By Brian Hibbs
Long term readers of Tilting at Windmills (a column that has been running since 1991) will recognize that I have been harping on certain themes for the last few decades: primarily that greed will end up destroying the Direct Market, and that the promotion of ethical standards on how we act, and how we treat all tiers of the industry (creator, publisher, distributor, retailer and consumer) determines what our future can be.
I could sit here and make a link-fest of column after column showing these arguments, but instead maybe you should go read through the archives, both here at The Beat, and the collection I’ve put together of pre-Beat columns from Comics Retailer magazine and Newsarama and CBR. This is at least the 272nd attempt to express my dismay at how the business that I love more than any other has been led down the wrong paths.
(And, look, to put today’s attempt to express that dismay into perspective, why don’t you go read this column quoting from a column from nineteen seventy-six by Joe Brancatelli where is he saying the same thing about the second ongoing Spider-Man comic book. God, we’ll never change, will we? [If that link goes dead, here is a worse-formatted one that should be permanent])
I don’t bring this history up to make myself out to be some sort of savant or something – ha, I am far from that! – but to demonstrate that the things that have led us here to 2019 are part of a long-continuum of doing things that has ultimately put our backs to the wall today. And I think we do have our backs to the wall right now, as do many many of my peers.
First and foremost, the way that publishers (especially Marvel Comics) have deflected criticisms of their publishing methods over the years has been with Retailer Isolation. I have entirely lost count of the number of times I have been told over the decades “Oh, that’s just you saying that”. I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve had publishers lie directly to my face (especially specific individuals at Marvel comics) and tell me that I am the sole retailer expressing a concern.
They tried to tell me that no one else cared when I ended up having to sue Marvel over them breaking their own terms of sale… and won a million dollars for my class because I was absolutely right.
It was never “just me” back then, and it ain’t just me now, babe.
Let’s maybe start with the public statement that ComicsPRO (the retailer trade organization) has just released as an after-action report of the 2018 meeting. You can go read it at this link. Especially go and click through to the actual PDF itself (direct link) – that’s the consensus of 160 retailers at the meeting. And while that cover letter is a little bloodless, there was a lot of passion and energy in that contentious room.
The last year has gotten even worse (the 2019 ComicsPRO meeting is in just about two months – still time to register for pubs and stores!) I would say, and more retailers are directly standing up and starting to speak. Really, there aren’t a ton of “name” retailers, stores that might register with an average comic book reader, but I think Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics might be one of them. Chuck posted to Facebook “I fervently believe that the economics of comics publishing simply no longer allow smallish neighborhood comics shops to be successful”
If that wasn’t horrifying enough, Chuck went on in his recent newsletter that Mile High, one of the largest and most successful retailers in the country, was reacting to the new realities of publishing in the DM with this: “If you are a fan who wants to just browse the racks in our stores each week, however, you are most likely going to be sorely disappointed if you do not come in to one of our locations on Wednesday morning. We will definitely still be ordering copies of many new releases for speculative sale on the racks in our retail stores, but in such small quantities that we will be almost certainly sell out by the first weekend”
One of the most successful stores in the world is saying that they’re cutting bait on most new releases because they can’t stock them profitably. Think about that a second.
Chuck isn’t the only retailer I’ve seen making such a statement, but many of them are locked away in private retailer forums and the like. But pretty much everyone recognizes that we’ve got a real problem with the sheer number of not just titles being published (in the Brancetlli piece I complain about six “Spider-Man” comics in ‘92, but now and today the newest catalog from Marvel has ten ongoing “Spider-Man” titles, plus two mini-series – that’s three books every week! There are also four reprint collections that month) but also the sheer number of SKUs that variants bring. Again, the new Marvel catalog leads with a mini-series called “War of the Realms” that has seventeen different covers attached to it. For one single issue worth of release. Even if you try to “ignore variants” they take up catalog and “eye” space, they increase the amount of time it takes to order (let alone find) the comics you want to stock; they also consume distributor resources, ultimately increasing overages, shortages and damages, hurting everyone as a result.
The January 2019 order form features 1106 solicited periodical comic books. Of those, only 454 of those SKUs are new items – the other 652 are variant covers. That means a staggering fifty-nine percent of all solicited comics are actually variants. That’s completely and entirely absurd! It is deluded, it is dangerous, and it actively works against the best interests of the market.
