrived with it.
As a bit of a mea culpa for misfiring on the print run of ENIAC #1, Bad Idea announced to retailers that they would be providing copies of a title called HANK HOWARD, PIZZA DETECTIVE in CALIGULA’S SAFE to retailers FOR FREE, in the same quantity that they originally ordered for ENIAC #1 (or in the case of “second wave” retailers, TANKERS #1). Retailers are to sell the book for $1 American, BUT… (and there is always a BUT with this company) they are ONLY able to sell the title on Wednesday, May 12th – not before, and not afterwards. Once the clock strikes midnight, the remaining copies are to be shipped back to Bad Idea. With one store having already been removed from the Bad Idea retailer pool indefinitely for breaking Rule #2, one has to take the company at their word when they say there are consequences for breaking with their requests.
Now. While we are quite happy to see Bad Idea attempting a “make good”, this version of it is deeply flawed, and plays up their “ONLY 300 COPIES AVAILABLE” vibes to a detrimental end. As a retailer, it gives me a window of one particular day to complete all of my transactions involved with HANK HOWARD, PIZZA DETECTIVE in CALIGULA’S SAFE. What’s more, they also require the books to be picked up, and mailed out that day, no exceptions.
From their communication:
Every store is able to sell CALIGULA’S SAFE by all the same means they sell every other BAD IDEA comic — from in-store, off-the-shelf sales to mail-order (must be mailed that day) to phone orders or pre-orders that are picked up that day — and must still adhere to the BAD IDEA rules. At the stroke of midnight on May 12th, however, any unsold copies are forbidden from sale and must be returned to BAD IDEA HQ using the materials we provide.
What this creates is a situation where a retailer must put in hours and hours of extra work to potentially meet the demand of a clientele that is outwardly being marketed towards using a SCARCITY program – and they require us to do so at a $1 a pop. While this is a free product and ends up being a net gain we might not have, the effort required to do the footwork on ordering – including fielding calls from folks who could truly care less about reading the comic itself and folks who will surely be asking for the book long after May 12th – means every single store that participates in this madness will end up on the losing end of this transaction.
Make no mistake: this form of marketing is working, and a lot of people are interested in what Bad Idea is putting out. We’ve opened a lot of new files, many of whom discovered us, fell in love with our feel, and have opened larger files with us. Many other customers are breaking out of their big two superhero shells to dig into these books. We are seeing a lot of sustainable interest, but I will say that has a lot more to do with the legwork that we’re putting into Bad Idea on our end, rather than what they’re doing on theirs. Sure, they’re providing the product and the sizzle, but a sizzle amounts to a whole lot of nothing if you don’t know how to cook, you know?
Danica and I don’t think highly of ourselves (while also thinking VERY highly of each other), but we will both confidently say that we know how to pair comics with people. That is our biggest strength and it has served us well. Doing this, and pairing it with a system by which our customers must commit to the full arcs that Bad Idea puts out, has already netted some long-term positive effects in early days, at little to no risk to ourselves – but we had to put the safety nets up ourselves.
All of the rules that Bad Idea has in place puts weight on the retailers that work with them. Selling only one copy of anything per customer requires work. Making sure their product is located in the highest-trafficked section of our store and ensuring promo material is part of the store for mandated periods of time requires work. Making sure your shop doesn’t lose a huge chunk of money after speculators abandon any series they offer after issue #1 while you’re on the hook for matching orders of 2, 3, and 4 also requires work. A store also has to do this without potentially reaping the benefits of the after-market (something that we truly don’t partake in, but we don’t begrudge those that do).
Add on top of that the limitations that a $1 comic – free or not – would add in terms of increased work load, and you have a situation where a kind gesture turns into something quite worthless for anyone participating in the Bad Idea program.
That said… we’re a store that prides ourselves on rising up to a challenge. If a company like Bad Idea wants to build up some hoops so we can put (admittedly) great comics into people’s hands, they are entitled to do so. If they want people to follow a strict set of rules, they are entitled to do so. Retailers can choose to follow these rules blindly to keep getting product and call it a day. They can push through a heap of ridiculousness to sell copies of CALIGULA’S SAFE at an operational loss, and call it a day just so they can continue to sell ENIAC and TANKERS and the like.
Or, they can make their own rules. Which is what we’re going to do.
We’re putting together a little something we’re calling THE WORTHLESS COMIC GAMBIT.
In this situation, we have a product that we’re receiving for free, that has a cover price of $1 American. We are required to sell that comic for no more than $1 American, as we are not allowed to sell the comic outside of one single day, let alone 30 days past the release day.
The time and effort it takes essentially makes the comic worthless to us. So we’re deciding to make it worth less to our customers, by providing it to them for free.
Now I know you’re thinking, how does giving something away for free solve any of the costs of time we’ll be incurring? Well, it doesn’t. Not in and of itself. However, because we’re getting a limited amount of product, we will be taking hold requests – and putting a priority on those who place the book on hold and donate a minimum of $5 to a fund that will go to a charity of our choosing. Anyone local can ask for the book, but we’ll only be guaranteeing copies to those who make a donation – and on May 12th, we’ll “ring through” their transaction of $0 for the book to prove to Bad Idea that these copies we were given were accounted for by individuals while raising money for a good cause. The following day, we’ll make the donation.
Just like cutting The Hero Trade in half, it takes what amounts to a lot of weight placed needlessly on retailer’s shoulders, and turns it into a positive and helpful force. Looking through the rules, there isn’t anything that prevents us from doing so, but if Bad Idea feels like preventing us from using this situation as a fundraiser for a good cause, I guess they’re entitled to do so. I’m not sure what they’d get out of that, but the option is there.
In all ways, I want to be additive to this industry. I understand that marketing is a key part of making sure ventures like Bad Idea are viable, but I often feel like the company itself truly doesn’t consider the cost of their actions. And I’m not just talking about money. Every business owner has four main resources to spend: money, time, energy, and space. There are finite levels of all of those resources in any business. Good companies to work with are mindful of all of those resources. While quietly Bad Idea seems to be considerate of what money, time, energy and space they have, informing their ideas on who they’re selling to and in what formats, publicly they don’t seem to appreciate many of those resources that retailers are spending on them. Money aside, these ideas of theirs pull considerably on time and energy to a detrimental level. They’re a talented group of folks working with talented crews of creators, so they can get away with a lot of what they’re doing… but when you start overspending the resources of your customers, all of the money in the world can’t save you. At least not in the long term.
I want Bad Idea to be successful. From their current announcements, to their teases, to their production value, they have solid products on their hands. They just need to stop being so glib about what we are spending to help them land, and start doing more to actually become an additive part of this community. The handout during the shutdown was nice and unexpected, but right now it almost feels like that meme where the person is drowning, and another person comes along and high-fives them before walking away, only the high-five is a fist full of cash. Money doesn’t help when you’re drowning someone with other problems.
To all Bad Idea retailers out there reading this: I encourage each and every one of you to participate in THE WORTHLESS COMIC GAMBIT, and turn this situation into a positive for your community, and your shop. I also encourage you to voice any and all concerns you might have in the comments below. I won’t be reading them myself (like I said before, time is a precious resource, and I’ve spent enough of it on Bad Idea for the time being), but maybe they will. Or hey, contact them directly! We all have their e-mail, and they really need to be aware of the resources they’re using far too much of before it is too late.
Thank you for reading. We’ll talk with you all again soon.