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Friday, January 18, 2008

 
ComicsPRO Tries to Bully Publishers -- At Comics Worth Reading, Johanna has details on a bullying attempt by an organization of direct market comic book retailers to tell publishers how to run their businesses. Johanna doesn't characterize it as bullying, but I certainly do.

When ComicsPRO first organized, I guess I thought it might allow the brightest, most forward-thinking retailers to influence the shitty majority within the direct market. Instead, the paper Johanna talks about seems to indicate the very opposite.

At issue are publishers who sell new publications before they arrive at direct market stores, usually through convention sales. This happens a lot during convention season when, say, Top Shelf has their copies of a major new work and wants to make a splash and bring attention to a book that Diamond might not bother to get to comic shops in the direct market until days or weeks later. Johanna correctly notes that ComicsPRO is demanding that stop without offering to better serve these publishers so they don't feel the need to go directly to readers with their offerings. This is key, because usually the books in question are non-superhero titles that the shitty majority of comic shops within the direct market doesn't want to deal with anyway.

Instead of acknowledging the cold, hard fact that retailers need to stop being dependent on Diamond for their bread-and-butter and build better direct relationships with publishers (or at least investigate alternative distribution methods, such as distributors who traditionally work with the mainstream book trade, or the smaller comic book distributors, however many might be left), which would make it easier for shops to acquire non-superhero works sooner, they choose to issue this whiny, bullying declaration that indicates a lack of insight and will to change within ComicsPRO.

I'll say it again. The truly outstanding comic shops I have been in -- The Beguiling in Toronto and Modern Myths in Northampton, Massachusetts, to name two -- have had books in stock earlier than Diamond brought them to the direct market, every time I have paid either one of them a visit. I always come out of stores like those with new books that I don't end up seeing in Diamondcentric comic shops until many weeks later.

So there's clearly a way to get new works from the publishers ComicsPRO is talking to earlier than Diamond delivers them. And if the retailers that make up the organization were listening to the smart, savvy and profit-oriented retailers in their industry, they wouldn't ever have had to embarrass themselves with this impotent, and as Johanna notes, years-old, complaint.

We've heard it all before, boys; mommy's a big meanie because you want milk to go with your cookies but you don't want to get off your ass and go get it yourself.

Well, you're a big boy now. Go get it yourself. It's time to grow up.

UPDATE: There's a good discussion of this issue going on in the comments thread, including input from some ComicsPRO board members.

UPDATE AGAIN: Tom Spurgeon has read the ComicsPRO position paper, and says it's "terrible." Meanwhile, Christopher Butcher promises to weigh in on the subject within the next day or so.

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16 Comments:

Blogger Roger Green said...

I was out of the comic book market for a long time - not really in it now - but I was shocked and disappointed when Diamond became a near monopoly. The store I worked at in the '80s avoided Diamond as a distributor, using Seagate, Walter Wang, Capital, even Bud Plant occasionally, because Diamond, who coveted our account was, even then, a PITA.
That said, if there are alternate routes of getting product - and there MUST be - then that sounds like a definite plan.

18 January, 2008 09:13  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

There definitely are good alternatives -- I've found graphic novels at The Bookhouse in Albany weeks or even months before Diamond bothers to ship them to the direct market.

The most outrageous example I can think of was The R. Crumb Handbook, which I had received a review copy of, written a review of, and given away two dozen copies of in a contest on Comic Book Galaxy before walking into Earthworld one day and being told "There's a new Crumb book out." By then, the book was ancient history to me, and to my readers.

18 January, 2008 09:21  
Blogger majorjoe23 said...

Is there any word on how these retailers have reacted to publishers having their own stores, like Fantagraphics does?

18 January, 2008 10:50  
Blogger musecomics said...

Keep in mind that the retailers who have a problem with pre-release convention sales ARE the retailers who support these publishers.

Retailers who aren't the ones investing in these books (the lazy retailers that you're angry with) wouldn't care and wouldn't put forward that this is a problem. The retailers you're talking to, now, are the ones who have been asked to put their stock in these publishers and have done so, either through Diamond OR direct with the publishers. It doesn't matter if you order direct with a publisher (And many of our members do! They're smart retailers!) or get it from Diamond, pre-release means "before we can get it." So we order the books, then the books come out first at conventions, THEN we receive our non-returnable shipments. It isn't bullying to say that this practice is harmful to those GOOD retailers who really are supporting the publishers as best they can by ordering the product.

