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Monday, January 21, 2008

Retailers vs. Convention Sales: Publishers Respond -- Over the weekend, comics bloggers responded (Comics Worth Reading; The Comics Reporter; Journalista; Comics Comics; Dick Hates Your Blog; and me, here and here) to ComicsPRO's allegation that direct market retailers are losing revenue because some publishers sell new works at comic book conventions before Diamond delivers those works to the direct market.

Their Side of the Story

One good retailer point of view can be found at The Savage Critic; while Brian Hibbs and I don't always agree on some pretty key issues, he clearly wants many of the same things that I do for the comic book stores within the direct market.

Diamond's Policies From the Publisher's Side

A former publisher still active in comics as a cartoonist told me of his discouraging experience with Diamond, asking not to be named, but making it clear that Diamond impeded his efforts at every step along the way to trying to get distribution to comic book stores within the direct market. He spoke of building relationships one by one with good comic book stores that want to serve a base wider than that of aging superhero fans, and said those stores -- what I call superhero convenience stores -- are actively disinterested in carrying non-superhero works. He also noted that dealing direct with stores interested in his product saves time and money, because the small publisher does not have to ship to Diamond, which then (eventually) ships to the retailer. He expressed nothing but disdain for any shop unwilling to build a direct partnership with smaller publishers, and indicated that his future efforts will work around Diamond to get right to retailers wherever possible.

Bloggers Enjoy Commenting on Everything, Even Important Issues Like This

Comics blogger Christopher Allen isn't convinced by the ComicsPRO position paper:
"I don't buy the argument that retailers just don't know what books will debut at conventions. Nonsense. Marvel and DC don't debut books there. Dark Horse and Image may have some sort of preview samplers, and Avatar and other genre publishers may have a convention edition or two every year, but for the most part we're talking about pricey artcomix from Top Shelf, Fanta, D&Q, and a few others, right? Anyone who paid the slightest bit of attention, or who had been to a convention in the past 5 years, could have predicted prior to Diamond order deadlines, that Lost Girls, Flight, Comic Art, and whatever other big books of the year were going to be available at SDCC. I'm sure the SDCC site and frequent update fliers mentioned guests like Seth. Was he going to sign old shit, or, just maybe, the new book of his that was coming out soon? I just think it's a case of retailers not wanting to do the work of knowing their products and their customers."
One Man's Experience with Diamond and Convention Sales

Cartoonist Frank Santoro has had extensive experience dealing with Diamond, beginning in the mid-1990s with his company Sirk Publications. Diamond is the monopolistic distributor that holds most of the power when it comes to getting books distributed within the direct market, and so timing of delivery of any given product to comic book stores is often within their control. He answered some questions for me.

1. Do you regularly engage in convention sales that take place prior to when Diamond delivers your product to comic book stores within the direct market?

Frank Santoro: Yes, of course. We need those sales and that connection with our core audience.

2. If so, what is the primary reason you do so? What is the benefit, and are there any downsides?

Why wouldn't we do that? That is the blueprint. The benefits are endless. There are no downsides.

3. How satisfied are you with Diamond's ability to deliver your product to retailers in the direct market in a timely manner?

Not satisfied at all. We have no choice but to use Diamond if we are to get into certain shops that won't deal directly with us.

4. If retailers were willing to pay to have books direct-shipped to them in order to have product available at the same time they will debut at a given convention, would you have any objection to them doing so? Would you be willing to cooperate with a system in which this is a regular option for them?

Yes, we already do that with many of the larger stores who do sell our work. It's beneficial for everyone.

5. Assuming you will continue to sell at conventions prior to Diamond making product available to the retailers in the direct market, what incentives could retailers offer to publishers to cause you to reconsider your plans?


6. Have other arms in your distribution chain, outside the retailers in the direct market, complained about convention sales? If so, how have you addressed their concerns? If not, what makes them different from retailers within the direct market?


7. Do you believe the direct market serviced by Diamond represents a good portion of your present customer base? If so, what percentage of direct market stores do you believe actively works with you as a partner in getting your books to the readers that want them? If not, do you believe that the direct market will, in the future, be more or less interested in working with your company to grow the market for your product?

No, it represents about 20 percent. But we still need that 20 percent. So we're forced to use them because there is no alternative except Last Gasp and only certain stores use Last Gasp.

Another View

AiT/PlanetLar publisher Larry Young's response to the issue:
"This actually doesn't impact us at all, as we don't sell books at cons that aren't already available from Diamond. We don't debut books at shows, because we're an "evergreen" company. All of our books are awesome and will be so forever, whether you get it on Day One or Year Five. There's just no reason for us to debut books at cons.