I remember when the number of customers streaming in for new periodical comics each week could be measured in the hundreds – one store I worked for in the 80s ordered solid 300 copy cases of each and every issue of X-Men. Now many stores can measure the periodical readers for any particular book in scores or less.
This is a direct result of publishing strategies that value excess over sustainability – the audience for comics is contracting because publishers are trying to take advantage of the comic buyers.
My buddy Phil Boyle at Florida’s Coliseum of Comics, a seven-store chain, has been a foil of mine for decades – we used to literally scream at each other over Marvel’s practices in the 90s (he was an enormous fan of Bill Jemas; I was… less so), but here in 2019 Phil has become a believer of virtually all of the things I have been saying (honestly, it’s a straight line from Jemas’ Marvel to today’s Marvel), here’s Phil from an excellent op/ed on ICv2 (itself taken from a private Facebook group post)
“As a quick background, comic retailers are currently buying under a plan that, though tweaked over the years, is essentially the same buying structure that was put on the table by Phil Seulling 46 (FORTY-SIX!) years ago. As one of the supposed “Old Guard” at my august 35 years, even I wasn’t selling comics when this deal was struck. To add fuel to the fire that we’re mired in old policy, Diamond’s monthly printed discount terms are based on sales data from 2006! I don’t see this as a Diamond problem as much as a problem that no publisher wants to be the one to put their foot down and make the changes that need to be made. Fleecing the retailer base is wonderful for the bottom line until everyone can’t pay their bills anymore.
I understand the pressure that publishers have to make sure that the bank account is full at the end of each quarter. I get the whole variants adding to that bottom line and pricing structures are safe for publishers. I understand that Diamond has only the funds that their margin allows so all the wants of the retail side of things simply can’t happen. I also know that Steve Geppi has personally (he owns Diamond outright) buoyed many stores through difficult times. I get how all these moving parts work but I see the plight of retail stores going into 2019 as more than just Amazon and ennui when it comes to actually reading when video and Kindle are so available. Everyone likes to think we’re all partners in bringing comics to the masses. Here’s a truth: Despite the best intentions and love of comic by the folks at Marvel and DC, Disney and Warner Bros./AT&T are not comic fans beyond what it amounts to on the bottom line. But we need a change and not a small incremental thing; we need a complete sea change.”
Phil then goes on to list eight problem areas, what publishers can do about them, and, most importantly how he is responding as a retailer without waiting for the publishers to solve…. Because it doesn’t look like they’re going to. Its really an excellent piece, you should go read it.
Phil references Joe Field’s comments – also in a private retailer group post – and Joe is one of the only other “name” comic book retailers. Owner of Flying Colors (& Other Cool Stuff) in Concord, CA, Joe conceived of the single greatest promotional gift to the Direct Market: Free Comic Book Day. Here’s just a piece of Joe’s comments, used with permission:
“With so many more publishers in the marketplace these days, what we’ve done is widened the market, but we’ve also flattened it. So many more titles selling fewer than 10 copies or even fewer than five copies, yet each one takes the same rack space, each one requires handling, some basic knowledge.
We have publishers taking the specialty market for granted. We are the mature market for comics, so our growth is never going to look very robust. But we are here and we really don’t want to go away. We take abuse from other segments of the specialty market, yet we still stand, we survive and some of us even thrive.
We have major corporations that don’t care to deal with “mom and pops” unless and until we’ve got 900 stores in our chain. Employees & executives for these major corporations are understandably answering to their bosses first, last and always. But I also think they are chiseling at their solid base of business (us) with every vertically integrated, synchronistic, multi-platform announcement. And when they make those announcements, they tell us it’s to get more people interested in comics so they’ll eventually visit us. Yeah, right.”
Joe is one of the most calm, rational and (not an insult in this case) Middle-of-the-road guys I know. Chuck and Phil are like me: bomb-throwers, but Joe is calm and stable and patient and wise. And if even he is starting to freak out enough to make a public (ish) statement. Well, can we please start to take this seriously now?
