By Brian Hibbs
[Editor’s note: this column was written before the controversy over Batman #50 hit.]
Sorry for the break between columns – BookScan really kills me for writing for a while! I’m pretty eager to tell you about My Visit To the ALA (American Library Association), but there’s some recent Hot topics that have come up that I think should be addressed first – especially the news that DC is creating four exclusive 100-page anthologies for Walmart
What’s funny is that Heidi and I were having a drink in the bar of the hotel we were both at for ALA, and I was saying how I thought what the market desperately needed was a return to the kind of anthology comics packages of our childhoods, though I was specifically telling her that I thought Scholastic could sell several hundred thousand copies a month of kids-comics anthology anchored by 8-12 pages of Raina Telegemeir or Kazu Kabuishi, and serializing the other comics they publish.
More or less like “Disney Adventures” (which we’ll all remember that Heidi edited, right?) – just without the prose material. I think the market desire is there as kid’s comics rise in the manner that they are.
Heidi and I say goodnight, and 10 minutes later I get a text from Ace saying “Haw someone is announcing a similar product to what you were just talking about tomorrow!”
I’m relatively bullish on the notion of recreating the periodical feeder system for comics – I think that the more types of different packages and the more places to sell them, the better for the market it will be, and that even if they’re not aimed directly at Direct Market comic stores, we can’t help but benefit from wider variety and distribution. I triple-especially think that the more kids comics that sell, the better we’re setting up the next ten years of comics sales when those kids grow up to be adults who are literate and energized about the form.
On the other hand, I also strongly believe that equal access to material and a level playing field is also deeply critical to the health of the marketplace – exclusive access and exclusive products are virtually always a bad idea because the split markets into “haves” and “have nots”, creating market confusion and fractures, and, almost always, making the “little guy” the loser. And unlike what she seems to think in Heidi’s follow-up on this topic,
So, I absolutely think that there’s a giant breakdown in, at least, the optics of the Walmart deal with how it relates to the Direct Market.
I think central to any discussion of newsstands and mass market sales of comics has to be that those market segments absolutely abandoned comics. Some young people today seem to feel that Marvel and DC walked away from the newsstands, but the reality is the newsstands (and mass) walked away from comics, especially as the once mom-and-pop pharmacies of America got bought out by mega-corporations, consolidated, and then largely replaced in many communities by the “big box” store. Accountants took over, and profit-by-square-foot became the sole metric – and in those metrics a rack of sunglasses took the same footprint as a rack of comics and generated larger and more consistent profits. This is simply historical fact.
The Direct Market provided a lifeline for comics right at the moment that the horrible cultural impact and dumbing-down of content in the United States that the senate hearings of 1954 and the subsequent creation of the self-censoring Comics Code Authority was starting to finally wear off. The 1980s saw a (relative) explosion of (relatively) sophisticated, smart comics that were also commercial hits, right when the mass market audience and shelf-space for comics was faltering.
I would strongly argue that the Direct Market kept the artform of comics itself alive and (relatively) thriving over the last thirty-plus years, and that it was in all ways developments in the DM itself that were what allowed bookstores to grow interest in the category, starting largely with Manga, and how that directly led to the growth of the middle reader category into the powerhouse it is at the moment.
I give you the history lesson so that you understand that the DM retailer’s passions, and commitment to the category in the face of most fiscal wisdoms, are exactly why a) DC is even here today to make this deal with Walmart, and b) why we as a class tend to think we deserve a little loyalty.
When DC released the press release, it threw a hand grenade into retailer’s perceptions. I have brethren who are the calmest, nicest, most rah-rah Team Comics people you could ever meet, who were suddenly full-feral, “why is my most-trusted partner suddenly trying to put me put of business????” Seriously, I’m not talking about the usual vocal and juvenile bomb-thrower retailers here – I’m talking about sober and stable pillars of their community (who I don’t want to name for fear of embarrassing them)
Why are they feeling this? Because DC is putting two of their top writers on to twelve-part serializations for these new publications, and that (equally importantly) the Direct Market has deeply uncertain commercial access to in the entirely unspecified future.
I haven’t seen any retailers react negatively towards the notion of a reprint-focused cheap-comics package for Mass Market, in and of itself. Historically we ask for access to order such things, but equally historically the market generally only orders a bare token number of copies of such a product. We aren’t losing out from that kind of product because we can’t sell that kind of product any more than the DM was able to succeed with, say, Archie digests.
But I think it’s fair to question the reasoning for having new material in this package. To the muggle, the civilian, the lay reader, all content is new. Distinctions in the press releases about these books between “New 52” and “Rebirth” and “The New Age of Heroes” is all babble and nonsense to the muggle, and as a direct corollary, there’s little-to-no reason to think that they are going to be able to tell a difference between the new material and the reprints in these packages.
Who does care about new material? The enthusiast, the regular reader, the direct market customer. “Our” customer base, which we have built and created and nurtured for decades in many cases, in other words.
Yes, of course, no one is “entitled” to a customer – it is reasonable for retailers to understand that they have to compete for business, but I think it is also reasonable to expect that competition will be fair and not weighted too far in one direction or the other. By putting top creators on new material exclusive to a mass market retailer like Walmart just feels like an open play for “our” customer. Customer budgets are not infinite, and dollars spent in one channel are likely to remove dollars from another.
