By Brian Hibbs
I am generally in favor of more information being given to Direct Market retailers by publishers – especially content previews, and direct communications on marketing – so why am I so leery about the latest trend today: posting to “private” Facebook groups?
Part of it, certainly, is the frustration that Facebook is glomming more and more of the eyeballs and attention of my generation (though not so much my son’s – they do Instagram). Rather than the internet being the wide and wide-open thing that it started as, Facebook is corralling more and more of its user’s experiences on the internet to live only within the “Facebook” box… and monetizing that experience as its primary goal (rather than, say, presenting information in a manner that increases the value to users and makes them more informed about factual truths). In many ways, I think of Facebook as an “entertainment” company first and foremost (I wouldn’t know how else to really brand its particular form of social media?), so to see the increasing space in people’s heads that it takes up as News (or, maybe worse, as “news”) deeply concerns me.
A site like Facebook essentially becomes to the wider internet like how a chain store is to traditional retail: flattening your expectations so that enormous swaths (if not the vast majority) of the country are like repeating cookie cutter builds and regular people don’t even realize that charm and individuality has disappeared from so many experiences, so much so that they can’t even see the bars of corporate control that have been built up around them. Or worse still, even imagine that there are other paths possible. I think this is especially true who for the vast lump of people whose engagement with the web is almost solely through their mobile devices.
(I know my wife checks the Facebook probably hourly while she’s awake – I’m not even sure that she knows that she is doing it, exactly)
And of course, this slow boil in a tech-corporate-controlled stewpot is scary to watch because so few people even realize what they’re allowing to happen to them – witness the rise of Amazon allowed them to leverage their size to start forcing competitors out of business, they’re now in position to start buying up others to make their position that much stronger: witness their announced purchase of Whole Foods. If this doesn’t raise your consumer-care hackles, I suggest you should tune them a little finer.
So, that’s the old hippie in me: technology and consolidation are both things to always keep a watchful eye upon. But I’m also bothered by both inclusion as well as exclusion, when it comes to the function of “private” Facebook groups.
I’m a member of several groups – in fact, we started a private page for staff to plan stock transfers between store locations because FB was a thing that they were already using, and because it left a trail we all could follow, and we started this page within days of FB launching private groups in the first place – and the first ones were seemingly smart ones like “I own a comic or game store” (which is mostly for game stores), or “Final Order Cutoff”, which was designed for publishers to present last-minute sales information before we turn in our final orders. “FOC”, in particular, has seemed to Morph into a general purpose place to discuss DM things and trends – largely taking much of the function of Robert Scott’s “Comic Book Industry Alliance” bulletin board.
The relative success of “Final Order Cutoff” has led (at the least) DC and Marvel to create and/or condone publisher-specific groups. DC’s is “official”, and you get an invite from asking someone from DC’s sales or marketing teams to get you access; while Marvel’s is actually run by Jen King, who owns Space Cadets in the suburbs of Houston, TX – you have to message her directly to gain access (which when you say it out loud like that is kind of really weird, right?) – although Marvel’s marketing team directly posts. And there are a few more as well – I actually turned down an offer for a small-sized publisher’s FB group because this is more time than I want to be spending on FB in the first place.
When DC sends me an email, I can sort all of my emails by recipient, I can search key-words, I can organize the data in ways that I want (for example, creating dedicated folders, or marking certain data unread until I can circle back to it) – that absolutely can’t be done in private FB groups (that I am at all aware of, at least). When I think about just DC, I get news: 1) From the normal monthly solicitation process, 2) from the weekly emails they send out to retailers, 3) from looking for specific sales and marketing data presented through “Diamond Daily”, a password-protected daily industry news site, 4) from consumer-facing information on sites like here or Bleeding Cool or CBR, etc., 5) This new near-daily Facebook site.
It’s too much, honestly.
I personally am of the mindset that absolutely everything that a retailer should know should be presented to us upfront in the monthly solicitation process. For decades publishers did, too – post-solicitation changes or new important information was very very rare until the early 21st century when pubs (and specifically Marvel) decided they should start gaming the retailers a lot more, and because there was no distribution blocking to tell them “no”, and because the individual stores don’t speak with enough of a unified voice, we let them get away with it.
So, now I have five sources of data, each, for the big two, followed by 2-4 others for basically any publisher of any real size, all formatted different, all structured differently.
That information flow is slightly different in each place, as well – art, commentary, even videos are put into things like the Facebook stream with those same assets NOT being directly presented in the official monthly or weekly communications. This is pretty infuriating while trying to keep things organized and compartmentalized.
But, at the same time, these communications are being targeted extremely narrowly. “FOC” is big at 493 members, while the DC group has 431 members (of which at least 1% are on DC’s staff, I think?), and the Marvel group has just 309. There are ~3200 accounts, we’ve been told, who buy comics from Diamond. Hell, even if we pick the smaller estimate of ~2000 “real” comic book stores, that means that far less than a quarter of stores are receiving what could be critical information for their bottom lines (there is absolutely stuff in both the DC and Marvel groups that I’ve not seen anywhere else)
And that not just seems short-sighted to me, it seems like it could be potentially illegal that not all customers are receiving all the same information, maybe even “at all” and not merely “at the same time”, and much of it isn’t coming through “official” channels.
If there’s one thing we should all be sure of in the Direct Market is that information not communicated through the monthly solicitation process tends not actually get through to stores – I personally know about a dozen stores that screwed up ordering one or more chapters of “The Button”, since it was “FOC orders-only”… which suggests to me there are probably five times or more that who aren’t my friends on social media who also messed up their orders. You’d think the publishers would understand by now just how important good, clear, organized and in-system communication really is.
