We still drink Anchor Steam on anniversaries!!
Tilting at Windmills #11
By Brian Hibbs
(Originally Ran in Comics Retailer #12, duh)
Happy Birthday to us, Happy Birthday to us, Happy Birthday, dear Comics Retailer and Tilting at Windmills, Happy Birthday to us.
Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. The party has been going on a while, but there are still a bunch of people hanging around, and I think the keg ain't been dusted yet...hold on, I'll check for you...
Sure enough! Here's a glass of Anchor Steam, and I think we can scratch up some soda or mineral water, if you'd prefer...
Well, can you possibly believe it's been a whole year? It astonishes me sometimes, too. And look at all that's come and gone in that time: We're on our (technically) 3rd editor now (KC is at DC, Maggie is back home at the CBG, while good ol' Don is still playing shepherd to this unruly herd), we've had 4 covers that've had absolutely nothing to do with the insides, we're up to 7 regular monthly columns from the 5 we started with, and I've written 12 opinionated diatribes. Isn't life wonderful!
I've spoken about Ethics, the Problems of Price Guides, Diversification, Publishers' Responsibilities to the Market (and has anyone listened? Noooooo!), Promotion, Arguing with Lou Bank, Holidays (Actually, I hate that one...), Signings, San Diego, and The State Of the Industry, Alternative Titles, Oversaturation, and Ethics mark II. That's a pretty full plate. The only hard part is coming up with something new!
This last year has been a helluva ride (but haven't you read this a million times before now? Ah, the perils of a two month lead time!), but I'm gonna ditch on the traditional year-long wrap up, and concentrate instead on what the future holds. And what you can do to help.
In 1993, I think we've got one major battle facing us: that of identity. Now although I've written around this one many a time, and that I've held this opinion for awhile, I've finally found the right terms for this argument. Now, I'll freely admit that I've stolen these exact words from Dave Olbrich (publisher of Malibu comics – Hi Dave!), but it crystallized what I've been feeling for awhile. The number one problem facing our industry is what are we: an entertainment industry, or a collectibles industry? As Dave has observed, the goals of these two markets are diametrically opposed! That what appeals to a market full of readers is not in any way, shape, or form, what will appeal to a market of collectors (note that I'm using "collectors" in the speculative sense, not as readers who keep their comics after they are done. Technically, we all collect comics, in some shape or form, but I'm speaking of those who buy [even one copy] for the express purpose of it's accumulating value). Now, ignoring, for the moment, that buying "hot" comics in hopes of making a fortune is a suckers bet, the nuts and bolts mechanisms of selling to these markets have distinct differences (I don't really have to list them, do I?)
The biggest problem facing all the pre-consumer levels of the business is that it's a helluva lot easier to market to the collector than it is to the reader. The collector is looking for something that is "obviously" a good investment: "hot" creators, "special" covers, "word on the street" , etc. Manufacturing collectibles is easy: look at how often Marvel does it. On January's order form, I count at least 10 "gimmick" issues (and 2 relists of previous ones), while December had 6, as had November. These are the same titles that, naturally, the distributors fall in lock-step behind, and the fan-press hype, and we retailers order in big numbers. So far, this strategy has seemingly paid off: most of us have had a bigger bottom line in '92 than in '93. But, I question whether or not we've a) become more profitable because of it (that is, whether our percentage of expenses has stayed consistent with our grosses), and b) whether or not we're actually gaining new readers by these events.
I've noticed a sharp drop-off on "midline" Marvel titles, in direct proportion to the number of "hot" books coming out. Lemme digress a moment and mention that after a book has had roughly 10 weeks on our racks (2 on the "new comics" racks, and 2 months on the general A-Z), we pull our "par" (What we feel we can sell, without street-purchases, for about a year, depending on the title) for the back issue boxes, then throw the overflow into the quarter boxes. Yep, that's right, we trash them! Inventory that hasn't turned within the time-period gets remaindered: We haven't sold it, and it ain't gonna sell, so why should we be holding on to it? It just absorbed space and cash-flow! Now, given this, what sometimes surprises me is that a disproportionate amount of this "quarterized" merchandise is mid-line Marvel books. Marvel actually only accounts for about 25% of my orders (unlike the industry averages of 45-50 % – so I'll admit I skew a bit differently from most of you), but some 75-90% of the quarterized comics are Marvel "mid-line" books.
