By Brian Hibbs
Back when this all started, some people didn’t understand why retailers were so adamant about digital not getting released before physical during the COVID-19 crisis.
Here’s the thing about periodical comics: Because of the way that they are released weekly, they operate a bit like a moving train — they hurtle along, and they have to follow a strict schedule. One of the reasons I advocated for digital comics being held until print comics could resume was “The Desynch Problem.”
In a nutshell, the problem is that while, maybe, a week or two worth of comics could have been “caught up” in print after getting behind digital, we were going to be eight weeks or more behind before a single print comic was going to be able to ship. It would have been flatly impossible for either stores to “catch up” to that amount of product, either from a cash flow and/or work process (even processing two weeks of comics at once would have been a really difficult challenge for most stores), or from the consumers’ ability to buy in and absorb all of those comics.
New comics “return” next week, and I am of the opinion that this is more or less a result of DC “forcing the issue” by intentionally allowing for de-synch on physical periodicals, something that is clearly untenable. As I write this on May 13th, there are more than 83,000 people dead from this virus, and if things keep on at the same rate they have been last week, it looks like that number will be well over 90,000 by “New Comics Day.” I realize your opinion on this may change based upon where you live, but this doesn’t seem to this observer to be a responsible time to be shipping periodical comics again.
It has always been my experience that comics primarily are sold to the browsing reader. The overwhelming majority of my customers are not like you, reading comics news and opinion sites. The vast and towering majority get their “comics news” from walking in to the store and seeing what’s on the rack. They don’t have a subscription preorder box; they do not even want one. They don’t know what’s being released in advance (and they don’t really want to know, either — at least not if they “have” to); they don’t “keep up” with comics news and gossip. No, the overwhelming majority walk into the store and encounter comics there in a state of virginal grace, and buy based upon what they can see with their own eyes.
Most comics appear to be sold in major metropolitan areas, according to the leaked Marvel document from a few months back. And most major metropolitan areas are still partially or even mostly closed to “normal” business. For example, in San Francisco, we’re finally going to be allowed to open for “curbside pickup” just two days before new comics arrive — that means no browsing, no dithering on purchases because they need to be paid for and completed before you ever even arrive, no upselling, no picking out which cover option is the one you want to buy, no casual conversations about what was a great read this or that one was. In other words, all of the tools we use to sell comics are mostly crippled or made dull.
(And all of this at increased risk to my staff and customers from the very process of traveling around)
I said it before, and I’ll say it again: in most of the cities where most of the comic publishers are headquartered — New York, Los Angeles, Portland — none of the employees of those publishers are allowed to go into their offices for their desk jobs. So, to me, thinking that it is sensible to try to drive customers into traveling to retail stores to buy periodical comic books seems quite a bit insane.
I think that if DC hadn’t tried to force themselves out of the distribution system (relying heavily on the Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO), that we still wouldn’t be talking about having New Comics Days for some time yet. The problem, from my point of view, is what I said above: Most new comics are bought more on a whim than a firm plan, and the overwhelming majority of customers have zero interest in buying comics if they have to order them 3+ weeks in advance. But, because we’re still effectively closed in most meaningful senses, we can only responsibly place orders for for-sure purchases: Ordering “rack” copies when you have no open racks to display them on is a sure way to have unsold product at a time where unsold product is likely worse for most comic retailers than having no product.
Realistically, the math says that we can’t survive and pay rent and utilities and wages on just new comics preorders; and getting in that new product weakens our ability to ask for reductions in rent and utilities or paying wages: If the machine is running, then therefore we must pay to have it run. Outgoing expenses increase, while income isn’t enough for most stores to pay for any of it.
I totally get if you live in a community that isn’t having restrictions: I think your governments are playing with people’s actual lives, but I understand “well, some commerce is better than no commerce” as an operating assumption. But I would submit that trying to keep trains running while passengers are unable, or more importantly, unwilling to even get to the station just doesn’t make any sense: Anecdotal reports from stores that have been allowed to “reopen” days or weeks ago say that many customers are choosing to stay away.
So, I know that my only sane reaction was to order strictly only what I already have preorders for — no “rack” copies here. Play the game defensively; try to reorder when customers realize that they can’t buy off the shelf, if they even realize that we’re open. If we have a “push” way to reach even half of our customers, I’ll be shocked — people who don’t want to have standing orders at a comic shop generally aren’t interested in signing up for your mailing list, yo — and “pull” methods like various social media are extremely inconsistent on who you’re able to reach, without spending more precious cash flow that most stores can’t afford right now), and hope and pray that it won’t put us all out of business because some executive decided that something is better than nothing, even if it isn’t enough to pay for its own costs to handle.
