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More of that retailing stuff…! Ahhhhh!

Brian Hibbs

I was a little hesitant to post something else retailing related so soon, but we’ve had two reviews up in the last 2 days (and I’ll be writing something tomorrow or Friday, I promise!), so I feel OK about mentioning this nice article by Richard Bruton of Forbidden Planet’s blog where he discusses my last two TILTINGs. He has some kind words, and I always appreciate other retailers discussing the topics I bring up.

But there’s a little bit of grousing behind the cut….

buuuuut… Dirk Deppey, dependably, uses the opportunity to misunderstand the Direct Market YET AGAIN.

Dirk starts by dismissing the idea of a “book glut” (which retailers are using in a specific way — much like the “B&W glut” and the “speculation glut”, including the understanding that such gluts tend to eventually self-correct, though they almost always take publishers and retailers with them before they do so), by likening DM stores to Generalist book stores.

Thing is, DM retailers are not Generalists — they’re specialists. Not terribly unlike Science Fiction bookstores, or Mystery bookstores, or going a smidge more afield, a Jazz-specialist record store, or an “midnight movie” or “international”-specialized video store. All of those things exist within San Francisco, and, yeah, when I go into one of them I pretty much expect them to have “everything” that I might want to buy within their specialization.

I don’t expect a generalist like B&N or Borders to have more than a “token” amount of specialized genres. I mean, sure you expect to see Asimov and Heinlein in the Sci-fi section, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to have, dunno, Neal Asher?

I’d expect that Borderlands, here in SF would have him though… or at least know what I was talking about in the first place, and where to point me if they didn’t. That’s the point of a specialist, really.

Borders carries SF, but they also carry mystery, romance, history, maps, comics, and a gajillion other things. The two cases aren’t really that comparable, except maybe for the “Pop Culture”-style DM store, that aren’t necessarily “comic book stores” per se.

Listen, we live in an environment where “Embarrassment of Riches” seems to describe it pretty darn well, so it’s a funny thing to be talking about “too many books” — but when a retailer says that, what they’re actually talking about is “too many books that don’t sell”. I think we’re ALL very excited (display issues aside) to have many many books that sell. We’re less excited about books that don’t sell and clog up the racks and make the rest of the store look bad.

As noted, this will eventually be self-correcting, as, presumably, more retailers start to get a handle on their inventory and start making decisions like I have (example: this month I didn’t order just under half of the TPs that Marvel offered… not even a single copy. I just couldn’t see the demand), but in the meantime, it’s a lot of chaff to sort through to get to the wheat.

Then Dirk makes the pitch that we need returnability.


Look, we have returnability right now — it’s called “using a bookstore distributor”. I’ve used one for years. Any “DM” retailer can use one at any time, there’s no penalties upon us for doing so. Well, except for lower discounts, and paying shipping two ways and tying up money until the returns are available. Oh, and the 10% (of total purchases) limit on returns, too. But I’ve bought thousands of dollars of stock “returnable”.

I haven’t returned any of it, because shipping, administration and labor costs soak up any real savings you could have gotten, and leaves you with nothing; whereas buying non-returnable leaves you eating some books, but at least you still own them so you can discount them away.

Dirk suggests that ComicsPRO can “negotiate” for better returnable terms. There’s two little problems there. First is: there are pretty significant limits on what a retailer organization CAN do, based on Federal Anti-Trust laws. Seriously, talking about numbers, discounts, any of that kind of stuff has to be done EXCEPTIONALLY carefully, when it can even be done in the first place, or you run the risk of getting your ass thrown in Federal prison. ComicsPRO has paid for excellent and in-depth counsel and has a comprehensive policy involving anti-trust issues, and this is not something that is at all trivial to do, even if there was desire among the membership for it.

The second little problem is that were we somehow able to “negotiate”, say, a 5% better discount on returnable items, Diamond (or whoever we convinced to do so) IS LEGALLY OBLIGATED (cf: anti-trust law) to offer that same EXACT deal to all comers. Like Borders and B&N and Amazon.

There’s a third problem too: Diamond is set up to NOT do returns. For them to have a REAL returns program would be a really fundamental change in the physical way that they do business, and it would be to NO GAIN FOR THEM. Because MOST of their business comes from the brokered publishers, they can’t possibly make money processing orders, then processing returns, because they’re not buying books, then reselling them as a traditional distributor does. The work based on a fee-structure. What THAT means is that if Marvel/DC/Dark Horse/Image agreed to returns that were “better” than the current deal, they’d have to pay TWICE: once to us (the “better deal”), and once to Diamond. I think it is pretty safe to say “not going to happen”.

At the end of the day, I don’t think returnability will do anything significant to increase sell-in — because the problem isn’t the books that are selling… those you just reorder; The problem is the ones that aren’t selling. No amount of returnability would get me to order something that I can’t discern an audience for. MS MARVEL v 3 HC doesn’t look any more attractive if I can possibly return it when it doesn’t sell. Nor does a $125 96 page KRAMER’S ERGOT, for that matter. Fuck, can you even imagine the hassles of trying to ship back a broadsheet-sized book if you don’t keep the original box, and/or you don’t have a shipping department? *shudder*

My favorite part is this bit: “It might even give shopowners an incentive to experiment with reaching out to those new customers that the Direct Market so clearly needs right now.” Which doesn’t even make sense on the face of it: YES, there are what any reasonable comics-loving person would probably call a “bad comics store” that is closed and insular and geared exclusively to culture and commerce that Dirk doesn’t care for. Fuck, I don’t care for it either! But, THOSE stores will never ever EVER “experiment” like that because all THEY care about is the lowest hanging fruit in their own mono-focus.

Stores that DON’T myopically mono-focus already have an “experiment” budget. I call it the Mercy Fuck, personally. I probably WILL buy a (1) copy of the 96 page $125 KRAMER’s ERGOT because, like Kenny Penman suggests, it’s a “Trophy Book”, and it is expected that a store like mine would have a copy of that. I do not actually expect to sell one in anything like a reasonable time frame, but I’ll order one, and if I were to sell it in a reasonable time frame, I’ll order another and be excited!

At the end of the day, were I a publisher, I’d be looking at consignment rather than returnability as the solution for the more commercially marginal projects. No one is going to order what they honestly don’t believe they can sell, EVEN IF they can return the unsold copies; they, however, might be willing to accept cost-upfront-free copies to establish that a market exists for that product. The difference is who pays when.


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