I understand, however, how you can look at a particular retailer you don't think is working hard enough, and look at a publisher you feel should be doing better financially, and translate the position paper as if the retailers are attacking the publishers. But so many of the retailers who are hurt by pre-release convention sales are the ones who do support these publishers and are asking for them not to undercut their efforts. In silence we give approval, so these retailers are trying to officially present that they feel this is a problem. Even if it's been something floating on message boards for years, hopefully it means something to publishers that the retailers who are working for them are also affected and want to bring it to their attention again.

Amanda Fisher
ComicsPRO board member

18 January, 2008 12:51  
Blogger Frank Santoro said...

Diamond is the devil.

18 January, 2008 13:15  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Amanda,

As I said at Johanna's, I am having a hard time imagining a customer at a comic book store -- especially the progressive comic book stores you suggest are suffering the worst -- refusing to buy a book they pre-ordered just because they find it available at a convention earlier.

I would like to know what percentage of customers regularly engage in this practice, and a hard estimate of how much money the direct market loses annually due to such thoughtless behaviour. Because it must be a major problem for ComicsPRO to make such a big deal out of it, so any hard info would be appreciated.

Like I said at Johanna's, if I bought a book early at a convention, when my pre-ordered copy arrived at my comic shop I would still buy it, and in fact have done exactly that on more than one occasion. I would never punish my retailer because I didn't want to wait to read a book, and again, I am having a hard time believing there are many comic book store pull-list regulars who would do that.

And if they did, I am having a hard time imagining a retailer who would let them get away with it more than once.

18 January, 2008 13:24  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Frank,

Goddamned right.

18 January, 2008 13:24  
Blogger Star Clipper said...

Alan:

Excerpted from my response at Comics Worth Reading:

"...it isn’t a question of the occasional preorder customer who ultimately buys early at a convention. It’s the dozens of shelf copy sales that are lost and extra (non-returnable) inventory that remains because a retailer ordered the product without knowing it would be made available through other channels weeks or months early."

Finding exact numbers is almost impossible. Some people would say calculate the total number of convention sales and that's the number of lost DM sales. I would disagree with that method, but there really is no better way to know. Most retailers who carry these titles in quantity buy directly from the publisher, bypassing Diamond entirely, so Diamond's sales data is only marginally useful. Since there is currently no method to aggregate sales data from those retailers (there are various legal issues surrounding the sharing of that data) and since the publisher can only see what they sold to the retailer and not what the retailer sold off the shelf, any attempt to create a calculation of the value would be guesswork.

-Benjamin Trujillo
ComicsPRO Board Member

18 January, 2008 13:37  
Blogger musecomics said...

Hi again Alan,

I can imagine that you are a great customer and would buy a copy twice, and I appreciate the way you support your local store! Most customers, though, would be apologetic and just explain that they already have the book. Or, if we generally sell several copies of X, and pre-order that amount, it doesn't even have to be refused pre-orders which affect sales. Shelf sales would also be affected, and it's all unreturnable either way.

The problem with letting someone "get away with it" more than once is that when we order, we don't know which books will come out first at conventions. If we did, those retailers who are generally affected would order less and this wouldn't be as much of an issue. So we can't really deny orders (or again, shelf sales) around March-August based on the idea that we may not see those sales.

I appreciate that you are defending a method which helps publishers who don't feel they are supported enough, but in this instance, they are undercutting the retailers who do support them, and we'd like to bring that to the discussion again.

I personally want those publishers supported by the retailing community (through orders), and I want to help new retailers grow who WILL support them, I want to help improve the businesses of the retailers who already DO support them so they can afford to purchase more; that's why I work for ComicsPRO. But that doesn't mean that many our retailer members want to turn away from this as a problem when it affects their own stores and their bottom line.

Amanda
ComicsPRO board member

18 January, 2008 13:47  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Amanda and Benjamin,

Thanks for sharing your position and thoughts, I really appreciate it.

Like Johanna and Dirk, today,. though, I do wonder what positive incentive ComicsPRO's retailers can offer to publishers to make their perceived need to sell "early" at conventions a necessity for them?