It’s the same Desynch Problem, just in a different way: If any store anywhere has those new periodical comics (especially if it is a big mail order house), then FOMO dictates that we all have to get on that train, even if we end up losing money because we ride.
(Here’s an interesting observation: DCBS and Midtown Comics were, combined, something under 9% of Marvel’s sales according to that leaked doc. However, my state, California, alone, is more than 10% of Marvel’s sales, and I am not aware of any CA store that’s able to do better than curbside pickup legally. This seems like a poorly thought out math response to me.)
You will note that no retailer anywhere (at least that I was aware of) really said a single word about graphic novels still being produced and shipped during the shutdown — this is because there is really almost no Desynch Problem for a perennial book product. First- week (or even first-month) sales, at least for anything of meaning and value, are a tiny drop in the bucket for what you’ll sell over the printing life of a graphic novel. If I can’t capture that sale today, I’ll still likely be able to capture it “on the other side of this” because books are the very epitome of a “long-tail” product, and books don’t go “stale” (usually). Conversely, periodicals are essentially a perishable good: Their shelf life is measured in days, not weeks, for most titles, and if you don’t capture those sales at the top of the cycle, you’re dramatically less likely to be able to sell them for anything but a loss.
Now, my colleagues might then argue that this is a lousy model for us to pursue. And I might even be convinced of the merits of that argument (although I always always fear throwing one’s baby out with the bathwater) but I am strongly of the opinion that taking a FOMO-based approach like DC has forced upon us is significantly more perilous and fraught and ultimately risky for the entire system of selling periodicals than another few months of waiting it out would have been. That is to say that the very rush to get back to “business as usual” directly hurts a very significant percentage of the people doing business because they can’t do it in a profitable way.
The problem is that the business that is usual was one that had gotten all upside down, striving to sell more titles to fewer people, rather than understanding that Less is More and trying to grow the audience. Unfortunately for a post-shutdown restart, trying to sell products that few people want (the national sales charts indicated that there weren’t even 100 periodical comics that 20,000 or more people were interested in buying in February 2020, despite there being at least 2442 accounts that buy comics — under ten copies for the average store) in a climate where most consumers are afraid to leave the house even to go to the doctor’s office, even to treat recurring conditions, doesn’t sound like the right move to me. And rather than using the pause to reformulate a better path forward that makes us stronger on the other side, this seems to me that it inevitably can only weaken and divide us.
The raw irony of it being DC of all companies that chose such a reckless and tone-deaf pathway is completely overwhelming. DC’s main motivation appears to be not having a “single point of failure” that Diamond represents — except that it was in fact DC that manufactured and ensured Diamond’s sole periodical distributor status back in 1995. Virtually every other non-Marvel publisher wanted to wait out Marvel’s Heroes World purchase and support multiple distributors, but DC signing with Diamond (again, ironically, because they believed that no other distributor was capitalized well enough to withstand Marvel’s loss) triggered the very distribution collapse they were afraid of. (sad trombone)
To add insult to injury, DC has decided to compound things by trying to rewrite the very structure of things by leaning on DCBS and Midtown Comics, the number one and number two retail accounts, and therefore the #1 and #2 competitors to the other ~2400 comic book store accounts, to become “new distributors.” The thing is, history shows us, from Heroes World, to the KSP-led Capital City, to the noble failure of Cold Cut, the volume of comics sales is not enough to profitably support distribution that isn’t offering a “full line” of publishers.
In order to have received the handful of DC comics released by Midtown and DCBS, I would have had to lose money on shipping and labor. DC comics periodicals alone don’t represent anywhere near enough volume to profitably purchase (especially because we buy all of our DC backlist graphic novels from Penguin Random House already) – and we’ve historically been a “DC store”!
That is purely the argument on the business case of dollars and cents — it doesn’t include the “There’s no fucking way I am buying from my mail order-driven competitors, thus making them stronger” — we can’t make a profit from using this “new distributors.” They’re not “distributors.” They don’t have payment terms; they don’t have an actionable terms of sale; and they don’t have any systems in place or possible to enforce compliance even if they did. They don’t have the mechanical support needed to actually be a distributor — things like CSV files to import into point-of-sales systems, or advance solicitation catalogs, or any of the tools that make it possible for stores to deal with the back-end business of selling comics are all nonexistent. And they can’t be created on the fly, in a panic.
The word I hear is that it was only a small percentage of retailers that even bothered trying to use these “new distributors,” and all polling seems to indicate that the overwhelming majority of ones who tried are nearly uniformly switching back to Diamond as fast as they were able. It strikes me that the only real growth prospects that these “distributors” have are either the “bad actors” in retail (who were out-of-terms with Diamond before the plague), or “buying clubs” where fans join together to circumvent the market to get cheaper terms. A “distributor” without thousands of clients, or the actual infrastructure to operate a wholesale business (dramatically different than retail sales), really isn’t any kind of alternative to that “single point of failure,” and can’t be made genuinely viable without a truly tremendous amount of capital investment in marketing and systems.