* * * *
The other thing that’s happened since last we spoke is that Marvel and DC have both announced much more of the components of their respective fall events, and, gosh, in both cases they sound like they’re missing the boat, and not understanding what the audience wants or needs.
Starting with Marvel, since they were the stars of my last column (which went viral, thanks!), they’ve started their move towards “Marvel Legacy”: not only have announced a (connected? Doesn’t seem so?) series of ten “Generations” one-shots teaming up the “old” and “new” versions of their characters, they’ve also announced a 50 page special by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic to kick off “Legacy”, and a renumbering of multiple series to bring numbers in line with their continuous publication – we’ve already had “Venom” #150, and are about to have “Ultimates” #100, as the preview to this plan.
And none of it has yet lit me on fire as a retailer.
So, I know pretty much for sure that most customers aren’t particularly interested in one-shots. I especially know that they’re looking for comics which “count” – that are part of “continuity”, that advance characters and storylines. The “Generations” books all mostly sound like they don’t “count” (mentions of time-travel and other shenanigans there), nor do they sound like they lead in to anything in any meaningful way.
The Aaron/Ribic “Legacy” special could count… but only if Marvel does it right. As I write this column, Marvel has not announced any price point yet for this 50 page comic, but the only way I see to really get that gigantic home-run that Marvel needs right now is to loss-leader this book, and price it at $2.99 or less.
(A “loss leader”, for those who aren’t retailers describes selling an item at or near your cost, but such that encourages new customers to come in…. and hopefully buying a bunch of other things that you’re selling at full price – hopefully covering the loss taken on the promotional item. DC’s 80 page Rebirth special before the new #1s would be your prime recent example of the tactic. Worked, too!)
The thing is, they didn’t lead with any price announcement, so that suggests that it’s more likely to be at a “standard” Marvel price, thus $4.99 to 6.99. And if they do that, well, most of my enthusiasm-for-risk falls away. I mean, sure, it might sell fine… but fine will be “about the top of what Marvel comics sell today”, and that’s not what Marvel needs. Marvel needs a book that can sell 3-10 times that, bringing back lapsed readers, turning heads with new ones, and establishing themselves as a publisher that understands the market it lives in. They’ll take the #1 dollar book for the month if they price it at $5.99, but lose the war to become relevant again by pitching two strike-outs before the real up-at-bat of “can you fix your ongoing periodicals sales?”
I mean, Marvel knows how to sell an issue #1, even with an audience that is mostly indifferent to stand-alone one-shots – they can lard-on incentives to sell this Legacy #1 in hit numbers, and so the biggest retailers will make enough money even if they don’t sell-through. But if they don’t sell-through, and big, among the mid-size and smaller retailers, then Marvel will have lost the base. It’s never been a problem for Marvel to sell a first issue, but they’re having a bitch-kitty of a time trying to sell the tenth. And that’s the problem that Marvel needs to fix.
I, for one, don’t think “legacy” numbering will do much (unless the content and price-point and formatting drastically changes), but early results of “Venom” #150 don’t really seem promising to me. Admittedly our smaller, more Marvel-oriented, more periodical-centered store on Ocean Ave. saw “Venom” sales climb to the highest they’ve been since we bought that location… but it’s still only around a growth of maybe 20%, and the return of lapsed customers doesn’t seem to have started yet (I remember hitting triple digits sold of some foil-covered issues of Venom in the 90s, so they’re out there… somewhere!)
But at our main store, the original on Divisadero St., the “Venom” story is something dire. In point of fact, issue #150 dropped in sales, and sold literally zero rack copies (despite increasing our order, boo!). The same thing happened with #151. So our first “Legacy” book is now subs only. And I think that I expect that the same thing is going to happen with “Ultimates” when they switch that one over to #100. Trying to switch over to nostalgia-based marketing is going to be much harder for Marvel given how little of their current readership really have a first-person memory of corner boxes and Marvel value stamps.
Meanwhile, on the other coast, DC continues… well, doing something with the whole “Dark Days / Metal” group of things. DC’s got a real branding mess on their hands with a really unclear focus on just exactly what most of this stuff is, and how it ties together, and just why people should care. Weeks in on the promotional wheels of all of these books, and I honestly can’t tell if there’s a good idea in the middle of this with unnecessary ideas being layered on top, or if instead the whole thing was poorly conceived from the word “go” – I still don’t really understand what “Metal” itself is? And that’s a pretty big sin for “the big fall event”?
DC has also announced some truly baffling stuff, like a seven issue weekly series of one-shots that all sound exactly like continuity-waste “Elseworlds” of “What If Batman was Green Lantern…. But Eeeeeeevil!” and “What If Batman was Flash…. But Eeeeeeevil!” and “What If Batman was Aquaman…. But Eeeeeeevil!” and….. well, let me stop you there, hoss, because I don’t see how the audience gives a darn, not at $4 a throw, not for seven of those?
And worse, I believe I can correctly fill in the colors from a video chat with Dan Didio on the Facebook page that because these books are all with fancy covers, they’re going to do the solicitations for them super-early, essentially ruining Final Order Cutoff for ordering the comics incompatible – we aren’t just ordering three of them essentially blind… we’re ordering all seven.
So, yeah, there’s not (yet?) a lot of true excitement that seems like its coming yet this fall from the Big Two. And it is my belief that the forward momentum of “excitement” is what drives the Big Two, and thus drives the market. Seems like we’ll have to run through another quarter or two more and see if they figure it out next time?
Thing is: I’m sick of waiting. At what point are those publishers going to realize that they need to either change the way they do things…. Or change the people making the decisions?
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, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.