I particularly think that because this project seems unlikely to me to actually create new Direct Market readers. First and foremost because Walmart has been trying to sell comic magazines to Walmart customers for years, to very little success. This seems inherent to the combination of Walmart’s store layouts, the natural tendency of the Walmart customer to be a “value” customer, and the lack of store training and maintenance on the category. None of these things are likely to change especially with this new initiative, so it’s hard to see how the results change either.
Even if you take the most possible rosy prediction of customer creation, I think that selling someone a 100-pages-for-$5 package as an intro to a 22-pages-for-$4 package essentially is incredibly unlikely to work as a conversion device.
At the end of the day, most of the DM retailer’s concern could have been solved by simple messaging – having a clear and direct “they might be getting it first, but you’ll have it in a commercial package no later than _____” would have solved the angst for the majority of retailers, I think – but the optics of this move with the lack of any real information makes it feel like an attempt at a pivot, rather than an all-market-serving initiative.
DC has nearly always been the #2 publisher in the DM, and I would strongly argue that the reason that they’re not the distant #2 is primarily because they spent decades trying to build good will in the DM, carefully, brick by brick, piece by piece. To watch them sweep that good will away so quickly and broadly for an initiative that almost certainly isn’t going to grow their overall business by the amount of faith that they’ve just lost from the DM retailer strikes me as… well, let’s call it short-sighted.
(Honest to God, there are days I think that the move to Burbank caused DC to lose any ability to channel any of its Institutional Memory – of which there are still many long-time employees there who should possess it in the comics departments – and not only of the comics industry, but of things like how exclusive music tracks on CDs at mass stores like Walmart and Best Buy harmed independent record stores, being one of the reasons that caused that section to crash and take physical sales down with it. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it)
And I think what concerns me the most is that if this is how they handle things when their principle is an entertainment company, what’s going to happen when AT&T (very very much not an entertainment company in it’s bones) takes over control?
To make this a little more specific and personal, as many of you know, I bought a second store five years ago – one that is very much a periodical store. It’s profitable, albeit slightly, though extremely borderline in terms of how much work I have to put in to keep it rolling. The lease is almost up and I am thinking strongly about how worth it it will be to lock myself into another five years there – I don’t have this concern with my primary, book-format-oriented store (at least as much), but I’m very much thinking that my top three periodical suppliers have been doing a really poor job at their basic core competencies for the last two-plus years, absolutely unable to stop the gutting of their midlists. So, it is moves like this one from DC that make me much more likely to shut the second store down at the end of the year, because I’m losing faith in my partners.
On the brighter side of the world, I felt extremely rejuvenated coming back from the American Library Association annual conference in New Orleans this week. It was the first time that I’ve attended such a gathering, and it was genuinely exciting to be around a group of people who eat live and breathe books, nearly for the sake of books themselves.
As Heidi noted, ALA was as big, if not bigger than, the majority of comic book conventions – the floor felt about 20% (?) bigger than San Diego’s floor, and the print version of the program book, with its hundreds of hours of Professional Development programs was the size of a small city’s phone book.
Although in shape and form ALA looked a whole lot like a comics convention, in most ways, I’d call the ALA the polar inversion. Let’s list some of the reasons:
- The focus is on actual book content, not marketing plans, or pop culture, or selling movies or whatever.
- The attendance was probably 70% female.
- Very few attendees had purchasing powers – they’re mostly going to go home and advocate for things to the buyers, so the tone of the floor was entirely different: all about content and not commerce.
- Virtually everyone there was eager to learn more about things that they did not know, not wanting to just swim in the same seas they do back home.
- Panels and seminars were about things like shelving and categorization and community standards and other “big picture” concerns, not wallowing in minutiae like comic panels tend to be.
More than anything else, I left NOLA thinking that of all of the aspects of government, libraries are the sole part that functions pretty much exactly as it is supposed to for the benefit of all citizens: librarians seem lock step in unison in sharing concerns about things like access for all people equally, of free speech and free expression, of bringing people up, of building community and bringing citizens together, of inclusion and making sure all voices are heard. I’d have to say that I felt better about democracy itself after hanging around librarians for three days.
I mean, it was great to hear Michelle Obama speak (she’s really an inspiring person), but I was somehow more impressed by the as-loud roaring standing ovations that the librarians gave their peers as the ALA president announced the names the org was honoring this year for things like access and equality.
The DM retailer could learn a lot from an event like this – the sheer number and variety of programming tracks really blew me away, and I want to start pushing for more “Professional Development” among our ranks. We’ve got to step up our game. I also think there should be more forums where DM retailers and Librarians can meet and support each other because so many of our concerns are the same, and where they are different we still can strongly learn from each other.
It’s funny, although they have so much more community penetration, and that they “give away free” for the same exact things we sell, I’ve never ever thought of libraries as any kind of threat to business, or a problem in the way I view an Amazon, Walmart or Gamestop – probably because libraries inherently want to expand the number of people who read, and we’re not competing for a dollar.
Libraries grow the pie, as far as I am concerned, and I was really glad to see so many DM-oriented publishers reaching out to them in such a strong way because I think there’s a really positive loop that can help grow the DM as well in that by exposing people who’d otherwise never encounter them to the medium itself.
And it’s all helped by the fact that librarians are some of the nicest, most straight-forward, and helpful people that you could hope to meet – seeing their growing understanding of the comics medium blossom fills me with so much hope and enthusiasm for the future of comics, and all of our places within it.
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.