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Retail weekend Fun III

Brian Hibbs

Well, its Monday, but it’s a long holiday weekend! (for the banks at least?)

First off, if you haven’t followed along, here’s a few updates: Heidi MacDonald at The Beat discusses the general topic, and there’s also Tom Spurgeon’s response to my last post.

With any luck (ha!) this will be my last word on the topic…

First, Tom. Ultimately, I don’t think I disagree tremendously with any of his six summarized observations. So, hooray for that. I’ve even willing to admit that, in hindsight, maybe the paper isn’t quite meaty enough. There’s been a lot of internal discussion this weekend in ComicsPRO about how to solve this the next time out, so we’ll see what happens. There were a lot of eyes on this (9 Board members, 7 members of the PP committee, plus the whole membership during a month-long voting process) and no one pointed a couple things out until after it had gone out. Sometimes this happens when you live with something too long, you can’t see the things you’re NOT saying, because you take them utterly for granted.

Tom says: Brian says they can’t provide better support without naming individual publishers. This is insane. Let’s make one up: “176 of 180 ComicsPro members report at least one lost sale of a pre-ordered book in 2007 due to convention sales.” That’s support with a number in it and nobody is named.

I believe, and its entirely possible I am wrong, but I believe that kind of a statement would be just as dismissed as being empty and meaningless of a figure. But noted, for next time.

Tom also offers three examples of “selling in advance of your primary sales force”; I’d argue that none of those are selling whatsoever — they’re giving material away in order to generate more business in the long run (in the first two examples), or to “focus group” (as it were) the material to make it BETTER for the “final version”.

If publishers were GIVING AWAY comics at conventions, I don’t think there’d be a position paper except possibly one that said “Here’s how to do it better”. The reason I think this is because we’ve been talking about, as an organization, a response to the BOOM! situation, and the strongest faction of discussion has been pretty clear that we can never stop comics going out over the internet, NOR SHOULD WE BOTHER TO TRY because there are some TREMENDOUS promotional benefits that can occur. But that we can issue guidelines to the way it can be done so no one is stepping on anyone else’s toes and that ALL partners are selling as many comics as they can.

(This is why the rhetorical handwavings over “yeah, how do they feel about Advance Review Copies, huh?!?!” and stuff like that that commenters other than Tom have made are pretty much besides the point — we’re talking about the SALE of goods, and how we don’t think that our suppliers should be competing with us in that manner)

So, yes, there’s one fatal flaw in the position paper as presented and it is missing the “unless they inform us beforehand” sentence. That SHOULD have been there, and I’ll mea culpa on that one. Again, I thought that was implied, and I’ll fall on the sword for not spelling it out explicitly.

Because yes, this problem goes away with Tom’s “transparency”.

But here’s the thing, and I’ll stand behind it 100%, in the decade or so that I’ve been discussing this with publishers, not one, not a SINGLE ONE, has shown any interest in that transparency, because they’re afraid its going to lower their overall sales.

What I would suggest, and feel free to disagree with me, but it seems to me that IF publishers are concerned about that, then it naturally follows that they ARE having an impact on the sell-through at retail, and that they KNOW it.

Meanwhile, over at The Beat, Heidi offers this:

In a dollars and sense world, there is a HUGE difference between $1 and $1000. If costing Brian Hibbs $1 makes Top Shelf $20K, then you need to just suck it up, man. The health of an ENTIRE INDUSTRY is the question here — put it the other way. Would Brian Hibbs donate $1 to keep Top Shelf, Cartoon Books or Fantagraphics alive?

Not that that is actually the point, but, yeah, when FBI and Top Shelf came to us with “please please buy stuff from us, we’re on the brink of going out of business” we OF COURSE stepped up and bought a bunch of stuff that we didn’t actually need in order to try and help keep them solvent.

I think Heidi is a little hyperbolic in “the health of the ENTIRE INDUSTRY is in question” statement (history shows us that publishers come and go with great regularity), but it’s a fair question, really — should I give up $1 for TS to make $20k?