"Sorry that's not a sexy soundbite answer, but I think we're in a different comics industry than most other folks. The Latest Outrage™ never seems to much impact us."

A Major Player Responds

One of the major publishers of non-superhero comics in North America asked to remain anonymous, and explained why their company will continue to sell their product at conventions before Diamond delivers the same product to direct market retailers. He told me that ideally books would debut at conventions and comic book stores on the same day, but printing delays and other problems don't always make that possible. He said that it's worth paying the extra shipping to get books to a convention in order to have them available for the cartoonist to sign for readers, and that this is a key marketing tool in building good word of mouth for their books. He doubts most retailers would be willing, as he is, to swallow a $10.00 per book shipping charge to get the books at the same time as they are being debuted at a convention. It's this publisher's belief that convention sales in this way improve sales within the direct market by creating additional demand for a given work. He told me that if convention signings on new books are done away with, there will be less demand for the books, and therefore lower sales for the direct market retailers.

Final Thoughts, For the Moment

As I said in a letter over the weekend to Tom Spurgeon, what's exciting to me about the current convention sales discussion is that it finally brings out the hardcore issues that separate the direct market retail mindset from the real world.

Dirk Deppey picks up on that in his blog post today, when he says "this fight is really just a set of shadows concealing larger and more intractable problems." He's right: this debate has been a microcosm of the divide between the needs of three distinct groups. Readers (represented by the comics bloggers, who despite claims by retailer like Robert Scott, have not only a right but a responsibility to report on their experiences in the comics retail environment and explain how retailers can make their businesses better for their own self-interest, never mind for the betterment of comics as a whole), retailers, and publishers.

Readers will keep reading comics as long as the ones they want to read are available; publishers will continue to publish them as long as they maintain whatever borderline profit margin they have set for themselves, despite the many aggravations of working within the superhero-centric direct market. But what of retailers within that obviously changing direct market?

Seeing the comments by some high-visibility retailers, it becomes clear that they are far from engaged with reality when it comes to what is going on in comics anywhere outside their own front door. The past decade has seen a revolution in how comics are perceived, pursued and purchased by the reading public. But most direct market retailers participating in this discussion these past few days seem not to see the forest for the trees.

You can chalk that up to their dedication to, and focus on, their own business; or you can see it as having their collective heads in the sand; the truth is likely somewhere in-between, although I remember vividly a major retailer telling me a few years ago, in the early days of the manga explosion, that the stuff just doesn't sell; he seemed totally unaware that the Borders a mile down the road had expanded their manga section enormously, and that that same section was populated by interested readers any time you happened to give it a look.

If comic book stores as an entity are to be dragged into professional retail practices and competing in a world in which the direct market is just one piece of the entire comics market rather than its virtual entirety, it's now clearer than ever that they will have to be dragged there kicking, wailing and screaming. Some of them, like the aforementioned Robert Scott, are already doing enough of that to get themselves banned from the Comics Worth Reading comments section, moderated by Johanna Draper Carlson, whose level head and fairness are unquestioned, and who put up with Scott's insults far longer than I would have.

Dealing with this retailer intransigence and inability to face facts, I assume, is part of what Spurgeon's "first thought of the day" was about on Sunday.

This all, this entire debate, is exactly what I was talking about a couple of years ago in my (admittedly) poorly-worded letter to Spurgeon declaring my wish for the direct market to "die." I've rewritten that piece three times now, and I am grateful to Spurgeon for posting it way back when, because the response to it has forced me to really focus my thinking and try to explain what the problem is as I see it, rather than just indulging in gleeful eye-poking. It seems to me a lot of retailers are now poking themselves in their own eyes while the rest of us calmly insist that the retail sector of the direct market grow up, already.

Update: David Wynne has some good perspective and advice for retailers; and Johanna has more as well.

Update 2: I was wondering when Heidi would weigh in on this debate, and now she has. It was worth waiting for. And as is usual these past few days, the comments following the post are worth reading.

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Blogger David Wynne said...

I just posted quite a long rant about this over at my lj, but here's the short version:

The telling thing about Comicspro's position is the assumption that convention audiences are basically the entire market, when surely they should be regarded as a small, extra dedicated subset of the market. If comics shops can't get anyone through the door who isn't likely to go to a con, then there is surely something drastically wrong with those shops.

After all, the majority of people who bought, say, Fun Home aren't likely to go to a con, I wouldn't have thought. But there's no reason why they shouldn't be likely to go into their local comics shop... at least, no reason that isn't entirely down to the retailer.

With that in mind, advance con sales shouldn't be having any more effect on comics shops' business than advance screenings of a movie do on a cinema's takings, or advance copies of an album made available to fanclub members do on HMV's takings.

21 January, 2008 08:36  

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