Maybe they would make a good follow-up paper? Because it sounds like a solution should be within reach, but obviously both sides will need to make concessions and try to meet halfway.

18 January, 2008 14:18  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

And looking at the statement on the ComicsPRO blog, I find this bit questionable:

"ComicsPRO requests that publishers refrain from selling direct-to-consumers in any manner until the same product is received and available for sale by all members involved in Direct Market retailing."

I would think that the shops of the direct market would first have to loose themselves from the chains of Diamond for this to become practicable. Because Diamond is notorious for taking their time getting the sort of books we're talking about into the hands of retailers; their top priority remains Marvel and DC, and I can't see punishing publishers for retailers' unwillingness or inability to deal with other distributors besides Diamond.

18 January, 2008 14:38  
Blogger David Wynne said...

"when we order, we don't know which books will come out first at conventions. If we did, those retailers who are generally affected would order less and this wouldn't be as much of an issue."

So, why not just ask publishers to make it clear in their solicitations when they are planning to make a book available at a con, rather than asking them to stop con sales altogether, since con sales are an important promotional tool.

18 January, 2008 20:40  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

David,

I'd guess that the vagaries of the printing process would make that a hit or miss proposition at best.

18 January, 2008 20:49  
Blogger Brian Hibbs said...

@ADD:

Clearly this isn't aimed at publishers who are delivering books in time for a reasonable possibility of delivery at the same time. "Shit happens" now and again, and no one is going to be burning people in effigy if it does, but I think it is reasonable for retailers to expect that their partners aren't going to overnight express books directly to conventions from the printing plant so that there's an unequal playing field.

I will say, however, that GENERALLY, Diamond is much faster with most non-brokered publishers than bookstore distributors like B&T, or even, in many many cases, direct from the publishers themselves. I say this with years of experience and experimentation in trying to get books to my store as soon as possible.

@ David Wynne

Every publisher I've ever suggested this to, ever, has rejected that idea out of hand for fear than non-impacted retailers would cut orders as well, or that impacted retailers would cut further than needed.

-B

18 January, 2008 21:30  
Blogger David Wynne said...

Alan- You think so? I know I might be disagreeing with experience her, but-

Most books are currently solicited, complete with release dates, before printing, right? Which tends to suggest that most of the time, publishers have a pretty good idea when a book will be printed and ready for sale. And I would have thought that any moderately successful printing operation would be able to give at least moderately accurate estimates of when they'll have the finished product ready, surely?

I guess what I'm saying is, is it always an accident when a book is available early at a con? That seems ridiculous. And if it's not, then it seems fair for the shop owners who do support smaller publishers to ask for warning.

What doesn't seem fair is for retailers to demand that publishers not do con sales at all, of course, since it's laughable to suggest that every con sale means a shop sale lost. There is a significant number of people, myself included, who treat conventions as an opportunity to stock up on exactly the kind of material we're talking about, since we KNOW we won't be able to get it at our local shop, and we'd rather buy it straight from the publisher than in Borders or Books Etc. I think it's probably fair to say that these purchases will account for most of the sales we're talking about, since The vast majority of comics fans simply don't have regular access to good comics shops, and many of us go to cons.

...heh. Look who I'm telling. You know all that last bit, of course, I'm just clarifying my position.

18 January, 2008 21:45  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Brian --

"I will say, however, that GENERALLY, Diamond is much faster with most non-brokered publishers than bookstore distributors like B&T, or even, in many many cases, direct from the publishers themselves. I say this with years of experience and experimentation in trying to get books to my store as soon as possible."

I don't doubt this is your experience, Brian, although I do wonder if Diamond tries to get books to YOU faster because you are one of, if not THE, most vocal retailer within the direct market. But anecdotally, in my personal experience, I almost always see new GNs from Pantheon or other mainstream book publishers, and often Fantagraphics, Top Shelf and D&Q titles as well, in my local independent bookstore (The Bookhouse in Albany) weeks before they arrive in comic shops. And I have to believe this occurs in other places than just Albany, New York, or none of this would even be an issue...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Brian, and everyone here who has done so. I think this is the most active comment thread on this blog in forever, and it feels good to actually be generating a dialog on an issue as important as this one is to comics.

18 January, 2008 22:32  

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