The answer might in fact be “Yes”, but it has to be an INFORMED transaction, and one made with CONSENT. When we’re not informed of the situation, or given a chance to deal with it, until it is “too late”, that’s why we’re upset about this.

This doesn’t have ANYthing to do with “increased competition” or Amazon or libraries or the internet or the dominance of the superhero publishers via Diamond, or Diamond’s often disgraceful treatment of non-brokered publishers, or any of the other smokescreens pundits are throwing out there.

I’m going to try one more time to explain this as simply as I can: Retailers buy non-returnable, non-adjustable from most publishers (via Diamond). Retailers are presented with titles to buy that are presented to us as “new”. For retailers “new” means that it hasn’t been released before, to any channel. OBVIOUSLY, the vagaries of distribution mean that some times copies will arrive in one place before another — sometimes we get it first, sometimes another channel gets it first. No retailer is crying foul over NATURAL AND UNINTENDED distribution vagaries. What we’re objecting to is when publishers take specific, conscious, actions DESIGNED to get books to cons before we could POSSIBLY have them in order to sell them first.

That’s it, full stop.

If the printer screws up, and you HAPPEN to have copies in your hand for the show before it makes it through distribution, NO FOUL.

If you’re selling material at a show that we have actual equivalent access to, NO FOUL.

If you inform us AT THE POINT OF SOLICITATION that you’re going to sell in advance of us, NO FOUL.

Where we screwed up was in not include five words: “…unless they inform us beforehand”, and I can see that now. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that.

As some one mentioned in one of the 20 gajillion threads I’ve read the last 72 hours (and I’ve forgot which one it was) effectively we’re asking for common street dates, and FOR MANUFACTURERS to not break those street dates (knowingly)

That’s pretty much it, and I think this is a pretty much a no-brainer of an idea that is eminently reasonable.

(Someone will ask, I am sure, “Well, why didn’t you ASK for ‘street dates’?”, and that’s because that’s a MUCH more difficult issue, one that will require Diamond to be involved, and is probably 2-3 years from even possible implementation, in my opinion of the politics of this business. Lets get most of our vendors on a FOC system first before we even THINK to open THAT particular can o’ worms)

Ultimately, as I said, I don’t care if any given retailer loses $1 or $1000, but do you know why that is? Because it isn’t necessarily about the individual store’s individual loss — it’s about the AGGREGATE harm to the industry this practice brings. Its not even about the individual publishers’ individual actions, its about the aggregate harm that this does to the market. $50 here and $5 there and $500 there starts to add up.

Further, I don’t think “buzz” comes from being-on-sale-first *in and of itself*. I think Top Shelf would have sold exactly the same # of LOST GIRLS as they did, and had exactly and precisely the same amount of “buzz” and being “the book of the show” and everything else, had LOST GIRLS been in stores that same Wednesday. I’ll go so far as to say I’m absolutely positive that LOST GIRLS would have had the same national buzz, and sold the same # of copies at the con even had the book debuted a week before in the stores.

And here’s the thing, I further think that if TS had done that (ie, printed the book 2-3 weeks earlier to ahve it in-store and at-con the same day), not only would they have sold the SAME # of copies, had the SAME Big Book of the Con Buzz, but they’d have saved themselves the $10 a book or whatever stupid amount it actually was to airfreight the books in.

Heidi, though not in that blog entry, on CBIA instead, made a point that the problem on the publisher side is often “last minute-itis” — as long as the book goes to press at the LAST POSSIBLE SECOND to go to the printer to be able to airfreight rush job the book to a show, it’s “on time”, and I suspect she’s mostly right. If the “deadline in their head” was “in stores no later than the week of [the show]”, rather than “The week of [the show], so we can pay the airfreight in” that, I think, would make all of the problem go away.

I want to make it really clear: I’m absolutely in favor of comics being in as many venues as they possibly can be — that includes on the internet, via mail order, in mass market stores, on newstands, at conventions, sold in roaming ice cream trucks, whatever you please. More venues, more exposure, more widespread acceptance really can’t be anything but good for the dedicated specialist.

I just don’t want to be undercut by my own supplier before I even have a chance to sell their goods.

As always, I’m always interested in your thoughts.


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