It doesn’t have to be big, known, retailers making big splashy statements either, here’s retailer Regan Clem, owner of Summit Comics in Lansing, MI. He’s never penned an op/ed, he’s not especially all-industry noticed, but smaller stores are the ones most impacted by the publishing changes the 2010’s brought us, and he said these wise things (again, used with permission) in just a reply to a different private Facebook thread:
“Crossovers have always been good for sales. A big annual crossover works. But then they do them all the time, throw the label on books where it really isn’t crossing over, and it loses the impact to actually have a big, real crossover be effective. The complaints are more against the latter.
#1s works. But then they relaunch every year, ruining the impact. They relaunch for a new creative team which just gives everyone a jumping off point ruining the positive impact a new creative team could have on sales.
They are like heroin addicts chasing the dragon. All that is good becomes abused. And then we complain about the abuse.
I even like variant covers in moderation. When used properly, they work. But again, abuse in the system is causing them to lose their effectiveness too.”
So this is where we are: retailers large and small, public and private, left and right, all recognizing that the system has gone off the rails. That the market is radically over-producing the wrong objects. That we’re literally chasing customers away from the market in order to make just pennies more from the remaining customers. That publishers are actively destroying a system that we spent decades carefully building.
The way the market is structured, it wouldn’t take losing all that many more stores to make the basic math of the Direct Market entirely untenable – I think possibly losing 10% of the storefronts could be enough to cause the whole thing to crash for the remaining 90% because the infrastructure has minimum input needs.
The real problem, in my mind, was that the time to stop this was a decade or more back, because today publishers have transformed the way they even think about publishing, about structuring their P&Ls around these rapacious models. I’m not sure that the folks at, say, Dynamite, would survive six months if they suddenly switched to a series having to be viable solely on its own merit and away from a “every comic has many variants” model. The same might be true for the individual creators at Image, let alone the freight train of Marvel comics who almost certainly has the next two quarters (or more!) of weekly mini-series and dollar-grabbing one shots and variants and relaunches and reboots and tie-ins all white-boarded out. Even if one could stop that production (with a lot of kill-fees and sunk inventory costs), it’s a bit hard for me to see top level executives at Disney having the sensitivity enough to understand why 2-4 quarters of radically reduced revenue might make sense to preserve their publishing business for decades more to come.
And don’t even get me started on AT&T taking over DC – scuttlebutt says the first question DC people were asked is “Wait, why are you still printing anything?”
In this we’re a bit like climate change – we can still fix it, but it now is going to take radical changes, not just incremental ones.
Like my peers, I believe that most people working at publishers are good, sincere people who care about comics – I mean, otherwise, it’s a pretty low-stakes way to make a living – but the companies above them are unlikely to be trusted for protecting the integrity or future of the market that allowed them to get to the point to really exploit in transmedia those “intellectual properties”
Let me be clear: I’m not worried about comics, not the medium itself. It’s fine as a creative endeavor, if only because there are plenty of distribution options for non-periodical formats these days. Ha, in fact, I’ve been slowly moving a significant portion of my purchasing away from Diamond over the last decade as other options because meaningful (and, generally, cheaper) – but most stores aren’t very forward thinking. And most stores really only focus on the Marvel/DC axis of comics, and these stores will not have a good natural pivot because they exist to sell the Marvel and DC fictional universes more than the medium of comics itself.
I’ve been pushing my store for decades into what I think is more sustainable, civilian-focused comics-forward model… and even we’d take a hard, sharp loss if Disney or AT&T decided to pull out.
Most stores don’t have the large resources of a Mile High or a Coliseum of Comics in order to weather the coming storm. They don’t have the profile of a Comix Experience or Flying Colors to allow us to try to figure some other way out of the maze. But a way must be found out: we’re also on a collision course with the relatively soon wave of about-to-retire store owners who don’t necessarily have heirs in place to keep their legacies alive, and even much of Diamond Upper Management Team is getting pretty close to aging out of the game. Does anyone have a viable plan for (god forbid) the day Steve Geppi dies?
2019 is, I fear, a make or break year for the infrastructure of the comics specialty market to rebuild its long-term viability.
It ain’t just me – virtually every Direct Market retailer agrees that the way we’re asked to do business has become fundamentally broken.
So, what are you going to do about 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. You can read his previous columns here.