O.K., this isn't all that hard to explain: there's only a finite amount of money in the market, especially among Marvel's target audience (boys with fixed allowances), but what I find the most interesting/disturbing is that while the "gimmick" books are great for the collector crowd, they are discouraging the readers. A little historical perspective is, perhaps, required. It used to be (perhaps as few as 2-5) that if an "anniversary" issue, or a special storyline (like, say, an "Operation: Galactic Storm") was done, the numbers would spike for an issue, then slowly drop back down, as people who saw something they liked stayed on for a few issues to keep giving it a chance. Oh, sure, eventually, due to attrition, the numbers would creep back to where they were before the event, but it would take 6 months, or more. These days, conversely, I'm often seeing a drop in readership, immediately after the event, as the core readers of the book are put off by the luring of the collectors, and say, "well, it wasn't that great anyway - besides, I don't want to have to buy 6 other comics to understand the one I was reading and/or I don't want to pay extra for a gimmick cover". My most recent example? The "X-cutioners Song" in the X-books. Sales were up 20-50% from "normal" X numbers, while they were polybagged, but the first post-crossover issues are down from normal numbers as much as 30%! That's a butt-load of unsold copies! The worst part of this is that our numbers are locked in for the next 3 months, so there can be no national perception of this trend (unless, of course, my store is so abnormal, that I'm the absolutely only person facing this trend, but, based on casual conversation this ain't the case). Now, normally, as soon as I could, I'd drop the numbers to reflect reality, but (of course!) the first post-crossover sell-through issue is Uncanny #300, with a foil cover. Obviously, that ish will do better than any around it, perhaps by a factor of two, so the national view of sales are skewed dramatically, since they won't reflect the "fallow" period. Which will only feed into the perception that gimmicky, collector oriented sales are the way to go.
(another digression, this one parenthetical. One major argument retailers have had is that of returnability. No one wants especially to mess with the status quo of returns, but I think one possible solution would be to allow order decreases up to 4 weeks before the title actually ships. Just as you can place higher advance orders (and if you do it a month or so before, stand a fairly good chance of actually receiving it...), you should be able to cut orders, to reflect your most recent intelligence. I don't think it would cause too much extra work on the higher levels (I'd only need it on, say, 5-10% of the titles I order), and it would increase profitability and total dollars available to the market to the point I'd think it would offset it's expenses. Of course, it'd need to be fairly tight, say a maximum of 25% of your initial, perhaps a per-month limit, like up to 25 titles a month, but I think it would easily prove cost-effective...)
Now, material aimed at readers (that is, focusing on the entertainment aspect), on the other hand, tends to see a slower, but steady upwards trend in sales, and is not, in fact, affected by one whit when a mega-hyped "collector's Item" is released. I've gone from 5 copies of Hate, when the first issue was released, to 100! I didn't even "cram" this one down my customer’s throats, like I do with Sandman or Cerebus. No hologram covers, or poly-bagged trading cards, but this title has become one of the most profitable that I've ever carried.
I want us to be an entertainment medium, not a collectors market. And I hope that the arguments I've made in the last year, on diversification, oversaturation, ethics, responsibility, the State of the Industry, and how to promote the "oddball" stuff has at least swayed you in that direction as well. But what can you do? I want you all to make the following resolutions in '93 (even if you make them in February, it'll still help), and say them loud:
* I resolve to make a modest and sincere effort to carry and promote titles that will expand my customer’s tastes and my customer base.
* I resolve to become an entertainment store, rather than one appealing solely to collectors.
* I resolve to value art over commerce, while staying profitable.
* I resolve to find my own Windmills to Tilt at, and never remain silent about the injustices I see.
If everyone in my audience (including those of you outside of the direct retail market) agreed to resolve to at least one of these resolutions, this time next year we'd face a much saner and healthy market.
And I, for one, think we can do it.
* * *
I don't usually do this kind of thing, but Scott McCloud was good enough to send me a galley of his new book, Understanding Comics. I don't know exactly when this is going to be solicited, but I'd assume it will be sometime around when you're reading this.
Now, I'm not a reviewer by trade, so this won't be all flowery in it's praise, but this is one great book. It's filled with historical perspective, artistic philosophy, scholarly analysis of form and function, plus it's a fun book to read. And it's in comics form!
Order one for yourself, and half a dozen for your customers. They'll thank you (and Scott probably will, as well), since this is the best book I'm ever read on the field.
Four stars. TaW sez check it out.