The other thing DC is trying to pull off here is an “aligning” of their sales channels to have everything everywhere on Tuesday, to “eliminate consumer confusion” (hahahahahahahaha!). These “channels” are effectively three buckets: direct market periodicals, digital comics, and book market.
Now digital has never been a solely viable thing, at least as currently situated: Virtually every publisher (including DC executives when you huddled with them in hotel bars at 2 a.m., back in the old days) was clear that digital was not a meaningful percentage of sales, and that no digital comic currently produced by a physical publisher generates enough income on its own to even come close to paying the creative costs of creation and the physical overhead that publishers bear. This includes the “digital-first” ones!
But we who have been doing this for a long time know that several DC executives are really really eager to try to make digital a thing (even though they’ve now had a decade and things have barely improved on that front), so it’s very very hard not to read the new “digital comics release at 12:01am Tuesday” as a direct shot across the bow against DM retailers in an attempt to get the most fanatical readers to switch channels. I do not think it will especially work, because the consumer as a whole has apparently rejected the format, but it is a deeply, deeply shitty move to unleash in the middle of a shutdown when stores are vulnerable.
The “book market” is a funny thing. They release on Tuesday, and were not willing to take a one-day hit to their normal operations for graphic novels (at least the decades ago these things were originally set in motion), and because of the physical realities of setting print runs and physically moving product, this then meant that comic shops therefore were releasing books “six days early.” As a book-forward DM store, I can’t really say that it had any meaningful impact on actual sales (like I said: first-week sales aren’t really how reprint books work, and the overwhelming majority of customers buy a thing where they see a thing, and are not gaming out their purchase sources), but it was a nice show of respect of “dancing with the one what brung you.”
The flip side of that is that I don’t actually care so much of “losing a day” to bookstores, but again, a deeply shitty move to their #1 sales channel when we’ve been forced to our knees.
We’ve been told over and over and over again by Diamond, the publishers, and most especially DC that there were physical reasons why things had to time out as they did, as we spent two full decades fighting for “day early release” of products to stores — that phrase refers to the notion that we get comics a full day before we release them to customers, which in turn, allows us to complete all of our back-office work (those subs don’t pull themselves, dude), account for the differences in shipment arrival time even within the same city, and generally let retailers properly merchandise our racks and not be horribly burned out from the receipt of our shipments (Comics receipt day is my hardest work day, by far) — and that it simply wasn’t possible to get comics into stores’ hands earlier than Tuesday reliably. Key considerations for publishers were both making sure that uniform release could happen in the UK, as well as the pesky little problem of Monday shipping holidays means many stores can not receive the books on time. Despite multiple people asking, the current DC has nothing but stony silence to questions about those issues.
There’s also a host of mechanical issues that are anything but clear surrounding receipt times. Take for example of the tiny little stupid issue of “Midnight Releases” (like the imminent “Death Metal #1”) – DC has stated that retailers are now allowed to release comics as soon as they get them (ignoring that even in the same city, current commercial shipping circumstances can mean multiple days difference in receipt for stores) — does this then mean that some stores are able to have that “midnight release” as early as 12:01 a.m. on a Monday, even if other stores aren’t getting the comics until the next day? Is your ability-to-sell now a function of which “distributor” you use? Creating “Haves” and “Have Nots” is the worst possible thing a manufacturer can do.
Ultimately the comic book industry is deeply invested in “Wednesday” from both a mechanical as well as marketing POV, and any attempt to change that date, especially by fiat, and especially when it ignores the physical laws of time and space, seems like a terrible move that can only create discrepancies in local markets and sow confusion in a time where steadfastness is perhaps the most important consideration. I’m never ever going back to rushing through check-in procedures again and throwing the books up on the rack as fast as possible again. Those days were hell for retailers, and caused immense amounts of destabilization (seriously, “air freight wars” nearly destroyed comics in the ’80s) – why would anyone willingly want to go back to such things? And how dare DC Comics try to force us to do so despite the clearly and overwhelming dissent from their client stores.
Tuesday periodical comics just aren’t a thing, and can’t be a thing, no matter how much DC wants to try and make them so. More than anything else, I resent companies that try to wrest some teeny perceived advantage, one that DISadvantages countless others, in the middle of a crisis. That shows low character, and until recently, that’s never a charge one could make stick against DC in terms of retailer relationships. Our collective orders will be affected. How could they not?
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.