TILTING AT WINDMILLS #30
By Brian Hibbs
It has been suggested to me that I've been less than even-handed in this column's focus. "You," it has been said, "focus exclusively on publisher and distributor screw-ups, but you never ever talk about the retailer's culpability in the market."
The simple fact of the matter (and I thought it most self-evident) is that the bulk of retailers are sub-moronic twits who wouldn't know how to run a real business if their lives depended on it.
Let's start at the beginning, though.
The number one strength of our industry is also our number one failing: we exist through fandom. Up until a couple of years ago, it was far, far too easy to open up a comic book shop. A solid collection of back issues, and a couple of thousand dollars, and boom! you were in business. You didn't need to do any real marketing, because comic fans were always on the look-out for another source of material. You didn't need prime retail space, because comics were a destination business (that is: the customers come looking for you - you didn't need to depend on new foot traffic). You didn't need a cash register, or fancy racks, partly because many of the customers didn't care, and partly because the business was small enough that sophistication was almost overkill. You didn't need a growing customer base, because costs were low, and besides, one of the main reasons for opening a comic book shop was for the retailer to get his comics cheap. And you didn't need to do cycle sheets, or tight inventory controls, because anything would sell eventually, and, besides, it was all so cheap, that it took a lot of comics to amass any serious debt.
Any fan could open a comic shop, with a little elbow grease, and a little money. And it was fine, because we were a tiny little marketplace.
That was then.
Somewhere in the middle of the Eighties things started changing. After nearly a decade and a half of price guides, the idea became ingrained in the consumers minds that comics inevitably raised in price, as the years went by. Suddenly we were seeing people buying comics because of the value. While there had been speculative-driven product before (Shazam #1, Howard the Duck #1), we had never before seen an industry-wide feeding frenzy that the black & white glut produced. For a couple of months there, any black & white title (though often with the "adjective-adjective-adjective-noun" pattern), no matter how amateur or goofy (like, say, Reagan's Raiders) was getting big orders while we all cast around blindly for "The Next Turtles".
While that market eventually crashed (they always do, kids), it taught the mainstream publishers a few lessons. Namely, that the marketplace didn't have much problem supporting material that was higher-priced, but smaller in print run; that, as long as there was a perception of "heat", quality only marginally mattered; Retailers were gullible enough to buy into "get rich quick" scams, and would happily convince their customers to buy into the same mentality, making "heat" a relatively easy thing to generate.
We all started to make a lot more money, without looking at the long-term consequences of our actions (a problem, I should add in the interest of fairness, which was indicative of American culture in general, and hardly a problem specific to the comics market), and the publishers, in general, got a lot more sophisticated in what and how they sold to our consumers. Time ticks on and on, and we get Wizard, and the Image phenomenon, and movie deal after movie deal, and wider and wider civilian understanding of the potentials of comics, and all of a sudden, we're a big business, with big money realizing the potential to profit enormously. Marvel goes public, Aclaim purchases Valiant, investment bankers buy Kitchen Sink (!), etc. etc. Suddenly, we're "legit".
Well, the publishers are, at least.
The retailers, on the other hand are still mired in the dark ages. As near as anyone can tell, less than a quarter of us use cycle sheets at all. Without any cogent ability to predict our sales, we, as a whole, rely on "feelings", and "eyeballing" the rack as our major tool in making our orders.
You don't have to be fanatic in keeping records – lord knows that I'm only cycling about 90% of what comes through the doors, but to not keep regular and active counts of the monthly ongoing titles at least? That dumbfounds me.
We're also, overall, less than professional in our projection to the public. My good friend Bruce Costa likes to admonish you to keep your bathrooms clean, but I'm talking even more basic than that. I can't count the number of stores that I've gone in that are poorly lit, with boxes strewn all over the floor, with actively hostile counter-people working out cigar boxes for change. I'm about as big as a comic fan/geek as you're likely to find....I'm also a big slob, but these stores turn even me completely off!
And let's not even begin to talk about pricing! I've got a catalog from one of the bigger retailers in the business where they list common, in-print items at up to ten times cover price! I've got stock lists from several publishers, and when you compare their in-stock, available-at-wholesale lists to catalog prices, or prices you can find advertised, say, in CBG, it becomes readily apparent that we're infected by a virtual plague of low-level hustlers and grifters, trying to make a profit at the expense of their customers, and their own, ignorance.
It's nearly a criminal shame at the sheer number of poorly run, inefficient, badly focused, price gouging retailers out there. One would hope that if you've learned anything by reading the commentary from me, and my fellow columnists over the last few years, is that it's damn bloody time for us to get our acts together!
I hate publishers, right? And I hate distributors, even more, right? In my estimation, the vast majority run their businesses in ways that are antithetical to our continued health and well being, as well as to that of the creators. Well, let's look at it square on - it's mostly our fault. No, no, not the 100 or so of you who understand the way this market works, and what our responsibilities are to keep it healthy and sane -- the rest of you. The ones who with your orders forced upon us this festering pile of garbage that we're limited to selling; who said, "oh, yes, please polybag everything", "oh, yes, we'd rather sell the shiny covered version, at a 50% higher price, and not even give our customers the choice of the "regular" version"; who encouraged your customers to buy gear based on collection and value, rather than joy and entertainment. To all of you I say, Get your Damn act together.
As long as you continue to play into the old, outmoded methods of doing business, methods that have brought nothing but a glutted market, a confused and growingly disinterested customer base, we're going to be trapped at the mercy of the rest of the shams and grifters, and ones who have a whole helluva lot more money than you. If you can't play in the big leagues, and most of you hardly have the wherewithal to do that, you're gonna get run over....and take the rest of us with you.
I think it's time for a change, because we can hardly hold up the publishers and distributors to a standard that we can't match ourselves, now can we?
Next month I'll go back to yelling at everyone else, but it's time to clean up our own backyards! We're all counting on you....