TILTING AT WINDMILLS #19
By Brian Hibbs
This month's TaW is being written post-San Diego Con. That means that I'm far too overworked (and underpaid) to write a long one (even though I spent the week before the con trying to get ahead...). So, instead of my normal scathing indictment of What Is and What Should Never Be (gratuitous Rock reference alert!), we're going to try and keep this one relatively simple.
As you can see from the title at the top of the page, this month I'd like to talk specifically to the publishers out there reading this. There's a number of things you're doing wrong that are (seem?) easy enough to fix, that is costing me on my bottom line.
First off, and this one is easy, spread out your shipping schedules. Let's take a couple of specific examples so you can see where I'm coming from: Jademan comics (who did the Chinese martial arts comics – are they still in business?) used to publish about 6 titles. They invariably shipped in the same week. Most small independents seem to follow this pattern. Now if you're a company with no "name" value, you're constantly fighting an uphill battle for the consumer to even look at your work. When you dump your entire output on to the market in one week, you've just made that hill a little steeper.
Let's take a moment here to underline a point that is at the center of retailing today: The majority of regular comic readers (not counting speculation) have a finite amount of money that they can spend. This is far truer today than it ever has been in the history of the direct market. Prices have escalated rapidly, as has the amount and variety of product that is available on the racks. Customers have more choices than they ever had (Too many, in my humble opinion – see last months column), and the ultimate effect of more choice, without a larger budget, is that the consumer becomes more selective. You have to make it easy for them to buy your material.
When you dump all your product on the market in one week, the only thing you've made easy is the opportunity to ignore your material. I can remember several months when Valiant, at that point publishing 9 or 10 titles, would put 6 of them out in one week. This always slowed the sales down in my store, often to never recover, because, that's asking for $12-15 that week! And that's pretty darn near my average customers entire budget for the week! At that point, you're practically forcing the customer to drop one or more of the titles they were "on the edge" with: "I can't afford to get all of these Valiants this week, on top of my other books...well, I haven't been enjoying Rai, as much as the rest of these, so I'll just stop buying it"
Bearing your customer profile in mind is imperative when you set schedules, as is looking at what else you may be shipping in a given week. As my third "for example" on this bit, I point to Vertigo. Sandman and Hellblazer are Vertigo's two best selling books, although Hellblazer still only sells a fraction of Sandman. The reason why they're the best-selling titles? Because they're the best books in the line (one of the few publishers where this is actually the case). But, let me point out that the average Vertigo customer is typically one with very limited funds – usually students, or "disaffected youth" are the top two categories. My experience shows that often the Sandman buyer only has enough money at hand to buy Sandman: they simply can't afford another book that week. I'm positive that if Hellblazer came out in a different week than Sandman, it would sell better. To make matters worse, the latest catalog lists Children's Crusade #1 (the first Vertigo Crossover) as shipping at the same time as Sandman and Hellblazer. It's written by Neil Gaiman, and illustrated by Chris Bachalo, and it's going to end up competing with Sandman (the reason why these creators will sell comics) for the customer's money.
The second thing all publishers should do is only make schedules you can keep! Yes, I know you've heard this litany many times before, but it's even more important in these times of conservative ordering than ever before. The first thing we need to get rid of is this ridiculous "only late after 90 days" rule. That was just fine 5 years ago, but today it is absolutely ludicrous. You're late if you don't show up in the month solicited for. Period. I have no slack to cut for publishers who can't deliver on time. Don't waste my time, money, and energy if you can't keep your promises. I have exceedingly little faith in, say, Harris, who were soliciting for #11 of the "monthly" Vampirella at the same time they delivered #3; or in Eclipse who've resolicited some issues of Miracleman four and five times; or in Continuity, who've had the single most laughable shipping record in recorded history, and then took out all kinds of ads promising the moon and the sun, and after one month they're back to their same deplorable patterns. And I'm not even going to mention Image.
This also holds if the market mechanisms can't deliver the product. Sun comics is producing "weekly" manga and Ripley's Believe It or Not reprints, and, for all I know, they actually do print them and ship them weekly. But I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that they don't work through the chain like that. We get them monthly at best, and so they sit on the rack, collecting dust.
And let's talk about reprints, shall we? I can understand a certain amount of flexibility in the schedules of original material. Creators aren't robots, after all. But reprints? If they're even a day late, it's because of someone's incompetence. It frightens me when I look at Dark Horse, who've been doing advance solicitations of reprint material (like scheduled for August if all the other solicitations are for July), and can't get the book out on time. Yes, reprints have a far longer shelf life than the majority of my store's stock, but given the state of availability of reorders, I'm ordering what I think I can sell in the first 30 days. This is invariably higher than what sells outside of that window, on a month-to-month basis. Why? Because you promote the book, and I promote the book, and the customers are actively looking for it. But if you don't produce it on time, the advertising wears off.
Every time a publisher stiffs me on sales because of their lateness, I'm less inclined to strongly support their material in the future.
Listen, I don't care what the excuse is. It doesn't matter to me if your production department is overworked (hire more people), or if the editor set an unrealistic schedule (slap some sense into them, or penalize them), or if the talent cannot produce the work on time (get different talent), or whatever your excuse may be. The only thing I know is that there is no excuse for not keeping a promise. Shipping schedules represent a promise to the retailer and consumer that the books will arrive at a certain point. If they do not arrive at that point they usually become unsalable. And you've just made it that much harder to sell the next project.
Oh, and if you do blow your schedule, #1) tell people about it, so we're not left hanging on your whim, and #2) Never try and make up for lost time squeezing out issues in a shorter time frame. DC recently had an issue of JLA that was a month late. The week after they shipped the late one, they shipped the next issue. Sales on that one were half of what they should've been, leaving me eating comic books. Bad call. When Next Men had some shipping problems, Dark Horse started banging out issues bi-weekly. That was when I started experiencing serious dips in sales, which have never caught back up. Don't compound your late shipping problems by "jury-rigging" the schedule -- you made the problem, it is your responsibility to accept the penalty (taking returns) until the next solicitation where you can fix the problem. If this means you're taking returns on 3 or 4 issues, so be it. There is no valid reason to stick retailers with your mistakes.
I know that a lot of publishers hold many retailers in contempt. I'm also aware that some of these perceptions are perfectly valid, given the mechanisms of the industry, and many retailer practices, but you've got to be aware that respect and faith are two-way streets. Retailers will never support you as long as you engage in practices that cost us money, time, and energy. We're rapidly moving past the idea that all storeowners must be wide-eyed fan boys who'll succumb to any line of hype we're handed. As more and more retailers become professional in their business practices, the more we're going to expect out of you. Ours is a symbiotic relationship, and it's never a good idea to harm your host.